Archive for Coronavirus

The Virtue of Signalling

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on September 3, 2020 by telescoper
I was in a supermarket in Maynooth yesterday morning when a bloke was refused entry for not wearing a mask. That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen, though I’ve heard various people mentioning similar stories elsewhere. There is a big sign near the entrance to the store saying that face masks are mandatory, which they have been for some time in Ireland, so he could not make the excuse that he didn’t know. I rather think he was trying to make a point.
The person concerned didn’t get violent, but was extremely loud and abusive to the staff, who shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of behaviour. He stood there for a while shouting expletive in between which his message was that he didn’t care whether he got Covid-19 as it was “just the flu”. I did wonder whether someone might call that Gardaí but after a few minutes, afer which he either felt he had done what he wanted to do or that he was wasting his time, he left.
I have to admit I completely fail to see why certain people find wearing a face mask such an ordeal. It’s really nothing. I understand that some people, with e.g. asthma, might have good reasons for finding it difficult but I’m talking here about people without such reasons who seem to think they’re being asked to bear some intolerable burden, rather than just wearing a piece of light material over their nose and mouth. I’ve got quite used to it and think nothing of it. As winter comes on I even think wearing a mask might help keep my face warm and, more importantly, protect my beard from inclement weather.
The only thing that bothers me slightly is that I have very boring face masks when others seem to have invested in colourful stylish affairs. It makes me feel a bit drab. Perhaps I should invest in some more glamorous masks.
But back to our friend in the supermarket. He of course may not care whether or not he gets Covid-19, but that’s not the main point of wearing a mask. Face masks are far more effective at protecting other people from your germs than protect you from other people’s germs. I suspect, however, that trying to explain this to the person concerned would simply make matters worse. To be happy wearing a face mask you have to be the sort of person who cares about what happens to other people and there are some – regrettably many these days – who just don’t. I’m sure that extreme selfishness translates into their political attitudes too.
When we return to on-campus teaching at the end of this month, students will be asked to wear face coverings in lectures. I’m not sure how that will work out. In particular I don’t know who is supposed to police it. Supermarkets have people on the door to turn away the unmasked. Are we to have that at the entrance to lecture theatres?
Lecturing with a face mask on will be difficult, but in a big theatre the lecturer is sufficiently far from the front of the audience that won’t be necessary.
I’m not sure how effective face masks will be at slowing the spread of Covid-19 – we’ll have to wait and see – but my attitude is that they are just a part of a bundle of measures, including frequent washing of hands, wiping surfaces regularly, maintaining social distancing, etc that all contribute. The great value of a face mask in all this is that it is visible. Wearing a mask is a signal to others that they should remember the danger of the situation and act accordingly. It’s a way of showing leadership.
It has become fashionable (at least among those who possess no virtues) to use the phrase virtue signalling as pejorative term for doing or saying something good in a way that is conspicuous. To the person ejected from the supermarket, the wearing of a face mask is probably an example of virtue signalling. I think it is too, literally, and I’m all in favour of it.

Thoughts on Mortality

Posted in Covid-19 with tags , , , on September 2, 2020 by telescoper

I was updating my Covid-19 statistics page yesterday after the daily announcement and I noticed that it has now been ten consecutive days since the last Covid-19 related death in Ireland. As of yesterday there were only 40 people with Covid-19 in hospitals in the Republic, six of whom were in intensive care.

These low numbers are of course very good news indeed, but it got me wondering why. As you can see from the above graph, new cases started to increase about two months ago. In the first wave the mortality figures started to grow with a much shorter lag, although it is difficult to be too precise about it because of delays in testing and reporting that shifted the blue curve to the right.

With new cases in the Republic now appearing at an average rate of around 100 per day and assuming a mortality rate of a few percent, one might have expected to see the mortality figures rising, but this has not happened. It must be said though that the current level of new cases is much lower than the initial peak, as this linear plot (also smoothed on a 7-day window) makes clear:

An even more remarkable case is that of France (data from here):

The blue curve is a 7-day moving average. You can see that the level of new cases in France is about the same as it was in late March. The daily mortality figure however looks like this:

So the mortality rate among recent cases is much lower in France than in Ireland.

I’m not going to discuss mortality data in the United Kingdom as these are being fiddled by the Government who have arbitrarily decided not to count anyone who dies more than 4 weeks after testing positive for Covid-19 in the figures. It’s a blatant con intended to make people think that the situation in the UK is better than it actually is.

I suppose the main factor for this is that the more recent cases are not happening in hospitals or care homes and they are affecting mainly younger people who have no underlying health conditions; over 70% of the recent cases in Ireland are people under the age of 45. It may also be that the treatment of patients is more effective now that it was in March and April.

Some people are arguing on social media are saying that data such as these prove that the Coronavirus has lost its potency and is no longer a threat. In order to provide evidence in support of such a claim one would have to take account of the differences in demographic and health history of new cases versus older ones, and I have not seen such a study.

Update: I had a terrible feeling that this would happen, but the same day I wrote this a further Covid-19 related death was reported. This was however a late notification of a death that occurred in June. For the latest figures see here.

Covid-19 in Ireland: No End in Sight

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , , on August 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish Government put the brakes on the relaxation of the restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and tightened up some existing rules. The reason for this move is obvious when you look at the data:

After dropping to very low numbers of new cases a couple of months ago, the curve has been steadily rising. On Saturday 200 new cases were reported and yesterday the figure was 190. The average number of cases per day over the last 7 days is now over a hundred. The last time it was that high was in early May.

So what has gone wrong?

A large fraction of the cases appearing in the latest outbreaks is associated with either meat (or other food) processing plants and with direct provision centres. These are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because of the difficulty of maintaining social distancing. Most of the people involved however are under the age of 40, so these outbreaks are not (yet) associated with a significant increase in mortality. Until recently it was hoped these localised `events’ could be contained by testing, contact-tracing and isolation.

Unfortunately these outbreaks are happening at a time when public adherence to Covid-19 restrictions has also been declining. I have noticed over the past few weeks that many people in Maynooth are congregating outside, especially in Courthouse Square, without any attempt at social distancing and with nobody wearing a face masks. Pubs in the area are serving drinks to take away and people are just taking them outside and treating the public areas as a big beer garden. The law it seems can do nothing about this, and pub landlords are doing nothing to discourage it.

The problem in this respect started back in June when the (then) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar decided to accelerate the stages of the Roadmap. I didn’t understand this at the time. The plan was carefully thought out and was working. Why change it? The answer is of course intensive lobbying from vested interests worried about the impact on their own finances.

Anyway, the effect of this change was immediately noticeable in that a sizeable contingent of the public clearly thought it was a signal that the Covid-19 outbreak was over and became complacent about the continuing risk of community transmission.

I think of the outbreaks in factories and direct provision centres as sparks that can hopefully be snuffed out quickly. The real risk to the public however is from these sparks spreading the conflagration into the general population. Social distancing acts like a sort of fire break – that’s what the new restrictions are trying to achieve.

What this means for the next month or so I can’t say, but I wouldn’t rule out a full lockdown being imposed again.I hope that doesn’t happen because I am looking forward to getting back to teaching, but it’s looking touch-and-go at the moment.

 

Returning to Campus

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 7, 2020 by telescoper

It’s been a busy day (so far) putting the finishing touches to return to work planning at the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. We have improved the signage and decluttered the main corridor to allow the two-way system to operate.

We’ve also fitted the odd tensor barrier (that’s what the above thing is called) to prevent people wandering into offices uninvited contrary to social distancing requirements.

As well as all that I’ve received delivery of a selection of face masks, hand gel and disinfectant wipes.

All this is because the repeat examination period starts next week and we’re consequently preparing for the second wave (of examination marking) by allowing staff to come onto campus to collect their scripts, which most should be able to do from next week.

Update: owing to the recent increases in Covid-19 cases in Kildare Offaly and Laois, as of this evening, local restrictions have been imposed on these counties. As a consequence the return to work process has been paused and all repeat exams scheduled to take place on campus will be replaced by online timed assessments. Sigh.

Phase Four Postponed

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on August 5, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday the Irish government decided to postpone the last phase of its (already revised) Roadmap for Reopening and also make mandatory the wearing of face masks in shops. Phase Four was supposed to start on August 10th and was to include, among other things, the opening of pubs.

The reason for not proceeding with Phase Four is obvious when you look at yesterday’s  new cases graph:

(I keep updating the data here.

Note that the graph is logarithmic on the y-axes so the number of new cases is not large (currently averaging about 45 per day), but the trend is concerning; last week’s average was about 18. Most of the new cases are aged under 45 which perhaps accounts at least partly for the fact that the death curve is not rising: younger people are at lower risk of developing serious problems. The pattern of increasing infections but decreasing mortality figures is quite widespread across Europe, actually.

The recent cases in Ireland are occurring in clusters in particular locations. Of the 45 cases reported yesterday, for example, 33 were in County Kildare most of them at a single factory in Kildare itself (which has now been shut).

There has also been an increase in community transmission, though, which is perhaps even more dangerous than individual outbreaks.

It seems to me that pausing the planned relaxation of restrictions is a sensible thing to do at this stage. To open pubs now – which many continue to argue for – would in my view be extremely foolhardy.

I’m not sure what all this means for the new academic year which is due to start in September nor even the repeat examination period which are due to start next week but if cases continue to increase at their current rate it will severely impact our ability to return to on-campus activities.

 

 

Excess Deaths due to Coronavirus: Compare and Contrast

Posted in Covid-19, Politics with tags , , on July 3, 2020 by telescoper

I saw an interesting news item this morning about excess deaths registered in Ireland between 11th March and 16th June, the period that brackets the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to the official numbers, 1709 deaths occurred during that time of people who had tested positive for the Coronavirus. During the same period, however,  about about 1100-1200 deaths were registered in excess of the average mortality figures.
One interpretation of this discrepancy is that many of those counted as Covid-19 cases actually died of other causes. Consistent with that interpretation is the fact that over 60% of those deaths were people in care homes, many of whom may have had chronic illness.

Taking 1150 as an estimate of the excess deaths caused by Covid-19 the mortality per million in Ireland drops from 352 to about 237. It must be noted that this figure is still much higher than similar-sized countries such as Denmark and Norway.

The contrast with the United Kingdom is stark. A recent analysis of excess deaths there suggests about 69,000 people have lost their lives directly or indirectly due to Covid-19, which is about 57% higher than the official figure of around 44,000. Taking 69,000 instead of 44,000, the United Kingdom’s mortality rate increases from 647 per million to over a thousand.

I haven’t really been following the reporting in the United Kingdom very closely, because I don’t live there anymore, but the data on new cases found by testing is hopelessly confusing. This, together, with the apparent under-reporting of deaths, may be the reason behind the lax adherence to public health measures over the other side of the Irish Sea.

There is also the fact that daily Covid-19 briefings here in Ireland are led by medical experts, with the politicians taking a back seat (and often not involved at all). These are much more likely to be trusted than politicians, especially those involved in the current Tory government.

And so to Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , on June 29, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Phase Three of the Great Reopening happened has started on schedule. As I walked to campus this morning I saw long queues in the street outside every barber’s shop in Maynooth. I decided to wait a few days before trying to get my long overdue haircut. It’s been over three months now.

Maynooth has quite a lot of barber’s shops for a town of its size. It also has quite a lot of nice restaurants. I noticed this evening that quite a few will be opening this week for sit-down meals rather than takeaway. I wish them well, but I think I’ll be sticking with the takeaways for a while longer.

When I got into the office to start work on the risk assessment I’m supposed to complete so staff can return to work, there was quite a lot of activity in the Science Building, including signs of various kinds being put up.

Some of the signs are bisexual bilingual:

All this reminded me of some lines from the Leonard Cohen song Anthem:

We asked for signs. The signs were sent

……

Signs for all to see.

The arrows will be put on the floor at regular intervals to enforce a one-way system around the building to allow people to circulate without bumping into each other.

I’m also expecting to be issued with tape to be used to mark some of the machines in our computer laboratory out of use, to keep users from sitting too close. I was going to remove the chairs but I don’t have anywhere to out them and we’ll probably – hopefully – need them back sometime!

I started work on the risk assessment but didn’t get it finished. I should be able to complete it tomorrow. Then it needs to be approved. Only after that will staff be able to begin routinely working in the Department. Until then, working from home continues.

Before Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (on Monday 29th June) Ireland will enter Phase Three of its (accelerated) Roadmap for Reopening after the Covid-19 restrictions.

The Coronavirus situation here remains relatively stable, with new cases steady at a low level:

This is not the case for the rest of the world, however. Yesterday two grim milestones were passed: 10,000,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 500,000 deaths:

Much of the recent numerical growth of the pandemic is associated with North and South America. Brazil is particularly badly affected as are some of the United States. I don’t need to comment on the quality of the political leadership involved.

I am very nervous about the situation in the United Kingdom too, where I feel the reopening is being rushed. Poor leadership is partly responsible for the continuing high levels of infection there too.

Anyway, back to Phase Three in Ireland. Yesterday I bought a copy of the Irish Times and found this booklet inside:

The emphasis is on the fact that despite the low levels in Ireland Covid-19 has not gone away and we all have to be prepared to take special precautions for the foreseeable future. I would be amazed if there wasn’t another flare-up here at some point, actually, it’s just a question of when. And those optimistic about the delivery of a vaccine in the near future, I’ll remind you that there isn’t yet a vaccine for any form of Coronavirus let alone the novel form responsible for Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2).

Anyway, on Friday I attended a virtual Question and Answer session with the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, about the plans for reopening campus over the Summer and into the new academic year. It is clear that lots will have to be done before staff can return fully and even then it won’t be anything like “normal”.

Incidentally the issue of face masks came up and there was some discussion about their effectiveness. Not being a medical expert I don’t really know about that, but I think one of the important things about masks in a work environment is that their visibility means that they work as a signal to remind people to be aware of Covid-19. I have discarded my home-made face masks and bought a box of proper ones and I intend to wear them whenever I am in a work setting in which anyone else is present.

On Friday evening I finally received (relatively) detailed instructions on how the return to work process will work. The Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University is still basically in Phase 1 while the university working group has been assembling this guidance. It will probably be several more weeks before we can get people back to work because there are many things still to be done: including the installation of hand sanitizers, one-way systems, screens, and new signage.

Another thing that came up during the President’s Q&A was the question of vacations for staff. Fortunately I had muted both my audio and video feeds for this as I laughed out loud. What with organising the return to work, overseeing repeat exams, recruiting a sabbatical replacement, planning teaching for next year, rewriting my own lectures for the “new normal”, etc etc, and (hopefully) moving into a new house, I can’t see any prospect of any summer holiday this year at all!

Anti-Malarial Memories

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by telescoper

All this business about Donald Trump recommending the drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 reminded me of my first trip to India in the 1990s. I hadn’t travelled very much outside Europe before that and was quite nervous, so I bought a couple of books about travelling in India. Among other things, they both recommended taking precautions against Malaria.

I made an appointment with my GP, who asked exactly where I was going and, after consulting a book, he wrote out two prescriptions, for the drugs paludrine and chloroquine. I was to start taking them a week before travelling and continue for two weekd after returning. The paludrine came in small tablets to be taken every day; chloroquine was in a much bigger tablet taken once a week. The brand name for the latter was Avloclor. I have good reason to remember it.

The paludrine was no trouble but the chloroquine was horrible. For one thing it tasted so foul that even with a huge amount of water it was difficult to prevent unpleasant sensations as it went down. Worse, it has a long list of side effects, the mildest of which include nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, upset stomach, stomach pain, rash, itching, and hair loss. More serious symptoms include heart problems, blurred vision, and suicidal thoughts. The list of warnings that came with the tablets was so long that I started to wonder how bad Malaria can be…

I’m told that anti-Malarial drugs are notoriously unpleasant, especially those given to soldiers stationed in theme tropics who presumably get the cheapest sort.

I didn’t experience any of the more serious issues, thank goodness, but I had a selection from the former list, plus a sprinkling of mouth ulcers. I knew these were caused by the chloroquine as I always got them the day after I took the tablet: they went away after a day or two but came back when I took the next week’s dose. Presumably I just couldn’t down the tablet quickly enough to avoid some of it affecting my mouth.

I was in India for about six weeks and was plagued by this for the whole time. I really enjoyed the spicy food while I was there, but found it quite difficult for a couple of days each week.

Now although chloroquine is related to hydroxychloroquine it isn’t quite the same thing. I gather, however, it does have similar side effects. As far as I’m aware there is no evidence that either of these drugs is effective against Covid-19 so in my opinion you would have to be crackers to run the risk of seriously unpleasant or even worse consequences for no therapeutic gain.

Dream Time

Posted in Art, Biographical, Covid-19, Mental Health with tags , , , , , , on May 13, 2020 by telescoper

The Dream (Salvador Dali, 1931)

I know I’m not alone during this strange and unsettling Coronavirus period in having extraordinarily vivid dreams almost every night.

I’m grateful for two things related to this. One is that I’m sleeping much better than usual, with not a trace of the insomnia I’ve experienced in the past during times of stress. The other is that these dreams are very far from being nightmares. Most of them are benign, and some are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The other day, for example, I had a dream in which Nigel Farage returned from his recent trip to Dover in search of migrants publicity to find his house filled with asylum seekers singing the theme from The Dambusters. There was also a cameo appearance by Nigella Lawson in that dream but I forget the context.

I’ve written about dreams a few times before (e.g. here) and don’t intend to repeat myself here. It does seem to me however that dreams are probably a byproduct of the unconscious brain’s processing of notable recent events and this activity is heightened because the current times are filled with unfamiliar experiences.

I know some people are having far worse nocturnal experiences than me, and I don’t really understand why I’m having a relatively easy ride when my past history suggests I’d be prime candidate for cracking up. Perhaps I’ve had enough practice at dealing with anxiety in the past (not always very satisfactorily)? Perhaps the sense of detachment I’ve experienced over the past few weeks is part of some sort of defence mechanism I’ve acquired?

Anyway, don’t have nightmares!