This is a letter to Prospect magazine from Sunetra Gupta, one of those responsible for the massively vilified Great Barrington Declaration* of 2020. She is professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford.
Making difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty is a common feature of all crises. The pandemic was no exception but, sadly, much of the decision-making was conducted under a misapprehension (and, occasionally, wilful distortion) of the uncertainties involved.
The biggest uncertainty was the extent to which non-pharmaceutical interventions would curb the spread of infection. Instead, it was presented as fact that lockdowns and mask mandates would help achieve this; we now know that to be very much a matter of debate (to put it kindly) and yet faith in these measures persists, to the extent that those who dare to question their efficacy are treated as heretics.
None of this would matter if these interventions did not cause significant collateral damage. Yet given the conditions under which the majority of the world’s population lives, if there was one thing we could be certain of it was that people would die — of hunger, malnutrition, disease and malaise — as a result of them. In more affluent nations, the impact can be felt in postponed operations and disruption to education.
The justification for all of this has to be that many more people would have died without such interventions, which were predicated on the uncertainties surrounding the nature of the virus.
And yet, SARS-CoV-2 has actually been behaving almost exactly as any standard epidemiology textbook and a passing acquaintance with the characteristics of other seasonal coronaviruses would lead you to expect. It is headed towards endemicity (rather than eradication); its dynamics are determined by the waxing and waning of natural immunity against a background of seasonality in transmission; it was never any more virulent than the other seasonal coronaviruses (people were not specifically immune to it, so the vulnerable were especially at risk); and it evolved to evade natural immunity or to marginally improve transmissibility (which is all it needed to outcompete the prevailing variant).
The real long shadow of Covid-19 falls on those who were affected by the mitigations we imposed, not on the lucky few who sat at home on their laptops sipping Chablis and hoping that it would all go away if we diligently wore masks and lampooned anybody who dared to disagree. Much of this could have been prevented if life had gone back to normal as soon as we were able to protect the vulnerable, whether by shielding or through vaccines.
It you’re into it, Richard North addresses the reliability of UK Covid stats here. No great surprise to read that they’ve probably been overstated/exaggerated. And that the authorities feel they no longer serve whatever purpose they had. It’s enough to make one cynical. RN’s final comment: In all probability, those who want to see the daily Covid figures disappear have a point. We will not return to normal until the media are unable to obsess over the totals, sending out their messages of despair and despondency with every spike in the increasingly meaningless graphs.
Cosas de España/Galiza
A record 15,000 kilos of cocaine were impounded in Galicia last year. But, says the VdG today, only one capo was arrested. This comes the day after a report on a trial for several of our leading narcos which ended this week with them all getting off with the ‘lightest penalties’. Something smells.
Which reminds me . . . I was pondering yesterday on why the Pontevedra city retail scene changes so frequently, when I recalled the comment of a Galician bar owner a couple of years ago, viz. that many shops, bars and restaurants there are fronts for money laundering.
I’m also reminded that, once again, a gypsy from our local settlement ignored the rules last night and passed right across the front of my car on, yes, a roundabout.
I had to look up the world catana yesterday. The RAE said it was a type of alfanje, which I then also had to look up. Turned out to be a type of sword similar to that of a Japanese Samurai. I read of if in a report of a land dispute between 2 old men – not uncommon here in Galicia – one of whom was brandishing a catana and the other an iron bar. No idea of the outcome. Probably just an awful lot of words and threats of denuncias. Also quite common here in Galicia.
This is an article on the post-Brexit calvario for Brits of getting a Spanish driving licence. I think this was first published last year but new readers might enjoy reading it. Or at least learn something about a future challenge they’ll face.
Here’s Lenox Napier on care for the elderly in Spain.
Boris Johnson: A seasonal tribute from Private Eye . .
THE SHITE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
Apart from the parties that were happening each week
And the Christmassy quiz for the Number 10 clique.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that Lord Brownlow would leave a bung there;
The children were nestled quire snug with no fuss;
And the scapegoats had all been chucked under the bus.
Then out on the lawn there arose such a din,
It sounded like Cummings himself had got in.
I saw in the garden a selection of beasts,
Who had risen to office like piglets well greased
They moved faster than crooks in the priority lane,
And their leader shouted and called them by name.
“Now Gaffe-er! Now Gover! Now Chancer and Vaxxen
On, Damn-it, on Stupid! On Donor and Prartzen!”
He was chubby and blond, a jolly old elf,
And I knew that he cared only for himself;
But with a wink of his eye and the grin in his head,
I quite forgot the hundreds of thousands of dead.
He burbled a word, then turned straight to his work,
And emptied the stockings right out with a smirk.
He moved like lightning, his pockets all filling,
And paused just to aim a quick kick at Dilyn.
Then he clambered the chimney with a cheerful squeak
And buggered off on a free trip to Mustique.
Learn about the egregious Sackler family below. A valid case for cancellation?
Finally . . .
It’s years since I was given the wrong change in a bar. But this week it happened twice, Yesterday the barista volunteered she’d shorted me a euro. But the day before I had to prompt a different barista for 10 euros that were missing. I’ve no idea if it was deliberate or not but she did apologise and looked a tad sheepish when doing so
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A Christmas Immorality Tale: ‘Empire of Pain’: Patrick Radden Keefe
Hear me out, but maybe cancel culture is . . . good? No family in history has plastered its name over more museums, galleries, libraries and university departments than the Sacklers. Nothing was too small or too functional to be daubed with it: The Tate has a Sackler elevator, and Berlin’s Jewish Museum has a Sackler Staircase. Possibly a museum director somewhere has a Sackler toilet.
Through this philanthropic blitzkrieg, the Sacklers bought proximity to beauty; but Patrick Radden Keefe’s ‘Empire of Pain’ reveals their money’s ugly source: poor drug addicts who were aggressively mis-sold an addictive painkiller called Oxycontin.
Starting in the 1995, the Sackler family firm, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, ignored evidence that its sales reps were encountering “pill mills” – doctors who prescribed Oxy to anyone who asked, sometimes including organised crime syndicates.
Purdue executives knew their product was being abused (users simply had to crush the pills to defeat the “addiction proof” time-release coating) and their response was a smear campaign, painting legitimate chronic pain patients as no-good addicts who would have become addicted to something, if not Oxy. “The drug wasn’t the problem, Richard Seckler contended. The problem was the abusers,” Radden Keefe writes. Oxycontin doesn’t kill people; people kill themselves.
‘Empire of Pain’ won the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for nonfiction, and for good reason. It is a real enema of a book. Radden Keefe has flushed out all the reeking cavities of American corporate culture, and even the legal parts of the Oxycontin story stink to high heaven. Take the man who approved the sale of Oxy, Curtis Wright of the US Food and Drug Administration. He accepted help from Purdue in writing his report, and left the regulator once the drug was licensed. After a year at a small pharmaceutical firm, Wright then joined … Purdue. His compensation package was $400,000.
Redden Keefe is a New Yorker journalist, and so he builds up the big picture through small details. In 2007, three Purdue executives (none called Sackler) pleaded guilty to minor charges of “misbranding” Oxycontin and were banned from working in the pharmaceutical industry. When one of the three men died, Purdue named its eighth floor legal library after “him. “l mean this is a guy who pled guilty,” one former executive tells Radden Keefe. “What does that tell you?” Ah yes, nothing says “genuine contrition” ” like a shrine to your fall guy.
There isn’t much space in Radden Keefe’s narrative for the victims of the opioid epidemic, but there are other books which cover their tragedy. His real subject is the gross distortions of wealth. Money warps everyone it touches, not just politicians and regulators and corporate yes-men – Radden Keefe is particularly good on how expensive lawyers often give bad advice, because they tell their rich clients what they want to hear – but the gilded heirs to privilege themselves. Purdue never made another product as successful as Oxycontin. On this account, they didn’t really try. The second and third generation Sacklers just kept banking the cash and lending their name to more libraries.
Radden Keefe’s story ends as Purdue goes bankrupt, with a $4.5bn settlement that largely absolved the company of responsibility for the opioid epidemic. No senior executive is facing criminal charges. At the bankruptcy hearing, the judge regretted that so much Purdue cash had already been transferred offshore.
And so cancellation might be the only real sanction the Sackler family will ever face. Arthur Sackler, the child of poor immigrants to New York, wanted more than anything for his name to live on, for it to be celebrated in stone and brass and bricks. No one can raise the dead lost to opioids. But British institutions should at least deny him his wish.