Vol. 42 No. 11 · 4 June 2020

Search by issue:

Modelling the Epidemic

Epidemiology is, conceptually at least, a simple enough pursuit. You count things. They go up, they stay the same or they go down. The statistic typically used in talk about the progress of an epidemic is the basic reproduction rate, R0. (Never mind that the dynamic parameter we should be referring to is the effective reproduction rate, Re.) When it’s less than 1, things go down, when it’s 1 they stay the same and when it’s more than 1, they go up. It’s the one bit of epidemiology that has been internalised by politicians and journalists alike. They present it as a volume control that turns epidemics up and down. Paul Taylor writes an accessible account of epidemic modelling that should help dispel these oversimplifications (LRB, 7 May).

However, Taylor doesn’t say enough to indicate that the structure of social networks is more important than R when it comes to understanding epidemics. The hugely influential model produced by Imperial College treats general social contacts as if they occurred at random where, in fact, they take place in highly structured networks. Simply put, in any group, a few individuals with a lot of different contacts contribute much of the spread, and the majority of the group contribute very little. Some studies, for example one from the University of East Anglia comparing the UK with other European countries, suggest that general social distancing (lockdown) has had little effect.

Studies like the one from Imperial tend to overestimate the contribution of lockdown. Imperial has form when it comes to making predictions about epidemics. In the 1990s its modellers greatly overestimated the burden of HIV/Aids and only avoided similar inaccuracies with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease by giving estimates that ranged from the tens to the tens of thousands. On both these occasions, other groups using simpler approaches fared better. With foot and mouth disease in 2001, Imperial’s advocacy of culling cattle on nearby farms was praised for having shortened the epidemic, but subsequent analysis has suggested that the peak had already passed. In 2009 Imperial’s model for swine flu grossly overestimated the burden of disease; a subsequent inquiry published by the Cabinet Office found that the UK government had placed too much reliance on such ‘modelling evidence’. We have seen a similar reliance during the Covid-19 crisis.

Put aside all the equivocation and obfuscation in the assorted plans and criteria for exiting lockdown, not to mention the competing predictions of various mathematical modellers, and we are left with a simple, essentially political, choice. Should the burden of Covid-19 fall on elderly and vulnerable populations, or on younger working populations, whose future employment, housing, health, wellbeing and, indeed, life expectancy stand to be affected? Since no country has deep enough pockets to stay locked down until a vaccine arrives, the choice may be more apparent than real. Society has to start to function again and the task then becomes to shield the most vulnerable in the most effective way.

Roland Salmon

The Name for It

Jacqueline Rose writes that when Camus was working on The Plague, ‘mass murder, something the world had just witnessed … had not yet been named either as “genocide” or as a “crime against humanity” but soon would be’ (LRB, 7 May). By the time it was published in 1947, the Nuremberg Trials had brought these terms to the fore. ‘Crimes against Humanity’, used by the Allied Powers as far back as 1915, was the fourth count of the indictment, levelled at all 24 defendants. The Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’ in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944. It was widely used at Nuremberg, and UN Resolution 96 defined genocide as a crime shortly afterwards, in December 1946.

Matthew Barr

Cromwell’s Critics

Ferdinand Mount writes that George Cony’s lawyer at his trial in May 1655 was the ‘eminent Sir John Maynard’ (LRB, 7 May). Eminent for sure, though Maynard wasn’t knighted until the Restoration in 1660. Cony was in fact represented by three lawyers: serjeants John Maynard and Thomas Twisden, and Wadham Wyndham, my seventh-great-grandfather. All three were committed to the Tower by Oliver Cromwell and only released after petitioning Cromwell, admitting their fault and promising to take no further action in the case.

The regicide Edmund Ludlow took a dim view of the lawyers’ ‘unworthy petition’, without explaining how continued resistance would have benefited their client. Cony was left to plead for himself under the spotless Chief Justice Rolle who, unwilling to cross Cromwell, postponed judgment on a technicality and promptly resigned. While the injustice to Cony was clear in law, Rolle was succeeded by John Glynne, whose loyalty to Cromwell and co-operative nature were well known. Cony was pressed to pay the fine and duties, and was released from prison.

At the Restoration, Maynard, Twisden and Wyndham were promptly made judges and knighted by Charles II. In addition, Wyndham was appointed a counsel for the prosecution of the regicides. His critic Edmund Ludlow was not among those tried and then hanged, drawn and quartered, having run away to Switzerland, where he died in exile in 1692.

Alexander Wyndham Ashworth
London SW20

John Lambert, architect of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate and casualty of the Restoration, spent 22 years in island prisons: eight at Castle Cornet, Guernsey, and 14 more on St Nicholas in Plymouth Sound. But he didn’t go mad, as Ferdinand Mount says. Like many in isolation, he read his books and tended his garden, cultivating nerine sarniensis, the Guernsey lily. During his final years he received such visitors as the naval administrator Samuel Pepys, and exchanged algebraic problems with the vicar of Bishop’s Nympton. Lambert suffered for ‘the good old cause’ while many lesser republicans temporised with the crown.

David Cressy
Claremont, California

Ferdinand Mount writes that Charles I ‘showed an almost Thatcheresque diligence in inventing a postal service, introducing building regulations and measures against smoke pollution, improving the system of poor relief and, yes, defending British fishermen against the encroaching Dutch’. On the contrary, had Thatcher been in Charles’s shoes, she would have sold off the postal service, deregulated construction, taken a dim view of the dependency culture created by the system of poor relief, and opened up British fishing waters to the free market.

Jamie Jackson
London N6

The Present Crisis

Adam Tooze’s remark that ‘America has a formidable public health apparatus’ may once have been true, but it was woefully unprepared to deal with the global pandemic (LRB, 16 April). The public health system in the US has been underfunded for decades. A paper published in the American Journal of Public Health in January 2016 reviewed data on public health expenditure and found that funding had fallen by 17 per cent between 2002 and 2014. It also highlighted the fact that the Affordable Care Act ‘originally promised a $15 billion boost in public health funding. However, a 2012 law cut funding for the … Prevention and Public Health Fund by $6.25 billion.’ Trump’s administration has cut funding to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention by 10 per cent. Recently he announced his decision to stop funding the World Health Organisation. Such chronic underfunding of the American public healthcare system, along with Trump’s abject failure of leadership, has created a perfect environment in which Covid-19 can spread, bringing both America’s healthcare system and its economy to their knees.

Robert Boon

Not Uniquely Incompetent

Edward Luttwak overdoes the achievements of Italy’s Decima Flottiglia (MAS) in the Second World War (LRB, 21 May). Italian frogmen did not ‘destroy’ two British battleships. In December 1941, the Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were at anchor in Alexandria when they were holed by limpet mines. They were refloated and returned to service after repairs. If they had been at sea, they would have sunk, but ‘human torpedoes’ needed a stationary target. There were also MAS operations against shipping at Gibraltar and Malta. The cruiser York was attacked by Italian motorboats while at anchor in Souda Bay, Crete in March 1941. The crew beached the vessel to prevent it capsizing, and blew it up two months later when the Germans invaded the island.

M.J. Taylor

Conrad’s First Command

Fredric Jameson writes that Conrad’s father, Apollo Korzeniowski, ‘took part in numerous patriotic actions (fortunately for him he was in prison during the most dramatic of these, the Warsaw uprising of 1863). In this he was opposed by other members of his family, notably his uncle, Conrad’s lifelong patron and a resolute abstentionist’ (LRB, 16 April). Apollo Korzeniowski was in fact in exile, not in prison, at the start of the 1863 insurrection, having been banished by the tsarist government after a period of imprisonment in the Warsaw Citadel.

Jameson correctly describes Conrad’s uncle and ‘lifelong patron’, Tadeusz Bobrowski, as being uninvolved with ‘militancy or subversive anti-Russian activity’. However, Conrad’s other uncle, Tadeusz’s younger brother Stefan, served as head of the underground government after the insurrection started on 1 January 1863. He lost his life in an insurrection-related duel (it’s complicated) in April that year.

Andrew Kozelka
Mesa, Arizona

The Elegant Dr Pozzi

Colton Valentine correctly points out that Oscar Wilde never actually names Huysmans’s À rebours in The Picture of Dorian Gray, though it continues to be assumed that this was the ‘poisonous’ book Wilde was alluding to (Letters, 16 April). But in an early draft of his novel, Wilde refers to ‘le secret de Raoul’, suggesting that the book he had in mind was the roman à scandale Monsieur Vénus from 1884, featuring the heroine Raoule de Vénérande, by the decadent French novelist Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery Vallette, 1860-1953).

Melanie Hawthorne
Texas A&M University, College Station

Futures Past

Daniel Soar’s description of the engineer Ivan Sutherland’s 1965 premonition of our digital world reminded me of a passage in Christopher Isherwood’s memoir from 1938, Lions and Shadows (LRB, 16 April). Describing a book he and a friend imagined but never wrote, to be called ‘Mortmere’, Isherwood anticipated the internet and a vision of virtual reality:

It was to be illustrated … with real oil paintings, brasses, carvings in ivory or wood; fireworks would explode to emphasise important points in the narrative; a tiny gramophone sewn into the cover would accompany the descriptive passages with emotional airs; all the dialogue would be actually spoken; the different pages would smell appropriately, according to their subject matter, of grave clothes, manure, delicious food, burning hair, chloroform, or expensive scent. All copies would be distributed free. Our friends would find, attached to the last page, a pocket containing banknotes and jewels; our enemies, on reaching the end of the book, would be shot dead by a revolver concealed in the binding.

John Eklund
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences