Julius Caesar simply couldn’t understand fear, according to William Shakespeare. “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,” he says in the eponymous play (Act 2, Scene 2), “It seems to me most strange that men should fear For death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.”
What on earth would he have made of the sometimes-panicky response to the corona virus? Not that I’m suggesting we should simply ignore it; it’s a deadly disease, it is killing thousands and everyone has to do their bit to keep it under control. That should not include panicking, though, however much the more alarmist media reports stoke the fear. I’m not sure, for instance, where the hoarding of toilet paper fits into things. It’s not as if diarrhoea is even one of the symptoms of Covid-19. Equally strange is the sort of knee-jerk reaction which, in the UK, led to the eviction of a health worker from rented accommodation ‘in case they bring the virus home with them’. Caesar had no time for rank cowardice, either: “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” he says, “The valiant never taste of death but once.” However, once is quite enough for anyone.
Covid-19 is a nasty, sometimes fatal disease, however, and according to research so far, it’s thought that everyone who contracts it is likely to infect two or three other people. Exactly how deadly it is, though, is hard to establish, as many people who catch it only experience mild influenza-like symptoms and quickly recover, so the cases are not recorded at all. According to the WHO, some 15% of infections will be severe, requiring oxygen, and 5% will be critical, requiring ventilation. However, around 80% of those who contract Covid-19 will only get a mild dose. They’re the lucky ones. Of those that get it seriously, the death rate seems to be around 3%-4%. No-one is really sure, however. In Britain, for instance, anyone exhibiting the symptoms – a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath – is advised to stay at home in self-imposed isolation and not to contact the health services, nor anyone else. With no record being kept, it’s hard to work out accurate infection rates. It’s safe to say, though, that whatever figures any government gives out (and presumably believes) are likely to be an underestimate.
Transmission of coronavirus shown using a 3D medical animation © scientificanimations.com
Of course, every year brings seasonal influenza. Please remember, real influenza is NOT the same as the common cold, as anyone who has suffered it can testify, even if rather too many people with heavy colds call them ’flu. Both are caused by varieties of the corona virus. The viruses are members of the same family as the one causing Covid-19, which number more than forty types. They infect animals, both mammals and birds, and they’re famous among veterinarians for causing diseases in pigs, cattle and chickens. Don’t worry, though: they’re not the same viruses, just close relatives. You’re not going to catch Covid-19 from your cat or your budgerigar, even if the veterinary advice is not to cuddle them at present.
Wuhan © UN
As for the virus now spreading global fear and closing down the world economy, it’s a virion: a virus particle that needs 27 proteins to function but arrives at the human cell wall with only four of them, plus a strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid, mainly used to convey data from normal DNA about synthesising essential proteins), which hijacks the cell’s own machinery into making the remaining 23 proteins it needs (and you certainly don’t). It then causes it to manufacture many more of the virus particles (technically a SARS-CoV-2 virus, in this case) to go and infect other cells. SARS stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome. The cell in which the new virion is created provides it with a covering membrane, made of lipids, which break up in contact with soap and water, which is why hand washing is better than using sanitizing gel. The spike protein protruding from the virus (the thing that makes it look like a miniature sea mine) pokes through the membrane and can latch onto a protein called ACE2, especially common in the respiratory tract, hence the breathing problems it causes. The actual virus is about 90 nanometres (billionths of a metre) across and is roughly a millionth of the size of the cells it infects. Anyone walking around with a scarf around their mouths and nose is wasting their time and fooling themselves into a false sense of security: it would be like trying to use a trawler net to stop a gnat.
HOW DEADLY IS ‘DEADLY’?
The corona virus seems to have the potential to kill more people than a seasonal bout of influenza, although the death rate is hard to judge However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that ordinary seasonal ’flu causes between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths annually around the world, with an average of 389,000. A study last year estimated that 99,000 to 200,000 deaths from lower respiratory tract infections were caused by influenza: not by Covid-19 but by the ordinary influenza that spreads throughout the world every year, especially in winter. At the time of writing, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reports 2,281,714 cases of the Covid-19 infection worldwide and 159,511
deaths. Those numbers will go on rising for now.
A coronavirus victim Italy. © DeathCareIndustry.com
But it’s nowhere near the death rate for seasonal ’flu cases each year. The infection and death rate from ’flu varies massively from year to year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, the number of ’flu cases in the US fluctuates between 9-million and 45-million a year, with the number of deaths varying from 12,000 to 61,000. Over the past decade, says the CDC, the number of ’flu cases that resulted in hospitalisation has consistently been between 1% and 2%, with a fatality rate of between 0.1% and 0.2%.
Although no-one knows for sure how many people have been infected with Covid-19 because it does not always present as a major illness, of those that are serious enough to be recorded, the death rate is around 3% to 4%, although if you include everyone who’d been infected the real rate is likely to be much lower. One of the more worrying differences between seasonal ’flu and the corona virus, however, is that ’flu has been around for years, even if its viruses do mutate year by year, and many of us have gradually developed a kind of immunity, whereas SARS-CoV-2 is new. The WHO believes that seasonal influenza spreads faster than Covid-19 but that the corona virus has the potential to infect more people. The most at-risk groups are different, too. With Covid-19, it’s the elderly and those with underlying illnesses that are considered most at risk, while seasonal influenza is most likely to affect young people, especially children, and pregnant women.
California, 1918. The 1918 Spanish flu killed up to 50 million people around the world © National Archives
The world’s worst-ever outbreak of seasonal ’flu came in the aftermath of World War 1. Between January 1918 and December 1920, the so-called Spanish ’flu infected some 500-million people – 25% of the world population at the time – and killed between 17-million and 50-million (some estimates put the figure as high as 100-million). As with Covid-19, it infected a number of people who none-the-less survived, including Walt Disney, Mahatma Gandhi, Greta Garbo and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was almost certainly the deadliest pandemic ever to strike the world, at least in terms of the number of infections, although in this case China seems to have suffered least. The cause in this case was the H1N1 virus, a virus that had infected mammals before, but with a hemagglutinin (HA) surface protein, possibly acquired from an avian version. It’s this protein that seems to have made the disease spread so quickly and with such deadly effect.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping visiting Wuhan © Xinhua
Even so, it doesn’t quite compare with the Black Death of the 14th century, which killed between 30% and 60% of the population of Europe. It took more than two centuries for population numbers to get back to normal and the disease occasionally returned until early last century. It probably put an end to feudalism in parts of Europe, because it caused a shortage of labour, and that meant landowners had to pay people to work in their fields. Unlike the Spanish flu and Covid-19, the Black Death was caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, not by a virus and it lasted for much longer: 1346 to 1353. It also caused painful lymph node swellings, known as bubos, to form on its victims, especially around the armpits, thighs, neck and groin. It was a seriously nasty disease, which took three to five days to incubate before the victim fell ill and then a further three to five days before, in 80% of cases, they died.
BEING CAREFUL OR BEING SENSIBLE?
Caution, then, in the face of a pandemic is a sensible approach. In this most recent pandemic, not all countries took the same actions at the same times, however, leading to an uneven way of dealing with the crisis. It has also led to some very contradictory journalism as the media scuttled to catch up. The way in which it is reported may be as important as the quarantine measures adopted. Certainly, there have been plenty of outright lies. The European Commission has assembled some of the more outrageous ones, such as the totally untrue claim that Huawei had stopped sending face masks to Spain because of an article written by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The claim was made on a Spanish news website but quickly disproved by the on-line news site, Politico. “Huawei has donated a million masks to the Spanish authorities for use in the fight against the expansion of Covid-19, including 150,000 units of the FFP2 type of maximum protection,” it explained. “For his part, the head of Communication and Public Affairs in Europe at Huawei, Abraham Liu, published this Saturday an article in the newspaper ‘Politico’ in which he assures that his company has ‘no hidden agenda’ and that ‘they want nothing in return’.” In the text, Liu assures readers that the sending of masks is a solidarity that is not part of ‘any geopolitical strategy, as some have suggested.’
Abraham Liu © huawei.eu
You may not be surprised that Donald Trump has been tweeting, perhaps not always wisely. “Nobody knew how contagious this was,” he said in one. “I don’t think any doctor new (sic) it at the time. People have not seen anything like this,” he wrote in another. Trump has informed Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, that he won’t allow the export of N95 protective masks there. “We need the masks,” said Trump, “We don’t want any other people getting it.” This is despite the fact that parts of the masks are manufactured in Canada and that the Canadians had shipped medical gloves and testing kits to the US. Meanwhile, Mexico has received 50-million Covid-19 testing kits from China. In England, on the day when the government announced plans for a lockdown, the Daily Telegraph boldly claimed that all over-70s would be prohibited from leaving their homes and that patrolling police could fine them £1,000 (€1,137) on the spot if they did. According to a very good source at the Home Office, this idea was not even discussed at the very many emergency meetings. In fact, certain people with underlying health problems have been told not to go out but there was never a risk of such massive fines. Around Europe, though, some have defied the ban. The decision to allow people to walk their pets led to a fine in Spain for a man who took his chicken for a walk. A claim that the WHO had decreed the “suspension of any and all medical activities” was also a lie, designed to cause fear. What other gems of malicious nonsense has the Commission unearthed? The story that helicopters were spraying disinfectants to eradicate corona virus is untrue. Recommendations on social media for self-treatment have also had their followers, but, as the Commission points out, you cannot cure Covid-19 by ‘inhaling hot water’, blasting your nose and mouth with hot air from a hair dryer or drinking tea, however much some malicious sprite urges it.
New York © Photo/Evan Schneider
There is no supposed cure so stupid that some mischievous person hasn’t posted it on-line; as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed out, drinking bleach (as one site proposed) is NOT a cure for Covid-19, although if you took the advice it would certainly end it. And end you, too, of course. You’d be dead, eventually, after a great deal of agonising pain. One of the other sillier sites claimed there is a scientific link between the corona virus outbreak and the implementation of 5G technology. This comes from the same Luddite stable as the claims that turning on the Large Hadron Collider would create an Earth-consuming black hole. Considering that the collider was later put out of action temporarily by a passing pigeon, this seems a bit off the wall. Amazingly, a number of people who ought to know better – American actor Woody Harrelson is one – have been helping to spread the 5G story, an especially silly one, proving, if nothing else, a woeful ignorance of basic science. In the UK, mobile phone masts have been burned down and engineers attacked when they turned up to repair them. With everyone in lockdown and having to work from home, losing Internet connections could prove disastrous. It makes you wonder if the rumour was started by an enemy power, just to disable the economy. It also suggests more attention should be paid to teaching basic physics in our schools.
Xi Jinping meets with visiting World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus © fmprc.gov
The European External Action Service (EEAS) has come up with a long list of fake news sites, many originating in Russia. Of those trending most widely are claims that the corona virus is a biological weapon deployed by China, the UK or the United States. Another suggests it’s been caused by the arrival of migrants (which always plays well with populists and the far right). There’s a claim that the EU is unwilling to help its own member states or neighbours – absolutely untrue as the European Commission’s daily updates make clear, despite a slow and weak response when Italy first asked for help – and that the Schengen area no longer exists because Europeans are in quarantine, but migrants can move freely (they can’t). Those are just a few; they get sillier. Some suggest “natural remedies” should be used and vaccines avoided. There isn’t a vaccine, of course, but the scare-mongering anti-vaccination (anti-vax) lobby of conspiracy theorists continues to mislead. The EEAS lists 110 corona-related misinformation cases since 22 January that show signs of originating in Russia. In times of fear, people are more inclined to lend credence to the bizarre, the scary and the frankly scientifically impossible. Russia Today (RT) is especially liable, suggesting, for instance, that environmentalists are enjoying the outbreak because they see it as “an opportunity”. One posting on the last day of March said it was “too early to tell” if any more people would die of Covid-19. They have. Russia also wrote that climate campaigner Greta Thunberg claimed to have contracted the virus as a publicity stunt and that 380 Belgians caught it through an act of group sex, albeit an impressive one. Belgium must have changed since I lived there. You would imagine, reading some of the claims, that no-one sensible would believe them. Sadly, it seems, a lot of people are not sensible.
DON’T LET TRUTH SPOIL A GOOD STORY
Headline writers, though, like to make an impact and exaggeration is a not uncommonly used tool to achieve that. But the current emergency must not be used for political advantage. “It’s of utmost importance,” said von der Leyen, “that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values. Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times.” Try telling that to Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s leader. He has seized the power to rule by decree indefinitely because of the virus, whilst also toying with a plan put forward by his deputy to remove power from city mayors, many of whom support opposition parties, and to classify for a decade any important information about a Chinese-funded railway. He also removed all bureaucratic obstacles to a contentious construction project the opposition is against. He announced plans to scrap the state recognition of gender transition, too, to the fury of many campaigners. The European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament have refrained from comment but Orbán’s move has been widely condemned across the political spectrum, from European Greens to Republicans in the United States.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro initially played down the disease as ‘a hoax’ and castigated local mayors who urged self-isolation in overcrowded cities like Rio de Janeiro. More recently he has organised a day of fasting and prayer. But there again, America’s President Donald Trump originally suggested the disease was a hoax by the Democrats, and he was backed up by some of the more right-wing TV stations. He later referred to it as “the Chinese virus”. In fact, no virus has a nationality, of course, being “non-living, metabolically inert, but biological in nature”, according to my dictionary of science. They cannot reproduce without invading a living cell and hijacking its metabolic processes in order to synthesize more virus particles. I wish Bolsonaro luck with his prayers; masks, testing equipment, ventilators and self-isolation might serve his country better. Now Brazil is in deeper hot water after Brazilian education minister Abraham Weintraub tweeted that the Covid-19 epidemic was started deliberately by China as part of its “plan for world domination”, even making a mocking reference to a Chinese accent in the tweet. Beijing is demanding an explanation and an apology.
However, political silliness abounds in the blame game when the stakes are power and potency. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, blamed the Democrats’ urge to impeach President Trump in January for ‘distracting’ the administration from the threat posed by the coronavirus. Trump’s opponents claim the distraction came from a fully-briefed president who simply didn’t believe the evidence, said Democrat Senator Chris Murphy. Trump dismissed Murphy’s criticisms as a “hoax” (a popular word, that) and said that “within a couple days,” the number of coronavirus cases “is going to be down to close to zero.” It’s not, of course, and Trump has ruled out reopening the enrolment site (which closed several months ago) for Obama Care, to help Americans who lack health insurance, with officials saying they’re “exploring other options”. Meanwhile, the White House is now predicting up to 240,000 deaths from the disease in the US, despite mitigation measures.
Some MEPs participated remotely in the special plenary debate on EU response to COVID-19 in the Brussels chamber. © European Union
RUMOUR AS A WEAPON, OR FISTS
Russia has denied spreading false rumours on the Internet, despite some prime-time television news reports suggesting that the virus may have been created in a laboratory in Georgia, USA. The news reader said there was no truth in the allegations but that ‘nothing can be ruled out’. Russia seems to like waging war by innuendo and spreading fake news by alerting people to the story through denial. Spreading rumours by denying them is an old trick; so is capitalising on the fear. Just before the lockdown I was in Paris where I bought a copy of the French satirical journal, Le Canard enchainé, which mentioned – accusingly – an advertisement, offering a hundred anti-dust and anti-pollen masks for €90.99, or forty dust masks for €159.99, even though they would not work against the corona virus. They’d be good against a pollen allergy, though, or if you live somewhere dusty.
One American outlet, the New York-based “Epoch Times” has produced an hour long documentary in which it claimed that the virus was created by a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The programme points the finger at Dr. Xi Zhengli, without ever quite explaining why she should do such a thing. Some of what the programme says could be true: the accidental release of a mutated virus containing genes from two SARS-like bat viruses, CoVZC45 and CoVZXC21, collected in Zhoushan, and the inevitable elaborate cover-up, the suppression of information and some inexcusable censorship to conceal what was really happening.
Picture taken from inside Wuhan’s secretive Institute of Virology show a broken seal on the door of one of the refrigerators used to hold 1.500 different strains of virus
Oh, and the appointment of a politician’s son to run the facility. I can go along with the idea of carelessness, secretiveness and nepotism, all of which have been common practice in China for years. But I lost faith in the story when there came a mention that the new SARS-CoV-2 virus contains elements from the HIV virus, because although the viral enzymes in both perform similar tasks, they are not related at all. As Britain’s Economist magazine memorably put it, “HIV and SARS-CoV-2 have about as much in common as a human and a satsuma”. Don’t forget, The Epoch Times is pro-Trump, backed by China’s much-persecuted Falun Gong movement, and it would like to bring down the Chinese Communist Party, which is no doubt why it described SARS-CoV-2 virus in its publicity blurb as “the CCP virus”. Even so, a further increase in deaths in Wuhan has drawn criticism from around the world, including from French President Emmanuel Macron, for China’s attempt to cover up the disease, thus allowing it to spread more widely. Few are taking seriously the idea that China engineered the virus as a weapon, despite what Trump has said. There has been a price to pay, though: China has had its worst economic performance in decades. Its latest GDP figures for the first quarter of 2020 show its economy has shrunk by 6.8%.
One saddening and awful outcome of the pandemic has been the massive upsurge in gender violence during the lockdown. An enormous increase of between 25% and 36% has been reported as people find themselves locked in with an abusive partner from whom there is no escape. Spain and France have schemes whereby an abused woman can use a code to alert a pharmacist to their abuse and he or she can then alert police, who arrest the perpetrator, while Italy has an app so that women don’t have to go out, nor make a telephone call with their abuser listening in. Even so, the known cases could be just the tip of the iceberg. Tempers can fray quickly between people forced to live in close proximity in an enclosed space where it’s hard to escape one another.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has expressed his outrage and concern at what has been happening and he has urged governments to include the protection of women in their responses to the corona virus pandemic. However, it’s likely that many more women will suffer humiliation and physical violence in what ought to be the ‘safety of their own homes’ for as long as the lockdown lasts. Meanwhile, there is a serious risk of violence against children, too, and the fear that some of them may face sexual abuse. Without teachers who are trained to spot violence and abuse against children, or even the attention of nosy neighbours, more will undoubtedly suffer.
Across most of Europe, lockdowns continue, with France warning it could go on for a long time. European Commission chief von der Leyen even told Germany’s Bild newspaper that the elderly may have to remain in lockdown until the end of this year. Many elderly people may prefer the risk of death to months of loneliness. After all, a number of politicians are hardly spring chickens; look at Britain’s House of Lords. Sweden, however, has gone against the trend. Prime minister Stefan Löfven has told the media that he trusts his fellow-Swedes to “behave like adults” and follow the guidelines on social distancing while the state’s epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has said he doesn’t trust lockdowns. The satirical British magazine Private Eye has listed some good things (not many) to emerge from the crisis. Fewer people are now turning up at Accident and Emergency departments with tiny cuts, scrapes and bruises they could have patched up at home. Britain is seeing less of the anti-immigrant rhetoric, too. “The chorus of ‘coming over here and taking our jobs’ has been silenced,” the magazine points out, “as people realise that one in eight NHS (National Health Service) staff are from overseas and one in four aren’t completely white, even behind the mask. The anti-vaxxers have shut up and, like everyone else, are praying for a vaccine.” Sadly, that last sentence may turn out to be wishful thinking; as noted earlier, the anti-vaxxers are still there, even if fewer in number for the moment. As usual, whenever people are expected to behave in a particular way, there are those who flout the rules and those who see it as their duty to report their neighbours to the authorities for any breaches.
Moderna, Inc., a clinical stage biotechnology company, develops therapeutics and vaccines based on messenger RNA for the treatment of infectious diseases © Moderna
MYTHS AND PORTENTS
In reality, much of the supposed “spirit of the blitz” being artificially conjured up in Britain was created by the highly-censored wartime media who failed to mention the looting, thuggery and even rape that went on among the bomb blasts and ruins. Foreign-owned shops and restaurants were attacked and fire-bombed by self-identified “patriots”. Children evacuated to safety in the countryside often faced drudgery, hard work, a lack of welcome, shortages of food and even sexual abuse. One mother and daughter I interviewed once, evacuated from London to the supposedly “friendly north” (and I am a northerner myself) were refused service at food shops, despite possessing ration cards. They were made to wait until all the locals had done their shopping and there was hardly anything left. In the end, they returned to London: better to face bombs among your friends than hunger and starvation among the indifferent and the openly hostile. Myths are always popular but not often true.
Where to next? In all probability, most people will survive this frightening time and the economy will recover, too, given time, although the Economist Intelligence Unit is predicting that the world economy will shrink by 2.5% in 2020. Many of the measures being put in place by politicians playing catch-up and pretending they were being decisive all along will prove counter-productive. If people treated as adults and given sensible advice, they will mainly follow ite; if they’re told to behave in a way that is uncomfortable and difficult, inadequately explained or makes no logical or scientific sense, they’re likely to rebel against it. Many people will undergo hospitalisation, a great many will die, and hopefully the corona virus pandemic will come to an end, probably just in time for the next bout of seasonal ’flu, which may well kill just as many or more, but probably without the media hype. The year 2020 will be remembered mainly for this pandemic: for the courage of health professionals and volunteers who helped them, for the largely empty gestures of their supporters (especially in the presence of television cameras), for the uncoordinated response of many of our political leaders and the opportunistic power-grabs and electioneering of a few, for the jingoistic lies on social media and the nonsensical propaganda of some abusers of power. In fact, the human race has proved itself especially human: brave, cowardly, hypocritical, stupid, sly and gullible. And if you happen to believe in portents (I don’t) then we have had the wonderful ATLAS comet, tracing its way across the sky and just about visible for a time through binoculars. It was getting brighter, too. One night a few weeks ago, I saw it apparently (but not really, of course) very near to an especially brilliant Venus. Comets used to be seen as harbingers of disasters and it first appeared on 28 December. No doubt some idiot will say it has caused the Covid-19 outbreak, although it’s no more credible than the nonsensical claim about 5G masts. Don’t believe everything you hear, or see. But do have a look at the comet, even though it now seems to have broken up and to be fading; it’s still more interesting than the newscasts at present and may help you forget the corona virus and the fact that you’re not allowed out.
Click here to read the 2020 May edition of Europe Diplomatic Magazine