Thursday, 26 March 2020

Days of Covid-19

When I last wrote, Covid-19 was not yet a pandemic. And it had just only been definitively named. But, since then, the plague has descended nearly everywhere. Now, people are dying from it in droves, and ordinary life has been disrupted in ways that are reminiscent of wartime. Most countries in which the infection has taken hold have entered into a phase of lockdown, with anyone having the merest suspicion of Covid-19 exposure being required to go into a form of purdah for a period of not less than 14 days. And, as would be predictable, new words and expressions, such as “social distancing”, have entered the common language, a phrase that commands you to keep your distance. No less than six feet of separation. Ominous enough. ‘Home quarantine’ is another expression that Public Health authorities invoke to help contain the virus’ spread. Thankfully, the full meaning of ‘quarantine’ does not apply to this infectious agent. In the word’s original use, it meant being confined for a minimum period of forty days, usually on board a ship on which an infectious disease had broken out, and forty days being the usual length of time required for such outbreaks to run their course. In today’s world, of course, our mode of long-distance travel is much more intrusive, practically resulting in the direct injection of potentially infective individuals into the very heart of our cities, the airports. One may note, however, the irony (without schadenfreude, one hopes. After all, we're all in this together) of cruise ships being denied berthing at ports around the world because of outbreaks of Covid-19 on board. So, all in all, fourteen days is not bad.

         So, Tell Fren Tru is prepared. 'Lockdown', another word frequently used, has been clamped down on all but essential workers, among whom TFT is no longer counted. But, although far from home, he is prepared, and sees an opportunity in potential adversity, reading the books that he otherwise might not have found the time for. But alas, there is a problem. My usual access to books was severely restricted due to the loss, in transit, of my kindle reader. It took me quite some time to find an alternate source for books in Kingston, Jamaica where, after trolling around the town by taxi, I finally came upon a place, tucked away in a shopping mall, where you can buy and exchange books. It turned out to be a gem.

         So, I have made full use of the opportunity and stocked up for the duration. No binge buying, though:  In the same way that you cannot eat or wipe your way out of quarantine, a similar limitation applies to reading. I should say though, that Jamaicans are sanguine about how much extra buying they should do in these times when in other countries around the world, TV images of adults misbehaving themselves at supermarkets and big-box stores abound. The last time I looked, the local supermarket here was fully stacked.
This is the kind of balance that should prevail all around but, unfortunately, man is mostly driven by irrational impulses.

         And talking about irrational tendencies, what a harvest we have had: of rumours, half-truths and downright lies. And, it would seem, that in times like this, everyone becomes an authority and is ready to dispense advice. We won’t consider what the President of the United States says about the epidemic or how to treat Covid-19. But you can be sure that whenever an opportunity arises for making a fool of himself, he takes it.

         My quarantine regime would have to start all over again as we have to cut short our holiday and start wending our way homeward where, once again, I would be confined to barracks as the regulations require. But I am ready, and even eager, to make my own contribution towards ‘flattening the curve’. Every input counts, however small.

Tell Fren Tru

Friday, 14 February 2020

Here We Go Again-CORVID-19

Here we go again…Each decade brings its own international health crisis. During the last one it was Ebola and MERS, and in the one before that, SARS. These emergencies terrify and, as humans, we are usually not able to process the threat without making up stories and spreading foolish ideas all over the place. And in today’s internet age, destructive memes take on lives of their own. We dig ourselves into a wormhole in which more and more bizarre ideas propagate themselves and breed new ones. How do we climb out of the hole, is the question.

It is not as if we are still in the dark ages. We know a lot more about how things work than we did in the days when people believed that epidemics, such as these, were a pestilence inflicted by an angry or vengeful god. Interestingly, there is, by the way, another type of “plague”, locusts, the likes of which was also thought in ancient days to be inflicted by a god fed up with human misbehaviour, currently playing itself out in Eastern Africa. As in the case of a virus outbreak, there is absolutely no need to invoke angry passions to explain how this other ecological threat arose.

Back to the current virus outbreak. There has been speculation that the virus, now named officially COVID-19, made a species jump from exotic creatures like bats or even reptile – snake, no less (horror of horrors!) to us humans, biologically unready to handle the challenge. Protection against such challenges requires some level of naturally-occurring immunity and/or immunity induced through preventive immunization which, incidentally, reminds us of the need for public health vaccination, wherever available. But that is another story, previously commented on in this forum. In the current situation, at-risk humanity (the majority of us) are an easy target for this novel virus, resulting in the epidemic that is now running uncontrolled in China and threatening to go global too. The public health authorities in China are doing their best to promote practices designed to limit the incidence of exposure in the community until the herd immunity we mentioned earlier develops, and/or, until an effective vaccine is designed, tested, manufactured and distributed in what is, predictably, a long series of steps.

What do we do while we wait? And how do we manage reasonable fears without being part of the problem? Scientists are doing their bit, proceeding in an orderly manner, trying to understand the behaviour of the virus. And with the WHO taking charge of managing the public relations aspects, latter-day soothsayers and snake oil merchants are, hopefully, made irrelevant.  It is still necessary, though, to clarify how you separate apparently infected individuals from the non-infected. Do you mask and glove your entire population, sick or apparently well? Or, do evacuate your citizens from China, thereby risking turning a local epidemic into a worldwide pandemic? Is it right to lockdown Wuhan city or Hubei Province? Do you impose total exclusion from individuals travelling from China? It is one thing to quarantine one or two luxury cruise ships, but it is quite another to seal off an entire country with the third largest landmass from the rest of the world.

China itself has compounded the difficulties by initially not allowing the truth of the potential epidemic to get out as soon as it should have. But that is predictable: Like authoritarian governments everywhere, shooting the messenger and suppressing information is the first order of business whenever an uncomfortable truth is delivered. Thus was the unfortunate Dr Li Wenliang, who was the first to alert the Wuhan authorities about the emerging crisis, and who has since died, was put through the Chinese disinformation mangle. It is little comfort that he has received validation, post mortem, albeit.

Knowing what to call the new virus is a good first step. CoViD-19, has the ring of authority in it, commanding us to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Tell Fren Tru