Writing about coronavirus and presenteeism

The first reported case of coronavirus outside China was on 13th January. It was in Thailand, and the patient had come to Thailand from Wuhan Province, in China.

Coronavirus is a virus that originated in an animal – almost certainly one sold live to be killed at home for food – that mutated so that it didn’t just transmit animal-to-human, it could also transmit human-to-human. Its proper name is 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease: coronavirus is a name for a type of virus to which this belongs.

This is not the first flu-type virus to jump from animal to human in China and it will not be the last, and it’s reasonably clear why: China’s population density combined with Chinese traditional cooking is to buy the creature you’re going to eat alive, and kill it at home to be butchered and eaten fresh. Racist talk of hygiene issues, animal cruelty, or deliberate government development of viruses can all be dismissed.

The Chinese government takes rapid and – in general – highly effective action once the jump from infected animal to human is known to have occurred – but they cannot reasonably be expected to close down the live animal markets completely: the result would undoubtedly be a flourishing black market trade in live animals sold for food through unregulated markets, and I hope I don’t have to explain hw much worse that could be.

No one yet seems to know what infected animal or group of animals was brought into the market in Wuhan which seems to be the locus of the original infections, but rumours that coronavirus was transmitted via bats are almost certainly not true, not least because bats are not regarded as food animals in Wuhan Province.

A person can be infected with coronavirus and have no symptoms. (The good part is, someone infected and symptomless is also not very infectious.) But even when symptoms develop, a person can be walking around with coronavirus and infecting people because they don’t initially feel all that bad: it’s just a cough! And you are quite unlikely to die of coronavirus: 99% of those who develop symptom then recover. This is bad news for containment: if the first symptoms of coronavirus were complete physical collapse and inability to breathe, most people would be quickly identified and could be isolated to prevent their infecting others.

The government of China has effectively locked down the province of Wuhan. But this didn’t work.

Marc Lipsitch [Harvard epidemiology professor] thinks this virus will continue to spread widely and is ultimately not containable. He predicts “some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected with the virus”. From The Atlantic article “The emerging consensus among epidemiologists is that the most likely outcome of this outbreak is a new seasonal disease—a fifth “endemic” coronavirus. With the other four, people are not known to develop long-lasting immunity. If this one follows suit, and if the disease continues to be as severe as it is now, “cold and flu season” could become “cold and flu and COVID-19 season.””

One reason for the large number of identified coronavirus patients in South Korea is that one of their earliest cases was a devout Christian and regular churchgoer at a large church. He infected many members of the congregation, who travelled to other branches of their church.

Of those “40-70 percent”, perhaps one-sixth – as with influenza – will never develop symptoms: and perhaps 1% will die. A vaccine is probably a couple of years off and would have to be annual.

If you are looking for factual and unpoliticised information about coronavirus, the World Health Organisation is publishing daily situation reports.

But to be clear, the UK – and the US – are drastically ill-equipped to prevent the spread of coronavirus, not because of the failings of our respective healthcare systems (though I have heard that the NHS is collectively just hoping that a coronavirus epidemic doesn’t hit the UK until the annual winter emergency is over) but because of our workplace practices.

Alison Green at Ask A Manager responded to a question about how a manager can stop sick employees coming into work and infecting their colleagues with the following three principles:

  • Offer generous paid sick time
  • Don’t just give lip service to the idea that people should stay home when they’re sick
  • Have enough coverage available so people feel they can take the day off

The Office of National Statistics regularly calculates the number of people in the UK who are working on zero-hours contracts: that is, with no paid sick time whatsoever. The proportion tends to be lower for the period April-June (896,000 last year: 2.7% of the working population) and higher for Christmas seasonal work in October-December (974,000, 3%) The first reaction of an employer who finds they’re not getting enough coverage because too many of their employees have called in sick despite not getting paid sick leave, is to contact people who haven’t booked shifts and ask them to come in to work.

Furthermore, acccording to a report published by Aviva in 2017, 70% of British workers are much more likely to come into work when feeling ill than they are to stay home. As a nation, even when we do have generous paid sick leave, we tend not to use it.

And consistently, British workers tend to work longer hours than they’re being paid for – in part because of “presenteeism”, other reports mention workers showing up for work ill – but also because a decade of politically-driven austerity means many employees know there is no flex in the system – if they don’t stay on to do the work, the work will not get done.

Even if we had an active, on the ball, concerned, intelligent government in Westminster, which we do not, it is very unlikely that the UK government would be able to turn around the deadly British working habits. People are going to go to work feeling ill because they won’t get paid if they don’t go into work and they will fear getting fired. It’s no good blaming people who do this: the problem is the entire work culture, not the individuals acting in their individual best interests.

Wash your hands. Cough (or sneeze) into your arm, if you don’t have a tissue to hand. Bag and dispose of used tissues. Wipe down your mouse, desk, keyboard, etc, if shared with other people. Don’t touch your face. Do wash your hands.

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Filed under Coronavirus, Poverty, Sustainable Politics

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