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Friday, October 23, 2020

Tour de farce: Of words, bats and crowns

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By Sheriff Bojang

I am not an insufferable grammar policeman like Fodeh Baldeh who I believe thinks he was born to come cauterise the Gambian heart of the sin of Gamblish, the mélange which gave the world terms like ‘cousin-brother’, ‘march pass’, ‘mix together’ ‘postpone until later’ and so forth.

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But I admit, I am a romantic when it comes to words – words of all kinds, as nouns, verbs and even the short annoying preps.All words have stories, stories about their origins, the choice of the strange hieroglyphics that are chosen to spell them and the changes they undergo in meaning, usage and spelling. Some even die. Some are resurrected. And new ones are unceasingly being coined by word smiths like the self-styled ‘General Bakso’ of the APRC fame.

Over the past few weeks, a few words, not altogether new, have been used so much that they would have been declared cliché, if only perfect substitutes were available for them:corona, virus, Covid-19, pandemic, quarantine, social distancing and so forth.
Earlier this week, I read a brilliant piece ‘Coronavirus: A Glossary of Terms to Help You Understand the Unfolding Crisis’ by Katy Steinmetz, an American journalist and writer for TIME magazine based in San Francisco, California.

She wrote: “Two of the most widely felt symptoms of the coronavirus are uncertainty and confusion. Part of this is about jargon… The news is a whirl of unfamiliar words, and so one place people are turning for a little clarity and comfort is the dictionary. At TIME’s request, Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster analysed their website traffic data to see which words users were looking up more than usual, in connection with coverage of the coronavirus. Using those insights, TIME has assembled a glossary for navigating this crisis, along with some context about where these words come from.

corona / coronavirus / novel coronavirus / COVID-19
The word virus comes from a Latin word meaning venom and describes a tiny, tiny agent that causes infectious disease. Coronavirus is a family of viruses that got its name from its appearance.The word corona means crown. The scientists who in 1968 came up with the term coronavirus thought that, under a microscope, the virus they were looking at resembled a solar corona: the bright crown-like ring of gasses surrounding the sun that is visible during a solar eclipse…Though the disease currently spreading around the globe — Covid-19 — is often called coronavirus, it’s really a disease caused by one type of coronavirus: SARS-CoV-2. Calling this particular one “novel coronavirus” is simply a way of making it clear which coronavirus is at issue: the new one.
As Dictionary.com breaks down in a thorough explainer, the name Covid-19 was derived from the year it was first detected (2019) and using letters from CO-rona-VI-rus D-isease…

outbreak / epidemic / pandemic
These are crescendoing terms. Per Merriam-Webster, an outbreak is “a sudden rise in the incidence of a disease,” which is usually confined to one area or group of people. When there are enough outbreaks, in places beyond that initial spot, that amounts to an epidemic. A pandemic is an epidemic that has become a worldwide phenomenon. When does something officially become “worldwide”? There’s no absolute answer.On March 11th, the World Health Organisation officially declared that a pandemic was underway, noting ‘alarming levels of spread and severity’. The WHO had resisted using that word even as outbreaks were reported in scores of countries. Such a decision can hinge on many factors, like whether the disease is spreading in additional places only because travellers had been to the site of the initial outbreak, as well as concerns about terminology causing markets and hopes to sink.The prefix pan- suggests the whole of the universe or mankind. The pan in pandemic is the same one in pandemonium, a description of uproar that originally referred to the place where all demons dwelled; and Pangea, the vast supercontinent, comprising all the land on Earth, that is thought to have once existed.

quarantine / self-quarantine / isolation
The word quarantine, explains Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski, originally referred to a period of 40 days. The word’s earliest known uses were in religious contexts, like describing a 40-day period of fasting that emulated the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert. It was also used in legal contexts, like describing the period of time that a widow could remain in her deceased husband’s home before she started owing somebody rent.In the Middle Ages, Italians adopted that word to describe a 40-day period that boats had to wait before docking, to ensure the passengers weren’t sick with the plague before they were allowed to join the population on land. It’s from this use that we eventually got the term that’s all over the news today.If one is in quarantine, that’s good news in a way. The word typically describes the confinement of people who appear healthy but could have the disease. (When someone is determined to be sick and is kept apart from others, that is known as isolation.)

social distancing
As the Covid-19 outbreak has grown, various local and national health officials have suggested social distancing measures to slow the spread of a disease. These are courses of action designed to limit when and where people gather.This term can also be used to describe actions taken by individuals, like choosing not to take public transportation or opting to shop from home instead of going to the store. Social distancing measures might also include businesses telling employees to work from home or executives meeting via video call rather than in their usual conference room.In other contexts, social distance can refer to other phenomena, like an individual’s emotional feelings of separation from others or the intimacy that exists, or doesn’t, between different classes or ethnic groups. In the case of Covid-19, it generally describes actions taken to minimise contact among people…”

Another widely used phrase is zoonotic, as in zoonotic transfer which is the transmission of a disease from an animal host to a human.

Coronavirus is reported to have originated in a wet animal market in the central China city of Wuhan in early December 2019. At first, seal-like pangolins, scaly anteaters, were blamed for transferring it to people. Now bats are blamed.
I have an affinity for bats. I am from Brikama and grew up in houses built under tall verdant mango trees where thousands of bats live. In fact, Brikamaphobes like the people of Brufut, pejoratively refer to Satè Baa as ‘Brikama Tonso’ – Brikama the Home of Bats, and perhaps rightly so.So you can understand why I grieve for the wonderful bat to be given such a bad tag.

The idea that bats could be responsible for the transmission of newly emerging and potentially deadly infectious diseases to humans began to take hold in 2002 with the discovery of a new coronavirus that caused severe respiratory infections called SARS.
From 2014, articles have been appearing in medical journals like Science, New Scientist and Wired with titles like “Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-like Coronaviruses”,“Why Bats Are Such Good Hosts for Ebola and Other Deadly Diseases,” with statements like “hordes of deadly diseases are lurking in bats and sometimes jumping to people…”, “scientists are discovering new bat-borne viruses all the time…”, “bats are arguably one of the most dangerous animals in the world…” and, “…when there are bats up in the sky, there could be Ebola in that poop that lands on your shoulder.”

If bats were even remotely as dangerous as postulated, why is it that a Brikama boy like myself and thousands of bat researchers remain in good health, despite countless hours of close contact, often surrounded by thousands, even millions of bats in caves? Why hasn’t it been possible to document bat-caused disease outbreaks among the millions of people who regularly eat bats throughout the African and Asian tropics or among the many Africans, Asians, and Australians living in cities cohabited by hundreds of thousands of bats? How is it that millions of tourists have safely viewed from close range, the reported emergence during summer nights of the million-plus bats that have lived for the past 35 years under a road bridge in the middle of Austin, Texas in the USA? So give bats a break. Stop blaming them for the spread of these viruses.

One of my favourite books of all time is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It is the best rough guide to science you could pick up at Timbooktoo.
In ‘Small World’, a chapter in the middle of the book, Bryson wrote: “Viruses prosper by hijacking the genetic material of a living cell, and using it to produce more virus. They reproduce in a fanatical manner, then burst out in search of more cells to invade. Not being living organisms themselves, they can afford to be very simple. Many, including HIV, have ten genes or fewer, whereas even the simplest bacteria require several thousand. They are also very tiny, much too small to be seen with a conventional microscope. But they can do immense damage. Smallpox in the twentieth century alone killed an estimated 300 million people.

“They also have an unnerving capacity to burst upon the world in some new and startling form and then to vanish again as quickly as they came. In 1916, in one such case, people in Europe and America began to come down with a strange sleeping sickness, which became known as encephalitis lethargica. Victims would go to sleep and not wake up. They could be roused without great difficulty to take food or go to the bathroom, and would answer questions sensibly—they knew who and where they were—though their manner was always apathetic. However, the moment they were permitted to rest, they would at once sink back into deepest slumber and remain in that state for as long as they were left. Some went on in this manner for months before dying. A very few survived and regained consciousness but not their former liveliness. They existed in a state of profound apathy, “like extinct volcanoes,” in the words of one doctor. In ten years the disease killed some five million people and then quietly went away. It didn’t get much lasting attention because in the meantime an even worse epidemic—indeed, the worst in history—swept across the world.

“It is sometimes called the Great Swine Flu epidemic and sometimes the Great Spanish Flu epidemic. The First World War killed 21 million people in four years; swine flu did the same in its first four months. Reportedly, almost 80 per cent of American casualties in the First World War came not from enemy fire, but from flu.

“Swine flu arose as a normal, non-lethal flu in the spring of 1918, but somehow, over the following months—no-one knows how or where—it mutated into something more severe. A fifth of victims suffered only mild symptoms, but the rest became gravely ill and many died. Some succumbed within hours; others held on for a few days.

“In the United States… schools closed, public entertainments were shut down, people everywhere wore masks. It did little good. Between autumn 1918 and spring the following year, 548,452 people died of the flu in America. The toll in Britain was 220,000, with similar numbers in France and Germany. No-one knows the global toll, as records in the third world were often poor, but it was not less than 20 million and probably more like 50 million. Some estimates have put the global total as high as a 100 million…
“Much about the 1918 flu epidemic is understood poorly or not at all. One mystery is how it erupted suddenly, all over, in places separated by oceans, mountain ranges and other earthly impediments. A virus can survive for no more than a few hours outside a host body, so how could it appear in Madrid, Bombay and Philadelphia all in the same week?
The probable answer is that it was incubated and spread by people who had only slight symptoms or none at all. Even in normal outbreaks, about 10 per cent of people in any given population have the flu but are unaware of it because they experience no ill effects. And because they remain in circulation they tend to be the great spreaders of the disease.
That would account for the 1918 outbreak’s widespread distribution, but it still doesn’t explain how it managed to lie low for several months before erupting so explosively at more or less the same time all over… The greatest mystery of all is why the 1918 flu was so ferociously deadly when most flus are not.

“From time to time certain strains of virus return. A disagreeable Russian virus known as H1N1 caused severe outbreaks over wide areas in 1933, then again in the 1950s and yet again in the 1970s. Where it went in the meantime each time is uncertain… Our lifestyles invite epidemics. Air travel makes it possible to spread infectious agents across the planet with amazing ease. An Ebola virus could begin the day in, say, Benin, and finish it in New York or Hamburg or Nairobi, or all three…Next time there is a flu pandemic, we may not be so lucky.”

Well 17 years since Bill Bryson wrote these words, we are facing the stark reality in the form of the apocalyptic Covid-19.
This write-up might be a tour de farce, but Covid-19 is real. Justice watch patient Kevin Harris explain what it does to your body in this video excerpted from a CNN interview: https://edition.cnn.com/videos/tv/2020/03/20/exp-tsr-todd-what-its-like-to-get-coronavirus-patients-speak.cnn

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