Public service announcement

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    I’ve always wanted to try Stinking Bishop, even though it has been voted the smelliest cheese in Britain. “If you can overcome the smell, Stinking Bishop is a delicious soft cheese,” apologises the cheesemaker on his website. The smell comes from being soaked in pear cider, and, funnily enough, it is the Stinking Bishop pear which gifts the cheese its name.

    The fruit immortalises one Frederick Bishop, a fragrant nineteenth century Gloucestershire pear grower and legendary grump who became so enraged when his kettle didn’t boil fast enough, he shot it.

    Stinking Bishop’s cheese-maker offers another soft cheese with a memorable name: Slack-ma-Girdle, developed “in response to demand for a non-smelly variety for the warmer months of the year.” 

    Our fridge currently nurses a pungent cheese from the Cranky Goat cheese company. Every time the fridge door opens, Greg knows, even if he is downstairs. 

    But I can’t smell it.

    I can’t even smell the ‘great Blackpool pong’.

    In mid-December, Greg and I drove an English friend around the island for a couple of hours. He had flown in from London, and apart from jetlag, he said he felt fine.

    Yes, alright, we hadn’t gotten around to getting our booster shot. We were busy. And complacent. 

    Three days after our island tour, Greg (who had been sitting next to our friend) got Covid. Two days later, so did I. 

    While the person coughing and spluttering at the pharmacy or ferry queue may be a lawn-sprinkler of virus, the pandemic has also been driven by people who seem completely healthy: ‘presymptomatic’ people who pass on the virus before they know they are sick.

    How do we know this? Covid-19 is so ubiquitous now, it is hard to remember when more than half of all cases in the world (outside China) were the unhappy passengers and crew of the cruise ship Diamond Princess, docked at Yokohama Port in February 2020. The spread of the virus inside the ship gave researchers their first clear look at this new foe. Here was a contagious virus which seemed to spread through the air like the smell of Stinking Bishop. The analysis of individual cases showed Covid (although it wasn’t called that then) could be transmitted by apparently healthy people. 

    Today we know that ‘pre-symptomatic’ (people who go on to develop symptoms) pass on Covid-19 by exhaling virus particles even when they feel well, in an aerosol form which can linger in the air like cigarette smoke. They can be extremely infectious for some two days before they develop symptoms, and in the early days of their illness. And those who develop severe disease, warns WHO (the World Health Organisation) can be infectious for longer than this. Someone who never develops symptoms can pass the virus to others, says WHO, although “it is still not clear how frequently this occurs, and more research is needed in this area.”

    Covid-19 remains New Zealand’s leading cause of death from an infectious disease. Even so, many infected people never know they have it, and a recent study published in the journal Nature suggests they may have a genetic variant which protects them from symptomatic illness. Others develop breathlessness and pneumonia, or silent hypoxia, dangerous, insidious conditions which require urgent hospitalization. There is also the spectre of the debilitating syndrome ‘Long Covid’.  

    If you test positive for Covid, you may be eligible for an anti-viral drug which will help to keep you out of hospital – but you need to take it within five days of the onset of your symptoms. Check the government’s Unite against Covid-19 website for more details.

    The pandemic has now caused an estimated 29 million so-called ‘excess deaths’ (deaths higher than would be expected) across the globe and lowered life expectancy in most countries. But Aotearoa New Zealand can be proud of its response. We took on board the lessons of the Diamond Princess, and kept our cumulative excess mortality down around zero – a truly stunning public health achievement saluted around the world.  

    The science writer Ed Yong wrote a piece for The Atlantic called How The Pandemic Defeated America. The piece is a fascinating reminder of, as Yong puts it, America’s “shocking governmental missteps”. 

    “SARS‑CoV‑2”, he wrote, “is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population.”

    A group of sixteen New Zealand researchers, including Dr Michael Baker, are urging the government to fight serious respiratory infections with strategies honed under Covid. They are calling for a single, comprehensive mitigation strategy to fight influenza, RSV and Covid-19, including improving indoor air quality, increasing sick leave support and masking in healthcare settings.

    Why not be prepared? Some researchers saw Covid as merely “a starter pandemic.” The next one may hit more than our ability to smell stinky cheese. 

    * Public service reminder: RAT tests will remain free until 29 February 2024

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