Covid-19 has made A&E departments very quiet. I worked in the one at St Thomas’s Hospital when it was called Casualty. Undressing a homeless patient once caused the centrifugal escape from his clothes of a shimmering sheen of lice, hundreds of them. Sister Cas was called. She rolled up her sleeves and said: ‘This reminds me of Dunkirk!’ Most lousy people have only a handful. The best quantitative study of lousiness was done by Alexander Peacock, an RAMC entomologist, in the trenches on the Western Front in the First World War. He found that 95 per cent of the soldiers were infested, more than 60 per cent with 20 lice or fewer, but 2.8 per cent – he called them ‘horrible examples’ – had more than 350 on their trousers and shirts. This pattern of distribution, in which most of a human population’s parasites are concentrated in only a few individuals, is very common. Statisticians call it ‘overdispersion’.
Netflix has added a Zimbabwean-made film to its platform for the first time this week. Tomas Brickhill’s Cook Off is a romantic comedy: boy meets girl on a TV cooking show. Like many films made in Zimbabwe over the past ten years or so, it was put together for just a few thousand dollars, with borrowed equipment and deferred payment contracts for its cast and crew, and filmed under the constant threat of power cuts. The only allusion to the country’s economic situation (even worse now than when the film was made) is a blackout during a cooking montage.
In normal circumstances, on Thursday evening I would be going to Hong Kong island’s Victoria Park for the annual vigil remembering those who died in Beijing on the night of 3-4 June 1989. But this year the gathering has been banned. The ostensible reason is a Covid-19 rule limiting public groups to a maximum of eight people.
When my son, who’s 19, called from Minneapolis on Saturday night, I was watching the livestream of protesters defying curfew there for the second night in a row, and listening to young people dry heave, like my students in Colombia, from the tear gas. Because he has first-aid training for mountaineering, my son was volunteering in a medical tent clearly identified with a red cross, but the state police fired on them with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and he and his friends hoofed it home. The real medics told him to stay in for the night. It was going to get rough.
Cummings’s disregard for the new social contract is another data point in support of the hypothesis that the repudiation of protective measures is gendered. As with other risky behaviours, men are more likely to break lockdown rules. A study published this month shows they are also less likely to wear face masks. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many men believe they are less vulnerable to contracting or dying from the virus; others worry that masks are shameful or will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or subjugation.
The Financial Times reported today that the UK has the worst death rate from Covid-19 ‘among countries that produce comparable data’ (new data from Spain now put it ahead of the UK). The delay to introducing lockdown measures was made worse by shortages of PPE, a chaotic testing policy and a failure to protect care homes. The standard the government wanted to be measured by was ‘excess deaths’ – a public health term meaning the number of deaths above the expected level in any given period – and by this measure its policies have fallen short. ‘The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March,’ the FT says. The evidence points to a catastrophic mistake. But something worries me about the apparent neutrality of the term ‘excess deaths’. British political culture is very good at making avoidable deaths seem like an unfortunate fact of life, or a matter of personal responsibility.