Stormy Monday

In the European Union, countries are tentatively opening up. Like an old man after a bad fall, it’s all small steps and handrails.

Outside my window I can hear an airplane—first time in weeks—and a high-pitched whistle brings back childhood memories and sets the neighborhood dogs off.

A common sight in Southern Europe back in the day, and a creative use of a bicycle wheel.

It’s a knife-sharpener making his pitch—one long tone followed by a short burst of lower notes—guaranteed to tickle the tympanus of any red-blooded hound.

In Southern Europe, cafes and restaurants begin to open their doors, loosening the garotte that has strangled the hospitality industry over the last months—and increasing the risk of a new wave of virus cases.

Next Monday,  May 18th, begins a phase known in many EU countries as ‘regional responsibility’—we’ll see how it goes.

A six-day moving average shows the decline in new cases and fatalities in Portugal, back to the situation in late March, but this time on the good side of the curve.

The basis for this ‘deconfinement’—part of an outbreak of new Coronavirus terms—lies in charts like the one above; data are always ‘noisy’, so a simple smoothing method can be used for trend analysis.

Portugal has been a shining example of common sense and public responsibility, which accounts for the fact that it has less than forty percent of the Irish death rate, relative to total population.

I know a number of people who have been tested, and could easily have been tested myself—the county where I live currently offers a free test to establish whether residents have had the virus.

This is in sharp contrast to the UK, where some doctors who do frontline work for the National Health Service have been unable to get a test.

If you consider the UK deaths in proportion to Portugal, the equivalent population of Britain would be two hundred ninety-four million, rather than the existing sixty-six million—this is because the death rate in the UK is about five times the Portuguese number.

A similar analysis for the United States would mean an equivalent population of seven hundred sixty-two million, about double the actual number.

The troublesome part of all this is that while the EU curves are all flattening, the UK and US are still going up, so these calculations are over-optimistic.

Boris is safe in his seat, having just won a general election, but the orange man is on the wrong side of the cycle—November is just a heartbeat away.

The history of the Spanish influenza continues to amaze me—there is so much to be learned about the current pandemic if we would only read a little history.

The estimated fatalities in the Spanish flu of 1918 were fifty million worldwide—the US number was six hundred and fifty thousand, around 1.3% of the total.

The equivalent number today? Over twenty-eight percent of fatalities worldwide are in the United States—an extraordinarily high number, considering America’s status as a ‘developed’ nation.

As an aside, the messages coming out of the States are increasingly bizarre—the president has gone from being a national embarrassment and international joke to becoming a public danger.

I was particularly bemused by the statement ‘If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.‘ While that is certainly true, surely the number of corpses is the real issue, not the cases—and dead bodies are pretty obvious…

The recent comments about a ‘warp-speed’ vaccine are also bizarre. There are steps that must be fulfilled in order to ensure a vaccine is both safe and effective. Some of these are concurrent, but most are consecutive—you cannot test in animals and humans simultaneously.

The science behind vaccine development is so critical I enjoin you to read it here right now. This should make it clear why ‘vaccine’ and ‘warp-speed’ cannot be used in the same sentence. As Warren Buffett famously said, ‘some things just take time and patience—you can’t make a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.’

The truth is that the orang-u-tan feels the election slipping away from him—but it actually slipped away at the start of the year, as soon as it became clear that the danger and consequences of a potential pandemic had been horribly misunderstood and hopelessly mismanaged—a triumph of science over ‘gut-feeling’ at a terrible, terrible cost that pleases not a single scientist.

I guess that makes him the index case when it comes to covidiots, one of the new words spawned by the pandemic. Others that I like are blursday, since everyone loses track of time, quaranteams for teams WFH (working from home), and rona—a short name for the virus itself.

Even better, if you like cockney rhyming slang, is Miley. Miley Cyrus? Coronavirus… As in “Boris came down with the Miley.”

During the Spanish flu pandemic, some doctors tried ‘remedies’ like the typhoid vaccine, or quinine—then widely used to treat malaria. Here again we see history repeat itself with the hydroxychloroquine spoof.

Most US states are about to reopen—considering where they sit on the curve, they should consider that Miley is also ready to reopen.

In the West, Stormy Monday awaits, and there is some expectation that the EU will see a resurgence in virus cases—in the US, you can drop the prefixes—it’ll be a surge.

A further snippet of pandemic history provides food for thought. Although the index case of Spanish influenza was registered in Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918, not only did that spring—like this one—prove tragic, but the disease emerged with far greater lethality in the fall.

Unfortunately, it did not stop there. Every subsequent year until 1922 had serious outbreaks and many deaths.

Some of the greatest medical minds continued working on the disease for decades after—during the pandemic itself the causative agent was often thought to be a bacterium called Bacillus influenzae, also known as Pfeiffer’s bacillus. The bug is now called Haemophilus influenzae—it took until 1933 to unequivocally establish the viral nature of flu.

By then, many of the great scientists who worked on the problem were getting old.

The great XIXth century  British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley once quipped, ‘A man of science past the age of sixty does more harm than good’, but Oswald Avery was sixty-five when he published a seminal paper that established that it was desoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—rather than proteins—that carried the genes.

The year was 1944, and Avery had been working on influenza for over twenty years—he should have won the Nobel Prize (all his close colleagues did); Avery was nominated in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but died at the age of seventy-seven without the prize—one of the great injustices of the Swedish academy.

We must thank science for the advances of the last one hundred years, and for the chances that a vaccine somewhere in the middle of 2021 will get ‘rona’ under control.

After that, we’ll need to rebuild the shattered lives of so many people whose income, family stability, and self-esteem have been destroyed by the heartless selfishness and cavalier attitude of snake oil politicians.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

One Response to “Stormy Monday”

  1. Zulmira Nunes Says:

    Obrigada. xx

    Zulmira

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