Thursday 19th March 2020

Daily Diary: Unqualified to be Pious – I’m Just as Stupid as Anyone Else

It all came home to me today. The seriousness. The possibilities. The risks. And it hit me pretty hard. I’m as prone as the next person to having to learn the hard way, of needing the chillingly cold-boned hand of experience to teach me something. I think there’s a lot wrapped up in that – the feeling that ‘it won’t happen to me,’ and the complacency accompanying it.

The day begins with noticing an old flying buddy describing himself as going down with covid-like symptoms. He’s a burly, stocky, athletic guy and it tells me that the virus isn’t too fussed about who it floors. Then China reports their first day with no new cases, suggesting, prematurely perhaps, that there are calm waters beyond the storm and there will be a time when normality will switch itself back on again.

I check the weather forecasts and try to figure out where the best flying is likely to be. Minster on the Isle of Sheppey looks too strong from the get-go. Bo Peep in Sussex and Whitewool in Hampshire both look potentially mizzly and what I’d describe as ‘aerologically indifferent.’  So I choose Mundesley on the Norfolk coast this time.

It’s a long drive – through the Blackwall Tunnel, up the M11, then A11 to the Norwich bypass, then around and on to Mundesley. I reach the launch site and the wind is the ‘upper end of sensible,’ as paraglider pilots would say. Good for coastal flying, but I have real trouble with inflating the glider, the wing coming up fiercely fast and overshoots faster than I can damp it. Usually I can check this with the C-lines pretty easily, but today I’m finding it particularly difficult. It’s frustrating. Worse than that I’m allowing myself to become frustrated, which in this sport is a bad place to be. Mindset is really important. There is more than a touch of Zen in paragliding as the art – and reward – is being in the moment. The more you fly, the better you get, the more this state becomes achievable, but it’s a mistake to ever think you’re there. What’s more there is an internal weather of the mind that a flyer has to be every bit as aware of as the weather outside, with calm days and stormy ones.

I give it three goes and call it off. Then a fellow pilot suggests a lower take-off. On stronger days with coastal flying you can often launch as low as the beach. The air will pick you up and the airflow over the terrain will do the rest. I give up the higher launch and carry my wing to a lower, more benign take-off spot. The pilot’s young girlfriend, who’s not a paraglider pilot, although she skydives kindly helps me to lay out my wing and gets a couple of bits of dried vegetation out of my lines. I’m grateful. I’m also subliminally rattled, which means I lack the calmness to be sufficiently methodical before take-off. If this was Zen I’d get one out of ten but the inflation was smooth in the less aggressive airflow and I launch, setting to climb the cliff-line as I proceed. It works, but I feel less than comfortable in the air and I soon top land.

I’m spooked. I start to think, “What if?” I wonder what would have been the train of events that would have followed something going wrong. What would have been the impact on the local health services at a time of coronavirus? I’m far from happy with myself at my own quest for self-gratification. It’s a wake-up call. To carry on doing this is selfish and foolish. I decide to stop flying that day. Clearly, I’m not on form if I’m capable of making such a careless, basic error as to launch when my head’s not in the right place. I decide to ground myself until the coronavirus pandemic has at least eased.

It’s a pity. Free-flying is at its best life-affirming, but I’m no longer young. At its worst it can devastate. I’m calling it a day. I did fly, but not in the way I wanted to. I don’t think the long drive helped either.

It’s a turning point. Coronavirus has made me rethink my life. I’m alarmed that yet again I’m foolish enough to have to learn from experience rather than foresight, and looking at the whole of humanity at the moment and realise that they’re learning from experience rather than foresight too. People, in the face of the oncoming plague, are still going to pubs, clubs and having parties.

Who am I to judge? They’re not that different from me.

The Bigger Picture: Dark and Uncertain Times

It was with great dignity that the Queen announced to her nation in these dark and uncertain times, “Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that our loved ones are safe. I am certain we are up to that challenge.”

I was with somewhat less dignity that Rod Liddle wrote in The Times, “If the tickly cough doesn’t get you, an avalanche of loo rolls might.”

Each statement in its own divergent way sums up where we’re at, as the number of deaths rose to 144 as a further 29 patients died in England. The youngest was 47 and had underlying health conditions. Among the public is a growing anxiety with workers facing job losses; parents and children facing the consequences of school closures and scrapped examinations.

PM Johnson decides that an almost casual optimism is the best approach in his press conference alongside his Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty and Chief Science Adviser, Patrick Vallance. The audience of journalists are sat six feet apart but the troika making the announcements are much closer – half that distance. There’s an air of impatience around Boris Johnson and it’s clear he wants to get the whole show over with. It’ll all be over in twelve weeks or so he loosely reassures us all. So long as we can keep our most vulnerable at home all will be well.

Bish, bash, bosh, job done!

He rules out London Transport lockdown to control the coronavirus. There is no intention of shutting down train, tube or bus services in the capital. New draconian measures contained in the Government’s Emergency Powers Bill range from shutting ports and airports to allowing police to force people into quarantine, yet libertarian Johnsonism baulks at using them, even in the face of what now appears to be a deadly pandemic, so the country is like a leaky sieve with thousands freely carrying the virus into Britain totally unchecked.

There is a touch of Edward Lear’s nonsense about Johnsonism:

And everyone said who saw them go,

“O won’t they soon be upset, you know!

For the sky is dark and the voyage long,

And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong

In a sieve to sail so fast!”

Far and few, few and far,

Are the lands where the Jumbled Brits live;

With vaguest hope and without half a clue,

They were all at sea in a sieve.

Other countries are much less sieve-like. Australia will close its borders to the outside world for at least six months starting Friday. Canada and New Zealand have made similar orders. Travelling Australians feel they’ll be stranded if they can’t find a way back home in the next few days. It’s tough on expatriates everywhere, whether casual travellers, migrant labourers or refugees. Some, like the Senegalese students in Wuhan will who won’t be repatriated find themselves stuck as strangers in strange lands.

Practical pandemic policymaking is clearly not PM Johnson’s ‘thing,’ but political backbiting, however, is much nearer to his comfort zone. Many Tory MPs are calling for urgent action on wage subsidies. But then again, so did former PM Gordon Brown. Now Boris Johnson is in his element, spiking back that his response to coronavirus would be better than Brown’s in the 2008 financial crisis, when the banks were bailed out but the public left adrift.

“This time it will be different,” he says. “We’re going to make sure we really make sure to look after the people who suffer economic consequences of what we’re asking them. We’re going to look after the people first.”

Financially, that is.

Already underway are measures like those Chancellor Rishi Sunak has declared, along with moves like completely suspending cutting off prepayment electricity meters energy suppliers have agreed to an emergency package of measures for four million pay as you go customers during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Bank of England cuts interest rates to just 0.1%, a week after the rates were cut to 0.25%.

We’re led to believe that we are world-beaters in our government giving financial support but in fact it isn’t quite the case. Richer countries – those that can afford to – are doing much the same. The ECB will buy an extra €750 billion of bonds in a bid to ease the economic pressure caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. IMF chief Christine Lagarde vowed to use all the tools at her disposal to combat the crisis and save the Euro. While in Canada, Justin Trudeau has invested $27 billion in grants and $55 billion in loans to households and businesses as the country seeks to combat the spread of Covid-19. In the US Senate republicans have proposed an economic rescue plan that includes large corporate tax cuts, cheques of $1,200 for taxpayers and limits in paid leave.

China, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, has reported no new local coronavirus infections in the previous day. It’s a milestone in its costly fight to rein in the outbreak. While Italy, whose death toll has soared to 3,405 overtakes China as the country worst hit by Covid-19. Europe and the rest of the world braces for a surge in new cases.

Although China’s neighbours, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have kept the number of cases down with much success the virus continues to spread rapidly and relentlessly across most parts of the world. Borders close and it’s a struggle to keep goods moving.

Where it does get a hold and start to increase exponentially healthcare systems start to look like they’re dealing with a wartime crisis. In France, Covid-19 patients are being relocated to military hospitals and the army is being drafted in to assist health and other workers as the country continues to battle against Covid-19.

“This is serious,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said in a televised address. “Take it seriously.”

While head of the EU trade negotiating team Michel Barnier tests positive for Covid-19. The virus is arbitrary in whom it chooses, or the part they play in the affairs of humans.

It’s in recognition of such arbitrariness that public events are put on ice. Not even God can do much about that, and the ancient ritual of prayer changes. Mosques are closed, sermons are shortened and communion causes anxiety. The Church of England restricts weddings to just five people.

In London’s theatres the curtains come down as more than 83 million are affected as events are cancelled or rescheduled. Here are some of them:

  • Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Originally scheduled between 3rd and 18th July. Reportedly 200,000 attendees.
  • San Diego Comic Con. Originally scheduled between 23rd and 26th July. 130,000 attendees.
  • MWC technology summit in Shanghai. Between June 30th and July 2nd. Expected 75,000.
  • Voodoo Music and Arts Experience in New Orleans from 30th October into November. Expected 150,000.
  • The Brooklyn Half Marathon in New York. Set for May 16th for 27,000 runners.
  • Again in New York, the World Pride Parade. The LGBT festival attended by five million last year.
  • Oktoberfest, the cultural festival in Germany. Originally scheduled for this autumn. Six million brandishing steins and raising the roof with singing lusty traditional drinking songs.
  • The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain between 7th and 14th July with a million.

It’s not just public performances and events that are put on hold for now. Television drama and movie sets are abandoned as it becomes increasingly difficult to combine normal human behaviour with social distancing, masks and the other precautions needed to contain the virus. But there’s an unexpected upside as TV medical dramas donate their medical supplies to hospitals in need during the coronavirus pandemic. Fox’s “The Resident,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and NBC’s “New Amsterdam” are giving items to real doctors and nurses fighting Covid-19 as our fantasies and reality collide.

For now, that human herding instinct – to become part of a crowd – is checked.

Time will tell and its new manifestations will become darker and more troubling, starting in America, but it doesn’t know it yet.

America at the start had been watching the disease spread from afar, as it observes so much else about the wider world. Anyone who has been stateside knows that great potential for isolation, with its own huge internal distances and the way in which the whole country feels so far away, except for Canada and Mexico. Some had watched the outbreaks bloom with a detached horror, others disbelief and denial as story after story entered the news channels, first from China and then from Europe.

Now the realisation was emerging, like the awareness that a malevolent life form was onboard ship, like a scene from ‘Alien,’ or maybe ‘Life.’ US coronavirus cases jump by 40% overnight as health officials brace for a significant influx of patients, many of them also aware of the shortfall in supplies of PPE for Healthcare workers in the front line. The first two members of Congress test positive for coronavirus and according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago found that two thirds of Americans concerned about contracting the Covid-19 illness.

Meanwhile American society tried to adapt. Knowing that it could lead to unwanted and unmanageable consequences US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it would stop making arrests, except for those considered ‘mission critical’ until the crisis ends. Grocery stores have started to reserve times for their most vulnerable customers, and across a nation facing a problem it shares with so many other countries across the world, namely how do you educate a billion stay-at-home kids? There are online websites like Khan Academy but there is so much more involved in getting children to learn other than making resources available and as school systems shut across the US, their leaders are pleading for guidance from the federal government. 

But there are no simple solutions.

American life has been transformed in a few short weeks. The next few will be even tougher, exacerbated by the erratic behaviour of their President, Donald Trump. He tries to rebrand Covid-19 as the ‘China virus.’ There’s widespread condemnation, but it fits his wider nationalist narrative. Sino-American relations are already worrying. China’s mass expulsion of American journalists is an alarming escalation. It’s a tit-for-tat retaliation for the Trump administration on Chinese media companies operating in the US.

Trump also declares at one point that the US FDA watchdog had approved an over-the-counter anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus. Within minutes the FDA denied it. It’s alleged Trump actually wanted to go further to claim the at the drug was a “cure” for the disease, but was talked out of it.

Random distractions are a politically expedient displacement activity from having to deal with a deadly infectious disease, about which we are still learning. A new study shows that SARS-CoV-2 can linger in the air for hours and on some materials for days. Another that coronavirus infection is mild in over half of children with infants being slightly more at risk. And despite it being particularly damaging to the elderly and vulnerable, even young and healthy people may not always make a full recovery.

We might still be learning about the virus. It’s invisible to us as we carry out our day to day lives. But that’s not to say we’re blind to it.

We can see it with tests and with those tests we know what’s going on.

They are available and the US approves Abbott Labs test for hospital use. But their use has to be widespread and they have to be readily and quickly available. It’s why Bill Gates is urging America to adopt a national tracking system to better monitor the spread of coronavirus.

It’s the key test of political leaders. It’s why countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Germany are having greater success in managing the virus than many other countries.

But then other leaders might well be adopting a position of bluffing.

It’s puzzling that Ukraine is going into full lockdown, while its neighbour, Russia announces her first coronavirus death today. Russia is reporting 147 cases in total, but many Russians believe the total is far higher.

If only Putin’s country hadn’t earned itself the reputation of being the world’s epicentre of misinformation we could all be impressed by his achievement so far.

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