Having started in my last post with Ukraine, which is, of course, war, I thought I’d restructure the rest of what was going to be a very long post around a traditional order of the four horsemen of Revelation, though this is not the order you see in the actual text.  The second is frequently cited as pestilence, which for our purposes is, of course, Covid. That is not, perhaps, an existential threat to the world or even to the UK, but it’s an existential threat to me personally. It appears to hover around the point where it doesn’t kill quite a high enough percentage of those who suffer it to have major economic effects long term, though “long Covid” has to be a worry there, with some estimates indicating that a serious percentage of those infected end up with long term disabling conditions, and that might impact, for instance, the labour market enough to produce an uncomfortable or even catastrophic economic shift. The UK government seems to have decided that Covid is now “over”; they stopped providing free test kits on 1st April, and thus any figures for the prevalence of Covid cases are now going to be wildly inaccurate, as opposed to just somewhat inaccurate. However, on the eve of that change, there was an estimate that one in 14 people in England had Covid, which is actually a significantly higher percentage than at most of the times when we were panicking about it.

Perhaps foolishly, early on in the pandemic I fed in details of my various health conditions to a site which gave an estimate of my chances of survival were I to catch Covid. I expected something significantly worse than the general figure for adults, and even adults over 65, but was somewhat taken aback to find a probability of 86% that I would die if I contracted it. Yes, I am now triple jabbed. Yes, I’ve taken some comfort in the development of molnupiravir, which is a drug which apparently reduces mortality by 50% (that’s overall, not allowing for particular vulnerabilities like mine) and other similar antiviral drugs. However, in the opposite direction has been the emergence of the Omicron variant, which is significantly more transmissible, and may not be protected against quite as well by the existing vaccines. Data I’ve seen so far, however, seems to indicate that it is at the least no more deadly than previous strains, and might just be less damaging. Here’s a recent assessment of Omicron as at the time I started writing these posts.

Covid 19 could still mutate in the direction of something significantly more deadly, of course. It absolutely will mutate, and there will be new strains. That brings me to a tirade I’ve seen from a facebook friend criticising Bill Gates’ encouragement to governments to improve their pandemic response protocols and research into new viruses. He suggested that there has only been one Covid 19 in his lifetime, and such effort to protect against another raises the supposition that there’s a financial incentive. He is wrong, of course. There have been many pandemic or just sub-pandemic viruses – SARS and MERS, for instance, Ebola, Aids, Bird ‘Flu, Swine ‘Flu – not to mention the base ‘flu virus, which produces new strains yearly, and all of which have deadly potential. It’s just that Covid 19 hit a “sweet spot” of being just lethal enough to scare the public health establishment thoroughly while not being lethal enough (like Ebola, for instance, or the original SARS, remembering that Covid is a close relative of SARS) to kill people off too quickly for them to transmit the disease – and being transmitted by aerosol, which improves transmission remarkably. It currently seems that the Omicron variant has managed to improve on that by being significantly more transmissible but also somewhat less deadly, recalling that success for a virus means maximum replication, and if it kills people too quickly, that limits its spread.

After the government’s horribly bad handling of the early stages of the pandemic, a revelation of sorts about the competence of our government, I came to the conclusion that Covid 19 would become endemic, i.e. a constant presence in the population rather akin to ‘flu. Test and trace, coupled with early closing of borders, could have avoided that here, as it did in New Zealand (though whether New Zealand can continue doing this with endemic Covid is an interesting question). I’m thus looking at the probability that I’ll have to live with the possibility of contracting Covid for the rest of my life, and little possibility of it being eliminated or even reduced to an incidence which makes it unlikely I’ll even catch it. This means that I expect eventually to catch it, and I still expect if I do that I’ll quite possibly die of it (absent it being a strain which doesn’t do as much damage, as I’ve mentioned above). Yes, there are those who suggest that endemic diseases are never those transmitted by airborne particles, but I have in mind the common cold (perhaps the world champion at mutation rates destroying any hope of immunisation) and influenza, which mutates itself a new crop of variants each year which labs more or less manage to stay on top of.

Perhaps the biggest revelation Covid has provided me has been something which at some level I already knew, but which has been brought home to me forcibly. Much has been made of “essential workers” and the fact that, without them, our economy and standard of living declines catastrophically. One might think that those whose work is “essential” would be handsomely remunerated for their efforts, particularly when, during a pandemic, they are the members of society most in danger. But they are as a general rule the least well-paid among us. The nurses, supermarket cashiers, warehouse operatives, delivery drivers and refuse collectors are typically on fairly low earnings (nurses are very low-earning compared with the level of education they need, for instance). The combination with Brexit has underlined that seasonal agricultural workers and butchers (for instance) are also really badly paid compared to the work they do. For six months, we were encouraged to go out and clap for the NHS workers during the height of the pandemic. I would have preferred that we start paying them a reasonable wage, but that was forgotten once restrictions relaxed, and they got a measly percentage increase in their pay. Against that, the merchant bankers, corporate executives and, of course, billionaires have seen their remuneration increase remarkably.

Covid is, however, not likely to be the last disease which starts with zoonotic transfer. It certainly wasn’t the first, either; the mother of such diseases seems to have been AIDS. I put it down to zoonotic transfer, incidentally, because on balance I don’t buy the story of a lab leak. Lab leaks have been blamed for virtually every novel disease we have seen recently, and have never been found to be the actual source. Bio-labs dealing with transmissible diseases have spectacularly tight security, and those suggesting that Wuhan was anything other than exorbitantly careful are probably exhibiting a xenophobic contempt for those of a different nationality (and, of course, race). It won’t be the last because there will continue to be people eating wild animals – the area around Wuhan is particularly known for exotic viruses in the wild, but probably African bush meat is a more likely source for the next plague. The next could, of course, be far more deadly than Covid has proved to be, and Covid has demonstrated that our actual performance in the West in terms of disease control is horribly bad. We could, for instance, see something with the death toll of Ebola, but which has a longer incubation period before people exhibit symptoms, and therefore have longer to spread it before health organisations notice. As and when that happens, we would seem likely to be in real trouble…

So, features of appcalypse. We’ve learned we’re horribly badly prepared for pandemics. We spent time hoping for the “deus ex machina” to save us, in the form of science – vaccines and antivirals, notably. And we found some heroes to extol, even though we didn’t collectively want to recognise their actions by paying them.

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