The COVID Chronicles – 5

Geneva, 23 November, 2020


In 1797, an English physician named Edward Jenner reflected on the widespread observation that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox. He undertook an inoculation or “variolation” (later to be termed  “vaccination”) from a cowpox pustule on a milkmaid’s hand into the arm of a young boy called Phipps (the son of Jenner’s gardener.) This prevented Phipps from contracting smallpox later when Jenner exposed him on multiple occasions to the much-feared disease. The experiment proved successful in a further 23 cases. And all this with no understanding of microbes! Jenner sent a paper to the Royal Society that was never published. But word was out. 

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James Gillray’s 1802 caricature of Jenner administering his cow pox vaccine also depicting the rumours that anyone so vaccinated would develop cow-like features. Copyright: Getty images

The practice spread rapidly around the world despite criticism that included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections. By 1802, an active Anti-vaccine Society stoked fears – rational and irrational – about the smallpox vaccination. The UK government would later pass the Vaccination Act of 1853 making compulsory the vaccination of children aged less than three months; this spawned the Anti Compulsory Vaccination League. Serious outbreaks of smallpox in the USA toward the end of the 19th century were tackled by vaccination campaigns that were in turn opposed by activists. The Anti-Vaccination Society of America was founded in 1879. Needless to say, a global coordinated vaccination campaign eventually allowed the World Health Organisation to declare the eradication of smallpox in 1980. 

The Financial Times reported last week that on the day that Pfizer and BioNTech announced the development of a vaccine that effectively protects against COVID-19, shares in Pfizer rose by 7% and Pfizer’s Chief Executive, Albert Bourla, sold US$5.6 million of his own stock. In trying to understand whether this was legal, whether this indicated Mr Bourla’s lack of faith in the product or whether he was expecting imminent emergence of competition – that would then drop the value of Pfizer’s shares – I found myself sliding down a rabbit hole into the kaleido-warren of high finance.

It’s obvious where I’m going with this. In the months to come, the world news in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic will be dominated by the development, production, distribution, administration and effect of the vaccine and opposition to it. This media hot topic will inevitably coincide with and be linked to an ever-increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the USA and how the outcome of the extraordinary election there plays out.

The bases of reservations about or total opposition to COVID-19 vaccines are many and varied. The vaccine is not safe. The vaccine is not needed. The vaccine is not effective. The whole exercise is too expensive. You can’t trust doctors and scientists. Vaccination is one big scam run by pharmaceutical companies. Vaccination should not be compulsory. Governments can’t be trusted. The WHO is corrupt. Vaccination is not natural. Vaccination runs against God’s order. Vaccination is the means for governments to insert microchips into our bodies. There are others more competent than me WHO have ready answers to all the above. 

The voices of those against the vaccine will become all the more powerful via blogs, on-line news and social media. Disinformation and conspiracy theories spread and can take on a life of their own and so become credible. Here we arrive at what I want to say in this blog. Be very careful with respect to what you read, hear and believe about COVID-19 vaccines. Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger effect may help you.

We all like to read stuff that resonates with what we already believe but most of us have the capacity to put our own beliefs into question when presented with reasonable counter-arguments. The Dunning-Kruger effect is when people with low ability tend overestimate their ability. Thus, some people may believe they are superior because they are unable to recognise their lack of ability. Dunning summed it up as “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.” It follows that intelligent people have the ability to question whether they have the right answer. Those who do NOT ask themselves whether they have the right answer are susceptible to having their self-overestimation reinforced by interacting with others who also have not asked themselves whether they have the right answer. Think extremist politics, devotion to ultra-religious creeds, biker gangs etc. (If you’ve read this far you are probably not subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect!) It goes without saying that the internet in all its forms unleashes one great accelerator of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In relation to the subject at hand, it potentially allows equal voice to the leading public health scientists of the day and Elvis-says-NO-to-vaccines. This is just one example of what Barack Obama recently referred to as “truth decay.”

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Duh!

Donald Trump blasted his way into the MMR vaccine / autism debate. On 4 September 2014, he tweeted “So many people who have children with autism have thanked me – amazing response. They know far better than fudged up reports!” Just before the 2016 US election, I flew to my hometown, Norwich, in the UK. I jumped into a taxi. The driver seemed like a nice guy. We got talking. It was soon apparent that he admired Mr Trump. The soon-to-be-President Elect’s intelligence was, apparently, evident by what he had to say about vaccines. I nodded. The subject turned to Brexit. Unsurprisingly, my driver was all for it. Fair enough. Just before we got to my destination, he said, “I see it like this… Britain ruled the world before we were part of the European Union. Britain won’t rule the world again until we leave the European Union!” I paid my fare and got out of the taxi. I stood by the roadside, stunned. How, I asked myself, do people come up with ideas like that and feel comfortable voicing them to strangers? I know now: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The COVID Chronicles – 4

Geneva, 17 November, 2020


Kylie Minogue has set new chart records with her latest album “Disco.” She says that recording the vocals at home was “a lifeline” during the lockdown. The petite Australienne becomes the first female artist to have a number one album in the UK in five separate decades. Go, Kylie!

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Photo: Getty Images

Not many people outside the UK will be familiar with the name Tony Blackburn. Don’t worry! In the mid-late 1970s my summer holiday job was selling ice creams out of a Ford Transit. The van’s roof was a huge fibreglass vanilla cone with a Cadbury’s flake protruding at a racey angle. My ultimate Pavlov-kiddy-drool attractor was a chimed version of Popeye-the-Sailorman and I was quite the boy around the housing estates of my hometown, Norwich. BBC’s Radio One pumped out the songs of the day and Tony Blackburn was the bright young DJ who led the nation’s taste in popular music. I will survive. Don’t go breaking my heart. Boogie nights. Heaven must be missing an angel. Crocdile rock. Stayin’ alive. You’re the first, the last, my everything. Dancing queen. Our Tony peppered his show with jokes such as “What happens when the ducks fly upside down?….They quack up!” and “Why are there no aspirins in the jungle? ….. Because the parrots eat ’em all!” He had the infuriating habit of talking over the songs but the nation forgave him because he seemed like a nice kind of bloke. No surprise that he loves Kylie’s new album. The surprise is that he has revealed a piercing insight into our covid-weary psyches. Whilst admitting he can’t dance – and at 77 years, has no intention of learning – he reckons we will all be so desperate for good times after this dark year that we’ll step back in time and back into the clubs. We’ll be looking for music that makes us really happy and gets us on the dance-floor. Yes, disco is back! I hope he’s right. It was a great era and I like a good tune.

Taking us one step closer to better times is, hopefully, THE Vaccine. We’re all clutching onto this piece of positive news. At last, there is light at the end of the tunnel and, my…. How the tone of things has changed from the doom-laden to the cautiously upbeat. There are of course many issues such as production of the vaccine in sufficient quantities, the logistic challenges, who gets priority treatment and, of course, the cost. There are other broader questions about the implication of a COVID-19 vaccine. When can we stop disctancing and mask-wearing? Will jobs and businesses bounce back? Can we begin to think about taking a holiday overseas? In other words: when will things get back to “normal”? Meantime, we still have a pandemic to manage and there remain many unknowns.

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Take a look at a map published by the Swiss authorities of the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population for the different cantons of Switzerland. The darker the colour, the more cases. In the Canton of Geneve where we live (the dark most westward protrusion) nearly 6% of the population have tested positive since 8 June. Ouch! I believe these statistics. It’s the sort of thing the Swiss do with great attention to rules, routine and detail. Surprisingly, the dark areas coincide precisely with the cantons that are French-speaking (and broadly with the major wine-producing cantons!) I’m not really sure what to make of this. To my knowledge, nobody has commented. Anyone out there with an idea?

The USA has more COVID-19 cases than any other country. Using the Johns Hopkins data, I thought it would be interesting to look at something else that has slipped by with little comment; that is the comparison between the USA (now more than 140,000 cases per day) and ….

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USA cases per day. Source: Johns Hopkins

….. China! The source country  – with the world’s largest population – that has barely shown a resurgence and is currently running at less than 100 cases per day. 

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China cases per day. Source: Johns Hopkins

If the data are to be believed – and I believe they are because it would be difficult to hide millions of affected people from a global media ready to pounce – China has nailed this pandemic through a system of immediate isolation of those infected and strict imposition of social distancing measures. This has been reported in an article entitled “China’s successful control of COVID-19” by Talha Burki in the Lancet. The report makes for interesting and sobering reading for those supporting lockdown. This diplomatic extract says it all: “In China, you have a combination of a population that takes respiratory infections seriously and is willing to adopt non-pharmaceutical interventions, with a government that can put bigger constraints on individual freedoms than would be considered acceptable in most Western countries.” The author adds “Commitment to the greater good is engrained in the culture; there is not the hyper-individualism that characterises parts of the USA.” It seems that tough measures are effective. Those against lockdown should note that the Chinese economy has reportedly bounced back from its early lockdown with growth of 4.9% in the third quarter of the year. 

Here we are again: the big political tug o’ war between an effective public health response versus individual freedoms and economic well-being. What is new is that we have a much better idea of what is at stake. We might eventually find that an effective public health response is a precursor to a brisk economic recovery. This does not bode well for the USA where the adoption or not of strict measures has fallen according to pre-existing political fault-lines. “There will be no lockdown! We must keep the economy going!” yells Mr T.  When faced with a crisis that affects every human being on the planet, isn’t it possible for our leaders to cooperate with responsible agencies, to act together and just for once to put their own political wumpsy-dumpsy aside? Yeah, I know. Dream on! 

Within a few days of the announcement of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine, the anti-vaxxers kicked off. I heard one interviewed who said “I don’t trust it. It’s been rushed! I don’t think it’ll be effective!” Over the next months, look out for this crew. Social media has given them a powerful collective voice and they snag politicians easily. I’m always mystified by what people believe, despite the science, and how they claim others believe the same thing. In relation to the widespread belief that planet Earth is flat rather than spherical, I heard that the Flat Earth Society (it really exists!) claims global support.

As I finish up this edition of the COVID Chronicles, Dustin Johnson is tapping in his final putt of the COVID-19-delayed 2020 US Masters. He simply stormed around the wet Augusta National course and away from the rest of the stellar field with a record 20 under par. The event, for once draped in autumn colours, has never before been played without spectators.

The COVID Chronicles – 3

Geneva, 10 November, 2020


We’re back in sort-of-lockdown in Geneva; it is one of the most seriously affected cities in Europe. It is quiet but not the eery quiet of March. There are still jet streams in the crisp November sky. Businesses and construction sites are at work. Restaurants and cafes are closed with some offering takeaways. People are out and about but they don’t have the same anxious air about them. I have the impression that this second time around we are calmer; that we have a better idea of what we are dealing with. One thing is sure: no annual trip to spring time New Zealand to hunt out those big brown trout. As we slide from autumn into winter here, I figure I’ll have time to write up these chronicles and maybe do a bit more painting.

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African masks have always fascinated me. Their full meaning may well be beyond my reach but I am always struck by how expressive of emotion they can be. I used a variety of on-line resources for this picture; I worked on it with bad back (see below) during the extraordinary waiting days of the US election. My thoughts must have run from my time working in Africa to the slave trade to the history of black people in the Americas, to the Black Lives Matter movement and finally to what the election result could mean for the whole race thing. I thought the two masks might represent how many people in the world would be feeling before and after Biden’s count passed the necessary 270 to get him into the White House. 

In relation to the COVID-19 situation in the US, I came across a truly remarkable video-graphic made by Dan Goodspeed. It shows, by state, just how the great political divide in the US determines the speed with which the pandemic has taken hold depending on whether the state in question was Republican or Democrat before the election. Yes, the political leaning of people is a major factor affecting their COVID-19-related behaviour both at personal and community levels. Perhaps this is data telling us what we already knew? On this side of the Atlantic, the UK’s Brexit Party is planning to rebrand itself as “Reform UK.” According to the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, the central drive of Reform UK will be anti-lockdown. He claims we’d be best off if “we learn to live with it, not hide in fear of it.” No surprise then that we saw Mr Farage on stage supporting Mr Trump at pre-election campaign rallies.

Apologies! It’s difficult to get away from the politics of it all just now. Much closer to home, I’ve had a bit of a week! My wife and I were due to play golf last weekend at our club just over the border in France. The number of COVID-19 cases increased so rapidly around here that the course was closed and we couldn’t cross the border anyway. This put a large black cloud over my normally sunny disposition that was already and rapidly becoming less sunny as the news of the pandemic’s resurgence really hit. However, another diversion was on offer as compensation. Saturday television ran the postponed and crowdless final three matches of the Six Nations Rugby and the first ever European PGA Cyprus Classic golf tournament. Normally an active chap, I found that lying slumped on the sofa for several hours came naturally and was indeed quite enjoyable. It kept the lurking curmudgeon in me at bay. Unfortunately, my lumbar spine was held for the duration in ill-advised flexion. And so, at the end of this telly-fest, I got up … well, I didn’t get up because I couldn’t. My back was painfully locked. I spent three days staggering around grabbing at chairs, doors and my lovely wife for support. My doctor had some difficulty believing that I had done my back in lying on the sofa watching sport. Being a good egg, he nevertheless prescribed some very expensive (even by Swiss standards) medication that seems to be taking effect. Later, when filling in the medical insurance e-claim form, I noticed a new box to tick: “Is the sickness related to COVID-19.” Interesting question! I followed my condition’s chain of causation back; logic dictated that I tick the box.

This last weekend was the Houston Open Golf. It was won by a charming young Mexican: Carlos Ortiz. Notable also and surprising was the large crowd of spectators; they stood shoulder to shoulder and only about fifty percent were wearing face masks. Well, it is in Texas (Republican.) 

The non-golfer may be interested to know that the upcoming week is the big one of the year. Tiger woods (you will have heard of him) will be defending his US Masters’ title at the iconic and immaculate Augusta National Golf Club. Augusta is in Georgia. (Newly and only just Democrat!) We’ll see what the crowd is like.

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I painted this layout of the Augusta course on a large American flag in 2012. That year, Bubba Watson, a good bible boy, navigated his little white ball safely around “Amen corner” (upper right… lots of water!) He went on to win this title for the first time and, touchingly, burst into tears. I offered this painting as a prize in a local golf competition. The lucky lady who won it was thrilled but had difficulty getting it into her car. I saw her again last year. “Hiya! Still got the Big Bubba painting?” I asked. “Yes, of course!” she replied. “We love it! It’s hung on the wall of our bike shed!”

Just as I finish writing….. News comes in that Pfizer and BioNtech have finalised a trial that shows their new COVID-19 vaccine is 90% effective. The stock markets go crazy. Politicians claim credit. Public health experts are “optimistic” but can’t help sounding a bell of caution. The BBC’s disinformation and social media reporter, Marianna Spring, emphasizes that this is not a way for Microsoft boss Bill Gates to secretly insert microchips into people so they can be tracked. I wonder what Florence Nightingale would have thought of all this?

Ross Coupland’s bird photography in the time of COVID-19

Here’s a fabulous selection of bird photographs taken recently in the Queensland outdoors by Australian wildlife expert, Ross Coupland. Great images! A great read! Great Lockdown Beautiful Stuff!!


During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reduced to three days’ work per week. This gave me time to get out into ‘the bush’, in isolation; watching and waiting for good photo opportunities. I have selected my favourite shots from this time for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

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Beach Stone-curlew

As the global pandemic gathered pace, in March 2020, I took a trip to Rainbow Beach north of Brisbane. The area is part of the Great Sandy National Park, an area of over 2000 km2 comprising threatened coastal habitats and including Fraser island, the world’s largest sand island. I found a family of Beach Stone-curlews living on a spit of sand, close to where the ferry loads and unloads thousands of 4WDs every year. Returning at sunset, I was able to get close to one of the birds as they are less shy and become more active towards the end of the day. The setting sun provided a beautiful, golden backlight. The species is threatened in parts of its range, as coastal areas are continually developed for tourism and local recreational use.

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Comb-crested Jacana

With COVID-19 restrictions being placed on travel throughout the state of Queensland, I was limited to areas close to home. Thankfully, here in Brisbane there is no shortage of parks, reserves and forests within an hour’s drive. Visiting one of my favourite lakes early one morning I saw a lone Comb-crested Jacana foraging on the lily pads. Their incredibly long toes make walking on the flimsy substrate a breeze; some people call them Jesus birds. I was able to get a nice, low angle by laying on the lake shore, blurring the lilies in the background.

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Forest Kingfisher

At the same lake, there is a family of Forest Kingfishers that hunt the shallow waters around the vegetated inlets. They use a few, select perches to watch for small fish and insects, one of which is a dead tree close to the walking track. I set up my tripod and camera behind a tree on the bank with just the end of the lens protruding and waited…. and waited.. Finally, after 2 hours, one of the kingfishers settled right in front of me with a small fish in its beak.

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Rose-crowned Fruit Dove

By August and with restrictions easing in Queensland, I took a trip to Bribe Island that is accessible via a road bridge to the mainland. It is an important area for many bird species. There is a small population of Rose-crowned Fruit Doves which are known to over-winter there, in a small patch of remnant, coastal rainforest. They seem to feed almost exclusively on the berries of a single Corkwood tree. These are normally shy, secretive birds that live in rainforest canopies on the mainland, so this was a good opportunity to capture an image of this spectacular species.

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Regent Bowerbird

As spring approached, I visited a friend’s property where several Giant Spear Lilies had sprung into bloom. These impressive plants produce enormous flower-spikes with bright orange-red flowers that act like a beacon to birds and insects from the surrounding green rainforest. One of the birds that visited was this male Regent Bowerbird. The males have a striking combination of yellow and black feathers, whereas the females sport a rather drab, scalloped brown. Male Bowerbirds are well known for their habits of building unusual and sometimes spectacular structures out of twigs and decorating them with a wide variety of foraged items. These structures are used as display platforms to entice in female birds to mate. The females then build regular nests in the forest nearby and raise the chicks alone.

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Paradise Riflebird

The species I was really hoping to see on the Giant Spear Lilies was the elusive Paradise Riflebird. This is one of four species of birds of paradise found in Australia and the most southerly occurring. They are hard to see at the best of times; it is rare to get a chance of a good photo. The males have an iridescent quality to their plumage, only visible at the right angle of light. In the hope that a male bird would visit, I set up with my camera underneath a special camouflage net and waited. Sure enough, after about an hour the male arrived to probe the flowers for nectar with his specialised bill. The thin fog in the area gave a nice, diffused light that was perfect for bringing out the subtleties in the bird’s plumage.

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Crimson Rosella

Another bird that is common in the same area is the Crimson Rosella. These colourful parrots are generally found in more temperate regions and in Southeast Queensland are restricted to mountainous areas with cool, wet forest. I found one feeding on a roadside Rondeletia bush. When parrots are feeding, they can be quite approachable if you do nothing to alarm them.

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Musk Lorikeets

On a trip to the western part of the Scenic Rim, a crescent-shaped mountain range southwest of Brisbane, I found a group of huge Grass trees in full bloom. These impressive flower spikes are particularly prolific after fire and are a magnet to nectar-feeding birds such as Honeyeaters, Lorikeets and Spinebills. I have struggled to get close to Musk Lorikeets in the past as they are nomadic and usually feed high up in flowering Eucalyptus trees. I was delighted to find about ten of them feeding low down on the Grass tree flowers. When a pair was feeding on a close flower spike, I turned the camera to portrait orientation to capture both birds in the image. They seem quite content with me being close by while they fed.

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Barred-cuckoo Shrike

The weather begins to really warm up in Brisbane around the beginning of October; migrating birds from the north appear. Among them is the secretive Barred-cuckoo Shrike. I had never seen this species in Brisbane before and was able to get a clear shot of this one perching high in a Small-leaved Fig tree.

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Channel-billed Cuckoo

Reports of Channel-billed Cuckoos arriving in the area had started to come in on social media! These raucous brood-parasites from New Guinea make their annual southerly migration to Australia around October; they use unstable air masses and thunderclouds to ease the effort of the long-haul flight. They are consequently known by their colloquial name ‘Stormbirds.’ They are the largest cuckoo in the world. Many folk dislike them for their sullen appearance and loud squawk while flying around at dusk and dawn. However, I rather like them and consider their presence a welcome omen of warmer, productive times ahead for the natural world!

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Pale-headed Rosella

We are fortunate in Brisbane to have several sizeable botanic gardens which are beautifully maintained by the council. One of them has an impressive native plant section including Grevilleas that when flowering attract one of the most spectacular parrot species in the area, the Pale-headed Rosella. These are notoriously hard to get good, close views of. They are intelligent birds and highly wary. However, the birds in these gardens are perhaps more accustomed to human traffic and seem happy to be approached while feeding.

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Diamond Firetail

In mid-October, my wife, Kelly, and I took a trip to the Granite Belt region, about 3 hours southwest of Brisbane. The striking granite outcrops make for interesting scenery along the way. This area offers glimpses of a stunning variety of birds. On this trip, I clocked up 87 species of which ten were completely new to me. A highlight was staking-out a muddy puddle on the edge of a road where different birds would busily vie for position to take a quick drink after a hot day’s foraging. The star of the show was the spectacular tiny Diamond Firetail. This is one of Australia’s beautiful, arid-adapted finch species. It lives on the edge, making the most of the boom and bust climate when times are good.

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Zebra Finch

Possibly the most successful arid-adapted finch species in Australia, is the Zebra Finch. Found over much of the dry interior of the country, they can survive for extended periods on only dry seeds and have been observed drinking water of high salinity that other species could not tolerate. This was another first for me and, in this image, a male bird is being harassed by his sizeable brood for a meal of regurgitated seeds!

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Red-rumped Parrot

The final image of my selection is a male Red-rumped Parrot. The species is generally only found west of the Great Dividing Range (a north-south spine of mountains separating the greener coastal strip of eastern Australia from the drier interior) where they live a semi-nomadic existence taking advantage of green, seeding grasses and vegetation where available. To get a low-angle to throw the background out of focus, I had to lay down on angry-ant-infested ground! Worth the effort, I reckon!

All images were taken on Canon equipment, mainly the Canon 1DX full frame DSLR body, paired with the EF 600MM f4/L IS II lens and 1.4X and 2X teleconverters in some cases. I shoot exclusively in RAW format and process in Adobe Photoshop CS5 using a monitor calibrated by a Datacolor Spyder 3. Some images were handheld, others used a Gitzo carbon fibre tripod paired with an Arca Swiss Z1 bullhead and Wimberley mounting plates.


Copyright on all photos: Ross Coupland

The COVID Chronicles – 2

Geneva, 1 November, 2020


France, Belgium and Germany have last week gone back into lockdown. The UK will do so next week. Today, here, Geneva has announced that the main hospital has been swamped by so many COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours that emergency measures will apply as of tomorrow; these include temporary closure of all non-essential businesses. A curfew has yet to be imposed. The Swiss borders may soon be closed again. The speed with which the case-numbers have increased in this “second wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken European countries totally by surprise. There is already an active discussion on social media whether governments are to blame for incorrect policies and guidance or whether people are to blame for not doing what their governments have been telling them to do. This cuts both ways in my opinion.

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Here are the global cases per day according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 information site. Currently, there are half a million cases per day. And rising. This is really serious! Compare now with mid-March when we went into the first lockdown. (It is important to note that the service offered by Johns Hopkins is not the primary source of these data; the site compiles different countries’ reporting of their own COVID-19 statistics.) Below are the daily COVID-19-related deaths

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Taking a global view of things, these two graphs tell us a great deal about the pandemic and about data collection. First, we are not really living a second wave of this pandemic; we only have that impression because in some countries from around May to September we were able – to a degree – to control the number of cases through social distancing measures. Second, the numbers of daily COVID-19-related deaths have not risen since April. Third, there is a saw-tooth pattern in both graphs due to a seven day cycle; the lowest days are always Sundays.

As for the number of deaths not increasing in proportion to the number of cases, I found a very helpful résumé from 1 September entitled “Coronavirus cases are mounting but deaths remain stable. Why?” by Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson from Oxford University. This was published, surprisingly, in The Spectator. The authors propose that a number of factors are at play. Testing has developed in terms of who is tested, when and with what kind of test; as a result, the number of deaths as a proportion of cases could have changed with time. Treatment of serious cases is better and so hospitalised people are less likely to die. Younger people adopt fewer distancing measures and are more likely to become infected but are far less likely to die as a result. The vulnerable people most likely to die as a result of COVID-19 infection are now subject to stricter measures and are therefore less likely to be infected. 

I have found no credible scientific explanation for the weekly cycle and the Sunday dip. It baffles and concerns me. I discussed this via zoom with my friend Nathan in Toronto. He is a statistician. He is the brainiest bloke I know. Meal-time discussions with his teenage sons cover issues like statistical truth and whether mathematics really exist. (I struggle to count how many shots I take in a round of golf!) I drew Nathan’s attention to the COVID-19 weekly cycle. He found it interesting and most amusing. I told him that the lowest day each week for reported cases and deaths was Sunday. This was greeted with unbridled laughter. “This must be some kind of major reporting bias!” I claimed assertively. Tears streamed down his face. “But this is the global COVID-19 statistics” I cried. “Surely, if stats are simply not reported on the day of rest then this is really, really serious!” At this point, Nathan had his head in his hands and emitted a sort of snorting noise. He obviously found my amateurish foray into his world just too much. When he was eventually able to talk, he said “What about Israel?” See what I mean? Very clever! So I dug into the national stats. Despite the sabbath being on Friday in Israel, they too have a Sunday dip. Interesting! So… those countries near the top of the league with a weekly cycle and a Sunday dip: USA, Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and, earlier in the pandemic, the UK. Spectacularly, Spain has no stats reported on either Saturday or Sunday. No weekly cycle is seen in the stats from India, Russia, Italy, Iran or Colombia. The mystery remains. I hope that Nathan or someone with comparable cerebral capacity (if this were possible) will find time to comment on or even explain this.

What all this comes down to is how science is presented to an ever COVID-19-info hungry public. I am not saying that these statistics or reports are unhelpful or wrong but we should be aware that arriving at real scientific answers to the many questions that this pandemic throws up will involve valid scientific methodologies that in turn require study design, ethical approval, data collection, analysis, review and reporting in an appropriate forum. In other words, time! Just be cautious with respect to what you read and believe as this crisis evolves further – which it will. Be prepared to change your mind.

Nevertheless, I recommend a News Feature from 6 October in Nature by Lynne Peeples. It is a review entitled “Face masks: what the data say.” In brief, face masks do not replace strict social distancing measures; they are an alternative when such measures are not possible. Face masks probably lower the chance of an uninfected person getting the disease and of an infected person spreading the disease. Face masks possibly reduce the chance of serious outcome if a person nevertheless becomes infected by reducing the infective “viral load.” The most effective face masks are those made of two layers of material, are close fitting and are washable. The simple act of people wearing face masks may result in less risky behaviour. 

Credibility is not only important in relation to data and science. Images that accompany COVID-19-related articles in the mainstream media should also be scrutinised with the truth in mind. 

The COVID Chronicles 9
Copyright: Getty Images

On day 11 of the Lockdown Diary, I had a bit of rant about false images of the coronavirus that are used to colour up news articles; they are computer-generated and bear minimal relation to an actual coronavirus. Last week, the BBC carried a concerning but credible report that the level of antibodies in people previously infected with COVID-19 may fall away rapidly so leaving them once again vulnerable to the disease. This article was covered by yet another starwarsesque image of a coronavirus (purple and fluffy this time) and – a first – surrounded by “Y shaped” antibodies on the attack. This picture does not make the science more accessible or credible. It simply draws the reader in through video game imagery. I’ve pointed out before that TV stations could get actors to deliver the experts’ scientific messages slickly and in a measured, serious voice rather than force us to listen to those umming and uhrring loveable geeks who, incidentally, know what they’re talking about. It’s about the integrity of the message.

In other major news from recent days, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan of Turkey is outraged by insults levelled against him in France. Above, I expressed surprise that The Spectator should carry a serious article about COVID-19 mortality. The link here is that, in 2016, The Spectator, astonishingly, ran a competition for who could write the most offensive poem about President Erdogan and obviously published the winner’s entry. The thing is that the winner was none other than the former editor of same rag, former Mayor of London, Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, former Foreign Secretary, current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and COVID-19 survivor, the Right Blondable, Boris Johnson. Quite the diplomat! I will leave you with his victorious limerick. I know…. I said be cautious about what you believe but this one is true.

There was a young fellow from Ankara

Who was a terrific wankerer

Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t event stop to thankera

Boris Johnson’s poem