Blog post by Rolando Medina

This blog entry recounts from a personal reflections on some aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The beginning

Today, 16 December 2020, marks almost one year since the first reported case of SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) in Wuhan, China. By 21 May 2020, there were 4,893,186 cases of Covid-19, including 323,256 deaths. Today, there are 71,581,532 confirmed cases worldwide, including 1,618,374 deaths reported officially to the World Health Organisation (WHO). These figures may be higher due to unreported cases.

The global political response to the pandemic has been lacking a great deal as it has been converted into a political blame game by some world powers. The USA has accused China of being the source of the virus or of having engineered the virus to attack the USA and the rest of the world. US President Donald Trump has been one of the main instigators of these theories and has used them to attack China in what has become a political/economic soft war with potential military aspects that are a cause of concern.

One of the accusations against China is that the virus escaped from a Wuhan BSL4 (Biosafety Level 4) lab. Some voices in China have suggested that the virus escaped from Fort Dedrick (a military BSL4 lab) in Maryland, USA, a lab which was shut down in August 2019 after biosafety lapses with a number of pathogens. They claim that Maryland had a number of cases of a mysterious lung illness appearing around September 2019 with symptoms similar to Covid-19 and that, subsequently, the USA sent a team of around 300+ military members to the 7th CISM Military World Games hosted in Wuhan from 18–27 October 2019.

What is extraordinary is that this blame game, devoid of facts, has created a huge void in determining the origins of the pandemic. Surely the pandemic would have been confronted more effectively through global cooperation and consensus.

At least among the world’s scientific community, consensus exists. The understanding is that the virus was not engineered (it was not spliced from any known virus backbone), and that it is most likely that it emerged naturally from animals (Covid-19 is similar to bat-associated coronaviruses), became infectious and passed into humans by zoonotic (animal-to-human) transfer in a public space.

Confronting the pandemic – management

Pandemic management has been inadequate in the West, with many political agencies appearing not to have not understood the seriousness of the situation. Their actions have been based on the assumption that all will be well, and fundamentally driven by economic factors. In the initial stages of the pandemic, the UK government’s advisory team comprised principally statisticians and scenario-modelling scientists, and followed a reactive, not a proactive, management style.

Of course, it is good to clarify that, given the parameters of continuous growth that drive world economies, it is difficult for governments to take the right decisions in their fight against the pandemic. During the second UK lockdown in November 2020, for example – some businesses had to close, and there were restrictions on social mobility and gathering, but children – who are considered to be potential asymptomatic carriers of the virus – were required to go school, potentially taking the virus back to their homes. This is obviously a contradiction – but if the children stay at home, then the parents cannot work successfully and contribute to the economy.

In the UK, the initial government response was rather slow, with the rhetoric indicating that there was nothing to worry about. Major entertainment and sporting events continued to take place well into March 2020. A national lockdown was finally declared on 23 March 2020, but it was not until June 2020 that visitors arriving from other parts of the world were required to quarantine – and not until 23 July 2020 that mask wearing when entering shops was required. Difficulties were compounded by the lack of pandemic planning by this and previous governments.

On 2 April 2020, the UK government announced the development of a contact tracing application to streamline pandemic planning and decision-making. The government used special powers to bypass the open tender process – and gave the work to several private companies, effectively bypassing local NHS health support networks. It was promised that the application would be ready by the end of April 2020, with a capacity of 100,000 tests per day. What ensued were months of confusion and delay. Lockdown and social distancing restrictions became so complex and haphazard that most people in the country were confused. (In fact, eventually, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland started diverging in their pandemic strategy , and took responsibility for their own restriction measures.) On 18 June 2020, the government abandoned development of this application. It announced it would be working on a new application based on Google and Apple technology. A trial of this new application was announced on 13 August 2020, and the application was finally launched on 24 September 2020.

In general, the UK population has been respectful and followed government rules, even in the face of the press media whose news focuses on negative pandemic-related events and in the face of some cases of public (including government) figures breaking the rules. Today, the sense of social fatigue is growing, especially following the second lockdown in November. Although the government has helped most businesses and employees with financial support, the scattershot way in which social distancing restrictions have been applied leave the general public feeling uncertain and confused about their future.

Further afield, in the USA, we have had President Donald Trump denying that the pandemic exists and suggesting that it is some kind of plot by his opposition to undermine his presidency. Within the European Union (EU), individual countries’ approaches to the pandemic have varied – with some seemingly more successful than others. As of 16 December 2020, the two worst outcomes have been in Italy (1,855,737 cases and 65,011 deaths) and Spain (1,751,884 cases and 48,013 deaths). Germany, by contrast, has had 1,351,510 cases and 22,475 deaths. Compare this with the UK’s 1,869,666 cases and 64,000 deaths.

With the pandemic ongoing, the current situation does not look very promising. Strategies continue to be extremely reactive, and the social and economic panorama negative. There is talk of a global economic recession, and there is a real sense of social fatigue.

Confronting the pandemic – vaccines

Pharmaceutical companies have worked quickly to develop a vaccine. Of course, a vaccine is a massive source of revenue for such companies. Furthermore, financial support for their R&D has been available, and some governments are ready to authorise the use of Covid-19 vaccines without full formal approval which would normally take years. The UK has been the first country in the world to authorize (not approve) the use of a Covid-19 vaccine on humans (that is, the Pfizer vaccine).

Currently, there are two types of Covid-19 vaccine under development: (1) those that use traditional methods using inactive viruses; and (2) those using newer technologies using mRNA. Traditional techniques tend to take longer to manufacture. Although mRNA vaccines have been used to treat cancer, they have not previously been used in anti-viral vaccines.

Currently, there are some 20+ companies working on vaccine development, some using traditional techniques and others using mRNA techniques. AstraZeneca has teamed up with Oxford University to develop a vaccine using traditional techniques, and is considering combining efforts further with Russia’s Gamaleya Institute, which developed the Sputnik V vaccine.

In the UK, most people are open to the idea of Covid-19 vaccines, although some express concerns about safety given the speed of the development and approval process. However, in some countries, including the USA, vaccine use has been highly politicised and, together with mask use, has become a social divider, with many people planning to refuse vaccination and currently refusing to wear masks. Just today, in Dodge City, Kansas, Mayor Joyce Warsaw resigned from her position after receiving threats of violence for supporting mandatory mask use.

Confronting the pandemic and Brexit

The pandemic is coinciding with the UK’s departure from the EU (currently the largest economic exporter of goods, and largest importer of goods and services, in the world). The UK has until the end of December 2020 to agree a post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU. The EU represents about 40+% of Britain’s exports and about 50+% of its imports. Leaving without a trade deal with the EU will result in tariffs and increased trade red tape. This, together with the pandemic, could result in negative social and economic impact to the UK.

Confronting the pandemic in Eynsham

In the face of all the enormous challenges, and national and international uncertainties, Eynsham has responded with a spirit of shared adversity – and our village streets see people continuing to remain as positive as possible. Shops and businesses, when allowed to be open, have worked tirelessly to meet villagers’ needs. Volunteer groups have sprung up and provided enormous help to those in need. Small acts of kindness gain ever-greater value in pandemic times. I am heartened to see such individual and smaller-scale responses that showcase the very best of humanity.

Author: Eynsham Lockdown Editor