Covid-19 Watch: Gloom

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 few days in the run up to the publication of this blog have been glorious. The days have been warm and sunny while the nights are starting to turn chilly. On Sunday we took advantage of the weather to visit the beach and have a long walk. The national restrictions meant that we had to eat lunch outside of the little café, but that was fine. Driving through the beautiful Norfolk countryside, it would have been hard to know that the UK is wracked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The news is generally not good, although, as you read this week’s blog, remember that there are countries where the epidemic is under control or has not rebounded. The situation in China and other Asian countries seems under control. Australia saw two spikes, but the number of Covid cases have since fallen dramatically. In most African countries (apart from South Africa) the numbers remain low, while there is under reporting, the epidemic is not as serious as was initially feared.

This week I focus on the situation in the UK as the situation is rapidly evolving here. The bulk of the blog was written in the early part of the week, but I finalised it on Wednesday. The number of cases has been climbing rapidly and the leadership is beginning to panic. On Monday there was a special broadcast by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England and the UK government’s Chief Medical Adviser. The presentation was given without any politicians present. It was a simple statement of current position and where the country could be without effective intervention.

Vallance and Whitty are responsible for providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister and members of cabinet; advising the government on policy on science and technology; ensuring and improving the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice; and supporting analysis and evidenced-based decision-making. The ultimate responsibility for decisions rests with the politicians.

On Tuesday Boris Johnson addressed Parliament, and in the evening spoke to the nation. The upshot of this is new restrictions that are pretty uniform across the UK. The nation was warned of a tough winter ahead and the possibility of a second national lockdown. The restrictions include a 10pm closing time for pubs and restaurants, bans on indoor team sports, and stricter rules on mask-wearing. There are even stricter local lockdowns. An indication of the government’s flailing response was the suggestion “freedom-loving” Britons will be blamed for more draconian restrictions.1
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Covid-19 Watch: Setbacks

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 try to exercise every day. I have come to enjoy cycling and have a circuit of between 20 and 26 kilometres, which takes me just under two hours. I cycle around the end of Norwich International Airport, through the villages of Horsham St Faith and Drayton. There I join a cycle track, the Marriot Way, (another old railway line) that runs along the Wensum river valley. The last five kilometres home are through a recreation ground and end with a meander through our suburbs.

It has been pleasant and interesting to see the seasons change. A few days ago, there was quite a stiff easterly breeze. This is a pain; it blows in my face for the most difficult part of the ride. On this occasion though, I saw a kestrel, one of the resident birds of prey in Norfolk. It was riding the wind on the edge of a field, hovering, almost motionless, scanning the ground looking for mice or voles. Perhaps I should encourage it to meet my squirrels, although it is too small to take an adult squirrel.

On the squirrel issue, the battle continues. The walnuts are ripening and now there are two squirrels raiding the tree. My squirt gun is not powerful enough to reach the top branches, and anyway they have worked out that the denser foliage on the adjacent tree means I can’t see them. My message is now, “OK squirrels you win, but please only take the nuts I won’t be able to reach”. Alternatively, does anyone have a recipe for walnut and squirrel stew?

There is a new set of Coronavirus regulations in the UK. There is some variation in these, depending on which of the devolved regions citizens live in. I cover this in more detail below. The big picture globally is that we may be reaching a plateau, but there is variation across the world, within countries, and by population groups. The bad news is that the numbers of new cases seems to be rising, again, across many European countries. The good news is that they have fallen in South Africa, the country able to collect and provide the best data on the African continent. It also seems that the infection fatality rate (number of deaths) is falling everywhere.
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Covid-19 Watch: Rebounds cause concern

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

We are moving towards autumn here; the early mornings are cool and the nights are drawing in. There should be a last burst of summer though, a few days of decent temperatures. Saturday was a reasonably warm day and I went to ride in the countryside. The Bure Valley Railway is a 15 inch (381 mm) minimum gauge heritage railway. It runs north of Norwich from Wroxham to Aylsham (9 miles or 14.5 kilometres), and is a major tourist attraction in the area.

The track bed is on the former Great Eastern Railway, originally opened in 1880. I suspect my grandfather (a Norfolk railway man who lived in a railway crossing keeper’s cottage at Tungate just outside North Walsham) and father will have known it when it was in operation. Passenger traffic ended in 1952 and freight in 1982, the wide gauge track was lifted soon after. Fortunately, Norfolk County Council ‘safeguarded’ closed railway lines for use as public footpaths. The narrow-gauge line was built through a partnership between local government and the private sector. I cycled the entire length of the line (and back), taking a little over two hours to do so. I enjoyed the peace and quiet but also enjoyed seeing the five or six trains running on the line.

The squirrel wars continue, and I am losing. The creature shows little fear of me but has learnt the sound of my office door opening means it should decamp as rapidly as possible, scooting through the treetops to its lair at the back of the garden. There are plenty of nuts, so we can have peaceful coexistence.

One of the big questions we are all asking is what the future will look like. Yanis Varoufakis, the left leaning economist and Greek Minister of Finance in 2015, has just published a new book called Another Now which sets out ways we might seek to get ourselves out of this mess. The concept of a basic income grant features prominently. The book is reviewed in the Guardian‘s Review of 5th September. He has some ideas that do not fit with my agenda. Nonetheless I think he is probably one of the key thinkers in the world today.
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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 – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

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!
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Covid-19 Watch: More Signs of Hope

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

Many people in the UK increased the amount of exercise they did during lockdown. I had our family bicycles repaired, sadly before the government introduced the bike repair subsidy, and began going for relatively long rides in the countryside. One circuit goes past the end of our local airport. The runways were laid down during the second world war and they, as well as the taxiways, are extensive. As a result, there are a large number of aircraft parked here. I was finally able to identify the livery on seven or eight of the planes as belonging to Fly Bra, a Norwegian airline operating mainly in Sweden. The second largest group are British Airways aircraft. I wonder what will happen to them in the longer term.

In this blog I will make some predictions about what is going to happen. It is time to think about where we are going and how long this may take. The guest spot is taken by Ian Ralph on the incredibly important topic of lockdown and mental health.

The Lancet published the first nationwide, population-based seroprevalence study of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. This was in Spain, at national and regional levels, with more than 61,000 participants. It was to provide ‘accurate prevalence figures according to sex, age—from babies to nonagenarians— and selected risk factors.’1 The results are fascinating. The national antibody prevalence was about 5%, with regional differences. Madrid’s prevalence was five times that of low-risk regions. A third of positive results were asymptomatic. There was no difference between men and women, little variation by age, and not much variation by occupation. Their conclusion:

“Despite the high impact of COVID-19 in Spain, prevalence estimates remain low and are clearly insufficient to provide herd immunity. This cannot be achieved without accepting the collateral damage of many deaths in the susceptible population and overburdening of health systems. In this situation, social distancing measures and efforts to identify and isolate new cases and their contacts are imperative for future epidemic control.”2

New Zealand went for over 100 days without any community infections. The nation was congratulating itself on its success. Then, on Monday 17th August, the country reported 13 new cases. Donald Trump said “Even New Zealand, did you see what’s going on in New Zealand? ‘They beat it, they beat it.’ It was like front page, they beat it, because they wanted to show me something,” he added. “The problem is, big surge in New Zealand … it’s terrible.”3 On the same day, the United States reported its highest daily total of 64,294 new cases. This is cognitive dissonance.
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Covid-19 Watch: Green Shoots!

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 had been no rain in Norwich for six weeks and the garden was looking decidedly wilted. Finally, on Sunday night, the heavens opened, and to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, sheets of rain fell. The lawn had been brown and within 24 hours was transformed into a green swath. The rain butts filled within a few days as showers continued to march across East Anglia. It was a reminder that nature is beyond our control, and Covid-19 is a reminder that it can turn on us. Zoonotic events like the one that gave us SARS-Cov-2 are becoming more frequent. We must both prevent them through better stewardship, and be prepared for them. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting analysis: ‘A deadly coronavirus was inevitable. Why was no one ready?’ the subheading: ‘Scientists warned of a pandemic for decades, yet when Covid-19 arrived, the world had few resources and little understanding’. The authors conclude withdrawal of support to the Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control meant early warnings mechanisms were lost.1

In general, the epidemic is beginning to become more predictable and there are a growing number of countries where daily cases have peaked and are now falling. This includes South Africa, the subject of this week’s guest contribution, where the number of new cases peaked towards the end of July. Across much of Europe the daily number of new cases was declining but some countries, notably Spain, France and the Netherlands have, over the past week, reported increases. Boris Johnson’s government has imposed quarantines on people arriving from certain countries, the footnote sets out the complex governance in the UK.2 Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different rules and regulations regarding gathering and could, but don’t yet, have different quarantines.

In this blog I wanted to make some predictions about the future. It is time to think about where we are going and how long this may take. I am aware that this is inadvisable, after all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes said: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”.3 In addition, I am aware that this week’s offering is becoming too long, so I will hold that over for a week.
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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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