Friday 20th March 2020

Daily Diary: In Hades No One Can See You Smile

The politicians are leaking the changes one at a time, day by day. I’m sure this is in some way connected with Boris Johnson’s need to be loved rather than respected. There’s so much less overreaction if you stretch the news over several days, like the apocryphal frog in a pan of water. That’s what it feels like.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we need to take Midge, our 93 year-old neighbour, to her daughter’s in Rainham, Kent. Incidents of the virus Are much lower there, a fraction of what they are in London and we believe Midge will be much safer there, as well as having the company of her own family.

I decide to keep the car topped up. It’s hard to second guess future eventualities but it seems sensible to have a full tank at all times. I also put it through the carwash. Then it’s into Morrison’s for a couple of bits and pieces. There are no toilet rolls, no fresh bread, no eggs and the rather portly gentleman I’m behind, queueing at checkout, has stockpiled the most disgusting collection of junk food. His shopping trolley is piled high with food technology’s greatest achievements in fat, sugar and stodge, with boxloads of beer and sugary drinks to swill it all down. If the coronavirus doesn’t get him, hardening his arteries will.

It’s the first time I wear a mask. I’m entering a parallel world. Possibly descending into Hades. The air around me now feels hostile and the mask makes me feel I’m exploring an alien environment. The worst thing is, especially for someone prone to banter at the till, that no one can see you smile.

Not quite, “In space no one can hear you scream,” but getting there.

The Bigger Picture: We All Depend On Drills

We all depend on drills. Schools have fire drills, cruise ships have lifeboat drills, airliners have emergency landing drills and paramedics have all sorts of drills to deal with casualties. They serve a purpose that no one is caught off-guard when a real situation happens.

The Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services had a drill too – a series of exercises that ran from last January to August in 2019. It was code-named “Crimson Contagion” and simulated an influenza pandemic. Its results were sobering. The federal government was underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated for a life or death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.

The draft report was intended to be kept under wraps, like a dirty family secret that decent relations wouldn’t talk about. It revealed internecine rivalries between federal agencies, a state of confusion across the entire nation and no one clear about what kind of equipment was stockpiled or available in hospitals or what would happen with school closures.

The White House said it had responded with an executive order to improve the availability and quality of flu vaccines, and that it had taken steps to increase funding for a federal programme focussed on pandemic threats.

Six months after the release of the report in October 2019 the whole world could see the level to which Operation Crimson Contagion, a microbial breach of national security, was taken seriously as doctors, nurses and other frontline medical workers across the US face a dire shortage of masks, surgical gowns and eye protection.

Later, President Trump would say to investigative journalist Bob Woodward that he “didn’t want to panic people.” But keeping schtum served some people’s interests well, as it was revealed that two senators sold off stock weeks before coronavirus crashed the market.

To be fair, most countries were largely unprepared. Those outbreaks like SARS, Ebola and H1N1 were usually far, far away and someone else’s problem. The handful of countries like China, Vietnam and South Korea had already learned the dangers of complacency. There is no substitute for experience.

It is said that it’s wise learn from the mistakes of others, it’s human to learn from your own, but it’s stupidity not to learn and as a result make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps it’s right to be kind and allow the world’s population to be human.

The trouble is that the virus is totally unforgiving and that some, perhaps too many, prove to be stupid.

So it’s not surprising that Europe, where people have become used to free movement, is now the centre of the pandemic. Nor is it surprising that in Europe and around the world, governments are getting tougher. Borders are put up again in the Schengen Zone, and the US is about to seal off its borders with Mexico and Canada to nonessential traffic.

It’s not just a feature of the west. South Africa is about to build a 25-mile fence along its border with Zimbabwe, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but it provides an opportunity to prevent another kind of infection – of Zimbabwe’s intense economic and political turmoil deepening further and faster during the crisis.

If most countries are unprepared the whole world (in the sense of collective humanity) is even more so. These are the strange geopolitics of the corona era. Whether justified or not globalisation has become a dirty word, replaced by an equally sour nationalism so well personified by Donald Trump’s ‘America First.’

This is no longer a world of international collaboration and co-operation dreamt of by the founders of the United Nations. This is a world where so many powerful countries are led by ‘strong men,’ a polite way of saying borderline despots, bullies and cheats. That in turn leads to an impotence in global response.

This on a planet where a billion people go hungry each day, with children being particularly vulnerable, while the global food supply is buckling under the strain of frenzied buying. Think of whole nations behaving like selfish hoarders clearing shelves in a superstore. That’s where we are with a basic like food.

Do you think we’ll be any different when it comes to a life-threatening pandemic?

Part of me would like to think so. The other part says “dream on!”

When it comes to an Act of God driven by the most fundamental element of life itself, nucleic acid, a moment’s thought will tell you that a Darwinian response – in other words a zero-sum game dependent on winners and losers – just isn’t going to work for many of us. Maybe most, and tears will be shed a-plenty.

Survival of the fittest has already resulted in much of global commerce grinding to a halt with some companies never restarting.

We’ve somehow got to be smarter than that. After all, we know climate change is just hanging there in the wings.

The Covid-19 outbreak is now a global phenomenon.

Sooner or later it will need a global solution and our leaders have got to go through a sea change in getting us all there.

In the meantime, the virus hits economies as if they are in war zones. The Dow erased the “Trump bump,” ending the week below the level from the day before Trump’s inauguration. His prize card for re-election is snatched from his germophobic hands. No one knows how the markets will respond or how quickly the economy will recover. There was the hope that it would be a V-shaped decline and rebound, but that has faded. As businesses shut down and social distancing disrupts and complicates even the most basic of day to day working realities people are talking about a more gradual U-shaped trajectory. Some fear the drop in activity will last so long it’s referred to as an L-shaped recovery. Others, mildly more optimistic make references to a Nike tick.

In truth, nobody knows.

The US Labor Department reported that initial unemployment claims files last week shot up to 281,000, compared with 211,000 the week before. It’s one of the largest on record and the department has asked state officials to delay releasing precise numbers. Analysts at Goldman Sachs think jobless claims could reach above two million.

However, to spell out the air of confusion, the other day Goldman Sachs were privately telling investors we’d all be at the other side of it by Christmas.

So 1914 it leaves me uneasy!

It won’t be and most politicians realise that. The US economy, as those elsewhere, will need a stimulus if America is to avoid a thirties-style depression. Senate Republicans present their $1 trillion proposal to Democratic colleagues today. It’s a package of business loans, large corporate tax cuts and cheques of as much as $1,200 for taxpayers. But government these days in Washington is sufficiently fractured and dysfunctional that disagreements in Congress, and between the White House and the Fed, may well slow the passage of stimulus measures, despite their urgency for ordinary Americans’ day to day existence.

Yesterday the president threw his own spanner into the works by suggesting that the government could take equity stakes in companies as a condition of aid.

It’s Trumpian impulsiveness but I’m puzzled. Whatever happened to the ‘small state’ embraced by his base?

It’s a Covid Test, with the virus exposing the paradox of America’s resilience and vulnerability.

Local and regional politicians will not let an erratic and disruptive president stop them from doing what they absolutely have to do. The coronavirus has little time for impulses – it simply creates priorities.

Back in Britain the government has been more fleet of foot. It will pay up to 80% of the wages of workers up to 2,500 per month in a bid to persuade firms not to make redundancies. Three months’ worth of VAT payments for firms will be deferred and an extra £6 billion will be given to the welfare system to help the low paid.

There are hopes by some that the pandemic creates the perfect opportunity to bring in a universal basic income policy.

They are passed by.

For now.

There is a rapidly emerging clash between protecting lives and protecting livelihoods. The very word quarantine comes from isolating infected people for forty (quarant) days during medieval plagues. Forty was a handy number because not only did it have a wide error margin and lots of get-better room but it had clear Biblical associations and so could be easily argued that it was a goodly thing to do. In fact, you don’t need to isolate for forty days. Fourteen will do nicely.

So, it goes that if everyone just battened down the hatches for fourteen days, SARS-CoV-2 would have nowhere else to go. Immune systems would have gone into action, bodies carried away in a biosecure manner and all would be tickedy-boo from then on.

The Chinese did something like that during the Wuhan outbreak, delivering food to doorsteps and strictly enforcing mass home detention. Unpleasant scenes of screaming citizens being carted away by darkly clad militarised authorities went viral across a world that looked on in horror.

Complex, non-authoritarian societies, even those whose leaders have authoritarian tendencies, are unable to behave like that for fear of civil disorder.

It’s another kind of Covid Test.

So, for example California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has just ordered his state’s 40 million residents to stay at home as much as possible on the basis of a model that suggests 56 per cent of California’s population could become infected in the next two months. While Elon Musk fights a tooth and nail legal battle to keep his Tesla factory open in Fremont, California.

Taking it a step further, GameStop, the struggling video games retailer told its managers to disobey closure restrictions, arguing that their shops were as life sustaining as a grocery store or a pharmacy. Perhaps they were thinking of their customer base. A poll conducted on behalf of Forbes found that 35 per cent of Americans aged 18-29 believed that the Covid-19 crisis is overblown, and less than 50% think it’s a genuine health threat.

By contrast, Spaniards and Italians in the UK, whose home countries are already in lockdown are shocked by what they see as Britain’s dithering coronavirus response.

Scientific advice to ministers has revealed that social distancing will be needed for “at least half a year” to stop hospital intensive care units being overwhelmed. Possibly more like a year, alternating between strict isolation and more relaxed rules as needs must.

As one NHS chief said, ”Given we’re in the low foothills of this virus, this is fucking petrifying.”

Tory MP Maria Caulfield returns to nursing as over 65,000 retired medics are asked to help. Maria Caulfield said she was going back to her old job because “the NHS will be getting unprecedented numbers of patients needing care.”

While David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, has self-isolated following mild symptoms of coronavirus. His EU counterpart, Michel Barnier tested positive for the virus yesterday.

It’s getting very close to home for PM Boris Johnson who makes a further announcement:

All pubs, bars, restaurants, gyms, leisure centres, nightclubs, theatres and cinemas, along with bingo halls, spas, casinos, betting shops, museums and galleries must close tonight. The shutdown will be reviewed in fourteen days, although monthly has also been mentioned.

Boris Johnson must offer greater clarity when this coronavirus storm really hits. An anxious public has been left confused by his messaging so far.

The Cannes Film Festival, which had been scheduled for mid-May, has been postponed. Elsewhere, France bans access to beaches and mountains.

And Germany threatens strict shelter-in-place curfews if its current measures to curb the coronavirus are violated over the weekend.

“Saturday will be decisive,” German citizens are warned.

A new reality is dawning. Things already feel different. Here are some headlines from this new strange world we’re in:

  • ‘A perfect storm’: UK Food banks face uncertainty as coronavirus crisis deepens.
  • Netflix and YouTube lower streaming quality to boost Europe’s creaking internet connections.
  • After a team member on NASA’s Artemis moon programme tested positive for Covid-19, the agency announced that work on the Space Launch System rocket and related projects would be suspended.
  • Idris Elba has tested positive for coronavirus after finding out he had been exposed. Elba immediately quarantined himself. Now he’s using his celebrity profile to urge people to practice social distancing.
  • Top restaurant turns into a grocery shop and meal service to save staff. Sam Buckley from ‘Where the Light Gets In’ has acted fast to keep the money coming in.
  • There are lockdown love stories too. Dating at a distance, Often between blocks across the same street. Amid strict quarantine measures, residents of Milan are rediscovering their romanticismo and create some of the most heart-warming stories of these strange times.
  • Teachers will grade their own pupils for A-level and GCSE to produce a result this July. Exam boards will combine teachers’ judgements with other data to calculate a final grade. Pupils will be able to take exams in September if they are unhappy with the results.
  • Free software is made available for businesses, schools and others can use during the Covid-19 crisis.

For now, more testing is needed: Most coronavirus cases come from people unaware that they’re infected. A new study highlights a worrying discovery: most people who are spreading the virus don’t actually know they have it.

In the UK we’re flying blind. We have no systematic testing and despite the global race to produce a vaccine in the US, China and Europe even initial results aren’t expected for at least a few months.

“A very aggressive timeline.” The global race to develop a coronavirus vaccine. The first human trials for a new coronavirus vaccine have already started as a myriad of laboratories are pursuing a number of different strategies to stop the disease. But initial results aren’t expected for several months, let alone the distribution and all the vaccine politics that will inevitably accompany it.

In the meantime we live by notices, on-screen and online. Here are some examples:

From a local electrician:

“Elderly neighbours affected by Covid-19. If any of my neighbours are in need of an emergency electrician for loss of supply or similar emergency I will attend for free and repair for free.”

An NHS Public Service Announcement:

“To help keep your community safe, if you or anyone else in your household experiences the symptoms on this video, you should stay at home. Stay at home if you have either a high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature), or a dry and tickly cough.”

From Café Rouge:

“We have made the difficult decision to temporarily close our doors at Café Rouge, Blackheath. We’d like to extend a huge thank you to our teams, our guests, and to everyone supporting each other during this uncertain time. Stay safe, take care and support each other because #LoveIsRouge”

Just Park:

Help staff and patients park for free.

The Body Shop:

“The health, safety and wellbeing of our customers and team members is our utmost priority and we’ve sadly decided to temporarily close our stores until further notice to help prevent the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) and protect the communities in which we live and work. Our hearts and thoughts go out to the people who have been affected and we appreciate the healthcare workers and those in the front line working to contain this virus and keep us safe. Our stores will begin to close from Friday 20th March at 3 pm, with the last stores closing on Saturday 21st March at 3 pm. Many of you know our teams in your local The Body Shop store and undoubtedly will be concerned on their behalf. We will be in regular contact with them during this period and all current employees will be on full pay until 4th April. We will be monitoring and reviewing the situation closely.”

And worryingly from Which:

Watch out for scammers. While many of us are concerned about what the next update for coronavirus might be, scammers are using it as an opportunity to make a profit. Make sure you watch out for any unsolicited emails, text messages or phone calls.

Finally, every cloud has a silver lining. In this case it’s a message from nature. Levels of air pollutants and warming gases over some cities and regions fall as coronavirus impacts work and travel, the air has cleared faster than anyone could have imagined. Wild boars have started roaming the streets in Sassari, the second largest town in Sardinia and curious dolphins are approaching the now empty piers in Cagliari, one of the Italy’s largest seaports.

Open the window and you might notice how much more birdsong there is.

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