Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 12.5.21

 Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’ 

NOTE: If you want to know more about Galicia or read my Guide to Pontevedra city, click here.  

 Covid  

The UKThe Indian Covid variant calls in question 17 May reopening in UK, say experts. The highly transmissible B.1.617.2 is now second most common variant and is spreading in north-west England. The dramatic rise in UK cases of a variant first discovered in India could undermine the country’s roadmap for reopening, scientists are cautioning.

Below is the latest UK-oriented overview of Covid from MD of Private Eye magazine,

An interesting bit of research on who spreads it most effectively.

Cosas de España 

Despite Sunday night’s  nationwide scenes of hedonism – or even bacchanalianism – the Prime Minister has ruled out going into reverse and re-imposing a State of Alarm. Even if the courts throw out the continuing restrictions wanted by some regional governments. Pandora’s box is open and staying open, for Libertad! ‘The future is vaccination’, says the PM. Not much point vaccinating folk who come down with Covid this week, I fear.

Meanwhile, as I – in my role as Cassandrawas saying  yesterday . . .

And the blame game I predicted has duly started already.

Spain isn’t on the UK’s green list – meaning no quarantine on return – but could move to it when the categories are reviewed in early June. But I fear that prospect is now receding, as we face an increase from the current rate of 180.

Assuming any of them want to take the risk of coming here, Spain plans to waive its PCR testing requirement for Brits from May 20. But only if the UK’s Covid-19 infection rate is 50 cases, way below Spain’s.

Spain’s 3,806-km high-speed network is the second longest in the world, but it is clearly underused. So, competition for Renfe is coming – a little late – from the cheap subsidiary of France’s SNCF. See here and here:-

Cousas de Galiza 

About 22 years ago, I visited the new house of the new mayor of Pontevedra, as his wife was a friend of mine. I recall him being very proud of the place, on the outskirts of the city. Yesterday, I read that it’s claimed he didn’t have a licence to occupy it. Which seems like quite a mistake for a senior official to make. But, then, neither did the vendor of my house, meaning I had to pay to rectify the situation when I bought it, via the same notary who’d neglected to check on its existence the first time round, when it was bought from the builder. The mayor is still in office, by the way and has done some very good things for the city. But I’m reminded of the construction of our newest bridge across the river Lérez 5 or 6 years ago. Which had to be suspended after 9 months until the licence to build it had been obtained. Things aren’t always sequential in Spain. Well, they are but not necessarily in the correct order. I’m sure the mayor is right when he says the situation will be swiftly ‘regularised’. Doubtless without a penalty of any sort.

Certain crimes/offences in Pontevedra province naturally fell during the last 12 months  – burglary and traffic offences, for example. But drug trafficking and cyber-crime increased. Possibly because the police were busy fining folk for not wearing masks or keeping their distance. These days they’re very occupied with bar owners trying to recoup profits by exceeding their licensed tables. We have 4 different types of police force in the province, I believe. If not 5. Perhaps things fall between the cracks.

For drivers here, be very careful when driving through towns and villages now – 80% of all roads. There will certainly be confusion and, inevitably, lots of fines.

María’s Level Ground: Days 37 & 38.  Another note of despair . . .

COVID OVERVIEW: MD, of Private Eye 

Caught in a trap 

Should Boris Johnson be “more upbeat” in his presentation of the pandemic data, as the Telegraph and others are now demanding? Certainly the UK data is looking good. More than 50% of the UK population has had at least one dose of a vaccine and they are working, with Sars-CoV-2 infection rates, hospitalisation and deaths at their lowest levels for 7 months.

We bought and worked hard for our success, paying 4 times as much as some countries to get early access to the Pfizer vaccine, and investing heavily in developing and delivering the Oxford- AstraZeneca (OAZ) vaccine. And, staring down the barrel of 1,300 Covid deaths a day, we gambled on early vaccination before more safety data was available, and spacing out vaccines against manufacturers’ recommendations to reach more people more quickly. These gambles have worked. Daily UK Covid admissions are down to double figures.

Alas, global infection rates have doubled in the past 2 months and are at their highest ever. India, South America and mainland Europe are hardest hit. India has 5,000 Covid deaths a day and only 8.6 % of the population has had a vaccine dose. There is a strong argument for suspending existing vaccine patents to allow poorer countries to manufacture their own (although the process is highly complex). There is an even stronger argument for using the OAZ vaccine globally, and for the UK and others to donate any excess.

Dominic Cummings appears keen to expose Johnson’s pre-vaccination failures (late lockdowns; lack of border control), but Johnson, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are not the only world leaders outsmarted and humbled by something I1/10,000th the diameter of this full stop. Johnson vowed to follow the data, and he could lift restrictions when all the most vulnerable have been offered 2nd vaccines. But he will always need a safety net. A future vaccine-resistant variant could emerge by chance and require a temporary lockdown to reduce deaths while vaccines are adjusted. By declaring that his roadmap out of lockdown will be “irreversible”, he has removed his safety net. h makes him a hostage to fortune again. No wonder he looks worried.

Of mice and men

The role of chance in pandemics was well illustrated in controlled epidemic studies of mice by William Tapley and Major Greenwood between 1920 and 1940. The pair admitted that “hundreds of thousands of mice were sacrificed” in their meticulous process of controlling myriad variables – type of infection, type of mouse, degree of overcrowding, “mouse hold” size, the level of pre-existing immunity, nutrition, genetic variations, etc.

The overriding conclusion is that, even when when you control as much aas you possibly can, chance events contribute greatly to the patterns and speed of spread in epidemics. This is not surprising, given that viruses mutate at random. Alas, some shit happens by chance” is the excuse history never forgives and the media never accepts.

Fear kills too

The biggest communication challenge of this pandemic has been to get people to take all sensible measures to reduce the risk of infection and spread without scaring the shit out of them.

We know fear is very bad for physical and mental health and can trigger heart attacks in those susceptible. Fear may be one reason 20,000 pupils appear to have fallen off the school register. GPs and hospitals are now seeing a steady stream of tragic “Covid delay” patients who were too frightened to seek help for “red flag” cancer symptoms and now have incurable disease.

As one woman explained: “I found this rock-hard lump in Illy breast in March [2020]. I knew what it was but I thought it could wait. A relative of mine had gone to hospital and caught Covid in hospital and died. I knew if I went to see my GP he would just send me to hospital, and I didn’t want to die from Covid. Every day, I worried if I was doing the right thing or not. Some days, I would get as far as putting my coat on to go down to the GP, but then changing my mind … ” She lived a life of fearful rumination until November before seeking help, and now has metastatic spread.

Alas, fear is an inevitable consequence of incompetence. We weren’t prepared for this pandemic but confidently believed we were. (The UK was ranked second in a global index of pandemic preparedness on 24 October 20 19. The US was top.) When we realised the outbreak was-out of control and we needed to lock down, Johnson’s manner turned overnight from upbeat to fearful, and fear has been used as a tactic to enforce compliance with the restrictions ever since, with scary advertising campaigns, fines and threats of imprisonment, and relentless coverage of Covid deaths and daily death updates. In such a climate of fear, an advert reminding you to get a breast lump checked did not break through.

NHS protection

In an ideal world, the health service should protect the people, not rely on the people to protect it. This would require a big increase in capacity and staffing, rather than routinely running it at close to 100% capacity. Instead of being overwhelmed by a single disease, we could have split sites into Covid and non-Covid centres. Everyone would know where to go with their breast lump, and the risk of contracting Covid there would be very small.

We paid a fortune to build Nightingale .hospitals and requisition private hospitals for, say, cancer care, but they also rely on NHS staff to run them and so were barely used. Covid and non-Covid patients ended up sharing the same hospitals and more than ‘40,000 people who didn’t have Covid on admission caught it there.

Much of the fear around Covid was justified by our inability to control it; 15,000 lives may have been shortened by Covid, and the cancer figures may be just as shocking. Johnson is right not to be too upbeat.

No rush

Would a jolly Boris Johnson increase footfall on the high street? Possibly not. Prolonged lockdown has been a huge psychological experiment with many unknown consequences. Some people may be fearful and anxious about returning to shops, many will be worried about their finances with the end of furlough, and some have got into the habit of not buying – or needing – so much stuff.

People will still tum out for what matters to them (a murdered woman; a dead royal; a destructive European Super League), but now the shopping shackles are off, footfal1 in non-food stores is still well below 2019 levels. Whether that is due to lack of confidence, cash or consumer desire remains to be seen. Eating out is also down on April 2019 could be fear of hypothermia as much as fear of crowds. The relentless “stay at home’ message taking a while to reverse.

Mental health

Multiple surveys and calls to charities suggest the pandemic has made mental health worse, but as yet there was no increase in rates of suicide in the UK up to October 2020. This has been observed in other countries too. There may yet be variations between demographic groups or geographical areas, but the crisis may have fostered a sense of social cohesion to fight an external threat, as exemplified by falling suicide rates around the time of the two world wars.

Financial support and investment in mental health services also help, but there could yet be a later rise if people perceive their post-Covid lives to have less meaning and purpose, or think others are recovering better than they are. More than 1m people in the UK are suffering with long Covid, which can have profound neuropsychiatric consequences.

The great outdoors

One way to reduce fear and anxiety in a pandemic is to emphasise what can be done as well as what can’t: “Stay at home or walk outside” would have been a much better message. The chances of catching the virus outside are minimal compared to inside. Most of those infected were sitting or lying still. in still air where the virus hangs around in tiny droplets. So walking in fresh air is a sure way to avoid infection. It also profoundly improves health.

Walking cure

There is no drug yet invented which matches the physical and mental health benefits of walking outdoors. It reduces anxiety, lifts mood, helps you sleep better and improves cardiorespiratory, metabolic and musculo-skeletal health. Those who can’t walk (or wheel), or who suffer post-exertional malaise when they overdo it, have a good excuse. For the vast majority. the amount of physical activity done over a lifetime increases both length and quality of life, and reduces the risk of all manner of disease. The best way to avoid Covid is not to catch the virus. But if you do, the fitter you are, the far more likely you are to recover.

In 2005, researchers studied 1,705 Australian men over 70 and measured how fast each man walked. Five years later, 266 men had died, but no one who could walk faster than 1.36 metres per second at the outset (or 5km/h) had died. As the researchers observed: “Faster speeds are protective against mortality because fast walkers can maintain a safe distance from the Grim Reaper.” And coronavirus.

The fitter you are at any age, the less you fall. The more you need help getting out of a chair or off the toilet, the easier you are to infect. The bottom line: if you can walk, walk – quick enough to make you pleasantly breathless but not so fast you can’t enjoy the surroundings.

Lessons from smallpox

Countries have been left to go their own way on Covid, but if we want to control pandemics (or global warming) now or in the future, it requires global cooperation. One solution is to prevent infections jumping over from animals in the first place, which will mean a big rethink in how we treat and eat animals. Some outbreaks on a crowded planet will occur by chance, so constant surveillance, preparation, early action and coordinated international responses are needed to prevent outbreaks becoming pandemics.

Ridding the world of naturally occurring smallpox by 1979 required previously unseen cooperation between rival superpowers and impressive execution of eradication plans around the globe. Whatever the motives, it’s good to see China helping India with its current Covid calamity, and Norway – having decided not to use the OAZ vaccine for now – lending its 216,000 doses to Sweden and Iceland so they are used before the expiry date.

Money talks

One reason the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is declined by some is the rare clotting risk (also shared by the Johnson and Johnson vaccine). Another is the cost. Given a choice, people opt for the expensive vaccine, not the cost-price one. Expect any annual multi-variant Covid boosters to be more expensive.

Malaria has killed more people in history than any other illness. It still sickens 200m and kills 400,000 every year, many of them children. The news that the OAZ team may have produced a safe and effective vaccine is welcome, but why has it taken 37 years?

One reason is that the malaria parasite is far more complex than Sars-CoV2. Another is that it mainly affects poor people in poor countries who can’t afford vaccines. Now, thanks to climate change, mosquitoes are moving from equatorial regions to northern latitudes where the rich world resides. Expect more dengue and malaria vaccines soon … 

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