25 October 2020 – Sunday – #118

When I moved to Barcelona on the first of the year, I was looking forward to short flights from BCN to cities in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Covid-19 changed that plan.

Wednesday, I took a three hour train ride with Henrique for a long weekend in Valencia. It’s my first time out of Catalonia this year. It had been so long since I traveled that I had a little trepidation, worrying about things I don’t usually worry about when I travel, things like leaving a charger behind or finding the right train.

The good news about traveling to Valencia is that Covid-19 levels are about half what they are in Catalonia. The other good news is that Valencia, Spain’s third most populous city, is beautiful and vibrant.

Friday, we walked from the old city to the beach, starting from the Torres de Serranos, a medieval fortification near the original Roman city.

Torres de Serranos.

Along the way, we passed the Museo de las Ciencias, a spectacular building by Santiago Calatrava in the City of Arts and Sciences. To put things in perspective, the museum opened about 700 years after the Torres de Serranos opened.

Museo de las Ciencias.

We got a little lost, but made it to the beach in time for an evening meal and walk.

Playa de las Arenas.

The beaches are long in Valencia with fine sand. So late on a fall weekday, they were nearly deserted.

Valencia is the home of paella and there is no shortage of paella restaurants here. We shared a traditional Paella Valenciana at Casa Roberto.

Paella Valenciana at Casa Roberto.

In anticipation of my trip to Valencia, I cooked my first paella last week to understand the process. The main difference in the Casa Roberto recipe is the addition of snails and flat beans. There wasn’t much socarrat in this paella, just a bit of crust along the circumference and in the middle of the pan. I learned that if you want more socarrat, you have to order it. Due to reduced demand during the Covid-19 pandemic, the restaurant only served one other table for dinner. That made me feel safe eating inside, but was a shame for the business.

The timing for this trip may have been perfect with Spain debating a new State of Alarm. Spain became the first European country to surpass one million Covid-19 cases last week. It’s not clear how much longer I’ll be able to travel outside Barcelona.

Regions with bad outbreaks like Rioja are asking the central government to declare a State of Alarm so they will have the legal framework to impose a second round of severe Covid-19 restrictions. Travel restrictions and curfews seem most likely this time around rather than complete lockdowns. During our trip, Valencia announced a curfew from midnight until six in the morning, subject to court approval.

While Covid-19 cases stayed flat in Catalonia most of the summer, the virus has been heating up this month.

Confirmed new Covid-19 cases in Catalonia. Source: Catalan News.

Due to differences in reporting, it’s difficult to compare the second wave to the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Barcelona, but it’s clear hospitalizations are increasing again. Deaths will follow in the coming weeks. So far Catalonia has closed restaurants and restricted social gatherings to six people. Masking was mandatory already. It will be another week until the numbers show whether more and longer restrictions are needed.

Spain is not the only European country with a second wave of Covid-19, but it seems like the most disorganized. One sign of disorganization is that every region is adopting unique curfew hours. Another sign came last week when, rather than focusing on Covid-19, the opposition party wasted two days debating a no-confidence vote against the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a vote it knew it could not win. The natural power struggle between Spain’s regional governments, its central government, and its political parties will have to give way to the reality of rising Covid-19 cases.

At least Sánchez isn’t promoting bad science like his counterpart in the US. The Covid-19 problems in Spain are child’s play compared to the US, especially as the 2020 election exacerbates Trump’s politicizaton of public health. While Trump claimed in last week’s final presidential debate that the US was turning the corner on Covid-19—a claim he has made repeatedly since the beginning of the US outbreak—new Covid-19 cases surpassed 80,000 per day for the first time in the US. The US is turning a corner, for sure, but around this corner is increasing death. Without any changes to Trump’s Covid-19 public health policies, University of Washington researchers predict 500,000 deaths by February.

The clearest example of public health politicizaton is masks. Yes, there was confusion about wearing masks at the beginning of the pandemic. That confusion went away in the science community as evidence piled up over the summer. Here’s one recent proof point.

Masking compliance versus spread of Covid-19 symptoms.

Like most masking proof points, this one isn’t perfect. It shows correlation rather than causation. No one has shown direct causation for masking and reduction in Covid-19 cases and severity, but the accumulation of proof points like this chart makes it nonsensical to insist that masks don’t help. If there were any high cost to masking, it would make sense to look for more proof points before adopting masking as public health policy. For Trump, the cost of masking seems to be suffocation. For those 250,000 who predicted to die before the inauguration, the logic of Trump’s masking analysis will have failed.

Covid-19 bits.

  • Covid-19 cases increased in places where Trump held campaign rallies which typically feature large crowds without masks.
  • Researchers have discovered that inhibiting something called factor D (not to be confused with vitamin D) may control inflammatory responses in Covid-19 cases.
  • Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca restarted their respective Covid-19 trials.
  • Three billion people live in places without cold distribution systems needed to deliver many Covid-19 vaccines candidates.
  • New Jersey’s governor signed a law that releases thousands of state prisoners early to avoid Covid-19 infections.
  • San Francisco’s oldest restaurant, Tadich Grill, will reopen for inside dining.
  • The CDC changed its definition of “close contact” to mean close indoor proximity to someone with Covid-19 for any 15 minutes during a 24 hour period. Previously it was for 15 consecutive minutes.
  • Members of Vice President Pence’s staff tested positive for Covid-19. Although the Vice President, who chairs the Coronavirus Task Force, was in close contact with several infected staff members, he will carry on campaigning rather than self-isolate.

I write this for my sanity. If it helps you, please pass on to friends and family. I tweet Covid-19 information frequently, so follow me there for the details.

18 October 2020 – Sunday – #117

I decided I should cook my first Paella Valenciana before my first trip to Valencia next week. I wanted to have a clue about the cooking process before I order a paella in the city that invented it.

Even though paella is from Valencia, Catalonia has adopted it. I don’t think that’s just because tourists who don’t know better expect it here. After all, it’s not nearly as far-fetched to find paella in a Barcelona restaurant as it, say, to find hominy grits in a Salt Lake City restaurant. However, my Barcelona friends often remind me that paella isn’t really from here.

My first Paella Valenciana

The main thing I learned cooking paella is that a successful paella has a yummy socarrat, a crust of rice that forms on the bottom of the pan. I had beginner’s luck with socarrat. I have a lot more to learn about getting socarrat just right every time.

The timing of my first Paella Valenciana last week is ironic since all restaurants in Catalonia closed Friday. Catalonia’s Covid-19 numbers were steady in August and September. After school started, though, Covid-19 numbers rose this month. The public health authorities say interaction with Madrid’s Covid-19 hot spot is another contributing factor to rising Covid-19 cases here.

Central Barcelona has two main boulevards, Passeig de Gracia and Passeig Sant Joan. The big retail brands line the former and outdoor restaurants line the latter. After the lockdown, Passeig Sant Joan foot traffic picked up much more than Passeig de Gracia. I think that’s because Barcelonians are more interested in meeting friends out for a bite while tourists are more interested in shopping, and there very few tourists.

Anyway, I strolled along Passeig Sant Joan yesterday and all the restaurants are, in fact, closed. It’s a ghost town again, not as unpopulated as during the lockdown but very quiet. A few restaurants were offering para llevar from the front door, but none of the outdoor dining spaces were in use.

The Obrador DelaCrem ice cream shop is a good indicator of the drop off in foot traffic. There have been lines of 10-20 people waiting for a lick when I’ve walked by recently. Yesterday there was no line.

Grocery stores were busy. People were stocking up on food to eat at home at the same time that grocery stores imposed limits on the number of shoppers in the market. That created long lines in some locations, but there doesn’t seem to be a repeat of the great toilet paper shortage that happened in March.

Barcelona retail and supermarkets impose limits on customers in the store.

So far, the Covid-19 restrictions in Catalonia don’t feel like a significant adjustment, not nearly as bad as the restrictions being imposed in Madrid and Paris right now. Of course, I don’t work in a restaurant. Catalonia has ordered restaurants to close for 15 days. If Covid-19 numbers don’t improve, I suspect it will be longer. Restaurants are feeling the pain and schools may not be far behind.

I don’t know whether I’ll find an open paella restaurant in Valencia next week, but Covid-19 numbers are much better there and I haven’t seen reports of additional restrictions in that region. Such is the uncertainty of travel in the time of Covid-19.

Here’s a geographic view of how things Covid-19 look in Europe.

Here’s a less geographic view of confirmed Covid-19 cases throughout the region including Eastern Europe numbers.

Confirmed new EU/EEA Covid-19 cases. Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

While Europe is having its second wave, the US is having its third. Like the US, Europe’s current Covid-19 wave is worse in some places than in others. Here’s the picture in the US.

New US Covid-19 cases. Source: Worldometers.

The big difference between Europe and the US? Even if regions like Madrid have been slow to respond, generally Europe is putting in place Covid-19 restrictions to contain Covid-19. Republican US governors, on the other hand, continue to play politics with something as simple as mask mandates while their states run out of ICU beds.

It’s starts at the top. Trump’s catastrophic management of Covid-19 in the US has neither fired up economic growth nor improved his chances of reelection. The Republican party revolt is starting. Here are signs of a landslide for Biden.

As new US cases surpassed 60,000 per day last week, Trump continues to downplay Covid-19, holding crowded political rallies without mask mandates. Here’s the crowd waiting for him in Wisconsin yesterday. The state is having one of the most serious Covid-19 outbreaks in the US.

The outcome of the US election has implications for how Covid-19 vaccines come to market. Trump has taken a free market approach. In that framework, the first mover has significant advantage over other pharmaceuticals regardless of the effectiveness of its vaccine. After the first vaccine is approved, other candidates will face higher costs to complete trials and obtain distribution.

Biden has said that he will follow the advice of scientists. That could give more effective Covid-19 vaccines a better chance to complete trials and obtain distribution. In a world of anti-vaxxers, that matters. The possibility that 20%-30% of the population will refuse vaccinated means Covid-19 herd immunity through vaccination requires more effective vaccines.

Covid-19 bits.

Last of all culture. Brad and I were bemoaning the lack of live performance, clubs, and other social events in Barcelona. It was one of the reasons we moved here. We’ve met great people so far, but Covid-19 restrictions reduce our opportunities to meet locals and extend our social circles. It’s like living in social limbo.

Luckily, artists continue one way or another. As an example, I leave you this week with a sample the Kinsey Sicks’ latest album, Quarantunes. I don’t get to meet anyone while I listen, but at least this is a sign that there will be cultural life after Covid-19.

I write this for my sanity. If you like it, please pass it on to friends and family. Also, you can follow me on Twitter for more frequent Covid-19 updates.

11 October 2020 – Sunday – #116

With so few tourists around, film crews are taking advantage of Barcelona’s quiet streets for exterior shots. Brad caught a crew shooting in the Born district.

Film crew in the Born district. Credit; Brad.

I post this to assure friends and family that, in spite of reports that Spain’s second wave of Covid-19 is the worst in Europe, Barcelona is not a seething cauldron of Covid-19 at the moment. That seething cauldron would be Madrid, where Spain’s central government has declared a state of alarm over objections of the regional government.

As I mentioned last week, Madrid’s regional premier, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, is prioritizing Madrid’s economy at the peril of Madrileños’ health. This makes me mad for three reasons.

First, it’s becoming more and more clear that the best way to fix an economy during the Covid-19 pandemic is to contain Covid-19. I tweeted last week about a study that shows how consumer spending dips as Covid-19 increases, even in the absence of lockdowns.

Worse, though, Madrid’s high Covid-19 rate hurts not only Madrid’s economy, but Spain’s economy. Empty Barcelona’s streets are easy to film in right now not because Covid-19 rates are high here, but because Madrid’s high numbers are scaring away tourists from traveling anywhere in Spain.

Second, while Madrid is about three hours by train from Barcelona, it’s a transportation hub and chances for cross-infection between cities increase as Madrid approaches a 1% active infection rate. Ayuso’s preference to risk lives to improve Madrid’s economy adds to the infection risk of me and other Barcelonians. Regional Covid-19 political decisions have national consequences.

Third, and this is personal, my PrEP order has been stuck in Madrid for over three weeks. I’m going to blame Ayuso because why not. Maybe it’s DHL’s responsibility, but I’ll bet that DHL is experiencing distribution issues in no small part because of Madrid’s Covid-19 crisis.

My PreEP order stuck in Madrid since 16 September 2020.

As my pill supply dwindled last week, I scrambled and found a Spanish PrEP provider at higher price whose reputation I can’t confirm. I should be okay with an order scheduled next week. I’m just growing tired of people who rationalize their inability to change their habits by claiming the economy is more important than taking simple precautions like social distancing and masking. If gay men figured out how to put on condoms to avoid HIV infections forty years ago, it boggles my mind that wearing a mask requires anything more than a brief explanation of Covid-19 aerosol transmission.

Madrid’s Covid-19 idiocy is helping me understand the Catalonian point of view about independence. And it is idiocy. Why do I say that? Arizona reduced Covid-19 cases by 75% by mandating masks. Wisconsin, on the other hand, where Republican legislators have fought their Democratic governor’s Covid-19 restrictions as hard as Ayuso is fighting Sánchez, has leapt ahead of all the other US states in per-capita Covid-19 cases.

Be smart. Be like Arizona and wear masks. Don’t be like Wisconsin and fight masks.

Even as I come to understand the dynamics of Spain’s central and regional governments, I have to admit I still have lots to learn about Spain and Spanish politics. Last week, U.b. came over to Casa Solar for dinner. I served my first Samfaina, a Catalonian ragout, and I gotta say it was delish. Pretty sure it’s the dash of sweet paprika at the end that makes the recipe work. Anyway, U.b. and his husband moved here from San Francisco 13 years ago, so U.b. understands US and Spanish political systems. He made two observations that, on the surface, don’t seem that important.

One observation is that cars here don’t have bumper stickers. That hadn’t registered with me before. As U.b. noted, it’s nice to drive to a store and not get worked up about abortion rights or gun rights on the trip.

The other observation is that door buzzers on buildings here display unit numbers, not residents’ names. Again, something I hadn’t noticed. Most modern US apartment buildings present a scrolling list of names that enable a call to an occupant for entry.

These are artifacts, it turns out, of Franco’s authoritarian regime. Su Excelencia el Jefe del Estado Generalísimo Francisco Franco, as he is formally known, ruled Spain for almost forty years, from 1936 to 1975. During that time, any Spaniard with wayward political views revealed those views at risk of life, so no bumper stickers. Also, obviously, there was no advantage letting Franco know where to arrest you, so no residents’ names outside buildings.

If you’ve been wondering what a few more years of a Trump White House might look like, these are two informative observations about the subtle ways authoritarianism manifests itself.

Luckily, 3-1/2 weeks before the election it looks like the Trump White House will end in January, before Trump assumes the title Su Excelencia el Jefe del Estado Generalísimo Trump.

Five Thirty Eight predicts that Biden wins the 2020 election. Source: projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2020-election-forecast/

Trump still can win. As Nate Silver notes, a Trump win is about as likely now as Truman beating Dewey in 1948. My ballot is still somewhere between Spain and the US.

Parenthetically, it seems like social media disinformation plays a smaller role in Spanish politics. My hunch is that scale works against the US in this regard. The US is about 330 million people who speak predominantly one language and participate in one election. The ROI on social media disinformation is higher in the US than in the EU because an effective EU disinformation campaign requires knowledge of many local languages and dialects, not to mention political systems. To create a fake social media account in Spain, first decide if the account is in Castilian, Catalan, Basque, Galician, or one of the dozen or so other Spanish languages and dialects.

In addition to U.b.’s two multicultural observations, I have one more, this one directly related to Covid-19. I was pleased to find BCN Checkpoint when I visited Barcelona last year, not because I was in need of their services, but because it reminded me of Magnet in San Francisco. Both BCN Checkpoint and Magnet offer public health services targeted to gay men. That may not seem important and most cities don’t provide separate public health services for gays. As a gay man, though, it is profoundly significant to have professionals figuring out how to make my life safer, especially with programs to eradicate HIV.

My observation is that both Barcelona and San Francisco not only have public health for gay men, but also they have had remarkably good Covid-19 responses. I realize this is too small a data set for a correlation between public health programs targeted to gay men and good Covid-19 responses to be meaningful, but I did mention this to my friend Mike who’s in a healthcare PhD program in Cleveland. Mike, it turns out, has been interviewing hospital CXOs around the US. Not surprisingly, he told me that Covid-19 responses seem to be better in cities with better public health systems.

So, my takeaway is that if you’re moving to a new city, besides looking for a post- rather than a pre-authoritarian city, also look for a city that has a public health program targeted to gay men. It’s a sign that city is investing enough in public health that when the next Covid-19 comes around (and it will), its public health response is likely to be up to snuff.

Madrid, beware! The US rejection of Trump in the election is due in large part to his Covid-19 policies, his prioritization of the economy over public health. The strange saga of his Covid-19 hospitalization bought him no sympathy support in the polls. He’s all but banned masks in the White House. He’s turned freedom from masks into a Republican party rallying cry. Masks have become the Republican symbol of smothering the economy. This infographic of Covid-19 cases per million by US state shows how red state pro-economy, anti-masking policy has fostered increases in Covid-19 cases.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 surge in red states is pushing the US case numbers up just as flu season starts. New US Covid-19 cases have surpassed 50,000 per day, the highest number since August.

Covid-19 cases going up again in the US.

The cynic in me thinks Trump wants cases going up to suppress voter turnout.

Covid-19 bits.

As Biden says, election chicanery looks like the only thing that can stop him from winning the election. This Lincoln Project video captures how many Americans feel.

Last of all, following up from last week’s post, both C. and Trump have recovered from Covid-19. I believe C. I don’t believe Trump.

P.s. – this tweet came up just after I published.