People cause pandemics

Sunday 10 May 2020

1246hrs UTC today - there are still plenty of flights in the air (

1246hrs UTC today – there are still plenty of flights in the air (


As the UK nears the end of this first phase of lockdown, I now realise what causes pandemic waves. Very few pandemics, if any, have shown a single wave, however far back you might go in history. The plague managed to keep going for several hundred years with wave after wave after wave.

A wave of infection is nothing to do with the bug, be it virus, bacterium, or something different. It is everything to do with the people. To listen to many of my fellow nationals speak, lockdown has been a questionable purgatory. Even now there are many who question its logic. Basically, the nation is both bored and worried and likes to think there is an end point in sight. I hear others talk about life after the virus, when in reality this will not occur. There may be a post-viral world some day, but that will depend on either vaccine, drug, or both. There is presently no assurance of either. For the moment life is, and will be, one of co-existing with Covid-19. It is out there, around each corner, and has the ability to mutate. Never forget mutation. It is what viruses can do. My guess is that Covid-19 will be with us until at least mid-2021.

During today’s early-morning stagger-stumble, this time around Regent’s Park, I was horrified to see so much rubbish. This Royal Park is normally so spotless but today its rubbish bins were filled to bursting and debris lay strewn across most grassy surfaces. There is plenty of grass in Regent’s Park. The debris comprised takeaway cartons, plastic bags, crisp packets, cups with straws, and piles of empty beer bottles, so many that I lost count. It was the morning after the night before and I had come across the evidence. There were no people, not even a comatose drunk, but Regent’s Park had clearly been a place for earlier celebration, as if the nearing adjustment of lockdown was an end to everyone’s problems.

President Moon Jae-in of Korea, who said, “It’s not over until it’s over.” (The Diplomat)

President Moon Jae-in of Korea, who said, “It’s not over until it’s over.” (The Diplomat)

This evening, the Prime Minister will talk to the nation and lay out his government’s future requirements. It is likely that lockdown will be slackened, although not completely removed. It is a moment of maximum danger, as it is so easy to undo everything that has so far been achieved. When other countries have done the same, and plenty have done so, life so easily backfires in moments.

South Korea is a good example, a land whose response to Covid-19 has been regarded as almost exemplary. The country introduced strict social distancing rules on 22 March, but recently started to relax them, accompanied by a set of guidelines called “distancing in daily life.” Baseball resumed five days ago, albeit in empty stadia, and children are scheduled to return to school on 13 May. Yet 48 hours ago, at least 15 new cases emerged, because of a single individual who had visited three nightclubs in Seoul last weekend. Thanks to one person, clubs and bars in the capital have been ordered to close for the next month. A total of 2100 establishments have been affected. So many closures thanks to the actions of a single, 29-year-old man.

How right President Moon Jae-in of South Korea was, when he said, “It’s not over until it’s over.”

The UK police have expressed their fury in the last two days, as hundreds of people have flocked to the country’s parks and beaches, despite the current lockdown rules. The police have now admitted that they are fighting a losing battle. Four people were fined for driving 200 miles from Dorset to Milford Haven to look at a boat, and 12 villagers from Grappenhall near Warrington undertook a conga line celebration. Meanwhile, the Coastguard have said that on a single day, 8 May, they received more callouts than for the last month.

I think back to earlier pandemics, and in my formative medical years I wondered why second waves were often worse than the first, or why there were waves at all. Now I see the reason. The UK population is frustrated, wishes to go outside, wants to spread its wings once more, and return to a former life. The fact is that generations of Britons centuries ago experienced the same feeling. They went outside, they imagined life was normal, they considered themselves to be immune or exempt, just as I see around me now. In earlier times it might have been bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, or even typhoid. The result was a second, third, or fourth wave, and even more to follow. It is a frustrated public that brings a wave upon itself.

I listened to a fascinating lecture today, by a Professor Charles Chiu from San Francisco. His talk was about how diseases spread and the value of biotechnology in combating Covid-19. I reached the end of the presentation with one conclusion. Travel is what has spread Covid-19. If mankind did not travel, we would not have this problem today.

With travel being such a problem, I was pleased to hear discussion of a 14-day quarantine announcement that will affect the airline industry, and also the UK’s seaports. The industry itself fears this will kill it off completely but with such a link between disease and travel, I try hard to see an alternative. In fact, I find it even harder to work out why such quarantining was not introduced earlier. For some reason the talk is of this being introduced in early June. What is the purpose of waiting? There are 15,000 new arrivals to this country by air each day.

The situation this morning - 10 May 2020 (courtesy Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University)

The situation this morning – 10 May 2020 (courtesy Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University)

For those who are sufficiently brave to fly these days, and there still seem to be a fair few, the experience has not always been a good one. Mckay Coppins has written an excellent description in The Atlantic, of his domestic flight from Washington to Chicago in late April. Most of the shops in Washington National Airport were closed, the drinks service in the main cabin had been suspended and he had a near punch-up with a fellow traveller who did not want him sitting too near. In Chicago, a shouting match broke out between travellers and the police had to intervene.

As and when lockdown is over, and if I decide ever to fly again, I sense I have already had the best days of aviation. The old days have sadly now gone.