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.

The Numbers

On Wednesday there were 13.3 million cases globally. Table 1 shows the top nine countries (and China) by total number of cases. The US leads the table with nearly three million, second was Brazil, India has moved into third place, with Russia in fourth. New entrants to my table are Peru and Chile, this moves the UK into seventh place. The Chinese epidemic is static. Four of the top nine are Latin American countries. There is one Asian and one African nation in the Table, India and South Africa. The UK and Russia are now the only two European nations with sufficient cases for inclusion.

Table 1: Global and National Cumulative Numbers of Confirmed Covid-19 Cases (alphabetical order every 2 weeks)1, 2
Date Global cases Brazil Chile∞ China India∞ Mexico∞ Peru∞ Russia South Africa UK USA
15 Feb 69,000 0 68,400 2 0 9 43
4 Mar 93,000 4 80,480 3 0 86 149
18 Mar 201,500 372 81,100 147 116 2,600 7,800
1 Apr 861,000 6,836 82,400 2,777 1,400 29,900 213,400
15 Apr 1,982,552 28,280 83,351 24,490 2,415 94,845 609,422
29 Apr 3,117,756 79,685 83,940 93,399 4,996 162,350 1,012,583
13 May 4,262,799 180,000* 84,018 232,243 11,350 227,741 1,369,964
27 May 5,594,175 291,222 84,103 362,342 24,264 241,408β 1,681,418
10 Jun 7,250,909 739,503 84,198 493,023 52,991 262,098 1,979,893
24 Jun 9,264,569 1,145,906 264,689 84,653 456,183 196,847 264,689 598,878 106,108 277,200 2,347,022
1 Jul 10,477,554 1,402,041 288,477 84,785 585,481 231,770 288,477 646,929 151,209 283,181 2,636,538
8 Jul 11,830,885 1,668,539 312,911 84,917 742,417 261,750 312,911 693,215 215,885 286,979 2,996,098
15 Jul 13,323,530 1,926,824 319,493 85,226 936,181 311,486 333,867 738,787 298,292 292,931 3,431,754

* estimate ∞ these countries were added and so the early data has not been extracted. β Data for the UK from Worldometer

When I first produced a table, back on 8th April, it was to try to make sense of the data. I had a column for South Korea since they briefly (for just one week) had the second largest number of cases in the world. At that point France, Italy and Spain also merited inclusion. Spain has 255,953 cumulative cases but the daily record of new cases is more instructive, the highest was on 25th March at 9,600, it fell to under 500 per day in June and rose to just over 2,000 in July, this needs watching. The cumulative number of cases in Italy is 243,230. The highest daily count was on 21st March at 6,600, and since 26th June it has hovered around 200 cases per day. France has 209,640 cumulative cases with the highest total on 12th April at 26,800 (this is anomalous data, with the chart showing 3,100 the day before and 3,700 the day after). It is difficult to make sense of the French data, on some days no cases are reported and then a thousand will be shown the next.

At present it is hard to compare absolute numbers when populations are so different. In order to make useful assessments we need to look at rates as is done in Table 2.

Table 2: Covid-19 Deaths and Cases per million (alphabetical order)3
China France Italy Russia South Korea South Africa Spain UK USA
Deaths per million (19 May) 3.33 421.07 529.64 18.84 Error* Error* 593.04* 523.33 275.8
Total cases per million (20 May) 58.4 2,189 3,736 1,991 216 277 4,953 3,629 4,557
Deaths per million (26 May) 3.33 424.27 544.04 25.15 5.21 8.32 574.31 555.19 299.79
Total cases per million (25 or 26 May) 58.4 2,225 3,806 2,421 216 398 5,034 3,847 4,964
Deaths per million (3 June) 3.33 429.83 533.93 33.56 5.27 Error* 580.58 587.24 320.93
Total cases per million (2 or 3 June) 58.4 2,320 3,856 2,905 225 579 5,125 4,070 5,472
Deaths per million (17 June) 3.33 438.73 568.76 49.01 5.38 27.14 580.78 627.71 354.46
Total cases per million (16 or 17 June) 58 2,410 3,924 3,681 237 1,239 5,221 4,372 6,386
Deaths per million (23 June) 3.33 442 573 59 5 38 606 865 370
Total cases per million (22 or 23 June) 58 2,462 3,942 4,058 243 1,712 ° 4,497 6,985
Deaths per million (1 July) 3.33 444 574 63 5 43 606 655 385
Total cases per million (30 June or 1 July) 58 2,516 3,976 4,393 249 2,432 ° 4,595 7,826
Deaths per million (8 July) 3 444 575 64 5 46 606 657 388
Total cases per million (7 or 8 July) 59 2,759 3,999 4,713 257 3,317 ° 4,209 8,877
Deaths per million (15 July) 3 447 578 80 5.6 75 608 676 416
Total cases per million (14 or 15 July) 59 2,640 4,024 5,070 264 5,029 5,488 4,292 10,367

*misread these data °data missing

The ‘Big Movers’

The JHU website is always worth spending time on, although there are plenty of other options. The situation in the Americas tops the charts and the UK has been pushed down the table. On the site, clicking on the country name and looking at the bottom left panel give data on cumulative confirmed cases (absolute and logarithmic), and the daily new cases. South Africa is probably in the deepest trouble in Africa. However, across Africa, numbers are rising rapidly in many countries, albeit from low bases. The crisis in South Africa is extremely concerning and this is reflected in the guest blog.

The level of infection in the USA astonishes me. It is worth remembering though that it is not across the entire nation. There are areas that are hotspots, those that are coming out of the epidemic with fewer new cases each week (New York, for example), and some places where the case numbers have not taken off. Increasingly it seems that population density plays an important role in this. If, like me, you watch the epidemic and the politics of the USA from the outside it is hard to understand exactly what is going on. Health is a ‘state issue’ and this means there are 52 opportunities to get the response right (or wrong) and there will be lessons to be learnt.

Covid-19: The impact of Covid-19 beyond health

This is taken from a session at the International AIDS Society 2020 conference (the one not held in Oakland). The panel was chaired by Professor Chris Beyrer, and the keynote speaker was Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland. Nonetheless the most interesting section for me was on The Economics of a Pandemic by Professors Andrea Galeotti and Paulo Surico of the London Business School.

The flattening of the epidemic curve, which reduced the number of new cases, allowed health services to cope, for example in the UK the ‘Nightingale’ hospitals thrown together in a matter of days and weeks were hardly used. This has, however, led to another curve, the ‘recession’ curve. This is explained through the cash flow spiral that drives economies, which has been hit hard by uncertainty. They point out global uncertainty has never been so high. Workers lose their jobs; households reduce consumption; firms close down; uncertainty increases; and round it goes. In the UK, household expenditure fell from the average index of 100 points in the second week of January to 60 just before the lockdown and then after lockdown started to just above 40 in early May. This is an unprecedented drop but, crucially, it began before the lock down. There has been little recovery since then, even in the post lockdown period.

The presentation went on to look at falling expenditure by income group. For top spenders (more than £50,000 per year) this fell by a massive 45.7 percent, from £600 to £200 pounds per week. The sectors that have been worst affected are retail, transport and restaurants, the sectors that employ the low income earners. The latest paper, on consumption in the time of a pandemic in the UK can be seen on the web.4

This must be what informed the package of stimulus measures announced by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of which is the ‘Richi meal deal’. People who eat out in August, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, will get half their meal paid for, up to £10. This is about getting people to go out to inject more money into the economy. However, what is keeping people away from restaurants is worry, not money – indeed, high-income earners are building significant savings. Will this work? It is a huge experiment that will lead to economists being excited for decades! I have to ask whether it will influence my discretionary spending? Eating out is something we did frequently. I must be honest and say I don’t know.

The other two presentations are From COVID-19 to COP-26: Integrating climate change action with pandemic recovery and Food Insecurity and COVID-19: Amplifying Threats to Health. In summary there is a chance to reset that climate debate, although the move away from public transport in many of the OECD countries is extremely worrying. With regard to food, millions are now more food insecure than ever before. This is at its worst in the poor nations of the world, but it is also happening in the UK; there are reports of admissions of children to hospitals for malnutrition.

All of this was, as might be expected, extremely sobering. It brings me back to the question, what can I, my family and friends, and you do? There are some obvious answers: spend and give in a targeted manner, and probably give more now because these resources are really needed. Put pressure on the politicians, locally and nationally – taxes will have to go up! Think local, act global and be kinder.


Triangulation: Guest Contribution by Arnau van Wyngaard5

Last week saw the publication of the Statistics South Africa, (Stats SA), “Mid-year population estimates 2020” (MYPE) for South Africa.6 This report, unsurprisingly, contains little regarding COVID-19. There was a single sentence noting the number of COVID-related deaths (2,657) at the time the report was finalised, was negligible in comparison to the overall death count in any given year. Of course, this number has since increased to more than 4,000 and might well reach 5,000 by the end of this week. As the report notes, it is premature to speculate on the COVID-related deaths in South Africa now. Having said that, the report provides data that will help us to better understand what is currently happening with the epidemic. It will also help us to contemplate what may happen.

Population distribution:

More than half of the population live in three provinces (Gauteng, KZN and Western Cape) while the Eastern Cape lies at number four. These four provinces account for almost 41 million (68.4%) of South Africa’s total population of 59.6 million people. It is not surprising that the greatest number of COVID-19 cases are found in these four provinces. It also points to where the focus should be!

Median age:

South Africa’s median age of 27 years is low when compared with many other countries. The median age of some of the countries greatly affected by COVID-19 infections and deaths is: the USA (38.5), UK (40.6), Brazil (33.2), Italy (46.5) and Spain (43.9).7 The low median age of South Africa as well as the rest of the sub-Saharan countries can partly be attributed to the effects of the HIV pandemic where around 6,000 people died daily in these countries at the beginning of the 21st century. The reason why this is important is because almost 80% of COVID-related deaths occur in the 50 years and older age group.8 Obviously this does not mean that those below 50 years of age are not at risk – they are merely at lower risk to die because of COVID-19.

HIV

Despite a significant reduction in HIV-related deaths (down from a peak of 320,000 in 2008 to 71,000 in 2018),9 the MYPE report indicates a steady rise in the number of people who are HIV-positive with an estimated 7.8 million in 2020. In a study done in the Western Cape10 it was found that “People with HIV in South Africa’s Western Cape province are about two-and-a-half times more likely to die of COVID-19 than others”, although people with diabetes still have a greater risk of COVID-19 being fatal. In a follow-up article11 it is remarked that “Nearly three-quarters of people living with HIV who died (74%) were under the age of 60 compared to 37% of HIV-negative people. People living with HIV were much more likely to have had a previous (37%) or current (14%) tuberculosis infection compared to HIV-negative people (9%, 2%).” Current tuberculosis, according to this report, more than doubled the risk of death while a past tuberculosis diagnosis increases the risk of death by around 50%. Younger people, who are HIV-positive, therefore seem to have a higher chance of dying from COVID-19. However, if they are on antiretroviral treatment (and adherent) this will change the risks. This needs research and attention and should spur enrolment of people into treatment.

Migration

According to the MYPE report, Gauteng will receive three times more migrants than the Western Cape. It is estimated that from 2016 to 2021 almost 1 million people will migrate to Gauteng, 60% from within, and 40% from outside South Africa. The significant spike in COVID-19 infections in Eastern Cape,12 attributed to people from outside the province attending funerals,13 makes it clear why internationally borders have closed, and South Africa is restricting travel between provinces.

Despite the rapid growth in infections, which has placed South Africa in ninth place globally in terms of the number of infections, apart from Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KZN, the number of deaths in the other provinces is still relatively low. At present they could probably, as the MYPE puts it, be considered as “negligible”. Obviously, this will not remain “negligible” in the future. Both the infection and deaths rate are expected to rise exponentially. It took 14 days for infections to increase from 100,000 to 200,000. It is expected the rise to 300,000 will take place in eight days. Similarly, where the number of deaths increased from 2,000 to 3,000 in eleven days, it took only eight days to go from 3,000 to 4,000. It will soon exceed 5,000.

On 12 July South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa announced an extension of the state of disaster until 15 August 2020. This implies the current regulations, including restrictions on international travel as well as travelling across provincial borders will be kept in place. The curfew from 9pm to 4am has been reintroduced, the sale of alcohol banned, and wearing masks is mandatory.

“this imposes unwelcome restrictions on peoples’ lives and mood,” said Ramaphosa as he let loose on careless citizens and residents. “Some act without responsibility to respect and protect others. A number of people have taken to organising parties, having drinking sprees and walking in crowded spaces without masks. It is concerning that many are downplaying the seriousness of this virus.”15

The next report from Stats SA will probably give more insight in the COVID-19 pandemic and the influence it has on South Africa. The younger median age of the population certainly counts in our favour, although the high number of people who had been diagnosed previously with TB or who still have TB as well as the high number of people who are HIV-positive, counts against us. Possibly co-morbidities such as diabetes (4.6 million adults in South Africa have diabetes)16 could also be included in such a future report to give a better picture of the risk factors in South Africa.


Conclusion

This pandemic is world and life changing. I keep reminding myself that I am one of the more fortunate people. My household has as secure an income as anyone. We don’t lack for food, light, heat or potable water. Read the Oxfam report or Stuart Gillespie’s paper referenced below. Look at the IAS presentation. I really wonder how people will survive.

A couple of weeks ago my son had the misfortune to break his thumb. He went to the Accident and Emergency department at our local hospital where his arm was put in a cast and he was given an appointment for follow up. The news was not great, the bone was not knitting so it needs a screw put in. Of course, as a result of Covid-19, it is not straightforward. Before surgery he had to have a Covid-19 test.

The samples are collected at a research centre next to the hospital. It is a drive through operation and is very professional. On Saturday we arrived in the car park, were given the paperwork, then drove to the health care workers waiting under an awning. There were four testing stations in operation. We were in and out in less than five minutes. Today, because the surgery had to be postponed, we did it again. The guidance on Saturday was a deep nasal probe, on Monday we were told that a simple swab inside the nose would suffice! One of the by-products of the epidemic, is that there is virtually no queue for many health-related issues.

And in other news, WHO specialists in animal health and epidemiology have left for China to work with Chinese scientists to set the terms of reference for an investigation into the origins of the virus.

Review

Influence.17 I am not sure this film is widely available; we bought the viewing from the Sheffield Documentary Festival. It is the story of ‘weaponised communications’ seen through the rise and fall of the British public relations company Bell Pottinger. Part of the film was devoted to interviewing Timothy Bell, a founder of the company. What an odious man. He built his reputation by helping Margaret Thatcher win elections, supported General Pinochet of Chile, and, most significantly for me, was engaged in making the Gupta family, Jacob Zuma, and the ANC, in South Africa look good. Horrifyingly, much of the violence in 2016 and 2017 in South Africa was stoked by this company. Some remarkable detective work by South African investigative journalists brought it to light and the company to its knees. The company collapsed. Bell died in 2019 so can never be held accountable.

References

OXFAM, The Hunger Virus: How COVID-19 is Fuelling Hunger in a Hungry World, 9 July 2020 http://www.oxfam.org and http://www.oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621023/mb-the-hunger-virus-090720-en.pdf

Stuart Gillespie, Epidemics and food systems: what gets framed, gets done, Food Security, June 2020 https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-020-01072-5

https://bankunderground.co.uk/2020/07/14/consumption-in-the-time-of-a-pandemic-tracking-uk-consumption-in-real-time/ This is a must look at, literate and compelling

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


  1. These data are from Johns Hopkins University https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
  2. The UK data from 27th May is taken from Worldometers.info.coronavirus/country/uk
  3. Deaths http://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/
    Case per million ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-confirmed-cases-of-covid-19-per-million-people
  4. Sinem Hacioglu Hoke, Diego Kaenzig and Paolo Surico, Consumption in the time of a pandemic: tracking UK consumption in real time BankUnderground Macroeconomics 14 July 2020
    https://bankunderground.co.uk/2020/07/14/consumption-in-the-time-of-a-pandemic-tracking-uk-consumption-in-real-time/
  5. Arnau set up the Shiselweni Home-Based Care project in south eSwatini http://www.shbcare.org providing care and support, initially for those affected by HIV and AIDS. From the start, he has taken a keen interest in the COVID-19 pandemic and works to ensure community members are informed on how to protect themselves.
  6. http://www.statssa.gov.za/?page_id=1854&PPN=P0302&SCH=72634
  7. http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/343.html
  8. http://www.statista.com/statistics/1127259/coronavirus-covid-19-deaths-by-age-south-africa/
  9. http://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/sub-saharan-africa/south-africa
  10. http://www.aidsmap.com/news/jun-2020/people-hiv-greater-risk-covid-19-death-south-african-study
  11. http://www.aidsmap.com/news/jul-2020/hiv-raises-risk-death-covid-19-south-africas-western-cape
  12. http://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/200-covid-19-cases-linked-to-three-eastern-cape-funerals-20200425
  13. https://mg.co.za/article/2020-04-16-behind-the-covid-19-spiral-in-eastern-cape/ https://idf.org/our-network/regions-members/africa/members/25-south-africa.html
  14. https://srv1.worldometers.info/coronavirus
  15. http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-07-13-ramaphosa-the-surge-has-arrived-the-storm-is-upon-us
  16. https://idf.org/our-network/regions-members/africa/members/25-south-africa.html
  17. https://www.influence.film/

Covid-19 Continues

For the past two months I have not written my usual personal blog for my website. There is a reason for this, the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 is the greatest global challenge I have seen. It could be outstripped by a climate catastrophe, but for now it is all consuming. Given the work I have done on HIV and AIDS I am supposed to know a bit about pandemic diseases. It is worth remembering that like AIDS, Covid-19 is a retrovirus that transferred across the species barrier into humans. AIDS was recognised as a new disease in 1981. There were scares with SARS, Ebola, Zika and MERS, but none developed into a major pandemic.

In four short months Covid-19 has claimed over 250,000 lives and infected more than 3,500,000 million people. I began posting a weekly communique on Covid-19 to share what we know and need to know. This replaced the personal monthly blog I have written for more than 10 years. You have, along with several other hundred people, signed up for the communique and now you are getting this additional piece, so please feel free to delete it.

I originally wrote the monthly offering because I had something to say and share. It was just two sides of an A4 sheet when printed, and the reason was to keep the price of postage down.

“Ah ha”, I hear, “But it is on the website and sent electronically, so what is this postage business?”

Well, several of my elderly relatives are either self-confessed luddites or just lack technological skills, and don’t have email, so it was printed and posted to them. Yes, in an envelope with stamps on.

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Family and Travel

March should mark the end of winter in England. There are clear signs that spring is approaching. Some of the trees are covered with blossom. The daffodils in our garden are almost all in full bloom. However, despite the signs that nature is stirring, the weather has been rotten. We experienced periods of sustained strong winds and rain for nearly two weeks at the end of February. The western part of the country has had flood after flood, houses and homes have been wrecked. I find it quite confusing to see car roofs protruding from the middle of floods, surely you can drive a car out of harm’s way.

Of course, the serious floods over the past fifteen or so years meant defenses have been built, and in many cases they have worked. It could have been so much worse. The problem is that there are just too many houses built in vulnerable places (unbelievably on floodplains), and the nature of these storms is that they are ever more intense, a month’s rain in 24 hours. Yes, global warming is real, and it is affecting us in the UK in clear and measurable ways.

I had been organising a lunch in London with our extended family in mid-February. It turned out to be the wildest and windiest weekend of the month and public transport was greatly disrupted. As my sister and her husband are not youthful, canceling the gathering seemed appropriate, and indeed this turned out to be prescient. Fortunately, we made the call to postpone before I finalised the restaurant booking.

My brother, Derek, was passing through London for a day on his way back from the United States to Cape Town, and so we decided to have a smaller lunch the following weekend, on Saturday, 22 February. The plan was for Douglas and I to take the train down to London and meet up with the family at a restaurant they had booked near Notting Hill Gate. This was a central location and gave easy access to and from Heathrow for Derek as he had a limited amount of time.

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The end is nigh

It is many years since I included a ‘round robin’ in with Christmas cards and this, lazily, also constitutes my blog post for December. There is a good reason this year. I have significant news and don’t want to leave people out, or have to write it in all the cards I send.

You may recall in January 2014 I joined the Balsillie School in Waterloo, Ontario as a full time member of faculty. It is complicated appointment. My salary is paid by Wilfrid Laurier University, but I work at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Here I was, according to my letter of appointment, employed to teach two courses per year, and carry out the other responsibilities of a senior academic, including researching, writing and publishing.

About two years ago the University unilaterally, and with very little consultation, decided to change the conditions of service. They were, of course, made less favourable for academics. Of particular concern was the doubling of our teaching commitment. I came here because I had not, in 30 years as an academic, taught (two years of teaching one course at the University of Natal on Southern African Development in 1984 and 1985 had receded to a distant memory). I wanted to see what it would be like to work with and teach MA and PhD students. The idea of supervising a thesis from start to finish was intriguing, and I am happy to report that I did manage to do that with one student.

This new demand regarding teaching made staying in Waterloo problematic in the long term. I neither had courses prepared, nor much guidance on what to do. In addition to more teaching being mandatory my academic cohort was assured, when we signed up in 2012 and 2013, there would be research money available to us, without too many hoops to leap through. This promise evaporated like the dew in the Kalahari in January, although it was not entirely the fault of the university but rather the shocking behaviour of one of the other ‘partners’. In addition to this moving the goalposts, a part of the university bureaucracy was irrational to me. I have every intention of writing about this in due course.

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Frying in Norfolk

Anyone who denies climate change, and more specifically, global warming, is seriously wrong. At the end of August we had record temperatures in Norwich. Fortunately it cooled down in the evenings so sleeping has not been too difficult. However, this summer the rowan tree in the front garden died from a mixture of disease and heat stress. Ailsa has been using the water from the rain butts to keep some of her favourite plants alive, but it is an uphill battle. It presents a dismal picture and I really wonder what the next 10 to 20 years will hold. I am increasingly aware of my contribution to this crisis, particularly through flying, but I do not consider myself to be a flamboyant consumer of other things.

Having said that, I have to begin this blog by reflecting on my travelling over the past month. My final class in Waterloo was on 30th July. I had to complete the marking and submit the marks by 8th August. I was able to do this, and almost all of the students should have been pleased with the outcome. The temperatures and humidity gradually rose in Waterloo, and I was glad to be heading for Norwich. I did not realise how hot Norwich was going to be.

I travelled over on Sunday 11th August, flying via Amsterdam. Toronto to Amsterdam is not all that long, just 7½ hours. This is not long enough to take a sleeping pill, so I sat and watched the film ‘Red Joan’. This was about a British woman who became a Soviet spy in the 1940s and 50s. Oddly I was reading a book called ‘And Is There Honey Still For Tea?’, by Peter Murphy, set in the same time period and covering the same topics. It is hard to believe how much skullduggery there was going on then. I guess it is still happening, with electronic surveillance playing an ever-increasing role.

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Pollen and polling

In my blog, posted at the end of March, I described the surgery I underwent in Durban. I also talked about going out a couple of times, with friends, to a really delightful little bakery/pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood. It does not even have a liquor licence; and this does tend to mean the evening is cheaper as one takes one’s own wine. Among those friends was Jurgen Brauninger and his family. I wrote in that blog:

‘On a personal level it is interesting to see my cohort, friends and colleagues ageing into their 60s, for the most part with grace and dignity. It is however a shock to us all – but, as I said to one friend, ‘it is better than the alternative’.’

Within two weeks of these dinners we learned, out of the blue, that Jurgen was not well. He was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer, and was having difficulty in eating. After various consultations he was scheduled for urgent surgery to ease pressure on his duodenum. While this was not a cure, it was expected to improve the quality of his life. The surgery was carried out on 26 April (by the same surgeon who did my hernia); Jurgen did not recover and died on 6 May.

I want to pay tribute to a dear friend and colleague, a talented musician, but above all a devoted family man. I know Tania, Hannah and Brigitte will be torn apart by grief. Sitting in Canada I have felt very distant, but no less sad. I wish I had deep and meaningful forethoughts about this but I don’t, I just know I will miss him enormously. Andrew Marvell’s lines “But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near”, were not written about death; they do seem very apt though.

The Brauningers lived a few houses up the road from us in Manor Gardens. Their children were similar ages to Rowan and Douglas. We celebrated many milestones together; Brigitte did the most amazing Easter lunches for the university crowd and others. The families went away together for a number of short holidays in the province. Everyone enjoying each other’s company, even braaing under umbrellas during a heavy rainstorm. Their home was an original ‘wood and iron’ house, this is one of the first Durban houses and relatively few are left standing. Jurgen, I and Ullie, one of his friends, purchased the house next door when it came on the market, in order to preserve it and the jungle of a garden for a little bit longer. Jurgen and Brigitte had just moved a few kilometers to a more modern house and were planning their retirement when this devastating event occurred. This has been a deeply sad time.

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Autumn and Spring Showers

The month of April began in the Cape and ended in Canada via Norwich. In the first week we ran the scientific writing course in Stellenbosch in the Cape. There were 19 participants from across Africa. Tim Quinlan did most of the teaching and the event was excellent. We are beginning to see results in submitted and published manuscripts from earlier years. I hope the project will be renewed, but if it is not then we have achieved a great deal. As my travel was from the southern to the northern hemisphere, I experienced autumn one day and spring the next. In England the daffodils have bloomed and are past their best. In Canada, or at least in this part, they have yet to blossom and it is still decidedly chilly.

Of course visiting Cape Town is also a chance to see family. My brother and sister-in-law were away but I caught up with my aunt, various cousins and a niece for Sunday lunch. I felt that I had not talked properly to niece Sarah, and she was good enough to join me for lunch on the Monday before I flew back to the UK. We walked across from the City Lodge to a new restaurant right next door. It was good to have a decent conversation and catch up with family news. Because the flight from Cape Town is so late (after 11 pm), I only watched one film: The Great Buster, a biopic of filmmaker and comedian Buster Keaton. He was one of the few stars who transitioned successfully from silent films to sound. It was not demanding so was good to watch in the small hours.

I had a relatively short spell in England. My sister came up from London for Easter and her birthday. We went to a show at the Norwich Playhouse, where Rowan works. It was an amateur production of A Sound of Music. It was outstanding. There were a few wrong notes, but not many at all. The set was imaginative and the acting most impressive. I think amateur productions can be excellent because people really throw their hearts into the show.

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More Climate Change

February in England was mild and dry, in my view clear evidence of environmental change. It is five minutes to midnight on the Doomsday clock. It is not surprising the birds and insects are reacting to this warm spell (between 5 and 10°C above seasonal averages). There was a robin singing its little heart out, on a tree with bare branches, yesterday evening. Robins are not shy, but it was unique to see this bird so clearly silhouetted against the very blue sky. We are not taking the urgent and dramatic actions needed to address what we are doing to our natural world. I fluctuate between optimism and despair.

It was an interesting month from the productivity point of view. I managed to complete and submit two pieces of work: an article and a book chapter. More importantly I did something long overdue that will, hopefully, improve my efficiency. Sometimes as I write I think to myself ‘I have said this before, but where?’ Over a morning I made a list of everything I had published, or drafted, since the beginning of 2016. This included the table of contents, a list of figures, tables and maps, and an abstract. My memory may be bad, but at least now I know where to look. I also listed ideas I have had and not properly developed, these could be revisited and turned into articles.

The month began with a visit to the Robert Bosch United World College in Freiburg in southern Germany. The founding headmaster of the college was the head at Waterford for many years. Indeed, I was the first governor to interview him in 1998. This was at a time when we were desperately looking for a new head. What had happened is we had appointed a man who turned out to be a disaster and who, fortunately, served only one contract. He was probably a good educationalist, but he did not have a grasp of finances. Because the reporting was not adequate, by the time the Governing Council realised what was going on, the school was deep in the red. We were lucky to get a couple from the UK to come and act in the Principal’s role while we went head hunting. Then we were lucky to get Laurence!

Laurence Nodder and his wife Debbie took up the position in 1998 and stayed for close to 15 years. He was then invited to establish the new United World College in Freiburg. That meant supervising building work, some new and some conversions of existing buildings, as well as recruiting staff and students. This was challenging, even in efficient Germany. As I saw walking around the college, they have done a remarkable job. I felt very lucky that Laurence invited me to come and give a public lecture to the school and community.

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“January brings the snow: makes your feet and fingers glow”

(Title: Michael Flanders and Donald Swann’s ‘A Song of the Weather’)

The first half of January was exceptionally warm for winter. We are told not to ‘cherry pick’ weather events to argue global warming is real. When they come one after the other, however, the evidence seems to be stacking up. The weather maps showed high pressure over the UK and to the south, so the fronts seem to be further north than usual. Scotland got a battering. Sadly the potential advent of Scottish independence won’t help that situation – weather is bigger than politics.

The rest of the month saw a few hard frosts, grey days and wind and rain, as well as some gloriously sunny spells. Even in the depths of winter the sun shining through the window can be warm enough to warm the south facing rooms. We have wood / coal burning stoves in the living areas and I must admit to getting a great deal of pleasure in laying and lighting the fire: paper, kindling larger pieces of wood and the coal. If I do it right we use 10 kg of coal for four fires. It warms both the room and the house very nicely.

If January weather was not enough to keep us depressed, the all-consuming topic in the UK is Brexit. Theresa May presented her deal to Parliament in mid-January, and it was soundly defeated. In fact the margin was astonishing: MPs voted by 432 votes to 202 to reject the deal. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately tabled a vote of no confidence, which, unsurprisingly was not passed. If it had been it would have led to a general election.

The problem is both the Conservative and Labour parties are both deeply divided on leaving the EU and the deal, so there is no consensus. An election would not help, unless the smaller parties did really well, which is unlikely. It is all a terrible mess. There have been, in past few days, more votes in Parliament and the situation is even more uncertain at the end of January.

The papers, or at least the ones I read, are full of commentary on the rise of the right in global politics. This is clearly happening, but just as worrying is the growth of incompetence in leadership. The events of the past few months in the USA seem to epitomise this. When this is combined with the lack of vision I worry even more.

“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”

I knew the quote and I was writing this letter I decided to see where it was from. The answer is James Freeman Clarke (April 4, 1810 – June 8, 1888) an American theologian and author. There do not seem to be any great works by him but lots of very good quotes.

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A Series of Mild ‘Winter’ Days

The end of 2018 saw temperatures well above normal for this time of the year, confirming for me at least that global climate change is a reality. This is extremely concerning, and the scientists’ statement that we have only 12 years in which to get change in place is depressing. At the same time I am seeing signs of adaption. There are a number of fields in the flat, Fenland areas of Norfolk, Lincolnshire, and Cambridgeshire that are covered in solar panels. As we walk around the neighbourhood it is encouraging to see the growing number of houses with panels. Let us hope 2019 brings more change. I fear it will take some major political change in the USA for these messages to be taken seriously, but action is happening at the local level.

Beyond environmental change there are some major disruptions in the UK. The most obvious one is Brexit. We really are uncertain as to what is going to happen. The whole thing has been totally mismanaged, and is still not being properly communicated to the populace. The original referendum result was 52% wanting to leave the EU and 48% wanting to remain. I think, with hindsight, the problem was that we did not have a clear idea of what leaving would mean. At the moment there are some polls suggesting 17% of those who voted leave have changed their minds, but only 4% of the ‘remainers’ would vote differently. Clearly there has been a change of heart among the public. Sadly politicians are out of touch, unyielding and unwilling to revisit the issue. A new referendum would be best.

Theresa May’s government’s negotiating position with the EU seems incoherent, and the level of forward planning is abysmal. In the last week of 2018 the BBC broke a story of a new company, ‘Seaborne Freight’, being awarded a £13.8m contract to run a freight service between Ramsgate and Ostend. Apparently the company has no ferries; has never run a ferry service; does not have many assets; and could or would not give reporters names of boats they plan to use. The BBC report said: “A local councillor said it would be impossible to launch before Brexit”. Incompetence is bad, let us hope this is not evidence of corruption. There is not much citizens can do, but the project could still fall flat on its face!

Across the country there is also a discernible and worrying change in shopping patterns. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog to know that the amount of shopping online has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years. The manifestation of this is the number of empty shops on the high streets and malls. Norwich has two malls. The Castle Mall shopping centre was opened in September 1993. At the time it seemed a sensible development; it replaced the old cattle market – which had become an ugly car park. It was appropriate, sensitive and complements the magnificent castle, that was built between 1050 and 1075 and dominates the city. The second mall was on the site of the Rowntree chocolate factory. When I first came to Norwich, if the wind was in the right direction, the smell of chocolate was (just) detectable across the city. Both malls have significant numbers of empty shops, and this has only happened in the last year or so.

Our Christmas was generally quiet, unfortunately like the city. My sister came from London, not an easy journey since the railways always undergo much needed maintenance and upgrading over this period. Fortunately there are two possible routes to Norwich: from King’s Cross via Cambridge or Ely; or the more direct one from Liverpool Street Station. She came on packed trains via Cambridge.

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