What Sky News has missed

It’s strange how things happen. Only a couple of days ago, we were enjoying the story of simple country folk together, going about their er… “business” without a care in the world. And now, suddenly, the role of the British vet is seen in a whole different light (actually, thank goodness) as an outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease (FMD) in Surrey, UK is investigated.

As a microbiologist, this case is particularly interesting to me. I’ve always had a bit of a personal interest in epidemiology (the study of the spread of disease) and the detective work that goes with it, since reading the story of the Broad Street pump. I guess I’m just a frustrated forensic scientist, deep down. With a love of bacteria.

The FMD outbreak in 2001 was devastating for the British farming industry and cost the livelihoods of many hundreds of farmers. Over 7 million animals were culled and the total cost of the episode was in excess of £8bn. Behind those easily reported figures though, the true human cost remained largely hidden. It was a very a big effect for a very small virus (about 0.0000001mm in size).

So I guess in a way it’s understandable that, so far, the rolling news stories have all been about the human side of the story. That’s the way that British news has been heading for some time now – demonstrated admirably by the hopelessly overblown Madeleine McCann case. After all, there’s nothing that reels in the viewers like a distraught farmer, crying in front of the baying newsmen; the pride of his life – his thoroughbred bull who he describes as being “like a pet” – shot in front of him, along with the rest of his herd of 100 cattle.


But for me, what makes this whole sorry scene even worse is that this outbreak appears to have begun at a research laboratory site nearby to the (so far) two affected farms. That it seems to be down to poor laboratory practice makes me even more angry for the poor farmers and even more incredulous that the news teams in the area appear to have missed what I think is the bigger story here.

The virus that causes FMD is one of the picornaviridae, called Aphthovirus. Because of the lack of any cure for the disease, the lightning quick transmission and the low numbers of viral particles needed to cause infection, aphthoviruses are classified as a Containment Level 4 pathogens by the Department for Enviornment,Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Just to put you in the picture – and I could list the others, but I think that one will do – essentially that’s the same classification as the Ebola virus.
Step forward Dustin Hoffman in a spacesuit. Or something.


Now, I’m not suggesting for a minute that the research facilities at Pirbright have Ebola on site. That would be silly. But there is something utterly terrifying about a pathogen “escaping” from a CL4 facility. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. It’s the stuff of hideously paranoid paperbacks, of low budget films, of conspiracy theorists wildest dreams. And now – in all probability – it’s reality.

Why have Sky News missed this so far? As I said – this is the stuff of movies – surely right up their street?
I think that maybe they just haven’t realised the “Ebola link” yet. So once again they wheel out Prof Hugh Pennington (he and I have history – grr) and his eyebrows and he says… well… nothing of interest. No big surprise there. Literally.
So, Sky et al, if you’re reading this:

Here is the news.
A virus as dangerous as Ebola has escaped from a laboratory just outside London.
Stop interviewing crying farmers and get on with some real journalism.

Much obliged.

The Big South African Crime Post

This post won Runner-Up in the 2008 SA Blog Awards BEST POST category.

Wow. What a week.
We had the arbitration panel’s report on the Tevez affair, we had the new crime stats released in South Africa and I actually managed to play a game of football for the first time in almost three months, the last of which goes some way towards explaining the bruise on my arse. Some way, not by any means all.
It was inflicted by a stoutly-built Slavic dwarf. Seriously. I’m still not sure how he reached.

As for the Tevez scandal, I’m not going to start on here about that. First off, I’d have to try and explain it, which is going to be time-consuming and suitably subjective. Then, by the time I upload this, everything will all be out of date. And, by the time you read it in 2009, they’ll probably still be bickering over some minor legal technicality. It’s time that football authorities clamped down on the things that are ruining our beautiful game. Those things would include dodgy transfer deals, Sheffield wednesday and stocky Bulgarian midgets.

Which leaves us with the hot potato, the thorny apple, the… the… pokey fishcake – whatever – that is South Africa and crime. Woo.
OK. For starters – South Africa has a big problem with crime.
There. I said it. Whoever that was at the back who suggested I wouldn’t say it was wrong.
You people who deny that there’s a problem, get with the programme. There is. Believe it, because it’s true.
And some of it is on the increase. Although equally, some of it is on the decrease too.
The stats show that South Africa remains one of the most violent societies on earth – the figures are shocking. People pay their taxes and they are right to expect more to be done to reduce rates of crime in the country.

That said, while the stories in the newspapers may make grim reading, the majority of us carry on with our lives without being directly or personally affected by crime. According to the latest figures, 40 in every 100,000 people will be murdered in SA each year, but lest we forget, that still leaves 99,960 who won’t be. I’d love them to be better, but for me, those odds (equating to 2,500-1) are still pretty good. Let’s face it, would you really bet on a horse that was a 2,500-1 outsider and expect to win? No. Because that’s what odds are all about – indicating the probability of something actually occurring. Moreover, by being sensible and avoiding situations and places where you might put yourself in danger, you can lower that risk still further. You can’t do that with your horse.

There’s another more sinister side to this issue as well – race.
Because of the ongoing inequalities in many areas of South African life, there is a perception that the majority of crime victims are white.
Not true. By far the majority of crime victims are black. But the average white person is more likely to have a computer, internet access, education to be able to write to their local newspaper and so forth than their black counterpart. So we do hear an awful lot from them.
It’s just another way that the press exaggerates the public perception of crime in this country. Yes, the power of the press can be an important tool in bringing about change in society, but sadly, the current hysteria is counter-productive and the perception of the situation is actually far worse than the situation itself.

In addition, there really isn’t the need for the hysteria that the extremely vocal minority exhibit on online forums etc. Many of those seem to be ex-pat South Africans desperate to run their country down, perhaps in order to justify their decision to move away. That move was their decision and it’s their right to be allowed to make that choice. But while they tell the world about how dangerous South Africa is from their new homes thousands of miles away, we live here and we’d like to set the record straight.Do come to South Africa. Do behave sensibly as you would on holiday anywhere else in the world.
Don’t wave your iPod around in downtown Cape Town – it might get nicked. As it might in downtown New York, Amsterdam or Sydney.
Don’t wander round Nyanga on your own late at night. Or Harlem. Or the Manor Estate in Sheffield.
And really, don’t expect to be shot or mugged as you get off the plane – that’s just paranoia – you’ll be sadly disappointed and you’ll look proper stupid doing your ninja stealth moves along the air-bridge for no reason whatsoever.

I’d especially welcome comments on this post; from those in SA, those with an SA connection and those with a passing interest since they started reading this brilliant blog – what do you hear about SA in your country? Please take time to indicate which category (if any) you fall into – just for interest’s sake. 

Keep safe, wherever you are.

Comments from this post on ballacorkish.net (my old site) can be read here.
 
 

 

Weather woes

While the weather here in Cape Town has been pretty miserable of late – a succession of cold fronts bringing wind, rain, more wind and more rain to the peninsular, life is no better in the UK.
Of course, it’s summer there, so they’d be expecting rain. Add that to the fact that Wimbledon starts today and it was the Glastonbury festival this weekend and you could have predicted precipitation.
That said, I don’t think many people expected it quite as bad as it was.
For example, check out this picture snipped from the BBC News website earlier today:


Bassey: grounded

That’s right. The weather in the UK is so bloody awful right now that they had to ground Dame Shirley Bassey. Apparently, there were worries that she would drift away like a giant zepplin. Extra cable had to be brought in from Poland to tether her securely to terra firma.


“This unprecedented action was taken due to the inclement conditions,” said a spokesperson for the singer, “Usually, we allow her to fly throughout the summer, before locking her away in a hanger near Cardiff for the winter months. But we had no choice but to ground her due to the heavy rain and strong winds. We hope to have her flying again before the end of the month.”

Da Lowdown

As my virally-ravaged body continues to exude mucus at an alarming rate, I felt it was time to update the site once again. This is mainly because, although my symptoms have shown a mild improvement since yesterday, I’m still far from convinced that I’ll make it through to the end of the week.


I have already been forced to miss two football matches, one international rugby game and one father’s day, while the pharmacists of Cape Town now greet me happily by my first name and offer less then reasonable credit terms for the myriad of their products I have been utilising. At one point, I was taking 22 times my RDA of vitamin C. My kidneys were extremely unhappy about this and it seemingly made precisely bugger-all difference to my immune system. I cut down when my hastily calculated risk/benefit analysis on the back of a tissue box revealed that the vitamin C would allow me to live for approximately 3 more days than if I wasn’t taking it.
3 more days of snot, coughing and generally feeling like crap?
No, thank you.

So, aside from generating bucketloads of phlegm, what have I been up to?
On the technology front, I have discovered Audacity and have been playing around with that. Now all I need is a nice OpenSource video editor and I’m sorted. Anyone?
My music listening on the now infamous rattly iPod has been almost exclusively Send Away The Tigers by the Manic Street Preachers, which is dangerously happy by their somewhat melancholy standards, but with guitar work echoing back to Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible (the Manics’ album not the book, which, although not an avid reader, I believe contains virtually no guitar work).


The public sector workers strike continues – just. A whole one bloke in the picket line outside the hospital this morning, which was rather amusing. He was toyi-toying, but mainly just to keep warm, I think. Note: solo toyi-toying is really funny to watch.
Anyway, according to the Allister Charles of the NEHAWU Union in this morning’s Cape Times:

Our demand is still at 10%, there’s no doubt about that. But the question nationally is: are we going to accept or should we fight until we reach 8%? That’s for you to decide.

Is it just me or does he have it all wrong? Isn’t he supposed to be fighting for a bigger percentage increase? Keep fighting, Allister and you’ll owe them money.
Once you’ve settled that little issue, we can chat about the R50 you owe me. What’s that, you say? You actually owe me R75? I thought it was R100. R125? Really? [continues until I’m a millionaire]…

One last bit of good news. While I may be slightly behind in updating my 2010 flickr pictures, South Africa is exceeding its obligations, as Sepp Blatter found out on his visit this week. Awesome stuff, even if he can’t pronounce Phumzile’s name. Lots of people struggle with that though.That’ll be all for now then – consider yourself informed.

Sport and Racism in South Africa…

I read with interest the Ruck & Maul column by Ashfak Mohamed in today’s Cape Times. Ashfak is a rugby fan who was at the SA v England game in Bloemfontein last Saturday.


Ashfak isn’t white. (There was a photo).


He described what we’ve all seen at rugby matches across South Africa, namely an almost complete absence of black and coloured fans in the crowd; an embarrassing and hostile silence through the first verse of the national anthem (which is sung in isiXhosa), followed by a bellowing of Die Stem (the Afrikaans verse which also used to be the national anthem of the “old” South Africa) and players of colour being racially abused for their mistakes on the pitch.
His citing of previous racism at matches in Bloemfontein for this overwhelming majority of white fans got me thinking. Also on Saturday was the ABSA Cup final between Ajax Cape Town and Sundowns (that’s a soccer* game, folks). One wonders how many white fans were at that game? I would wager that it was fewer than blacks and coloureds in Bloem. But is that a problem? Well, obviously, it is a problem when racial abuse stops people from watching sport** – whatever their colour. But is that really the reason that these two games were attended by such completely different crowds?
I think it is only one part of the story.

According to southafrica.info, “Sport is the national religion. Transcending race, politics or language group, sport unites the country”

I laughed when I read that. Yes, this country could have gone down the road of civil war in 1994 and it didn’t, and for that everyone should be thankful. But saying that life is settled and the country is united in any form just because there’s no civil war is like saying that England did well at the rugby because they didn’t lose by, say, 100 points. Those claiming “racial harmony” are, to coin a cockney phrase, “having a larf”. This country is amongst the most divided in the world.

Insecurity, paranoia, resentment, retribution, disillusionment and distrust are plainly evident the way many South Africans live their daily lives. Those reading this will probably snort and dismiss this. “That’s not me.” they’ll say. I beg to differ.


The population here is divided into those who won’t openly admit to there being a problem, those who see the issues but don’t have a problem with them and the other 1% who want to sort things out but can’t overcome the apathy or engrained racist attitudes of the other 99%. Of course, 99% of the South Africans reading this think that they’re in that 1% – and that’s exactly the problem.

But back to sport.

Because of the unique history of this country, the lines of division run through every aspect of life. But perhaps the most public of these is sport. Well, that and politics, but no-one reads posts about politics. Sport is neatly divided in three in this country: Rugby, Cricket and Soccer. Of course, there are other sports played here, but those are the biggies. Rugby and cricket get the most press. They are the “white” sports. What distresses many of the rugby and cricket fans is that the official national sport of South Africa is… er… the other one. And that’s because the majority of the sporting population play football. Rugby and cricket come in very much second and third. How embarrassing.


And while there is a huge push to get more coloured and black players into the national teams for rugby and cricket to make the team more representative of the racial make-up of the country (often despite the fact that the players in question aren’t actually very good), there is no reciprocal push to get white players into the soccer team.

Ashfak suggests that beacuse the ANC is in power in the Free State, there must be a lot of black people living there and they should have been at the game. Nice big tarring brush you have there, sir.
But it seems to me that the major reason for the obvious racial divisions in South African sport is that for the vast majority of whites, soccer holds no interest and for the vast majority of blacks, rugby holds no interest. And as long as those few who want to watch and play a sport from “the other side” can, I don’t see a problem.


So Ashfak, while I agree with your comments regarding the Afrikaaners and their small-minded and right-wing attitudes, I think the major reason for the nearly all-white crowd last Saturday was really because they were the only ones actually interested.

*I hate this word. Obviously, I mean football, but that would just confuse everyone.
**or indeed doing anything.