Tuesday, 12 January 2021

What could journalists have asked about 'herd immunity' without vaccination?

My blog of December 24 2020 is a collection of statements by politicians, journalists and scientists about 'herd immunity' without vaccination.


Let's ask, what might journalists have asked those people who advocating that route?


1. How many dead people would your plan involve?

2. Will you tell the public this so that the public can choose whether this sacrifice is worth it?

3. How do you know if 'herd immunity' without vaccination works? What about the Black Death, Myxomatosis, and Dutch Elm Disease? 

4. What if the virus mutates?

5. What if the immune response is weak and/or short-lived?

6. In evolution, some kinds of herd immunity occur through the 'breeding out' of the susceptible. This works on the basis that the 'weak' gene(s) ie the ones belonging to the people most likely to suffer the most from the disease, die out when the host (the person) dies. The people least likely to suffer survive, thrive  and 'breed'. The cause of the 'resistance' is either that the resistant gene pre-exists the disease or that a mutation in the gene(s) occurs which is resistant and those with this mutation thrive, breed and multiply. 


This takes several or many generations to achieve depending on how quickly the species breeds. Rabbits breed quickly. Humans breed slowly. This kind of herd immunity in the face of a virus like Covid-19 would take decades and millions dead. If that's what scientists meant or advocated, they should tell us. 


However, as they knew, the people most likely to get ill and die from Covid-19 are old! That's to say,  past the time of 'breeding' in which case the evolutionary push to create resistance isn't present. 


(I did the equivalent to A-level study of evolution and genetics when I did 2 years of medicine. I have tried to keep up with what's written about these things. If I am wrong about any of the above, please contact me on twitter or Facebook.) 

Sunday, 3 January 2021

 Chapter 2 in the adventures of King Boris ad the Gas Army:


2) King Boris visits a hospital where the gas had got in. Boris breathes in the gas and says, he’s fine.

The Daily Boris says: good news at last.

King Boris walks into court where advisers are telling him that the army is getting closer spreading gas. People are dying. What we need to do, they say, is tell people to stay indoors, close the windows and the gas won’t get in. King Boris says that this will be a terrible restriction on people’s freedom.

The army get closer. More people dying from the gas.

Agitation groups say that the only defence is defence of all. Give everyone a gas mask now!

One of the groups digs up a report that the goverment did a few years ago on what would happen if an army invaded equipped with gas. It was called Operation Swan. The report found that the country wouldn’t be able to cope and big changes were necessary. The government did nothing.

A week goes by.

The army get closer.

King Boris says maybe the instruction that people stay inside is quite a good idea. He delivers a solemn message to the people. Stay indoors. It's 'Homedown'.

Back at the Red Lion, the regulars say it’s all made up. It’s not gas that the army is spreading. It’s fertiliser.

The country goes into ‘Homedown’. Everyone stays at home.
In the hospitals, the people coming in with gas poisoning is causing problems There isn’t the capacity to deal with them.

King Boris comes on TV to say that he smelled the gas, felt a bit ill, but he’s OK. He says that his hero is King Winston, who guides him in all these matters. He says, quoting King Winston (he think) ‘Never have so few, seen so many on the beaches...’

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

"Underlying health conditions": the Brewer-Hitchens argument

There have been many sceptics, doubters and conspiracy theorists in the face of the Covid pandemic. Some said that the whole thing could be solved through 'herd immunity' without vaccination. That's to say the 'herd' (us) would become immune by virtue of us producing antibodies and/or the virus becoming 'weak', simply by being everywhere. Yes this would kill the 'very old' but - it was implied or stated - this wouldn't matter very much. The argument also turned on ignoring what happened with e.g. the Black Death, myxomatosis, or Dutch Elm Disease). A version of this argument suggested that the 'vulnerable' should be shielded. 


This argument developed into the 'underlying health conditions' argument. This states that as Covid mostly affects those with these conditions, then the precautions we're taking are too severe and risk many other people's lives in the process. This argument comes from e.g. Peter Hitchens and Julia Hartley-Brewer. For the argument to stick, though, we need a good picture of numbers of who has these underlying health conditions. What seems to have happened is that the argument has implied that 

a) very few people are dying from Covid anyway and that 

b) most of this few are people with these conditions.

So the argument rests on statistics. 

And to be fair, they have a remedy: shield these vulnerable people along with the 'very old' (that's Brewer - though as her stats only included the 'under 60s', she may think that the over-60s are therefore 'very old'. Not clear from her statement.)

Let's unpack that.  What are these 'underlying conditions' that correlate with death from Covid? If you go  online you'll find a wide range of these from asthma to high blood pressure, from rheumatoid conditions to obesity. This is important. The Brewer-Hitchens argument and remedy can't be put forward,  if we don't know what range of illnesses are 'netted' by the term 'underlying health conditions'. And once we're sure which conditions probably put us at risk from dying if we contract Covid, we need a sense of what numbers are we talking about. After all, Brewer and Hitchens are advocating a radically different policy from the one(s) that the government is suggesting: namely, shield these people and the 'very old'.

Responses on twitter have ended up with figures from between 20 and 50 million. Perhaps you can do the sums of people of all ages who are obese, asthmatic, suffer from cancer, high blood pressure (more than 140 diastolic), etc... It's a lot. And now add in, let's say, the over 75s as the 'very old'. 

And now let's apply the Brewer-Hitchens remedy: shield them.  I think it's fair to ask, where? how? Or why wouldn't shielding these millions not in effect be the same as some kind of lockdown? Or do they have another plan in mind? At one point in March, Robert Peston seemed to be passing on a government plan to put hundreds of thousands from these categories into army-style camps. No one took up what he claimed was an inside story so perhaps it was quickly dropped. 

In other words, we have to keep asking, what underlying conditions put Covid patients at risk? How many people are there in the population who have these conditions? How would we shield them without also in effect limiting the movement of millions more on top of that total? 

Surely, it's for them to flesh out the details, the stats and the proposals? 

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Quentin Blake's 'Clown' and Covid

 What does a picture book with no words tell us about Covid? 

The story is of a toy clown who is discarded along with some other old toys. However, this 'toy' has a life, and so wakes up out of the bin (trash can). He has a scary time avoiding dangers but in the end arrives in the room of a girl struggling to keep a baby happy. The clown is able to entertain the baby, help the girl clean and tidy the room. The mother of the girl and the baby comes back and all is well.

This wonderful book - which I recommend to anyone and everyone of any age is in its own way a morality fable. Why is the clown discarded? Is he too old, or is he too much connected with someone's childhood. Originally I interpreted it (my reading) was that Quentin was saying something about the dangers of discarding our childhoods (which the clown represents). Or perhaps why neglect the arts (which the clown could represent)? 

In the light of Covid, and as an example of how interpretations can change over time, how the arts can apply in different ways in different conditions, the clown  now represents for me, the dangers of throwing away experience - old age if you like. This is precisely what was done when a group of scientists, journalists and politicians flirted with 'herd immunity' without vaccination in the first weeks of 2020. They were prepared to sacrifice the old, sick, vulnerable and high risk on the grounds that the 'rest' would be saved as - supposedly - immunity through exposure would spread through the rest of the population. This was a theory that had been shown to be either false or lethal for millions, on countless occasions through history e.g. the Black Death, Dutch Elm Disease, the rabbit disease - mixamatosis and so on. 


But back to 'Clown': I see the 'old'  Clown showing us that he is still 'useful', he shouldn't have been discarded, and that through his kindness, fun and solidarity with the other discarded toys that he has a social conscience that we can't afford to lose. Of course he also shows that kindness in what he does for the girl and the baby. 


I always loved the book. I now love it even more. I think Quentin Blake is a great artist in both senses of the word; someone who draws and paints, but also as a great creator of the arts. 

The book is now my Covid morality fable. Thank you Quentin. 

Destructive forces: in King Lear and the Odyssey



Two forces:

the one where you destroy things;

the other when things destroy you.




King Lear destroys the love

Cordelia had for him

but he is destroyed by bigger forces

coming from Goneril, Regan and Edmund.

Unlike Odysseus’s hubris

where his destruction of Polyphemus

brings on the destructive powers of Poseidon,

Lear’s destruction of love

doesn’t bring on

the destructive powers of

Goneril, Regan and Edmund.






You can say

that through facing their destructive powers

Lear comes to see that

he was wrong to have destroyed

the love he had.

The cause and effect of the Odyssey

is reversed.

And then

interwoven into that

Lear comes to see that ‘pomp’

- wealth and power -

needs to ‘take physic’

it needs to be taken down,

be made more merciful, kinder

and more egalitarian:

‘Shake the superflux’,

he says.




King Boris and the Gas Army



King Boris is informed that a new and dangerous army is on the borders and approaching.
This army uses a gas that attacks everyone. They’ve been using it in other countries on civilians.
He takes advice.
Some (plan A) tell him that every single one of the people must be given gas masks and given the means to equip their dwellings with gas proofing
Some (plan B ) tell him that the gas only kills old people and people with underlying health conditions so the best way to deal with this army is not equip everyone but to lure the army in as it attacks, yes the old and sick will die, but the gas ‘dies’ of its own accord, leaving this foreign army isolated and defenceless.


Meanwhile in the Red Lion, some people are discussing the threat. Some say that it's a hoax. There is no army. It's just a trick invented by King Boris to get control over the people. Some say that they've heard that there are different plans afoot and the best thing to do is put pressure on King Boris to equip everyone.


Meanwhile in the offices of Daily Boris, top journalists are writing articles echoing (mostly) KIng Boris's Plan B: the old, sick and disabled are a worthy and necessary sacrifice.


Back at the court, King Boris has disappeared. It turns out that he is seeing a ‘friend’.


The army arrives on the borders.Throws gas about.The first civilian deaths (mostly old and disabled and sick) occur.


Back at the Red Lion, people say that it's a hoax: they died of schizophrenia. Or asperger's. Or mixamotosis. Or watermelons.


Chaos at the court with the Plan A vs the Plan B people arguing. King Boris is still away. A message comes from him saying that he's going with Plan B. And that's it.


The army is prepared and more troops recruited.


BAck at the Red Lion, people prepare to resist being recruited for what, they say, is a hoax.


The enemy troops invade further in to the country. More and more people are being gassed.


The Daily Boris says things are going well...

Saturday, 26 December 2020

How can poems speak to us out of the past about what's going on now?



This is 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen:


It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face
was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues
made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause
to mourn."
"None," said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek
from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their
chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no
wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."




I think this is one of the great poems of the 20 th century. A poet could see - in spite of the triumphalism and phony sorrow - that out there on the battlefield, people who could and should have been friends, were killing each other.

I feel it speaks to me today about the triumphalism and phony sorrow about Covid. In my mind, I have 'strange meetings' with the victims of Covid. They explain to me that they were the 'enemy' of a government who in February and the first part of March (before lockdown) was toying with 'herd immunity' entailing the inevitable deaths and maiming of tens of thousands of people.