LET’S look at WuFlu in computing terms. China has belatedly chosen to be like my laptop (Windows 10/Chrome): clogging the system with compulsory protection, spying on every move and constantly interrupting with tailored messages. However, the annoying interference has resulted in a slowing of the rate of new Covid-19 cases to below the UK’s when you adjust for the size of their population, which is 21 times greater than ours.
Now let’s look at the West. Our idea of panic is amassing unfeasible quantities of bog roll and stealing hand sanitisers from hospitals, where if the staff can’t ensure their hygiene we are all in deep doo-doo; hence no doubt the obsession with toilet tissue. In contrast to such pathetic prepping, get this: a relative who works in the NHS tells us that a theatre nurse who had just returned from Thailand was asked for a throat swab to check she wasn’t infected. She refused, forcing the administration to send her home. Operating theatre . . . patients with open wounds . . . sterile environment ultra-important . . . highly trained nurse fully cognisant of implications . . . my mind is on Planet Boggle.
Or how about Italy’s possible ‘Patient Zero’, who had come from abroad and tested positive for the coronavirus? He was told to self-isolate but ignoring the instruction, continued his work delivering food from a Chinese restaurant until the carabinieri sent him home and closed the business.
Then there’s Vice News reporter Julia Lindau, who returned to the USA from northern Italy and tweeted her amazement at walking through JFK without being asked any health-screening questions.
Is it that viruses aren’t perceived as real? After all, we can’t see them, even with an optical microscope. We have to take their existence on trust from scientists and medics, like the crazy stuff physicists give out about ‘hexaquarks’ and ‘dark matter’. Precautions against infection can resemble magic spells to ward off demons, for example the disinfectant-spraying in this Chinese training exercise (why the outside of the car?). Perhaps singing Happy Birthday twice while washing one’s hands is a form of incantation.
So, many Americans must have been reassured when the White House told them (or more importantly, the stock markets) that the US had it all under control, only to admit later to a national shortage of testing kits, so that the apparent concentration of cases in Washington State was likely a dangerously comforting illusion.
In the UK, England’s chief medical officer tells us there is now a ‘very slim to zero’ chance of avoiding a worldwide pandemic; accordingly, we are moving from mostly attempting to contain the virus to a ‘mainly delay’ response to slow its spread. Although fatalities are much more likely among the old and/or those with certain underlying health conditions, the real challenge for the NHS is the possibility of being overwhelmed with critical cases. As an intensive care unit (ICU) doctor explained in the Guardian, 30 (or even 60) per cent of the population could become infected, with perhaps one in 35 of those needing an ICU bed. The arithmetic of that means over half a million acute cases, when the country has only some 4,000 ICU beds and those are already 90 per cent committed to other needs. Even if the danger has been overestimated by a factor of one thousand, the NHS faces a potentially impossible challenge. Charles Hugh Smith points out that this lack could contribute to a higher death rate among severe cases. In preparation, our NHS relative tells us, the gas supplier BOC is producing more oxygen bottles, and Army Medical Corps personnel are receiving training in ICU nursing, so somebody up there is still trying to plan responsibly.
Ironically, where at first we feared the spread of Covid-19 from China, now, thanks to major efforts at containment that have not been abandoned as hopeless, the Chinese are worrying instead about the possibility of reimporting the disease from abroad. There will be no casual strolling through airport customs there.
Among the rest of us, the reactions vary from sanguine (‘M.D.’ in Private Eye says, ‘We’re all going to die, some much sooner than others’ ) to the Darwinian ‘thinning out of the herd’ (forgetting that the most vulnerable demographic will have bred at least one succeeding generation already).
Covid-19 has raised a key debating point: who gives a stuff about the old, anyway?