Negotiating the death toll

Day 2,367 since October 10th 2013: 194 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country 

(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross). 

A week further into the future


Guest speaking at Malvern College, temporary member at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, the invisible enemy, all the support, unsung heroes, Red Cross, when will you die, newborn hostility and gruesome negotiations. Yeah – it’s a full entry.

Is it just me or is it well beyond the point where media outlets, influencers and the entire world should stop referring to COVID-19 as “the coronavirus?” We knew of six coronaviruses until December 2019 when we came to learn about COVID-19 which is the seventh. If you are just saying “the coronavirus” then you could be referring to SARS, to MERS or to the last common cold you had. No…clearly if you are saying “the coronavirus” today then we all get it from the context. However it seems annoyingly sloppy to me nonetheless. Good news people!!! From April 8th Wuhan is set to open up again after an eleven week lockdown. Wuhan was the epicenter of this outbreak but before you judge, just keep in mind that the next epidemic, which becomes a global pandemic, could in reality start anywhere. A way of looking at this virus outbreak is to view a timeline with three different phases: phase 1) discovery and denial, phase 2) response and containment, and phase 3) recovery and rehabilitation. Out here in Hong Kong we are in phase 3 as we had quite the head start on much of the world. Some countries appear to be stuck in phase 1 while most countries are somewhere in phase 2. The pandemic is a heck of thing to deal with and I fully understand a range of emotions across the board: fear, confusion, frustration, feeling powerless etc. These are truly trying times. Some may have the feeling that the world is overreacting but surely an overreaction is better than the alternative during a pandemic? With so many countries dealing with phase 2 right now more and more nonsense is surfacing: “lemon juice cures the virus”, “mosquitos spread the virus”, “taking a blood test will get you a COVID-19 test”….no, no and no. You are probably not a doctor, not an epidemiologist and not a virologists…so just admit that you don’t know enough to analyze, guess, second guess or probably even understand a whole lot of what is going on. Most of us are simply standing on the shoulders of giants regurgitating whatever someone else told us. Very few of us have ever seen a bacteria or a virus. We just believe they exist because it has been taught. The best advice I can give you is to stay clear of media speculations and “breaking news”. If you want to know something then lean on knowledge coming from the WHO, CDC or your local Red Cross Red Crescent. Since I’m feeling extra service minded today I’ll share four links with you, which offer insight from experts within their respective fields:

TED talk with Dr David Heymann, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist (click on link to watch)

JRE podcast interview with Michael Osterholm, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist (click on link to watch)

TED talk with Alanna Shaikh, Global Health Expert (click on link to watch)


The Atlantic article on what may come next (click on link to read)

The Red Cross Red Crescent has taken a lot of formidable action globally. In Austria the Red Cross has developed an app to help users keep a digital diary of who they have been in contact with. In Denmark the Red Cross quickly set up a call centre to assists the public in dealing with COVID-19 and limit confusion and fear. There are countless examples of action which has been taken. The Hong Kong Red Cross was very quick in addressing the outbreak and I look forward to meeting with them next week. For weeks the Red Cross Red Crescent has been pushing a very important message which is that COVID-19 does not discriminate in regards to religion, ethnicity, gender, nationality, ideology and a number of other factors which diversifies us. It will infect any of us! COVID-19 will however have a hugely disproportionate impact on different income groups. If you are poor then you may be stuck in a dense slum area, you may be poorly educated, you may not have access to proper healthcare and social distancing could be a luxury beyond you. Furthermore the lower income groups may not have access to a healthy diet or even safe drinking water, meaning that the immune defence could already be compromised. Some countries have very few doctors and low standards relating to equipment. The wealthy have a huge advantage over the most vulnerable people. I think it would be fair to say that inequality across the planet is our weakness and the pandemics strength. Until the day I die I will debate anyone who says that this is a small planet. However there is no doubt that it is well connected! And we are no stronger than the weakest link.


While Hong Kong has recently experienced its second COVID-19 wave it became clear where the regions social circles lie. Hong Kong is far less connected to mainland China than to the western world and countries in Southeast Asia. Those who frequently travel in and out of Hong Kong do so from Europe, North America and there is a close connection to the Philippines as well. Many Hong Kongers have never been to mainland China and have no interest in going there. The answer as toward why can be found in politics and history. Hong Kong’s surge in new COVID-19 cases did not come from China, which today appears to be well in control with 90% of production shutdowns being opened up again. No, the new cases came from elsewhere. Many people left Hong Kong to wait out the virus thinking that it would be another localized SARS-like epidemic. However many expectations were disproven. Hong Kong has had the outbreak under phenomenal control with only four deaths directly related to COVID-19 among a densely populated city of 7.5 million beating hearts. Meanwhile Italy, Spain, USA, France, China, Iran and the UK have been the hardest hit nations in that order as per today. It became apparent to many that Hong Kong was the right place to be during the pandemic so many foreigners/expats returned and some brought the virus with them. While most people are harmless sweethearts there are always some people who aren’t. Some Hong Kongers are blaming foreigners for the second wave and in particularly pointing out that many foreigners are not wearing masks and continue to socialize. I have no confidence in that mask-wearing in public has any significant effect on containing the outbreak. However I am no longer traveling among thousands of Hong Kongers without wearing one. That all comes down to risk assessment! If you are surrounded by a group of angry people demanding that you should wear a banana on your head to please the rain gods – then you better do it!


Still hanging out with the most wonderful and supportive family!! :)

“But Thor! The mask works! Why else do mask-wearing nations have such low numbers and why would health professionals wear masks if they don’t work?” Have you ever heard about false correlation before? The classic example of correlation not equalling causation can be found with ice cream and murder! The rates of violent crime and murder have been known to jump when ice cream sales do. But buying ice cream doesn't turn you into a killer so the correlation is false and coincidental. In a number of Asian countries people are quick to put on a mask. I have found that exceptionally considerate in comparison to where I come from in the world. If someone is sick here in Hong Kong then they will immediately put on a mask (often a surgical mask) to avoid contagion of others. That is just brilliant and something the rest of the world could learn from. And it is right to the point as well: the sick wear the masks. Here in Hong Kong some 99% of everyone wears a mask when they go outside and many even while in their car? So am I to believe that everyone is sick? No…most believe that the mask will protect them from getting sick and there is very little evidence to support that they are right. Healthcare professionals wear a mask as a part of their PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). The key word is ‘as a part of’ their PPE. The mask on its own does very little. But furthermore people seem to be under the impression that the virus is just floating about everywhere. It simply isn’t. The WHO, CDC and Red Cross Red Crescent tells us that the main way the virus spreads is through respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets hit the ground or a surface within a second of a sneeze or a cough. So having people cover their mouth or nose would be enough in most cases. And people should be doing that anyway – global pandemic or not. “But Thor, how do you know who is sick? Anyone could be sick and not be showing symptoms!” Yeah – well if you are not showing symptoms then you are not sneezing or coughing are you? I ride the busses and trains A LOT here in Hong Kong and I have not once noticed anyone sneeze or cough. I suspect people try hard to supress it.


I've heard that membership committee of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) unanimously approved me becoming a temporary member. So there! ;)

Nope, in regard to the true correlation of why the numbers are so low across many Asian mask-wearing countries, the truth is likely found in government efficiency. The countries which experienced SARS in 2003 all took this pandemic very seriously right from the beginning. Offices and schools closed down, amusement parks were shut, people self-quarantined. Hand sanitizer sold out. Handshakes stopped. In some cases like in China entire regions were locked down. Most Asian countries are also authoritarian. So when people are told to do something then the public generally follows suit. Try telling a healthy young Danish person to stay at home – it just doesn’t work in highly independent societies. Some experts argue that a lock-down in reality doesn’t stop a virus from spreading. It might work if it is efficient but most lock-downs simply aren’t. People are to blame. Japan has done exceedingly well during the global pandemic and the Japanese like masks too. You know what else the Japanese like? They like cleanliness! Japan is super clean. No – I don’t buy the entire “we should all put masks on” argument. And as long as the direction from WHO, CDC and the Red Cross Red Crescent doesn’t dictate general mask-wearing among the public, then I feel that I have the necessary backing I need to underline my argumentation. Should they change their direction then so may I. The entire “healthcare workers wear masks” argument also falls apart near me. Construction workers wear hardhats you know. It is circumstantial as far as I am concerned. If you want to protect yourself from everything then you should put on a mask, goggles, a raincoat, a helmet, a bullet proof west, safety shoes, gloves, carry an umbrella, pop in a mouth guard, cover yourself in sun screen and stay at home. But for now I will wear a mask when travelling by public transportation in Hong Kong….not to protect myself from COVID-19 – but to protect myself from anyone passionate enough to blame me for not wearing one.


Let's see if it all goes back to normal again on April 11th. Fingers crossed.

A funny thing across the planet is that most people don’t have a particularly good understanding of their own mortality risks. Even without the pandemic 1 in 20 people over 80 years old will die before they reach 81. What do you think your odds are of making it another year when you are twenty…or forty? I bet you have no idea. Most of us don’t. It all depends on a great deal of factors of course. But to state an example a 20-year-old U.S. woman has a 1 in 2,000 (or 0.05%) risk of dying within the next year. By age 40 the risk is three times greater, by age 60 it is 16 times greater and by age 80 it is 100 times greater (5%). People die. That is a well-known fact. These days we are being bombarded with detailed information on how many have died due to COVID-19. However it may be slightly reassuring (in a morbid way) to realize that many of the deaths we are currently counting, would have occurred anyway. Some perhaps a few days, weeks or months later…and some right on time as they would have done anyway. Because people who die test positive for COVID-19 doesn’t mean that they died due to COVID-19. But obviously hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed and COVID-19 is contributing to that…you must have heard about “flatten the curve” by now. This plays into that. People die all the time…we are simply not geared to handle it if everyone dies all at once. As I mentioned in my video a while ago: “you, personally, are likely to be fine. You are likely to be unharmed by this – however this is going to hit enough people that you are likely to have someone within your circles, that is going to be harmed by this”. And the reality is that this may still be early days of phase 2 for many. A not very funny thing across the planet is that we today see ourselves in a negotiation of how much loss of human life we can accept. I’ve met several people who have said that every human life is valuable but I’ve never met anyone who truly lives by those words. Not even the Red Cross Red Crescent has enough resources to help everyone and must make hard choices all the time. You may or may not be aware that a quarter of a million people die every year from the common flu. This does not make front page news, there are no door to door collections and celebrities do not sing for them. In a very cynical fashion I must conclude that we do not care much about that quarter million. So in other words we have accepted that number and thus begins the negotiation. Would it reach the front page if the number one year went up from 250,000 to 300,000? Probably not so we are also “fine” with that amount of flu related deaths. At which point do we become uneasy? Ten million people? Definitely – right? So our negation is set between 300,000 people and 10,000,000. Horrible negotiation. Yes I know. But we all take part in it. We even discriminate about who dies. 200,000 dead in a country you’ve never heard about vs. 200,000 in your favourite country, or your home country if those aren’t the same? Oh how we negotiate death. Today governments virtually negotiate human lives vs. economy. Don’t feel too innocent ;)


Righto…lets wrap this entry up. In relation to wave two Hong Kong has been taking some new precautions. Government employees had only just returned to work before they were sent back home again. Cinemas are closed and so are a lot of social gathering spots such as parks, BBQ sites and camping sites. The closing of the campsites (and all the rain we have had lately) are counterproductive for me personally. In addition to putting the MacLehose Trail behind me I was hoping to do Hong Kong’s other three major hikes. However I wanted to do them by camping along the way which I currently can’t. The shortest of the trails is however the ‘Hong Kong Trail’ which is 50k (31mi) across its eight mountainous sections. It would be tough but I figure I can do that in a single day. Actually I’m pretty sure I’ll give it a go ;) Hong Kong largely remains open. Not to visitors though. Only residents can enter Hong Kong and everyone is tested and quarantined. In fact a friend of mine returned to Hong Kong recently and sent me a photo of the entire family wearing electronic bracelets around their wrists. They are not permitted to take them off. The bracelets count down from 14 days and sends the government their exact location. Pretty high-tech and efficient. Someone like me who has been in Hong Kong for 66 days now can wander about freely. Restaurants and cafes are open. The hiking trails are open. Buses, taxis, trains and metros are running. People are in the streets. So in many ways Hong Kong is open and certainly not locked down. Without flying I just can’t leave. So here we are waiting along with the rest of the world.


I had a great time with Mr Andrew Chiu who is Malvern College Hong Kong’s Digital Design Teacher. He invited me for a livestream interview in connection with “Earth Day” which kicks off their theme throughout April. I’ll share the recording of the session in a few days :)

I’ll end this entry on a note of unsung heroes. There are so many heroes these days. Healthcare workers are at the top of everyone’s congratulatory list and not without reason. Then there are the seamen who navigate containerships from one port to the next keeping the supply chain open. Teachers have adapted to working and teaching online. Humanitarian workers have it tough too! There are many people who we should appreciate these days. My thoughts fell on sanitation workers. On a good day garbage men need to haul out our bacteria and filth so it doesn’t build up. In Angola I witnessed with my own eyes what happens to a city when nobody comes to collect the garbage for a while! It is not a pretty sight and it didn’t take long for the population to catch all sorts of small diseases which weakened the nation’s immune defence. So let’s always be happy for the work which sanitation workers carry out. However particularly today I find their job to be slightly more daunting. Because now they are hauling out potentially contaminated tissues and masks. And as the plastic bags containing them go into the compactor air gets squeezed out which I imagine would spray virus out into the air. And you know what? I haven’t heard a single sanitation worker complain.


Just a thought...

If you are currently living in isolation then remember this: when Isaac Newton stayed at home to avoid the 1665 plague, he discovered the laws of gravity, optics, and he invented calculus. Are you feeling inadequate yet? Get off your arse and get something done! ;)




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Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - in a world of life and death.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"


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