Covid-19 Watch: Bleak and Bleaker

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 blog is posted on Tuesday 3 November, the day US citizens go to the polls, as people will be focussed elsewhere on Wednesday. The election’s outcome is crucially important globally. I am desperately hoping for a change in the presidency. This would result in, hopefully, a sea change in the Covid response, reducing the shocking mortality, and give rationality and science a chance.

There are few silver linings on the dark clouds. Boris Johnson announced his new restrictions in a press conference on Saturday 31st October.1 The nation was told his address would be at 5 pm. This timeslot came and went. Eventually he appeared at the podium just before 7 pm. The journalists, especially on the 24-hour news channels, were desperately filling time, turning to the various ‘experts’ who were lined up, and filibustering. Remember, Boris speaks only for England. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland can make, and enforce, their own regulations.

As we waited impatiently, I suggested we phone Boris and ask about the delay. My sister called up an old BBC report of Radio 5 Live presenter Chris Warburton interviewing Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office. Warburton asked what the chance was of Boris Johnson agreeing to an interview by Andrew Neil.2 He pressed Gove to give odds: something between one and ten. Gove responded,

“I think the number would be 020 7930 4433, that is the Downing Street number and if you ring the Prime Minister’s diary secretary he or she will know what the Prime Minister is going to do, I’m not the Prime Minister’s diary secretary.”3

This is the Downing Street number. We called, and to our amazement got through to the switchboard. If you phone from outside the UK the country code is +44. Dial +44 2079304433. Good luck. But remember you will get through to a person with no control over government’s decisions.

What do we know? A great deal about the science and epidemiology, but much less about the politics, economics, and psychology. On Sunday 1st November the BBC showed a two-hour, recently-released documentary Totally Under Control.4 This is the story of the outbreak and the administration’s response to it, from the first cases to the point when Trump announced he had Covid-19. It is in the style of the classic book ‘And the band played on’ that chronicled the early years of AIDS.5 The documentary interviewed experts actively engaged with the American epidemic. Tellingly some public health doctors, whose mandate is just that – protect the health of the public – teared up. They watched the epidemic unfold, had a plan, and were ignored.

I include a guest column by Kristof Decoster, a colleague from Antwerp. He tries to make sense of the mass of information we receive daily. This blog will not have much analysis. The crucial question of lockdowns is touched on, but will be discussed next week. The references are worth a look.
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Covid-19 Watch: Ups and Downs (Mostly Downs)

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

For people who rely only on the media as their source of information the situation looks very bleak. It is worth remembering it’s bad news and names that sell papers. It is hard to be optimistic: confusion reigns in the UK; the USA has a nightmare conjunction of an ill-tempered election and Covid-19; in many European countries the numbers are rising and lockdowns are being reimposed. But there are still glimmers of good news.

In the Australian province of Victoria, the premier announced that Melbourne’s months-long lockdown would end:

“From midnight on Tuesday cafes, restaurants, bars and beauty services will reopen, subject to patron limits, and people will be able to leave their home for any reason”.

There were cheers and tears.1 Jacinda Ardern, recently re-elected Prime Minister of New Zealand, and her government have managed to control, but not entirely prevent, epidemic spread. The collection and presentation of data in New Zealand is exceptional.2 China is managing to go for periods with virtually no new cases, although this week they reported 137 asymptomatic cases in the north-western region of Xinjiang, the first new local cases for 10 days. These cases were linked to a garment factory.3 It is encouraging how quickly they are dealt with.

The impact of the virus and our response is dramatic, and indeed much of what I write about reflects this. We know there are massive impacts on peoples’ lives and plans. The episode of the British investigative programme Panorama on the 26th October was entitled ‘Has Covid Stolen My Future?’. The interviews with a series of young people were heartbreaking. Globally people are mobile, moving to work, learn, join family members, and seek new lives. Young people are generally flexible. Canada is a migrant accepting country and the economy and society need the skills and ideas of the migrants. This movement has almost ground to a halt, as this week’s guest writer, Canadian immigration expert Chris Daw, reflects.
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Covid-19 Watch: Shocks

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 has been another bad week for high income countries, some Gulf States, a number of Latin American countries, South Africa and India. The number of new Covid-19 cases is rising rapidly and there is a sense, in some jurisdictions, that the epidemic is out of control again. My caveat, that needs repeating, is that I focus on Europe, North America and South Africa. Readers who want other data can find it on websites: The Johns Hopkins website and Our World in Data to name but two.1

We also need to remember how the data are gathered and presented. To be counted as a confirmed case a person has to test positive for Covid-19. As the numbers of tests have increased rapidly so the number of recorded cases has risen. Most infected people will have no or only mild symptoms, and indeed the only way to know they have been infected is through a test. An antigen test will show those currently infected, and antibody tests will show who has been infected. Rising numbers of cases alone do not indicate a crisis. What we need to know is what percentage of those being tested are infected: the incidence of new cases. If that is rising, we have cause for concern.

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Covid-19 Watch: Taking Stock

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 rules in the UK were confused. Then on Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the opportunity to clarify and strengthen them. I am still, and now even more, confused. I feared the situation regarding restaurants might change, so we went for dinner on Saturday at Stower Grange. If you are in, or need to be in, Norwich check it out. In fact the situation is that we can still go out for dinner. This may change with the introduction of a ‘circuit breaker’.

On Monday the South African newspaper Maverick Citizen carried an opinion-editorial piece by Nina Overton-de Klerk and Caroline Azionya: “The world is drowning in Covid-19 communication but isn’t much smarter for it”.1 The authors point out in 1968 a pandemic

“caused by an influenza A (H3N2) virus … (was) first noted in the United States … The estimated number of deaths was 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most excess deaths were in people 65 years and older”.2

They report a (recent)

“WhatsApp message did the rounds with a picture of a rock guitarist playing to thousands of waving people. It read: “In 1969 the Hong Kong virus (H3N2) killed over one million people worldwide and over 100,000 Americans. Instead of shutting everything down and ruining people’s lives, they held Woodstock.””3

This deserves thinking about.

Vaccines probably offer us the only way out of this crisis. This week’s guest section is by Mitchell Warren, the Executive Director of AVAC. This is a non-profit organization that seeks to accelerate ethical development and global delivery of HIV prevention options. He became a friend, and a fellow traveller in search of global development and truth, more years ago than I care to recall in Durban. Mitchell tackles vaccines and his measured informative input is well worth reading.
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Covid-19 Watch: Schadenfreude

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 past two weekends have seen heavy rain and strong wind in the UK. This meant every last walnut on the tree was gone in 24 hours. I blame the squirrels as I simply could not find any windfall nuts. I think they watched the forecast and then had a very busy few hours. Hopefully, most of the nuts are safe and dry in the drey, and not buried around the garden. In addition, because of the gales, a roof tile had come loose. It was within an ace of falling through the conservatory roof. That was dealt with by an amazing roofer in about 20 minutes, who responded in record time. Thank you, Richard Bartram of Hellesdon Roofing who simply climbed onto the roof, replaced the tile and dealt with a second that we had not seen, not to mention fixing a leak in the fibreglass!

The Covid-19 epidemic continues to pass milestones: there have been over 35 million cases globally and over a million people have died. While the cumulative number of cases continues to rise, the number of active cases is falling as people recover, and the daily increase seems to be stabilising. The situation in the UK is bleak with unclear messaging and many issues. Large parts of the country are under lockdown, but many are up in arms about the totalitarian way it is being done. There is more on this in the section on the UK. Last Wednesday I downloaded the Trump/Biden debate and listened to it over a few walks and cycle rides. Trump was beyond ghastly, but Biden was not inspiring. Oh dear, this left me with a sense of foreboding for global politics. Then, on Friday, Trump was taken to hospital with Covid-19. This is covered in the section on the USA.

The looming issue is how we are going to deal with the economic, social and psychological effect of the pandemic. How do we deal with the terrible sense felt by so many young people that their futures have been stolen? What happens to imprisoned, isolated and lonely elderly people.
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Covid-19 Watch: Confusion

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

On Tuesday, the global death toll attributed to the coronavirus topped one million people. The largest share, by an order of magnitude, was reported from the USA. This bleak milestone has been extensively covered by the worlds’ media. However, in terms of the daily number of confirmed cases there seems to be a plateau, or at the very least, the numbers are not rising as rapidly. To put Covid-19 into perspective, in 2017 there were 620,000 deaths from malaria, 794,000 from suicide and 954,000 from HIV and AIDS.1 This is the greatest death toll from a pandemic for centuries.

In this blog I want to turn to, and revisit, some fundamental issues:

  • How many coronavirus cases have there been?
  • How many of the cases matter and how much?
  • What does excess mortality look like?
  • One major concern has been the link between HIV and Covid-19. It seems there is some clarity on this – and good news, as discussed in a special section.
  • Finally, in the conclusion, I ask what is the impact of the virus?

The reason for this revisit is because of the way data are portrayed. Each evening in the UK we are informed by newsreaders of the number of new cases and the number of deaths. One graph shows the new cases recorded since the epidemic began. At first sight is deeply concerning, there are far more new cases reported at present than there were in April at the height of the pandemic. On the 25th September there were 6,878 new cases, well above the previous peak of 5,505 on the 22nd April. It should be noted this is data for the United Kingdom, it can be disaggregated for the four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This pattern is seen in several other European countries. How concerned should we be? There is a sense of real worry because the northern hemisphere is entering the winter, and no one is quite sure what this means. Normally there will be many respiratory illnesses and indeed with schools having reopened and students returned to university, (where many students are now, unbelievably, locked in)2 there is a sense that there will be an inevitable increase in cases. At the same time, the number of deaths and hospitalisations has fallen dramatically and may well remain low.

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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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