Day One: Sunday 15th March 2020

Daily Diary: A Chevrolet and a Crocodile

It’s a non-day and at this stage there seems to be little to write about when it comes to describing my personal experience in what I sense to be a building storm. In many ways life is still much as it always has been, although there are signs of panic buying already in the supermarkets and we have been slowly putting together a box of emergency staples for a couple of weeks now, believing that the problems that are abroad in China and Italy will most likely be coming our way somewhere down the line, and possibly sometime soon. There have been shocking scenes on the television, but they’re still largely swallowed up by other news.

So the events of the day don’t warrant much writing about, unless you think popping out to Wickes to get one or two DIY loose ends, or working on a semi-scratch built plastic model of a World War II two-pounder portee anti-tank gun (in memory of my father who faced Rommel’s armour in the Western Desert in World War 2 on these undergunned and underpowered Chevrolet trucks) are things that capture anyone else’s imagination apart from my own. There’s clearing the daily feed of emails, which invariably leads to some time on Twitter, liking, retweeting and occasionally commenting, thinking in careless moments I’m part of some greater daily chatter, when in reality I’m out there on the sidelines.

Then there’s the online weather forecasting, something I’m so geeky about I’m fearful of taking you through the arcane art of divining. Not so much forecasting as wishcasting, if truth be known, but if you shared my passion for paragliding, you’d understand. What matters to me is that tomorrow it’s going to be flyable at Devil’s Dyke and I have every intention of being there.

But beneath the banality there is a feeling that something is on its way. Something so big it will change all our lives forever. Prime Minister Boris Johnson still seems to be in denial and that a little boosterism and belief in our national special exceptionalism means we won’t suffer the harsh state control we witnessed in China or the desperate suffering that seems to have overwhelmed Italy. Others are not so sure and there is a sense of anxiety that’s all too easy to see in the media.

There is something uncannily alarming about how in less than four months Covid-19 has not only come into being in a Chinese city I was previously unaware of but has broken its borders to become a pandemic. The first suspected case that I can find was reported dates back to 17th November in Wuhan, although the Chinese authorities didn’t report the fact that there had been an outbreak of a new coronavirus until 31st December. The early days are pretty murky. What is reasonably certain is that a SARS-type virus mutated and crossed the species boundary from the wider animal kingdom to the human population, a process known as zoonosis. Some say it happened at a Chinese wet market, others that the virus had escaped from a local virology laboratory. Both are possible but neither are certainties, conspiracy theorists excepted. The two species most likely to have been the original hosts are bats and pangolins.

I can understand how transmission could have occurred in a wet-market where unchecked and unregulated wild animals enter the human food chain. I remember in my early teens making the weekly visit to the market in Ipoh, Malaysia. Live creatures were bought and slaughtered on the spot. Just like that. There and then. No health checks. I remember a crocodile being auctioned off, cut by cut. When the seller got to the end of the auction and only the least popular cuts were left he threw in a couple of tree monitors. The poor crocodile just lay there on the less than sanitary, stained concrete floor, trussed to a builder’s plank. I took a photo at the time which I seem to have lost, and the seller posed the monitors by the side of the unfortunate croc for the camera.

I didn’t witness the slaughter. My mum moved me along before that gruesome spectacle happened.

It seems that practice has continued over all those decades since and with it the opportunities for pathogens to jump ship from one species to the next. And we must be careful not to brand China or its near neighbours with creating such scenarios. Ebola and AIDS jumped species in Africa, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was tracked back to a poultry farm in Kansas (just down the track from where Dorothy allegedly got swept up to Oz), bubonic plague has done so in many parts of the world and the 1993 outbreak of BSE began in Canada.

You can be forgiven for thinking that pathogens “quite like” human exceptionalism. It gets hosts to drop their guard.

Covid-19 also “quite likes” globalisation. Chances are it gave the virus time to get beyond the country days, possibly weeks, before the rest of the world knew it was there.

And I can’t help thinking about the many problems we have on this planet that start with the food chain we’ve chosen to support our existence.

The Bigger Picture: Trouble Is On Its Way

It does look like trouble is on its way and the country feels it’s at sea.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in his determination to ‘Get Brexit Done,’ as the slogan would have it, has developed an approach to the nation he describes as ‘boosterism.’ It’s an attempt to create an infectious, confident, can-do narrative. With something as nebulous as the consequences of Brexit it might work. It is similar to the First World War attitude that sheer willpower could prevail against machine gun bullets. Something chilling from the recesses of Nietzsche’s dark mind. Naysayers, gloomsters and doomsters can be branded as the cause of things not going to plan. Sand in the gears. Sticks in the spokes.

If only we all believed! 

There’s something almost pantomime about the mentality. Restoring Tinkerbelle to her former glory by believing in fairies.

But in the same way that the power of belief didn’t do so well against the stark binary reality of machine-gun bullets, so boosterism was disastrous against the stark binary reality of Covid-19.

It simply couldn’t be believed away.

And it is hard to fully comprehend the level of casualness that PM Johnson had when it came to the virus. It was as if he himself hadn’t comprehended its ruthless Darwinian nastiness.

Or hadn’t bothered to give himself the opportunity to.

He has missed attending five Cobra committee meetings. The committee, as described in the Sunday Times, includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals, gathers at moments of great peril, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.

Several million people have already entered the UK’s airports yet less than 300 people have been quarantined. There is no figure for exactly how many infected people entered the country in that time, but even conservative estimates are four figure numbers. It wasn’t that Johnson was the captain of a holed ship. Rather, like Edward Lear’s Jumblies, he had taken us all to sea in a sieve.

As scientists are rightly concerned about public gatherings, such as pubs and restaurants and advise closing them as long as a month ago, the prime minister tells his fellow citizens to remain “confident and calm.”

In the midst of the growing emergency and NHS England declaring a Level 4 Critical Incident he takes a ten day ‘working holiday.’

In the rest of Europe, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, countries locked down and closing their borders to contain the spread of the virus. A week ago Boris Johnson goes with his pregnant fiancée to a Six Nations rugby match, attended by 82,000 other souls. A few days pervious to that, despite the advice of health experts, he announces to the nation that he was shaking everyone’s hand in a hospital treating Covid-19 patients.

Six days ago, on March 9th the Irish cancel the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, including the closure of all pubs today, while a day later back in Blighty, the Cheltenham Festival, a three-day mass gathering attended by a quarter of a million people goes ahead, while the UK government allows the Champions League football match to go ahead, with 3,000 fans travelling from Covid-ravaged Madrid to Merseyside. Much of the sporting community has taken matters into their own hands and closed down activities. At the same time the UK Government announced that there was no rationale for cancelling sporting events.

The confusion is both alarming and frightening and does nothing to prepare the public for what will inevitably lie ahead.

Yesterday Johnson threw a baby shower for his and fiancée Carrie’s expected baby at Chequers. I don’t know how many friends and relations attended and frankly the numbers don’t matter. It’s a poor show. Most of us know that lockdown will become inevitable in the near future and it’s as if our PM is inhabiting a parallel universe.

Part of that parallel universe includes a very public flirtation with ‘herd immunity.’ It will mean forty million Brits being infected, hundreds of thousands dying from Covid-19. Scientists are alarmed at the prospect and health chiefs are worried about the NHS’ capacity to deal with such a load.

It looks like the over seventies will be told to stay in strict isolation at home, or care homes, to separate them from the wider population. People with profound disabilities are being failed by the government’s inadequate response to the novel coronavirus. Families with children with complex needs, who rely on carers are not being included in the government’s discussions about the disease. Testing is ‘prioritised’ for at-risk patients, with others told to stay at home, with coronavirus testing prioritised for people in need of hospital treatment.

Out and about the collective edginess can be seen out shopping. Supermarkets issue a joint warning over panic-buying as shoppers leave shelves bare. The British Retail Consortium insists there is enough food to go around if everybody co-operates. There’s enough toilet paper too, although that’s far from obvious from looking at the empty shelves. Booking for deliveries online is also a struggle with slots vanishing as soon as they appear and many people learn the new British habit of virtual queueing – one of many virtual habits that will follow in the weeks ahead. Ocado’s website and app crash as supermarkets face panic buying chaos.

Those who find themselves abroad, many on skiing holidays, find themselves swept up by the rapidly changing events around them. Thousands of British tourists are stranded as France shuts its ski resorts. It was a British businessman who went from a trip to Singapore to a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps who became Britain’s first ‘superspreader,’ a virus-infecting human hub who infected eleven others, five from the UK.

That was five and a half weeks ago!

There’s a creeping awareness that our individual and collective behaviour is going to have to change. We’re likely to travel less and make less physical contact. The elbow-bump has replaced the handshake, and with some the elbow-bump at a distance becomes the preferred form of that. Some say that the less tactile Germans won’t suffer quite as much as the more touchy-feely Italians, French and Spanish, but for everyone, actions we once took for granted at the very least require second thoughts. That sense of inward retreat is personal, communal and even national and some fear that it is a political gift to nativists, nationalists and protectionists. How that will pan out in what is a global event remains to be seen. If Covid-19 does anything, it raises the striking paradoxes and ironies of human existence.

Another way in which we are all conflicted is exactly how harmful Covid-19 is. My own generation was the first to be protected by mass vaccination. My mother was a nurse before she married my dad and becoming a travelling army wife. I remember her stories of the dreadful diseases she encountered in the 1930s and 40s, before antibiotics could effectively treat bacterial diseases and vaccination prevent viral ones. I remember a childhood friend who had suffered from polio and could barely walk and the real threats of measles, mumps and diphtheria.

“You don’t want mumps,” I remember a schoolmate telling me. “It makes your bollocks swell and then you can’t have children.”

I didn’t get mumps.

I was grateful.

For the whole of my adult life there were moments I was appreciative of the good fortune of the era I lived in. About once a year, as a biology teacher, I would have to prepare a lesson or two on the topic and that awareness would come to mind. For most of us living lives in the western mainstream HIV, horrific as it was, could be looked at as a problem of someone else’s way of life, whether by accident of sexuality or simply that you happened to be born in the wrong part of the planet. There was the shadow of a thought that you might be the unfortunate recipient of contaminated blood or blood plasma, but the chances were remote enough not to prey on day to day consciousness.

As a disease it scared the socks off us.

As a reality it was something most of us were observers rather than victims.

Now we were witnessing on out TV sets every evening horrific scenes of overwhelmed ICUs in Lombardy and at the time we didn’t fully register the reach of this virus. But it looked as if it could be coming for any one of us.

But then we also knew that for some it would be little more than a case of flu. There were voices around telling us not to panic. After all we knew what the virus looked like. We knew its sequence of RNA that was causing all the damage to our tissues and organs. We could detect it – since January 13th there was a test available. We weren’t, however, told by such reassuring voices that systematic testing and tracing had already been abandoned by the British government and that it was limited to hospital admissions only.

Eighty percent of cases are mild, people heal afterwards and symptoms appear to be mild in children. And anyway, there is ‘the other side’ to the pandemic, we were reassured. The strong control and isolation measures put in place by the Chinese authorities are paying off already and for a while now the daily number of cases were on the decrease.

As for the virus, it wasn’t that hardy. It could be wiped away with disinfectant, screened with masks, goggles and body coverings. A number of vaccine prototypes were already in existence and antiviral treatments such as remdesivir were already showing some effect in treating the most seriously affected. When all was said and done, science was onto it, and when science gets onto problems sooner or later there were good outcomes.

If there is going to be a storm it’s going to be how we’re going to weather it.

Back to Boris:

He’s under pressure to start daily public briefings on the coronavirus, after a weekend of confusion. To be fair, he had started briefing the general public but had given up on March 4th, the day after the shaking hands debacle.

Why exactly he had given up keeping the public informed in the face of a national emergency is a mystery.

Part of me thinks he just didn’t think it was his thing.

One thought on “Day One: Sunday 15th March 2020

  1. Strangely this was duplicated here across the pond but with the added twist that Trump recommended injecting bleach and told us that it would disappear in the heat of the Summer. Now we know that he was aware of the potential of the virus. The “Jumblies” reference was indeed valid but sticking with Mr. Lear it seems to me that our leaders sailed off in a pea green boat together. The ship of fools.
    As a retired Public Health Officer, I watched with dismay the denial of science and therefore the advice of people who were aware of the potential this virus had. This denial spread “cult like” throughout this country which only benefited the virus and no one else. Gratefully, we now have leadership which listens to experts and has taken dramatic action.

    Liked by 1 person

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