Saturday 28th March 2020

Daily Diary: As If I’m Hit By A Freight Train

It’s getting windier and a cold front is coming in. We’ve gone from blue skies to angry grey rollers in a couple of hours. Paragliding has turned me into a weather obsessive, but I’m finding because of not being able to go out flying my attention to weather is waning. The details don’t seem to matter as much, so I’m becoming like most other people, looking at the big picture and not much more. But hey, I’m indoors now and the nearest I’m getting to clouds at the moment is when one gathers under the kitchen ceiling when I forget about a pan of boiling eggs.

Listening to LBC I hear that there are already concerns about domestic abuse and other frustrations with people cooped up together. It helps being retired. Vicky and I have shared this space intensively since I retired in 2012. We know how not just to live with each other, but around each other. We’re practised, which makes being isolated together a lot easier. We talk about how long all this will go on for. In truth it’s impossible to say. My thoughts go out to those who have to spend much of their lives outside their homes and the work part, with all its daily rituals, of the work-life balance is so important psychologically. It was to me before I retired. Those who use home simply as a place to eat, unwind and sleep before returning to the regimen of employment are likely to find it hard.

It’s funny how the day gets filled with the routine. It’s beginning to dawn on me how huge the coronavirus pandemic story truly is. At one level I knew all along. That’s why I began this diary in the first place, but engaging with it brings me closer, and being closer makes it seem so much larger and time-consuming. It’s easy to get swept away by it and I remind myself to be careful to avoid that. I guess that’s where the likes of Netflix and Amazon come into their own. Throw in a conversation or two with friends and family and the day is full.

My old school friends, along with other old boys from the Duke of York’s, where I went in the sixties, are having an online group chat about the pandemic – several emails daily, circulating ideas, theories, criticisms and jokes. Covid seems to have triggered something as it’s all at a level I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to get too drawn in, but sling in my two ha’penny’s worth every now and then to let folks know that I’m still alive and kicking.

The I switch to my Twitter account and come across:

“I’m going to make myself unpopular.

I wish I wasn’t a doctor.

I wish I wasn’t terrified of what I might be asked to do.

I wish I could self-isolate.


For a moment I feel as if I’m hit by a freight train.

Then I collect myself and realise how fortunate I am, and how I have a responsibility to keep both Vicky and I away from the firing line.

The Bigger Picture: Shock and Confusion

If you’ve ever had an accident, as I had when I once fell from the sky, you can probably remember that the very first experience you have of it is one of shock and confusion. Often you don’t even know whether you’ve been injured, and if you have, the extent of damage has been caused. So much so that the horror of the experience can take days to fully sink in,

The other thing about an accident is that events accelerate in the last moments before crunch time happens,

So it is when Covid-19 arrives. It doesn’t make its presence felt in a gently linear fashion. Its growth is exponential, as are the consequences and its psychological impact on us all. We are shocked. We reel from the confusion of it all and it affects the way we see the world around us. So, whatever your politics – whether you subscribe to the liberal ideals of western democracies, the simplistic world view of populism or the secure instincts that breed authoritarianism – they’re all hit for six, and all contending views are momentarily stunned.

It’s as if the fragile composite is broken like a dropped Lego model and how it will be reassembled, or even what it will be reassembled into is uncertain.

What we do know is that it will be reassembled into something different. The coronavirus crisis will change politics forever. Even if, as Stephen Bush of the New Statesman puts it, the right choices are made and the economy is successfully preserved, different ways of living and organising will have to be found.

In the meantime, as attempts are made to reassemble the scattered bricks of belief, so we enter a topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderland world. One in which the president of the United States can utter:

“The government intervention is not a government takeover. Its purpose is not to weaken the free market. It is to preserve the free market.”

And it’s actually one of the least contested remarks he’s made. It’s a bit like saying the state needs to be small until it needs to be big.

Although President Trump is enjoying a level of public approval signs of his erratic behaviour are concerning. As America tries to catch up with the rest of the world the president tries to undercut experts. He weighs in on a New York area quarantine but offers no details about how his administration would enforce a travel ban. He adds to a widespread mood of fear and anxiety, which in turn plays to his blowhard leadership style as borders close and normal life breaks down.

As a hospital in Illinois reports the first known Covid-19 death of an American infant.

In Britain, the Government reveals its shock by a lack of an adequate public information campaign. That was topsy-turvy too. It has excelled at promoting Brexit. It has Got Brexit Done, and if you said “Got?” to any member of the public and asked for a response it would have been “Brexit Done!”

It had wanted Brexit.

It had prepared for that eventuality.

It had not wanted Covid-19.

It had not prepared.

So it was totally blindsided.

In the shock of being blindsided it did something that we can all find ourselves doing. It acts irrationally and against its own self-interest. It abandons developing systematic testing and tracing for the virus. The system had been there at the outset when Brits in China were expatriated, but when the workload expanded the Government abandoned it. Tests become limited primarily to hospital admissions and there are rising concerns about the absence of testing in social care settings.

Most of us aren’t fully familiarised with Covid-19 testing. Even some journalists don’t register that there is a massive difference between the Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, test for viral genetic material and the Antibody test, which is for human antibodies produced in response to the virus. The PCR test is to see if a patient is infected and is therefore almost certain to be infectious. The antibody test simply that a patient has been infected. It’s useful, but it does not indicate whether they are infectious or not and no one’s clear about how long immunity lasts.

Some are suffering shock because business giants suddenly find themselves out of sync with a sudden change in human behaviour. Like palaeolithic behemoths that woke up to find that the ecosystem has changed while they were sleeping. Airlines are fighting for survival. As the virus spread, borders closed and flight routes dried up.

You can Google it. Simply enter ‘covid air traffic map gif’ and you can see animations based on aircraft transponders. Collectively they look like the workings of a single celled organism and you can watch the planet’s metabolism being infected. It’s chillingly intriguing.

Richard Branson stepped up, pledging $250 million to save jobs at Virgin Atlantic from his own personal cash pile and Virgin Group. His initial reluctance triggered a Twitter storm, many tweets inviting him to sell Necker Island if he was that strapped for cash. It turned out he wasn’t.

Some businesses rise in people’s awareness. Takeaways have become ‘essential’. Previously underpaid and undervalued, the drivers that deliver your meals are now at the top of the pile as we question what’s important today.

Some businesses have a golden opportunity. Dyson will make 10,000 ventilators at a British historic airforce base. The race is on to build the ‘CoVent’, which was designed in ten days. It could reach hospitals in the UK and beyond in just weeks.

Some change people’s tastes: award-winning chef and writer Zoe Adjonyoh provides hot meals and wellbeing kits to vulnerable people nearby and in the process helps start an African food revolution in London.

And many leave people at home, struggling to get started, to concentrate without all the immediate distractions at hand, while at the same time knowing how not to become overloaded with information. Defining work-life balance when all happens within the same four walls is the new big challenge facing so many, where partners and families all become part of the mix. Increasingly downtime become important. Socialising apps like Houseparty become the thing of the moment, with caveats, of course, about privacy pitfalls and the need to be savvy about your settings.

Also, online, Greta Thunberg’s climate activism continues. In locked-down countries there are no schools to not attend, but, if anything, the Covid-19 is an experience of how easily a world humans have taken for granted can turn on lax custodians. Climate change has not gone away and the world will not cease its warming trend because human activity has a respite of a few months, maybe a year or two. We are reminded of our vulnerability.

The medical and scientific communities do not need reminding. The World Health Organisation crowdfunds clinical and research experiences, what has worked and what hasn’t and connectivity through countless servers makes it possible for the whole of humanity to learn from failures and share successes almost overnight. If the transponders of airliners can give us an impression of how we collectively sicken as a planet, then the sharing of information via Zoom, emails and other wonders of tech surely shows humanity’s immune response.

Unlike a vaccine or wonder-drug this phenomenal development goes largely unsung, but innumerable lives will be saved by it in the months ahead.

And while the medical profession in dozens of countries pore over the triumphs and tribulations of the early days of Covid-19, the people of Wuhan start going back to work.

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