Welcome back to this week’s installment of the all-new What Just Happened?!, a semi-comical weekly digest of the most important news from the UK, US and the World from Will Marshall, and Alistair Simmonds-Yoo. Look out for us every weekend, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
(it’s the end of) The World (as we know it)
Curb your Epidemiology
It would be wrong to entirely ignore the Covid-19 pandemic when, y’know, it’s a pandemic and it’s pretty much everything that is happening everywhere, but then again we don’t want to echo what you’ve already read/watched/panicked about from a million other sources. What we can do though is point you in the direction of some of the more interesting and/or scientifically accurate sources of information (like this fantastic collation of data).
The UK has helpfully broken down its stages of reaction into 3 parts: containment, delay and mitigation. As of Thursday we’ve gone into the delay phase (ironically the government has faced criticism for delaying the delay phase), albeit limited, with no restrictions on movement or gatherings. The question I keep hearing is: what is the advantage of delaying the peak of the outbreak if Covid-19 isn’t killed by warm weather, as seems to be the case? The answer is explained really well in this article from Vox, but the key concepts are about capacity and research. It’s all about ‘flattening the curve’ to try and keep the peak below the capacity of the healthcare system (which is limited in winter by traditional winter illnesses), whilst providing more time to increase understanding of the disease and developing treatments and potentially a vaccine.
The UK has also taken a markedly different response from other countries, for a variety of reasons (not least because the UK appear to be at an earlier stage of an outbreak than Italy or many others), and has inevitably received some flak for so doing. The most common question perhaps being, ‘why isn’t the UK closing schools and cancelling all large events?’. Well, firstly, the great British Sporting event of panic buying loo-roll will doubtless go-on regardless of government intervention… Seriously though, why is Ireland closing schools but the UK isn’t?
“The evidence so far suggests coronavirus is in the middle: more transmissible than flu but less than measles. We think the average person with Covid-19 infects two to three others, although we don’t know the exact number.”source
The government is getting a hard time for inaction, although one can see the reasoning behind advocating for minimal short term disruption. Especially when we add an element of transience to the ‘Will of The People’ to self-isolate. There’s definitely an apocalypse-fatigue type effect to be aware of – we’ve heard some countries that have gone into ‘lock down’ are experiencing a vibe of ‘unofficial holiday’ on the ground while folks head to beaches and enjoy the change of the seasons. The UK government’s existing advice could be hugely effective in limiting the spread of the virus: wash your hands (properly) regularly, if you’re feeling unwell (even minor cold unwell) then don’t go into work. Also, here are some simulations looking at naive implementations of social distancing and the associated effects on the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The US seems to be taking a very different approach (or so it appears from the outside), namely just being incompetent (read the 28 times Trump has lied about Covid-19). One of the most important elements of the Chinese reaction to the initial outbreak that allowed it to deal relatively effectively with the virus, was acting rapidly to make it abundantly clear that testing and treatment for Covid-19 would be completely free. On that America has failed, and by doing so has potentially created the next great petri dish for the outbreak.
Recently, folks returning from Europe have been gathering in huge lines (pre-screening for potential illness) and confined spaces for long times in an ideal environment for getting one another sick – just in time to travel around the U.S. domestically.
Testing in public health labs is free, but private screening requires insurance coverage, which is by law covered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free! This uncertainty is doubtless discouraging some from seeking timely testing and encouraging the disease to spread. Thank god Mike Pence is in charge then, with his proven healthcare aptitude.
In a xenophobia-ridden speech on Wednesday night, Trump announced (incorrectly) a number of measures to limit travel from Europe to the US, but only from Schengen countries, and not for US residents, citizens or goods as Trump suggested. Some cynical buggers (who?! me?!) have pointed out that Ireland and Scotland are excluded from the limitations, i.e. countries that happen to have Trump golf resorts. (As of Saturday Ireland and the UK have been added to the list of countries with restricted travel to the states.) The effectiveness of this, seemingly arbitrary, ban is being scoffed at, amid widening evidence that even the most extreme travel bans delay outbreaks by only 3-5 days.
If there was ever an appropriate time for travel restrictions it was months ago. Let’s not forget it was only days ago that Trump was suggesting the Flu vaccine would help fight COVID-19:
“You take a solid flu vaccine, you don’t think that could have an impact, or much of an impact, on corona?” Trump asked.
“No,” a pharmaceutical researcher quickly replied.
However, don’t despair. It isn’t the end of days, yet… The tricky thing about estimated mortality rates (as they’re being reported gleefully by aroused journalists, pundits and internet nerds with a pre-existing penchant for ‘prepping’ and apocalypse narratives…) is that they’re all wrong. Namely, the mortality rate of the virus can only be accurately determined when we have a good estimate for how many people actually have the virus. Confirmed Cases and Actual Cases out in the Wild are not the same number.
The Parisian Job
Paris has brought us some of the finest crime tales that have ever hit the screens: think La Haine, the epic car chase from Ronin and of course Pink Panther. Real life, however, can be somewhat more bizarre… Six men have been sentenced over a plot in which they stole more than $50m from wealthy individuals and institutions by impersonating French Defense Minister (and winner of the most stereotypically French name award) Jean-Yves Le Drian. They did so by a variety of means, including video calls wearing a latex mask of Le Drian’s face, and convincing the victims that he needed the money to negotiate a hostage release which could not be taxpayer funded.
The Forever wars wage on as coalition troops are killed and injured in Iraq by barrages of missiles. Prematurely announcing victory certainly isn’t a one off for American leadership. It’s certainly easier to avoid being accused of abject failure when one’s goals are deliberately ambiguous… as is the case in Afghanistan. Although even with the modest aim of a ‘reduction in violence’ it’s unclear the US is having ‘very good talks’ with the Taliban as dozens of attacks reportedly continue against Afghan security forces and allied air strikes persist.
All Bears, but Plenty of Bull
It wasn’t looking great for the American markets anyway, but when Trump made his disastrous Oval Office address on Wednesday he topped off the longest bull market in US history, with the S&P 500 seeing its greatest one-day drop since 1987. This may be the single thing capable of rattling Trump into taking real action to deal with Covid-19; he’s previously shown a huge over-reliance on stock indices as an economic indicator. Thank goodness you can rely on Fox News not to politicise the coronavirus reaction as an attack against Trump…
Vodka is not a Solution
Hand sanitiser is an increasingly rare sight, as demand skyrockets and production plummets. Prices are sky high, and questionable reselling is going on across the internet which is seeing small bottles sold for £50 ($80) plus. The wholesale price of the alcohol needed to produce sanitiser has increased by a factor of 6 in 10 days (I can’t reference this but can tell you as someone who has been buying it in 1000l containers! -W), and the supply of bottles (and crucially pumps) has been hampered by the shutdown of Chinese manufacturing and shipping.
Articles are circulating the internet suggesting ways to make your own, but will they actually work? In short, they are mostly a load of bollocks, sorry. Covid-19 is caused by a virus, not bacteria, which requires a sanitiser with alcohol concentration greater than 75% but should really be greater than 80%. Most popular homemade concoctions such as this one will not be effective, but this one from Wired will. There is a big, fat if though: all your equipment should be effectively sterilised first, and the mix should be left for at least 72 hours to kill any bacteria introduced whilst making it.