Boris Johnson is in hospital (and to my surprise, I managed to tweet the news before most of the UK news sites posted it because a financial news popup on my screen beat them to it).
I wish him and his pregnant partner well. Of course I do!
The good news?
He may now become the posterboy for making people take this thing seriously and stop assuming that only “dumb people in other countries” and “old folks” get knocked down by it.
This is no time for cavalier attitudes, unless it is the kind of attitude that Captain Crozier displayed. He is the kind of hero we need now.
And the kind of heroes who work and volunteer on the front lines of all care as well as the people who continue to deliver postal mail, who are at work at the supermarkets, supply them with stock and all the others who continue to keep as many things working as possible.
One thought on “And we have a posterboy !”
This is the letter I had sent to the Evening Standard on Sunday around 1pm (it went to a guy called Robbie Smith):
Is the current crisis a call to apply the bioethical imperative?
The corona virus crisis has caught many countries by surprise, but what has astonished me most is that it did. It appears that no country, other than Taiwan, was prepared for this kind of emergency. How can that be?
From time to time, experts and politicians pipe up to warn us of the threats of bioterrorism. Do they merely do that to draw attention to themselves, scare voters into voting for them, convince voters that countries should close their borders and abolish those evil human rights that supposedly force countries to allow terrorists in? If there really was such a big bioterrorism threat, there would have been a greater preparedness to deal with the current situation.
I’m not a medical expert, not a virologist, not a politician, not a policy-maker, not even a CEO of a biotech company or leader of a think-tank or foundation. I went to university, have a science background and a fine functioning brain. I sit here perched on my cheap desk chair, scratching my head. I have to ask myself whether I am merely being arrogant and naive. I don’t think so.
I see the world grappling with the distinctly different purposes of wearing face masks, I see countries scramble to get more of them, I see top politicians contradict each other and confuse the public, I have witnessed the change in Boris Johnson’s facial expression that suddenly said “Oh shit oh shit oh shit” on a daily basis after having radiated “I really don’t give a shit” for so long.
I saw Johnson tell the British public not to shake each other’s hands and then “play the hero” by telling people proudly that he went to a hospital and shook hands with several corona virus patients. He did not do that in an attempt to stop stigmatisation of patients because he could have said that he visited them and spoke with them. If he did, then it could have backfired spectacularly in view of the fact that he and his partner subsequently became infected as well. He certainly did not do it to express his sympathy for the patients because if he had, then he would have also visited flood-stricken areas some time ago.
I see countries blame each other. I see politicians point the finger at each other. I see politicians in a state of panic and confusion. I see politicians reveal themselves as being totally out of their depth. That, however, happens during any kind of crisis.
But why were there no plans on the shelves for how to deal with this kind of situation? Why were there no plans to deal with the eventuality of a corona virus, or any new virus, causing a sudden pandemic?
Why were there no standard texts in plain English that explained to the public how this kind of virus is transmitted among humans and what people can do to limit this? The advice to wash hands makes many people feel that all they need to do is wash hands and then they’ll be okay. In combination with the advice not to shake hands. it can lead some to the conclusion that the virus oozes from our palms or is radiating from our fingertips. They might even think that it is emitted by our phones and wonder whether that could have something to do with 5G. Using plain English instead of jargon is not the same as treating people like small children who can’t understand concepts.
Effective leadership has no room for the personal emotions of someone who plays the irresponsible fool by flaunting disregard for his own advice. Effective leadership is practical and to the point, while at the same time, it avoids alienating segments of the population. Boris Johnson has never been good at any of that, unfortunately, but it feels harsh to say that now while he and his pregnant partner are both battling the disease.
It can be very hard to accept this when people are becoming seriously ill, with many dying, but an impending pandemic is a time to be highly practical. It is not a time for knee-jerk responses and the need to play the hero for whom the rules don’t apply.
The practical purpose of an early (semi) lock-down would have been to slow down the rate of infection, spread out the burden on healthcare systems, give ourselves time to find cures and vaccines, secure a good supply of three types of masks (to limit spreading, to offer sufficient protection and to offer maximum protection), other personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators and ramp up testing while our knowledge of this virus grows.
Apparently, if the lock-down in the UK had started a week earlier, it would have diminished the number of infected people by one third. The lock-down in Wuhan started on 23 January 2020. The lock-down in the UK started two months later. Did we really not see this coming?
It’s true that the economic and societal consequences of any kind of lock-down are substantial. It’s true that we’ve had several recent panics about illnesses that may not have affected us to the extent that we initially feared. It may have made us complacent, smugly relaxing on our laurels.
H1N1 (“swine flu”) caused some panic in the UK, but spared most of us, which may have been because it requires the combination with other pathogens before it can do a great deal of harm. However, as soon as there were any cases of H5N1 (“bird flu”) in birds in the UK, bold steps were taken that may have seemed over the top at the time, with lock-downs imposed on aviary birds.
Isn’t it also true that what was happening earlier this year in China clearly showed that something really serious was going on and that it was much bigger than the 2002 outbreak of SARS (COVID-1)? Of course, this is an armchair view expressed with the luxury of hindsight. Top people are being paid handsomely to do this kind of reasoning for us, however, so that armchair experts armed with hindsight can only express gratitude and appreciation.
Certainly, any new virus brings a lot of unknowns but those aren’t usually factors that matter much within the context of the initial response. We knew that we were dealing with a corona virus. Corona viruses are not rare and they are classified as such on the basis of the characteristics they have in common.
It was clear from the beginning that this new virus was mostly affecting the respiratory system of humans. It was clear that it was being transmitted among humans. It did that in such a way that, with 20/20 hindsight, I wonder why it took the world so long to conclude that asymptomatic people were probably spreading it too.
What we didn’t know is whether pets might be able to transmit the virus or whether the loss of sense or smell could be an early indication of infection, but that kind of knowledge is not necessary for initial action. Those are examples of details that could have been added later to the information given to the public.
There is no practical reason to postpone action and wait for the scientific evidence in all its details in such circumstances. Why didn’t the top people sit down to draw up simple IF – THEN flow schemes to help them gain an idea of what they were dealing with and what steps they could take? Why does it look like no decision-making tools were available?
It seems to boil down to two things. This disease happened to come from the far east. Either countries in the west were confident that China and other countries would be able to contain the spread of the virus within their borders or we, in our individual countries, assumed that only we are the smart ones.
Did we think that people in other countries simply weren’t dealing with this new challenge well? Did that make us confident that the virus would stop at our borders because, after all, we are the superior ones who’d beat this thing?
Taiwan appears to have responded better than most other countries because it learned from the SARS crisis and applied those lessons. Other countries could have applied those lessons too. Taiwan, however, continues to be shut out for political reasons so the lessons it learned were ignored by everybody else, it looks like.
Some people will protest at this point and emphasise that Taiwan’s solutions included loss of privacy for its citizens. Maybe it is time to start accepting that loss of privacy is not the problem. The problem is the unilateral lack of transparency, the fact that this loss of privacy usually only affects individuals. What we must prevent is that citizens’ lives become fully transparent while the activities of the governments and companies who handle, process and trade the data remain fully opaque as that opaqueness is where any abuse occurs.
Several countries, partly in cooperation with each other, are now developing apps that offer a compromise, with a degree of opaqueness and a degree of transparency on both sides, to help limit the spread of this virus. It appears that there was no preparedness in that area either, even though SARS reared its head in 2002, which gave us plenty of time to prepare. Such an app could have been ready to download from the beginning.
The present corona virus crisis is teaching us major lessons.
It highlights that nationalist thinking is detrimental to a country’s well-being. It looks like some country’s leaders must on some subconscious level have assumed that people in other countries were being dumb and doing dumb things like coughing and spitting in each other’s faces as it’s hard to find a better explanation for what’s happening now.
It also underlines, as does for example H1N1, that we must find a way to treat non-human animals much better than we currently do. After all, these diseases appear to result from our abuse of non-human animals, regardless of whether it concerns swine, cows, pangolins, dogs or chickens.
It is time to start heeding Fritz Jahr’s bioethical imperative: “All living beings are entitled to respect and should be treated not as means but as ends in themselves.”