Covid-19 Watch: Identifying the Vulnerable

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal –


Last weekend involved a journey to visit family in East Yorkshire and, in particular, an elderly relative. This is one of the reasons why this blog is later and shorter than usual. We were able to do this as there is no longer a blanket ban on travelling and visiting people. It was a learning experience. It made me aware it was time to focus on some of the more vulnerable groups in our society.

Back in Norwich, the nuts are falling from the walnut tree in the garden. There will be an exceptional crop this year, enough so the squirrel has not been able to steal them all. They drive us wild by planting them around the garden, so we end up with walnut tree saplings. I don’t mind sharing, but I do object to being taken for granted so have invested in a powerful water gun!

I spent a happy hour or so shucking the green exterior off the nuts. The problem is that I was not wearing gloves, so my fingers are now stained a very dark brown. Google was not helpful. My first question: ‘how does one harvest walnuts?’, the answer ‘hit and shake the branches’. The second, ‘how to get walnut stains off your hands?’. The answer: ‘Wash your hands thoroughly, using a good quality soap and warm water. Apply lemon juice. Follow up with a round of cooking oil. Wash up.’ Well… not really! Gloves are going to be needed in the future!

The Numbers

There have been 25,761,430 Covid-19 cases globally. The peak was on 14th August with 304,449 new cases and the global curve appears to have flattened, with a possible downward trend. This will become clearer over the next two weeks. The key question will be what happens in the northern hemisphere in the impending winter months! The USA accounts for about a quarter of cases, at just under 6 million. Next are Brazil, India, Russia, Peru, South Africa, Columbia, Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Iran, and the UK. Table 1 shows selected countries by number of cases.

Table 1: Global and National Cumulative Numbers of Confirmed Covid-19 Cases (alphabetical order every 2 weeks)1, 2, 3
Date Global cases Brazil Chile∞ India∞ Mexico∞ Peru∞ Russia South Africa UK USA
15 Feb 69,000 0 2 0 9 43
4 Mar 93,000 4 3 0 86 149
18 Mar 201,500 372 147 116 2,600 7,800
1 Apr 861,000 6,836 2,777 1,400 29,900 213,400
15 Apr 1,982,552 28,280 24,490 2,415 94,845 609,422
29 Apr 3,117,756 79,685 93,399 4,996 162,350 1,012,583
13 May 4,262,799 180,000* 232,243 11,350 227,741 1,369,964
27 May 5,594,175 291,222 362,342 24,264 241,408β 1,681,418
10 Jun 7,250,909 739,503 493,023 52,991 262,098 1,979,893
24 Jun 9,264,569 1,145,906 264,689 456,183 196,847 264,689 598,878 106,108 277,200 2,347,022
8 Jul 11,830,885 1,668,539 312,911 742,417 261,750 312,911 693,215 215,885 286,979 2,996,098
29 Jul 16,741,049 2,483,191 349,800 1,531,669 402,697 395,005 827,509 459,761 302,295 4,352,083
17 Aug 22,145,643 3,407,354 388,855 2,767,253 531,239 549,321 930,276 592,144 322,177 5,482,602
26 Aug 23,901,014 3,669,995 400,985 3,234,474 568,621 600,438 963,655 613,017 329,822 5,779,028
3 Sep 25,761,430 3,950,931 413,145 3,769,523 606,036 657,129 997,972 628,259 339,415 6,075,652

As well as absolute numbers we need to look at rates. Belgium has the highest rate 865 deaths per million. The UK is second. The US leads the number of cases per million. The daily death toll has fallen significantly. While South Africa may be fifth in cumulative cases, by the measure of deaths per million people it is ranked 31st – ‘so nowhere near the podium’.4

Table 2: Covid-19 Deaths and Cases per million (alphabetical order)5
Belgium France Italy Russia South Korea South Africa Spain UK USA
Deaths (19 May) 421.07 529.64 18.84 5.13 5.26 593.04* 523.33 275.8
Total cases (20 May) 2,189 3,736 1,991 216 277 4,953 3,629 4,557
Deaths (3 June) 429.83 533.93 33.56 5.27 13.35 580.58 587.24 320.93
Total cases (2 or 3 June) 2,320 3,856 2,905 225 579 5,125 4,070 5,472
Deaths (17 June) 438.73 568.76 49.01 5.38 27.14 580.78 627.71 354.46
Total cases (16 or 17 June) 2,410 3,924 3,681 237 1,239 5,221 4,372 6,386
Deaths (1 July) 444 574 63 5 43 606 655 385
Total cases (30 June or 1 July) 2,516 3,976 4,393 249 2,432 5,140 4,595 7,826
Deaths (8 July) 444 575 64 5 46 606 657 388
Total cases (7 or 8 July) 2,759* 3,999 4,713 257 3,317 5,400 4,209 8,877
Deaths (22 July) 449 581 93 5.7 122 608 688 451
Total cases (21 July) 2,804 4,073 5,606 277 7,630 5,693 4,420 12,961
Deaths (12 August) 451 582 104 5.9 186 611 699 501
Total cases (13 August) 3,127 4,155 6,150 287 9,545 7,214 4,607 15,532
Deaths (26 August) 865 453 586 113 6 227 617 623 540
Total cases (25 August) 7,075 3,751 4,305 6,588 350 10,309 8,257 4,811 17,344
Deaths (2 September) 866 455 587 118 6 244 622 624 559
Total cases (1 September) 7,346 4,305 4,452 6,820 393 10,572 ° 4,947 18,220

*misread these data °data missing

Special Groups

The Elderly

The data show that older people are more likely to experience symptomatic Covid-19 infection, fall ill and die. Men are at a greater risk than women,

“older men are up to twice as likely to become severely sick and to die as women of the same age. Why? The first study to look at immune response to the coronavirus by sex has turned up a clue: Men produce a weaker immune response to the virus than do women, the researchers concluded.”

This means, according a paper in Nature,7 the treatment of males and females should be different, and it has implications for the development and administration of vaccines. “Men, particularly those over age 60, may need to depend more on vaccines to protect against the infection,” as their immune responses are weaker than those of women of the same age.8

Apart from the risk of infection, illness and possibly death we are learning that this pandemic has caused extensive collateral damage particularly for the elderly and the young. Currently there is a push in England to get children back to school. The message is that being out of education is very damaging, not only are children missing out on schooling, but they are isolated and face psychological problems. The poorest children, it is suggested, may never properly catch up.

There are major problems at the other end of the age spectrum for the elderly. On the 21st March the English government released guidance for people at the highest risk of contracting the virus. This group was the

“1.5 million people in England (who) currently live with conditions, or are taking medication or receiving treatment, which health experts have identified puts them at a much greater risk of developing serious complications if they get the virus.”9

Specific groups included organ transplant recipients, those with severe respiratory conditions and specific cancers and patients receiving certain drug treatments. It should be noted that the elderly were not specifically included as a ‘blanket’ group although there are detailed guidelines for care homes.

The three relevant statements in the guidance were:

  • ‘People identified as belonging to one or more of the at-risk groups will be contacted by their GP practice, specialist or both strongly advising them to stay at home for a period of at least 12 weeks’.
  • Dr Paul Johnstone, Director at Public Health England, said: ‘The NHS are contacting the people who are most vulnerable to developing a very serious illness as a result of COVID-19 with specific advice to stay at home for at least 12 weeks’; and
  • Do not leave your house for at least 12 weeks starting on Monday 22 March.

It went on:

‘Do not attend any gatherings. … Do not go out for shopping, leisure or travel and, when arranging food or medication deliveries, these should be left at the door … Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media’.10

I was confused by this. Thank heavens for “Full Fact”, the UK’s independent fact checking charity.11 They have waded through the masses of contradictory advice and, in June, explained shielding.12 The government identified

‘two levels of higher risk—the “clinically vulnerable” which includes, amongst others, all over 70s, and the “clinically extremely vulnerable” people with certain conditions (see above) who were contacted by the NHS.’

The clinically extremely vulnerable group were told to shield, the clinically vulnerable group were not. The difference between the groups was not well communicated.

The latest advice (August) from Public Health England is people who are clinically extremely vulnerable and who were advised to shield,

‘do not need to shield at the moment. … because the rates of transmission … in the community have fallen significantly. There is specific guidance on what will happen if there is a local lockdown in your area. This guidance is government advice and it’s your personal choice whether to follow it. … guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable is that shielding has been paused. … you do not need to follow previous shielding advice; you can go to work (if) the workplace is Covid-secure, but should carry on working from home wherever possible; clinically extremely vulnerable children should attend education settings in line with … guidance … ; you can go outside (but) … try to keep your overall social interactions low; you can visit businesses, … while keeping 2 metres away from others … or 1 metre, plus other precautions; … continue to wash your hands carefully and; … you will no longer receive free food parcels, medicine deliveries and basic care from the National Shielding Service.”13

What does this pandemic mean for the elderly? The answer, sadly, is that we don’t really know yet, the full impact will take time to become apparent. I will talk, without citation, about what I have seen and think.

The first consequence was increased isolation. Events, support groups and gatherings were cancelled, the elderly were advised to remain indoors and avoid all contact with others. They could no longer have visitors other than carers, and the carers wore full protective personal equipment (PPE). This combined with the 24/7, somewhat hysterical, coronavirus coverage on television, increased fear, and anxiety. This has resulted in an acceleration of dementia for some.

Globally, care homes bore the brunt of the first wave of the epidemic. Indeed, the cruise ship Diamond Princess, with its major epidemic in February could be regarded as a floating old age/care home, although this is not how the operators would see it. Of the passengers 58% were over 60 and 33% over 70.14 In the USA the ‘Nursing home residents were among the first known cases of Covid-19 in the US. In mid-February in suburban Kirkland, Washington, 80 of 130 residents in one facility were sickened by an unknown respiratory illness, later identified as Covid-19’.15 The appalling situation in Canada, especially Quebec, has been documented in previous issues of this communique.16 In the UK, care homes were initially excluded from the data.

Practically if you want to organise care for a loved one, the first step is to find a suitable home. This is problematic as you are unable to visit, see the homes, or even talk to the residents. There are few facilities with websites, some may have Facebook pages. In England you only have the full range of choices if you can afford to pay the fees for the home, and if you do not the local council places the individual. If the person has assets exceeding £23,250 (and this includes their property) they are expected to be self-funding. What does it cost? There is some variation, but it seems that between £600 to £1200 per week is a ballpark. This will depend on the needs of the prospective resident and the activities organised for them (there are very few activities in the time of coronavirus).

To be admitted the applicant needs to have a clear Covid-19 test, from no less than four days previously. They are placed in quarantine for a week on admission. Most homes allow residents no more than one visit, by one person, for 15 minutes per day. Both the resident and visitor must wear PPE and maintain the requisite social distance. There is the possibility of prearranged Skype and other social media calls, but usually staff will have to be involved to manage the technology. The government has guidelines, and these are available on the web and are updated.17 Leaving a loved one in care is a bit like leaving a child at boarding school, but without the prospect – at the moment – of exeat weekends or indeed any time out. This pandemic has shown differential vulnerability but also how poor we are at caring for the elderly.


Last week I talked about how hard it would be to get people travelling again. The English government keeps changing the list of countries from which travellers must self-isolate. The Financial Times notes

“The criteria used in assessing whether travellers returning to Britain should self-isolate have not been published, but government officials say a number of tests are applied. As well as considering rates of infections and deaths, scientists look at the rate of acceleration of cases, the quality of monitoring and the measures in place in each country.”18

The Telegraph warns that England could remove Greece from its quarantine-exempt list whilst Scotland and Wales have imposed new restriction. Scotland required all holidaymakers from Greece to enter self-isolation for 14 days as of 4am on 3rd September. Wales applied the rule but only to arrivals from the island of Zante.

This may be a way forward – travellers from specific holiday destinations isolating rather than the whole country. The Telegraph notes:

‘In terms of overall infections, however, Greece remains below England’s threshold of 20 cases per 100,000 people over seven days, the metric it uses to keep a country off the ‘red list’. Greece’s number yesterday stood at 14. The Department for Transport stated last night: “The JBC [Joint Biosecurity Centre] has not changed the risk rating for Greece and we won’t be removing it for now.” Portugal, on the other hand, now looks likely to gain red status, only two weeks after the mandatory quarantine was dropped, with a rate of 22.5 as of yesterday’.19

I have not been able to find the ‘specific criteria’ anywhere on government websites.


Every aspect of life is being affected. Elderly people are vulnerable and isolated and it must be deeply depressing to not see loved ones. The young need to be in school and their parents, for the most part, want to be back at work. There is a realisation that we are social animals and actually going to work and mixing with others is important.

New rules of engagement need to be developed, and they will have to recognise the existence of some risk. The decisions made early in the epidemic made sense, but now they need to be revisited and revised. Everyone makes decisions about what risks and trade-offs they will accept. When I get on my bicycle there is a chance I will fall off or be hit by a vehicle, as a result I wear a helmet (something I scoffed at for years) and try to stick to cycle trails and quiet roads. I will carry on cycling despite the risks.

Thank you for reading, reposting and providing comments. What I write is public domain so please share, forward and disseminate. My contact is:

  1. These data are from Johns Hopkins University
  2. The UK data from 27th May is taken from
  3. *estimate ∞ these countries were added, early data is not included. β Data for the UK from Worldometer
  5. Deaths
    Case per million
  7. Takahashi, T., Ellingson, M.K., Wong, P. et al. Sex differences in immune responses that underlie COVID-19 disease outcomes. Nature (2020).
  8. ibid
  9. 21st March 2020
  10. Ibid.
  13. update 18th August 2020
  16. Covid-19 Watch: The Epidemic Curve starts to change 15th April 2020,
  18. UK quarantine measures: where are the Covid hotspots?, The Financial Times 7th August 2020
  19. The Telegraph, Travel news: Greece holidays at risk as Portugal heads for the ‘red list, 2nd September 2020

2 thoughts on “Covid-19 Watch: Identifying the Vulnerable

  1. Excellent. I laughed at the image of you taking a water gun to the squirrels. I always have the hose nearby at Matt’s. Little bastards.

    Also, Google search is almost the saddest story of how capitalism ruins everything that we’ve seen in the past decade. Search is garbage. As long as people can hack the algorithm and are selling something, they shoot right to the top no matter how asinine their content. I’d come to believe this next gen was just bad at researching; now I understand that their first ‘library’ was Google Search. I wouldn’t bother with it either, if I were them.

    And you had to know I wouldn’t let a gender-based tidbit slide by. 😉 I find this discovery about men’s lower immunity to this virus fascinating. I wonder if that’s a general finding or if something specific to gender is happening? I’ll have to Google it …


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