Lancet Editor slates UK “failure to act”

22 Mar

The science has changed? No! After precious months of denialist inaction, the government has “at last understood what had really taken place in China”.

Why should we care what Richard Horton thinks? He is not only a practising doctor but editor of one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals is why. Four days ago in the Guardian, he had this to say of the Johnson regime’s response to the covid-19 threat.

On 24 January, Chinese doctors and scientists described a new disease caused by a novel coronavirus. A strange series of pneumonia cases had presented in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people and capital of Hubei province. At that time, 800 cases of the new disease had been confirmed. The virus had already been exported to Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Most of the 41 described in this first report, published in the Lancet, had non-specific symptoms of fever and cough. More than half had difficulties in breathing. But most worrying, a third had to be admitted to intensive care. Most developed a critical complication  – acute respiratory distress syndrome. Half died.

The Chinese scientists pulled no punches. “The number of deaths is rising quickly,” they wrote. Protective equipment for health workers was strongly recommended. Testing for the virus should be done immediately a diagnosis was suspected. They concluded that the mortality rate was high. And they urged careful surveillance of this new virus in view of its “pandemic potential”.

That was in January. Why did it take the UK government eight weeks to recognise the seriousness of what we now call Covid-19?

In 2003, Chinese officials were heavily criticised for keeping the dangers of a new viral disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), secret. By 2020, a new generation of Chinese scientists had learned their lesson. Under immense pressure, as the epidemic exploded around them, they took time to write up their findings in a foreign language and seek publication in a medical journal thousands of miles away. Their rapid and rigorous work was an urgent warning to the world. We owe those scientists enormous thanks.

But medical and scientific advisers to the UK government ignored their warnings. For unknown reasons they waited. And watched.

The scientists advising ministers seemed to believe this new virus could be treated like influenza. Graham Medley, one of the government’s expert scientific advisers, was disarmingly explicit. In an interview on Newsnight last week, he explained the UK’s approach: to allow a controlled epidemic of large numbers of people, which would generate “herd immunity”. Our scientists recommended “a situation where the majority of the population are immune to the infection. And the only way to get that, in the absence of a vaccine, is for most of the population to become infected.”

Medley suggested “a nice big epidemic” among the less vulnerable. “What we are going to try and do is manage this acquisition of herd immunity and minimise the exposure of people who are vulnerable.” Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, suggested the target was to infect 60% of the UK’s population.


Is covid-19 bogus, or massively exaggerated? I don’t think so. As I put it yesterday – “I deem the threat real and potentially terrible”.

How do I know? I don’t. Hence ‘deem’ rather than ‘know’. This past few days I’ve had exchanges with three people I respect, and on other matters see eye to eye with, who beg to differ. In two cases the exchanges have been respectful, in one slightly less so.

Can’t say the same for some on social media, who strike me as too sure of themselves in saying the whole thing is a giant scam. The reasons most commonly given are: to make severe inroads on hard won freedoms, to tilt the balance of class forces in capital’s favour, to shift blame for a financial crisis coming regardless and – this from a FB post – mount “an orchestrated terrorism campaign to shut down the economy, for the interests of the biggest bankers”.

In a post back in October, on the Kurds in Syria, I wrote of our existential “inability to bear not knowing”. And who’d dispute that here we have a cornucopia of uncertainty, in which questions of covid-19’s actual danger are but one strand. To those demanding hard evidence of the virus’s actuality and threat level, I have no answer.

Except these two:

One, do not put words in my mouth. Do not take my calling some sceptics ‘left libertarian’ as a put down. It isn’t. I don’t describe myself that way, but ‘left libertarianism’ is a respected stance with a long and illustrious pedigree. Its adherents are not to be blanket-dismissed as “wackos”, and certainly not by me. I say what I mean and mean what I say.

But let’s set that aside as a small and personal thing – my bristling, for the second time in ten days, at people whose response to my words is to “put two and two together to get a lot more than four”. I ought really, given the stakes here, to let go of such petty gripes.

Cue for my second answer. I lack the requested hard evidence of covid-19’s actual as opposed to putative threat, but can at least set out my thinking:

  • As I argued four days ago in Covid-19 – Capitalism on trial, I counter the reasoning of conspiracists (a term I use neutrally: some conspiracy theories prove accurate and this may yet be a case in point) with the fact that capitalism has been shown on every level to be inadequate here.
  • The impact of countermeasures look set to be economically devastating (a truth either side may wish to appropriate – next point) but the claims for covid-19’s level of threat come from too many sources I respect – including the Chinese scientists cited above – and go wider than the usual suspects of narrative management. (What, is Havana in on the lie too?) The balance of doubt favours, as I see it, our taking covid-19 every bit as seriously as those scientists in Wuhan were urging in January.
  • If this is a scheme cooked up by our criminally insane rulers to entrench their wealth and power, I’m left scratching my head at such fiendishly clever calculations. What the devil is their game? Every airline grounded … leisure and tourism at a standstill … just-in-time delivery systems – business-to-consumer and business-to-business – on trial as never before. The hit to big capital is beyond measure, certainly in the high trillions. For me, covid-19 as hoax or exaggerated fails the cui bono test. In this regard see Dave Hansell’s comments below my post, Labour Party – your silence is deafening.

I repeat. I may be wrong. In which case, when that becomes clear, I’ll come right out and say so. At the level of ego I’ll hate doing it. But my love of life, of two beautiful daughters I – with a little help from their mother – brought into this world and my sheer delirium at such joyous reprieve will see me ecstatically, flat out and over the moon Glad to be Wrong.

I’m just not counting on that outcome is all. Are you?

* * *

16 Replies to “Lancet Editor slates UK “failure to act”

  1. To be honest, I’m praying that you’re right. That this virus is a con or exaggerated for the purpose of imposing indefinite martial law is a far scarier proposition.

    • Nearly fell over laughing earlier this afternoon on encountering the latest addition to our lexicon – “The boomer remover.”

      But that’s what forty odd years working in an industrial environment does to your sense of humour.

      Not that one does not recognise the old adage about many a true word (in this case in terms of attitude) spoken in jest; and at his stage, recognising the real evidenced based serious attitude of those who saw this as an opportunity to cull the old and the weak (through active policies of doing bugger all but let it rip) and still are, it’s a toss up who deserves the most criticism:

      Those who take advantage in terms of policy in that way?

      Or those who are actively or passively prepared to let them get away with it because it does not fit a particular narrative they have committed to?

      And, just to give prior warning, going back to the impact of that ‘industrial environment’ I’ve been advised on more than one occasion that what I regard as scepticism is better reclassified as high grade cynicism.

      You see my take on the powers that be is that from day one their key problem has always been their dependency on the rest of us for satisfying their needs and wants. Requiring people to make things and supply services has a down side. No matter how brutal and sociopathic they are they need other people to meet those needs and wants. Just like everyone else.

      This means having to share resources, make periodic concessions which result in the need to try and reverse those concessions over time, sometimes over generations.

      The only way around that is to get to a situation in which those needs and wants can be satisfied without the need for other people. AI systems at last offer a potential means to do that. Making everyone else surplus to requirements.

      But we are not yet in that position. If and when we ever do get to that position collapsing the systems and leaving everyone to fend for themselves in a free for all is certainly one viable (from that sociopathic point of view) option.

      Instead, what we actually have right now is a situation where a system in which those at the top tier or two of the hierarchical pyramid have spent their whole lives and generations constructing, developing and maintaining has suddenly come under strain, as a direct result of its system design flaws, to a point where they are having to do the opposite of what they believe in.

      Who would have thought on the morning of December 13 2019 that a newly emboldened ultra right wing administration run by eugenics enthusiasts would be acting like the “communists” they portrayed their opponents to be by nationalising the rail franchises?

      Given the scale of the market collapse and the impact on companies and industries with high debt levels the heavily leveraged UK Water Companies will not be far behind.

      Or that an ultra right wing US Republican Party would be printing helicopter money to chuck not just at Wall Street but also Main Street?

      Of course the powers that be would take advantage of this. That’s not news it’s stating the bleedin’ obvious as John Cleese might observe.

      The point is the available evidence, which has not even seen any effort at being refuted, is they clearly wanted to take advantage in a different direction. And some of them still do.

      That direction was and is to use this to cull those they regard as surplus to requirements. Instead, the system they have committed to is collapsing around their ears as a result of the design flaws they engineered. Resulting in them having to publicly go against everything they believe in.

      We are where we are. Not where we would like to be.

      That is true for the PTB as much as it is for us. They will take what advantage they can, where they can, when you they can. That’s always been the case. Just like 2008 throwing good money after bad at their sponsors amongst the 1% elite.

      Now we can either let them off the hook by failing to recognise the key drivers behind their intent in a defensive and reactive posture or we can get our arses out of our backsides and take a more asymmetric proactive approach to drive where we are in different direction using their own current weaknesses and collapsed narrative to get not just serious concessions but effective practical change from a failed Capitalist system and narrative.

      Just like the generation who came back after WW2 did. But for real this time.

      Which’ll it be?

  2. No one should have a problem with scepticism.

    However, scepticism cuts both ways. There are some who demand scepticism for events and narratives they are criticising but ring fence their own narratives from the scepticism they demand of others.

    There are more than likely to be other relevant, pertinent, and salient questions to be added to the ones detailed BTL yesterday and the point needs to be made that the onus is on those pushing the counter narrative to:

    1. Come up with some substantive evidence using available data on mortality rates, stress levels on critical care beds and mortuary services etc in those Countries/States currently affected and impacted from previous years.

    This would provide a means of comparison to either substantiate the claim this is nothing out of the ordinary or not- and is merely being used as a pretext to introduce draconion measures.

    2. Explain why it is those who are claimed to be chomping at the bit to introduce police state type measures had to be dragged kicking and screaming to introduce such measures. Because the evidence is out there about just how dilotory, reluctant and hostile they were.

    Preferring instead to pour scorn and derision on concerns which were being raised. Just go back to peruse the media narratives across to be West over January and February and early March. I read this morning that some French medics are taking legal action against former Ministers for their negligence in this respect.

    An action long overdue in the UK where, even after the reluctant (almost) 180 degree turn last Monday shrills for the ineptitude and criminal negligence of the Eton Fourth Form Remove amongst “journalists” writers and “think tanks” were still pushing pseudo- scientific eugenics based bullshit. See here:

    Unfortunately, one has to register on this site to comment and see comments.

    Which brings us neatly into…

    3. Provide a coherent explanation as to why it is those claiming to be at the ‘vanguard’ of alt-media are letting the Powers That Be off the hook on so many questions and issues?

    Applying the same criteria on the basis of Medici Cura ti ipsum I guess I’m probably one of those who, according to those who sit in the Karl Rove camp, is a member of the reality based community who fails miserably to both understand and comprehend that post modernism has confined all that stuff about objective evidence based enquiry and the scientific method to the dustbin of history.

    In which case I will no doubt, along with others, have to wait patiently in the queue behind all the others whose due process rights are being are divided on this scrapping of such outdated principles for our turn to be burnt at be stake.

  3. To clarify, so as to avoid misunderstanding, the modernist description of the above final two paragraphs is called “taking the piss.”

  4. Taking off my writer’s hat and donning my site moderator’s, can I plead with all to keep their tone respectful and avoid – yes, it is difficult when feelings run high – making personal slights. I’m not saying a line has been crossed here, but my sense is that we’re getting uncomfortably close …

  5. I apologise for using the word “wackos”. I made my full apology on another thread and will not repeat it here. Nevertheless, I still feel there is a certain disingenuity in the use of “left libertarians” which suggests a small minority made smaller by “SOME left libertarians”. I would say that the notion that the virus is a con is widespread across the population – but in a curious way i.e. it is certainly rife on parts of the internet where people can maintain anonymity. This is a common phenomenon of course but it would be invalid to dismiss all such “clandestine” expressions. These expressions often say what people really think but they feel they cannot openly express them. On the other hand, and at the risk of contradicting myself, I have indeed heard this con theory openly expressed around me but often in anger or as a joke. I myself have doubts but I do not express them for the sake of maintaining a “cheerful face” for loved ones.

  6. Mr Roddis, this is a difficult post for me to write. I’m afraid it will have to be long. You may delete it. I only ask you to read it first.

    I recently had a heated exchange with you over my use of the word “wackos”. I apologised. I now feel angry at myself for apologising. The fact is that certain developments on this site have made me deeply uneasy. But to discuss this, I shall have to give the whole story.

    I have always been on the Left. My main go-to site has been the WSWS.

    Recent events have been unprecedented. We now have non-stop wall-to-wall fear mongering (“fear porn” in Off-Guardian’s apt phrase). And I have seen the introduction of draconian measures to control all social activity. There has been panic buying, queues in streets, and a general swelling of palpable fear and dread.
    I know you will say this is because we face a real threat in this coronavirus. I have my doubts and they were crystallised by a curious phenomenon: all across the print media from papers to scientific journals, I have seen breezy declarations that everything will now change forever, that the current situation is now permanent. I hear an echo of Dick Cheney’s outrageous assertion that “the war on terror will not end in our lifetimes”. And I smell an enormous rat.

    My son is disabled and has his own supported living accommodation. He coughed and displayed signs of fever last week He was put on a seven-day quarantine and I have been unable to see him. I was in tears last night after a phone call. I am terrified – and it has nothing to do with the virus but what looks like a rapidly evolving police state – and one that the media have the gall to openly declare to be permanent.

    The only “alt” site that has mirrored my experiences and feelings has been Off-Guardian – although oddly, the one article in the mainstream press that has done so has been one by Peter Hitchens. And I know that that will provoke a response of, “Ah you see – the Right are trying to lure you in!” or some such. But I think that Hitchens was right in saying we are not facing a pandemic as much as a “panicdemic”. Of course, he has his limitations. He never asks WHY this is happening.

    I turn to mainframe left sites (I count the WSWS as one such) and I find the same “fear porn” as elsewhere. I turn to Steel City Scribblings and find an article in which there is a link to an article by one Tomas Pueyo. If anything it is even more nihilistic than most of these doom mongering pieces. I note the curious subtitle: “Politicians, Community Leaders and Business Leaders: What Should You Do and When?” Since it seemed clear to me that politicians, community leaders and business leaders were unlikely to even read it and the only ones who did would be folks like myself who could do nothing, I wondered what the point of the link to this article was. I also found (and this was the big issue) repulsively flippant references to “The Darwin Awards” i.e. that vile smug “humorous” expression of Schadenfreude. When you then wrote an article attributing the sceptical response to coronavirus to “some left libertarians”, it was too much. Hence my “intemperate” response about “wackos”.

    On writing to Off-G I found this response which I think perfectly sums it all up:

    “With regards those on the ‘left’ who, willing or not, are helping to amplify the current hysteria, in Offg’s view it is impossible to be on-message with the sheer magnitude of fear porn being unleashed on us without contributing to shutting down rational conversation. They are effectively cheering on the rise of modern authoritarianism/totalitarianism.”

    The difference between, on the one hand, Off-G (and even Peter Hitchens) and on the other, the mainstream left is that the former are talking to and about real people undergoing real situations whereas the latter seem to be viewing it all from a detached realm of comfort – like the “Grand Hotel Abyss” as Georg Lukacs so aptly put it.

    I would dearly love to be proven wrong. Yes – that is ironic! I would dearly love to believe that this virus is real and truly deadly. That to me is the “optimistic” interpretation. For one thing, it would restore my confidence in our political institutions by showing that they are actually trying to help people albeit clumsily. But that enormous rat continues to stink. And the stench is mounting.

    So, I’ve had my say. If you have read this far, feel free to delete this.

    • George:

      1. When did I become “Mr Roddis”? I’ve come to see you as a virtual friend and on many issues, ally. I’m “Phil” to you.

      2. I never took your apology as extending beyond your attributing to me a conflation of ‘left libertarian’ with ‘wacko’. I’m not a libertarian myself but, as I’ve said, libertarianism has a long and illustrious pedigree. I can’t be held responsible for a conflation not of my making. Nor did I take your apology as retraction of your views. (Not least because the two instances of the a-word, first and final paragraphs I think, were followed in the same sentence by “but …”) If you regret saying sorry for assuming that by ‘libertarian’ I meant ‘wacko’, well, that’s no business of mine.

      3. I leave room as you do for the possibility I’ve got this wrong. For now our different assessments of the balance of probability (or of potential consequence) put us on opposing sides of one of several divides this is opening up. Time may tell, and soon, which of us is closer to the truth. In the meantime I would not dream of deleting yours or any other non abusive and on-topic comment, whether or not I agree with its thrust.

      4. As you say, OffGuardian is robustly presenting the sceptical view and the real danger of hastening a drift, noted by me in posts before any of this, to totalitarianism. I’m presenting a view of how covid-19 (real or not, exaggerated or not) exposes the root inability of capitalism, especially consumer capitalism in the age of imperialism and a post USSR balance of class forces, to deal with a pandemic like this may be. Not only could either of us be wrong on that last; our positions aren’t mutually exclusive. Is this a giant hoax? I haven’t asked, to quote Mark’s reply to your comment, for evidence that it is not. That’s an epistemological nonsense. It’s famously hard to prove a negative. All I have done is set out the reasoning for my own act of faith.

      And what I’ve always done on this site: attack the criminal insanity of capitalism.

      • Thank you, Phil, for your considered response. As I have stated, I – like I am sure everyone else – have been under immense strain. I have been feeling a creeping despair over this and it shows the fragility of social relations under our present system. Indeed, if nothing else, this pandemic (whether real or not) has proved how easily the connections between people can be pulled apart. The paranoid “grab all you can for yourself” attitude is an extreme manifestation of this (and in itself may be seen as a speeding up of the capitalist ideology at its purest and most atavistic level).

        Your points have led to a list of mine:

        First, I wasn’t particularly fixed on the term “left libertarian”. I just thought you were trying to minimise the hoax theory. I can see that you weren’t. But I wondered if you think there is something specifically libertarian about this hoax theory?

        Second, when you say “OffGuardian is robustly presenting the sceptical view and the real danger of hastening a drift, noted by me in posts before any of this, to totalitarianism”, are you implying that the hoax view itself may exacerbate a drift towards totalitarianism? Actually, now that I re-read it, I don’t think that’s what you are saying. But I would like some clarification.


        • Hi George. One, I can’t say there’s anything specifically libertarian about the hoax idea (or to be fairer, the idea of covid-19 as real but over-egged). I’m sure there are flat out idiots, equivalent to the types who parade pallid but alarmingly reddening bare chests on the first hot day of the year, who now strut the streets, parks and stores ignoring safe distancing pleas because their take – I won’t grace it with the word ‘idea’, far less ‘theory’ – is that it’s all bollocks. But I’m not talking to them. The ones I am addressing are intelligent people I respect and see as coming at this from a libertarian perspective.

          Two, you’re right on your second read. I’m not saying – nor have I given any thought to the idea till just now – that covid-as-hoax will advance the prospect of totalitarianism. I see how one could argue that, but I’m not. I’ve no interest in opening up another irresolvable line of inquiry.

          I’d summarise our differences like this. Without the luxury of certainty, and plenty of facts and stats to cherry pick as either side sees fit, honest and intelligent people like you and me, Mark and Dave, find ourselves bending the stick of doubt differently. It seems to me that our relative prioritisations in opposing capitalism on the one hand, authoritarianism on the other, may be informing our different stances. No, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – and you and Mark are as anticapitalist as me’n Dave. That’s why I’m glad we’ve had this debate but it’s also why I want to move on. As I keep saying, one of us may be proved right but until then my efforts will be harnessed to denouncing capitalism within and without the context of covid-19.

          All the best mate.

  7. Well said George.

    I find it bizarre that those of us questioning the reality of the C 19 narrative and asking for evidence of its existence and claimed impact are told the onus is on us to prove it’s wrong. Really? I understand there is an all-pervasive sense of fear and anxiety around, and I’m not immune to that, despite my scepticism – that seems to be our programmed response to such perceived threats, well known and manipulated by the PTB – but let’s try to remain rational. The onus is always on those making a claim, particularly one that has the corollaries this one has, to substantiate it.

    • I repeat. I may be wrong. In which case, when that becomes clear, I’ll come right out and say so. At the level of ego I’ll hate doing it. But my love of life … will see me ecstatically, flat out and over the moon Glad to be Wrong.

      I’m just not counting on that outcome is all

    • It would seem reasonable to observe standard general practice is that anyone submitting a particular case or line of argument/debate provides substantiating evidence to support that case or line of argument/debate

      Some of that substantiating evidence would include evidence which undermines and/or disproves any counter or contrary cases or lines of argument/debate.

      Due process might be one example of the scientific method in practice. Examples of its non existence and plans to scrap it in the LP along with the current practical removal under current measures require robust critiques and defence which would involve providing substantiating evidence – proof – to defend and take forward that case.

      Unfortunately, to maintain credibility and efficacy such robust critiques and defence have to be consistent in this regard. Picking and choosing which instances, examples and cases to apply or not to apply standard substantiating evidence poses a real risk of undermining any particular position, case or line of argument/debate.

      There appear to be an increasing number of instances and issues in which an increasing number of people adopt a position which has as a starting point of ‘ this is so because I think it is so.’. The current social frictions around what has been labelled as ‘cancel culture’ are based on such positions.

      Positions which spill out into wider society resulting in, for example, people losing their jobs or Party membership for having the “wrong” opinion on certain matters which are a direct result of indulging this position by deliberately failing to apply the standard practice of presenting substantiating evidence to support a particular case or argument.

      The notion that it is unnecessary to provide substantiating evidence to demonstrate a case has a number of practical real world implications. One of which is ceeding the case to other arguments which run counter to that case. Another is that in the process of seeking substantiating evidence to support a case or line of argument/debate it is very often the case that weaknesses or flaws are found not just in the counter argument but also those of the case being made.

      This latter implication means that a reluctance or refusal to seek such substantiating evidence results in a form of stasis. Nothing is learned and no progress can be made because the starting position of ‘this is so because I think it is so is a zero sum game for everyone. There is no common ground. No room for a meaningful process of discovery. This is the position, take it or leave it.

      In the eventuality of encountering such a position, which occasionally but not always does happen, the only thing left on the table is the observation about opinions expressed by the character Harry Callaghan in the film ‘Dirty Harry.’

      One would hope that is not the case here.


    I see you Boris Johnson

    “….never before have so many chosen to do f*!# all about protecting the vulnerable few. As a result the drastic measures you didn’t forsee becoming necessary have become necessary on a daily and rolling basis. They might be big bold sweeping changes to the very way we live our lives but your very move has been cautious and reactive, communicated poorly and delivered without authority. ……

    …..while I’ve no doubt Chris Witty is the expert and adult in the room actual Government policy is still being influenced by the sort of untested behavioural science Cummings has long advocated. Relying on him to predict he citizenry’s mass reaction to your every move is like asking a Terminator to define love.”

    And the individual who penned this also sees the incompetence and criminal negligence and the eugenics agenda behind it. An agenda still trying to assert itself against the science and, yes, the moral and ethical case of social solidarity. An agenda still insistent on its key metrics of culling the ‘economically inactive.”

    First they came for the economically inactive elderly.

    Then they came for the economically inactive unemployed.

    Then the economically inactive self employed; economically inactive on zero hours contracts; economically inactive students. And so on.

    If only someone had thought to create an organised alternative channel of journalism to that of the MSM. A kind of journalism which asked these kinds of questions and raised these kinds of issues and didn’t let these sociopaths off the hook.

    It could be called the alternative media or some such pithy title.

    “What did you do dad/mum when we all got screwed over by this incompetence?”

    “Ah! Well! Erm……. we were busy telling people it was all a hoax. After all, it was only the coffin dodgers who were in the front left be anyway.”

    Some people just won’t see the wood for the trees.

  9. A lot of words again Dave, along with a lot of ‘attitude’, which I am increasingly losing patience with. On the point of ‘proving the ‘counter narrative’ I refer you to Phil’s words (NB I would replace ‘is it a hoax?’ with ‘is there sufficient credible evidence it is true’, as I haven’t claimed it to be a hoax and they are assuredly not the same thing):

    ‘Is this a giant hoax? I haven’t asked, to quote Mark’s reply to your comment, for evidence that it is not. That’s an epistemological nonsense. It’s famously hard to prove a negative.’

  10. Supplying supportive evidence and argument to a line of discussion does not lend itself to simple one liners.

    At present this is all one way in terms of doing all the heavy lifting and hard graft required to put meat on the bone sitting on the table. No questions posed or points made are being even acknowledged never mind refuted with serious and sensible counter evidenced based argument.

    Just unsupported statements or conclusions interspaced with excuses.

    To paraphrase the old well known Python scene: ‘This isn’t discussion or debate it’s mere contradiction.’

    “Losing patience”?

    Yup. You and me both mate.

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