Covid-19 Watch: I don’t think I understand anything anymore!

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

Introduction

The year I turned 50, rather a long time ago, I decided I wanted to acquire three new skills. These were learning to fly a small plane; bodyboarding (I recognised ‘standing-up’ surfing was already beyond me); and ballroom dancing. I tried all and can do none. Flying was fantastic fun. I accumulated 24 hours, but the minimum to get a license is 44. Taking off was amazing: powering down the runway; pulling back the stick; lifting off; levelling out to pick up more speed; and then up and off. The problem was landing – the instructor said, “Alan I can teach you how to fly, but I can’t teach you how to land, you have to feel the moment when the wheels touch down and you take the power off”. Thinking, talking, and writing about Covid-19 feels a bit like this. We got up, and now do not know how to get down, making up the checklists as we go.1

This week I want to pose a conundrum and ask if anyone has any insights. The conundrum is: at the beginning of the epidemic it was suggested the virus would rampage through populations. So far it has not, or at least not to the levels predicted, and this is especially the case in Africa at the moment. It was discussed in the covid19ssa google group chat I am a part of. One contribution was headed ‘a tempest in a teapot?’.

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Covid-19 Watch: Reflection and consolidation

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

Introduction

It has been five months since the first blog was posted in early March, ‘Covid 19 (the SARS-C0V-2) and you’. Since then it has become a weekly event, often bolstered, and supported with the help of friends writing guest columns. The pandemic has exceeded my worst fears; numbers are increasing almost exponentially. On 4th March there were a mere 93,000 cases, mostly in China. Today there are close to 19,000,000 and the largest number is in the US. I watched the pandemic and the responses particularly closely in the UK and South Africa. In one, the reaction has been confused and inconsistent, and in the other ineffectual. See below!

The first post was meant to be a quick ‘fact sheet’: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know. How did we get to this parlous situation five months later? This is my blog, so I will touch on what Covid-19 has meant for me. As I am on sabbatical this year, I am not in Waterloo Ontario, but in Norwich with my family. We have a pleasant garden and so I have not felt confined, however, this would not have been the case in Waterloo.

Our lockdown in the UK began on 19th March. We were told to stay at home, except for essential trips, and for one hour of exercise per day. We took the exercise instruction seriously, but being rebellious, I spent between up to two hours walking or cycling. The pandemic means I am considerably fitter! Unfortunately, increased alcohol consumption means I am not any thinner!

Cycling is something I have not done for decades. Once I had the bikes unearthed and serviced, I re-discovered how much fun it is. The ride to Norwich market, at a sedate pace, takes 40 minutes. On Monday I cycled to The Eagle, a ‘gastropub’, which means a good menu and excellent food for lunch with a friend from University (45 years ago).

The Eagle was named originally for Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, who represented Great Britain in the 1988 Olympic ski jumping, the first Briton since 1928. He got into the team through amazing persistence and finished last in both events he entered. There is a 2016 film called, unsurprisingly, Eddie the Eagle. He ranks alongside Eric Moussambani Malonga, (Eric the Eel) the 2000 Olympics Equatorial Guinean ‘swimmer’, who won his heat as other competitors were disqualified and holds the record for the slowest ever Olympic 100 metres freestyle.1

Norwich is well known for pubs and churches. It used to be said that there was a pub for every day of the year and a church for every Sunday. Cycling home, I passed one church that never ceases to amuse me. The Zoar Baptist Chapel, built in 1886, advertises itself as “Zoar Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel St Mary’s Place”. It would be worth going to a service just to experience it.

Part of the reason for going out for my lunch was because it was the first day of the ‘meal deals’ announced by the British Chancellor. In August, from Mondays to Wednesdays, half the cost of a meal, up to the value of £10 per customer, will be paid by the government. Sensibly alcohol is excluded from the offer. This is one of the ways Chancellor Sunak hopes to get the economy moving. It begins as the generous furlough scheme ends. There are still furlough options, but employers have to contribute to the costs now. The next few months and years will be exceedingly difficult for many.
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Covid-19 Watch: Unexpected Surges: Local Responses?

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

Introduction

There are 16,741,049 million Covid-19 cases globally. The USA accounts for the most, at around 4.3 million cases. Brazil is second, India third, Russia fourth, and South Africa fifth. Peru, Mexico, Chile, the United Kingdom, and Iran make up the rest of the top ten. The global new case curve is steepening.

The guest column this week is by my colleague; Ronald Quejas-Risdon, who worked for many years as a United Nations Peacekeeper. He ended up in Norwich where I met him at United Nations Association meetings. He recently moved back to the USA, so who better to write a comparative ‘view from the street’.

The big news in the UK is the decision to impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone travelling from Spain. This was done at short notice and is causing disquiet among travellers and tourist operators. It depends on the returning individuals to do this voluntarily. There is neither the capacity nor the appetite to police it. Indeed, I wonder how many people will say, as one person interviewed on the media did, ‘the hell with this’. At the same time, albeit with more notice, compulsory wearing of face masks in shops was introduced from the 24th July in England.

Two personal observations. One of my younger and fitter colleagues spent eight days on oxygen in a hospital in Durban, we are all relieved that he has been discharged. Second is that in Norwich nearly everyone is wearing face masks. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the shopping areas and town centre seem very empty. I am not sure that is what economic recovery looks like!
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Covid-19 Watch: Considering Curves

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

Introduction

This week there were just under 15 million Covid-19 cases globally. The USA accounts for the most, at around 3.9 million cases. South Africa is in fifth place, with Brazil second, India third, and Russia fourth. Peru, Mexico, Chile, the United Kingdom, and Iran make up the balance of the top ten. The global curve of new cases appears to be steepening.

In this week’s communique I am delighted to include a guest column by Katherine Marshall and Olivia Wilkinson, What’s faith got to do with COVID-19? Apart from being well qualified to contribute, they cover an important topic. The role of faith is central, in terms of response and providing people succour and meaning.

By now we know that almost all recover from this virus, some are not even aware they are infected. Those who do end up in hospital, on oxygen or ventilators, are seriously ill and may suffer long term ill health. A small number die. Mortality from Covid-19 is higher than seasonal flu, although much below SARS, MERS and the bird flus of the last two decades. The distinguishing features are the period of asymptomatic infectiousness; the highly contagious nature of the virus; lack of treatment; the astronomical numbers we are seeing; the incredible disruption to lives, including the economic catastrophe we are facing; and the sense we do not yet have answers – either vaccines or treatment.
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Covid-19 Watch: Back and Forth, Up and Down: A Deadly Dance

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

Introduction

This year marked the first time since 1992 that I was not involved in the International AIDS Conference, organised by the Geneva-based International AIDS Society (IAS). It was scheduled to be held in Oakland, San Francisco, and would have attracted up to 25,000 delegates. I would have been amongst them. I was on the IAS Governing Council for 12 years, the last four as Treasurer, so my heart went out to the staff, executive and Governing Council. This will have been a blow. However, there was a swift pivot and the virtual meeting included a great deal of material on Covid. I watched online presentations and will refer to some. It is clunky, but will improve. One panel, highlighted below: “COVID beyond the health”.

This week it is time to reflect on the Covid-19 numbers and how they have changed over the past few months. There have been significant changes in the ‘hotspots’, however the global trend is, tragically, upwards. The two clear messages are: there needs to be constant vigilance against the introduction of new cases, which has been seen in New Zealand and Australia, as well as outbreaks in some European countries; the second is the rate of spread can be exceptionally rapid.
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Covid-19 Watch: Steady Growth

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

Introduction

As we prepared to host the International AIDS Conference in Durban in July 2000, the South African leadership, President Mbeki and Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, were in the throes of denying the existence of the disease. It was a bleak time. There are parallels with the situation in the United States of America today.

In January of that year I was planning my activities, thinking about the situation and seriousness of the epidemic we faced. I had empty weeks in my diary. ‘What about writing a book on AIDS in South Africa in time for the conference’ I thought. I contacted Captain of Industry and leading thinker Clem Sunter,1 well known for his ‘high road, low road’ scenario planning, and suggested we work together. He responded immediately and enthusiastically. The result was AIDS The Challenge for South Africa2 written, edited and published in five months. The publishers, when asked when they needed the manuscript to get it on the bookshelves in time for the conference, replied ‘October last year’. I was reminded of this reading Horton’s The COVID-19 Catastrophe (the book review this week).

There have been some significant steps taken in England this week. Public houses, bars and restaurants were able to open on 4th July provided they obeyed social distancing rules. In the USA the President continues to deny the severity of the crises he faces. The paradox of increasingly long lines for food relief and the seemingly buoyant economy is perplexing. This week’s guest ‘insert’ focuses on South Africa, where the epidemic seems to have spun out of control.
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Covid-19 Watch: Global Divergence

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

Introduction

I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s latest (nearly 900 page) book, The Mirror and the Light, the last in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It is set during the reign of Henry VIII; it opens with the execution of Anne Boleyn and ends with Cromwell’s own beheading in 1540. I am halfway through George Alagiah’s book, The Burning Land, ‘a gripping, pacey thriller about corruption and homicide in South Africa’. Both are worth reading.

But what does this have to do with Covid-19? One of the problems with being immersed in a world-changing event like this pandemic is having a sense of proportion. Mantel’s work provides this. It is a window into the lives, hopes and fears of people 500 years ago. It is a realisation of the futility of much of what went on among fallible people. Alagiah interviewed me about HIV, more than 30 years ago, when he was a BBC correspondent based in Zimbabwe. His book is a realistic window into the struggles in South Africa of a few years ago. This is the pre-Covid-19 world. I wondered how it would change if it were written today. Will it date? Unfortunately, I don’t have Richard Horton’s book, The COVID-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again, so that review will have to wait.

There is no startling new information this week. The numbers continue to rise at a truly alarming rate. The Americas are worst affected. In England pubs and other social centres are set to open on 4th July. The efforts to find treatments and develop vaccines continue, but global political and epidemiologic leadership remain lacking.

I am delighted to include a piece written by Jonathan Crush and Zhenzhong Si on ‘COVID-19 and Food Security in the Global South’. Under ‘Responses’ I have used the Association of Science of South Africa statement, lots of common sense there.

There are three items listed in the reference section. All three help to understand risks and should be of interest. We are getting a clearer sense of the disease.
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Covid-19 Watch: Missing voices

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

Introduction

There was hopeful news from the University of Oxford last week of a treatment breakthrough: low doses of the steroid dexamethasone can cut mortality. This has not been contradicted or undermined – yet! This is encouraging. Elsewhere the number of new infections continues to climb, South America being seen as the current hotspot. I find South Africa particularly worrying, due to my close connections with that nation.

Summer has arrived in England, although one can never entirely count on it. On Sunday, Father’s Day, my family and I went up to the north Norfolk coast for takeaway chips and a walk on the beach. The little town of Sheringham is normally teeming with tourists at this time of year. There were a fair number of people about, but most shops were closed, and there was a slight tension in the air as families tried to make their way along narrow pavements.

Driving along the coast past the huge, empty holiday parks of serried mobile homes, and shuttered country pubs, brought home what an economic disaster this pandemic is. North Norfolk’s economy is dependent on tourism, and there was no one about. Mind you the message from the area, which has one of the oldest populations in the UK, was ‘please stay away and protect our residents’. We don’t know how badly the economy has been damaged and when we will see recovery. We have no idea how many people on furlough will be re-employed. We don’t know which establishments will be able to reopen. Most of the resource rich world has mechanisms in place to reduce suffering. The major impact will be psychological and everyone is affected. In the resource poor world who knows!

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Covid-19 Watch: A different background

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

Introduction

Over the weeks following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis there have been global protests. The Black Lives Matter campaign gained momentum and there have been demonstrations around the world. These gatherings have often been ‘illegal’ in terms of the Covid-19 regulations, but they have been allowed to proceed. Encouragingly most demonstrators are visibly wearing masks or face coverings. Is demonstrating worth it when the Covid-19 risk undoubtedly increases? Clearly the demonstrators, and I, think so and authorities do not want confrontations.

As I finished writing this week, news came of a breakthrough in treatment. Scientists at the University of Oxford announced low doses of a readily available steroid, dexamethasone, cut mortality rates. The gains are not huge, one life saved for every eight patients on a ventilator and one for every 20-25 treated with oxygen. The treatment takes 10 days and costs about £5 per dose.1 Also in the news are encouraging results from other drugs. This points, in my view, as in AIDS treatment, to a combination therapy being the most effective response.

This week my guest columnist is Arnau van Wyngaard, an ordained minister of the Swaziland Reformed Church, with whom I have written over many years.
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Covid-19 Watch: Anger Grows

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

Introduction

The month of May was incredibly dry in the UK, I do not think there was a drop of rain in the east of England. Fortunately, on Friday 5th June it started to rain, and we had consistent showers over the weekend. It is amazing how quickly the green is returning to the dry, brown lawn. Would that we were able to recover as quickly from the Covid-19 crisis.

The sad reality is that it will take us years to get over the pandemic. We can, albeit imperfectly, count the number of people who have died. It is possible, in countries with developed functioning health systems, to get an idea of the number of cases. There is a degree of uncertainty as to the scale of the epidemic in countries with fewer resources. Once we have the antibody test, we will be able to establish how many people have been infected.

It is also a matter of record how countries reacted and what the lockdowns they imposed looked like. In many nations we have an idea of how much money governments have set aside for Covid-19. This is in terms of both direct support and income forgone, for example through tax holidays. Once it is over, we know the direct costs of providing treatment and all spent on prevention. There will be inquiries into how governments, international organisations and the global community responded to the pandemic. I do not think they will make comfortable reading.

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