Have the vaccines helped or hindered the fight against Covid?

Before I start, I want to be clear that I’ve had two doses of AstraZeneca, so I’m not anti-vax. But when you look at everything that’s happened over the last couple of years, you have to wonder how much the vaccine has helped rather than hindered. Especially now we know the booster won’t get us back to full immunity, and we have yet another variant on the way. Do we want to be perpetually stuck in a cycle of booster jabs in a slowly collapsing capitalist hellscape? Or do we want to actually end covid once and for all?

When we had the first lockdown, we had over a thousand deaths a day for quite a while, but when the lockdown really started taking effect, the numbers of cases crashed, as did the deaths a couple of weeks later. Probably the best case for the vaccine was in the winter of last year and early 2021. In the Autumn, we had a rise in cases which eventually lead to the circuit breaker, which was too late, and didn’t get the cases down that far. The government ended it despite that, and cases quickly rebounded to go far higher still into winter, where the vaccine started to play a role in bringing down cases and deaths. But by that point, the government, and the public at large were treating the vaccines as the magic bullet that would solve everything; and that has continued ever since. Culminating in the disastrous and reckless “Freedom Day” in June where the Tories ended all restrictions. If you look at the data now, you see that the UK has had continually high cases since when compared to other similar countries; but the UK has gotten away with its gross mismanagement because the cases and deaths have been consistently in the 40,000s and 200s respectively. It is obviously crazy that we’ve come to accept this as ok and “the vaccine doing its job”, but that’s where we are.

So, if we didn’t have the vaccines, how would this have all played out? Presumably we would have still had the Autumn surge, followed by a circuit breaker. People were growing wearing of the rules and looking after each other by that point (the clap for carers charade had ended). You’d have to assume that there would have been a stronger lockdown long before Christmas if there wasn’t a vaccine rollout. And I think it’s virtually certain that the cases and deaths would have been lower this year had the vaccine not existed. BoJo would never have been able to call Freedom Day and we would have never left the basic restrictions of mask wearing, social distancing and so on.

You only really have to look to a country like Japan for an example of how to do it mostly right. They did have small surges from time to time, but they were always able to bring it under control relatively quickly and it never got to the ludicrous levels seen in other countries. The only time it got quite scary was when cases hit about 30,000 a day during the Olympic period. At that point, the vaccine rollout wasn’t where it should have been, but they avoided cases getting up into the 40, 50, 60k range. And remember, this is a far more populous country than the UK, with massive cities where everyone is crammed in together on public transport. There was no reason it needed to get as bad as it did here.

The idea that 40,000 (now 50k) people can get the virus every day and 150-200 can die, and that be considered a success is truly obscene; and yes, perhaps very few of those people dying are vaccinated. But it’s the fact that we’ve allowed the virus to keep spreading in the community, especially among young people in particular for so long that is most obscene. You have to adapt to the situation you’re in, but they didn’t act to offset the 15% of adults who haven’t been vaccinated. The virus kept circulating widely, presumably causing an increase in asymptomatic transmission among vaccinated people. And we’re seeing the result of the continued spread around the world yet again now with the Omicron variant.

It’s clear that the only time most neoliberal governments act quickly is when there’s a threat to capitalism. In this case blocking travel from South Africa, not that it’s going to make any real difference now that it’s inevitably already spread all over the world. They couldn’t care less about public health, but they’re incredibly concerned about the health of capitalism. Nothing is ever said about how returning to global travel meant this was inevitable. This is really the crux of what this whole thing has been about. I’ve written before about how covid will never end until capitalism ends, and we just get further confirmation of that fact every day. And that brings us to the other problem with covid vaccines, which is that they prevent most people from realising that capitalism must end. The longer the period of time where people can stop and think, the less likely they are to want to return to how things were before. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it how most people wanted to jump back into “normality” considering how great it was to slow down and enjoy nature, clean air, peace and quiet for a while. But I do think that the capitalist establishment were lucky. If capitalism, covid, consumerism and the climate crisis had been able to marinate in people’s minds for much longer, we could quite easily have seen the massive change we need to see. The massive change that Graeme Maxton and his wife Bernice Maxton-Lee wrote about in their book “A Chicken Can’t Lay a Duck Egg”. It’s such a huge travesty that we’ve missed the most golden of golden opportunities for change, but I think it’s still possible. Every new variant, every new record breaking extreme weather event, every day people think more about unrelenting consumption that goes by, the better the chances that we’ll finally snap out of this.

So far, the government have been able to maintain the false notion that the vaccine alone will end the covid crisis without really being challenged in the mainstream. But even if everyone in the world was vaccinated, would it end? I can’t see how it would. What about adding universal masks and distancing? If we did that, and presumably it was the original intention of the epidemiologists, then yes, that seems plausible. But I don’t personally see that happening in reality unless capitalism ends and we pay people to stay at home. Mandating citizens to take the vaccine I don’t really agree with, but paying them to stay home and follow other rules I think is fine in the circumstances. It’s not as if people won’t be able to enjoy outdoor activities.

But one thing is for sure; whatever it is that we’re doing now clearly isn’t working. Booster shots for some, a dizzying mix of 1, 2 or no vaccine doses for others; plus a different set of restrictions and guidelines in every country when we live in a global world. It’s no wonder we’re still stuck in a loop after almost 2 years of this nonsense.

We have to all realise that we have to do something different. If you’re going to do boosters, combine them with lockdowns or at least heavy restrictions, so we can make this the last dose. But then, is it worth wasting a third dose when it doesn’t boost protection by that much? Maybe focus on vaccinating people for the first time, end capitalism and pay people to stay at home. The data shows it will be far more effective than any vaccine.

We don’t drive at 200mph, so why do we need HS2?

Cool looking trains, but they’d still be cool running at 125mph on current lines

The reason why Shinkansen trains are accepted in Japan is because they were built at a time when everyone bought into the fast life idea. Practically no one questioned it. The economic benefits, GDP and all of that. Those things that a rapidly increasing contingent of us now know to be unnecessary, and are actually killing us.

It was at a time when we didn’t have connectivity like we do now. How would you justify high speed rail now when you could take a limited express or a sleeper service and work on the way with wi-fi or 5G? The answer is, you don’t talk about it, or you make up some bullshit about it taking strain off the existing network. Well, I’m no railway engineer, but I imagine that building more standard lines in our current railway system would also do that for an infinitely lower cost. Both environmentally and financially.

Who says “it would help the economy if I could drive my car to Manchester at 200mph”. Not even Jeremy Clarkson would say something so ridiculous. Well, I don’t think he has anyway. And who would want to take a coach at 200mph? I definitely don’t. There are enough coach crashes around the world as it is, and I can’t imagine it would be a fun ride, if such an insane bus actually existed outside the realm of video games.

So, we don’t need HS2 because the speed benefit makes no sense if it’s not applied elsewhere (not that it makes much difference to journey times anyway); and because of the connectivity and remote working we now enjoy. But what about the environmental impact? We know that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, and we also know that the route of HS2 just happens to trample on 32 ancient woodlands directly, and another 29 indirectly. And considering the fragility of these precious ecosystems, it’s unlikely that those 29 will survive at all.

We can’t lose this. Photo credit: waronwildlife.co.uk

If HS2 was necessary, which it isn’t; the obvious question would be why didn’t they build alongside existing motorways where there is often a lot of space and certainly great grid connections? Is it because nature is effectively worthless under this economic system and therefore an easy target? Is it because the rich business travellers who would be frequenting this service would like a nicer view out of the windows than a motorway? Is it because our leaders don’t care about nature at all and sadistically would enjoy trampling on it? My guess it’s a bit of all three.

And then there’s the climate implications of all of this. We know that in order to give ourselves a chance of survival in the face of the climate catastrophe, we have to slash consumption by as much as possible, and we have to live slower and smaller lives. We will travel less, and when we do, we will go slower and on the ground unless absolutely essential (visiting family overseas for example, not for business travel). We’re already seeing a resurgence of sleeper trains across Europe, and we need to see it here too. We do have a couple of services domestically, but we need to see more; and we desperately need sleepers that use the channel tunnel and serve the major European cities.

But obviously the climate implications of HS2 don’t end there. There is the immense amount of emissions generated during the building of the railway in the first place; but time is also a huge aspect. Because we only have a handful of years at the most to slash our emissions to as close to zero as possible; we can no longer take on decade long mega projects like this (or Hinckley Point C for example). There will be the odd exception, such as a massive upgrade to our existing railway infrastructure that can’t be completed in just a few years. But generally speaking, we have to think as short term as possible. This sounds counterintuitive since we’ve always been taught growing up to think about our long term future. Unless you’re in business in which case short term profit over long term stability has been the name of the game. But as long as the Earth’s climate is in the disastrous state it is, we have to think day by day with a single-minded focus on how to slash our consumption, and therefore our emissions as much as possible. Very little else matters. The byproduct of which will be providing a better, cleaner, fairer world to everyone, and allowing ourselves a chance at a future. In addition, we will be protecting and restoring our natural areas and our precious wildlife. It’s easy to do. It simply requires doing nothing.

Just like with Covid, we solve the world’s biggest crises by just slowing down and stopping. Lounging around and being lazy can stop runaway climate change? If you’re anything like me, that’ll sound pretty appealing.

Bike Parking needs to change fast

In my last post, I wrote about how comprehensive bicycle infrastructure networks, for the most part, are no longer necessary at this late stage of our climate crisis. But bike parking is a totally different story. We desperately need quality bike parking facilities.

The Dutch understand this and are investing massively, and have been for years. Which is why a new, state of the art facility that accommodates tens of thousands of bikes is opening seemingly every week. They understand that secure parking is almost (if not equally) important in getting people cycling as providing the safe routes themselves.

I don’t know if the Dutch are rolling these bike parks out at the immense clip that they are because they know how critically short we are on time to prevent climate tipping points; but they certainly are acting as if they do. As I mentioned previously, almost everything we do now as a world society to tackle the climate crisis has to be possible within a few years. That’s why we should ban cars now instead of copying the bike network of the Dutch. But there is no other option when it comes to parking. You have to design and build these facilities, which takes years of design, planning and construction. At the rate Britain is going, we might have one of these facilities, on the scale of the world’s biggest in Utrecht, open in 2026. And I’m far from convinced that it will actually happen. We have to move fast and put the money into this immediately. If we focus on bike parking as our transport priority, we could potentially have them in every major town and city by 2024 or 2025.

In order to achieve something like this, you would need to completely flip the transport budget upside down. The government has their £27.5 Billion road building program, but cycling is only getting a less-than-pathetic 1% of that amount. Any government serious about having a future on this planet would immediately swap those around, but of course almost no governments would do that. But let’s just pretend they would and imagine a better world for a minute.

You might be wondering in this hypothetical scenario what we do between now and 2025 when all of these bike parks are up and running. Do we all just not ride bikes in the meantime through fear of getting our pride and joy stolen? Obviously, we can’t afford to wait, and we need to limit theft as much as possible. The data for June this year showed a 50% spike in theft compared to the same month in 2020, near the end of the first wave of covid. Utility trips (and therefore bikes locked up) dipped by 20% in 2020, and even though it will have picked back up in the second quarter of this year, it wouldn’t have accounted for that huge uptick in thefts. It seems more likely that the demand for bikes and the manufacturing shortage has lead thieves to up their game in terms of organisation and “professionalism”. With highly skilled thieves taking advantage of the lack of secure parking, authorities have to move while we wait for the Utrecht style bike parks to come to fruition.

Smaller scale secure parking can be introduced quickly in residential and commercial urban streets, for example. And it’s also possible for existing buildings to introduce new or improve existing bike parking facilities for staff or customers. We’ve seen train stations introduce swipe card entry and CCTV to existing bike storage rooms for example. And I think folding bikes are going to play a big role in urban areas. They are always a great idea, and with the lack of secure parking, they’re essential to the growth of cycling in the next several years especially.

Cargo bikes are going to be increasingly huge in terms of the transport mix as we go forward, and they will also present a security challenge. However, their sheer size and weight will help deter thieves, and the most recent models often come with immobiliser type functions where they won’t roll unless they’ve been unlocked by the owner. I also think commercial cargo bikes won’t be effected due to them being either in constant use, or stored at the business premises. Cargo bikes for individuals and families will be more of a challenge in the short term; but as mentioned above, they are much less appealing to thieves than regular bikes. And let’s not forget, you can (and should) insure them like you would insure a car, except it’s a lot less expensive. Even if the worst was to happen, you could just get another one, and it would still be far cheaper than owning and running a car.

Bike hoops outside SpashPoint Leisure Centre in Worthing

But what we really need to get away from is shit bike parking. Don’t get me wrong; bike hoops are clearly the least bad of the options, but they’re not great; especially when they’re uncovered. Front or rear wheel racks are basically useless and they are not designed for all of the different tyre widths you see. No new (or relatively recent) development should have uncovered racks of any sort. SplashPoint Leisure Centre (pictured above) is the most egregious example where I live. They installed quite a few hoops, to their credit. But could you really not afford to at the very least cover them up?

When I was in Cambridge a couple of years ago, I visited a new station north of the city. It had hundreds of bike loops, and they were covered by a large roof, to at least keep the rain off. At that time, I remember being astounded that they would do anything that cycling friendly at a medium sized train station in the UK. That’s what living in West Sussex does to your expectations. But from now on, I think it is the absolute bare minimum we should expect to see at transport hubs.

And then there’s the other local destinations. Convenience stores, doctors surgeries, dentists, libraries etc. So many of these places have rusty old bike racks that hold maybe 4 or 5 bikes if you’re lucky, but they also have a car park for 20 or 30 cars. If we somehow did wake up from our climate slumber tomorrow and decide to ban cars, you’d have all sorts of problems with bike parking at these locations, 1 or 2 miles from home.

We clearly need a two pronged approach to this critical problem. Small, covered, sometimes secure parking in residential areas and local amenities, and massive investment in Utrecht style parking for tens of thousands of bikes in urban centres. We can’t wait any longer for this change. Cycling rates will stay relatively stagnant until something happens to show people that cycling really is respected as a form of transport, like it is elsewhere.

It’s time to stop asking for Bike Infrastructure

At COP26, all I’ve heard from cycling people are calls for world leaders and governments to not forget that cycling is essential for any kind of sustainable future plan; whether that be the fantasy one they mean (green growth capitalism), or one that actually works (degrowth, equal society).

But what they almost always forget is that there’s a reason why the countries that have bad (or no) bike infrastructure are in that predicament. It’s because of the corrupt right wing governments we have, and the society that has been moulded by them and the media over decades. These governments are not going to fundamentally change now, and what change that does come from the system we’re under will be far too slow to make any difference in the grand scheme of the climate crisis.

Everything society does now has to take into consideration how little time we have to act. For example, no nuclear power, new airports or airport expansion. No new roads, and no new high speed rail in small countries. Anything we can’t do in less than a handful of years should be off the table, with a few exemptions where necessary. This of course includes cycling. We have potentially just a few years left to drastically cut emissions to as close to zero as possible and stop the planet breaching all of the climate tipping points. The only way that is possible is to immediately ban cars and use the roads predominantly as bike lanes. We will need to install some Dutch style infrastructure on certain roads where vans, trucks and buses will remain, but that can be done within a year or two, so it meets the criteria. Swapping every petrol car that exists now for an EV, while also building Dutch style bicycle infrastructure networks covering every busy road in every town and city around the world would do almost nothing to slow down the climate crisis; and it would take far too long anyway. The fact that this is presented as a legitimate solution to reduce emissions at COP26 by the cycling lobby is frankly ridiculous.

The Glasgow conference is a joke, as I’ve mentioned previously, and anyone who knows anything about the climate crisis will tell you the same. Every day that we refuse to accept the reality that capitalism, economic growth, fossil fuels, and the reign of cars dominating our lives must end, the harder we make it for ourselves. The harsher the cuts have to be. And they’re already incredibly steep as I type this.

Seeing as I’m watching the T20 World Cup Cricket right now; an analogy would be that we’re batting second and chasing 300 to win. The highest ever first innings score was 278, and the highest ever successful run chase was 245. That kind of puts our challenge in perspective. Everything we do, we have to hit for 6, and we have to do it fast because the runs keep adding on. Imagine if every day another run was added to the target. Technically the maximum score you could achieve if you hit every ball for 6 would be an absurd 720. But considering how unlikely that is, you quickly approach a tipping point after which the chase is mathematically impossible, no matter how many sixes you hit from 120 balls. I’m not going to get into extras like wides. That would be a bit much.

But just look at what we’re doing at COP26. We’re playing test cricket in a T20 when we’re chasing that record total. We’ve not scored yet and we’re in the 4th over. We’ve almost wasted a quarter of the innings and haven’t even got going. The coach will be losing his mind in the dugout. “Smash it you idiots! Stop blocking and dinking it around!” he’ll yell like a madman. You might say I should shut up about cricket and get back to the point. And that would be fair, but I honestly feel like this could be a good way to explain our crisis to a lot of normal people out there. Use analogies that they can relate to rather than just throwing a bunch of technical climate terminology at them.

Literally anything is worth a try at this point. Nothing we’ve attempted so far seems to get people to actually understand and care enough to hold the governments and corporations to account.

To get back to the subject of bike infrastructure, it’s going to be tough for cycling people to hear the counterintuitive message that infrastructure no longer helps us. I mean, many of these people have been saying this for decades now. But if we’re to move forward and get the best outcome for cycling, and humanity as a whole; we have to throw away everything we thought we knew about how societies operate. Once we all do that, we can create a new system from scratch that actually works; and finally bin this terrible one that’s been ruining everything for the last half century or so.