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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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!

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Covid-19 Watch: Distractions

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

Cities in the USA have erupted in flames as civil unrest and protest spread. In the UK the government’s credibility is in shreds. The World Health Organisation’s leadership is lacking. In many poorer nations the leadership and populations watch horrified as their economies contract, and, in time, may collapse. This is a global crisis; no country is untouched.

Perhaps the most obvious hit, other than deserted streets and empty city centres, has been in decreased mobility of populations, both business and leisure travellers. There are few aircraft flying and hotels and resorts are empty. Tourism and travel have, over the past few decades, become major contributors to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment. Macau leads the table with 72.2% of GDP from travel and tourism. In Thailand it contributes 21.6%, in Greece 20.6%, in the UK 11%, and in South Africa 8.6%.1 Tourism employs 11.6% of those working in the UK, in Greece it is 23.9%.2

There is not much reason for optimism in the short term. While the spread of Covid-19 is under control in some areas, in others the numbers continue to rise. However, this crisis is an opportunity to reset the global discourse, establish what is important to us individually, as nations and as humans.

Continue reading

Covid-19 Watch: Politics

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com1

Introduction

Over the past week I have watched increasing infighting and politicisation both over the Covid-19 pandemic and the response. In the UK Dominic Cummings, a senior advisor to Boris Johnson, became the story when he flagrantly disobeyed lockdown orders, though he, and the government, claim he did not. The Tanzanian president denies the epidemic, the South African emergence from lockdown is fraught, and there was a political attack on Professor Glenda Gray, President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Council (MAC).

I write these communiques from a well-appointed shed in the garden of my home in Norwich, UK. My sanity is helped as spring is well advanced and I can leave the door open and revel in bird song. The robin sits just outside on the hawthorn bush and looks at me quizzically. My youth spent in church brings to mind:

“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.” Matthew 6:25-34, King James Version.

The suburban wildlife does not care about the pandemic. In fact, the hedgehog said, “Pandemic, what pandemic”.2 This week has seen the changes in the countries with the worst entrenched epidemics (Table 1). The US leads the field followed by Brazil, Russia and the UK. Spain and Italy are relegated to fifth and sixth.
Continue reading

Covid-19 Watch: The ‘Leader Board’ Changes

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com1

Introduction

The Covid-19-driven lockdowns have led to a range of reactions, from acceptance to seeing it as an assault on liberty. The responses depend on many things: national and regional politics; family situations; resources; resilience; and, of course, the severity of the regulations. The rules are being eased in most countries, but the manner and speed varies greatly. In this blog I will focus on lockdowns, the effect they have, are going to have, and how we might get out of them.

This week has seen significant changes in the countries with the worst epidemics (Table 1). South Korea is being dropped from my table, they had 10,000 confirmed cases in early April and took over a month to add a further 1,000. There are outbreaks but it no longer needs to be discussed, other than as a success. Brazil is the replacement country; it now ranks third in the world.
Continue reading