Sensemaker: The worst Covid in the world

Monday 11 January 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Britain recorded more new Covid cases per capita than any other country (more below).
  • US Democrats said they plan to impeach Trump this week if he doesn’t resign, even if his Senate trial is delayed until after Biden’s first 100 days. 
  • Six wildlife rangers were killed by militias in the Virunga National Park, a stronghold of the mountain gorilla in eastern Congo.

The worst Covid in the world, in terms of cases per 100,000, is here in the UK. One in 50 people have it. Fifty thousand new cases were recorded on Sunday for the 13th day in a row and daily new cases peaked for the first time last week at over 60,000 – nearly four times the per capita rate in France, Italy and Spain. According to one new estimate one in five people have had Covid, or five times the number of confirmed cases, since the start of the pandemic.

Why? A surge in infections since December may be partly a result of the high transmissibility of a new variant traced to a single patient in Kent in September. But doctors are concerned and angry that ministers are blaming the variant for abject failures of public health policy, especially over Christmas. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, says parts of the NHS are in “the most dangerous situation anyone can remember”. Three basic questions:

Long stories short

  • Britain recorded more new Covid cases per capita than any other country (more below).
  • US Democrats said they plan to impeach Trump this week if he doesn’t resign, even if his Senate trial is delayed until after Biden’s first 100 days. 
  • Six wildlife rangers were killed by militias in the Virunga National Park, a stronghold of the mountain gorilla in eastern Congo.

The worst Covid in the world, in terms of cases per 100,000, is here in the UK. One in 50 people have it. Fifty thousand new cases were recorded on Sunday for the 13th day in a row and daily new cases peaked for the first time last week at over 60,000 – nearly four times the per capita rate in France, Italy and Spain. According to one new estimate one in five people have had Covid, or five times the number of confirmed cases, since the start of the pandemic.

Why? A surge in infections since December may be partly a result of the high transmissibility of a new variant traced to a single patient in Kent in September. But doctors are concerned and angry that ministers are blaming the variant for abject failures of public health policy, especially over Christmas. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, says parts of the NHS are in “the most dangerous situation anyone can remember”. Three basic questions:

Who is sick?

  • More people of all ages are getting infected and going to hospital than in the first wave, but the infection rate is highest among teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s. They are vectors even if they have no symptoms. That means more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s are in hospital, even though patients’ overall age distribution is largely unchanged since the first wave. 
  • The elderly still outnumber young age-groups in hospitals, but not in intensive care. New Public Health England figures show ICU admission rates are highest for 65-74 year-olds, followed by 45-64 year-olds, who overtook 75-84 year-olds in mid-December. It’s unclear why but triage according to who has the best hope of survival could be a factor, as this heartbreaking piece from UnHerd suggests. 
  • As in wave one, infection levels correlate strongly with population density and multi-generation households. They’re highest in a London-Essex triangle formed by Thurrock, Redbridge and Barking, where up to two in five people have had Covid, according to modelling by Edge Health. This triangle is closely followed by other east London boroughs and Liverpool, Manchester, Rochdale and Salford.

“There are young people of all ethnicities who didn’t have what anyone would think of as significant medical problems before this,” a critical care consultant at the Royal London Hospital told the Sunday Times. Another senior London doctor said the population in intensive care at his hospital was younger than in April, possibly but not necessarily because of the Kent variant. Why else? The “idiocy” of government advice leading up to Christmas. 

Who is dying?

  • Still older people, overwhelmingly. The risk of death for under 40s in England is 0.1 per cent, doubling with every eight years of ageing to over 5 per cent for over 80s. 
  • Roughly five times as many over 70s as under 70s have died after a confirmed Covid test since June, although that ratio could change if ICU admission rates for the 45-64 age group continue to rise.
  • Men are still more likely than women to die from Covid in all age groups over 40. In wave two men have been at least twice as likely as women to become critically ill in all age groups over 50, according to data studied by the BBC for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 
  • Since the start of the pandemic a total of 344 people under 40 have died after testing positive for Covid, 80 per cent of them with underlying health conditions.

How much more of this can the NHS take?

Not much. There are 40 per cent more patients in hospital with Covid now than at the first peak in April. In raw numbers that’s 32,294 compared with 21,684. Hence Prof Whitty’s warning yesterday that “there is a material risk of our healthcare services being overwhelmed within 21 days”. If the government fails to meet its target of 2 million vaccinations a week and 13 million by mid-February, a Tier 5 lockdown may be the only option left.  

Quote of the day: “We are on our knees out there.” Dr Anon. 



Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Brexit money
Because of an EU rule that requires EU investors to trade EU stocks in the EU, quite a lot of business left London rather suddenly on the first trading day after Brexit. The FT says share trading volumes fell by half (£) in London last Monday as business moved to Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris. Smoothed out over the year the hit to UK revenues may be as low as £70 million. That’s a smidgeon compared with the UK finance sector’s overall £57 billion annual surplus, but the question is whether the 4 January exodus was a blip or the start of something bigger, and no one knows the answer. Note: Team Johnson failed to negotiate an equivalence deal for the City with the EU, but the US does have one, which means if more business does leave London it could go to New York and Chicago rather than Europe. Bracing for Blighty, either way.


New things technology, science, engineering

Trump’s last charge
Bloomberg reckons Trump will have a final tilt at Big Tech this week by demanding, not for the first time, the scrapping of Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is beloved of Silicon Valley because it exempts social media platforms from liability for content posted by users. It codifies their status as platforms rather than publishers. Trump’s antics last week and his permanent removal from Twitter and Facebook has in a sense forced them to acknowledge at last that they are in fact publishers whatever the law says – “with all the responsibilities that come with that privilege,” as former FT editor Lional Barber put it. People may not pay much attention to Trump’s teeth-gnashing over the next ten days, but in less troubled times he would have found allies in this fight on both sides of the aisle. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Turtles arise
The European pond turtle looks sufficiently like a tortoise to justify this item on branding grounds alone. It’s cute, widespread in Europe and much less so in Britain, but being given a gentle reintroduction by two A-level students who, deprived of exams, have set up what they hope will become the country’s biggest outdoor breeding facility for reptiles and amphibians. That means newts, frogs, toads and lizards as well as turtles, but apparently no actual tortoises. Ah well. Meet Harvey Tweats and Tom Whitehurst, childhood friends from Staffordshire, whose story was inspired by George Monbiot’s Feral and is told in today’s Guardian. Do they have time for girlfriends? “No, we don’t…. We’d rather crack on with this.”


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Wuhan a year on
Thriving markets, busy buses and a memorial exhibition on the fallen. Welcome to Wuhan a year after it incubated the pandemic that now defines our lives. Life there has returned almost completely to normal, which is to say that commerce rules and state propaganda plays a big part. The New York Times reports that Li Wenliang, the first doctor to die of Covid, features prominently in the exhibition, but no mention is made of his run-in with the authorities before his death, nor of a fellow doctor who uploaded the Covid virus’s genome to the net so that scientists could get to work on vaccines. Last month Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who reported on the Wuhan outbreak, received a four-year jail sentence for his trouble.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Maskless tribalism
I don’t know John Martin or his wife, but his Twitter thread about her struggle at work with people who refuse to wear face masks seems to me to have a ring of authenticity. She runs a supermarket. It has about 16,000 customers a week, 1,600 of whom refuse to wear masks despite polite reminders and offers of free masks from staff as they do their shopping. But they don’t just do their shopping. “Some anti-maskers come to the store several times a day just to make trouble,” Martin writes. They call his wife a Nazi and a bitch, “all day long, every day”. He says the government promised Covid marshals to help police and in-store security crack down on this sort of thing. If it did, they never showed. 


the week ahead

UK
11/1 – UK government publishes vaccine deployment plan; daily vaccination data to be published from today; pharmacy rollout of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine begins, 12/1 – High Court judicial review hearing in death of Errol Graham after benefits ceased; NHS officials appear at select committee session on workforce burnout and resilience; former UK European commissioner, Julian King, appears at select committee session on UK-EU security cooperation, 13/1 – mandatory Covid-19 testing introduced for all international arrivals into England; Joseph Rowntree Foundation publishes annual report on poverty in the UK; Gavin Williamson appears at select committee session on impact of lockdown on education, 14/1 – ONS set to release 2020 estimates of UK population, as well as births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, 15/1 – Tony Blair and Jeremy Hunt take part in Chatham House event on future of liberal democracies, 17/1 – Jeremy Corbyn launches Peace and Justice Project

World
11/1 – European Parliament committee hearing to debate the EU-UK Brexit deal; US Democrats due to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump; Consumer Electronics Show begins virtually, 12/1 – Lisa Montgomery set to be first female federal inmate to be executed since 1953; 13/1 – Covid-19 vaccinations begin in India; trial set to begin for 355 alleged members of Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia group; International Labour Organization publishes global report on working from home, 14/1 – UN Security Council gathers virtually to discuss Yemen and Uganda’s presidential election, 15/1 – Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guiadó speaks to Americas Society; JPMorgan reports fourth quarter results, 16/1 – Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party elects new leader; 30-year anniversary of Operation Desert Storm

Opinion: Matt d’Ancona
Killing Joke

The Proud Boys who stormed the US Capitol last week started life as a risible drinking club. In the digital age, mutation is constant

In his remarkable video address yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger drew an explicit comparison between one of the most shocking atrocities of the Nazi era and the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January.

“I grew up up in Austria,” he said. “I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 – by the equivalent of the Proud Boys.”

Thus did the former Republican governor of California remind us all of the twitching thread that connects the rise of totalitarianism in 1930s Europe to the threat to our democratic institutions today. And the Proud Boys? Well, thereby hangs a tale.

In the dying days of this grotesque presidency, it’s important not to forget the shock-and-awe vigour of its beginnings – starting with the moment that Donald Trump descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his candidacy.

Online and at rallies, there sprung up a movement of surrogates, champions, pseudo-intellectuals and unabashed showmen, simultaneously enabling and turbo-charged by the MAGA movement and Trump’s insurgency; broadly described as the “alt Right” (though few embraced the label).

There were overtly sinister figures such as the ethno-nationalist Richard B. Spencer, head of the so-called “National Policy Institute” and a central protagonist in the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville in August 2017 that ignited a horrific race riot. There were a group of young women, led by Lauren Southern and Faith Goldy, who delivered anti-feminist diatribes online echoing the commanders’ wives in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

There was Milo Yiannopolous, the former Telegraph journalist turned campus-touring trickster who dressed like a glam rocker and did his level best to get banned wherever he could. There was Alex Jones, the noisily deranged Texan presenter of the InfoWars channel – well connected to Trump – who insisted, among many other conspiracist fictions, that the Sandy Hook school massacre had been a hoax.

And then there were the Proud Boys. On the spectrum of what became known as the “Intellectual Dark Web”, and all things being relative, they were the clowns and the comic relief – intentionally or otherwise. Their founder was the Anglo-Canadian entrepreneur and performer Gavin McInnes, widely credited with first identifying the “hipster” style and a co-founder of the magazine and media company Vice.

An early enthusiast for Trump, McInnes had ended up as a presenter for the right-wing website Rebel Media. His regular YouTube clips owed less to polemic than to stand-up shtick, the quickfire wit of a gameshow host, and shock jock comedy. He was unashamedly absurd, reliably offensive but – it seemed – engaged in mockery and satire rather than incitement. I assumed that the audience would dwindle and that his moment would quickly pass.

As for the Proud Boys themselves, they appeared to owe more to National Lampoon’s Animal House than to National Socialism. At their rather sad little meetings in bars, they sang songs from the Disney movie Aladdin (no, really), wore XXXL black and yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, drank beer, and grunted about how brilliant ‘the West’ was.

Their initiation ceremony required an aspirant Proud Boy to be punched (pretty lightly) by his prospective comrades while reciting the name of five breakfast cereals. It was hard to imagine this bunch of Budweiser-soaked inadequates fighting their way out of a Doritos bag, still less storming the American legislature.

And then – incrementally but indisputably – the Proud Boys became something much more menacing. What had started as a comic vanity project for McInnes, a ready-made gang of gormless admirers, metastasised into an out-of-control digital franchise, a downloadable software.

Though the movement was still notionally divided into accredited local “chapters”, groups of young self-starters adopted the Proud Boy identity unilaterally, joined proliferating online communities, and organised themselves into proto-militias – a classic example of the 21st-century shift from institutional to network politics.

In October 2018, a fight erupted between Proud Boys and protesters outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan, as a result of which two members of the right-wing gang were sentenced to four years in prison. McInnes stood down as their leader. The Southern Poverty Law Center categorised the movement as a “hate group”. The FBI took a greater (and justified) interest in the hardening of a drinking club into a ragged but increasingly violent fighting force.

Though McInnes and others continued to insist that the Proud Boys’ actions were purely defensive, such claims were self-evidently preposterous. In the disorder that swept many American cities last year in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Proud Boys fought alongside other far-right units such as Patriot Prayer, the Three Percenters and the Boogaloo Boys, seeking confrontation with Black Lives Matter supporters and anti-fascist protesters.

Far from disowning these free-ranging paramilitaries, Trump identified himself as their commander-in-chief. Pressed in the first presidential debate in September to condemn white supremacist groups, he said something quite different: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa [anti-fascist groups] and the left.”

From this extraordinary instruction to await further orders, the path to the storming of the Capitol – in which five people died – was now clear. Many of those detained on and after 6 January were affiliated with the Proud Boys, though precise numbers are not yet available.

On Thursday, the FBI arrested Nick Ochs, leader of the Hawaii “chapter”, at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. The national movement’s official leader, Enrique Tarrio, was also taken into custody last week, and charged with burning a BLM banner removed from a Black church in December. At the time of his arrest, Tarrio was in possession of two high-capacity firearm magazines.

So many questions trouble America and the rest of the world about the terrible scenes at the Capitol five days ago. One that nags at me is this: how did humour become a gateway drug to insurrectional far Right violence?

We are used to the function of jokes as what anthropologists call “containment strategies”: a means of letting off steam and defusing tension. It is in the nature of comedy to be reckless and transgressive, voicing unspoken feelings and flirting at the borders of the unsayable.

But the modern far right has taken humour and turned it to much darker purposes. According to the writing guide of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer: “The undoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not… Packing our message inside of… humour can be viewed as a delivery method. Something like adding cherry flavour to children’s medicine.”

The “manifesto” of Brenton Tarrant – who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand in the Christchurch mosque attacks of March 2019 – was full of in-jokes and memes, intertwined with much more literal expressions of murderous white supremacism.

The wrong lesson to draw is that comedy should now be policed more aggressively, stand-up comics subjected to ideological vetting, and satire stripped of its cutting edge. As Timothy Garton Ash and others have shown, humour and parody were an essential part of anti-communist dissidence in the Soviet bloc – a phenomenon described in Milan Kundera’s 1967 novel The Joke (Kundera’s reward being expulsion from the Czech communist party). Comedy that is reliably safe stops being comedy: no Lenny Bruce, no George Carlin, no Richard Pryor.

The true lesson is one appropriate to the age of the pandemic and the mutating virus: that it is now possible, through the bitter alchemy of social media and political polarisation, for a group of buffoons singing Disney songs to morph into a seditious force invading the temple of American democracy, intent on taking hostages and perhaps much worse.

In the digital era, anything can mutate into anything. And it is this mutability and volatility against which we must be vigilant, and of which we should be constantly aware.

Still: we can take some comfort, I suppose, from the fact that it couldn’t happen here, in sovereign, sensible Britain. We’d never elect as prime minister a charismatic satirist, surrounded by fanboys, who’d made his name as a comedy panel show host – would we?

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Photographs Getty Images