Covid under the microscope

Of everything I’ve read about Covid over the last six months, there are three Spanish language articles that have really stayed with me, and I wanted to share them here.

In Una oficina, un restaurante y un autobús (El País, 6 June), Javier Salas and Mariano Zafra draw together the forensic analyses carried out on three separate Covid outbreaks in China and South Korea, work that enabled scientists and other experts to start assembling a picture of how the disease spreads and how it may be prevented. This is one of those pieces that you read and then want to go out and collar someone so that you can tell them all about it … which is what I’m doing here.

The article starts with an outbreak in a call centre on the eleventh floor of a nineteen-storey building in Seoul, moves on to the city of Guangzhou where there was an outbreak in a restaurant crowded with customers celebrating Chinese New Year, and finishes up with another case study from China, this time an outbreak which occurred among participants in a Buddhist ceremony in Zhejiang. The writers highlight some common factors in all these cases – physical proximity, the length of time people were exposed to someone who had contracted the disease, the role of air conditioning. They also note the lessons that the authorities learnt; the need to space people out (and think about measures that will make this easier, such as home-working), the need for good ventilation within buildings, the value of mask-wearing, and many more. What’s really interesting in these cases too is who didn’t get infected – barely anyone in the rest of the building in Seoul, even though workers were sharing lifts and other facilities, nobody at the ceremony in Zhejiang apart from the original patient’s fellow coach passengers, even restaurant customers at tables near to the source of the outbreak, but not for very long.

On the same day, another article in El País was pointing to some rare good news on Covid from South America. In Los Andes, ¿la región que nos salvará de la covid-19?, Ramiro Escobar La Cruz reported from Cusco about the remarkably low rates of Covid infection there and in other Andean regions, all the more striking given the devastating impact of the disease in other parts of Peru (and other Latin American countries). The article notes that this is a phenomenon that has appeared in other high altitude areas, including Tibet, and speculates on the possible causes, although the author urges caution in the absence of definitive research results. There is a rather sad story hidden with the story in this piece; one of the very few casualties of Covid in Cusco was a British tourist in his eighties whose family and friends authorities were unable to contact in time for his funeral.

There is not much room for optimism in my final article, which covers a report issued by MSF on the terrible crisis generated by Covid in residential care homes for the elderly in Spain in the first few months of the pandemic (Duro informe de Médicos Sin Fronteras sobre las residencias: “Golpeaban las puertas y suplicaban por salir”, El País, 18 August). MSF were called in to help and their report does not pull any punches, pointing to a failure of leadership and lack of coordination in the official response, and decrying the very strict isolation imposed on residents which, the report argues, was inhumane and left them deprived of dignity. The report draws on the first-hand accounts of volunteers and staff in the homes, including a fireman who talked about residents banging on the doors of their rooms and begging to be let out, and the director of a home talking about the final days of one elderly resident who simply lost the will to live after being locked in, against her advice, at the insistence of the authorities. And the report warns that elderly residents are still in a vulnerable position.