Coronavirus (or Covid-19): where and who was patient zero?

March 13th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Whenever there is a global pandemic, it is natural to wonder how it all started.

We still don’t know for sure where the Black Death of the mid 14th century originated although, in October 2010, medical geneticists suggested that all three of the great waves of the plague originated in China. Similarly there are different views about the origins of the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and, in a recent posting, I highlighted a common view that it started in the United States.

There’s so much we still have to learn about the current coronavirus (or Covid-19) global pandemic, but already there is debate about its origins. Most informed observers believe that it all started in the area of Wuhan in China – where I have stayed on two visits – but some in China are claiming (without evidence) that it originated in the USA.

According to Chinese government data seen by the “South China Morning Post, a 55 year-old from Hubei province could have been the first person to have contracted Covid-19. Interestingly this infection is dated to 17 November 2019, a couple of months before the virus hit the headlines. The relevant individual has not yet been identified publicly.

One of the essential factors in combatting a global pandemic is transparency from the beginning. The lack of such transparency by the Chinse authorities at the start may have longer-term implications for the Chinese Communist Party.

Posted in History, Science & technology, World current affairs | Comments (0)

Coronavirus: nine reasons to be reassured

March 11th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

The “Guardian” newspapers has pulled together material to show that, while coronavirus is a serious challenge, there are reasons to be reassured:

  • We know what it is.
  • We can test for it.
  • We know that it can be contained (albeit at considerable cost).
  • Catching it is not that that easy (if we are careful) and we can kill it quite easily.
  • In most cases, symptoms are mild and young people are at very low risk.
  • People are recovering from it.
  • Hundreds of scientific articles have already been written about it.
  • Vaccine prototypes exist.
  • Dozens of treatments are already been tested.

You can read the full article here.

Posted in Science & technology, World current affairs | Comments (0)

Coronavirus is not the first global pandemic and, by some accounts, today is the anniversary of the start of one of the very worst

March 11th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

It was called Spanish flu, but it did not start in Spain and we are still not sure where it originated. So-called Spanish flu was an influenza pandemic which ran from around January 1918 – December 1920. It was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic which was the first of the two involving the H1N1 virus, with the second being swine flu in 2009.

Why was it called Spanish flu?

To maintain morale, censors of the First World War minimised early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Papers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain (such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII) and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit, giving rise to the pandemic’s nickname, “Spanish flu”.

 So where did it start?

We’re not sure. There are many hypotheses about the source. One recent suggestion is that it originated in January 1918 in the military facility of Fort Riley, Kansas, USA. By 11 March 1918, exactly 102 years ago today – the virus had reached New York and the epidemic was on the run.

How many died in this pandemic?

We don’t know.  It infected 500 million people around the world, or about 27% of the then world population of between 1.8 and 1.9 billion,. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. 

You can learn more here.

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A review of the new French arthouse film “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire”

March 6th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

This wonderful French-language arthouse film is a rarity in the world of cinema: a work written and directed by a woman (Céline Sciamma) with cinematography by a woman (Claire Mathon) and a cast list – headed by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel – in which men barely feature.

Set around 1770, it is located on a wind-swept island in Brittany where a young, dark-haired painter Marianne (Merlant) is commissioned to create a wedding portrait of similarly-aged, blonde-haired Héloïse (Haenel) under unusual circumstances. Headstrong Héloïse will not sit for the painting because she does not want to be married, so Marianne must pretend to be her walking companion and observe her subject in this surreptitious manner. 

The film is cleverly titled because it is about the creation of a painting while simultaneously a picture of three women – the painter, her subject, and her subject’s maid – and because it literally has a woman in flames while at the same time showing women inflammed with lesbian love.

No doubt it helped that Mathon is an out lesbian and that, for a time before the shooting of this particular film, she was in a relationship with Haenel. In an interview, Mathon has said of cinema: “Ninety per cent of what we look at is the male gaze.” But all her work champions the female gaze and never more so than in this gem of a movie. 

“Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” is a haunting work with sparse narrative, dialogue and cast-list that takes its time to build up the sexual tension. It evoked memories for me of a variety of other films.

In its slow depiction of the process of creating a female portrait, I was reminded of another French arthouse work “La Belle Noiseuse” (1991); in its dramatic use of part of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, I recalled the Swedish film “Elvira Madigan” (1967); and, in the final extended shot of a woman’s face, I found an allusion to Greta Garbo at the very end of “Queen Christina” (1933).

Posted in Cultural issues | Comments (0)

Today in the United States it’s Super Tuesday as Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden square up to one another big time

March 3rd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I’m fascinated by American politics, so I’ve been following the contest to select a Democratic Party candidate to run against the Republican Donald Trump in the US presidential election in November. A massive field of candidates has been running but the number has recently fallen very quickly and very substantially with Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar pulling out in the last couple of days.

So far we’ve only had four states voting to determine how they will allocate their delegates at the Democratic National Convention. So, up to now, only 155 delegates have been awarded. Today – known as Super Tuesday – no less than 14 states are voting and a massive 1,357 delegates (a third of the total) will be distributed. The two most populous, California and Texas, will take part – the former for the first time on Super Tuesday.

Essentially it is now a contest between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, and former Vice-President Joe Biden, the moderate and establishment choice, although mega-spending billionaire Mike Bloomberg will have his name on the ballot papers for the first time and Elizabeth Warren is still running.

I expect Bernie Sanders to confirm his standing as the front runner, but it will be interesting to see if he can secure a commanding lead or if this is going to be as brutal a battle as Sanders versus Hillary Clinton four years ago.

You can find out what’s at stake in each state that will be voting – the smallest to the largest – with some bonus nuggets of trivia thrown in here.

Posted in American current affairs | Comments (4)

What do you know about Paraguay and why is today a special one for that country?

March 1st, 2020 by Roger Darlington

One of the many reasons that I love foreign travel is that, having visited a country, I am more likely to pay attention to any news coming out of that nation. I only spent a short time in Paraguay but it was sufficient for me to pick up that today is a special one for its citizens.

The six-year War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), in which Paraguay confronted the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, had a huge impact on this landlocked nation. As many as two-thirds of the entire population of Paraguay are reckoned to have perished during the conflict, including around 90% of its men. Brazil and Argentina would go on to annex enormous swaths of Paraguayan territory.

Paraguay is now marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the conflict with book launches, conferences and concerts and official commemoration ceremonies today in Asunción, Paraguay’s capital.

You can read more about the war here and more about the anniversary commemorations here.

Posted in History | Comments (0)

50 simple ways to make your life greener

February 29th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

We all need to our bit to respond to the climate emergency facing our planet. We can’t all do the same things, but this article provides expert tips on how to be kinder to the planet – from cooking and cleaning to fashion and finance. Please choose at least one.

Posted in Environment | Comments (0)

Would you like to live to be 100 (or more)?

February 27th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

“Living to 100 will soon become a routine fact of (long) life. Life expectancies have been rising by up to three months a year since 1840 and although gains in the UK began to slow in 2011, it is still estimated that more than half the babies born in wealthier countries since 2000 may reach their 100th birthdays.

It is an impressive increase: in the early 1900s, the probability of a baby reaching 100 was 1%. A newborn in the UK today has a 50% chance of living to 105. There were 3,600 centenarians in 1986. Today there are some 15,000.

You do not have to be a newborn to benefit from this trend of increased longevity, though. A 60-year-old in the west today has an even chance of living to 90 and a 40-year-old can expect to live to 95.

But the longevity boost is not done yet: it is generally agreed that the natural ceiling to human life is somewhere around 115. Others say that even without cutting-edge AI or other technological wizardry, we could live far longer.” 

These are the opening paragraphs in a recent article in the “Guardian” newspaper which provides some advice on how to live to old age.

I am currently 71; my oldest friend is 90; the oldest person I’ve met is 103; and the oldest man in the world – who will be 112 next month – is now a man here in the UK.

My 90 year old friend reacted to the “Guardian” article by telling me: “I don’t think it’s a good idea to support and even extend longevity. Judging by myself, good health physical and mental is really not enough to keep one  happy and what is life without happiness?”

Posted in Science & technology, Social policy | Comments (1)

Word of the day: occultation

February 24th, 2020 by Roger Darlington

I’m reading a new book on the recent history of the Middle East with particular reference to the rivalry between Sunni Islam Saudi Arabia and Shia Islam Iran. The work is called “Black Wave” and it is written by the Lebanese Emmy award-winning journalist Kim Ghattas

In one of the early chapters, there is an account of the 1979 occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by Saudi zealots who included a man whom they declared to be the Madhi, a messianic figure who will emerge from occultation to signal the arrival of the end of times and the age of righteousness. Inconveniently, this so-called Madhi – who was supposed to be immortal – was killed on the third day of the siege.

Occultation in Shia Islam refers to a belief that the messianic figure, or the Mahdi, an infallible male descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, was born and went into occultation and will one day return and fill the world with justice and peace. Some Shia, such as the Nizari Ismailis, do not believe in the idea of the occultation.

The groups that do believe in it differ on the succession of the Imamah, and therefore which individual is in occultation, with the largest Shia branch – the one dominant in Iran – holding it is Hujjat-Allah al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam who has been in hiding for the past eleven centuries.

It’s been a long wait and I suspect that it’s going to be a whole lot longer ..

Posted in World current affairs | Comments (1)

A review of the utterly over-the-top movie “Birds Of Prey”

February 23rd, 2020 by Roger Darlington

Thought that films about comic book characters were all man-made? Well, here in the DC comic universe, we have a movie with women as producer (Margot Robbie), writer (Christina Hodson) and director (Cathy Yan) in which the girls also fill the main role of Harley Quinn (Robbie again) and the three eponymous birds (Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress, Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Black Canary, and Rosie Perez as a tough cop).

Indeed the one leading role for a man (Ewan McGregor as the villain Roman Sionis) does not really work and essentially all the men in the movie are there to be smashed up by the women. It’s an absolute riot, utterly over the top, with minimal plot, maximum (comic book style) violence, and an extensive and thunderous soundtrack. 

Effectively this film is a spin-off from “Suicide Squad”. The best thing about that earlier movie was Margot Robbie who played Harley Quinn, formerly prison psychiatrist Dr Harleen Quinzel who fell in love with a patient the Joker, and the full title of this work is “Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn)” so now Quinn is front and centre and Robbie is such a delight in this much-expanded performance.

But it would have been a better film if she could have been teamed with the birds earlier in the fractured narrative and if the plot made any kind of sense. This polar opposite to an art house film will not be for everyone but it is entertainingly escapist in the silliest of ways.

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