Day Three: Tuesday 17th March 2020

Daily Diary: Muddle and Mayhem on The Ship of Fools

Practising social distancing begins today. I go out to move the car a little so it doesn’t get boxed in by someone else parking in the street nearby. There’s a giant Porsche SUV tightly squeezed between our car and Alf’s. How it got in there is a miracle, but I’m worried that there might be anything but a miracle as the giant beast tries to get out. Our neighbour Richard passes by and we chat a little about the confusion, the mixed messaging from government and panic buying, He tells me that there’s a three week wait to get a slot for buying online with Sainsbury’s, so he still has to go to the supermarket. I’ve experienced the same dilemma, only I can’t get a slot at all. I don’t even get a chance to check out if I can buy toilet paper online. Wouldn’t that be a treat?

James O’Brien is on the radio complaining about the cognitive dissonance that you must send your child to school but you’ve got to avoid the pub, although at present, the latter instruction from government isn’t obligatory.

Muddle and mayhem.

Twitter is overwhelmed by coronavirus, as is LBC and TV news. The pandemic is beginning to look real and from now on every foray is going to entail not just a risk but a mildly paranoid sense of risk. We’re on a ship of fools, sailing blind through fog, from the prime minister downwards. That too is unnerving.

Vicky and I need to shop for Midge, our lovely, elderly neighbour, aged 92, to get her through to Saturday when she will join her daughter and grandson in Kent, further from London and safer too. We cannot get everything from the local Co-Op, which is normally very well stocked for its size, so we have to visit a corner-shop to get all the bits. Red top milk is hard to find and the nearest we can get to brown bread is 50/50. The Co-Op was the hardest shop to find what we needed, as the larger and more mainstream the store, the harder it has been hit. Our last visit was to the corner shop at the end of our street and we overhear angry talk among customers about panic-buying, and profiteering. ‘Price gouging’ enters my vocabulary. Someone mentions a pack of toilet rolls on eBay going for £160.

We get back home and switch on the TV. The BBC local London news programme is on. There are camera shots of empty streets in the capital.

The word ‘Apocalypse’ comes to mind.

The Bigger Picture: Nothing Like This in Peacetime

“I can’t remember anything like this in peacetime,” declares Boris Johnson in Britain.

“We are in a health war,” Emmanuel Macron tells his French citizens.

“Let’s stockpile guns and ammo,” say American consumers.

From the outset it looks like the States are going to struggle, not just with a disease of the lungs but one of society itself. The idea of catastrophe and societal dystopia as essential bedfellows is deeply embedded in American culture, regularly reinforced by disaster movies, including ones about pandemics. People are either elevated to demigod heights or transformed into degenerate alter-beings. What are zombie movies if they are not about plague victims that need sorting out with one’s very own personal ordnance?

But oversimplification works the other way too. The government edict that all people over the age of 70 should self-isolate is reacted against strongly by many fitter septuagenarians who refuse to be scapegoated or stereotyped. Over seventies are increasingly working and living hard and not ready to be locked away and wait for God.

Not ready at all.

Then it took Matt Hancock an hour to explain to Members of Parliament that fit over-70s were not part of the 12-week quarantine that would start this weekend.

Another guise of oversimplification is in the emergence of the amateur virologist. Twitter has been long, but by no means uniquely, guilty of giving the same weight to poorly informed opinions as it does to well-educated conclusions. Sports pundits have been among the worst offenders. Maybe without much sport they’re stuck for things to pundit about. There are doctors with less than five hundred followers. There are celebrities with hundreds of thousands, even millions.

As Mark Twain once said, “A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.”

That was a good century before the internet and social media. 

Celebrities might have more voice, but like those grisly images from the Middle Ages, Death is happy to dance with prince and pauper. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson are released from Australian hospital after a Covid-19 diagnosis. They are the first notable American celebrities to fall prey to the virus.

Members of Parliament hardly count as celebrities, although some are borderline, and in some cases make a bold attempt to become one, such as Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who became the first to be tested positive for the virus eleven days ago. Now there’s a second, as Labour’s Kate Osborne also tests positive. It’s clear there’s nowhere the virus won’t go, and the corridors of power are no different from corridors elsewhere. The Speakers of the House of Lords and Commons have announced that all visitor access to parliament will cease for the duration of the crisis and the public galleries of the Lords and Commons will be closed.

Number 10 chief scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, told MPs today that if the UK can get the number of coronavirus deaths to 20,000 and below it would be a good outcome, although it would still be horrible.

Boris Johnson announces his latest advice to the general public.

“Now is the time to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”

There is a sense that lockdown is on its way, but it’s also clear that a populist PM is reluctant to make a commitment to it. The pressures are mounting. People are already voting with their feet. London is shutting down after Boris Johnson’s warning to avoid the pub, office and travel, while not taking the moral courage to announce their closure. Headteachers have warned that expecting all schools to stay open is ‘increasingly untenable,’ following staff shortages and a drop in pupil attendance. The National Education Union, England’s largest teaching union calls for school closures schools ‘at least for some time and at least in some areas.’

Talk about social distancing and suppression measures coming into place in both the media and social media. Not-for-profit groups are stepping up practical support, such as collecting prescriptions and contributing to food banks, for Britain’s most vulnerable groups. There’s even enough frustration for an online petition to implement a UK-wide lockdown.

The PM is chasing the crowd, like an unfit, overweight, mop-haired boy wheezing at the back of a school cross-country run.

Not a pretty sight.

It’s the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who captures the limelight. He’s young, have come into post as the result of the resignation of his boss, the former Chancellor, Sajid Javid over the manoeuvrings of Dominic Cummings. He’s also the only member of the Johnson cabinet who displays anything approaching panache, getting the nickname ‘Dishy Rishi’ on social media. It’s only a few days ago that he has set aside the £12 billion funds for Covid-19 in his Budget. Now it’s been upped to a £360 billion package of emergency loans and grants. His mantra that the UK will do and spend “whatever it takes” to combat the disease is welcomed by many.

It’s also repeated by his boss, PM Boris Johnson, at least six times, every time stressed like a Churchill tribute act: “What-ever it takes!

“In some ways this is like a wartime situation we ran during the second world war,” Robert Chote of the Office for Budget Responsibility explained. “Deficits of 20 per cent GDP five years on the trot and that was the right thing to do at the time.”

The massive input of public spending, essential though it is, runs against the fundamental instincts of many, if not most Tories, who only recently embraced and imposed austerity for the best part of a decade. But it’s needs-must now, payback later.

There is also the unfinished business of leaving the EU and the dogged pig-headedness Johnson and his government have displayed in not extending the transition period beyond the end of December. There is an apparent unwillingness to tackle one crisis at a time. It makes no sense to impose an arbitrary deadline for a trade deal with the EU under these circumstances, but this is not about good sense – it is about a struggling government desperate for a triumph. Somewhere. Anywhere.

Brexit has always been about ideology, culture war and tribalism. These are strangers to good sense. Obvious things like if we give ourselves no time, we will not get a good deal.

The two assumptions that were always made by both sides in the Leave-Remain debate was that the government of the day would be at least averagely competent and there wouldn’t be a more serious crisis running in parallel.

If only we knew four years ago how different today’s reality would be.

We barely know at the moment. Even looking at the global coronavirus map so assiduously compiled by John Hopkins University shows its level of detail becoming crisper with the passage of time, like big square pixels developing into an increasingly defined image and that emerging clarity means a roughness in predicting how the pandemic will be in the days and weeks ahead.

Partly for this reason there still isn’t a clear idea about how bad the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be in the UK. There are fears that Intensive Care Units, slashed by years of austerity cuts, will be overwhelmed and there is a desperate drive for ventilators, currently needed to give life-support to the most afflicted, and PPE – Personal Protective Equipment – needed for all frontline staff. Some London ambulance crews allegedly don’t have any at all. Other health centres, such as the Mildmay Clinic, Britain’s first centre for the treatment of HIV, offer their services to help ease the burden on NHS hospitals, despite being under threat of closure itself.

British researchers studying the coronavirus have made a harrowing projection. If government and individuals don’t take sweeping actions to slow the virus’ spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

On both sides of the Atlantic governments can see the pandemic coming their way. On both sides too there is a paralysis of strategic action, like rabbits caught in headlights. Fear builds upon other fears as the US plans to turn back asylum seekers and illegal immigrants at the southern border over concerns of coronavirus spreading in detention centres. The reality is that it spreads on the Mexican side of the border. It becomes someone else’s problem, as do so many other issues applying to migrants, refugees and seekers of asylum.

At a time of global pandemic, with a virus that respects no frontiers, xenophobia abounds.

“Chinese virus.” Donald Trump tweets.

It’s a problem. Western. Russian and other scientists face an imperative to work together with China to find ways to deal with the relentless, merciless advance of the virus, but there are some politicians, some within the media and many who wish to foment conspiracies on Facebook and Twitter who appear to thrive on putting up barriers.

I’m beginning to understand why Noah’s neighbours drowned.

Canadian holidaymakers who have left the country in search of winter sun are being urged to return, while Justin Trudeau has told returning travellers that they should self-isolate for 14 days upon returning, but they will not yet be forced to do so.

In Germany churches, sports facilities, bars, clubs and all non-food shops will be shut under anti-virus measures announced by Angela Merkel.

In Sweden colleges and universities will be closed, the government has announced. Schools will remain open, however, as the government believes that the childcare demands will create an extra strain on virus-fighting measures.

Theatre dies in Italy. The show can no longer go on and actors, companies and managers of venues fear about how much they will lose.

In Kenya police have raided a shop and detained ten people for allegedly selling fake coronavirus testing kits. But in fact corona-crime, that you’d have thought was in its infancy is already a global phenomenon and has already spread online with a mass blast of malware-laced emails, purportedly about coronavirus news.

In football, the Euros and Copa Americana moved to 2021 due to coronavirus chaos. This massively wealthy business suddenly has a seizure as it becomes clear it’s not safe to populate stadia. In the months ahead many clubs will fold up.

Businesses are still adjusting to the shock the emerging pandemic is bringing. Some are unrealistically confident. Last Thursday Goldman Sachs held a private conference call to reassure some of its most important clients that markets should be fine by Christmas. In the meantime half of all Americans and 70 per cent of Germans will become infected, around three million Americans will die. It didn’t stay private for long and created a firestorm on social media and despite damage limitation measures by Goldman Sachs the story went viral.

They weren’t alone in miscalculating. A week ago, major US airlines said they could absorb the costs of the coronavirus pandemic. They didn’t fully anticipate the scale of travel bans around the world and have now approached the US government for help.

It’s a coronavirus bear market, with more volatility, no quick fix and a recession. In response to which The Federal Reserve announced an emergency lending programme to keep credit flowing, saying it will buy up commercial paper, a type of short-term debt. It cushions an economy careering towards a recession and in response US stocks rose by 6 per cent.

And it’s a weird stock market with big tech such as Slack, Zoom and Netflix attracting investment, along with Amazon set to hire 100,000 new workers, in demand from everyone stuck at home, while elsewhere share prices keep plummeting.

There already is a wide gulf between winners and losers in the world of business. Among the winners affecting us all are the supermarkets. Some say they are the fourth frontline service. They’re right. Our supplies of food and other daily essentials affect us all. But it could be argued at this stage that they have been wrong-footed by the outbreak more than any other, within weeks going from a relatively quiet pre-Covid normality to being at the heart of the crisis, along with health, care and transport.

A supermarket worker on weathering the outbreak comments on the status quo. “Unlike doctors and nurses, we haven’t got masks and gloves are optional. All we have is hand sanitiser.”

It’s grim.

The alternative – online groceries – is also overwhelmed by a sudden change in reality. Deliveries are all but impossible to find. Customers even find themselves in online virtual queues, waiting for half an hour to get on to the website only to find all the slots gone, even three weeks in advance.

Been there.

Seen it.

Wasn’t even able to buy a T-shirt. 

But those trials and tribulations also bring out the best in people, as volunteers come forward.

“I would like to help elderly people with supermarket shopping. It is very dangerous to do shopping at this time due to coronavirus,” someone near me posts on my local ‘Nextdoor’ messaging site.

There’s even moral support, as another messages.

“I would like to echo all the messages which have been posted about supporting those in our community who need help in whatever capacity. I am also working from home due to our business instructions, so I would love to offer anyone the opportunity to chat virtually if they need to reach out to people.”

This emerging crisis is rekindling a sense of community.

It’s hard to say how much that reassures.

2 thoughts on “Day Three: Tuesday 17th March 2020

  1. It is amazing to me that if you change the geographic location this is so very familiar here across the pond. The denial of the issue at the start and then pure incompetence as a reaction. Now we have a vaccine and yet still 49% of white Republican men are not going to take it. Plus, we have idiot Governors who are opening up their states. Worse, we have ignorant citizens who will start partying gleefully (a case in point the Spring Breakers in Florida). Indeed a ship of fools. I chose not to sail on it.


  2. I’ve certainly got a fresh insight into Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” because we can see it happening over and over again. That the evidence for superspreader events is now both overwhelming and universal and people still act with crass ignorance is stupefying. There’s an interesting op-ed from David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times about partisan pandemic behaviour. I would have thought that staying safe shouldn’t be a political decision, but when I think about it, introducing mandatory seat belts to cars had significant political opposition in the UK when introduced thirty years ago. I think in the US too.


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