Face masks and Covid-19: communal not individual relevance


FFP3One of the starkest differences between East Asian and European/North American responses to the Covid-19 pandemic has been in their differing attitudes towards face masks (used here generically, and differentiated from FFP3, also known as N95, respirators) : they are common in East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, and yet are rarely to be seen in other parts of the world.  They have been part of the package of solutions recommended in East Asia, where infection and mortality rates have generally been quite low; yet they are absent in Europe and North America where rates are much higher.

World Health Organisation advice, followed assiduously by European governments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is clear:

  • If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.

This is frequently interepreted in an abbreviated form, as by the BBC, to imply that “Only two types of people should wear masks: those who are sick and show symptoms, and those who are caring for people who are suspected to have the coronavirus”.

The case against wearing face masks comes down essentially to the argument that they will do little to protect someone from getting infected.  This is fundamentally an individualistic argument: “If I wear a mask it won’t be much good to me”.  However, from a communal perspective that is absolutely not the point; what matters is that if you wear a mask and are unknowingly infected it may help to prevent you spreading the infection to many other people.  Wearing a mask is about others not yourself.

A growing body of evidence is now suggesting that masks can indeed help to slow the spread of Covid-19:

  • The markedly different histories of infection between countries where masks are encouraged/enforced as part of a package of measures, and those where they are discouraged, is forcing researchers and policy makers to try to explain why.  Masks are an obvious possible answer.
  • It is increasingly being suggested that many Covid-19 carriers are assymptomatic.  They therefore don’t know that they might infect people, and so are going about their daily lives doing just that.  If they had been wearing masks, it is argued, this could reduce the number of people that they infect.
  • Dentists and healthcare workers in many parts of the world are encouraged or required to use masks both to provide some protection from patients, but also to protect patients from any infections that a dentist may have.  If such masks are seen to be offering patients some protection, then it seems strange to suggest that they offer no protection against a coronavirus such as Covid-19 (see reviews of surgical masks and N95 masks by Loeb et al., 2009, and more recently by Long et al., 2020)
  • Chinese doctors and scientists are increasingly confident that masks do make a difference.  In a recent interview, George Gao (Head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has thus suggested that “The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others”.

In societies such as the USA and much of Europe where the focus tends to be more on the “self” rather than the “community” it is scarcely surprising that individuals and their politicians see little value in masks; but in more communal societies, where there is  perhaps more care for others, then masks are seen as an important part of the armour against Covid-19.

Many governments fear that encouraging citizens to wear face masks would mean that there would be insufficient left for medical professionals to wear.   This, however, is rather a lame excuse.  Such governments could readily have put in place systems in early February to prepare to expand production of protective clothing.  It is not too late for them urgently to do so.  The BBC thus reports that “UK clothes makers say the government has wasted time in ordering personal protective equipment for NHS staff.  Fashion and textile firms believe they could have begun making gowns and masks for front-line workers 10 days ago”.

However, for those who do care about their neighbours and don’t want to disrupt the official production of masks for healthcare providers, an increasing amount of guidance is now available for making your own masks, as at:

These are clearly not going to be as good as masks made by companies to stringent regulatory standards (for UK see Regulatory status of equipment being used to help prevent coronavirus (COVID-19)), but they may well offer at least some protection to reduce the communal spread of Covid-19.  Pressure on demand is likely to become very much worse than it is at present, especially when imported masks are low in supply and often fail to satisfy these standards: recent reports (see for example Business Insider, 29th March) thus suggest that 600,000 masks imported from China have had to be recalled by the Dutch government because they are faulty.  In countries unable even to import masks from elsewhere, domestic production in line with international standards (see Wong, A. and Wilkinson, A., 2020) can be recommended.

Above all, the discussion should not so much be about “will I be protected?” but instead “how can I protect others?“.  It rather depends on what kind of society we wish to live in – especially for those who are left after this pandemic has run its course.

 

[Update 30th March – it is great to see that Austria has announced today, the day after I wrote the above, that it is to make wearing masks compulsory, and will distribute basic masks for free at the entrances to all supermarkets]

[Update 31st March – Tom Whipple in The Times notes comments from Prof Cheng at Birmingham University and Prof Cowling at University of Hong Kong in favour of wearing masks, although Prof McNally, also from Birmingham, expressed concern that this would be counterproductive since people would think they could still go out]

[Update 2nd April – David Shukman on the BBC News site: Coronavirus: Expert panel to assess face mask use by public.  The WHO should have acted much more quickly on changing its advice]

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Collaboration and competition in Covid-19 response


A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19.  Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond.  Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19.  Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.

I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern.  Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most.  Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:

  • Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
  • Treat privacy and security very carefully
  • Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
  • Keep it simple
  • Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
  • Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
  • Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
  • Collaborate and share

Don’t duplicate what others are already doing

As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19.  Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes.  Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions.  Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys.  The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data.  Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest  to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.

Treat privacy and security very carefully

Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously.  Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible.  Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive.  It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it.  Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected.  It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.

Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information

Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19.  Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives.  In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information.  In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice.  Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).

Keep it simple

Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions.  Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable.  Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.

Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic

It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions.  It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about.  Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate.  If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases.  It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use.  It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.

Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations

When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-10, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives.   It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.

Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)

The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags.  There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.

Collaborate and share

Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively.  Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit.  The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense.  As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.

 

Resources

This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.

Recommended reliable information on Covid-19

Remember the key WHO advice adopted in various forms by different governments:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early

A sample of crowdsourcing initiatives

Some of the many initiatives using crowdsourcing and similar methods to generate data relating to Covid-19 (many of which have very little usage):

Lists by others of relevant initiatives:

 

Global Covid-19 mapping and recording initiatives

The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.

 

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Donor and government funding of Covid-19 digital initiatives


Masai children 2We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently.  The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems.  Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.

This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.

Past mistakes

Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good.  Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles.  As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.

This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet.  At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent.  Amongst other things this noted that:

  • “A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
  • “Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.

I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time.  However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.

In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.

Short-term responses

The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • Support and use existing technologies.  In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to.  Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future.  Support solutions that are already proven to work.
  • Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below).  This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve.  As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment.  It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
  • Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm.  Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts.  Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification.  It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
  • Remember that science is a contested field.  Value-free science does not exisit.  Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else.  There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything.  Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice.  If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
  • Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed.  In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding.  A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.

In the medium term…

Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time.  Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever.  Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use  of digital technologies.  This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date.  Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
  • Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health.  The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services.  Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised.  Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives.  The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
  • Communities, collaboration and co-operation.  Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped.  New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.  Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief).  Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives.  However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched.  We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.

Examples of wasteful duplication of effort

Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion.  These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks.  Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions.  International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs.  Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:

Critical care ventilators

Testing kits

Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope.  Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent.  But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent.  Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.

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Crowdsourcing Covid-19 infection rates


Covid-19, 19 March 2020, Source: https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/

Covid-19, 19 March 2020, Source: https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/

I have become increasingly frustrated by the continued global reporting of highly misleading figures for the number of Covid-19 infections in different countries.  Such “official” figures are collected in very different ways by governments and can therefore not simply be compared with each other.  Moreover, when they are used to calculate death rates they become much more problematic.  At the very least, everyone who cites such figures should refer to them as “Officially reported Infections”

As I write (19th March 2020, 17.10 UK time), the otherwise excellent thebaselab‘s documentation of the coronavirus’s evolution and spread gives mortality rates (based on deaths as a percentage of infected cases) for China as 4.01%, Italy as 8.34% and the UK as 5.09%.  However, as countries are being overwhelmed by Covid-19, most no longer have the capacity to test all those who fear that they might be infected.  Hence, as the numbers of tests as a percentage of total cases go down, the death rates will appear to go up.  It is fortunately widely suggested that most people who become infected with Covid-19 will only have a mild illness (and they are not being tested in most countries), but the numbers of deaths become staggering if these mortality rates are extrapolated.  Even if only 50% of people are infected (UK estimates are currently between 60% and 80% – see the Imperial College Report of 16th March that estimates that 81% of the UK and US populations will be infected), and such mortality rates are used, the figures (at present rates) become frightening:

  • In Italy, with a total population of 60.48 m, this would mean that 30.24 m people would be infected, which with a mortality rate of 8.34% would imply that 2.52 m people would die;
  • In the UK, with a total population of 66.34 m, this would mean that 33.17 m people would be infected, which with a mortality rate of 5.09% would imply that 1.69 m people would die.

These figures are unrealistic, because only a fraction of the total number of infected people are being tested, and so the reported infection rates are much lower than in reality.  In order to stop such speculations, and to reduce widespread panic, it is essential that all reporting of “Infected Cases” is therefore clarified, or preferably stopped.  Nevertheless, the most likely impact of Covid-19 is still much greater than most people realise or can fully appreciate.  The Imperial College Report (p.16) thus suggests that even if all patients were to be treated, there would still be around 250,000 deaths in Great Britain and 1.1-1.2 m in the USA; doing nothing, means that more than half a million people might die in the UK.

Having accurate data on infection rates is essential for effective policy making and disease management.  Globally, there are simply not enough testing kits or expertise to be able to get even an approximately accurate figure for real infections rates.  Hence, many surrogate measures have been used, all of which have to make complex assumptions about the sample populations from which they are drawn.  An alternative that is fortunately beginning to be considered is the use of digital technologies and social media.  Whilst by no means everyone has access to digital technologies or Internet connectivity, very large samples can be generated.  It is estimated that on average 2.26 billion people use one of the Facebook family of services every day; 30% of the world’s population is a large sample.  Existing crowdsourcing and social media platforms could therefore be used to provide valuable data that might help improve the modelling, and thus the management of this pandemic.

Crowdsourcing

[Great to see that since I first wrote this, Liquid Telecom has used Ushahidi to develop a crowd sourced Covid-19 data gathering initiative]

The violence in Kenya following the disputed Presidential elections in 2007, provided the cradle for the development of the Open Source crowdmapping platform, Ushahidi, which has subsequently been used in responding to disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, and valuable lessons have been learnt from these experiences.  While there are many challenges in using such technologies, the announcement on 18th March that Ushahidi is waiving its Basic Plan fees for 90 days is very much to be welcomed, and provides an excellent opportunity to use such technologies better to understand (and therefore hopefully help to control) the spread of Covid-19.  However, there is a huge danger that such an opportunity may be missed.

The following (at a bare minimum) would seem to be necessary to maximise the opportunity for such crowdsourcing to be successful:

  • We must act urgently. The failure of countries across the world to act in January, once the likely impact of events in Wuhan unravelled was staggering. If we are to do anything, we have to act now, not least to help protect the poorest countries in the world with the weakest medical services.  Waiting even a fortnight will be too late.
  • Some kind of co-ordination and sharing of good practices is necessary. Whilst a global initiative might be feasible, it would seem more practicable for national initiatives to be created, led and inspired by local activists.  However, for data to be comparable (thereby enabling better modelling to take place) it is crucial for these national initiatives to co-operate and use similar methods and approaches.  There must also be close collaboration with the leading researchers in global infectious disease analysis to identify what the most meaningful indicators might be, as well as international organisations such as the WHO to help disseminate practical findings..
  • An agreed classification. For this to be effective there needs to be a simple agreed classification that people across the world could easily enter into a platform.  Perhaps something along these lines might be appropriate: #CovidS (I think I might have symptoms), #Covid7 (I have had symptoms for 7 days), #Covid14 (I have had symptoms for 14 days), #CovidT (I have been tested and I have it), #Covid0 (I have been tested and I don’t have it), #CovidH (I have been hospitalised), #CovidX (a person has died from it).
  • Practical dissemination.  Were such a platform (or national platforms) to be created, there would need to be widespread publicity, preferably by governments and mobile operators, to encourage as many people as possible to enter their information.  Mutiple languages would need to be incorporated, and the interfaces would have to be as appealing and simple as possible so as to encourage maximum submission of information.

Ushahidi as a platform is particularly appealing, since it enables people to submit information in multiple ways, not only using the internet (such as e-mail and Twitter), but also through SMS messages.  These data can then readily be displayed spatially in real time, so that planners and modellers can see the visual spread of the coronavirus.  There are certainly problems with such an approach, not least concerning how many people would use it and thus how large a sample would be generated, but it is definitely something that we should be exploring collectively further.

Social media

An alternative approach that is hopefully also already being explored by global corporations (but I have not yet read of any such definite projects underway) could be the use of existing social media platforms, such as Facebook/WhatsApp, WeChat or Twitter to collate information about people’s infection with Covid-19. Indeed, I hope that these major corporations have already been exploring innovative and beneficial uses to which their technologies could be put.  However, if this if going to be of any real practical use we must act very quickly.

In essence, all that would be needed would be for there to be an agreed global classification of hashtags (as tentatively suggested above), and then a very widespread marketing programme to encourage everyone who uses these platforms simply to post their status, and any subsequent changes.  The data would need to be released to those undertaking the modelling, and carefully curated information shared with the public.

Whilst such suggestions are not intended to replace existing methods of estimating the spread of infectious diseases, they could provide a valuable additional source of data that could enable modelling to be more accurate.  Not only could this reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but it could also help reassure the billions of people who will live through the pandemic.  Of course, such methods also have their sampling challenges, and the data would still need to be carefully interpreted, but this could indeed be a worthwhile initiative that would not be particularly difficult or expensive to initiate if global corporations had the will to do so.

Some final reflections

Already there are numerous new initiatives being set up across the world to find ways through which the latest digital technologies might be used in efforts to minimise the impact of Covid-19. The usual suspects are already there as headlines such as these attest: Blockchain Cures COVID-19 Related Issues in China, AI vs. Coronavirus: How artificial intelligence is now helping in the fight against COVID-19, or Using the Internet of Things To Fight Virus Outbreaks. While some of these may have potential in the future when the next pandemic strikes, it is unlikely that they will have much significant impact  on Covid-19.  If we are going to do anything about it, we must act now with existing well known, easy to use, and reliable digital technologies.

I fear that this will not happen.  I fear that we will see numerous companies and civil society organisations approaching donors with brilliant new innovative “solutions” that will require much funding and will take a year to implement.  By then it will be too late, and they will be forgotten and out of date by the time the next pandemic arrives.  Donors should resist the temptation to fund these.  We need to learn from what happened in West Africa with the spread of Ebola in 2014, when more than 200 digital initiatives seeking to provide information relating to the virus were initiated and funded (see my post On the contribution of ICTs to overcoming the impact of Ebola).  Most (although not all) failed to make any significant impact on the lives and deaths of those affected, and the only people who really benefitted were the companies and the staff working in the civil society organisations who proposed the “innovations”.

This is just a plea for those of us interested in these things to work together collaboratively, collectively and quickly to use what technologies we have at our fingertips to begin to make an impact.  Next week it will probably be too late…

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Ten tips for working at home and self-isolating


I have always worked in part from home, on the road overseas in hotels, alone in strange places…  However, when I left full-time salaried work in 2015, and shifted primarily to working from home, I swiftly discovered the need substantially to readjust my habits.  For those without such experiences, who are being forced to self-isolate or work at home as a result of Covid-19 there are likely to be many challenges – but there are now plenty of guides available for things to do to help manage the rapid change of lifestyle (see below). Most of these are very sensible, but do not necessarily coincide with my own experiences.  So here are just a few tips that might be useful (in approximate order of importance):

1. Be positive and treat it as an adventure

positiveIt is much easier to enjoy change if you treat it in a positive way.  Think about all the good things: no need to travel to work; spending time with those you love (hopefully); doing things at home that you have always wanted to!  Treat the next few weeks or months as an opportunity to do new and exciting things.  Discover your home again! (Although this highlights the huge challenges facing the homeless).

2. Try to keep your  work place separate from your sleeping place

Clipart of woman sleeping at work image in Cliparts category at pixy.orgIf at all possible, it is absolutely essential to have separate sleeping and working places so that you remain sane.  There is much evidence that trying to sleep in the same place in which you work can confuse the mind, and may tend to make it continue to work when you want to go to sleep – even subconsciously – rather than enabling you to rest.  You are likely to be worried about the implications of Covid-19, and so it is essential that you do all you can to ensure a good night’s sleep.  This may not be easy for many people, but you should still try not to work in your bedroom!  And don’t continue working too late – give your body the time it needs to relax and rest.

3. Take as much exercise as possible

stairs-stairs-clipart_500-500It is incredibly easy to put on weight when working at home, even if you think you are not doing so!  This is bad for your health, and bad for morale.  It’s easy to understand why this happens: many people commute to work, and even if not cycling, they walk from their transport node to their office; homes are smaller than offices, and so you generally walk more at work than at home; and often you will go out of the office during the daytime, perhaps for lunch, but you can’t do this if you are self-isolating.  There are lots of things, though, that you can do to rectify this: walk up and down stairs several times a day (never take the lift); ensure that you go for a short walk every hour (even if it is just 20 times around your home); if you have some outdoor space, take up gardening (it uses lots of muscles you never thought you had!); and even if you don’t decide to buy a stationary bike (actually much cheaper than joining a gym), you can still exercise with a resistance band, or even use bags of sugar as weights!

4. Let everyone in the household have their own nest for working in

nestYou may well already have done this!  However, if not, remember that we all construct different kinds of places for working in.  I know I am one of the most antisocial people in the world when I am thinking and writing;  my home office looks a complete mess, but I know exactly where everything is, and woe betide anyone who moves something!  So, if there are several of you working at home, try to create your own spaces for working in.  Your husband, wife, partner, or children will all work in different ways, so try to ensure that everyone has a separate working place.  You will all be more productive – and get on better after you’ve finished working!

5. Plan your day – and give yourself treats

PLanWhen you don’t have to catch public transport, or cycle/drive/walk to work it is terribly easy to be lazy, and let time slip by without focusing on the tasks in hand.  Most people like to feel they have achieved something positive every day.  One way to ensure this is to plan each day carefully.  And don’t forget to give yourself treats when you have achieved something – whatever it is that you enjoy!

6. Keep a balance to your life

balanceThis is closely linked to planning – but don’t just spend all your time relaxing, or doing nothing but work!  It’s important to maintain diversity in life.  If your boss expects you to work a 10 hour day, then make sure that you do (hopefully s/he won’t).   But even then you  have 14 hours each day to do other things (please try and get 7 hours of sleep – it will help to keep you fit and well)!  I find that having a colour coded diary with a clear schedule helps me manage my life – even though I tend to work far too much!  The trouble is I enjoy my work!

7. Create agreed ground rules and expectations to reduce tensions

rulesMany people who now have to work at home because of Covid-19 will not have had much experience previously at doing this.  It can come as a shock getting to see other aspects of a loved one’s life.  Tensions are bound to arise, especially if you are trying to work when your children are at home because school has been closed.  It can help to have a thorough and transparent discussion between all members of a household (including the children) to set some ground rules for how you are going to manage the next few weeks and months.  This can indeed be challenging, and will frequently require revisiting, but having some shared expectations can help reduce the tensions that are bound to arise.  Listening (however difficult it is) often helps to lower tension.

8. Wear different clothes just as you would if you went out to work (and play)

Man and Woman Collection, Vector IllustrationThe clothes we wear represent how we feel, but can also help shape those feelings.  It is amazing what an effect it can have if you get dressed smartly when you are feeling low.  Likewise, most people like to dress in more relaxed clothing when they stop working, and we don’t usually sleep in the same clothes that we have worn during the day.  Just because you are working at home, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will work well in your pyjamas (and imagine if you are suddenly asked to join a conference call without time to change!).  The simple message is that we should continue to take care of ourselves, just as if we were going out to work or to a party!

9. Switch off your digital devices (at least some of the time)

digitalEnjoy the physicality of life.  Don’t always feel you have to be online in case “work” wants to get in touch.  None of us are that important.  The world will get by perfectly well without us!  There is a lot of evidence that being online late at night can also disturb our sleep patterns. Remember that although we are increasingly being programmed to believe that digital technology gives us much more freedom in how we work,  it is actually mainly used by the owners of capital further to exploit their workforces by making them work longer hours for no extra pay!

10. Use the time creatively to do something that you have always wanted to do

veg-vegetables-clipart-8-clipart-station_650-400Being self-isolated at home will mean that you have vastly more time on your hands than you can ever imagine (as long as you don’t work all day and night).  Use it creatively to do something that you have always thought about doing,  but never had the time before.  Read those books that you always wanted to. Learn a musical instrument.  Learn to speak a new language (Python or Mandarin).  Take up painting.  Discover how to cook delicious meals with limited resources.  Photograph the wildlife in your garden. Grow your own vegetables.  Make beer.  Even just plan your next (or first) holiday.

Other useful resources (with a mainly UK focus) include:

I very much hope that some of these ideas will help to get you through the next few months, and that we will all emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic as being more considerate for others, and less concerned about ourselves.  Thinking more about how you can help others rather than what you want yourself is a good way to start planning for self-isolation.

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What we understood by Corona…


It is not easy to be positive about the spread of Covid-19 (the latest Coronavirus) around the world, which as I write has now reached at least 164 countries with a death toll of around 8,000 people.  However, until the start of 2020, “Corona” meant rather different things to people.  I was particularly struck by this while travelling in Pakistan in January and February of this year.  So, I posted a tweet earlier today to explore what people had associated with the word in the past.  This is the result (to be updated should any further suggestions be made!).

Mexico (and Puerto Rico)

Corona beerIn Mexico and indeed in many other countries, Corona was above all else associated with beer!  Produced by Cerveceria Modelo, Corona is a pale lager and one of the five top-selling beers across the world.  In 2013 the Grupo Modelo merged with Anheuser-Busch InBev in a transaction valued at US$ 20.1 billion.  Interestingly, one of the three main breweries in Puerto Rico in the 1930s was called Cerveceria Corona, and it later sold its rights to  Cervecería Modelo de México, which then launched Cerveza Corona as Modelo’s Corona Extra.

Pakistan

indexIn Pakistan, Corona was known above all else as a paint.  It is made by Dawn Coating Industry, which was founded in 1970, and has the ambition of becoming the largest national decorative paint company in the country.  Its advertisments can be seen painted on buildings across Pakistan, but also on hoardings celebrating national holidays.

Spain

Screenshot 2020-03-17 at 21.47.25In Spain, Corona, or Coronas, was primarily associated with various wines.  It is perhaps best known in its incarnation in the well-known Familia Torres wine Coronas, which was trademarked as long ago as 1907 by Juan Torres Casals, and is one of the oldest trademarks in the Spanish wine industry.  Today, Torres’ Coronas wine is made mainly from Tempranillo with a small amount of additional Cabernet Sauvignon.  However, Corona in Spanish merely means “crown”, and so the word has also been used for other wines, as in the Corona de Aragón wines, most notably made from Garnacha grapes (produced by Grandes Vinos).

Egypt

Screenshot 2020-03-17 at 22.00.44In complete contrast, Egyptians thought that Corona was a type of chocolate biscuit (thanks so much to Leila Hassan for sharing this).  Corona was established in Ismailia in 1919 by Tommy Christo (the son of a Greek businessman), as the first confectionery and chocolate company in the Egyptian market.  Corona was nationalised in 1963, and then sold to the Sami Saad Group in 2000.  For some, the association with “Bimbo” reminds them of a roadside café on Route E6 in Mo i Rana in Norway of the same name (thanks Ragnvald Larsen), which provides a neat introduction to that country…

Norway

Corona noruegaTo be fair,  very few people made the above connection.  However, the café takes its name from the baby elephant in the Circus Boy series (1956-58) and has persisted since the café first opened in 1967.  Moreover, the Norwegian krone is pronounced in a similar way to the word corona, and as Tono Armas has pointed out in Spanish it is even called “Corona noruega“.

Japan

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 09.40.23The Corona Corporation in Japan traces its origins back to the founding of kerosene cooking stiove factory in Sanjo, Niigata Pref., by Tetsuei Uchida in 1937.  In the late 1970s it entered the air conditioning market, and has subsequently diversified into a range of fan heaters as well as nano-mist saunas and geothermal hybrid hot water systems (Thanks to Yutaka Sato for sharing this).

Poland

560px-Crown_of_the_Polish_Kingdom_in_1635

The Polish Crown. Source: Wikipedia

In Poland “Corona” brings to mind the symbolic significance of the Polish Crown (in Polish: Korona Królestwa Polskiego; in Latin: Corona Regni Poloniae).  This is the term used for the historical territories of the Kingdom of Poland wihtin the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late medieval period.  However, it is also linked to the Homagial Crown of Poland (in Latin: Corona Homagialis), which was part of the Polish Crown Jewels, first mentioned in the 15th century, and possibly referring to the Coronation Crown of Władisław II (Thanks to Jagoda Khatri for sharing this)

USA/California

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 09.44.53I am never sure whether California should be seen as distinct from the USA, but for those who live there Corona is a town of about 150,000 people in Riverside County.  It was originally called South Riverside, and was founded during California’s citrus boom in the 1880s.  It was once called “The Lemon Capital of the World” (by USAns), and today is perhaps best known (at least by musicians) for being where the flagship factory,  Custom Shop and headquarters of Fender guitars was established in 1985.

USA/Utah

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 10.10.06

Corona Arch, Utah, USA

One of the most striking “Coronas” is the sandstone Corona Arch in a side canyon of the Colorado Rover west of Moab in Utah, which was once known as Little Rainbow Bridge. This had become a renowned site for rope swinging.  A three mile hiking trail includes Corona Arch and nearby Bowtie Arch.

 

Astronomers

SolarFor astronomers, of course, a corona is the aura of plasma that surrounds stars including the sun.  More simply, it can be considered as the outer layer of the Sun’s atmosphere that extends millions of miles into space, and generates the solar wind that travels across our solar system.  It is difficult to see because it is hidden by the brightness of the sun, but is clearly visible during a total solar eclipse.

Geologists

For geologists, a corona is a microscopic band of minerals, usually found in a radial arrangement around another mineral.  More generally, it is a term applied to the outcome ofreactions at the rims of structures, where a change in metamorphic conditions can create porphyroblast growth or partial replacement of some minerals by others.

 

Do please share more thoughts on your memories of Corona before Covid-19.

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Warsaw: lest we forget…


Images on the garden perimeter at the Warsaw Uprising Museum

Images on the garden perimeter at the Warsaw Uprising Museum

Participating in the 12th TIME Economic Forum in Warsaw, especially on a day when the Government prohibited the holding of such large-scale events (because of Covid-19), provided an opportunity to visit and reflect on some of the city’s history, and indeed the history of Poland more generally.  It was a stark reminder of human inhumanity.  It was also, though, an opportunity to appreciate the efforts made in Europe since 1945, and especially through the creation of the European Union, to try to ensure that such almost unbelievable horrors do not happen again in our continent.  We should surely do more not to promote them in other parts of the world.

Katyn

I began by reflecting on the implications of the Katyn Massacre in 1940 when some 22,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia were massacred by the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) at the instigation of Lavrentiy Beria and with Stalin’s approval.  Although Katyn is some 850 kms to the east of Warsaw, I still find it hard to believe that so many countries were complicit in the Soviet denial of this atrocity, even if this was in the broader interests of retaining Soviet support in the war against Nazi Germany.  The elimination of so many leading military and academic figures (including half the Polish officer corps as well as 20 university professors, 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists) makes the Polish intellectual resurgence in the second half of the 20th century all the more remarkable.  It is hard to think that I first hosted a Polish academic colleague in the UK (Prof Wiesław Maik from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń) 36 years ago and only 44 years after the massacre.  Then, and in my subsequent meetings with academic colleagues from Poland, I have always been impressed by their rigour and commitment.

The Warsaw Ghetto

Not much remains of the Ghetto in the vibrant modern city of Warsaw with its new high-rise business centre.  But hidden away, almost invisible, tiny traces can be found.  I am grateful to a friend for pointing out where I could find an old gate to the Ghetto at the intersection of Grzybowska and Żelazna streets.

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The wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto began to be constructed in April 1940, and consisted initially of some 307 hectares, but was gradually reduced in size, making life inside ever more miserable.  It is very hard today to envisage the horrors that the Jews living inside had to face.  It was from here that they were deported by the Nazis to concentration camps, with some 254,000 Ghetto residents being sent to Treblinka in the summer of 1942.  By the time it was demolished in May 1943 following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, it is estimated that at least 300,000 Jewish inhabitants had been killed, with some 92,000 dying of hunger and related diseases.

The Warsaw Uprising

Nearby the remnants of the Ghetto wall is the museum of the 63 day Warsaw Uprising in August-October 1944 (sadly closed when I tried to visit).  This was the largest uprising by any European resistance group during the 1939-45 war, and was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German army in the face of the Soviet advance.  However, the Soviet Army did not continue its progress, which gave the German army time to regroup, crush the Uprising, and subsequently largely destroy the city of Warsaw.  Despite some support from British and US forces, the uprising was doomed to failure without the continued advance of the Soviet forces.   It has been estimated that 16,000 Polish resistance fighters were killed, with around 6,000 more being badly wounded; somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians are also estimated to have been killed, mainly in mass executions.  On a sunny day, at the edge of the modern business centre of Warsaw, it is hard to imagine the horrors and violence of what happened.

The destruction and rebirth of the old city of Warsaw

Following the Uprising, the Germans implemented what had been a long-intended plan to destroy the city as part of its Germanization of Central Europe.  They had even drawn up designs (by Hubert Gross) to create a “New German City of Warsaw” as early as 1939.  However, although they must have known in 1944 that they would soon be defeated, and there was then little to be gained from destroying the city, they nevertheless proceeded to raze it to the ground in vengeance for the Uprising.  Between September 1944 and January 1945, some 85-90% of all the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed.  The scale of devastation is only too visible from the many photographs taken following Hitler’s defeat, and can be seen on various plaques in the city following its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

With amazing energy, the Polish people set about rebuilding the old city between the late-1940s and the 1970s, and as the imahges below attest it is hard today to believe that everything we see now is less than 80 years old.

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Seeing the modern city of Warsaw, alongside its ancient heart once again beating strongly, I find it incredibly difficult to comprehend the horrors and violence experienced by the Polish people, especially during the 1939-45 war.  I have always been impressed by the diligence, generosity and energy of the friends I have made from Poland, and those of us in Britain should all be grateful to them for their contribution to our economy in recent years. Being here makes me realise once again the tremendous strides we have made in Europe during my lifetime – one of the longest periods of prolonged peace in the continent’s history.  This owes much to the work of those who sought to rebuild the continent after 1945, and to the activities of the various European institutions that they constructed, not least the European Union.  It makes me even more sad that so many people in Britain chose to follow those of our so-called leaders who for their own selfish interests and political ambitions sought to separate us from the EU in the forlorn hope that Britain might once again be “Great” (alone).  We must never forget the enormous sacrifices made by so many people that we might live in peace.  I for one am grateful to have had this opportunity to be reminded once again of the sacrifices made by the Polish people, and am privileged to have had the chance to express my own thanks by participating in the TIME Economic Forum, which captured so well the economic vibrancy and energy that characterise Poland in the 21st century. Dziękuję…

Dance during the TIME gala dinner

Dance during the TIME gala dinner

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