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Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 23:25 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

COVID In May

This is going to be a multi-parter, to keep the posts bite-sized, so let's begin with a swift recap of the coronavirus sitation here. We may have been one of the toasts of the world back in February, for seemingly having contained the virus' spread, but it would turn out to be a false dawn. The number of infected would absolutely explode no thanks to crowded foreign worker dormitories with three-digit daily increases becoming the norm, hitting a high of some 1,426 in mid-April. It was fortunate, then, that our Foreign Minister had diplomatically sidestepped CNBC's bait to dump on other nations, given that we've ended up far worse than, say, China, after correcting for population (supposedly, in this case). The U.S. establishment has reverted to referring to us as a negative case study (Nigeria still looks up to our laws to the extent of plagarizing them wholesale, so there's that; personally, be our guest)

Given that nearly all of the tens of thousands of cases have arisen from the dorms, that previously-invisible issue has finally entered into the public consciousness for good, with the relevant authorities finally agreeing that existing living standards were, well, lackluster, and could stand to be raised. The flattening of the curve has however placed the focus squarely back onto the costs, with the Minister for National Development now warning that the taxpayer would have to foot the bill. Understandably, some citizens were of the opinion that the firms running (and profiting from) the dorms should be on the hook (this is before we even get into accusations of vindictiveness for the shushed-up Little India riots), to which a clever fellow suggested just booting them into the sea (for maximum replication of the cruise ship experience?)

This brings us to a rather public tête-à-tête between NUS Computing's finest and his NTU counterpart, after the NTU worthy had accused the incumbent government of mishandling the coronavirus situation from the beginning (in direct contradiction to our Prime Minister's verdict on this 4G leadership test). His main points, as summarized by a helpful Redditor, were that data has context (*cough* other countries under-reporting) [agree], to practise critical thinking and derive one's own conclusions from first principles [very agree], and that our dorms weren't that bad to begin with, and improving them might not have fixed the coronavirus issue.

Some netizens were clearly unimpressed by the direction this was going (i.e. more lip-service on dorms), despite not being entirely taken by the initial critique either. Expectedly, Pogba was out and kicking again, though curiously nowhere near the mainstream media (now down to 158th, with the worst-possible "very bad" rating in the World Press Freedom index); transgressions ranged from recycling articles (fine, that's for nation-building), silently altering pertinent details and insensitive framing (in the style of Biden's "poor kids are just as smart as white kids"), to outright fabrication (which eventually got an apology); this brought back uneasy memories of another awkward official snafu with the Virus Vanguard comic superheroes (can't lie, I chortled at MAWA man)... and that was before it transpired that some characters were entirely traced. I can only hope this doesn't discourage local creatives overly in breaking boundaries like Marvel.


On The Bright Side

Well, it's probably not good to simmer in the negatives, so a quick run-through what's gone right locally - community transmission outside of the dorms remains very low, mass testing appears to be in the works, and the BCG tuberculosis vaccine - mandatory for schoolkids here since 1957 - might have offered some free protection (admittedly mostly a correlation). Moreover, the coronavirus appears to have a relatively low fatality rate of about 0.05% for under-65s without comorbidities, which concurs with the paucity of deaths from the masses of affected strapping-fit migrant labourers.

One encouraging takeaway from the crisis, I'd say, is that the local authorities are at least largely amenable to considered critical thinking and adaptation. Now, not all of these have been unmitigated wins - the attempt to foster Italian-style singing out of windows to boost morale seems to have garnered a (very authentic) mixed reaction at best, as with Gadot and chums' cover of Imagine, but personally, they happy can liao on this. Then there's the Boston Dynamics robot doggy keeping life interesting (and social-distanced) in Bishan; I'm unsure if I prefer them to the flying drones, but it's not like privacy in public's gonna survive for much longer anyhow.

On to solutions that would seem to make sense, one might first apprehend the NRIC-based crowd control measures introduced at various markets (including that at my old place), that seems to partly address the concern about multiple trips made here barely a week before. Of course, this is nothing particularly earth-shattering - but it was logical with minimal negative trade-offs (the worst case appears having to wait a day, even for single-person households), it was implemented (you'd be surprised how often it fails at this step), it's good; I don't think we'll be going quite as far as Osaka, whose mayor suggested that men should do the grocery shopping because women took too much time, even though that's probably not wrong either.

Direct problem, direct solution, no big secret


Before going on to the next improvement, a possible opportunity: there has been word that blood plasma from coronavirus survivors can dramatically lower struggling patients' viral load (with there coincidentally being exciting reports on plasma transfusions possibly having epigenetic effects too), due to containing suitable antibodies. In fact, the FDA is currently requesting plasma donations towards this purpose, and similar therapy has been in evaluation for over a month locally. Well, putting two and two together, Singapore appears to have a particularly relatively-large population of recovered and recovering healthy young chaps; I'd garner many of them might possibly be inclined towards performing some potentially life-saving good deeds if it comes down to that, especially if approached with the utmost sensitivity. As a bonus, this would probably also jive with the general flow of establishment propaganda, but let's not take it too far in that direction, yes?


Masks Rehabilitated

The efficacy of face masks appears to have been further bolstered by Hong Kong-based research on volunteer hamsters, who have been quite busy on the publicity front too. Recall, it was observed here in February that the then-recommended proscription on wearing face masks didn't even make much surface sense. To their credit, the government made an about-turn eventually (after more-or-less blaming the WHO), and the wearing of masks outdoors became compulsory mid-April. For some reason, the WHO doesn't seem to have shifted to a general recommendation even on reusable masks, despite pretty-suggestive observations on it being a relatively accessible method of reducing infections: 75% by the Hong Kong hamsters, 80% by a Berkeley computer scientist running simulations (reminds me of one of my first university projects on flocking behaviour), and 90% post-mask regime in Austria. The NEJM has weighed in on how merely talking likely releases sufficiently-large droplets for virus spread, a line also explored by a Japanese broadcast station in explaining away their country escaping largely unscathed... due to the more-restrained nature of Japanese pronunciation; might be worth a bit of a look.

It is perhaps inevitable, given the new standard best practice (again adopted early by the White House), for the more critically-minded to wonder just why the obvious entailment of asymptomatic transmission took so long to be recognized. We'll leave that for next time, however, and instead focus on the physical aspect. Hopefully, it's not hard to figure out that many people might not like to wear face masks, mostly because masks can make it significantly harder to breathe. Assuredly, one approach is to laugh or scream at those who pull down/cut holes in/remove their masks, but to be frank, if the issue is breathing difficulties (apparently caused at least one car crash), what does one expect them to do? Wouldn't it be more productive and rational to design and popularize better and more-comfortable masks, and check back again?


Note generous bulge at the front for the nose
(Original source: straitstimes.com)


This, by the way, has also been discussed in early April, with the observation that resistance to breathing was probably due to the mask material being too close to the nostrils, and that it could be fixed either by shaping the mask to leave more volume on the front, or by a nose bridge extension. Again, this is simply common sense, and I was heartened to note that local seamstresses had realized it by the end of the month at the latest (but really, the grannies probably knew all along). A Redditor's prompt report on the latest just-distributed batch of reusable masks suggests that they have taken the other approach, with a "flexible metal piece" reported for the nose bridge, though the relatively small additional front volume combined with thicker material seems to have resulted in a less-appreciable improvement to breathability.

One can only hope that the reusable mask manufacturers continue to refine their designs (not sure if they actually wore their original flat ones for any length of time), while various authorities and communities strive to make mask-wearing cool and funny (with a dash of troll), and maybe mutually-profitable. Special mention has to go to a heroic Russian nurse here, after she likely contributed more to the cardiac health of the most at-risk elderly male demographic in her wards, than any amount of government propaganda or stodgy rules on apparel. These are irregular times, after all; they may call for courageous unorthodox measures (on which more in the next post)



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