Day Two: Monday 16th March 2020

Daily Diary: The Big Blue and a Chilling Revelation

I threw my kit into the back of the car and drove down to Devil’s Dyke. It was a beautiful flying day. The wind was not too strong. The thermals were both buoyant and well-defined. There’s something very satisfying when what happens on the hill fits in exactly with the forecast I’ve figured out.

There is something about being high in the sky that is truly comforting. As the people on the ground become increasingly small, so do human problems. There is a point when to all intents and purposes people on the ground disappear and simply become part of the scenery. Sometimes, if you’re flying cross-country a paraglider you are following can vanish from sight, swallowed up by landscape or sky. I don’t think I’ve particularly got eagle eyes and suffer perception gaps as easily as the next person, but it still has a certain weirdness about it.

At a couple of thousand feet it was if the spectre of Covid-19 had vanished from the face of the earth. So easy to climb high enough for a ringside seat of a spring, sunlit world ….. and forget.

It’s being in the moment.

It’s precious.

Paragliding has already been banned in France and Spain. There are three good reasons for this. First there’s something like ten times as many pilots, so some of the more popular sites get very busy. That’s so different from the tiny minority of free-flyers on our smaller, windier British hills. Then there are the gatherings in hotels, hostels and bars that amplify the risk of transmitting infectious diseases. Adventuring such as mountaineering and paragliding is big business in places like Annecy and Algodonales. Finally, there is the drain on health services in the event of accidents.

I get into a conversation with two fellow pilots who had been in the sky for simply hours on this wonderful day, Andy McNichol and Luis Martinez-Iturbe. We wondered how long it would be before all non-essential (and popularly perceived as dangerous) sports would be stopped here too. Perhaps we would slip under the radar, but that seemed pretty unlikely. We agreed that with this good springtime weather we seize every day we fly that we can. It did seem that there might not be that many. Everything has an unreal edge to it. We wonder what is imminent and how far away it is. Andy’s wife is a consultant geriatrician. He says it’s almost inevitable he’ll catch the disease somewhere down the line.

Luis is a shipping pilot in the Thames Estuary and its approaches. Among the ships he navigates are cruise liners, about which there were so many news stories of horrific coronavirus outbreaks. The first Brit to die as a result of the virus was on the cruise liner Diamond Princess just over a fortnight ago. Both Andy and Luis are philosophical about their potential proximity to the disease. They’re both much younger and fitter than I am, but I’m not silly enough to say that.

The conversation takes a chilling turn. Andy tells me that his wife has attended a coronavirus triage briefing. The cut-off age has been set at 69, he tells me. Below 69 a casualty will be given every support. Above that age it’s Mother Nature who calls the tune and the best to be expected is palliative care.

I’m sixty eight.

Who’d a ’thought it, huh?

The Bigger Picture: Fear of The Unknown

There is almost something medieval about this worldwide fear of the unknown. In an age of certainty, where by far for most of us the only uncertainties were those of day to day human behaviour, here was something bigger, darker and so much more challenging.

Here’s a disease that arrived as the new kid on the block only four months ago. We don’t yet know if we can get the disease twice. Or if it will mutate into new variants. Or, if we become immune through being infected or sometime in the future hopefully vaccinated, how long we’ll remain immune. There is no cure and the effectiveness of treatments is still in the realm of trial and error.

That’s frightening.

And that fear manifests itself in the form of a bad day on Wall Street. US stocks cratered, falling about 12 per cent on the worst day of trading since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Reserve stepped in to prevent further investor panic but it didn’t stop the brakes being applied and trading halted. Almost immediately other central banks follow up with emergency measures.

It manifests itself too with Europeans erecting borders against the coronavirus but it’s too late – the enemy is already within. Country after country enters lockdown. The once busy streets with their chattering cafés are now deserted. People no longer hug and kiss each other on the cheeks. There is in its place an unease. As people isolate so the social fabric begins to fragment.  

Meanwhile, for now at least Brexit Britain treads its own path. Being kind, you could say that the country’s hell-bent on showing that it can do things differently. A less generous analysis would suggest that cluelessness, apathy and a failure to care are more likely explanations. The UK government is keeping schools open during the outbreak while in sharp contrast in so many neighbouring and not-so-neighbouring countries they have already been closed as the coronavirus has spread.

In a token gesture of faux-generosity and concern for the demographically most vulnerable sector of British society the government delays ending the free BBC licence for the over-75s from June to August. It’s seen for what it is and pensioner groups are quick to respond that the UK could still be in the grip of a crisis.

It will be.

To illustrate the confused set of priorities concern is mounting sufficiently strongly for a petition to appear online, calling for the government to test frontline staff in the NHS as a priority. Six months later this will still not be fully addressed.

The government has declared publicly it is not following the WHO strategy, apparently conceding to the inevitability that most people will get the disease, so let’s just go ahead and allow 60 per cent of the population to become infected and build herd immunity through the wild virus. For most people it should only take a few seconds’ reflection to reveal the monstrously unethical folly this happens to be.

The WHO strategy, practiced by South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong – all of whom have much better track records than the UK when it comes to controlling the coronavirus outbreak – is to keep things dampened down until drugs and a vaccine become available. Vaccines are a safer way to develop herd immunity without the risks associated with the disease itself.

The British government shrugs that off, believing that the measures that have all but eliminated the pandemic in South East Asian democracies cannot be maintained and that stories about its elimination will inevitably give way to stories about its recurrence.

For now, even President Trump is a step ahead of PM Johnson, announcing new guidelines for the public to slow the coronavirus, including closing schools and avoiding groups of more than ten people. Elsewhere, the mixed messaging and confused relationship between the White House and state legislatures has already begun. It’s not clear what level of Federal support will go out to the fifty one states.

“We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves,” Trump tells state governors to try to get ventilators and other equipment on their own.

The degree to which the President is washing his hands of taking responsibility for dealing with the pandemic will remain a growing issue.

Vice President Mike Pence pledges high speed coronavirus testing from 2,000 labs this week. Federal officials said many more drive-through testing sites, along with the expanded processing of tests by commercial laboratories would help ease the bottleneck. Testing, however, remains patchy in the months ahead.

In New York City cases of the coronavirus are increasing exponentially. It shuts down its schools, restaurants and bars and its mayor, Bill de Blasio declares it’s a wrenching decision to close places that are ‘the heart and soul of the city.’ On the other populated side of this huge country California calls for residents who are 65 and over to stay at home. Governor Gavin Newsom also says that bars and wineries should close, but there is a concession that restaurants could stay open so long as they cut their occupancy in half.

People are making comparisons with a wartime reality. The Second World War accelerated developments such as nuclear fission, the jet engine and the mass production and distribution of antibiotics. This pandemic is accelerating bioscience and information-based technologies.

Collective intelligence is rapidly gaining significance as an element of dealing with the pandemic among researchers, health practitioners and the general public. In the same way as global connectivity has been a major contributor to the spread of Covid-19, through air travel in particular, so the internet has enabled both the sharing of findings, solving problems and developing insights and ideas through websites like Zoom.

Including Artificial Intelligence alongside the sheer range of human experience proves to be a powerful combination in dealing with a fast-evolving, complex global problems such as a major disease outbreak.

It’s not without its problems, especially where policymakers are not up to speed with developments. Indeed, leaders like Johnson and Trump, who either lack the capacity or willingness to engage are left way behind in a state of permanent catch-up.

Some firms make radical and hitherto unexpected adaptations to a new reality. Some of those are total changes in character. LVMH, a French company that makes perfumes, including Dior, converts its factories to manufacturing hand sanitiser. Many companies change the patterns of how they operate and engage with human activity. Iceland has asked store managers to dedicate Wednesday mornings to elderly and vulnerable shoppers. It’s a move mirrored by other grocery retailers.

While others see opportunities by thinking way out of the box, such as bidet manufacturers see the commercial potential of the dire situation of toilet roll hoarding.

Things are already on tilt.

But a major big business focus is the pharmaceutical industry. In an atmosphere of ‘needs must’ the American government has offered a ‘large sum’ to CureVac, a German company for access to their coronavirus vaccine research. The United States says it will share any vaccine breakthroughs with the world, but with ‘America First’ having been a daily maxim for almost four years there is distrust. Fears were raised in Berlin that President Trump was trying to ensure that any inoculation would be available first, and perhaps exclusively in the United States.

If the Covid-19 saga will be about anything, it will be an epic tale of human behaviour even more than the events of a migrating virus. About the wise and the foolish, the vigilant and the careless. So as Premier League and Football League cancel fixtures and have their season suspended because of the coronavirus, non-league attendance is boosted by as much as 117 per cent. For some the passion for the beautiful game overrides the dangers that come with social gathering.

Movie-goers are more wary and in America attendance drops by almost a half in a week.

Soon all will be shut. Despite the daily prevarication of PM Johnson, his ministers and advisers we know in our heart of hearts that lockdown is on its way. We look to the continent of Europe where it is already happening. We look to the spirit of entire communities that are now housebound, such as in Italy where across the country where residents nationwide sing together from their windows, and at midday on Saturday neighbourhoods erupt into applause. We wonder if in what we stereotypically view as cooler spirited Britain we will act similarly.

There’s a heart-warming message in my local Nextdoor group:

“If anyone is struggling with self-isolation and in need of essential supplies – reach out! I would be glad to help. These are troubling times right now and I would hate to see someone struggling without support. Let’s get through this together as a community.”

I suspect we might be.

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