Saturday 21st March 2020

Daily Diary: Aiding and Abetting an Escape From the City

Today we moved Midge, our 93 year-old neighbour to her daughter Linda’s house in Rainham, half an hour away. I clean out the inside of the car, and I know the only occupants for months have been Vicky, Midge and myself. There is something very final about all this as it may be the last journey we take Midge on for a long time. The day is sunny, but there’s a cold north-easterly wind coming from Scandinavia.

I meet Claire next door, who’s cleaning out what was her mum, Peggy’s house, now hers, following her recent death in hospital a few days ago. She was in her nineties, in ill-health, almost blind from diabetes and in discomfort and pain. For Claire it is a release. A mercy. Cathy, two doors away is out at the front too, We talk about the glib disrespect that many are showing towards social distancing. The pub on the corner still has customers, as has the café and we share our dumbfoundedness at the lack of care that people are showing. Cathy has a sister who lives in Italy. In Lombardy – pretty much the country’s coronavirus epicentre – and she says people are still dropping by socialising, so there are mixed messages about what exactly is going on. Cathy’s daughter, Edie, who’s 18, went to a party last night and the absence of mindfulness about the pandemic is striking, even among nice, otherwise responsible young people. I think it takes time for the penny to drop. I don’t want to be pious as that was true for me too. I flew on Monday and Thursday, and it was more about experiencing the risk of a situation than foresight that brought things home.

Midge was due to go to Linda’s at 2 pm, but she’s slow to get started. Vicky and I wonder if it’s a kind of displacement activity because she doesn’t want to leave her home. 2 pm becomes 3 pm. A 2.30 she phones to say she has found an uneaten Marks and Spencer’s ready meal – sausages and mash – which she’s determined to eat before the sell-by date. It will take 45 minutes to cook it in the oven. Did we mind? Of course not, we replied, so it was about 5 pm when we set off. The journey is quiet and we get to Rainham, just off the M2, in unusually light traffic. Gone is the Bluewater tailback just past Dartford. We sail through!

It’s a relief to drop Midge off. She’s with her daughter and grandson, who’s out of work, so she can self-isolate in the company of her family well away from the city, where we know in a worst-case scenario health services are already more overstretched than anywhere else.

On the way back I pick up my last bought over the counter issue of Private Eye magazine at Rainham motorway services. There’s a short queue, made longer by giving distance. Relieved that no one has coughed. The back via Lidl for a few essentials. There’s milk but no eggs and certainly no toilet paper.

Fitting then that the front cover of Private Eye had, “Free: 48 sheets of toilet paper” as its front cover gag.

I’m wearing the mask again. I know it won’t be a hundred per cent effective, but it improves the odds. I’ve got to enter the mindset that all other humans are toxic (as I must count myself toxic from their point of view.) Suddenly disease anxiety and neurosis have become the order of the day. OCD has become cool. Going to these places is like a descent into the deep and I need to create for myself the same awareness of potential danger that I do when I’m paragliding.

I suspect that the natural variation that underlies the mechanism of evolution includes different degrees to which we sense fear and caution. We see it in all sorts of animals. It must be true for us too.

The Bigger Picture: The Coronavirus is Straightforward. It’s Humans Who Aren’t.

Only the coronavirus is straightforward. It has only fifteen genes and a protein coat and simply does what it has to do, like the well-tuned automaton it happens to be.

It’s humans who create the paradoxes and ironies.

Let’s take……

  • US President Donald Trump setting about making his country’s flawed system worse. So as America tries to catch up with the rest of the world, he repeatedly undercuts his experts. It causes chaos, confusion, fear and anxiety, but it’s precisely those emotions that play to his strengths and with his base at least provide a platform for power.
  • The fall in Chinese air pollution from slowed economic activity may save 50,000 lives. That’s far more than the 3,248 deaths due to the virus in China up until now.
  • A test and trace app that fast becoming a fad in many countries, many of whom don’t want big tech and mass surveillance as tools of their state. Phones will be tracked. But for good reasons: it’s a smart way to track infections during the pandemic. Safety versus privacy: be careful what you wish for.
  • The wealthy in big cities fleeing the coronavirus to the countryside. Sales of country cottages and other such retreats have gone up. Phone tracking reveals that a million Parisians fled from the virus and there’s evidence of this trend as far afield as parts of Africa. But rural healthcare systems are put under new pressure and some won’t be able to cope. One country, Norway, has already banned such country escapes.
  • The Johnson government, ideologically opposed to the ‘big state,’ spending money as if it was going out of fashion. But it is necessary. Economies can become as dangerously sick as people, and all advanced nations are doing much the same. Meanwhile, some of the more extreme ideologies have died. Politics has become pragmatic by necessity. For now, at least.

The economic symptoms of Covid-19 are shops shutting, borders closing and a population battening down the hatches and as much as possible, staying at home.

“Money makes the world go round,” sang Lisa Minelli.

Well, the world makes money go round too.

Since the 20th February the FTSE 100 at the London Stock Exchange has fallen by 30 per cent , most of it a catastrophic nosedive over the past few days. Yesterday, in New York, the Dow Jones closed down by 4.5 per cent, capping off Wall Street’s worst week since 2008. Central banks worldwide have slashed interest rates to near zero. It looks like a global recession is on the way.

The response from the super-rich to the pandemic vary. Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich let hospital workers in London stay at his hotel. Publicity-averse Liverpudlian billionaire Tom Morris, set up a £30 million fund to make sure his employees at Home Bargains won’t lose out.

The Bill and Melinda Gates have had preventing epidemics worldwide at the heart of their philanthropy for two decades …. and still there are conspiracy theorists who claim they’re up to no good!

Richard Branson blots his copy book by asking Virgin Atlantic employees to take an 8 week pay cut. It causes quite a stir.

“Richard, flog your private island and pay your staff,” tweets Angela Raynor, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. “We are in unprecedented times here.”

Elon Musk remains as enigmatic about coronavirus as Citizen Kane. On March 6th he dismissed it. 10 days later, one of the world’s smartest men changed his tune. But he still keeps spreading misinformation online – unsubstantiated claims such as children are essentially immune to the virus that get shot down by global health expert Dr Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force.

“To the moms and dads out there that have children with immunodeficiencies or other medical conditions, we don’t know the level of risk,” Doctor Birx said. “There just is not enough numbers at this time to tell them if they are at additional risk or not in the same way that adults are.”

She added: “No one is immune. We know it is highly contagious for everyone.”

In terms of how they act it’s not just billionaires who vary in their attitudes, actions and words. This comes in on my local social network.

For the good:

“As I settle down into lockdown I am wondering how to reach/help the people in my block who aren’t on this or don’t have internet/smartphones. I am young-ish and able to help with things like food shopping or just a chat….. Maybe I should stick a poster up downstairs near the lift?”

And the not so good:

“We’ve seen on social media that several shops are hiking prices on every day essentials. We need to boycott, name and shame these places. I’ll start the ball rolling – [names a local corner shop] sold these tomatoes for £9.99 when they would usually sell for between £2.99 and £5.99”

Things are changing fast and the new reality grows every day. There is also the awareness that so much about our daily lives will change forever, regardless of how successfully or otherwise the country will get through this pandemic.

Britons, for whom according to popular legend queueing is a cultural and social custom, are now adapting to the virtual world accelerated by Covid-19. Alongside the panic-buying in supermarkets, shoppers had to wait virtually for up to 2 hours before browsing for food online. I gave up.

A Marseille soap firm cleans up as people are urged to wash their hands to stop Covid-19.

Apps to help you exercise your way to a healthy lockdown are all the rage.

And if exercise isn’t quite your thing, this advice came from Forbes:

“Try fine whisky at home. It probably won’t do much for your immune system, but after the week we’ve all had we could all do with a stiff drink.”

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what I’m going to do now!

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