Thursday, 2 April 2020

COVID-19 : WHAT ARE THE REAL FACTS ?

As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to be the only issue in the news, the media continues to stick to its lop-sided reporting, particularly when it comes to headline stories. Ignoring every potentially positive story, doing little but publicise everything negative and look for whatever they can criticise the government for either doing or not doing, there is little for the public to be joyful about.

Yes, there are tiny oases of fluffy nonsense, such as a family of You Tube video makers or a nonagenarian's 90th birthday party - along a whole street - but such are not news in any real sense of the word and aren't telling us anything of value. Virtually every piece of real news concentrates on the horrors of the epidemic and how dreadful it all is.

For all we know, the truth may be very different to what we are being force fed. In the UK, we actually have no idea of the number of infected people, meaning that the published numbers for those testing positive for the virus and those dying have no grounding; they are simply numbers. Without far more information it is impossible to place these numbers in any proper context or to answer some very basic questions.

How infectious is the virus ? What proportion of those infected can be expected to develop worse symptoms than those of a bad cough or cold ? What proportion of those infected can be expected to die ?

In the absence of answers to these very basic questions, the necessity of the real damage to our economy being done by the current 'lockdown' cannot be properly measured against the assumptions of lives saved by it. Are we talking £1,000 per life saved or £1,000,000 ? If the former, it's probably worth it, if the latter, maybe not. The trouble is that such an epidemic has never before been experienced in our technological and computer-driven age and there is too little knowledge about the true nature of the virus or its ability to spread and survive. Computer models have been developed but they are based on assumptions that may, or may not be, valid; governments have reacted more out of fright than anything else and the media has revelled in their uncertainty, picking holes at every opportunity.

Let's be clear. It's highly likely that very many more people have been infected than is shown in the official figures. The vast majority of those infected have experienced mild, or no, noticeable symptoms and have recovered without even knowing they'd been infected. As a proportion of the population, those admitted to hospital with sever symptoms is tiny, and those dying, while sad for them and their families, is almost negligible. Again, the vast majority of those admitted to hospital have been those naturally more susceptible to infection and serious illness - the elderly, already sick, or with compromised immune systems. Yes, a few otherwise healthy people, even some quite young, may suffer dire effects, but so do they in epidemics of influenza and the assorted childhood illnesses.

This is not to minimise the widespread nature of this current epidemic but to try to place it in some sort of realistic context. Very few of the population are at serious risk and only a very tiny number, in proportional terms, will die from COVID-19; most of those who do will probably have died fairly soon from other conditions which the virus has exacerbated. However, listening to, watching or reading the media we could all be forgiven for believing that the end of life as we know it is just around the corner; that we are all at peril of our lives and their is no end in sight. The numbers are mounting ! But with no context in any of the headline reporting.

No government or health service anywhere in the world was prepared for such an outbreak of disease and nor could they have been. This is a once in a century situation and to be holding reserves of hospital beds and equipment to cope with emergencies with such a frequency is practically and economically impossible. Our government's response, which seems to be receiving nothing but criticism from most of the media, has been rapid and has developed as the crisis has deepened; at the same time, the media has concentrated on highlighting every complaint from whoever it can find who will whinge about lack of resources, testing, money, support, blah-blah. Of course there are problems, some of them real and time that  imagined, but why do we not hear more support for our leaders at this time of crisis ? What we get, instead, is the usual sentimentalised twaddle about our wonderful NHS and its 'front line staff' who, it seems, can do no wrong, ever, despite well known evidence to the contrary, some of it experienced personally and on several occasions.

It really is high time that our media forgot its biases, and simply reported the real news, without trying to embellish it to fit its preconceived notions and desire to make the news 'exciting'. Some hope.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

COVID-19 : WE MUST ALL BACK THE GOVERNMENT !

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic is having a devastating effect on much of the globe. Governments everywhere are struggling to decide what to do for the best, with vast and unprecedented amounts of money being conjured up from nowhere and thrown at the resulting economic problems. People are being told to stay at home and most of the places at which they would otherwise socialise have been ordered to close. There is panic buying and stockpiling and supermarket shelves are being stripped almost as soon as they're filled.

In the UK, we're now under an effective 'lockdown' and the financial assistance provided by the government is of the order of hundreds of billions of pounds, potentially approaching a thousand billion, or a trillion, numbers that are largely incomprehensible to most and representing a substantial chunk of the county's total economic output. There is, as yet, no clear indication of the likely duration of either the epidemic or the necessary draconian actions being taken to combat it, and the effects of this crisis will be felt for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Despite this being the worst crisis to affect the world in modern times, excluding major wars, there are those who continue to do nothing but find fault with the government's actions. The wartime spirit that saw all political parties join together to fight the common foe is entirely lacking as those on the left of our politics spend their time looking for anything to complain about - the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Frances O'Grady, assorted trades' unions, even some business leaders, make supportive noises while actually whingeing about the huge government response being inadequate. Rather than work with government, they are, quite shockingly, using COVID-19 as a weapon with which to berate their political opponents. They are a disgrace.

Allied with these voices of political dissent are parts of the media, led by the left leaning BBC, Guardian, Times and Financial Times, all of which are reporting with a clear anti-government agenda. Instead of offering support for the government's approach and making constructive comments, they have been almost unanimous in looking for, and apparently finding, supposed fault. Every complainant is presented as being in the right, regardless of the nature of their complaint or expertise; every counter argument is treated with disdain. The BBC has been particularly keen to identify the difficulties that the government may have in implementing and enforcing its latest measures, and effectively telling listeners where the loopholes lie, rather than in encouraging the populace to adhere to the rules and regulations as laid down. Is this really the action of a responsible public broadcaster ?

Of course, organisations such as the BBC have historically had many freelance workers, self employed journalists and presenters who have enjoyed huge incomes plus all the tax advantages that come with that status. With benefits that include being able to offset a vast range of expenses - vehicles, travel costs, clothing, assorted equipment, housing costs and more - against their tax liabilities, the self employed can also pick and choose when they work, for whom they work and, indeed, what work they undertake. Sadly for them, the present crisis threatens to upset this rather comfortable lifestyle and, unsurprisingly, the BBC is one of those organs making the loudest noises about the supposed plight of the self-employed at this time.

Well, I say it's little more than 'tough luck'. The self-employed have chosen their path usually for reasons of personal benefit. There has been nothing to stop them taking out appropriate insurance against loss of income in times of difficulty, but it seems many, or most, haven't done so. Again, I say 'tough luck'; we all make choices in life and have to live with the consequences, good or bad. The  demands that the government now finds even more money in order to help these people are clearly misguided. Their earnings can be highly variable and there is nothing to stop them taking a break from work now, rather than later in the year, with very little financial impact overall. 

The fact is that no one ever said life will always be easy or even very nice, but that's life. This crisis will eventually be over, whether in weeks, months, or years; we just have to sit it out.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

COVID-19 : NOWHERE TO HIDE

To answer a question I asked only a few days ago, it seems that the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic is very serious indeed or, at least, it's overall effects are.

COVID-19 appears to be a highly communicable virus that may be fatal for a small number of those infected. That said, around 97% of those tested in the UK to date have proved not to be infected and only 2 or 3% of those infected have so far died, which makes me wonder why they were tested at all and also raises questions in my mind about the real communicability and lethality of the virus. However, because this is a new virus there is little or no immunity within human populations anywhere in the world and anyone with a cough, fever or sniffle is immediately assumed to be a potential victim, whether or not they really are.

Rather than the virus itself, the real problems arise from the knock-on effects and ensuing panic. It's certainly true that if there is a major outbreak with tens, or hundreds, of thousands of people needing hospitalisation, our NHS will be overwhelmed and unable to cope. In order to try to avoid such an outcome, the government, along with others around the world, is attempting to manage the epidemic in such a way as to spread the effects across a longer period of time, thus reducing its peak and making it easier to cope with. While this makes some sense, it also comes with its own potentially catastrophic effects.

By closing down all but essential business and travel, we enter the realms of global economic melt down. Without vast amounts of financial support, businesses will collapse, workers will lose their jobs, bills will go unpaid; there will be no food on the table or power for hot water, heating and lighting, indeed there may well be no houses within which to place the tables or lights. In recognition of this horrendous scenario, stock markets have already suffered calamitous falls, not only wiping hundreds of billions of pounds, Euros, dollars and the rest off people's current savings but also off their future pensions. Additionally, the stock market falls foretell substantially reduced company profits and dividends for many years to come, compounding the effects on savings and pensions. House prices may well follow the stock market as potential purchasers find themselves with no jobs and no money; small business owners, those running pubs, clubs, restaurants and the like, as well as a multitude of local artisans may be left high and dry with demand for their services reduced to a trickle by a population terrified of catching the virus.

Is all of this justified ? Is the government following the right path or is it actually creating far more panic than is justified ? I have no idea. What I can say is that the economic effects of the actions being taken around the world will be utterly catastrophic for decades to come; those who continue to whinge about 'austerity' "ain't seen nothing yet". Fanciful nonsense emanating from organisations desperate to keep sporting activities going can't disguise the fact that life is unlikely to return to anything approximating to 'normal' for several months, quite possibly until next year; there will be no quick resumption of Premier League football, no Wimbledon, no Royal Ascot, no Open Golf, or cricket season. 2020 will be written off as the YEAR OF THE VIRUS, the year when the world stopped turning.

We will recover, slowly and over a prolonged number of years but how long will it be before we all get back to using public transport, airlines and public venues without looking over our shoulders at that person behind us with a cough ? How long will it be before we mix happily in crowds again ? Most of all, how will all this disruption affect the ways in which we live our lives in the future ? Will we become more insular and isolated, fearing to leave the safety of our homes ? Will we, in fact, simply become used to the self-isolation imposed by the government and come to prefer it to our former existence ?

This is not Spanish Flu of 1918/19. The world is a very different place to that of the years immediately following the First World War. Hopes and expectations are very different from  those of the people 100 years ago. How we all behave once the epidemic is over will be very different from the way people behaved in the aftermath of Spanish Flu, a time when most people were poor, life was cheap and expectations were low. Now, most people are not poor, life is highly valued and expectations are sky high.

I can feel many years of turmoil approaching. Revolution, dictatorships, communism. If there was anywhere to run and hide, I'd be there, but there isn't. This is a crisis for the whole world, with nowhere safe.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

COVID-19 : HOW SERIOUS IS IT ?

It seems I may well have been wrong about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, although what the published numbers for infections and deaths actually mean is very unclear.

There's no doubt that the virus is highly infectious but the real number of those infected both in the UK and elsewhere is unknown. While numbers of those diagnosed are being published daily, it's important to recognize that many people may have had mild symptoms which they've assumed to be no more than a normal cough or cold; if they haven't been tested for the COVID -19 virus, they won't be in the numbers. It is also the case that the people most likely to have been tested are those who are most at risk - those who are elderly, have other serious underlying health issues and have been admitted to hospital for reasons which may not have been due to the viral infection but, when tested, were discovered to be positive for it.

The clear implication is that the true number of those infected is probably much higher than the published number and that the current statistics are almost certainly misleading, being biased towards those who have experienced more severe symptoms. However, it's also clear that the vast majority of those who become infected will experience symptoms which are annoying and unpleasant rather than dangerous, with even the published numbers indicating that at least 80% of people will suffer only mild symptoms and that the mortality rate, currently around 2-3% in the UK, will eventually turn out to be much lower. Again, the numbers are almost certainly misleading.

In the UK, well over 25,000 people have been tested and 460 have been found to have the infection, 8 of whom have died, meaning that some 98% of those tested did NOT have the virus but had normal symptoms of a cough or cold. The 8 who have been recorded as dying were all in their later years and all had what are described as serious underlying health conditions; did they really die from the effects of COVID-19 or were their deaths simply hastened by it ? In other words, are the numbers of deaths attributed to the virus not being overstated ? The current mortality rate of around 2%, higher in other countries but with the same proviso, is almost certainly a gross over-estimate.

None of this is intended to minimise the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic or to minimise its impact around the world, but it is necessary to consider what the published numbers really indicate.The virus is a new one and many people will become infected, either in the next few weeks and months or, perhaps, in future years. The real impact will be felt in the short term as thousands, even millions, may become ill for a week or 2 and need time away from work or other duties and responsibilities which will cause serious difficulties socially and economically. However, almost all of these people will recover and then be immune to further infection. 

The government is doing what it can to mitigate the economic effects and is trying to ensure that the NHS can cope with the expected deluge of more seriously ill patients. It is attempting to manage the spread of the virus although how successful this will be is anyone's guess. The bottom line is that we are facing at least a few months of disruption to normal life, disruption which may well result in long term effects to our economy but, ultimately, will impact very little on the general well-being of the vast majority of the population.

Monday, 2 March 2020

COVID-19 v THE FLOODS : WHICH NEEDS COBRA ?

In recent weeks we've been subjected to the usual complaints from people who've found themselves in awkward situations. The complaints always revolve around a view that it's for someone else, usually the government, to sort their problems out and the media runs around looking for anyone who's anxious to make such a complaint so that they can create a "shock, horror" story out of it all.

In the UK, February was horribly wet. It seemed that the rain never stopped falling and some communities found themselves literally up to their necks in flood waters. While the various government agencies, services and relevant officials did what they could to alleviate things, parts of the media seemed more interested in 2 rather peripheral matters; firstly, why hadn't the Prime Minister visited any of the flood affected areas and secondly, why hadn't he convened a meeting of the government's emergency committee, COBRA. The BBC was particularly eager, it seemed, to find people who would whinge about the first point, while never stopping to ask what good would come from Boris Johnson sloshing around in a variety of large puddles. In truth, there would have been no benefit and he was far better advised to do what he did - keep out of the way and let the experts get on with their work, unencumbered by having to worry about being a nuisance.

On the second point, convening COBRA, again I wonder what that would have achieved. I'd never heard of COBRA, other than the snake, and it appears to be a fairly recent invention, at least in it's modern incarnation. First convened in response to the 1972 miners' strike, and subsequently for various national emergencies, it now seems to have become the knee jerk reaction to every minor event. "My train was late - CONVENE COBRA" seems to be the cry. Of course, the flooding has been disastrous for the affected communities and they are in desperate need of help, which they are receiving and will continue to receive, but what would a meeting of a government committee add to things ? If the people at the top in the Environment Agency and emergency services know what they're doing, the last thing they need is a bunch of politicians and their advisers interfering.

Separately, the COVID-19 virus epidemic has also had people up in arms. Some, trapped on board ships or in foreign hotels have complained that the government has not done enough to rescue them and get them back to the UK. Again, the media and notably the BBC has hunted high and low to find anyone who has been prepared to lodge such a complaint, sympathising with the complainants and ignoring the need for effective quarantine of those who are at risk of infection. In this instance, I've yet to hear anyone argue that the Prime Minister should visit any of those affected but demands that COBRA should be convened and complaints that it has net yet met have been high on the media's agenda. In fact, it seems that there have been several relevant meetings although the Prime Minister has, wisely in my view, not yet been involved, preferring to leave matters in the hands of those whose jobs it is to deal with such things.

However, there is now to be a COBRA meeting which will be chaired by Mr Johnson. Whether it will do anything different from what has been and is still being done is a matter of conjecture although the presence of the Prime Minister will undoubtedly send the media off on a different tack - now, everything that goes wrong will be laid at the PM's door, rightly or wrongly, rather than having no particular home.

The flooding in parts of the west and north of our country is a fact and is a disaster for those affected, but there's very little that can be done to prevent it in the short term. In the medium term, we must stop building new houses in areas that are known to be at risk, and in the longer term, billions of pounds will have to be spent in building barriers, dredging rivers and on other measures but this will take time, probably many years. No number of meetings of COBRA will help and neither will any number of Prime Ministerial visits; such activities are simply froth for the benefit of the media.

Regarding COVID-19, the media headlines seem to be entirely out of line with the actual size and seriousness of the infection. In the UK we currently have, according to today's news, 36 confirmed cases; some European countries, notably Italy, have more but nowhere are there more than a relatively tiny number. China remains the major repository and it now seems to have the outbreak under increasing control. The overall mortality rate is around 2 or 3% and the real risk is confined to those who are elderly and / or already suffering poor health; for the bulk of the population, COVID-19 threatens little more than a "mild cough" according to Matt Hancock, the UK's Secretary of State for Health. 

Obviously there is a need for action to try to prevent this infection from spreading far and wide but the reality is that it's neither more nor less serious than an outbreak of seasonal influenza; it's actually far less dangerous than some previous epidemics of the latter. However, COVID-19 is 'new' and there is no reservoir of immunity meaning that everyone is at risk of infection and the social and economic consequences of a generalised outbreak could be extremely serious. 

And so, the Prime Minister will chair a meeting of COBRA and there'll be plenty of rushing around 'doing things'. In the end, COVID-19 will almost certainly disappear of it's own accord, regardless of what COBRA, the Prime Minister or anyone else does or doesn't do, leaving a messy trail behind it, but ultimately having little lasting effect. 

Unlike the floods. 

Sunday, 16 February 2020

TIME TO STOP CELEBRATING WAR.

The words of Albert Evans, a survivor of D-Day, make me think about the practice of continuing to commemorate the assorted dates of WW2 - its beginning, Dunkirk, D-Day, the assorted bombings, the liberations and so on. A couple of weeks ago, Albert Evans, was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, for his part in the allied landings at Pegasus Bridge in 1944 but, when interviewed, merely said :

"All your mates who were standing by your side one minute were gone the next

Is that not the truth and is it not such a horrible truth that those who survived need to be allowed to forget or, at least, not to be harassed by those who want to make a celebratory remembrance out of the horrors that it involved. ?

War is terrible. Old fashioned war, man-to-man with swords, axes and other sharp weapons was grotesque and more modern war in which the opponent can be killed at a distance may be less immediate but is even more destructive of both people and property. It seems that Albert Evans didn't see himself as being any sort of hero, he was just doing his job while his pals died.

He was right. He should be left alone with his memories. If he wants to share them, that's fine by me, but if he wants to try to forget, that's fine also. As someone who never had to face the horrors of warfare, I'm more than happy to allow those who did to try to put those horrors behind them. It seems that Albert Evans was rather badgered into accepting his honour, his granddaughter apparently saying that it had taken a lot of persuasion to get him to accept the award.

If he was my granddad, I'd have left him to make up his own mind; surely he suffered enough in WW2 without it being brought back to torment him so many years later. We remember the victims of warfare every 11th November and on every Remembrance Sunday; by inventing ceremonies for every imaginable date, particularly from World War 2, we diminish the meaning of those November events. We also risk ignoring the other conflicts - World War 1, Korea, Palestine, Kenya, Malaysia, The Falklands, Iraq and others - for which notable dates are less well known. 

We've already long consigned the dates of the many engagements of the middle ages, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Sevastopol, Balaclava, Omdurman, Khartoum, Mafeking and many more, to history; it's now time to stop creating so many other excuses to celebrate warfare and its horrors under the guise of remembrance.

CAROLINE WHO ?

Who on earth was Caroline Flack ?

The media seems to be full of a story about this person killing herself and has turned the event into a front page tragedy. As far as I can gather, never having heard of the woman before, she was the presenter of a particularly crude and unsavoury television programme, one of the awful "reality shows" which are actually nothing of the sort. In truth, the programme that she fronted was aimed at the moronic masses and was little more than an excuse for crudity and generally disgusting behaviour.

I've also seen that Flack had recently been in trouble over an assault on her boyfriend and was being prosecuted for it. Following her suicide, the authorities have been criticized by some for taking this action and have tried to present Flack as a victim; how they've arrived at such a judgement is a mystery. Flack was wealthy and famous, at least in the circles in which she moved. If she couldn't ultimately cope with the life she created for herself and then pursued, why is that worthy of blanket media coverage ?

The simple answer is that Flack was a "media celebrity" and the media loves nothing more than to celebrate or commiserate over its own and their triumphs and tragedies. No doubt there have been other suicides over the last few days and weeks, suicides of people who had none of Flack's advantages or success but which the media has ignored as being of no interest. Some of these may well have been far more tragic and have had far greater consequences than Flack's over-hyped demise, but they have been deemed to be of 'no interest'.

I despair. People like Flack live the high life but expect sympathy and support when it goes wrong. The rest of us just have to get on with life whatever it throws at us. Good riddance to Caroline Flack, no doubt there'll be another blousy bimbo along to take her place any minute now.