Tag Archives: coronavirus

On the impact of writing on well-being

Poster showing five ways to well-being: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning, giveLast week, the continuation until at least the end of March of the lockdown, which has been in place in England since the start of the year, was announced. Many people are feeling jaded and worn out by the constraints and hardships imposed by the lockdown and are struggling to maintain their well-being and mental health. While others are trying to cope with the direct impact of the coronavirus on themselves and their family and friends. I have written before about the power of writing to transport me away from the pressures of everyday life [see ‘Feeling extraordinary at ease‘ on January 8th, 2020] and to help me order my thoughts [see ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018].  These posts were inspired by reading books by Natalia Ginzburg and Sylvain Tesson.  I have just finished reading ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University‘ edited by Odelia Younge in which Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes about ‘times when my mental health was bad…writing became a solace and a friend’.  In the context of institutional pressures, racism and exclusion, she describes writing about her feelings to help her to feel and listening to her own voice when nobody else would.  I was reading the book to gain an appreciation of the experiences of woman of colour in a university; however, I think Manzoor-Khan’s words are relevant to everyone, especially when we are locked away and can only meet with much of our support networks via our computers and phones.  Tim Hayward, in the FT in January 2021, wrote a deeply moving and insightful account of his experience of fighting coronavirus, including ten days on life support, and concludes by reflecting on how writing the article helped him handle the trauma.  Of course, you don’t have to write for a newspaper, a book or a blog; although writing for an audience does focus your mind, you can write for yourself or friend and in doing so you can keep learning, take notice of your surroundings, and connect with people which will hit three out of five of the ways to well-being.


Lola Olufemi, Odelia Younge, Waithera Sebatindira & Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, A Fly Girl’s Guide to University, Verve Poetry Press, Birmingham, 2019

Tim Hayward, Covid and me: 10 days on life support, FT Magazine, January 22nd, 2021.

Life of the mind in a bubble

About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus.  For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone.  When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me.  Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’.  He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy.  He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’  During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’  I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated.  So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them.  Best wishes for a happy New Year!


Inventory: Ai Weiwei, Artist interviewed by Lilah Raptopoulos in the FT Magazine, October 31/November 1, 2020.

Evolve or fade away, Jarvis Cocker interviewed by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the FT Weekend, 14 November/15 November 2020.

Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts

During the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have taken to telling us that their decisions are based on the advice of their experts while the news media have bombarded us with predictions from experts.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, with the benefit of hindsight, many of these decisions and predictions appear to be have been ill-advised or inaccurate which is likely to lead to a loss of trust in both politicians and experts.  However, this is unsurprising and the reliability of experts, particularly those willing to make public pronouncements, is well-known to be dubious.  Professor Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has assessed the accuracy of forecasts made by purported experts over two decades and found that they were little better than a chimpanzee throwing darts.  However, the more well-known experts seemed to be worse at forecasting [Tetlock & Gardner, 2016].  In other words, we should assign less credibility to those experts whose advice is more frequently sought by politicians or quoted in the media.  Tetlock’s research has found that the best forecasters are better at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness [Mellers et al, 2015]. People with these attributes will tend not to express unambiguous opinions but instead will attempt to balance all factors in reaching a view that embraces many uncertainties.  Politicians and the media believe that we want to hear a simple message unadorned by the complications of describing reality; and, hence they avoid the best forecasters and prefer those that provide the clear but usually inaccurate message.  Perhaps that’s why engineers are rarely interviewed by the media or quoted in the press because they tend to be good at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and are open-minded [see ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018].  Of course, this was well-known to the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu who is reported to have said: ‘Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.’


Mellers, B., Stone, E., Atanasov, P., Rohrbaugh, N., Metz, S.E., Ungar, L., Bishop, M.M., Horowitz, M., Merkle, E. and Tetlock, P., 2015. The psychology of intelligence analysis: Drivers of prediction accuracy in world politics. Journal of experimental psychology: applied, 21(1):1-14.

Tetlock, P.E. and Gardner, D., 2016. Superforecasting: The art and science of prediction. London: Penguin Random House.

Physical actions to inhibit COVID-19 infection

Figure 4 from Ai & Melikov, 2017

Politicians in many countries are fond of claiming that they are following scientific advice when telling us what we can or cannot do in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.  However, neither they nor the journalists who report their statements tell us what scientists have actually established.  So, I have been reading some of the literature.

A paper by Leung et al [1] published this month in Nature Medicine reports that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronavirus and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals.  Their conclusions were based on a study of 246 individuals ranging in age from 11 to more than 65 years old of which 59% were female.  Sande et al [2] in 2008, found that any type of general mask is likely to decrease viral exposure and infection risk on a population level; with surgical masks being more effective than home-made masks and children being less well protected.  The relative ineffectiveness of fabrics used in home-made masks, including sweatshirts, T-shirts, towels and scarfs, was demonstrated in 2010 by Rengasamy et al [3], who found that these fabrics had 40-97% instantaneous penetration for monodisperse aerosol particles in the 20 to 1000 nm range.  While in the same year, Cowling et al [4] conducted a systematic review of the subject and concluded there was some evidence to support the wearing of masks or respirators during illness to protect others, and public health emphasis on mask wearing during illness may help reduce influenza virus transmission.  There were fewer data to support the use of masks or respirators to prevent becoming infected.  So, the rational conclusion appears to be that we should wear face masks to protect society as a whole and remember they do not necessarily protect us as individuals.

The emphasis on social distancing is causing widespread economic distress and also appears to be causing a decrease in mental health.  It perhaps should be called physical distancing because that is what we asked to do – to keep 2 m apart or 1.5 m in some places.  In 2017, a team of engineers from the University of Hong Kong and Aalborg University in Denmark [5], concluded that a threshold distance of 1.5 m distinguished between two basic transmission processes of droplets, i.e. a short-range mode and a long-range airborne route.  They reviewed the literature, conducted experiments and performed computational simulations before concluding the risk of infection arising from person-to-person interactions was significantly reduced when people were more than 1.5 m apart because droplets greater than 60 microns in diameter are not transmitted further than 1.5 m; however, smaller droplets are carried further.  In the same year, Ai & Melikov [6] reviewed the airborne spread of expiratory droplets in indoors environments; they found inconsistent results due to different boundary conditions used in computer models and the available instrumentation being too slow to provide accurate time-dependent measurements.  However, it would appear, based on several investigations, that the risk of cross-infection is decreased sharply at distances of 0.8 to 1.5 m (see graphic).  Indoors, the flow interactions in the human microenvironment dominate airborne transmission over short distances (<0.5 m) while the general ventilation flow is more important over longer distances.  Hence, at short distances, the posture and orientation of individuals is important; while at longer distances, if the rate of change of air in the room is high enough then the risk of cross-infection is low.

These findings would seem to suggest that there is some scope to balance restarting social and economic activity with protecting people from the coronavirus by relaxing ‘social’ distancing from 2 m to 1.5 m unless you are  wearing a mask.  After all, we would simply following the example of Taiwan where there are almost no new cases.


[1] Leung NH, Chu DK, Shiu EY, Chan KH, McDevitt JJ, Hau BJ, Yen HL, Li Y, Ip DK, Peiris JM, Seto WH. Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks. Nature Medicine. 2020 Apr 3:1-5.

[2] van der Sande M, Teunis P, Sabel R. Professional and home-made face masks reduce exposure to respiratory infections among the general population. PLoS One. 2008;3(7).

[3] Rengasamy S, Eimer B, Shaffer RE. Simple respiratory protection—evaluation of the filtration performance of cloth masks and common fabric materials against 20–1000 nm size particles. Annals of occupational hygiene. 2010 Oct 1;54(7):789-98.

[4] Cowling BJ, Zhou YD, Ip DK, Leung GM, Aiello AE. Face masks to prevent transmission of influenza virus: a systematic review. Epidemiology & Infection. 2010 Apr;138(4):449-56.

[5] Liu L, Li Y, Nielsen PV, Wei J, Jensen RL. Short‐range airborne transmission of expiratory droplets between two people. Indoor Air. 2017 Mar;27(2):452-62.

[6] Ai ZT, Melikov AK. Airborne spread of expiratory droplet nuclei between the occupants of indoor environments: A review. Indoor air. 2018 Jul;28(4):500-24.