I am not one for bucket lists, but the tedium of lockdown has focused my mind somewhat on what I'd like to achieve before I die. Top of my meagre list of two is a return to Russia, a country I last visited with my family as guests of the Soviet Communist Party, when I was 12 years old. The trip was unforgettable. Several days in Moscow were followed by three weeks in the seaside resort of Sochi.
In constant presence was our lovely 19-year-old Russian interpreter, Igor Yurgens, who I've never forgotten. Writing about that memorable trip a few years ago, George Robertson (ex-Secretary General of Nato), to our mutual delight, put Igor and I back in touch again. I was astonished to discover that our erstwhile interpreter had become Chief of Staff to Dmitry Medvedev when he was Prime Minister of Russia. We are now friends on Facebook (Igor that is, not Medvedev!). The wonders of social media, eh?
Anyway, last week, Igor sent me birthday wishes, and I suddenly had the overwhelming desire to return to his country, see him again, and meet his family before I cast off this mortal coil. So next year, when this blasted pandemic is over hopefully, my husband and I will embark on the trip of a lifetime.
The 'Glasgow effect'
Last week, I wrote that research in a Paris hospital has shown that smokers are at less risk of contracting COVID-19. Since discovering the potential of nicotine to combat the virus, the French Government has had to move to prevent the stockpiling of nicotine products. Doctors in Wales are now discussing the possibility of a formal trial of the substance. In the meantime, Welsh clinicians at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital are providing improvised treatment with nicotine patches to smokers whose lung injuries were exacerbated by sudden nicotine withdrawal. It is remarkable how quickly usually time-consuming trials get underway in a crisis, and how doctors are prescribing nicotine patches to patients before conclusive results of formal trials.
In a similar vein, the 'sunshine supplement', Vitamin D, appears to reduce serious complications among COVID-19 patients. Researchers have discovered a strong correlation between severe Vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19 mortality rates. In fact, Vitamin D deficiency – particularly prevalent in ethnic minorities and the obese – may be the key to higher death rates from the virus among these groups. Staggering statistics are emerging: a study in Indonesia found that in deaths from the virus, 98.9% of patients were deficient in Vitamin D; in New Orleans, a study found that 84.6% of patients in ICU were deficient; for every standard deviation increase in Vitamin D, people in the Philippines were 7.94 times more likely to have a mild virus outcome. A friend of mine told me that his ex PhD student living in Beijing said that Chinese authorities have issued advice to increase daily Vitamin D as a top priority to combat the virus.
I have been writing about the wonders of Vitamin D on and off for a long time. My entire family have been taking the supplement for years, partly to stop me droning on about it. In Scotland, Vitamin D deficiency is, I suspect, one of the root causes of the infamous 'Glasgow effect'. Scotland, particularly the West, has the second densest cloud cover in the world. And boy, don't we know it. Scots cannot get sufficient daily exposure to direct sunlight, which is significant because Vitamin D3 is produced in the skin by the sun's ultraviolet energy. Most affluent Scots are now aware of this, as is the Scottish Government. Ultra-caution should be avoided during this pandemic, just as it has with nicotine in France and Wales, and Vitamin D3 should be made available and free to all Scots, particularly children and the deprived, as cod liver oil was when I was a kid.
Moral judgement – these days mostly about who we ought to 'blame' for the pandemic and its handling – is usually based on one of two main theories in ethics: consequentialism or deontology. The former focuses on judging the moral worth of an action based on the its consequences, whereas deontological ethics focuses on judging the action itself rather than its consequences. The divide is sometimes described in ethics as between 'act-centred' versus 'victim-centred'. How should we judge the actions of our governments and scientific advisors? The much-maligned 'herd immunity' strategy, for example, has been judged as morally suspect based on its negligent consideration of the consequences on its hapless victims.
When the Americans and British invaded Iraq, I was morally confused as to what I should think. I called my old philosophy tutor, the late and particularly great Dudley Knowles of Glasgow University, to advise me how I should think about the invasion. 'Ask me in 10 years,' he responded. 'The invasion's rightness or wrongness can only be judged on its long-term consequences.' I suspect, despite the carping and blaming of various governmental action or inaction, that we will have to wait a long time before adducing the evidence and assigning proper judgement on the current crisis.