This edition: some personal thoughts on David Bowie; a harrowing account of the ‘Harmless Hiker’; how to build resilient brains; a disturbing account of a new and worrying virus (and I draw a few lessons for the future from the current pandemic). And there’s a selection of music at the bottom.
Remembering David Bowie - hard to believe (for me, at least) that Bowie has been gone for five years. I well remember that cold January morning, wakening to the sad news on the radio that he had died of liver cancer. I had been planning to go and pick up Blackstar (what became his final album) over the next few days. It is still a brilliant and unsettling suite of music. Here’s a lovely and personal piece reflecting on Bowie’s death, and his role in her family life, by Ellen Tannam. Some of my favourite Bowie pieces are below.
Unsettling Truth About the ‘Mostly Harmless’ Hiker: Superlative storytelling of the disquieting, sad, and disturbing story of a hiker whose ‘emaciated body [was] discovered in a tent, just a few miles from a major Florida highway’, and who to be eventually identified, not from his personal effects, but by internet sleuthing. Harrowing reading, to be honest.
The distinctive brains of resilient people: tl, dr - ‘resilient people have greater neural connectivity between parts of their prefrontal cortex and emotional brain regions; …they display lower hippocampal activation in response to emotional facial expressions; and … their amygdalae habituate more efficiently to stress’. In other words, the resilient are able to control the intrusive qualities of both their memories and emotions, as well as their stress levels. These capacities are not fixed, of course: but knowing these are the key components of resilient responding offers tractable targets for cognitive-behavioural and other therapies focusing on thought re-appraisal and emotional control as a means to promote resilience.
Want to build personal resilience? Here’s an excellent, evidence-based, list: Connect with others; Accept and focus on what you can control; Practice staying with the discomfort of certain emotions; Distance yourself from your thoughts; Reframe difficulties as a challenge. These are just the takeaways: read the whole piece; it’s super.
The other virus that worries Asia: excellent reportage from BBC Future. ‘The death rate for Nipah virus is up to 75% and it has no vaccine. While the world focuses on Covid-19, scientists are working hard to ensure it doesn't cause the next pandemic.’ Nipah virus seems genuinely, properly, lethally, scary: Nipah has a ‘long incubation period (reportedly as long as 45 days, in one case) [which] means there is ample opportunity for an infected host, unaware they are even ill, to spread it. It can infect a wide range of animals, making the possibility of it spreading more likely. And it can be caught either through direct contact or by consuming contaminated food. Someone with Nipah virus may experience respiratory symptoms including a cough, sore throat, aches and fatigue, and encephalitis, a swelling of the brain which can cause seizures and death. Safe to say, it's a disease that the WHO would like to prevent from spreading.’
As we start to see a possible post-covid world because of the unprecedented vaccine programme underway, we need to think about how to prevent another pandemic happening again. My sense is we are moving inevitably into a world of continuous viral surveillance, and of individual movement tracking, as the price of our connected world and of public health. Already, prospective flyers must show negative tests before flying to many other countries. Widespread, rapid, airport-based testing for any and every nasty is inevitably on the way. And not just testing: our offices and homes are going to change substantially also, with substantial modifications to ensure cleaner air, hygiene, and much more beside. Finally, we also need to repair our relationship with nature: ‘All six of the most recent pandemics have been linked to destructive human activities like deforestation, climate change and the wildlife trade’.
Read the whole piece on Nipah virus (if you dare…).
My takeaway? We should be treating this current covid pandemic as a practice run for the next one. And we should assume the next one will be much worse, unless we get ahead of it now. That does mean we’re going to have, if we’re actually serious about this, beefed-up viral surveillance, tracking, lots of biosampling throughout the population, much more virological and immunological research, advance prep of vaccine manufacturing, and the devising of the rapid roll-out of vaccination programmes. And that’s just for starters. Other items include logistics, and a whole host of other things (such as safe disposal of vaccine syringes, supplies of medical grade glass vials, training in vaccine administration, to name just a few). These will all have to be routinised and incorporated into everyday life - just to keep ahead of the next pandemic.
We’re getting the vaccines out there (but consider this - if you are only vaccinating .5% of the population per day, then it’ll be 200 days to get to everyone):
But the death toll to date is truly shocking:
The so-called ‘attack rate’ of covid in an unprotected population in the city of Manaus, Brazil, has been estimated at c. 75%. This is a staggering degree of infectivity, with an associated ‘4.5-fold excess mortality’. The authors conclude, correctly, that ‘Events in Manaus reveal what tragedy and harm to society can unfold if this virus is left to run its course.’ Suppose the next one to hit us has a 10% lethality, but with a long-ish incubation period with asymptomatic viral shedding? Could we take the shock? What would happen to our frontline workers? The vulnerable? Our food supplies? High lethality is, of course, not unheard of: the black death killed ‘an estimated 30–50 percent of the European population, between 1347–1351’ - numbers that are to comprehend today.
We can’t let a covid-like catastrophe happen again. We have the capacity, adaptability, and ingenuity not to: we are hypersocial, altruistic, cooperative animals, supremely sensitive to others. That’s not the problem, though.
Rather, the question is, ‘do we have the civic, social, and political will to prevent this happening again’? I hope we do.
We’re conducting an online, anonymised, research project on long covid, and especially on long covid-related brain fog: the details are here, if you can help.
David Bowie - Wild Is The Wind (Official Video)
Compare to Nina Simone’s earlier version
David Bowie - Lazarus
David Bowie - Blackstar