Tuesday, 28 December 2021

The Lee family summary of 2021

2021 will best be remembered for Delta and Omicron and the associated chaos. The year started sedately in our isolated paradise, and we did alright all considering. We seemed to spend a good deal of the year waiting for our chance to get vaccinated and were rather amazed that so many people would rather not. Anja continued to work her translation contracts, allowing a steady income as our guest house continued to stand empty. Her highlight may well have been a visit by her parents during one of the ‘waves’, with them getting back to Germany just before the heinous travel restrictions due to Omicron. Shania also made it out from the UK during the lull, showering us all with presents. Chris and Elaine continued to provide invaluable family support, although age continues to be a nuisance, and neither are very mobile anymore.

Elena started an online curriculum with a school based in George which follows the Cambridge curriculum, with fees sponsored by Chris. Rather than the ad hoc lessons I had provided during 2020, Rundle College provided a timetable and work material that we printed off and worked through during the day. Where possible Charlie also engaged in this schoolwork and was a willing classmate for group activities. Both continue to enjoy their dance classes, their only formal extra-mural activity as our karate group has folded.

Probably the biggest highlight of the year for me was receiving the news that the Ostrich journal had surpassed an impact factor of 1 for the first time in its 90 year history. This milestone was what I had been working towards since taking over the editorship in 2016.

Halfway through the year another momentous event occurred: I had applied for the Science and Innovation programme manager position at BirdLife South Africa and after a tough application process learned that I had obtained the position. The best part of this is I get to work from home: this may not have been possible prior to Covid-19 induced lockdowns.

Anja kindly agreed to take over the role of home tutor in addition to her work while I immersed myself in my new job. I have long been indirectly affiliated with BirdLife South Africa, having worked closely with the organisation during my postdoctoral years with the FitzPatrick Institute, and then contracted to survey the Karoo biome, and through the editorship of the organisation’s journal: Ostrich. However, it is an honour to be working for and with well respected names in South Africa’s avian conservation landscape: specifically, Hanneline Smit-Robinson and Ernst Retief. The position is sponsored by Ekapa Minerals, based out of Kimberley, and there were two epic road trips up there to meet stakeholders and team members.

The past 6 months with BLSA has been a whirlwind of activity: we have focused activities around redoing the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds. However, fundraising activities continue to be a major slice of time and source of uncertainty. Highlights have been that I have been able to initiate a ringing training group with stakeholders of the I Love Nature Gym. The Uniondale Fitness Club associated with that has sadly become inactive due to the various lockdown restrictions: only a few members still visit regularly.

Another major initiative is the creation of the Indigenous Names for South African Birds (INSAB). With Andrew de Blocq, we have organised a working group, the aim of which is to create unique names for all South Africa’s birds in all its languages. We aim to have workshops during 2022 in Zulu and Northern Sotho to complete these tasks, with groundwork by Adrian Koopman and his team, as well as Johan Meyer, the group’s chair.

I managed to do a bit of local travel: a SABAP2 bash to Britstown early in the year, and the epic hike up Mannetjiesberg for Charlie’s birthday. That hike was preceded by many hikes on Blue Hill Nature Reserve. Our family trip for the year was combined with work: we all headed to the Tankwa Karoo National Park for a recce for a student research project with Susie Cunningham. After that, we spent five days at Haarwegskloof in the Overberg, where Anja and the kids played games and went for walks in the Renosterveld, while I spent all day looking for Agulhas Long-billed Lark nests for MSc student Sanjo Rose. A day out to Potberg to see the Cape Vultures coming in to roost was memorable. Later in the year, I assisted with the Honorary Ranger’s birding weekend at Karoo National Park, where Eli won another recognition for her photography.  

Meanwhile, the last part of 2021 has also seen reasonable rains at Blue Hill and good rains across the Karoo. The year started too dry to keep honeybush seedlings we had planted alive, but late spring rains has seen a steady flowering, especially of the succulents, through the early summer. Surrounded by green hills and flowers certainly puts one in an optimistic mood for 2022. 




Thursday, 19 August 2021

The quest for covid vaccination side effects


I had been working hard for six weeks solid. I needed some time off but did not want to dip into those valuable annual leave days. How could I do this? Pulling a sickie these days is pretty difficult, doctors charge so much for their notes. 


My wife had been anxious for some time now to get the COVID 19 vaccination. In our remote rural setting, access had not been straight forward, and we had been waiting weeks despite registering via the official channels. Meanwhile, Anja's family had all been vaccinated in Germany and had returned to a normal life. We were all suffering from vaccine envy. 


While we were suffering from vaccine envy, it appeared as though those around us were suffering from vaccine hesitancy. Several of our acquaintances from our neighbourhood had expressed concerns about vaccine side effects. One lady, who has worked for us for a long time, told me that there were two types of vaccines. I was quite impressed with this knowledge. She then went on to elaborate that there was one that helps you and one that kills you. 


I had to point out that my parents had been vaccinated the previous month and were still not dead. As the stories from those who had been vaccinated rolled in it appeared that they were some side effects: sore muscles, fatigue, headaches, flat tyres, and generally anything else for which an excuse was needed. 


Perhaps then, getting the vaccine could get me a few legitimate days off. I craftily scheduled an appointment for the middle of the week, expecting some side effects that would knock off Thursday and Friday. I called the clinic in George to see if we would be able to make an appointment. There had been a lot on the news about the lack of vaccine uptake and empty vaccination centres and I was not surprised when the receptionist I spoke to said we could drop in anytime during the morning. 


The following day, Anja had paracetamol laid out on the table to prevent headaches and asked if I wanted one pre-emptively. I pointed out I was doing this all for the side effects, and that under no circumstances would I be taking a paracetamol. Knowing that a sore arm was a standard symptom, I did penetrate the aura of guilt and abandonment that my home gym constantly emits for a quick work out.  


As my wife drove us down to George, I scanned through the headlines of News 24. One of the articles of the day was about a vocal anti vaxxer are who had decided to get vaccinated after all. When we arrived at the vaccination centre, it was like a scene from the Kabul airport. There was a long queue of people around the clinic, which I could only presume were those anti vaxxers who had suddenly realised they have been abandoned by their leader. Among the elderly queuing up for their second shots, there was now also a ragtag bunch of nervous, shaven headed, tattooed, middle-aged people who likely digested information from alternative herbal based websites sponsored by Harley Davidson. 


Over the next few hours, we navigated our way through the clinic in an elaborate game of musical chairs. Eventually we found ourselves in the room with needle wielding nurses. I must admit to being underwhelmed by the size of the needle and vile which contained the lifesaving serum of Pfizer-Biontech. The nurse explained to me the possible side effects associated with the vaccine: headaches and possibly more severe symptoms that might require a visit to a doctor. I nodded in eager anticipation.  


The injection was over in a blink and we were herded to the waiting area where people are obliged to spend 15 minutes under observation to make sure there are no adverse effects. The open area was full of people drinking coffee, eating buns, checking phones. There was a disappointing lack of people passing out or requiring medical attention. After my coffee, and feeling fine, I attempted to depart the waiting area only to be stopped by a nurse who would not allow me to leave because I had lost my sticky tag of paper which gave the time of my inoculation and confirmed I’d served my limited quarantine time. I had to be rescued by Anja 

“I must be getting absent minded because of the vaccine!” 

“How interesting that this side effect started before you got the vaccine this morning when you left your bag at home”, said Anja dryly. 


Anja went off to do some shopping while I waited in the car to catch up on emails. After a while I noticed that I was hot and sweating. Finally, another one of the symptoms was kicking in. I felt most pleased. Shortly, Anja returned, started the car, turned on the air conditioning, and commented: It is hot in here, isn't it?. Was my side effect just a result of sitting in a car that had been standing in the sun, while forgetting to take off my jacket? While taking it off I was pleased to note that both my arms were sore, not just the one I’d been injected in. Clearly the pre-emptive early morning workout had been a good idea. 


During the drive home I tried to explain to my wife the benefits of hierarchical sampling methods for detection-non detection data and the finer points of spatial distribution modelling. She started yawning. I started yawning. Clearly, we were getting tired! Another side effect! That night she would also complain about a headache, despite the paracetamol. Disappointingly, mine never materialised.  


But that was okay, because on the last section of the drive home, I had the coolest side effect of all. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I stared down the muddy road to the rain clouds over the distance mountains. I rubbed my eyes, but it was still happening: the road had turned into a rainbow.  



For some reason, I never got my day off.  


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