Not dead! Flight back, Nature of science

Hi, folks.

My posts ended abruptly. Anyone who reads this probably knows me, but just in case: I’m back in the US. An emergency repatriation flight for the US suddenly arose in April (I mean less than a week between notification and takeoff), and I took to to make sure I would be back in the US by my wedding (which is this Saturday). It turned out to be a good call, as commercial flights only recently resumed on a limited basis.

I’ve been asked a few things about the flight, so here’s how it went.

We got a call from the embassy about a flight, then an email asking for the identification details. Usually the embassy does a BCC, but they forgot this time (probably in the chaos of arranging the flight– the representative confided to me that the airline was asking unreasonable luggage limits and they were negotiating). OF COURSE someone hit “reply all” with his sensitive information. I hope he’s doing ok.

Since I had been hoping for this option, I had already mostly wrapped things up with the bank. I did have to leave most of my things, unfortunately, since we only had an allowance 2 suitcases with strict 25 kg limits. I abandoned the deposit for the apartment and the company payed my final bills and disconnected everything using that money. There were so many repairs required on that apartment that I had never had time to bug them about…. anyway, I don’t regret leaving that. I did not have time to wrestle my social security money back from the government, a process that requires at least a month, so that’s probably lost. I am not upset over this because I never counted on being able to recover it.

The cost of the flight was about $1800, double the normal cost (it’s a charter flight).

Abidjan had a mandatory mask policy at the time (they still do). and yet several airport staff did not wear them. The embassy led the show on the way out, and had us organized neatly, socially distanced. Two couples had dogs. One was a little tiny dog with bulging eyes which must have been drugged out of its tiny brain, since the eyes were not quite pointing in the same directing. Very much like a pixar character.

Apparently you cannot take small electronics repair screwdriver sets in carry-on luggage. I am sad to have lost that. They also took my water, and COME ON we’re the only ones on the flight and our passports have been verified multiple times by this point.

Anyway, there was no takeoff time. Everyone came early, so we left early. The small connection plane was packed, although by some miracle there was an empty seat next to me. I kept my FFP2 mask on (saved from the day they were handed out at IUGB) and passed on the chicken sandwich. We had a stopover in Togo, where they supposedly required gloves (only a handful of us wore them, though). Social distancing went completely out the door as we stood in line to get our boarding pass. The white couple behind me in line were coming from Mali, where apparently no measures were adhered to.

Again, we got on the next plane immediately. There were no movies or even power in the seats, but they did feed us. Most people slept. I was impressed at everyone, even the children, wore masks most of the time. There was one family up at the front whose children were loud several times, once in the middle of the night banging on the wall with an empty cup. In the loudest way possible. The children to my left were silent. This flight was not full, although there were not that many gaps. I had an empty seat next to me once again.

It’s a long flight without movies, but we landed in Dulles without incident, and then I self-quarantined in my parent’s trailer with my kitty for two weeks, finishing classes remotely. Frankly, it was easier than being in Bassam since the internet was consistent.

Anyway, there you have it. I’m not sure what comes next. I’m almost finished job interviews for a couple of jobs (and receipt of multiple rejection emails). I would love to go work outside the contiguous US again some day, but that is not to be for now. This blog will continue, since the US is not excluded from “world.” We’ll see what happens.

As I wrap up, a quick note on this coronavirus: you’re seeing the scientific process happen in real time. This is normal. We take previous knowledge on respiratory viruses and say, “we think that sanitizing surfaces will help reduce spread, so everyone wearing masks will probably be harmful because nobody has the training to wear it correctly without touching it.” Time passes, we objectively count cases in mask-wearers vs non-mask wearers and take virus samples on surfaces and in exhalations or droplets generated by speech, and we realize that it spreads much more by droplets than by surfaces. So the guidelines change with this new knowledge. They were wrong the first time, yes, but given the information we had it was just bad luck that this virus behaves differently.

Same thing with treatments and other guidelines– we’re making systematic observations and comparing outcomes in condition 1 vs condition 2. We’re finding the virus behaves like we expect in some ways, and not in others. Sometimes a study comes out with an observation, but 5 other studies find the opposite. There was another factor throwing off the results of the first study, then. This is the process of science.

Another note: scientists are trained to be skeptical and ask for proof and be critical of evidence. We have meetings which consist of an hour of completely tearing apart studies, finding all the flaws. Rival groups can be terribly bitter. Reviewer Number 3 is a meme for a reason.

Also, scientists are trained to listen to evidence even if their hypothesis is wrong. I’ve seen people in labs get upset and angry when the data disprove their pet theories, but they publish it anyway, not altering data. Sometimes with thinly veiled bitterness. Everyone is subject to unconscious bias, but the Scientific Method is designed to prevent that from influencing results by stating what you’re going to measure and how, what you’ll see if you’re right, and what you’ll see if you’re wrong. It’s not perfect and there are a lot of times the data is spun consciously or unconsciously, but usually someone reading the paper can draw their own unbiased conclusions. Sometimes scientists do make up data. It’s not a perfect system. That seems to be the minority. When they’re caught they can lose careers. Some branches of science have an issue that someone reaches a conclusion, and everyone builds on that without confirming it, but biological sciences tend to require re-confirming discoveries and proving things multiple ways, which helps catch chance weirdness. For example, when I studied a protein I needed to confirm my studies in multiple cell types. If we had mice I would have needed in vivo studies.

TL;DR: It’s very rare that most scientists go along with a theory because one person or even the majority say so; they usually require hard evidence that has held true over and over again. They also love to prove each other wrong and find flaws in rival’s works.

Here is my suggestion for you: Try to avoid news media. Hit up Science, Nature, The Scientist, NEJM, WHO, John’s Hopkins, Sawbones podcast, This Week in Virology, Science vs, and others like these for news. That way, you won’t be hit with so many appeals to emotion or made to feel afraid or hopeless. This pandemic could have been a lot worse. Science organizations are taking measures to eliminate policies facilitating inequality. There is hope and knowledge, and more of it each day, but the news isn’t really helping you see that.


SARS-CoV-2 information

You may be wondering why me, a microbiologist by degree if not by training, has been so silent here about the epidemic when others are helping spread good information.

Well, it’s because I’ve been concentrating my efforts here, talking to students and colleagues.

Here, I will share the information that I shared with my students and university. It is very specific to questions and concerns people have told/asked me, but perhaps you, too, will find it helpful.

Continue reading SARS-CoV-2 information

COVID-19 Cote d'Ivoire update, masks

Well, it’s been quite the whirlwind. I hope nobody worried by my lack of updates; I quite frankly forgot this existed for a while. What month is it, actually?

Two weeks ago, we had Spring break (for three days yipee), and there was no talk of the virus. By the end of the week there were whispers. It was on my mind because I was in a conference in Seattle right before cases started popping up. The doctor sent out a couple emails about hand hygiene etc.

Last week (oh my gosh, was that only last week) on Monday we began classes as usual. Later in the morning people were starting to wear masks, and it turned out they were ‘obligatory’. Few wore them, fewer wore them correctly.

That afternoon, about 5 PM(?), we were informed that a COVID-19 task force was formed, and would meet the next day.

About 9PM, we were informed classes were cancelled the next day. No more information.

The next day, the task force meeting was cancelled.

Later, we were informed that classes should continue online (ha) and the university would be closed to students for 30 days, but it was mandatory for faculty to come in.

On Friday at 2 PM, we were informed that we would not be permitted to come in.

Sometime during all of this CI government started encouraging people to practice social distancing, and asking businesses to voluntarily close. As you might imagine this didn’t work so well. So as of yesterday, restaurants and bars are shut down, and there is a curfew, from 9PM to 5 AM.

So far, online teaching is going badly. The connection is so bad that Zoom either doesn’t work or the connection breaks after less than 20 minutes. Students get cut off in the middle of online quizzes (and cheat, which I expected but hoped I was being pessimistic).

Our research project for May is out the window.

I am ok with all of this, to be honest. Nothing was going particularly well. The motivated students will access my lectures on YouTube and send me emails and be fine. They’ll be doing research projects on their own and it will be a good experience. It’s not like I go anywhere so the curfew doesn’t affect me at all. The biggest pain is avoiding the market. Where am I supposed to get vegetables?

Bassam is quiet. Everyone has gone back to their village. Right now there is bass booming somewhere but that is atypical. My peanut lady friend is gone 😦

Masks. So. There is evidence that N95 masks protect healthcare workers, while cloth masks possibly do not and most definitely are not nearly as good as N95.

For normal, free-living humans in public, there is not much evidence either way. There is some evidence that they do not, and a lot of theory that they might if used properly but also a lot of theory that people won’t use them properly.

Personally, I do not wear one. I am very, very visible here, and people think we cosmopolitan white people know what’s up. I will not be responsible for panic or people taking medical supplies that will be needed for healthcare workers when there is not much evidence it will do any good. If you decide to wear a mask and can wear it properly and there are enough, then fine.

But if you are wearing a mask on the off chance someone coughs in your face, consider that your eyes are entry points, too.

COVID-19 in Cote d’Ivoire

Two days ago, a case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, was detected in Cote d’Ivoire. Rational students tell me that it was an Italian who arrived and self-reported. Other students report a rumor that the government is making it up to get the aid money being offered, which honestly after four years of living here I would believe except for other reports of WHO having eyes on the testing. Two students mentioned a rumor that it’s here in Bassam already; one was skeptical and the other was in my office for over an hour telling me all about how the Illuminati run the world and he had heard that this was a distraction technique. Also that the Rotary club is a cult and modern chickens are fake (that’s why you can’t eat the bones). He knows this because there are Documentaries on Youtube with interviewees and nobody would lie about something so serious.

I’ve seen one mask on a student, one mask on a cyclist, and one mask on a woman in the marketplace (it was hanging below her chin).

It is extremely surprising that the virus is not more widespread here, with a huge Chinese population and a ton of people packed into public transit, lack of produce washing, etc. There could be a couple reasons for lack of confirmed cases.

  • Heat and humidity. This has helped with other respiratory viruses. Will it help with SARS-CoV-2? Unknown.
  • Lack of detection. My money is on this. First of all, they are apparently not placing travel restrictions or really testing people at the airport. Plus if you go to the doctor here, you go to the hospital. It’s quite common, but I doubt most people would go for anything other than a very serious illness. I read somewhere that early on 32 Chinese passengers were lost to follow-up but cannot confirm the veracity of this. It’s hard to imagine how they could possible have caught everyone ill.
  • Genetic differences in ACE-2, the keyhole the virus uses to enter the cell. I have no evidence for this.
  • Age of population– younger people present milder illness.

It is really great that the US is on lockdown for a while. The point with this is to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

LM commented that she’d rather be in Africa than the US in a case like this, because people know how to deal with it. I disagree 100%. We’re not talking about water and electricity cutoffs, we’re talking about social distancing and self-isolation. Quarantine measures. It is hard to image how social distancing could work in Abidjan; it’s such a social culture and people shop for each meal as it happens. Personally, if I had to self-isolate I’d be praying hard my store of beans holds out for two weeks because non-perishables are largely unhealthy or too expensive to be worth it ($2 for a can of green beans? Is the nutrition worth the cost?). The healthcare is frankly crap, so you’d better hope you don’t need hospitalization. Greetings are habitually kiss-kiss– lots of contact. People hang out for fun, not sit at home and watch Netflix. Internet is crap so these lovely virtual tours of museums and downloadable resources are excruciatingly slow or unavailable entirely. Nobody reads, so books are out. Public transport is required to go anywhere, and they hate walking. (Illuminati believer told me he thinks this is a way of showing off–riding/driving when you can, even a few hundred meters. I told him that’s sounds pretty human, and there are other ways of doing that in the US. Probably fad diets, exercise programs/equipment, essential oils, etc.?)

Anyway, I’m operating under the assumption the virus is here among us already.

We got bottles of hand sanitizer in the classroom yesterday. I wrote “room 11” on ours in a futile attempt to dissuade thieves. When I came in this morning it was gone.

To that end: Folks, don’t be selfish jerks. Be kind and thoughtful. Don’t take what others need, or more than you need (because others need it). Do you want to be responsible for someone’s grandmother going without water? Or someone with diabetes being without alcohol wipes? Or healthcare workers going without masks? Do you want to live in a society where everyone only looks after himself/herself?

Conference, Seattle, Travel: Brussels/Delta

Please excuse the long hiatus. The time has been spent as follows: away for a week for a conference, spent the week back working both during the day and the evening to catch up, and then another week in recovery (i.e., working like mad all day and then playing Gardenscapes and listening to meditation podcasts in the evening).

Below: Conference, Seattle, Travel.

Continue reading Conference, Seattle, Travel: Brussels/Delta

What did you expect? Gbaka riders.

The guidebooks tell you to avoid taking the gbaka, the vans that serve as public mass transit, because they are frequently involved in accidents. This is true. We take them anyway because the taxis are equally terrifying and you are alone in them.

90% of the time the gbaka is full of people (and vegetables and occasionally an animal or two) who just want to get home/to work/ to school/ to families and really is not up for nonsense. If there is a hangup or trouble, the other passengers apply pressure until we’re moving again. I’ve never been cheated or given a hard time on a gbaka, with the exception of the occasional flirty neighbor if you sit in the front. People don’t stare the whole ride. You feel anonymous. It’s nice, actually.

You do have to be prepared for that 10% of adventure, though.

Continue reading What did you expect? Gbaka riders.

Week 4

Well, my class has several students making an effort this semester, and most understand English. That’s nice. It’s still been a struggle, this time dealing with adults, the story I began on the last post.

First, some humor.

“Love me SVP” – written in dirt on one of the cars in the garage.

Taxi driver *says something I don’t understand*
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t speak French well.
Taxi driver, in slow English: Oh, why you don’t speak French? (This is the response 90% of the time).
Me: Oh, you speak English?
Taxi driver: I speak French, I speak Dutch… (repeats this in Dutch)
Me, half genuinely impressed in spite of prior experience: Wow.
Taxi driver: Yes, I speak Spanish….
Me: Ah, hablas espanol.
Taxi driver: ….no.

Continue reading Week 4

You do what you can.

I’m happy to be helpful. I’m happy to do some extra work for the common good, even if it’s cleaning up after somebody hasn’t done their job. SOMEONE has to do it, and I deeply respect those who take responsibility. Efficiency makes me smile. But there is a limit.

What follows is a list of some of the retelling of some of the weirdness that has gone on this semester. Are other universities like this? It’s exhausting and disheartening.

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Weird signs and cheeses

“I’ve been going to the Indian restaurant almost every week and it’s the highlight of my week,” said LM yesterday. On the bus heading to the Indian restaurant. By the way, our staple is Namaste Indian Restaurant. If you are in Abidjan you should go there. But by the way, if you get there early-ish and the sign says ‘closed’ he probably just forgot to flip it.

We saw lots of weird stuff yesterday, so here you go.

Continue reading Weird signs and cheeses

Faculty orientation spring 2020

This is really kind of a collection of stuff.

Shout-out to the guys despondently shoveling the garbage back into the garbage truck.

We just finished faculty ‘orientation.’ Now we have a few days to prepare our classes before they start. I could use a good long hike in a forest, but we’re settling for the best thing available today: a trip to Abidjan to the Indian restaurant and then the big grocery store.

Continue reading Faculty orientation spring 2020