Wednesday 18th March 2020

Daily Diary: Covid Roulette

Our daughter Emily called us last night on WhatsApp and we we agreed to cancel her coming around with her husband Tom for Mother’s Day this Sunday. Vicky and I were going to say it to Emily, so it came as a bit of relief that she suggested it first. She kindly offered to help in any way and were we okay for food and household essentials? I said we were. Even before ‘The Great Panic’ we had been adding a little pasta and a couple of tins of this and that for the ‘Worst Come To The Worst’ box with about ten days’ worth of basics. When the ‘Great Panic’ came we were sorted and I must admit it was pretty shocking to see entire supermarket aisles with shelves stripped bare, as if we were shopping in a poor country in the developing world.

But the phone call brought the awareness of self-isolation home and the fact that we were right at the edge of the most vulnerable demographic group hit home too. It seems that the world has been turned upside down. A government that up until recently was hitched to national austerity for almost a decade is now pledging a £360 billion support package. For now, the Brexit fiasco is slipping into the background, although the double whammy of Brexit combined with recovering economically from Covid-19 once the epidemic has passed does gnaw at some people’s minds. There is the feeling out there, both home and abroad, that nothing will ever be quite the same again.

I went to the pharmacy to collect essential medicines for Vicky and myself. There are big notices telling me that only two customers are allowed in at a time. Inside, it is in a state of upheaval, partly the result of a new delivery and partly down to a reorganisation being underway. Amid the chaos there’s the pharmacist, wearing a disposable plastic apron and a mask that sits around his neck. His three assistants have no such protection. It’s part of that bigger picture of being caught off-guard by a surprise attack.

Are we all under siege by an RNA bomb only an eighth of a thousandth of a millimetre across?

I think we are.

As chairman of the Dover and Folkestone Hang Gliding Club (although practically everyone paraglides, rather than hang-glides, the name has a tradition) I send out a message by email, WhatsApp and Facebook that future club meetings in May and July will be cancelled and we’ll review the need for a September one. As things stand, I am not advising people not to fly but instead that they exercise caution, along with the possibility that all adventure sports might be curbed in the light of much-stretched NHS services. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could do.

A heart sensor for the rowing machine arrives today. I am keen to be as fit as I can be, stacking the odds in favour of surviving a Covid-19 attack. At 67 I have to imagine such things. It seems like we’re entering a science fiction dystopia.

Perhaps the most depressing thing is seeing people still going to gyms, loudly and raucously holidaymaking in Spain or crowding American beaches. There are claims on CNN that four out of five people going down with the virus apparently caught it off someone who didn’t know they were infected.

Go into close confines with anyone and you’re playing a game of Russian roulette.

Whirrrr…… click …… whirrrr …… click ……. Whirrrr…… click …….. GASP!!!!

The Bigger Picture: So Why Is It Called Covid-19

So why exactly is it called Covid-19? It stands for the coronavirus disease that was discovered in 2019. Or put another way:

COronaVIrus Disease 2019

Strictly speaking, if we’re being purists about it, it should be written COVID-19, but different writers do it in different ways. I’m going to stick with Covid-19.

Whatever you want to call it, it has all the ingredients to make up an unprecedented catastrophe of a disease. Its ‘secret weapon’ is not so much its severity, when you compare it to other viruses such as Ebola. The fact that it expresses mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all in many, lulls human beings into a false sense of security.

“It’s not much worse than flu,” I’ve heard many say;

They wouldn’t be saying that about Ebola.

It can be much more noxious than flu, but that’s not Covid’s secret weapon. It’s that mild to asymptomatic cases are a large driver of the spread of the coronavirus. So it was found in Wuhan, China, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

In other words, people can be spreading a disease before they even know that they’ve been infected. That’s the sneaky trick it pulls on us, and it works, making the Covid-19 outbreak unprecedented in its scale and severity for humans and supply chains, not to mention the medical professionals and governments scrambling to contain it.

And if you get infected it’s a lottery as to whether you barely notice it or whether it has you battling for every breath you take, with the dice weighted for the old and vulnerable.

That’s just plain nasty!

In the UK in the last twenty-four hours the number of coronavirus deaths rose to 104. The number of people who tested positive was 2,626, a rise of 676. It’s not much compared to future numbers, but beneath the surface the numbers are accelerating in the early stages of an exponential curve. We have had the advantage of watching China and Italy and as sure as watching an approaching storm out at sea we know what’s going to happen.

We see quarantines and lockdowns. We see almost a billion children across the world who have seen their school close. We see markets collapsing because investors hate uncertainty. Will Covid-19 be as bad as last year’s flu? Will it be many times worse? It’s the great unknown and markets are responding accordingly. Some looking at history suggest a full economic recovery will be likely to take about five years, but no-one can say for sure.

Out of that unknown come solitary revelations, like those rays of sunlight between the storm clouds. Instagram may offer clues about the spread of the novel coronavirus. Posts show the movement of visitors from virus hotspots. We find with some relief that there’s no evidence that anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, exacerbate Covid-19.

Two sunbeams and a lot of very dark cloud in-between.

And all that ordinary folk like me can do is socially distance and wash my hands properly. Small actions to deal with a massive problem.

For Vicky and I at our stage of life we can shelter in our house and let the woes of the world pass us by. Others are not so fortunate. There’s a petition out to ensure care workers, healthcare assistants and support staff are tested. For them reality is nigh-on frightening, facing this virus face-on with minimal support. It’s not just fair, but sane that they should be tested for the virus when looking after someone who has been infected by the virus or shows symptoms that they might have been. It’s not happening.

Months will pass before anything does happen.

The scandal of what will happen to British carers and those they care for during the dark days ahead hasn’t fully emerged, but the warning signs are there – the lack of testing, the lack of adequate personal protection equipment (PPE), even the lack of consideration for the care sector in the shadow of its larger cousin, the NHS are all there, and you don’t need to look far to see it.

It begs the question, “What kind of society have we become?”

The story that caught my attention was that of Jamie Hale, a 28 year old disabled Londoner who made his own hand sanitiser and protective equipment such as facemasks for himself and his team of carers in a bid to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus, despite being dependent on 24-hour care, including assistance with washing, changing and monitoring his ventilator, which he uses part-time when he sleeps. He also receives assistance from the carers through medication, and supplying food through his feeding tube. Despite his complex needs, Mr Hale said no-one from the government has been in touch to support him and his care team or sent any supplies of PPE.

It’s a story about human resourcefulness and that special kind of heroism that comes with rising to a challenge. It’s also a story of human betrayal by a government that long ceased to care before the pandemic, and found itself unable to once it had arrived.

For most, entering the world of home confinement is a strange new reality. There is already talk of an old reality, a world that once was as if it were years rather than a matter of days ago. Many snuggle down into their sofas and settle into watching the backlog of box-sets, a term now applying to TV series, whether they’re sitting on the shelf or waiting behind the veil of their smart TVs.

There’s a consequence. Netflix’s most popular original films and series in the year to September 2019 produced a combined total of almost 1.5 billion kilos of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent of travelling 4.6 billion kilometres by car. That’s more than 11,500 car journeys around the circumference of the Earth.

The Eurovision Song Contest, as we know it, camp entertainment event of the year is cancelled. So too is the Glastonbury Festival. It’s a blow to rising artists and countless small traders.

Supermarkets introduce rationing of goods to prevent panic buying.  Pasta and sanitiser are the hot items drawing consumers in like fruit-flies around an abandoned glass of beer.

For the millions who are now working from home remote working platforms and a new way of work-life balance become all-important. But there are many who can’t and the economic shock is both sudden and scary.

 “I stopped working, but I still have to pay the subscription for the car I rent,” says an Uber driver.

And round the corner, a matter of days away is Mother’s Day. I come across the following ditty. I can’t remember exactly where.

“Show your mum you really care,

Even when you can’t be there.”

Part of me thinks it might have escaped from a greeting card and is now running free on the internet.

Stranger things, after all, are happening!

The pinch on the economy continues. It’s a remorseless, a drip by drip torture as one by one. Today, budget airline, Ryanair, says it will ground nearly all flights for next week due to coronavirus. Elsewhere there is talk about governments bailing out the aviation sector, but with a climate crisis looming behind the pandemic many want that help to come with conditions.

Small charities are launching emergency appeals for donations and support. It is feared a third might close, while EE, O2, Three and Vodafone make the charitable step of agreeing to allow their customers to go to NHS 111 website without any data costs.

As in the case of James Hale support for our most vulnerable is patchy and piecemeal and fails the Covid Test.

The Covid Test finds weaknesses. It’s an indicator of sorts and tests to destruction anything it comes across – people, systems, institutions, whole countries. In Spain, for example, it’s testing an inexperienced coalition government that’s facing Europe’s worst outbreak of covid-19 after Italy’s, Spain’s government on March 14th imposed a state of emergency, locking the country down for 15 days. With 14,370 cases and 630 deaths, rising steeply each day, the shutdown is more likely to last at least a month.

At the moment EU countries like Italy and Spain are largely on their own when it comes to the coronavirus. Strong EU measures against the coronavirus are needed, but they threaten European solidarity.

It too needs to pass a Covid Test.

In America there are positive signs. The Senate approved a bill to provide sick leave, jobless benefits, free coronavirus testing and other aid. President Trump is expected to sign it. The Trump administration proposed sending two waves of direct payments to Americans, totalling $500 billion, part of a $1 trillion stimulus plan.

Boris Johnson too is subject to a Covid Test. He’s made a bad start. A focus on staying upbeat about Brexit has muddied the Government’s early start with the Covid-19 pandemic, as has his mixed messaging, brilliantly mocked by comedian Matt Lucas, who can muster more than a passing likeness to the PM, such as pubs can stay open – but don’t go to pubs. His flirtation with herd immunity hasn’t helped much either as it dawns that the country will grind to a halt with so many deaths due to the collapse of the NHS.

He needs to pull things together and look like a leader. As best he can, that is.

So he makes some Big Announcements.

In England there will school closures this Friday and there’s prospect of an actual lockdown to follow. Given that many working parents will have to stop work on Monday there is now huge pressure on the Government to have ready by Monday its plan for ‘employment support’ to subsidise wages and keep them in work.

“We will not hesitate to go further and faster in the days and weeks ahead,” Boris Johnson warns.  It sounds like leadership (or it’s a good act) and the nation braces itself for more draconian measures that might be on the way.

There’s emergency legislation to ban all new evictions for three months and the Scottish Government confirmed it is no longer planning to hold an independence referendum later this year.

It’s looking serious.

Serious enough to take another day out paragliding while I can to clear my head of all this.

Even this cannot escape the long reach of the pandemic. I get an email from a club I belong to:

Your committee has been thinking about flying during the pandemic, in the light of the Government’s advice.

Paragliding and Hang Gliding are mainly solitary and can be important for maintaining our physical and mental health. Whilst some of us will choose not to fly, we’ve pulled together the following guidelines for those that do.

  • Maintain social distancing. Do not park, walk or congregate close to other pilots or people on the hill, unless you have to. Government advice is two metres is a safe distance.
  • Daily check. As applicable to the flying site, ensure the Daily Check is made at the farm BY TELEPHONE before you fly. The situation may have changed since your last visit.
  • Keeping informed. Check the club’s website and other media for the latest information. Be respectful of any restrictions imposed by our hosts. Remember, we only fly with their goodwill.
  • Fly locally. Long downwind cross-country flights are not advised. If you do go xc, then at least pre-appoint a family member as a retrieve driver.
  • Fly safe. Now is not the time to add to the burden of the NHS and emergency services.”

It’s good sense.

Other warnings come my way….

From the Royal Borough of Greenwich about basic hygiene:

“Help prevent the spread of Covid-19. When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve. Remember to wash your hands or use sanitising gel afterwards. Keep updated by checking our website //”

From the local police about a particularly unpleasant scam:

“Coronavirus Doorstep Testing Scam: It has come to our notice the rise in reports of people knocking on doors offering coronavirus (Covid-19) tests. This is not genuine. It may be an attempt to access your property or scam you out of money. If in any doubt, do not open your door and speak to callers either from behind a door or through windows. Please be aware who is knocking at your door and also look out for your neighbours.

From a local citizen concerning shopping for the elderly:

“Does anyone know of any shops that have extra early shopping hours for the elderly? I live in sheltered housing and I want to shop for my neighbours.”

And from a local food bank desperate for more help:

“Hi. I am the local food bank at East Plumstead Baptist Church in Griffin Road. We desperately need younger volunteers to replace those who are self-isolating because of age or pre-existing conditions, or it is likely we’ll have to close. The only people willing to continue are 70 or over or have medical conditions and ideally need replacing (also, but not enough in number). We open every Monday from 2-4 p.m. but need staff from 1 p.m. for deliveries and help is needed every week from next Monday, 23rd March. We serve up to 20 clients a session. Safety precautions exist – gloves, distancing and ‘get food and go’ policy (not our usual way!). Duties are taking and sorting trays and packing food for clients in bags. They will be put in place for clients to pick up so we don’t physically hand to them. Will provide short induction, but runs like clockwork. PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN.”

With each passing day the feeling grows stronger that something very different, very strange and very unpleasant and threatening is on its way.

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