Day 554 – Communicating the science

Covid-19 can be scary.

For some, it could be scary because they’re concerned that they or their families might get infected, get sick or die.
For others, it could be scary because they are worried about the safety, efficacy or side-effects of the vaccine.

For many people, it could well be both.

As scientists, I feel that we have a responsibility to try to allay these fears as much as possible.

Information – accurate, proven information – is key to dispelling these concerns. But even if we do our level best to ignore, debate, rebut or ridicule individuals intent on sharing misinformation around the subject, and perhaps because of the mess on social media and throwing around of SO MANY numbers by both sides, it seems to be difficult for science to get what should be a fairly straightforward message, across to the general public.

It’s no use us reading and understanding a research paper and thinking that that’ll make everything ok, if that information isn’t then provided to the layperson in a usable form. We need good, knowledgeable, approachable scientific communicators to accurately decode the often high-level, technical language into something that everyone can understand. Whether we’re talking about scientific, legal, engineering or any other field, this translating of complex information so that everyone can understand is such a hugely important skill.

I think we’d all like to see an end to this pandemic. We’d like life to go back to something like we had before; we’d like to travel freely again and live our lives without the restrictions that Covid has placed upon us. If this positive potential scenario doesn’t describe your feelings, then this post isn’t for you. Your situation is beyond my remit. Sorry.

I’m very deliberately not going to use numbers in this post, nor am I necessarily going to link to papers and articles that support my points. I have done a lot of reading, and I understand a lot of the detail, but in the greater scheme of things, that detail is unimportant and can even muddy the waters: it’s the principles that actually matter.

Working from that standpoint above, we all have to understand that there is no silver bullet here. No one single 100% solution. Getting back to anywhere close to normality is going to require a combination of efforts, none of which by alone will end the pandemic. On the plus side, the more of these you personally put into place, the better protected you and those around you are, and the more you will be doing to end this horrible situation.
The more people that also put them into place, the quicker this thing is over.

Limiting the spread of the virus is how we end this pandemic.

The first way is obviously the vaccines. The vaccines are undoubtedly very effective, but they’re not perfect. They aren’t 100% effective, so yes, you will hear of people getting Covid after they have been vaccinated, and you will hear that vaccinated individuals can pass the virus on. But your chances of contracting, becoming ill from, becoming hospitalised by or dying from Covid are massively reduced when you have been vaccinated. And just as importantly, your chance of passing the virus on to other people is hugely reduced as well. This is big news, because every person that you don’t infect can’t infect anyone else either. Limiting the spread of the virus is how we end this pandemic.

It’s no surprise that the countries that are beginning to open up again and drop many of their Covid restrictions are ones with high levels of vaccination. The benefits of a lack of strain on their healthcare systems because of fewer people being infected and fewer people needing hospital treatment are clear to see.

And the vaccines are undoubtedly safe. Again, they’re not 100% safe (but then, what is?), but your chances of becoming ill or dying from the vaccine are absolutely tiny compared to the sickness and death rate of the virus. Sure, you will have heard many, many horror stories on Facebook, but take stock of where you are hearing them from and whether or not they are at all believable. This is not a new, untested technology, merely one that we have been using for a while and that can now be adapted to assist us in the fight against Covid.

The vaccine is by far the best and most important tool that we have in our armoury against Covid. It’s now readily available, free of charge right across SA and much of the rest of the world. There really is no reason not to get it.
If you are reading this and you haven’t been vaccinated yet, please make a plan to go along and get it done. A bit of a sore arm for a couple of days is nothing – nothing – compared to even “mild” Covid.

But there are other things you can do – and should be doing – as well.

Self-isolation. I know it’s a pain. I know you want to get on with your life. But if you have been exposed to someone with a Covid-19 infection and you stay at home for 10 days, you can’t pass it on. And again, all the people that you might have passed it on to – at the shops, at the restaurant, on the bus etc. – they can’t pass it on now, either.
Remember: limiting the spread of the virus is how we end this pandemic.

And then these three. SO EASY TO DO, but if everyone just did them, it would make such a huge difference.

Masks – they won’t stop coronavirus completely. Wearing a mask will reduce your chances of contracting Covid-19 a little, but far more importantly, they limit your chances of spreading the virus a great deal. Remember that some people will be lucky enough to be unaware that they are carrying the virus at all. If those people limit their chances of spreading it by simply wearing a mask, we’d be a lot better off. And again, every little bit towards limiting the spread of the virus… you know the rest by now already.

Social distancing – The further away you stand from a smoker, the less strongly you’ll smell their smoke.
Same goes for Covid. Yep, sure, you could still get Covid from someone more than 1.5 metres away, but it’s very unlikely. The further away you stay from people, the less likely you are to get the virus if they have it. Even less so if you’re wearing a mask. Ever more less so if they’re wearing a mask. And if you’re both vaccinated? Basically no risk at all! It all adds up.
And I’m lobbing ventilation in with this one – just like the smoking analogy above – the better ventilated a public space is, the less likely the virus is to spread. So avoid crowds, avoid busy, indoor spaces, open the taxi windows (ok, good luck with that one) and choose to sit outside at your favourite restaurant.

Handwashing – Soap, water, santitiser. Use what you want. We now know that Covid isn’t spread much from surfaces, but high-traffic, high-touch areas like door handles, life buttons, light switches and escalator handrests can still pose a small risk. If you wash you hands after using them, you reduce that risk to yourself. If everyone washes their hands before using them, there is no risk. Again, it’s a tiny thing, but like the whole of Cape Town not letting the tap run while they brushed their teeth during the drought, if enough people do it, and in combination with everything else, it makes a difference.

Limiting the spread of the virus is how we end this pandemic, and we all have access to the tools we need to achieve that.
An hour getting your jab. Asking a friend or neighbour to drop you some shopping in because you sat next to Barry at that meeting and he tested positive yesterday. Putting your mask on – properly – while you’re around other people. Choosing not to join huge crowds right now, going for an outdoor option whenever possible, and washing your hands, just like we were taught as kids.

It’s completely possible if we work together.

Day 404, part 2 – Ugh, ANC Government

Because I was obviously just joking about part 1.

Comedian Dara O’Briain tweeted about the gradual relaxation of lockdown rules today. And it’s worth remembering that while the UK lockdown has been much stricter than our local version of late, there have still been some benefits to everyone not being out and about.

Indeed. But while the UK is slowly emerging (sacrifices made, communities strengthened, disease beaten back etc etc), the signs here are still not very positive. No pun intended, cos it’s all just dire.
It’s still another 2 weeks before the scheduled start of “Phase 2” of our vaccine rollout.
I say “Phase 2” in those sarcastic quotes, because “Phase 1” was for (some of) the healthcare workers here and so we have now vaccinated 0.5% of our population. With one dose. It’s really not great.

And while things should start to pick up in a fortnight or so, we’re still staring at these sort of ridiculous stats at the moment:

Ouch.

17 days short of a quarter of a century. 25 (twenty-five) years. Utterly depressing and wholly representative of the absolute state of the government here. Meanwhile, we’re still happily accepting flights from India with no restrictions (despite stuff like this and this). Compare our stance with other cricketing nations (which is obviously the goto metric for this sort of thing):

It’s almost like they’re trying to sabotage the country. Why aren’t we taking any precautions at all while India is recording a million new cases every three days (and we all know that that figure is massively under-represented)? We’re in a weird limbo period in South Africa at the moment, with experts puzzled and delighted in equal measure at the non-appearance of the much-forecast third wave. But while we should rightly be making hay while the sun shines, it seems pretty foolish to fling ourselves into the flailing blades of the combine harvester.

Much like the understated benefits of the lockdown (see Dara’s tweet above), the downside of the lack of Covid in SA (although there are currently over 21,00 active cases) is that people are getting really lackadaisical about the safety measures they need to take. Masks are being worn around chins and wrists more and more frequently (this approach doesn’t stop the spread of a respiratory virus) and you can walk into shops, pubs or restaurants without a hint of a temperature check, a spray of sanitiser or a record of your name and number.

It’s not good, but there are no repercussions because there is very little Covid around. However, when there is Covid around, this behaviour will really help to amplify it before we’ve even realised it’s returned.

*sigh*

That’s all for today. Day 405 tomorrow, which brings back memories of that horrid 1980s Peugeot car…

The Peugeot 405 is a large family car released by the French automaker Peugeot in July 1987, and which continues to be manufactured under licence outside France, having been discontinued in Europe in 1997. It was voted European Car of the Year for 1988 by the largest number of votes in the history of the contest.

Wow. Now we know.

Day 329 – Decisions; consequences

I’m at a well-known trampoline park in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. I come here each week to have a coffee while I watch the boy at training. I’d usually be here on a Tuesday, but this trampoline park is no longer open on a Tuesday, because no-one comes here much anymore, because of Covid.

That they have cut three days from their opening times demonstrates just how bad things are and how much the pandemic has affected everything around us.

Of course, this also has huge implications for the staff here. They’ve likely lost 42.9% of their income. And that’s crap.

But…

We’d be out of this pandemic more quickly if people wore masks and washed hands and kept their distance from one another. No-one – including most of the staff – is doing those things here. And I’m not saying that this is the only place that is ignoring the sensible advice, but it’s certainly one of them.

You’d think that they would want to try anything to make things better: to demonstrate best practice and encourage the bouncers back in safety, and to do their little bit to end this global shitshow just a little bit sooner.

They’ve made the decision not to bother, though. And I have to wonder just how long this place will survive…

Day 277, part 2 – Masks optional

We’re back down in Cape Agulhas, enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air (outdoors). It’s certainly less busy than we would usually expect at this time of year, but equally, it’s far from empty.

Once again, it does seem like the constant pleas to wear masks and socially distance are not being heeded here, and once again – surprise surprise – that approach is having a detrimental effect. I received this from the local CPF group last night:

Cape Agulhas has reached the stage where about 40-50% of tests done are positive. We appeal to patients who are being tested to ensure that they give the correct telephone number as well as answer their phones if they are contacted. If you are awaiting results, please remember that you are in quarantine for 10 days and therefore may not walk around. Unfortunately, results now take longer than expected, but please remain in quarantine! You are endangering other people’s lives if you insist on leaving quarantine!
There is a limit to the amount of beds available and people can no longer just be sent away to the next hospital. Otto du Plessis hospital and surrounding hospitals have almost reached their capacity and everyone needs to please take care. Those who continue to behave as before are endangering the lives of high-risk patients. It’s going to get even worse over the next week or two so please be responsible. Some of our patients have been dying almost daily due to Covid over the last few days, and we only have a limited bed capacity.

…from the Western Cape medical manager for Swellendam and Cape Agulhas subdistricts, which is fairly blunt and to the point.

40-50% positivity is pretty horrendous, but does at least indicate that people are being tested, which is the only way we can gauge the situation and protect others.

But you only have to drive around the area to see the behaviour that will lead to even higher numbers in the next few weeks.

Day 180 – Covid stuff

I’ve been hard at work all day and I’m likely to be hard at work until I go to bed, so here are a couple of Covid-related things I have found recently.

First off, this image, which describes the mentality of each of these four groups of people perfectly. I mean, there are other terms that you could also use for three of them, but I think that this approach works nicely for a family-friendly blog post.

And then, rather more seriously, this thread which I spotted on Twitter and has loads of information on the latest scientific research and discoveries about you know what and especially how it gets around.

Lots of practical advice in there.
Go and have a read.