The COVID Chronicles – 13

Geneva, 25 January, 2021


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Source: United Nations

The two main sources of the current news agenda – the COVID-19 pandemic and the shockwaves emanating from Washington – exclude other world changing events from our attention. On 22 January, a United Nations treaty prohibiting the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons entered into force.

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Source: ICAN

Yes, nuclear weapons are now banned under international law. Obviously, the states who possess nuclear weapons and their closest allies have not (yet) signed up to this treaty but their diplo-kinder-doublespeak will now sound increasingly hollow. This new prohibition with 52 member states heightens the imperative of eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals: something that all nations have committed themselves to through being party to the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Most Brit ex-pats like me probably look to the same website for their international news. I couldn’t help noticing just how opportunistic even the BBC can be. This standard-bearer for global media reported two days ago that the UK variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus “may be more deadly.” What….? Oh No! We’re all gonna die!!! The scientists responsible for this “news” had reported that, up to now, of 1000 people over 60 years of age with COVID-19, ten would be expected to die. There were indications that this figure might rise to thirteen in cases caused by the UK variant. Yesterday, the scientists concerned wanted to cast a more realistic light on these “not particularly strong” findings and pointed out that the Prime Minister and the BBC had blown it out of proportion. The BBC then headlined with “Covid: ‘More deadly’ UK variant claim played down by scientists.”  Brilliant! Two front page news items about nothing newsworthy.

Staying with the BBC for just a bit… And I try not to put my political colours on show in these Chronicles, but…. Yesterday, another upfront but underwhelming news item reported that Boris Johnson had a telephone conversation with President Joe Biden. Wowzers! However, the informative tail-piece assures me that incisive journalism is not a thing of the past. It appears that Mr Biden once referred to Mr Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone of Mr Trump.” I have to say, this Biden chappie seems to made of the right stuff.

Eight weeks back, we welcomed the news that COVID-19 vaccines had been developed and approved for use. We believed that they would bring about a rapid end to this pandemic and that our lives could get back to “normal” in a matter of months and certainly by the end of 2021. It turns out that our optimism was short-sighted and short-lived. The situation evolves rapidly as the virus is proving to be a cunning and agile adversary. The emerging picture is one of a desperate race to vaccinate whole populations as case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths rise in many countries despite a variety of stringent social distancing measures. Whilst there are, apparently, hundreds of recognised variants of the virus, the three causing most concern because of their transmissibility are those thought to originate in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. 

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There is currently no doubt about the safety and efficacy of the approved COVID-19 vaccines in terms of limiting severity of outcome of infection. However, the big unknown is the extent to which immunity prevents transmission. Even if a person is immune – either from vaccination or having had COVID-19 – he or she may still carry and transmit the virus. It is not, in infectious disease terms, a “sterile immunity.” This means that the glittering prize of “herd immunity” may not be achievable. The most likely long term scenario is that COVID-19 will become just another common and mild flu-like illness that seriously affects only those who have not been vaccinated. Vaccines may have to accommodate variants and so vaccination programmes may have to be repeated. The over-arching and achievable objective of our public health authorities is not to eliminate transmission but to reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections so limiting associated deaths and, at the same time, protecting our health services.

A title for a painting is important as it can change how a viewer might look at the piece and what he or she perceives. The above is a recent snowed-in lockdown painting. I cannot shake off my fascination for African masks and I remain gripped by the daily political developments in the US. So I’m struggling to find an appropriate title here. “The Blues”? “BlackLivesMatter”? “Intercontinental”? Does anyone have a suggestion? Perhaps I should simply dedicate it to the extraordinary young Amanda Gorman who read one of her extraordinary poems at Joe Biden’s Presidential inauguration last week.

I am sure that if I had the privilege of talking to Ms Gorman and started a sentence with “Well, in my day…”, she would be quick to point out that it was no longer my day. It was hers. And Greta Thunberg‘s. And my nephew’s. The nephew who, now in his twenties and fired up by global issues, asked me “Didn’t you guys know you were frying the planet? And you still eat beef! I mean, wasn’t it obvious that booming city populations and international air travel was an infectious disease catastrophe waiting to happen?” He was on a roll. “Didn’t you know that we are inheriting your debts together with a global financial system that’s a house of cards?” Exasperated, he finished with “Didn’t your generation think about the world you were passing on to us?” I couldn’t help thinking the youngster had a point. I replied “Well, in my day…… We didn’t have the internet. We weren’t so well informed. Our main global concern was nuclear weapons.” 

The COVID Chronicles – 11

Geneva, 9 January, 2021


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It would have been difficult to imagine when I posted the tenth, pre-christmas Chronicles, that the pandemic news could get worse. Well, it has. I always try to remain upbeat writing here but it’s difficult in the face of surges of COVID-19 cases in many countries, new lockdowns, new variants of the coronavirus and, most worrisome, the possibility that one such variant might ultimately generate “vaccine escape” meaning that the current vaccines may be less effective. 

Snow on the ground prevents wintery golf and so, in search of something to give my flagging spirits a boost, I called in at Galerie Cimaise last week. I was confronted by some truly arresting images that somehow capture the times perfectly.

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“About Flying” is a collection of mesmerising, intriguing and exquisite photographs by one of Geneva’s high profile and most creative photographers, Aline Kundig. It is about the aftermath of beautiful things inevitably falling to pieces. It is a statement that anything delicate and ephemeral carries a potential for dislocation together with an innate resilience. As one critic noted, Aline’s butterflys are magnificent in their grotesque dismemberment(!) 

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Aline harbours a fascination for the interface of beauty and death. She insists that beauty can, and does, continue to live long after the soul has taken flight. With these images of shattered butterflies scattered on an entomologist’s light-board, she has somehow stolen the exotic butterfly show from the dusty drawers of the collectors and the classifiers of dead insects. I am sure that if, after the last shutter-click, Aline had blown her butterfly bits off the light-board she would have seen them remain airborne and even reassemble in butterflight. 

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The backstory is telling. Aline has had a year full of grief. Determined to come face-to-face with her woes, she ordered dead butterflies on-line from specialist butterfly farms all over the world. They arrived carefully packed and completely in tact. She then tore them apart and crushed them letting the pieces fall on the light board. “This was a wonderful thing to do!” she told me. “It was therapeutic!” 

Since speaking to Aline, a right-wing mob has taken over the Capitol in Washington DC. Guns were drawn. Shots were fired. Five people died. Congressmen and congresswomen hid under their seats. Offices were looted. The National Guard was called out. The blame is laid at the President’s feet.

Aline did not give titles to her broken butterfly images. For the three above, I might suggest “Democracy,” “Truth” and “Respect.” 

The COVID Chronicles – 10

Geneva, 25 December, 2020


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Yes, it’s come to this…. Home-made Christmas cards! My golfing friends may – or may not – appreciate my little contribution to seasonal cheer. But then, I guess right now, we need all the cheer we can get.

It was Christmas day of 1981; not long after beginning my first job after qualifying as a doctor. I was on-call for the surgical wards at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. The staff nurse called me to say that one of our patients recovering from surgery – let’s call her Maisie – had an irregular heart beat. I went up to see her; her bed was empty. Maisie, a good old Fenland character, was clearly not bothered. I found her in the TV room glued to the BBC’s newest production of the nativity. “Hello, Maisie” I said, “Nurse wants me to check your heart beat. I’ll just do a test. Is that all right?” Maisie kept her eyes on the screen. “Whatever you say, doctor! But coz I can’t go to church like what I usually do, I want to watch the nativity.” I untangled the wires of the ward’s electrocardiogram, applied the pads to Maisie’s wrists and ankles and switched the machine on. I glanced at the TV; a tired and obviously pregnant Mary rode a donkey; Joseph walked alongside. “Are you enjoying the nativity there, Maisie?” I asked. “Oooh, it’s lovely!” she replied. The electrical impulses of her heart beat appeared regular and normal on the small screen; obviously, any irregular beats had been transient. Nevertheless, I thought I would let the ECG run for a minute or so. “Who’s that?” Maisie asked pointing a gnarled finger at the screen. “That’s Mary and her betrothed, Joseph. And it looks like Mary’s pregnant, Maisie!” We both chuckled. “And she was a virgin!” I added. For the first time, she looked up at me. A question was clearly forming in her mind. “Good catholic girl was she?” She cackled. “Well, I’m not sure they had catholics in those days!” I said. “When was this then?” Maisie asked. I wasn’t sure whether she was pulling my leg. “Well, Jesus was born one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-one years ago, Maisie.” Her eyebrows raised. “Oooh! And, what…. on Christmas day?” Her heart beat remained steady and regular. “Poor Jesus. I’d hate that!” she continued. “I got a nephew who was born on Christmas day and he only gets one lotta presents each year coz everyone does his Christmas present and birthday present together. Thats’s real cheap, I say!” Maisie, it seemed, was not pulling my leg. After scenes of shepherds and kings truckin’ along, the viewer was taken through a jolly busy way-side inn and into a stable. Mary was lying in some straw and well into her labour. A close-up of Joseph’s face revealed no little agitation. “Oooh! The anxious father!” exclaimed Maisie. I said nothing. Soon, Mary was crying out in pain clearly about to deliver. Maisie’s mouth hung open. Her heart rate, whilst still regular, had now picked up somewhat. Turning to me with eye’s wide in wonder, she asked “Do you think it’ll be a little boy or a little girl?”

Few young docs end up where they thought they would. In 1981, I was wondering if I had what it takes to become a consultant vascular surgeon. I went on to get a surgical qualification but abandoned ship (the UK’s National Health Service) to work for a number of years as a field surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross. I then became the medical adviser to the ICRC on issues relating to violence and weapons; a role in which I inevitably found myself in the domain of international mechanisms preventing the development, production and use of chemical and biological weapons. In the mid-1990s, I had the good fortune to meet a charming and brilliant American scientist by the name of Matt Meselson. (Matt together with Franklin Stahl performed what has been described as the “most beautiful experiment in biology.” After the double-helix structure of DNA had been proposed by Watson and Crick in 1953 , Meselson and Stahl, in 1958, established how DNA replicated itself.)

Matt dedicated a large part of his professional life to the scientific aspects of preventing the use of chemical and biological weapons and did probably more than anyone to promote within the scientific community the importance of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. He and I often engaged in discussions about the worrisome spectre of a whole new generation of microbes and toxins both natural and man-made. He was far-sighted. Finding ourselves in a workshop here in Geneva, we shook hands warmly. He said, “You know, Robin, we’ll see the day when we don’t shake hands anymore. We’ll be bumping elbows. It’s inevitable.” We’ve bumped elbows since. I am sure Matt would have wise counsel for the team investigating the origin of the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Us Brits have a quaint but important tradition at Christmas dinner: cracker jokes. These are written on little pieces of paper that fly out of the exploding Christmas cracker. The jokes are so bad that, when read out, they predictably generate a disappointed groan from everyone sitting around the turkey-laden table. The idea is that squabbling families stop squabbling for just a couple of minutes because they are all unconsciously united against the unknown author of the awful cracker joke. As PG Wodehouse would say, it’s about the psychology of the thing. So… Covid Cracker jokes…….. The year 2020 has been awful. It’ll end in tiers! (UK only!) .. or .. What does the Trump family do for Christmas dinner? They put on a superspread!

Merry Christmas everybody! But if you’re in Switzerland, no singing!

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Gotta love the Swiss! The above is from the government’s Covid info site

See y’all in 2021.

The COVID Chronicles – 9

Geneva, 19 December, 2020


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Attenborough (on the left) during his famous 1978 encounter with gorillas. Source BBC

David Attenborough has been involved in nature broadcasting for more than 70 years. He is a truly remarkable and inspirational man who, at 94 years-old, has written a truly remarkable and inspirational book “A Life on Our Planet.” I have just finished reading it. Attenborough wags a very authoritative finger at homo sapiens for how, through a perceived need for continual economic growth, we have pretty much destroyed our habitat and that of millions of other species. He provides ample evidence of a looming catastrophe. Given this, he nevertheless offers solutions and even hope. He neatly draws together what needs to be done from an ecological point of view (including an argument for a more plant-based diet,) the imperative for a total shift in how we think of the economy (looking beyond GDP as the sole value of the well-being of a nation) and a human future that is equitable and sustainable. If I were a wannabe politician eyeing the long term, this book would leave me with three words to work into speeches. People, Planet and (not only) Profit.  

The boost to our spirits on hearing that COVID-19 vaccines are soon coming on line has been short-lived. The pandemic news has just got a whole lot more complicated and, I fear, worrying. Burgeoning case numbers with associated deaths continue in the US. In the UK and Germany there has been a sudden rise in cases despite lockdown measures. School closures are fiercely debated. We hear that the virus responsible has mutated and may be even more transmissible than before. (Apparently, this is what coronaviruses do. In evolutionary terms, such a virus is much more interested in transmission between its hosts than killing them.) On top, the WHO and China have agreed that an international investigation team will be sent to Wuhan where, supposedly, the virus responsible for COVID-19 first emerged.

And of course, it’s getting to that time of the year. I detest the rampant consumerism that traditionally takes over our lives at this period. Otherwise, I neither like christmas nor dislike it. I just go with the flow. I’m always baffled by how much importance we put on Jesus’s birthday. Christmas in the time of COVID-19 is lining up to be more baffling still. It seems that politicians want to curry favour by allowing us to go shopping and get together with our families in full knowledge that these activities are likely to compound the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Predictions of a new year resurgence are both believable and serious given that case numbers surged in the US as a result of family gatherings for Thanksgiving in November. 

I realise that this may all be just too gloomy. So just for grins and giggles, why don’t I populate this black scenario with some online snippets that I’ve found about the economic impact of the pandemic to date. I do not present this material with any expertise in economics.

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Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics
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Source: UK Office for National Statistics

These unemployment figures are heart-breaking. Unemployment has spiked like never before in the US and the UK. By contrast, here in Switzerland, it is reported that those claiming unemployment benefit rose from 2.5% to only 3.2% in the 2nd quarter of the year. 

Are the stock markets holding their own? 

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Source: The Motley Fool
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FTSE100 2020 Source: Bloomberg (Last upward trend follows news of COVID-2019 vaccine development)

The markets took quite a hit in March but seem to be getting back on track. Apparently, I am not the only person mystified by this recovery. My friend Tom, who knows about these things, is not sure that this market confidence is sustainable. He’s convinced that the world of high finance is yet to be truly tested by the economic impact of the pandemic.

The most sobering of all is a World Bank graph I found yesterday.

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Source: World Bank

This shows that the proportion of countries that will be in recession in 2021 as a result of the pandemic will be over 90%. This is higher than any past recession including the great recession of the 1930s.

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US Dollar v. Swiss Franc Source: XE converter
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2020 Gold Prices USD /oz. Source: Trading Economics

In a global financial crisis, I’ve heard it said that two traditional financial refuges are the Swiss Franc (yay!) and gold. The US dollar has tumbled in relation to the Swiss Franc. (The US now accuses Switzerland of manipulating currency markets.) Gold dipped when the pandemic first hit but in August this year, dollars per ounce of gold hit an all-time high.

This morning, I listened to the third 2020 Reith Lecture “From COVID crisis to Renaissance” delivered by Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England. His theme for this series of lectures is that leaders should reassess “value” beyond pure economic terms. Other more subjective values should be taken into consideration such as fairness, the health and wellbeing of people and the ecological impact of all our activities and lifestyles. He describes the impact of COVID-19 pandemic as the “bill arriving” for lack of resilience preparation, propagating inequities within society and failure to recognise that essential workers are exactly that: essential. The economy was put on “life support” whilst a public health response was mounted. This response has required an unprecedented intrusion into our lives by government. However, Carney points out that this does not indicate that a trade-off exists between the public health response and maintaining a strong economy. Our health, wellbeing and health services should be considered as one set of values and that the economy – another set of values – will not improve until an effective public health response has been put in place. The value to the nation of health workers and, it follows, deaths avoided does not readily translate into economic figures and so should not be sublimated to GDP as a result.

Carney also underlines how the pandemic has hit certain socio-economic groups harder than others. Therefore our ultimate response must engender effective public health measures, addressing societal inequities especially with respect to living standards and education together with plans for an economic recovery. Finally, Carney claims that a similar approach must be adopted by leaders with respect to climate change; something he will be talking about next week.

It seems that Mr Attenborough and Mr Carney are heralds singing off very similar song sheets. If the challenge of addressing COVID-19 helps us face the challenge of climate change then the mantra of any political “renaissance” has to be People, Planet and (not only) Profit.