The great comeback

Untitled, by Mark Palfreyman.

Thanksgiving’s status as a harvest festival could take on a grisly new meaning.

Sport is replete with stories of comebacks. Tyson Fury rising from the canvas after getting knocked down by Deontay Wilder, Niki Lauda racing at the Italian Grand Prix having nearly been burned alive at the Nürburgring only five weeks earlier, Leinster overcoming a 22-6 half-time deficit to beat Northampton Saints in rugby’s Heineken Cup.

Not accepting you’re beaten, not going gently into that good night, raging against the dying of the light. Denying, defying, the inevitable, like Bowie’s “Lazarus” talking to us from beyond the grave.

Donald Trump, hunkered down in the White House and with seemingly no daily activities beyond watching TV and tweeting, is no doubt entertaining similar fantasies. Like Walter Moer’s Nazisau growling “Ich kapituliere niemals!” in a bunker, he’s setting himself up to his followers as the rightful victor, the presidential antipope. He’s ready for his comeback.

As usual, the virus has upstaged him.

The comeback is by COVID19, not Trump.

Coronavirus cases_27.11
Daily coronavirus cases in the USA, Jan-Nov 2020. Source: Johns Hopkins.

The grim fact is that in the USA it never really went away, but in Europe at least, cases had dropped sufficiently by summer that most EU countries felt able to cautiously let people have their summer holidays.

With calm came complacency. A loss of discipline. Mental and emotional fatigue. And now with the cold weather and congregations indoors, cases – everywhere – are rising inexorably. And in the wake of the cases have come the deaths.

The toll of the virus is now reaching a point where the numbers are too big, too abstract, and too disturbing to grasp.

“I think most people now probably directly know someone who has caught Covid-19, but there are substantially fewer people that directly know someone that has died from COVID-19. I’m certainly in this category: I know several people that have had Covid-19, but no one that has died.”

Globally, over 1.3 million people have now died with this virus inside them. In the US alone, in just over 9 months, there have been nearly five times as many people that have died from COVID-19 as the US casualties in the Vietnam war (duration: 11 years); five times as many as the US casualties in World War I (duration: 2 years); more than seven times as many as USA casualties in the Korean War (duration: 4 years); and very close to as many as the US lost in World War II.

And yet, even with those comparisons it’s hard to grasp what those numbers mean, what they represent.

The allure is easy to understand. Sometimes a bit of self-delusion can help, a psychological buffer against the madness outside the door. But taken too far it becomes denialism.

The fact is that in infectious disease, whenever control measures are relaxed, the thing, the pathogen, comes roaring back.

Sleeping sickness was almost eliminated as a public health concern by 1960s, but subsequent political upheaval that accompanied independence movements caused widespread population movements and concurrent spread and resurgence of the disease. By the 1990s it was almost as bad as it had ever been.

2014_Franco et al HAT

Leishmania too is making a comeback in its historical heartlands of the Middle East – especially in Syria, where healthcare infrastructure collapsed during civil war.

Leishmania headlines

The population movements are the key thing. Moving around spreads the pathogen.

Thanksgiving was originally a harvest festival, but could end up taking on a grim new context if people shun control measures. Stay home, make use of the technology, be thankful you’re still alive. Thousands upon thousands aren’t. There’ll be no comeback for any of them.
This posting co-authored with Mark Palfreyman.

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