Tuesday 31st March 2020

Daily Diary: Everyday Messing With Our Heads

We’ve been socially isolated for over a week. Life feels very restricted. I think about all those who are having much more difficulties than we are, whether in the UK or further afield. The least advantaged in society are now enduring a living hell. There are car parks marked out in squares in Nevada, so the homeless can sleep socially distanced. The tall towers of Las Vegas hotels mark the skyline in the background. Migrant labourers are being evicted in New Delhi and other Indian cities. Scenes of them being fire-hosed with disinfectant as if they are livestock are truly alarming. We thought this kind of dehumanisation was a symptom of war. Not so. This is a vision that resonates with the Holocaust.

Mental health stories are already emerging. In its own way it is a struggle as many of us are having our heads messed up with both uncertainty and visions of our own mortality. There are stories of women in particular trapped as prisoners of domestic abuse across the world. It’s not just your own mortality but the consequences of being infected on your own nearest and dearest. For the NHS – for the person whose space you have effectively taken as one of a rising curve.

Out on the common people are in ones and twos. A middle-aged couple returning home from a walk. Two mums in different parts of the green with pushchairs, giving the little ones some fresh air. There’s a dad playing kickabout with his young child, maybe a four year old, and a young couple just sitting pensively overlooking the ravine we call The Slade. There is a breeze and what I call a mixed sky, where different clouds are layered.

Small stuff gets bigger when the easy means of dealing with it gets more difficult. Vicky and I are both in our late sixties. We are pretty sure we might not get a ventilator if we go down badly and we have no means of checking out our fears, so our only option is to do everything possible not to go down at all. Vicky has a bad pain in her left shoulder and it’s becoming chronic. She doesn’t want to go to the doctor because of an increased risk of being infected. Yet it is painful and could probably be alleviated by the right anti-inflammatory. It’s those secondary consequences that are of concern. How many people will miss out on treatment? How far will people push the envelope of tolerating discomfort and how many conditions will get worse?

How long will the NHS be in catch up and it’s inevitable diseases such as cancer will in some cases progress to more troubling and harder to treat stages.

With all of this comes stress and anxiety and neither Vicky nor I are immune from it.

I believe it’s called self-preservation.

The Bigger Picture: Day Turning To Night

Like day turning to night, it’s a simple change with profound consequences when an infinitesimally small pathogen infects a population.

And as with the dark the nightmares come.

In Britain 381 people have died from coronavirus in twenty-four hours. The day to day figures are a bit erratic, dogged by delays in recording and reporting, but the seven-day average is much more reliable – and ominous. It’s rising exponentially. Saturday 28th March the seven-day average is 123, but with each passing day it’s rising exponentially – 135, 153, and today 195. It looks like the nightmare has begun.

In Belgium the coronavirus kills a 12-year old girl in Belgium, leaving doctors, nurses and family utterly devastated. It’s another ghastly face of the nightmare. Children are much safer from the ravages of Covid-19 but no-one is totally safe.

In Albany, Georgia, the nightmare becomes ghoulish as a funeral on February 29th turns out to have become a superspreading event in the weeks that followed, as if the dead were trying to recruit mourners into their sombre cohort.

For healthcare workers in many lands the nightmare is real as insufficient PPE sows dread and fear into those whose safety depends on it. Single-use N95 masks end up being worn over and over again, sometimes for several days on end. Hope and desperation, rather than design becomes the purpose of wearing them. In England there are now calls for PPE provision from asbestos firms and car workshops. Air ambulance workers are pleading for PPE donations and PPE is being diverted from vital social care service providers because the Government has failed to adequately provide those on the frontline.

And to the point of being a horror cliché, the virus picks on the most vulnerable first as it’s confirmed that people with underlying health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease are likely to get more severe symptoms from Covid-19 and have worse outcomes.

Another horror cliché is a deserted world. Drones flying over Paris, Rome, Athens, Prague, Trafalgar Square in London, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence and countless other tourist hotspots capture panoramic footage of the emptiness in a way that would have been barely possible a decade ago. Quietly apocalyptic

The darkness has its denizens too. Corona criminals creep out of the shadows to do their worst. Corona-spitting becomes a new, disgusting and deadly form of assault, while organised crime groups have adapted their activities to benefit from the global health crisis. Common practices are fraudulent calls from health officials and counterfeited protective equipment.

While leaders around the world invoke executive powers and extend their authority. For the most part citizens are compliant in these early stages of the lockdown, but critics say some governments are using the crisis to seize powers that have little to do with the coronavirus. Watching how China has appeared to be successful in dealing with the virus some begin to fear that moves like mass surveillance will take place.

Hungary’s parliament has voted to give prime minister Victor Orban the power to rule by decree, punish journalists whose reporting it deems inaccurate and suspend all elections indefinitely in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. A number of politicians in Brussels protest that it’s unacceptable and against the core democratic values of the EU, but the EU does nothing. Europe is, to use the words of the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Mauro, at war with Covid-19.

Despite that, and the longstanding discord between himself and Victor Orban, George billionaire Soros donates a million to the capital city, Budapest, where he was born.

Concerned about the pandemic’s effect of citizens coming out to polling stations, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party drafted a new law to turn the up and coming election into a postal only vote.

Where there are alliances it matters more than ever that there is common purpose. And never more so than when it’s a life and death struggle with the same invisible and stealthy enemy. As in so many other cases where Covid-19 has stress-tested human beings at every level in the first quarter of the twenty first century it finds weaknesses, not just personal, but systemic too. The fabric of the European Union begins to tear.

The European Union is largely untested when it comes to public health emergencies. Ebola happened at the very fringes, AIDS less so, but it never became centre stage. It shared with Britain the history-derived complacency that it was a faraway problem. So such matters lay beyond the EU’s competence and as a result, despite the early all too visible traumatic scenes from Northern Italy, it was slow to react.

The virus continues to affect different countries at different rates. For years a number of member states had fine-tuned passing the buck with mass migration. They had learned how to duck and dive responsibility and where the boundaries of Brussels’ authority lay. Now coronavirus challenges any unified response. Without anything approaching intelligence or strategy it succeeds in dividing its human opposition.

In a glimmer of hope, in Spain, despite coronavirus deaths peaking at over nine hundred a day, the number of patients recovering far outnumbers the casualties, more than 16,000 people have already been discharged from Spanish hospitals. But it all looks like one country at a time on its own Covid journey.

It’s becoming clear in Trump’s America is struggling with achieving a unified approach. It’s hardly surprising that twenty-seven different countries could succeed in achieving solidarity either.

Across the Channel there are Brexiteers who relish the schadenfreude. They have little to crow about as the virus begins to drive a wedge between the nations of the Union too. 

So as different countries take wildly different approaches, Belgium lashes out at the Netherlands over its initially lax measures, Denmark disapproves Sweden’s approach, Italy is fuming about being left high and dry about the economic consequences

And it looks like everyone is seriously pissed off with Hungary!

There’s a frustration in the West. Countries in the Far East are seen to have managed the virus. South Korea has kept Covid-19 at bay without a total lockdown and after months of a shutdown economy, China’s factories are ramping back up.

Test and trace comes across as being a kind of magic bullet, and there is a feeling abroad that ‘if they can do it, why can’t we?’

It’s a bit like watching a virtuoso violinist play, picking up a fiddle and believing you can knock out Bruch’s Violin Concerto Number One first go.

The British government tells its citizens it’s going to increase testing to 25,000 a day, but reports suggest there is a shortage of equipment. Michael Gove tells a variation of the story that the UK needs to move faster with testing but there was a shortage in a key chemical needed for them to work.

Not splitting hairs on the detail – just that the UK at present is unprepared.

The same is the case in America, compounded by a toxic combination of the president’s lack of receptiveness to the problem and political tribalism. When the Democrat governor of Montana told Trump that his state was on the verge of running out of tests, Trump replied that he had not “heard about testing being a problem.”

The vaccine remains a hope but seems a long way off. Some scientists are testing an old and controversial tuberculosis vaccine to see if it could protect against coronavirus. Spurring on a theory of general immunity – that if you are immune to one disease some of that capacity can be carried over to others. There is a little substance to the hundred-year-old idea – but only a little.

One way or another we will need twenty first century science to tackle this virus and that ultimately means the power and resources of big pharma. Johnson & Johnson is already ramping up production on its $1 billion coronavirus vaccine.

They are not alone.

Despite their being instruments of last resort in this war propaganda plays an important part. The ventilator becomes the tank being transported to the battlefront. Cabinet minister Michael Gove announced that the “first of thousands” of newly manufactured ventilators would “roll off the production line” this weekend and be distributed to the NHS frontline next week.

Hooray, as ventilator after ventilator rattles past our eyes into action!

Well, that’s what it feels like, anyway!

In the United States things are even worse. Ventilators are up on online auction, it’s state against state, with the federal government in the bidding as well. I don’t know how many comedy sketches have been written about the stereotypical fool inadvertently outbidding himself, but this is no joke. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo says ventilators are going for $50,000. That’s up from $20,000.

What chance winning the war when you’re battling with madness?

While all this craziness is going on the number of Covid-19 cases is continuing to accelerate. The US recorded 500 coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours. New York, the state that’s hardest hit to date, sees its highest number of hospitalisations in a single day. Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose brother just got diagnosed with Covid-19, says the peak of the outbreak in that state could be anywhere between one and three weeks from now.

On Sunday, President Trump heeded the warning of public health officials and walked back his plan to lift social distancing guidelines by Easter. Instead, makes a public announcement of “a very, very painful two weeks” ahead.

Roughly three quarters of American people are, or soon will be, under instructions to stay indoors as states try to check the spread of the coronavirus before hospitals are overwhelmed.

Top government scientists battling the coronavirus have estimated that the deadly pathogen could kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans, in spite of the disruptive social distancing measures that have closed schools, banned large gatherings, limited travel and forced people to stay in their homes. Time will prove this to be an underestimate, despite how shocking the numbers seem at this time.

Many of those who are still working are in fear of the virus stalking their place of work. A number of grocery store workers are getting hazard pay but it’s by no means all. A sickout is planned today by Whole Foods Market employees in protest at what they see as inadequate safety measures and insufficient pay for the risks they are confronting. The worker who led a similar walkout from an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island on Monday has been fired.

Farm workers aren’t receiving the protections and hazard pay of those dealing with groceries. They want to know why. Yet another example of coronavirus divisiveness.

Mexico and the United States shut their border, while the Trump administration has sped up construction of a wall on the southern border, arguing it will help to limit the spread of the virus from Mexico. It’s Alice in Wonderland stuff as outbreaks are occurring in every state, something recognised by health insurance companies as UnitedHealthcare is the latest large member of their fold to waive out of pocket expenses for Covid-19 treatment.

It’s not so much healthcare insurance companies showing a newly discovered compassion, but an increasing number of customers who won’t be able to pay. Wall Street had its worst month since 2008 as the coronavirus decimated the global economy. Political promises of “whatever it takes” to save the local economy don’t convince the markets and although passed by Congress it will take weeks for payments from the US Coronavirus Relief Fund to arrive in people’s letterboxes. In Europe there are some who see ‘coronabonds’ as a means of steering away from a deep recession there have been a million job losses in just two weeks – but the Germans in particular are not keen on the idea, seeing German money yet again underwriting other countries’ debts.

In Britain, Covid-19 makes social inequality worse by the day as prime minister Boris Johnson is held hostage to fortune as he is constantly reminded about his promise to “level up” Britain. It requires a leap of imagination, or faith, to now see that happen.

Boris Johnson chairs the first ever digital-only Cabinet meeting for ministers, with just cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill present in the Cabinet room itself. Following the national pastime of looking at various ministers’ Zoom backdrops; their bookshelves and their Union Jack flags Liz Truss wins the prize.

Number 10 said it expected the PM to end his self-isolation this Friday, while health secretary Matt Hancock told BBC Radio Suffolk: “I’m on the mend.”

But cynics among the great British public, after all the bodge and fudge about the Government’s response to the pandemic barely care.

Nor do they much about minister for the cabinet office’s words in his boss’s absence, even though they read as being statesmanlike.

“Now is absolutely not the time for people to imagine there can be any relaxation or slackening …. People’s sacrifices are worth it, if they are making a difference, but we must not let up.”

The Home Office announces that NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics with UK work visas due to expire before 1st October will have them automatically extended for a year so they can ‘focus on fighting coronavirus.’

It’s a relief, but it masks a deeper and troubling problem. Britain has not invested in training sufficient healthcare workers, recruiting from countries that may soon have equally pressing healthcare problems. For example, Bulgaria and Romania have seen thousands of healthcare workers go West in search of new opportunities. But this has left the system back home with a shortage of doctors and nurses, particularly those specialising in intensive care.

The Government is to spend £75 million on charter flights and airline tickets in order to repatriate up to 300,000 Britons stranded abroad as many civil airports around the world shut up shop to curb the pandemic.  

Derbyshire Police will be given new guidance warning them not to exceed their powers to enforce social distancing and lockdown rules, amidst concerns that overzealous policing could risk Britain becoming a “police state” if officers continued to attempt to bar people from driving to exercise in the countryside.

And, surreal as it sounds, the UK takes this moment to announce an ‘ambitious plan’ to become a hub for green transport.

But then these are surreal times.

  • Alan Jope, CEO of consumer goods giant Unilever, is running the whole show from home.
  • Amid Covid-19 fears, some mothers are now being separated from their babies immediately after birth. Partners are not allowed to be there. It’s harsh – as if we’ve been catapulted back to the 1950s. The terms ‘covid birth’ and ‘covid baby’ come into use.
  • March was a month of panic-buying at unprecedented levels. Between 24th February and 21st March UK shoppers spent an extra two billion pounds extra in stockpiling groceries. Toilet paper and spaghetti feature strongly in the madness and Britons made 80m extra grocery shops in less than a month.
  • Not only are supermarket staff run-off their feet, but they are among the workers who are right in the frontline. We need to see them also as heroes and we should clap them as well as the NHS medics. We’re beginning to see those who sustain our everyday lives clearer than ever before – delivery drivers, post office workers and front of counter in pharmacies. 
  • Zoom, the videoconferencing app whose traffic has surged, and which has been the means for many to continue social cohesion with family and friends, is under scrutiny for its data, privacy and security practices.
  • Now that theatre fans aren’t able to visit, the National Theatre establishes ‘National Theatre at Home’. A range of plays will be made available to stream via YouTube in April and May, starting with One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean and starring James Corden.
  • “Some homeless will stay on the streets if hotels won’t accommodate their dogs.” Jade Statt, founder of StreetVet, urged hotels to make an exception to their ‘no dogs’ policies during the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • The loss of overseas students as a result of the pandemic’s effect on travel, and the risk of more prestigious institutions flooding their courses with UK students at the expense of smaller colleges results in universities having their admissions capped for the first time since 2015.
  • Despite many sources of employment being under threat there are British companies and sectors urgently looking for workers during the Covid-19 outbreak. Delivery drivers and agricultural workers are in particular short supply.

While my local messages tell various lockdown stories:

A request for someone to collect a new laptop:

“Hi guys. We are self-isolated, my child and I for the next 12 weeks because of my child’s condition. My child (8 years old) is gonna have to do online lessons. I bought a laptop and I need someone who can pick it up from Argos, Bexleyheath to Plumstead Common. (I will pay for it). Thank you.”

A call for face-mask fabric:

“Face masks for carers: Hi all. My parents are at an extra care sheltered accommodation at Richard Neve House in Plumstead. The carers are doing a great job but have a very low supply of masks. I made some and I liked them so I have offered to make one for each (26) of them – but here is where you come in. I need thick cotton fabric, like chinos, overalls or even aprons (it needs to be so thick you can’t see through it). I also need a cotton lining material, thin (knicker) elastic, lots of it and Singer sewing machine needles. 90 is the size I use but any would be a godsend! I am down to my last needle. I live in Welling, XX XXXXX Road, if anyone could drop off any spares please. I will put my old paper bin near my front door. If anyone could help then we can all do our bit to help them. A BIG THANK YOU FOR READING THIS.”

Gratitude to NHS health workers:

“Thank you, NHS, for all you do. Last night I was feeling a bit unwell, my daughter was worried she called the ambulance service, however we had to cancel as I felt better …. To my surprise the medics showed up at my door at 7 am, saying they knew I cancelled and was doing a follow-up …. They took a good half hour checked all my vital signs, including blood pressure etc. etc. I am most grateful to the NHS and to the two young medics. Please give them a like for me, a thumbs-up and a thank you. They have families at home too but are putting themselves out there to keep us safe …. Thanks ever so much.”

Frustration in getting healthcare:

“Medical attention. Has anyone any suggestions as to how to get to speak to someone at the local health centres, Gallions or Heronsgate. All I need to somehow get my regular 3 monthly injections of B12 vitamin, usually done by the practice nurse. I have tried repeatedly to get someone to use these centres but always get a recorded message of no use and when I get told to ‘press 1’ for reception the line just goes dead. Peter Burgess.”

Feeling let down:

“What’s the point!! I am usually not a judgemental person here; however, I go out due to the guidelines despite I don’t want (to) and keep(ing) my 2m distance as much as I can. I am on the bus going to Queen Elizabeth Hospital to find five nurses all grouped together very closely. Well, what’s the point of lockdown if they can’t even respect the two metres distance at the very least. Might as well infect the entire population and start again. I despair. I respect them but, my goodness, they need to think about this. They could be carriers with no symptoms and infecting everyone else. I wonder at times am sorry am having a bad day but this virus will stay for a long time if people now don’t follow the rules.”

And a second prayer in two days:

“Dear friends, please turn to God in this period of Lockdown. We need God’s help to deal with this terrible disease.”

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