Andrew Donaldson on unhinged responses, here and abroad, to the Covid-19 pandemic
A FAMOUS GROUSE
THE enemy is unseen and everywhere. The spirit of the Blitz and Brit indomitability is invoked, and the doughty islanders are urged to be resolute in their isolation. It is difficult, however, to stand together, side by side, at a time of social distancing. But pull together they must. The onslaught is relentless. It is a time of great sacrifice and many will not survive.
The Prince of Wales, sadly, is not spared. Though not a serious casualty, Charles is nevertheless forced from duty. Responding to the crisis, the Queen is able — like her mother 80 years before her — to look the East End and elsewhere in the face and, channeling Dame Vera Lynn, reassure her beleaguered subjects:
“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
Then the unthinkable. The prime minister is laid flat and taken to St Thomas’s Hospital in London. He takes a turn for the worse and is moved into intensive care. There is great uncertainty. Has Boris Johnson run out of puff? Is he to be denied his finest hour?
His cheerleaders immediately step up to the plate. Boris is a fighter, they say, a winner; he is full of that John Bull doggedness, that bonging Big Ben bluster; he’ll bounce back to meet the foe head-on with both arms swinging and won’t stop until the final pip-pip and hurrah.
Geeing up the nation, BoJo’s mbongis — elderly gentlemen by no means bootless and unhorsed — appear on television to remind viewers of his tenacity. References to Churchill are dropped like bombs on Dresden. A senior army type recalls the grunts and chaos of his tennis game. As a youngster, he would play with hair uncombed and a badly warped racquet, thereby bringing a swerving, if raffish recklessness to the court.
There are breathless accounts of his rugger exploits, and how his beefiness was put to good use in the scrum when he turned out for Balliol, his college at Oxford. Such was his enthusiasm that his nose was broken four times. Despite this, his love of the sport has endured, and was much in evidence when, in 2015 as mayor of London, he flattened a ten-year-old boy in a game of touch rugby in Japan.
Then, encouraging news from St Thomas’s. The PM’s health is said to be improving and is “sitting up in bed and engaging positively” with hospital staff. No other details, though. As The Times sketch writer Quentin Letts writes, “Engaging positively: this is the way medical types talk. It could mean anything from ‘flickering his eyelids when we mention his dog’s name’ to ‘making nurses laugh with his wickedly nerdy John Major impressions’.”
But there is some relief that he may soon be back at the helm, meaty hands on the tiller, particularly as the PM’s stand-in, foreign secretary Dominic Raab, has not impressed. Uncertain and hesitant, Raab has not been able to reassure a fretful nation. Despite his third dan, black belt in karate, he is not the sort of chap to follow into the fray.
And there is a battle. But it’s just not that sort of a battle. Commentators from across the political spectrum grow hoarse from shouting that this mythology of plucky Brits single-handedly taking on the Hun and fighting the coronavirus invader on the beaches and the hedgerows has no absolutely no place in that battle.
This is not a war. This is a pandemic. Repeat. This. Is. A. Pandemic.
The former Tory MP and columnist Matthew Parris, for example, has decried the shrill charge that it is wrong to question lockdown regulations and the steps taken by the authorities to implement them and people should instead just shut up and do as they’re told. He writes in The Spectator:
“The right answer to any enquiry about whether we know there’s a war on is that there isn’t a war on. Nobody with sensible questions to ask about the current strategy or its implementation should be abashed to ask them. Hitler’s spies are not listening, Lord Haw-Haw will not be broadcasting them, and a grown-up citizenry does not confuse intelligent questioning with unpatriotic breaking of the ranks. No doubt some questions will be misplaced, some will have easy answers and a few may hit home, so courtesy is needed and we must start from the assumption that everybody is doing their best. But critical scrutiny has seldom been more necessary.
“Comparisons with the second world war are preposterous. We face no existential threat as a nation. No fascist dictator is trying to take over the planet. Nobody is trying to exterminate an entire race of people….”
Over at The Guardian, columnist Marina Hyde wades in on a similar tack:
“We don’t really require a metaphor to throw the horror of viral death into sharper relief: you have to think it’s bad enough already. Plague is a standalone horseman of the apocalypse – he doesn’t need to catch a ride with war. Equally, it’s probably unnecessary to rank something we keep being informed is virtually a war with things in the past that were literally wars. ‘Your grandparents were called to war,’ runs one popular meme. ‘You’re being asked to sit on a couch. You can do this.’ Unsurprisingly, given this level of bellicose confusion, we have already seen those who visit the park literally branded ‘traitors’.”
They’re lucky they’re not visiting a park in Cape Town or Johannesburg. Here, it seems, the authorities are indeed waging war — on citizens. Police minister Cheek Bile’s increasingly bizarre declarations on what is and what is not permitted in the lockdown indicate a playground bully so crazed by power he could be regarded as junta-struck. Not to mention stupid beyond reach.
Bile addressed a media briefing in Secunda on Tuesday and apparently wants to police behaviour inside the homes of South Africans. Even, it seems, in the bedroom. “When you get time to stay in, stay in,” he told journalists. “Maintain social distancing, even at night. Don’t come close to each other, no kissing, nothing.”
I’m truly puzzled that reporters don’t ask more questions at such times. Perhaps they’re too stunned to speak.
Is that all kissing, Comrade Minister? Or just kissing with tongues? What is the thinking here, where is the science? Could it be that kissing leads to lockdown, so to speak, and the possibility that, once bolts are shot and what have you, couples may share a cigarette? Which is obviously wrong as tobacco is not an essential item in terms of the regulations?
We need to know such things.
Bile was just as unhinged when it came to complaints of heavy-handed violence by the security forces. “I hear [people] crying that cops and soldiers are brutal,” he said. “Not listening to us is brutality. It is our duty. If you don’t want to protect yourself and the rest of us, we must start by protecting you ... so we need to push a little bit.”
We’ve all been patronised like this. This will hurt me more than it will hurt you. Scant consolation, you will agree, when set upon by fat people in uniform with whips.
I leave, for quiet discussion among yourselves, this comment from Bile on “negative” journalism: “There is a report that a member of the police raped a woman during the lockdown. This is untrue. It was the woman’s husband, who happens to be a police officer, who raped her. We don’t go out and report that a pilot raped someone or a taxi driver raped someone, why should it be any different now?”
Further afield there is more idiocy. Russian president Vladimir Putin, a man with the coldblooded resolve of a KGB operative and manboobs sculpted from cheese spread, has pushed the war metaphor back ten centuries or so. The Russians, he says, will see off the coronavirus the same way they dealt with the Pechenegs and Polovtsy, the Turkic invaders of the 10th and 11th centuries. With big swords and hand sanitisers, presumably.
Aside from Stupid-19, another notable side-effect of the global crisis is the growing clamour to blame somebody. So far, the coronagoat is China.
For a while now there have been reports of Chinese nationals being targeted in xenophobic incidents in numerous countries. But this week, the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based neo-conservative think tank, released a document detailing how the Beijing government itself could be sued over its initial response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
According to the HJS, Beijing could be liable to pay compensation running to trillions of dollars if found in breach of any of a number of international treaties. The UK alone would have a potential claim for £351 billion, the society says.
The HJS paper comes as the World Health Organisation faces increasing criticism for its response to the crisis and its pro-China bias.
In Japan, for example, deputy prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso has noted that the UN body is being referred to by some as the “Chinese Health Organisation” because of its close ties to Beijing. According to critics, the WHO is too trusting of China, which had initially attempted to cover up events in Wuhan. Taiwan, meanwhile, has claimed that the health body ignored its early warnings about the outbreak because China doesn’t recognise the self-governing island state’s independence and refuses to allow its UN membership.
The virus’s arrival in Africa has stirred up old superstitions and quackery, along with the customary crude nationalism and overt racism.
According to The Times, reports of “pale-skinned outsiders” being attacked in the streets have prompted expats and aid workers to flee affected areas, or send their families home. Those leaving said they feared violent unrest once the pandemic became overwhelming. “Many white Africans who have never lived anywhere else are now opting to sit out the crisis in Britain and elsewhere,” the newspaper said.
Conspiracy theories abound, along with dubious theories. I’m told, for example, that in Johannesburg there has been a run on ivermectin following reports that this common anti-parasitic drug kills the coronavirus in cell culture within 48 hours. “It’s a dewormer used on horses,” my source tells me. “Now it’s just not available anywhere.”
According to a survey there, more than a quarter of Nigerians believe they are protected by their faith, a notion encouraged by churches with large congregations. In Tanzania, the ultra-conservative president John Magafuli has refused to close places of worship. “That’s where there is true healing,” he said last month. “Corona is the devil and it cannot survive in the body of Jesus.” Not to be outdone in this department, Zimbabwean defence minister Oppah Muchinguri has said the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic in Europe was “the work of God punishing countries who imposed sanctions on us”. In Kenya, it is widely believed that the coronavirus only affects white people or the Chinese.
Meanwhile, in Senegal, a newspaper has questioned whether France was out to “coronise” its former colony after two French citizens had tested positive. They were the country’s first cases. Within hours of the announcement, a local musical comedy duo, in whiteface, released a video in which they offered advice on protection against infection but also berated president Macky Sall for “allowing the white people to bring the virus to Senegal”.
Which brings us, conveniently, to the recent, allegedly grievous outbreak of neo-coronialism in which two doctors discussed on French television the potential testing in Africa of the tuberculosis vaccine Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, or BCG, as a preventative measure against Covid-19.
“If I can be provocative,” Professor Jean-Paul Mira, head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin Hospital in Paris, was quoted as saying, “shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation? The same as said for Aids studies where prostitutes try things because we know they’re unprotected?”
“You are right,” replied Professor Camille Locht, research director at Inserm, the French public health research institution. “We are currently thinking in parallel about a study in Africa to make this same type of approach with the BCG. There is a tender process that has gone out or is going to go out. We will seriously think about that.That doesn’t prevent us from thinking in parallel about a study in Europe and Australia.”
Prominent among those at the forefront of the outraged charge that culminated in Mira’s public apology this week for his “racist and contemptuous” remarks were African footballing legends.
The former Chelsea and Senegal forward Demba Ba posted a video of the exchange on Twitter, with the comment, “Welcome to the West, where white people believe themselves to be so superior that racism and stupidity become commonplace. TIME TO RISE.” Former Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o tweeted in response, “Sons of bitches.” He then took to Instagram to call the doctors “murderers” and said, “You are just SHIT. Africa isn’t yours to play with.”
Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba was more expansive in his tweeted response: “It is totally inconceivable we keep on cautioning this. Africa isn’t a testing lab. I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racists words. Helps us save Africa with the current ongoing Covid 19 and flatten the curve. Let us save ourselves from this crazy virus that is plummeting the world economy and ravaging populations health worldwide. Do not take African people as human guinea pigs! It’s absolutely disgusting… African leaders have a responsibility to protect their populations from those horrendous conspiracies. May god protect us!” (sic)
All very well, but there is something about BCG that is worth noting. A recent study from medical researchers in the US and the UK, analysing data collected from 178 countries, has found that those countries which do not have a BCG vaccination policy had ten times the incidence of and mortality from Covid-19 compared with those that do.
South Africa, where TB is rife, is in the latter category. Much to the horror of the pro-plaguers among us, the vaccination of infants with BCG is mandatory, and has been so for the past 60 years. (Look for the “Marie biscuit” on your arm to see if you’re in the club.)
BCG is an old and trusted vaccine. It was first adopted by the Health Committee of the League of Nations in 1928, but because of opposition to newfangled advances in medical science (and a disastrously compromised test in which 72 babies contracted TB and died), it first only widely used in the mid-1940s when relief organisations were able to vaccinate some eight million babies in war-ravaged eastern Europe and prevent a predicted TB outbreak.
According to reports, researchers studied Covid-19 instances and mortality around the world between March 9 and 24 and concluded that the incidence of the virus was 38.4 per million people in countries with BCG vaccination programmes, compared to 358.4 per million in countries where there was no such programme. “The death rate,” the study said, 4.28 per million in countries with BCG programmes compared to 40 per million in countries without such a programme.”
Out of the 178 countries studied, 21 had no vaccination programme. They include the United States, Italy, the Netherlands and other First World nations.
The study is currently available on ResearchGate and is reportedly under review by several scientific journals. As it so happens, I asked a scientist if there was anything worthwhile in the study, and his short answer?
As noted, there is no completed review of the paper. And, I’m told, the study only claims correlation and not cause. A big red flag is the use of “deaths per million” in the research. I was told: “Since the curves are exponential at the initial phases of the epidemic, it means huge differences between countries just because the inflection did not start at the same point. So the death rate per million, which would be a figure determined in, or for the steady state, is just not there (except maybe China, South Korea, Italy.)”
Further inquiries reveal that, off the record, very hush-hush and all that, the BCG vaccine study has been on the agenda at meetings of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases at Baragwanath and the feeling is that well, let’s not tell anyone about this just yet, at least not until the tests come through, and we know a bit more about it. Let’s not get anyone’s hopes up.
Which is understandable. Next thing, we’ll all be off, taking to the streets en masse to walk the dog. Or worse, kissing. And Cheek Bile will be soiling his best trousers, raging away that another shot at social engineering has come to zip.
The thing is, and sorry for you, NICD, but this BCG stuff is not a secret. It’s all over the web. The big mystery, though, is why no-one is asking serious questions about it. Or to put it another way, why is it that dumb-ass political journalists and TV presenters get face time with politicians and not journalists with a scientific or medical background? Could it be that they may ask intelligent questions? Questions that politicians will find uncomfortably difficult? And expose the Stupid-19?