Tuesday 24th March 2020

Daily Diary: The World Turns Upside Down

How quickly everything seems to change! The realities of lockdown begin to subtly creep in but outside the coronavirus story is huge – far too big for a modest personal journal like this. As I continue to record my newsfeed, I see a tsunami of stories. Some remind me of how lucky I am with relatively few problems to worry about. I get a text from a fellow pilot, Cosmin Burian, wishing Vicky and I well. So thoughtful. His work wiring up networks in large office buildings doesn’t look particularly secure at a time of pandemic and his charming wife Monica is an NHS nurse making the daily journey from Rochester to London. Both children, now young adults, at university. So much more to be concerned about and I’m truly touched.

James O’Brien’s main topic of conversation on LBC today is Brits trapped abroad. The Emirates have closed their airspace to all traffic. Several airport hubs have had to all intents and purposes shut down. Not all embassies and consulates are available, and some are on lockdown themselves. Travel companies and airlines have pretty much washed their hands of travellers’ problems. To be fair, many of them are already crumbling under the onslaught of Covid-19 and not up to dealing with their own problems, let alone those to whom they ought to at the very least showing due care and diligence, leaving countless dramatic tales of strangers in strange lands across the world. The government needs to lay on more rescue flights to extract and bring them home but we’re hearing nothing from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Maybe the story hasn’t quite made it sufficiently up the pile to be broadcast on MSM.

It was hard issuing the ban on flying at out club’s sites, but it was timely. Today there is a message from the Sky Surfing Club in Hampshire that they have done the same, as have the Dunstable Hang Gliding and the Thames Valley clubs. There’s lots of support from club members, who certainly get the point.

It looks like ‘doing the right thing’ is returning to our collective mentality.

The Bigger Picture: It’s War!

It’s war!

“We’re at war with the virus,” Scott Morrison, prime minister of Australia declared.

“There’s a long war ahead and our Covid-19 response must adapt,” a former CDC director tells CNN.

“Prepare now for the long war against Covid-19. Fighting the surprise attack should not distract us from the lasting battle.” Richard Danzig writes in Bloomberg.

So off we march.

Like all crusades the rival factions of science and business, of the state versus private capital, of the collective against the individual, of the cautious and the bold (the enemy would say foolhardy) go to war with each other every bit as much as they lock horns with the enemy.

The Wall Street Journal champions business. No society can safeguard public health for long at the cost of its overall economic health, the WSJ argues. Resources to fight the virus aren’t limitless and the cost of this national shutdown will soon cause a “tsunami of economic destruction” that will cause tens of millions to lose their jobs.

We don’t have enough data about the disease’s fatality rate to be making such drastic economic sacrifices, John Ioannides, a Stanford epidemiology professor adds. But in a pandemic, where mortality evidence has an unpleasant habit of revealing itself exponentially do we seriously hang around for data before making a decision?

Some, like David Katz in the New York Times suggest isolating the most vulnerable – the elderly, people with chronic diseases and the immunologically compromised. By keeping a smaller portion of the population at home, he contends, most could return to life as usual and prevent the economy from collapsing.

It has a tidiness about it.

But it’s not like that. Remember this is war. And war is ultimately chaotic.

Perhaps, God forbid, next time round this could be part of the plan, but any commander will tell you that grand manoeuvres at the height of battle are a recipe for disaster. A group of Yale health experts said in response that such ideas were naïve, not least because we have no real way of identifying, separating and caring for such a large segment of the population.

The precautionary principle champions science. The idea that millions could be allowed to perish to save an economy is both morally irresponsible and practically inconceivable. It’s a trade-off that is as gruesome as it is absurd. Science is evidence based and the evidence shows that more social distancing measures are needed to prevent more Covid-19 cases, overburdened hospitals and deaths.

Body counts don’t help in winning wars. Unless, of course you’re indifferent to them. If you take the attitude that there’s plenty more where they came from you might believe you can. It takes a certain mindset. Some would call it sociopathy.

President Trump’s getting cranky. He’s adopted a more serious tone towards the virus. He’s made concessions to public health and all he’s got back in return is skyrocketing unemployment, a volatile Wall Street, headaches from the House and Senate and his MAGA base defying and grumbling about the restrictions all the time.

It’s an election year and he’s fully aware there’s a pattern: no American president gets re-elected if a recession happens on their watch. He’s the good-for-the-economy president, even if the groundwork was done by the previous, maligned Obama administration. He has managed to create the sleight of hand – to some extent at least – an illusion it was entirely due to his leadership and no way was he going to let Covid-19 get the better of that!

It’s time to play down the threat again.

“I gave it two weeks,” he said in a town hall hosted by Fox News, adding, “We can socially distance ourselves and go to work.”

He’s been warned that strict social distancing measures could be necessary for many months. Relaxing restrictions on travel and large gatherings could greatly increase the virus’s death toll.

But it’s water on a duck’s back.

“If it were up to the doctors, they’d say shutdown the entire world,” he scoffed in response.

The president wants the US opened up and “raring to go by Easter,” on April 12th.

On Sunday night he tweeted,


Reopening the economy sooner rather than later in the face of a rising death toll makes it clear what side he’s on and on the other it brings outrage, including triggering a Twitter backlash with a #NotDying4WallStreet campaign.

But there is a war on and we all should expect casualties …

Governor Cuomo of New York declares the city has 25,000 coronavirus cases and the rate of new infections is doubling every three days. There’s a call for anyone who has left New York recently to self-quarantine for 14 days, with new infection hotspots on Long Island indicating that people leaving the city are already spreading the virus.

We should expect some to lay down their lives …

Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas has suggested that he and “lots of grandparents” would be willing to risk death from coronavirus in order to prevent the US economy from tanking under the weight of social distancing measures that he fears will impact his grandchildren and lead to the “loss” of America.

There are echoes here of the proud ‘gerry battalions’ in Alan Sillitoe’s novel, “Travels in Nihilon,” where the elderly are sent to the front, being the most expendable.

We should expect casualties from friendly fire …

An Arizona a man died and his wife was hospitalised after officials said they self-medicated, using a fish tank additive that contains chloroquine, the same active ingredient as an anti-malarial drug promoted by the president.

We should expect people’s roles to change, to adapt to the coronawar’s new reality …

In the same way as a military war puts more people into uniforms of sand, green and grey so factory overalls are replaced by delivery drivers’ outfits. The coronavirus crisis is already reshaping the job market, with aerospace and other manufacturers laying off workers, while grocery stores and online delivery services, are desperately scrambling to hire staff to service a shuttered world.

We do need to be mindful of crisis we’re in …

Governor Gavin Newsom estimated that California would be short of about 17,000 hospital beds, although the state is trying to source more. The pace of testing there remains stubbornly slow.

Elon Musk ships 1,200 ventilators from China to Los Angeles, while Ford is going from cars to healthcare as they start a partnership with 3M and GE Healthcare to produce essential medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment.

The Purchasing Managers’ Index presages a precipitous recession in America and Europe. Manufacturing has been given a kicking, but services have been knocked around the block with a baseball bat. It’s a global economic catastrophe and the grasshopper economies such as Britain that have outsourced making stuff and had services as the cornerstone of creating moolah, a legacy of free market economics and at the time the jolliest of wheezes find the wintry coronavirus particularly harsh.

Central banks in wealthier countries commit to do whatever they can to keep national economies from collapsing, primarily by buying debt. Stimulus packages from governments are necessary to keep economies moving. It’s not just patients – nations are in intensive care, political anxiety is palpable and those with most of a handle on the world economic order are at a loss to know how to deal with the conflict between capital and preserving the lives of the most vulnerable.

It was always so, only the coronavirus brings this ugly fact of life to the surface. Some, like Trump, take sides with capital and play games to feign their social responsibility. Some, like the Swedes, in a matter-of-fact way grasp the reality and through a social contract between the people and their government reach an uneasy settlement. Some, like the New Zealanders, come clean about the problem and embrace the consequences of the precautionary principle. Some, like Johnson equivocate, dither and dawdle, ever reactive, ever conscious of the optics of the day.

In Washington the Senate nears deal on virus relief package. Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said he expected to have an agreement this morning with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on nearly $2 trillion economic package to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats blocked action on the plan on Monday, demanding stronger protection for workers and restrictions on bailed out businesses, but headway has since been made.

Like a patient in ICU responding to extra oxygen the stock market rallied.

While overwhelmed by what can only be described as a tsunami of reality the presidential campaign, that would have so dominated American politics were it not for Covid-19 has faded into oblivion.

Both for now at least.

We know war for the carnage it creates …

In Europe, although Italy’s death toll rose by a shocking 743, it was after two days of decline. But it’s Spain where the nightmare is happening now. There are visions of horrors that you could be forgiven for associating with the middle ages. The army has found people’s corpses in their homes. Elderly care home residents are found dead, abandoned in their beds, the staff beyond coping. Madrid’s hospitals that are on the verge of collapse, their mortuaries massively beyond capacity. Funeral homes have no space or resource to continue collecting the dead, so now the Palacio de Hielo , the huge ‘Ice Palace’ ice rink, is transformed into the capital’s morgue. Frontline workers. like cashiers and cleaners continue to work without protection and information phone lines on coronavirus are saturated.

Madrid is an outbreak epicentre in meltdown.

It spells out the horrors that could arise anywhere. Those in already overcrowded refugee camps around Europe’s Mediterranean fringe are particularly vulnerable are especially fearful – if the virus breaks out there it would be impossible to stop.

However, there are signs that the coronawar is winnable. In Wuhan, China, where the outbreak started, and infections now appear to be dwindling, public transport will resume within 24 hours and residents will be allowed to leave the city beginning April 8th.

The measures taken by the Chinese state have been harsh but it looks like they’ve worked.

There could be light at the end of the tunnel.

If only the west could be strict with itself, that is.

South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have all shown that the virus can be brought under control without the draconian restrictions on movement in China, or the economically damaging lockdown in the Europe and America.

At the heart of a less draconian response is an approach with two elements. The first is that the state has to be systematic and organised. That’s necessary for swift, safe and widespread testing, tracing and isolating including those who had confirmed contact with infected patients.

Of all western countries Germany stands out and has managed to control the virus better than its neighbours as a result.

The second is that the citizens trust the country’s leadership, engage with the decisions it makes and show high levels of co-operation. If the exercise of force and coercion by the state are not options, as is the case in Europe and the Anglosphere, then a partnership with the public becomes the only means of achieving that end, something that has been undermined by the misinformation campaigns at the heart of national leadership, both in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. Years of creating near-tribal partisanship makes not trusting government – any government – an inevitable outcome.

Which brings us back to the rival factions within the coronavirus crusade and enables a quasi-living nanobeastie with as many genes in all as humans have for eye colour alone to divide, and for now at least, conquer.

That said, and in spite of the deep divisions that have cleft British politics for the past four years, Boris Johnson actually sets the country off on the Great British Lockdown buoyed up by an unprecedented reservoir of good faith. A record 27 million people watched the PM’s live televised address and a poll showed a huge 93% of the public supported what were by UK standards, the most restrictive measures since the end of the Second World War.

For the next three weeks at least, after initially resisting restrictions on people’s movements and activities, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reluctantly set aside his libertarian ideology and brought Britain into alignment with lockdowns across Europe, closing off all nonessential shops and requiring people to stay in their homes, except for trips for food or medicine. Couples who don’t live together should either avoid each other completely or move in together for the duration of the coronavirus crisis and anyone found by police to have breached the lockdown conditions faced a £30 fine. The sum could be increased ‘significantly’ if necessary, to ensure public compliance. In time it will be, with penalties running into thousands.

The British government has added clauses requiring Parliament to vote every six months to renew the powers in the coronavirus bill and provide protections for the religious burial after lobbying from opposition MPs and backbench Conservatives.

The Contingencies Fund Bill – to pay for the Treasury’s wage support scheme – proposes a “modest” increase in the size of the UK’s Contingencies Fund – from 2% to 50%.

A quarter of a million volunteers are called for to help support the NHS through the pandemic. The Health Secretary called for healthy volunteers who can help care for vulnerable people and ease pressure on public services. Many come forward, including Labour MP Nadia Whittome returning to work as a carer to help system ‘in crisis during a pandemic.’ The MP said she is ‘genuinely worried that the social care system is going to fall apart at the seams in this Covid-19 pandemic.

The Department of Health came under fire after sending mixed messages to women over the possibility of allowing abortions at home during the coronavirus outbreak and a petition goes out against NHS staff to pay parking fees – and fines if they don’t – at the hospitals where they work.

If it was 1940 I’m sure there would have been posters and leaflets telling me my marching orders. Sixty years later it comes to me via social media, as ninety per cent of my life seems to do these days:

Transport for London: Thank you to those of you who are following the Government and the Mayor’s instructions not to travel unless your journey is absolutely essential. To save lives we must all do more. This means following the Government’s new measures to fight the spread of the coronavirus by staying at home. You are only allowed to leave your house in these circumstances:

Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.

  • One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk or cycle – alone or with members of your household.
  • Any medical need, or to provide care for or to help a vulnerable person.
  • Travelling to and from work, but only when this absolutely cannot be done from home.

Making non-essential journeys risks lives.  Please only travel if your journey is absolutely essential.

If you are a key worker and your journey is absolutely essential, please travel later in the day if you can and avoid the early morning.

If you do travel, follow the expert advice on hand-washing and other health measures. We are operating reduced services so we can keep things running for critical workers.

Be safe, stay at home

It’s followed by a more local message about social behaviour in Oxleas Woods near Eltham:

Hi all. I hope you’re all keeping well. Sorry to moan on a Sunday, though I’ve just returned from Oxleas Woods and wanted to make some pleas so all can enjoy.

  1. Respect social distancing. If a family are by a tree/camp don’t crowd around them, either move to another or wait.
  2. Keep dogs on a leash as you are supposed to at the moment.
  3. Pick your dog’s mess up….
  4. Runners, politely ask people to step aside …. Don’t just run past them only leaving half a metre spacing whilst breathing heavily/sweating….

If we can all abide by these [rules] I’m sure we can all enjoy.

Again, sorry for the Sunday grumble.

Stay safe.

A strange warning about lockdown opportunists (although they probably didn’t need a lockdown to try to pull this one off):

Scamming beware: I can’t believe it. I’ve just been watching the news and there are a lot of people being offered a driveway cleansing service. These people are sick. I’ve been doing exterior cleaning for over ten years and have never heard of driveway cleansing. Please don’t fall for it, it is disgraceful. If anyone would like some exterior property cleaning give me a call and I will look after you. I am not trying to profit from this. I have let staff go due to social distancing and have enough work already but I will work all hours to stop these parasites. BE aware and stay safe, people.

But everything’s by no means on the spectrum between corona-carelessness and corona-criminality. There’s korona-kindness too with many acts of altruism, as a young woman offers on Nextdoor:

Free online English Literature tutoring: Hi all, I’m an English Literature graduate from Durham University, now working from home with plenty of spare time! I’m happy to offer video tutoring to anyone who would benefit from it. I can support with GCSE or A-level texts and essay writing, to setting English tasks for younger kids and keeping them reading. I’ve not tutored via the internet before but happy to give it a go!

A Nextdoor Help Map has come out too.  On this interactive map, those in need can easily identify which neighbours have raised a helping hand nearby. Neighbours who are available to help can indicate on the map, making it easy to locally network help and support.

The last of the non-essential store chains, after an attempted rear-guard action by Sports Direct, shuts up shop – literally. Life is changing indelibly.

BP sends me an email:

For those that have to travel our pumps and retail sites will continue to be as clean and safe environment to visit and work in. But we need to work together to minimise the spread of Covid-19, so we ask that everyone respects ‘social distancing’ guidelines set out by the Government, washes their hands frequently and thoroughly and makes payment by contactless card or mobile app as much as possible. Our BPme app also lets you pay for your fuel from your vehicle, minimising any contact when you fill up.

As does Alzheimer’s Society, one of the charities Vicky and I support:

Under government advice, men and women in the UK over 70 – that’s around 700,000 people with dementia – will be asked to stay at home for an extended period of time. People will be completely cut off from their families, their communities and the networks they rely on. People who live alone may be cut off from social contact completely.

It’s that carpet-bombing by online messaging that doesn’t let me escape the fact that there’s a coronawar. Vicky and I are in it and we’re well and truly locked down. If we were asked to duck and cover, we’d almost certainly do it – so long as we were asked nicely, of course.

We are among the ninety-three percenters. The almost universal compliers.

Which is just as well as the police are warning there ‘aren’t enough officers to police each street’ during lockdown. Police forces are depending on the public to follow the new rules to avoid extra strain on already stretched services and while there are things we wonder about, like whether we can walk our dog to the allotment or get our haircut we’re willing (for now) to go along with the strictest curbs on our way of life in modern peacetime.

The lockdown is bringing out our humanity. In some cases, it is generosity. Rihanna’s Foundation gives £4.2 million to coronavirus relief efforts, including supporting marginalised communities in the US, Caribbean and Africa.

In some cases, it is selfishness. Along with toilet rolls and hand-gel, there has been panic-buying of sanitary products, leaving the more vulnerable without access to tampons.

In some cases, it is a re-appreciation of the simple things in life:

I’m finding comfort in Sonic the hedgehog who visits my garden. This small fascinating creature, this endangered creature, is unaffected by the disruption we’re facing.

In some, it is love turning to commitment, as couples take the leap of faith to move in with each other.

My boyfriend moved in six weeks ago and is now home-schooling my son. Amid uncertainty, I’m clinging on to one fact: if we can get through this, we can get through anything.

For some it’s an opportunity to be creative and get the max out of online connectivity with virtual parties. Virtual club nights, pub quizzes and surprise deliveries.

And for many religious people, for whom collective worship and shared rituals are central to their faith and sense of community these are really testing times. For many older worshippers adapting to virtual prayer is entering a world alien to their faith. This is a resurgence of the age-old tension between tradition and innovation.

Most smokers do not give up their habit. The combination of boredom and frustration doesn’t help. It’s pretty intuitive to believe that because of the harm smoking causes to general lung health it will slow down recovery and recent studies bear that out. Rationally, now would be the time to quit, but the instant relief a cigarette gives sadly wins out too many times.

Further afield, the Syrian government reports their first case of Covid-19, although in the festering chaos of an aftermath of civil war, no one knows for sure what’s going on. Over 80 per cent of the medical infrastructure in Syria is working at a limited capacity and Covid-19 testing kits are more than hard to come by.

In India there is “a total ban of coming out of your own homes” for three weeks. For a population of 1.3 billion souls.

And in Canada, parliament denies the Liberal government a carte blanche to spend, tax and borrow whatever it pleases to deal with the virus.

Most stories pass under the radar, as without a vaccine, a capacity to test, or even a particularly clear idea of where it’s going, Great Britain battens down the hatches, as do many other countries around the world.

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