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!

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.

Thursday 19th March 2020

Daily Diary: Unqualified to be Pious – I’m Just as Stupid as Anyone Else

It all came home to me today. The seriousness. The possibilities. The risks. And it hit me pretty hard. I’m as prone as the next person to having to learn the hard way, of needing the chillingly cold-boned hand of experience to teach me something. I think there’s a lot wrapped up in that – the feeling that ‘it won’t happen to me,’ and the complacency accompanying it.

The day begins with noticing an old flying buddy describing himself as going down with covid-like symptoms. He’s a burly, stocky, athletic guy and it tells me that the virus isn’t too fussed about who it floors. Then China reports their first day with no new cases, suggesting, prematurely perhaps, that there are calm waters beyond the storm and there will be a time when normality will switch itself back on again.

I check the weather forecasts and try to figure out where the best flying is likely to be. Minster on the Isle of Sheppey looks too strong from the get-go. Bo Peep in Sussex and Whitewool in Hampshire both look potentially mizzly and what I’d describe as ‘aerologically indifferent.’  So I choose Mundesley on the Norfolk coast this time.

It’s a long drive – through the Blackwall Tunnel, up the M11, then A11 to the Norwich bypass, then around and on to Mundesley. I reach the launch site and the wind is the ‘upper end of sensible,’ as paraglider pilots would say. Good for coastal flying, but I have real trouble with inflating the glider, the wing coming up fiercely fast and overshoots faster than I can damp it. Usually I can check this with the C-lines pretty easily, but today I’m finding it particularly difficult. It’s frustrating. Worse than that I’m allowing myself to become frustrated, which in this sport is a bad place to be. Mindset is really important. There is more than a touch of Zen in paragliding as the art – and reward – is being in the moment. The more you fly, the better you get, the more this state becomes achievable, but it’s a mistake to ever think you’re there. What’s more there is an internal weather of the mind that a flyer has to be every bit as aware of as the weather outside, with calm days and stormy ones.

I give it three goes and call it off. Then a fellow pilot suggests a lower take-off. On stronger days with coastal flying you can often launch as low as the beach. The air will pick you up and the airflow over the terrain will do the rest. I give up the higher launch and carry my wing to a lower, more benign take-off spot. The pilot’s young girlfriend, who’s not a paraglider pilot, although she skydives kindly helps me to lay out my wing and gets a couple of bits of dried vegetation out of my lines. I’m grateful. I’m also subliminally rattled, which means I lack the calmness to be sufficiently methodical before take-off. If this was Zen I’d get one out of ten but the inflation was smooth in the less aggressive airflow and I launch, setting to climb the cliff-line as I proceed. It works, but I feel less than comfortable in the air and I soon top land.

I’m spooked. I start to think, “What if?” I wonder what would have been the train of events that would have followed something going wrong. What would have been the impact on the local health services at a time of coronavirus? I’m far from happy with myself at my own quest for self-gratification. It’s a wake-up call. To carry on doing this is selfish and foolish. I decide to stop flying that day. Clearly, I’m not on form if I’m capable of making such a careless, basic error as to launch when my head’s not in the right place. I decide to ground myself until the coronavirus pandemic has at least eased.

It’s a pity. Free-flying is at its best life-affirming, but I’m no longer young. At its worst it can devastate. I’m calling it a day. I did fly, but not in the way I wanted to. I don’t think the long drive helped either.

It’s a turning point. Coronavirus has made me rethink my life. I’m alarmed that yet again I’m foolish enough to have to learn from experience rather than foresight, and looking at the whole of humanity at the moment and realise that they’re learning from experience rather than foresight too. People, in the face of the oncoming plague, are still going to pubs, clubs and having parties.

Who am I to judge? They’re not that different from me.

The Bigger Picture: Dark and Uncertain Times

It was with great dignity that the Queen announced to her nation in these dark and uncertain times, “Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that our loved ones are safe. I am certain we are up to that challenge.”

I was with somewhat less dignity that Rod Liddle wrote in The Times, “If the tickly cough doesn’t get you, an avalanche of loo rolls might.”

Each statement in its own divergent way sums up where we’re at, as the number of deaths rose to 144 as a further 29 patients died in England. The youngest was 47 and had underlying health conditions. Among the public is a growing anxiety with workers facing job losses; parents and children facing the consequences of school closures and scrapped examinations.

PM Johnson decides that an almost casual optimism is the best approach in his press conference alongside his Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty and Chief Science Adviser, Patrick Vallance. The audience of journalists are sat six feet apart but the troika making the announcements are much closer – half that distance. There’s an air of impatience around Boris Johnson and it’s clear he wants to get the whole show over with. It’ll all be over in twelve weeks or so he loosely reassures us all. So long as we can keep our most vulnerable at home all will be well.

Bish, bash, bosh, job done!

He rules out London Transport lockdown to control the coronavirus. There is no intention of shutting down train, tube or bus services in the capital. New draconian measures contained in the Government’s Emergency Powers Bill range from shutting ports and airports to allowing police to force people into quarantine, yet libertarian Johnsonism baulks at using them, even in the face of what now appears to be a deadly pandemic, so the country is like a leaky sieve with thousands freely carrying the virus into Britain totally unchecked.

There is a touch of Edward Lear’s nonsense about Johnsonism:

And everyone said who saw them go,

“O won’t they soon be upset, you know!

For the sky is dark and the voyage long,

And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong

In a sieve to sail so fast!”

Far and few, few and far,

Are the lands where the Jumbled Brits live;

With vaguest hope and without half a clue,

They were all at sea in a sieve.

Other countries are much less sieve-like. Australia will close its borders to the outside world for at least six months starting Friday. Canada and New Zealand have made similar orders. Travelling Australians feel they’ll be stranded if they can’t find a way back home in the next few days. It’s tough on expatriates everywhere, whether casual travellers, migrant labourers or refugees. Some, like the Senegalese students in Wuhan will who won’t be repatriated find themselves stuck as strangers in strange lands.

Practical pandemic policymaking is clearly not PM Johnson’s ‘thing,’ but political backbiting, however, is much nearer to his comfort zone. Many Tory MPs are calling for urgent action on wage subsidies. But then again, so did former PM Gordon Brown. Now Boris Johnson is in his element, spiking back that his response to coronavirus would be better than Brown’s in the 2008 financial crisis, when the banks were bailed out but the public left adrift.

“This time it will be different,” he says. “We’re going to make sure we really make sure to look after the people who suffer economic consequences of what we’re asking them. We’re going to look after the people first.”

Financially, that is.

Already underway are measures like those Chancellor Rishi Sunak has declared, along with moves like completely suspending cutting off prepayment electricity meters energy suppliers have agreed to an emergency package of measures for four million pay as you go customers during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Bank of England cuts interest rates to just 0.1%, a week after the rates were cut to 0.25%.

We’re led to believe that we are world-beaters in our government giving financial support but in fact it isn’t quite the case. Richer countries – those that can afford to – are doing much the same. The ECB will buy an extra €750 billion of bonds in a bid to ease the economic pressure caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. IMF chief Christine Lagarde vowed to use all the tools at her disposal to combat the crisis and save the Euro. While in Canada, Justin Trudeau has invested $27 billion in grants and $55 billion in loans to households and businesses as the country seeks to combat the spread of Covid-19. In the US Senate republicans have proposed an economic rescue plan that includes large corporate tax cuts, cheques of $1,200 for taxpayers and limits in paid leave.

China, where the Covid-19 outbreak began, has reported no new local coronavirus infections in the previous day. It’s a milestone in its costly fight to rein in the outbreak. While Italy, whose death toll has soared to 3,405 overtakes China as the country worst hit by Covid-19. Europe and the rest of the world braces for a surge in new cases.

Although China’s neighbours, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan have kept the number of cases down with much success the virus continues to spread rapidly and relentlessly across most parts of the world. Borders close and it’s a struggle to keep goods moving.

Where it does get a hold and start to increase exponentially healthcare systems start to look like they’re dealing with a wartime crisis. In France, Covid-19 patients are being relocated to military hospitals and the army is being drafted in to assist health and other workers as the country continues to battle against Covid-19.

“This is serious,” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said in a televised address. “Take it seriously.”

While head of the EU trade negotiating team Michel Barnier tests positive for Covid-19. The virus is arbitrary in whom it chooses, or the part they play in the affairs of humans.

It’s in recognition of such arbitrariness that public events are put on ice. Not even God can do much about that, and the ancient ritual of prayer changes. Mosques are closed, sermons are shortened and communion causes anxiety. The Church of England restricts weddings to just five people.

In London’s theatres the curtains come down as more than 83 million are affected as events are cancelled or rescheduled. Here are some of them:

  • Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Originally scheduled between 3rd and 18th July. Reportedly 200,000 attendees.
  • San Diego Comic Con. Originally scheduled between 23rd and 26th July. 130,000 attendees.
  • MWC technology summit in Shanghai. Between June 30th and July 2nd. Expected 75,000.
  • Voodoo Music and Arts Experience in New Orleans from 30th October into November. Expected 150,000.
  • The Brooklyn Half Marathon in New York. Set for May 16th for 27,000 runners.
  • Again in New York, the World Pride Parade. The LGBT festival attended by five million last year.
  • Oktoberfest, the cultural festival in Germany. Originally scheduled for this autumn. Six million brandishing steins and raising the roof with singing lusty traditional drinking songs.
  • The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain between 7th and 14th July with a million.

It’s not just public performances and events that are put on hold for now. Television drama and movie sets are abandoned as it becomes increasingly difficult to combine normal human behaviour with social distancing, masks and the other precautions needed to contain the virus. But there’s an unexpected upside as TV medical dramas donate their medical supplies to hospitals in need during the coronavirus pandemic. Fox’s “The Resident,” ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and NBC’s “New Amsterdam” are giving items to real doctors and nurses fighting Covid-19 as our fantasies and reality collide.

For now, that human herding instinct – to become part of a crowd – is checked.

Time will tell and its new manifestations will become darker and more troubling, starting in America, but it doesn’t know it yet.

America at the start had been watching the disease spread from afar, as it observes so much else about the wider world. Anyone who has been stateside knows that great potential for isolation, with its own huge internal distances and the way in which the whole country feels so far away, except for Canada and Mexico. Some had watched the outbreaks bloom with a detached horror, others disbelief and denial as story after story entered the news channels, first from China and then from Europe.

Now the realisation was emerging, like the awareness that a malevolent life form was onboard ship, like a scene from ‘Alien,’ or maybe ‘Life.’ US coronavirus cases jump by 40% overnight as health officials brace for a significant influx of patients, many of them also aware of the shortfall in supplies of PPE for Healthcare workers in the front line. The first two members of Congress test positive for coronavirus and according to a poll conducted by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago found that two thirds of Americans concerned about contracting the Covid-19 illness.

Meanwhile American society tried to adapt. Knowing that it could lead to unwanted and unmanageable consequences US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it would stop making arrests, except for those considered ‘mission critical’ until the crisis ends. Grocery stores have started to reserve times for their most vulnerable customers, and across a nation facing a problem it shares with so many other countries across the world, namely how do you educate a billion stay-at-home kids? There are online websites like Khan Academy but there is so much more involved in getting children to learn other than making resources available and as school systems shut across the US, their leaders are pleading for guidance from the federal government. 

But there are no simple solutions.

American life has been transformed in a few short weeks. The next few will be even tougher, exacerbated by the erratic behaviour of their President, Donald Trump. He tries to rebrand Covid-19 as the ‘China virus.’ There’s widespread condemnation, but it fits his wider nationalist narrative. Sino-American relations are already worrying. China’s mass expulsion of American journalists is an alarming escalation. It’s a tit-for-tat retaliation for the Trump administration on Chinese media companies operating in the US.

Trump also declares at one point that the US FDA watchdog had approved an over-the-counter anti-malarial drug chloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus. Within minutes the FDA denied it. It’s alleged Trump actually wanted to go further to claim the at the drug was a “cure” for the disease, but was talked out of it.

Random distractions are a politically expedient displacement activity from having to deal with a deadly infectious disease, about which we are still learning. A new study shows that SARS-CoV-2 can linger in the air for hours and on some materials for days. Another that coronavirus infection is mild in over half of children with infants being slightly more at risk. And despite it being particularly damaging to the elderly and vulnerable, even young and healthy people may not always make a full recovery.

We might still be learning about the virus. It’s invisible to us as we carry out our day to day lives. But that’s not to say we’re blind to it.

We can see it with tests and with those tests we know what’s going on.

They are available and the US approves Abbott Labs test for hospital use. But their use has to be widespread and they have to be readily and quickly available. It’s why Bill Gates is urging America to adopt a national tracking system to better monitor the spread of coronavirus.

It’s the key test of political leaders. It’s why countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Germany are having greater success in managing the virus than many other countries.

But then other leaders might well be adopting a position of bluffing.

It’s puzzling that Ukraine is going into full lockdown, while its neighbour, Russia announces her first coronavirus death today. Russia is reporting 147 cases in total, but many Russians believe the total is far higher.

If only Putin’s country hadn’t earned itself the reputation of being the world’s epicentre of misinformation we could all be impressed by his achievement so far.

Wednesday 18th March 2020

Daily Diary: Covid Roulette

Our daughter Emily called us last night on WhatsApp and we we agreed to cancel her coming around with her husband Tom for Mother’s Day this Sunday. Vicky and I were going to say it to Emily, so it came as a bit of relief that she suggested it first. She kindly offered to help in any way and were we okay for food and household essentials? I said we were. Even before ‘The Great Panic’ we had been adding a little pasta and a couple of tins of this and that for the ‘Worst Come To The Worst’ box with about ten days’ worth of basics. When the ‘Great Panic’ came we were sorted and I must admit it was pretty shocking to see entire supermarket aisles with shelves stripped bare, as if we were shopping in a poor country in the developing world.

But the phone call brought the awareness of self-isolation home and the fact that we were right at the edge of the most vulnerable demographic group hit home too. It seems that the world has been turned upside down. A government that up until recently was hitched to national austerity for almost a decade is now pledging a £360 billion support package. For now, the Brexit fiasco is slipping into the background, although the double whammy of Brexit combined with recovering economically from Covid-19 once the epidemic has passed does gnaw at some people’s minds. There is the feeling out there, both home and abroad, that nothing will ever be quite the same again.

I went to the pharmacy to collect essential medicines for Vicky and myself. There are big notices telling me that only two customers are allowed in at a time. Inside, it is in a state of upheaval, partly the result of a new delivery and partly down to a reorganisation being underway. Amid the chaos there’s the pharmacist, wearing a disposable plastic apron and a mask that sits around his neck. His three assistants have no such protection. It’s part of that bigger picture of being caught off-guard by a surprise attack.

Are we all under siege by an RNA bomb only an eighth of a thousandth of a millimetre across?

I think we are.

As chairman of the Dover and Folkestone Hang Gliding Club (although practically everyone paraglides, rather than hang-glides, the name has a tradition) I send out a message by email, WhatsApp and Facebook that future club meetings in May and July will be cancelled and we’ll review the need for a September one. As things stand, I am not advising people not to fly but instead that they exercise caution, along with the possibility that all adventure sports might be curbed in the light of much-stretched NHS services. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could do.

A heart sensor for the rowing machine arrives today. I am keen to be as fit as I can be, stacking the odds in favour of surviving a Covid-19 attack. At 67 I have to imagine such things. It seems like we’re entering a science fiction dystopia.

Perhaps the most depressing thing is seeing people still going to gyms, loudly and raucously holidaymaking in Spain or crowding American beaches. There are claims on CNN that four out of five people going down with the virus apparently caught it off someone who didn’t know they were infected.

Go into close confines with anyone and you’re playing a game of Russian roulette.

Whirrrr…… click …… whirrrr …… click ……. Whirrrr…… click …….. GASP!!!!

The Bigger Picture: So Why Is It Called Covid-19

So why exactly is it called Covid-19? It stands for the coronavirus disease that was discovered in 2019. Or put another way:

COronaVIrus Disease 2019

Strictly speaking, if we’re being purists about it, it should be written COVID-19, but different writers do it in different ways. I’m going to stick with Covid-19.

Whatever you want to call it, it has all the ingredients to make up an unprecedented catastrophe of a disease. Its ‘secret weapon’ is not so much its severity, when you compare it to other viruses such as Ebola. The fact that it expresses mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all in many, lulls human beings into a false sense of security.

“It’s not much worse than flu,” I’ve heard many say;

They wouldn’t be saying that about Ebola.

It can be much more noxious than flu, but that’s not Covid’s secret weapon. It’s that mild to asymptomatic cases are a large driver of the spread of the coronavirus. So it was found in Wuhan, China, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

In other words, people can be spreading a disease before they even know that they’ve been infected. That’s the sneaky trick it pulls on us, and it works, making the Covid-19 outbreak unprecedented in its scale and severity for humans and supply chains, not to mention the medical professionals and governments scrambling to contain it.

And if you get infected it’s a lottery as to whether you barely notice it or whether it has you battling for every breath you take, with the dice weighted for the old and vulnerable.

That’s just plain nasty!

In the UK in the last twenty-four hours the number of coronavirus deaths rose to 104. The number of people who tested positive was 2,626, a rise of 676. It’s not much compared to future numbers, but beneath the surface the numbers are accelerating in the early stages of an exponential curve. We have had the advantage of watching China and Italy and as sure as watching an approaching storm out at sea we know what’s going to happen.

We see quarantines and lockdowns. We see almost a billion children across the world who have seen their school close. We see markets collapsing because investors hate uncertainty. Will Covid-19 be as bad as last year’s flu? Will it be many times worse? It’s the great unknown and markets are responding accordingly. Some looking at history suggest a full economic recovery will be likely to take about five years, but no-one can say for sure.

Out of that unknown come solitary revelations, like those rays of sunlight between the storm clouds. Instagram may offer clues about the spread of the novel coronavirus. Posts show the movement of visitors from virus hotspots. We find with some relief that there’s no evidence that anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, exacerbate Covid-19.

Two sunbeams and a lot of very dark cloud in-between.

And all that ordinary folk like me can do is socially distance and wash my hands properly. Small actions to deal with a massive problem.

For Vicky and I at our stage of life we can shelter in our house and let the woes of the world pass us by. Others are not so fortunate. There’s a petition out to ensure care workers, healthcare assistants and support staff are tested. For them reality is nigh-on frightening, facing this virus face-on with minimal support. It’s not just fair, but sane that they should be tested for the virus when looking after someone who has been infected by the virus or shows symptoms that they might have been. It’s not happening.

Months will pass before anything does happen.

The scandal of what will happen to British carers and those they care for during the dark days ahead hasn’t fully emerged, but the warning signs are there – the lack of testing, the lack of adequate personal protection equipment (PPE), even the lack of consideration for the care sector in the shadow of its larger cousin, the NHS are all there, and you don’t need to look far to see it.

It begs the question, “What kind of society have we become?”

The story that caught my attention was that of Jamie Hale, a 28 year old disabled Londoner who made his own hand sanitiser and protective equipment such as facemasks for himself and his team of carers in a bid to protect them from the spread of the coronavirus, despite being dependent on 24-hour care, including assistance with washing, changing and monitoring his ventilator, which he uses part-time when he sleeps. He also receives assistance from the carers through medication, and supplying food through his feeding tube. Despite his complex needs, Mr Hale said no-one from the government has been in touch to support him and his care team or sent any supplies of PPE.

It’s a story about human resourcefulness and that special kind of heroism that comes with rising to a challenge. It’s also a story of human betrayal by a government that long ceased to care before the pandemic, and found itself unable to once it had arrived.

For most, entering the world of home confinement is a strange new reality. There is already talk of an old reality, a world that once was as if it were years rather than a matter of days ago. Many snuggle down into their sofas and settle into watching the backlog of box-sets, a term now applying to TV series, whether they’re sitting on the shelf or waiting behind the veil of their smart TVs.

There’s a consequence. Netflix’s most popular original films and series in the year to September 2019 produced a combined total of almost 1.5 billion kilos of carbon dioxide. That’s equivalent of travelling 4.6 billion kilometres by car. That’s more than 11,500 car journeys around the circumference of the Earth.

The Eurovision Song Contest, as we know it, camp entertainment event of the year is cancelled. So too is the Glastonbury Festival. It’s a blow to rising artists and countless small traders.

Supermarkets introduce rationing of goods to prevent panic buying.  Pasta and sanitiser are the hot items drawing consumers in like fruit-flies around an abandoned glass of beer.

For the millions who are now working from home remote working platforms and a new way of work-life balance become all-important. But there are many who can’t and the economic shock is both sudden and scary.

 “I stopped working, but I still have to pay the subscription for the car I rent,” says an Uber driver.

And round the corner, a matter of days away is Mother’s Day. I come across the following ditty. I can’t remember exactly where.

“Show your mum you really care,

Even when you can’t be there.”

Part of me thinks it might have escaped from a greeting card and is now running free on the internet.

Stranger things, after all, are happening!

The pinch on the economy continues. It’s a remorseless, a drip by drip torture as one by one. Today, budget airline, Ryanair, says it will ground nearly all flights for next week due to coronavirus. Elsewhere there is talk about governments bailing out the aviation sector, but with a climate crisis looming behind the pandemic many want that help to come with conditions.

Small charities are launching emergency appeals for donations and support. It is feared a third might close, while EE, O2, Three and Vodafone make the charitable step of agreeing to allow their customers to go to NHS 111 website without any data costs.

As in the case of James Hale support for our most vulnerable is patchy and piecemeal and fails the Covid Test.

The Covid Test finds weaknesses. It’s an indicator of sorts and tests to destruction anything it comes across – people, systems, institutions, whole countries. In Spain, for example, it’s testing an inexperienced coalition government that’s facing Europe’s worst outbreak of covid-19 after Italy’s, Spain’s government on March 14th imposed a state of emergency, locking the country down for 15 days. With 14,370 cases and 630 deaths, rising steeply each day, the shutdown is more likely to last at least a month.

At the moment EU countries like Italy and Spain are largely on their own when it comes to the coronavirus. Strong EU measures against the coronavirus are needed, but they threaten European solidarity.

It too needs to pass a Covid Test.

In America there are positive signs. The Senate approved a bill to provide sick leave, jobless benefits, free coronavirus testing and other aid. President Trump is expected to sign it. The Trump administration proposed sending two waves of direct payments to Americans, totalling $500 billion, part of a $1 trillion stimulus plan.

Boris Johnson too is subject to a Covid Test. He’s made a bad start. A focus on staying upbeat about Brexit has muddied the Government’s early start with the Covid-19 pandemic, as has his mixed messaging, brilliantly mocked by comedian Matt Lucas, who can muster more than a passing likeness to the PM, such as pubs can stay open – but don’t go to pubs. His flirtation with herd immunity hasn’t helped much either as it dawns that the country will grind to a halt with so many deaths due to the collapse of the NHS.

He needs to pull things together and look like a leader. As best he can, that is.

So he makes some Big Announcements.

In England there will school closures this Friday and there’s prospect of an actual lockdown to follow. Given that many working parents will have to stop work on Monday there is now huge pressure on the Government to have ready by Monday its plan for ‘employment support’ to subsidise wages and keep them in work.

“We will not hesitate to go further and faster in the days and weeks ahead,” Boris Johnson warns.  It sounds like leadership (or it’s a good act) and the nation braces itself for more draconian measures that might be on the way.

There’s emergency legislation to ban all new evictions for three months and the Scottish Government confirmed it is no longer planning to hold an independence referendum later this year.

It’s looking serious.

Serious enough to take another day out paragliding while I can to clear my head of all this.

Even this cannot escape the long reach of the pandemic. I get an email from a club I belong to:

Your committee has been thinking about flying during the pandemic, in the light of the Government’s advice.

Paragliding and Hang Gliding are mainly solitary and can be important for maintaining our physical and mental health. Whilst some of us will choose not to fly, we’ve pulled together the following guidelines for those that do.

  • Maintain social distancing. Do not park, walk or congregate close to other pilots or people on the hill, unless you have to. Government advice is two metres is a safe distance.
  • Daily check. As applicable to the flying site, ensure the Daily Check is made at the farm BY TELEPHONE before you fly. The situation may have changed since your last visit.
  • Keeping informed. Check the club’s website and other media for the latest information. Be respectful of any restrictions imposed by our hosts. Remember, we only fly with their goodwill.
  • Fly locally. Long downwind cross-country flights are not advised. If you do go xc, then at least pre-appoint a family member as a retrieve driver.
  • Fly safe. Now is not the time to add to the burden of the NHS and emergency services.”

It’s good sense.

Other warnings come my way….

From the Royal Borough of Greenwich about basic hygiene:

“Help prevent the spread of Covid-19. When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve. Remember to wash your hands or use sanitising gel afterwards. Keep updated by checking our website //”

From the local police about a particularly unpleasant scam:

“Coronavirus Doorstep Testing Scam: It has come to our notice the rise in reports of people knocking on doors offering coronavirus (Covid-19) tests. This is not genuine. It may be an attempt to access your property or scam you out of money. If in any doubt, do not open your door and speak to callers either from behind a door or through windows. Please be aware who is knocking at your door and also look out for your neighbours.

From a local citizen concerning shopping for the elderly:

“Does anyone know of any shops that have extra early shopping hours for the elderly? I live in sheltered housing and I want to shop for my neighbours.”

And from a local food bank desperate for more help:

“Hi. I am the local food bank at East Plumstead Baptist Church in Griffin Road. We desperately need younger volunteers to replace those who are self-isolating because of age or pre-existing conditions, or it is likely we’ll have to close. The only people willing to continue are 70 or over or have medical conditions and ideally need replacing (also, but not enough in number). We open every Monday from 2-4 p.m. but need staff from 1 p.m. for deliveries and help is needed every week from next Monday, 23rd March. We serve up to 20 clients a session. Safety precautions exist – gloves, distancing and ‘get food and go’ policy (not our usual way!). Duties are taking and sorting trays and packing food for clients in bags. They will be put in place for clients to pick up so we don’t physically hand to them. Will provide short induction, but runs like clockwork. PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN.”

With each passing day the feeling grows stronger that something very different, very strange and very unpleasant and threatening is on its way.

Day Three: Tuesday 17th March 2020

Daily Diary: Muddle and Mayhem on The Ship of Fools

Practising social distancing begins today. I go out to move the car a little so it doesn’t get boxed in by someone else parking in the street nearby. There’s a giant Porsche SUV tightly squeezed between our car and Alf’s. How it got in there is a miracle, but I’m worried that there might be anything but a miracle as the giant beast tries to get out. Our neighbour Richard passes by and we chat a little about the confusion, the mixed messaging from government and panic buying, He tells me that there’s a three week wait to get a slot for buying online with Sainsbury’s, so he still has to go to the supermarket. I’ve experienced the same dilemma, only I can’t get a slot at all. I don’t even get a chance to check out if I can buy toilet paper online. Wouldn’t that be a treat?

James O’Brien is on the radio complaining about the cognitive dissonance that you must send your child to school but you’ve got to avoid the pub, although at present, the latter instruction from government isn’t obligatory.

Muddle and mayhem.

Twitter is overwhelmed by coronavirus, as is LBC and TV news. The pandemic is beginning to look real and from now on every foray is going to entail not just a risk but a mildly paranoid sense of risk. We’re on a ship of fools, sailing blind through fog, from the prime minister downwards. That too is unnerving.

Vicky and I need to shop for Midge, our lovely, elderly neighbour, aged 92, to get her through to Saturday when she will join her daughter and grandson in Kent, further from London and safer too. We cannot get everything from the local Co-Op, which is normally very well stocked for its size, so we have to visit a corner-shop to get all the bits. Red top milk is hard to find and the nearest we can get to brown bread is 50/50. The Co-Op was the hardest shop to find what we needed, as the larger and more mainstream the store, the harder it has been hit. Our last visit was to the corner shop at the end of our street and we overhear angry talk among customers about panic-buying, and profiteering. ‘Price gouging’ enters my vocabulary. Someone mentions a pack of toilet rolls on eBay going for £160.

We get back home and switch on the TV. The BBC local London news programme is on. There are camera shots of empty streets in the capital.

The word ‘Apocalypse’ comes to mind.

The Bigger Picture: Nothing Like This in Peacetime

“I can’t remember anything like this in peacetime,” declares Boris Johnson in Britain.

“We are in a health war,” Emmanuel Macron tells his French citizens.

“Let’s stockpile guns and ammo,” say American consumers.

From the outset it looks like the States are going to struggle, not just with a disease of the lungs but one of society itself. The idea of catastrophe and societal dystopia as essential bedfellows is deeply embedded in American culture, regularly reinforced by disaster movies, including ones about pandemics. People are either elevated to demigod heights or transformed into degenerate alter-beings. What are zombie movies if they are not about plague victims that need sorting out with one’s very own personal ordnance?

But oversimplification works the other way too. The government edict that all people over the age of 70 should self-isolate is reacted against strongly by many fitter septuagenarians who refuse to be scapegoated or stereotyped. Over seventies are increasingly working and living hard and not ready to be locked away and wait for God.

Not ready at all.

Then it took Matt Hancock an hour to explain to Members of Parliament that fit over-70s were not part of the 12-week quarantine that would start this weekend.

Another guise of oversimplification is in the emergence of the amateur virologist. Twitter has been long, but by no means uniquely, guilty of giving the same weight to poorly informed opinions as it does to well-educated conclusions. Sports pundits have been among the worst offenders. Maybe without much sport they’re stuck for things to pundit about. There are doctors with less than five hundred followers. There are celebrities with hundreds of thousands, even millions.

As Mark Twain once said, “A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.”

That was a good century before the internet and social media. 

Celebrities might have more voice, but like those grisly images from the Middle Ages, Death is happy to dance with prince and pauper. Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson are released from Australian hospital after a Covid-19 diagnosis. They are the first notable American celebrities to fall prey to the virus.

Members of Parliament hardly count as celebrities, although some are borderline, and in some cases make a bold attempt to become one, such as Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who became the first to be tested positive for the virus eleven days ago. Now there’s a second, as Labour’s Kate Osborne also tests positive. It’s clear there’s nowhere the virus won’t go, and the corridors of power are no different from corridors elsewhere. The Speakers of the House of Lords and Commons have announced that all visitor access to parliament will cease for the duration of the crisis and the public galleries of the Lords and Commons will be closed.

Number 10 chief scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, told MPs today that if the UK can get the number of coronavirus deaths to 20,000 and below it would be a good outcome, although it would still be horrible.

Boris Johnson announces his latest advice to the general public.

“Now is the time to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”

There is a sense that lockdown is on its way, but it’s also clear that a populist PM is reluctant to make a commitment to it. The pressures are mounting. People are already voting with their feet. London is shutting down after Boris Johnson’s warning to avoid the pub, office and travel, while not taking the moral courage to announce their closure. Headteachers have warned that expecting all schools to stay open is ‘increasingly untenable,’ following staff shortages and a drop in pupil attendance. The National Education Union, England’s largest teaching union calls for school closures schools ‘at least for some time and at least in some areas.’

Talk about social distancing and suppression measures coming into place in both the media and social media. Not-for-profit groups are stepping up practical support, such as collecting prescriptions and contributing to food banks, for Britain’s most vulnerable groups. There’s even enough frustration for an online petition to implement a UK-wide lockdown.

The PM is chasing the crowd, like an unfit, overweight, mop-haired boy wheezing at the back of a school cross-country run.

Not a pretty sight.

It’s the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who captures the limelight. He’s young, have come into post as the result of the resignation of his boss, the former Chancellor, Sajid Javid over the manoeuvrings of Dominic Cummings. He’s also the only member of the Johnson cabinet who displays anything approaching panache, getting the nickname ‘Dishy Rishi’ on social media. It’s only a few days ago that he has set aside the £12 billion funds for Covid-19 in his Budget. Now it’s been upped to a £360 billion package of emergency loans and grants. His mantra that the UK will do and spend “whatever it takes” to combat the disease is welcomed by many.

It’s also repeated by his boss, PM Boris Johnson, at least six times, every time stressed like a Churchill tribute act: “What-ever it takes!

“In some ways this is like a wartime situation we ran during the second world war,” Robert Chote of the Office for Budget Responsibility explained. “Deficits of 20 per cent GDP five years on the trot and that was the right thing to do at the time.”

The massive input of public spending, essential though it is, runs against the fundamental instincts of many, if not most Tories, who only recently embraced and imposed austerity for the best part of a decade. But it’s needs-must now, payback later.

There is also the unfinished business of leaving the EU and the dogged pig-headedness Johnson and his government have displayed in not extending the transition period beyond the end of December. There is an apparent unwillingness to tackle one crisis at a time. It makes no sense to impose an arbitrary deadline for a trade deal with the EU under these circumstances, but this is not about good sense – it is about a struggling government desperate for a triumph. Somewhere. Anywhere.

Brexit has always been about ideology, culture war and tribalism. These are strangers to good sense. Obvious things like if we give ourselves no time, we will not get a good deal.

The two assumptions that were always made by both sides in the Leave-Remain debate was that the government of the day would be at least averagely competent and there wouldn’t be a more serious crisis running in parallel.

If only we knew four years ago how different today’s reality would be.

We barely know at the moment. Even looking at the global coronavirus map so assiduously compiled by John Hopkins University shows its level of detail becoming crisper with the passage of time, like big square pixels developing into an increasingly defined image and that emerging clarity means a roughness in predicting how the pandemic will be in the days and weeks ahead.

Partly for this reason there still isn’t a clear idea about how bad the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be in the UK. There are fears that Intensive Care Units, slashed by years of austerity cuts, will be overwhelmed and there is a desperate drive for ventilators, currently needed to give life-support to the most afflicted, and PPE – Personal Protective Equipment – needed for all frontline staff. Some London ambulance crews allegedly don’t have any at all. Other health centres, such as the Mildmay Clinic, Britain’s first centre for the treatment of HIV, offer their services to help ease the burden on NHS hospitals, despite being under threat of closure itself.

British researchers studying the coronavirus have made a harrowing projection. If government and individuals don’t take sweeping actions to slow the virus’ spread and suppress new cases, 2.2 million people in the United States could die.

On both sides of the Atlantic governments can see the pandemic coming their way. On both sides too there is a paralysis of strategic action, like rabbits caught in headlights. Fear builds upon other fears as the US plans to turn back asylum seekers and illegal immigrants at the southern border over concerns of coronavirus spreading in detention centres. The reality is that it spreads on the Mexican side of the border. It becomes someone else’s problem, as do so many other issues applying to migrants, refugees and seekers of asylum.

At a time of global pandemic, with a virus that respects no frontiers, xenophobia abounds.

“Chinese virus.” Donald Trump tweets.

It’s a problem. Western. Russian and other scientists face an imperative to work together with China to find ways to deal with the relentless, merciless advance of the virus, but there are some politicians, some within the media and many who wish to foment conspiracies on Facebook and Twitter who appear to thrive on putting up barriers.

I’m beginning to understand why Noah’s neighbours drowned.

Canadian holidaymakers who have left the country in search of winter sun are being urged to return, while Justin Trudeau has told returning travellers that they should self-isolate for 14 days upon returning, but they will not yet be forced to do so.

In Germany churches, sports facilities, bars, clubs and all non-food shops will be shut under anti-virus measures announced by Angela Merkel.

In Sweden colleges and universities will be closed, the government has announced. Schools will remain open, however, as the government believes that the childcare demands will create an extra strain on virus-fighting measures.

Theatre dies in Italy. The show can no longer go on and actors, companies and managers of venues fear about how much they will lose.

In Kenya police have raided a shop and detained ten people for allegedly selling fake coronavirus testing kits. But in fact corona-crime, that you’d have thought was in its infancy is already a global phenomenon and has already spread online with a mass blast of malware-laced emails, purportedly about coronavirus news.

In football, the Euros and Copa Americana moved to 2021 due to coronavirus chaos. This massively wealthy business suddenly has a seizure as it becomes clear it’s not safe to populate stadia. In the months ahead many clubs will fold up.

Businesses are still adjusting to the shock the emerging pandemic is bringing. Some are unrealistically confident. Last Thursday Goldman Sachs held a private conference call to reassure some of its most important clients that markets should be fine by Christmas. In the meantime half of all Americans and 70 per cent of Germans will become infected, around three million Americans will die. It didn’t stay private for long and created a firestorm on social media and despite damage limitation measures by Goldman Sachs the story went viral.

They weren’t alone in miscalculating. A week ago, major US airlines said they could absorb the costs of the coronavirus pandemic. They didn’t fully anticipate the scale of travel bans around the world and have now approached the US government for help.

It’s a coronavirus bear market, with more volatility, no quick fix and a recession. In response to which The Federal Reserve announced an emergency lending programme to keep credit flowing, saying it will buy up commercial paper, a type of short-term debt. It cushions an economy careering towards a recession and in response US stocks rose by 6 per cent.

And it’s a weird stock market with big tech such as Slack, Zoom and Netflix attracting investment, along with Amazon set to hire 100,000 new workers, in demand from everyone stuck at home, while elsewhere share prices keep plummeting.

There already is a wide gulf between winners and losers in the world of business. Among the winners affecting us all are the supermarkets. Some say they are the fourth frontline service. They’re right. Our supplies of food and other daily essentials affect us all. But it could be argued at this stage that they have been wrong-footed by the outbreak more than any other, within weeks going from a relatively quiet pre-Covid normality to being at the heart of the crisis, along with health, care and transport.

A supermarket worker on weathering the outbreak comments on the status quo. “Unlike doctors and nurses, we haven’t got masks and gloves are optional. All we have is hand sanitiser.”

It’s grim.

The alternative – online groceries – is also overwhelmed by a sudden change in reality. Deliveries are all but impossible to find. Customers even find themselves in online virtual queues, waiting for half an hour to get on to the website only to find all the slots gone, even three weeks in advance.

Been there.

Seen it.

Wasn’t even able to buy a T-shirt. 

But those trials and tribulations also bring out the best in people, as volunteers come forward.

“I would like to help elderly people with supermarket shopping. It is very dangerous to do shopping at this time due to coronavirus,” someone near me posts on my local ‘Nextdoor’ messaging site.

There’s even moral support, as another messages.

“I would like to echo all the messages which have been posted about supporting those in our community who need help in whatever capacity. I am also working from home due to our business instructions, so I would love to offer anyone the opportunity to chat virtually if they need to reach out to people.”

This emerging crisis is rekindling a sense of community.

It’s hard to say how much that reassures.

Day Two: Monday 16th March 2020

Daily Diary: The Big Blue and a Chilling Revelation

I threw my kit into the back of the car and drove down to Devil’s Dyke. It was a beautiful flying day. The wind was not too strong. The thermals were both buoyant and well-defined. There’s something very satisfying when what happens on the hill fits in exactly with the forecast I’ve figured out.

There is something about being high in the sky that is truly comforting. As the people on the ground become increasingly small, so do human problems. There is a point when to all intents and purposes people on the ground disappear and simply become part of the scenery. Sometimes, if you’re flying cross-country a paraglider you are following can vanish from sight, swallowed up by landscape or sky. I don’t think I’ve particularly got eagle eyes and suffer perception gaps as easily as the next person, but it still has a certain weirdness about it.

At a couple of thousand feet it was if the spectre of Covid-19 had vanished from the face of the earth. So easy to climb high enough for a ringside seat of a spring, sunlit world ….. and forget.

It’s being in the moment.

It’s precious.

Paragliding has already been banned in France and Spain. There are three good reasons for this. First there’s something like ten times as many pilots, so some of the more popular sites get very busy. That’s so different from the tiny minority of free-flyers on our smaller, windier British hills. Then there are the gatherings in hotels, hostels and bars that amplify the risk of transmitting infectious diseases. Adventuring such as mountaineering and paragliding is big business in places like Annecy and Algodonales. Finally, there is the drain on health services in the event of accidents.

I get into a conversation with two fellow pilots who had been in the sky for simply hours on this wonderful day, Andy McNichol and Luis Martinez-Iturbe. We wondered how long it would be before all non-essential (and popularly perceived as dangerous) sports would be stopped here too. Perhaps we would slip under the radar, but that seemed pretty unlikely. We agreed that with this good springtime weather we seize every day we fly that we can. It did seem that there might not be that many. Everything has an unreal edge to it. We wonder what is imminent and how far away it is. Andy’s wife is a consultant geriatrician. He says it’s almost inevitable he’ll catch the disease somewhere down the line.

Luis is a shipping pilot in the Thames Estuary and its approaches. Among the ships he navigates are cruise liners, about which there were so many news stories of horrific coronavirus outbreaks. The first Brit to die as a result of the virus was on the cruise liner Diamond Princess just over a fortnight ago. Both Andy and Luis are philosophical about their potential proximity to the disease. They’re both much younger and fitter than I am, but I’m not silly enough to say that.

The conversation takes a chilling turn. Andy tells me that his wife has attended a coronavirus triage briefing. The cut-off age has been set at 69, he tells me. Below 69 a casualty will be given every support. Above that age it’s Mother Nature who calls the tune and the best to be expected is palliative care.

I’m sixty eight.

Who’d a ’thought it, huh?

The Bigger Picture: Fear of The Unknown

There is almost something medieval about this worldwide fear of the unknown. In an age of certainty, where by far for most of us the only uncertainties were those of day to day human behaviour, here was something bigger, darker and so much more challenging.

Here’s a disease that arrived as the new kid on the block only four months ago. We don’t yet know if we can get the disease twice. Or if it will mutate into new variants. Or, if we become immune through being infected or sometime in the future hopefully vaccinated, how long we’ll remain immune. There is no cure and the effectiveness of treatments is still in the realm of trial and error.

That’s frightening.

And that fear manifests itself in the form of a bad day on Wall Street. US stocks cratered, falling about 12 per cent on the worst day of trading since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. The Federal Reserve stepped in to prevent further investor panic but it didn’t stop the brakes being applied and trading halted. Almost immediately other central banks follow up with emergency measures.

It manifests itself too with Europeans erecting borders against the coronavirus but it’s too late – the enemy is already within. Country after country enters lockdown. The once busy streets with their chattering cafés are now deserted. People no longer hug and kiss each other on the cheeks. There is in its place an unease. As people isolate so the social fabric begins to fragment.  

Meanwhile, for now at least Brexit Britain treads its own path. Being kind, you could say that the country’s hell-bent on showing that it can do things differently. A less generous analysis would suggest that cluelessness, apathy and a failure to care are more likely explanations. The UK government is keeping schools open during the outbreak while in sharp contrast in so many neighbouring and not-so-neighbouring countries they have already been closed as the coronavirus has spread.

In a token gesture of faux-generosity and concern for the demographically most vulnerable sector of British society the government delays ending the free BBC licence for the over-75s from June to August. It’s seen for what it is and pensioner groups are quick to respond that the UK could still be in the grip of a crisis.

It will be.

To illustrate the confused set of priorities concern is mounting sufficiently strongly for a petition to appear online, calling for the government to test frontline staff in the NHS as a priority. Six months later this will still not be fully addressed.

The government has declared publicly it is not following the WHO strategy, apparently conceding to the inevitability that most people will get the disease, so let’s just go ahead and allow 60 per cent of the population to become infected and build herd immunity through the wild virus. For most people it should only take a few seconds’ reflection to reveal the monstrously unethical folly this happens to be.

The WHO strategy, practiced by South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong – all of whom have much better track records than the UK when it comes to controlling the coronavirus outbreak – is to keep things dampened down until drugs and a vaccine become available. Vaccines are a safer way to develop herd immunity without the risks associated with the disease itself.

The British government shrugs that off, believing that the measures that have all but eliminated the pandemic in South East Asian democracies cannot be maintained and that stories about its elimination will inevitably give way to stories about its recurrence.

For now, even President Trump is a step ahead of PM Johnson, announcing new guidelines for the public to slow the coronavirus, including closing schools and avoiding groups of more than ten people. Elsewhere, the mixed messaging and confused relationship between the White House and state legislatures has already begun. It’s not clear what level of Federal support will go out to the fifty one states.

“We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves,” Trump tells state governors to try to get ventilators and other equipment on their own.

The degree to which the President is washing his hands of taking responsibility for dealing with the pandemic will remain a growing issue.

Vice President Mike Pence pledges high speed coronavirus testing from 2,000 labs this week. Federal officials said many more drive-through testing sites, along with the expanded processing of tests by commercial laboratories would help ease the bottleneck. Testing, however, remains patchy in the months ahead.

In New York City cases of the coronavirus are increasing exponentially. It shuts down its schools, restaurants and bars and its mayor, Bill de Blasio declares it’s a wrenching decision to close places that are ‘the heart and soul of the city.’ On the other populated side of this huge country California calls for residents who are 65 and over to stay at home. Governor Gavin Newsom also says that bars and wineries should close, but there is a concession that restaurants could stay open so long as they cut their occupancy in half.

People are making comparisons with a wartime reality. The Second World War accelerated developments such as nuclear fission, the jet engine and the mass production and distribution of antibiotics. This pandemic is accelerating bioscience and information-based technologies.

Collective intelligence is rapidly gaining significance as an element of dealing with the pandemic among researchers, health practitioners and the general public. In the same way as global connectivity has been a major contributor to the spread of Covid-19, through air travel in particular, so the internet has enabled both the sharing of findings, solving problems and developing insights and ideas through websites like Zoom.

Including Artificial Intelligence alongside the sheer range of human experience proves to be a powerful combination in dealing with a fast-evolving, complex global problems such as a major disease outbreak.

It’s not without its problems, especially where policymakers are not up to speed with developments. Indeed, leaders like Johnson and Trump, who either lack the capacity or willingness to engage are left way behind in a state of permanent catch-up.

Some firms make radical and hitherto unexpected adaptations to a new reality. Some of those are total changes in character. LVMH, a French company that makes perfumes, including Dior, converts its factories to manufacturing hand sanitiser. Many companies change the patterns of how they operate and engage with human activity. Iceland has asked store managers to dedicate Wednesday mornings to elderly and vulnerable shoppers. It’s a move mirrored by other grocery retailers.

While others see opportunities by thinking way out of the box, such as bidet manufacturers see the commercial potential of the dire situation of toilet roll hoarding.

Things are already on tilt.

But a major big business focus is the pharmaceutical industry. In an atmosphere of ‘needs must’ the American government has offered a ‘large sum’ to CureVac, a German company for access to their coronavirus vaccine research. The United States says it will share any vaccine breakthroughs with the world, but with ‘America First’ having been a daily maxim for almost four years there is distrust. Fears were raised in Berlin that President Trump was trying to ensure that any inoculation would be available first, and perhaps exclusively in the United States.

If the Covid-19 saga will be about anything, it will be an epic tale of human behaviour even more than the events of a migrating virus. About the wise and the foolish, the vigilant and the careless. So as Premier League and Football League cancel fixtures and have their season suspended because of the coronavirus, non-league attendance is boosted by as much as 117 per cent. For some the passion for the beautiful game overrides the dangers that come with social gathering.

Movie-goers are more wary and in America attendance drops by almost a half in a week.

Soon all will be shut. Despite the daily prevarication of PM Johnson, his ministers and advisers we know in our heart of hearts that lockdown is on its way. We look to the continent of Europe where it is already happening. We look to the spirit of entire communities that are now housebound, such as in Italy where across the country where residents nationwide sing together from their windows, and at midday on Saturday neighbourhoods erupt into applause. We wonder if in what we stereotypically view as cooler spirited Britain we will act similarly.

There’s a heart-warming message in my local Nextdoor group:

“If anyone is struggling with self-isolation and in need of essential supplies – reach out! I would be glad to help. These are troubling times right now and I would hate to see someone struggling without support. Let’s get through this together as a community.”

I suspect we might be.

Day One: Sunday 15th March 2020

Daily Diary: A Chevrolet and a Crocodile

It’s a non-day and at this stage there seems to be little to write about when it comes to describing my personal experience in what I sense to be a building storm. In many ways life is still much as it always has been, although there are signs of panic buying already in the supermarkets and we have been slowly putting together a box of emergency staples for a couple of weeks now, believing that the problems that are abroad in China and Italy will most likely be coming our way somewhere down the line, and possibly sometime soon. There have been shocking scenes on the television, but they’re still largely swallowed up by other news.

So the events of the day don’t warrant much writing about, unless you think popping out to Wickes to get one or two DIY loose ends, or working on a semi-scratch built plastic model of a World War II two-pounder portee anti-tank gun (in memory of my father who faced Rommel’s armour in the Western Desert in World War 2 on these undergunned and underpowered Chevrolet trucks) are things that capture anyone else’s imagination apart from my own. There’s clearing the daily feed of emails, which invariably leads to some time on Twitter, liking, retweeting and occasionally commenting, thinking in careless moments I’m part of some greater daily chatter, when in reality I’m out there on the sidelines.

Then there’s the online weather forecasting, something I’m so geeky about I’m fearful of taking you through the arcane art of divining. Not so much forecasting as wishcasting, if truth be known, but if you shared my passion for paragliding, you’d understand. What matters to me is that tomorrow it’s going to be flyable at Devil’s Dyke and I have every intention of being there.

But beneath the banality there is a feeling that something is on its way. Something so big it will change all our lives forever. Prime Minister Boris Johnson still seems to be in denial and that a little boosterism and belief in our national special exceptionalism means we won’t suffer the harsh state control we witnessed in China or the desperate suffering that seems to have overwhelmed Italy. Others are not so sure and there is a sense of anxiety that’s all too easy to see in the media.

There is something uncannily alarming about how in less than four months Covid-19 has not only come into being in a Chinese city I was previously unaware of but has broken its borders to become a pandemic. The first suspected case that I can find was reported dates back to 17th November in Wuhan, although the Chinese authorities didn’t report the fact that there had been an outbreak of a new coronavirus until 31st December. The early days are pretty murky. What is reasonably certain is that a SARS-type virus mutated and crossed the species boundary from the wider animal kingdom to the human population, a process known as zoonosis. Some say it happened at a Chinese wet market, others that the virus had escaped from a local virology laboratory. Both are possible but neither are certainties, conspiracy theorists excepted. The two species most likely to have been the original hosts are bats and pangolins.

I can understand how transmission could have occurred in a wet-market where unchecked and unregulated wild animals enter the human food chain. I remember in my early teens making the weekly visit to the market in Ipoh, Malaysia. Live creatures were bought and slaughtered on the spot. Just like that. There and then. No health checks. I remember a crocodile being auctioned off, cut by cut. When the seller got to the end of the auction and only the least popular cuts were left he threw in a couple of tree monitors. The poor crocodile just lay there on the less than sanitary, stained concrete floor, trussed to a builder’s plank. I took a photo at the time which I seem to have lost, and the seller posed the monitors by the side of the unfortunate croc for the camera.

I didn’t witness the slaughter. My mum moved me along before that gruesome spectacle happened.

It seems that practice has continued over all those decades since and with it the opportunities for pathogens to jump ship from one species to the next. And we must be careful not to brand China or its near neighbours with creating such scenarios. Ebola and AIDS jumped species in Africa, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was tracked back to a poultry farm in Kansas (just down the track from where Dorothy allegedly got swept up to Oz), bubonic plague has done so in many parts of the world and the 1993 outbreak of BSE began in Canada.

You can be forgiven for thinking that pathogens “quite like” human exceptionalism. It gets hosts to drop their guard.

Covid-19 also “quite likes” globalisation. Chances are it gave the virus time to get beyond the country days, possibly weeks, before the rest of the world knew it was there.

And I can’t help thinking about the many problems we have on this planet that start with the food chain we’ve chosen to support our existence.

The Bigger Picture: Trouble Is On Its Way

It does look like trouble is on its way and the country feels it’s at sea.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in his determination to ‘Get Brexit Done,’ as the slogan would have it, has developed an approach to the nation he describes as ‘boosterism.’ It’s an attempt to create an infectious, confident, can-do narrative. With something as nebulous as the consequences of Brexit it might work. It is similar to the First World War attitude that sheer willpower could prevail against machine gun bullets. Something chilling from the recesses of Nietzsche’s dark mind. Naysayers, gloomsters and doomsters can be branded as the cause of things not going to plan. Sand in the gears. Sticks in the spokes.

If only we all believed! 

There’s something almost pantomime about the mentality. Restoring Tinkerbelle to her former glory by believing in fairies.

But in the same way that the power of belief didn’t do so well against the stark binary reality of machine-gun bullets, so boosterism was disastrous against the stark binary reality of Covid-19.

It simply couldn’t be believed away.

And it is hard to fully comprehend the level of casualness that PM Johnson had when it came to the virus. It was as if he himself hadn’t comprehended its ruthless Darwinian nastiness.

Or hadn’t bothered to give himself the opportunity to.

He has missed attending five Cobra committee meetings. The committee, as described in the Sunday Times, includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals, gathers at moments of great peril, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.

Several million people have already entered the UK’s airports yet less than 300 people have been quarantined. There is no figure for exactly how many infected people entered the country in that time, but even conservative estimates are four figure numbers. It wasn’t that Johnson was the captain of a holed ship. Rather, like Edward Lear’s Jumblies, he had taken us all to sea in a sieve.

As scientists are rightly concerned about public gatherings, such as pubs and restaurants and advise closing them as long as a month ago, the prime minister tells his fellow citizens to remain “confident and calm.”

In the midst of the growing emergency and NHS England declaring a Level 4 Critical Incident he takes a ten day ‘working holiday.’

In the rest of Europe, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, countries locked down and closing their borders to contain the spread of the virus. A week ago Boris Johnson goes with his pregnant fiancée to a Six Nations rugby match, attended by 82,000 other souls. A few days pervious to that, despite the advice of health experts, he announces to the nation that he was shaking everyone’s hand in a hospital treating Covid-19 patients.

Six days ago, on March 9th the Irish cancel the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, including the closure of all pubs today, while a day later back in Blighty, the Cheltenham Festival, a three-day mass gathering attended by a quarter of a million people goes ahead, while the UK government allows the Champions League football match to go ahead, with 3,000 fans travelling from Covid-ravaged Madrid to Merseyside. Much of the sporting community has taken matters into their own hands and closed down activities. At the same time the UK Government announced that there was no rationale for cancelling sporting events.

The confusion is both alarming and frightening and does nothing to prepare the public for what will inevitably lie ahead.

Yesterday Johnson threw a baby shower for his and fiancée Carrie’s expected baby at Chequers. I don’t know how many friends and relations attended and frankly the numbers don’t matter. It’s a poor show. Most of us know that lockdown will become inevitable in the near future and it’s as if our PM is inhabiting a parallel universe.

Part of that parallel universe includes a very public flirtation with ‘herd immunity.’ It will mean forty million Brits being infected, hundreds of thousands dying from Covid-19. Scientists are alarmed at the prospect and health chiefs are worried about the NHS’ capacity to deal with such a load.

It looks like the over seventies will be told to stay in strict isolation at home, or care homes, to separate them from the wider population. People with profound disabilities are being failed by the government’s inadequate response to the novel coronavirus. Families with children with complex needs, who rely on carers are not being included in the government’s discussions about the disease. Testing is ‘prioritised’ for at-risk patients, with others told to stay at home, with coronavirus testing prioritised for people in need of hospital treatment.

Out and about the collective edginess can be seen out shopping. Supermarkets issue a joint warning over panic-buying as shoppers leave shelves bare. The British Retail Consortium insists there is enough food to go around if everybody co-operates. There’s enough toilet paper too, although that’s far from obvious from looking at the empty shelves. Booking for deliveries online is also a struggle with slots vanishing as soon as they appear and many people learn the new British habit of virtual queueing – one of many virtual habits that will follow in the weeks ahead. Ocado’s website and app crash as supermarkets face panic buying chaos.

Those who find themselves abroad, many on skiing holidays, find themselves swept up by the rapidly changing events around them. Thousands of British tourists are stranded as France shuts its ski resorts. It was a British businessman who went from a trip to Singapore to a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps who became Britain’s first ‘superspreader,’ a virus-infecting human hub who infected eleven others, five from the UK.

That was five and a half weeks ago!

There’s a creeping awareness that our individual and collective behaviour is going to have to change. We’re likely to travel less and make less physical contact. The elbow-bump has replaced the handshake, and with some the elbow-bump at a distance becomes the preferred form of that. Some say that the less tactile Germans won’t suffer quite as much as the more touchy-feely Italians, French and Spanish, but for everyone, actions we once took for granted at the very least require second thoughts. That sense of inward retreat is personal, communal and even national and some fear that it is a political gift to nativists, nationalists and protectionists. How that will pan out in what is a global event remains to be seen. If Covid-19 does anything, it raises the striking paradoxes and ironies of human existence.

Another way in which we are all conflicted is exactly how harmful Covid-19 is. My own generation was the first to be protected by mass vaccination. My mother was a nurse before she married my dad and becoming a travelling army wife. I remember her stories of the dreadful diseases she encountered in the 1930s and 40s, before antibiotics could effectively treat bacterial diseases and vaccination prevent viral ones. I remember a childhood friend who had suffered from polio and could barely walk and the real threats of measles, mumps and diphtheria.

“You don’t want mumps,” I remember a schoolmate telling me. “It makes your bollocks swell and then you can’t have children.”

I didn’t get mumps.

I was grateful.

For the whole of my adult life there were moments I was appreciative of the good fortune of the era I lived in. About once a year, as a biology teacher, I would have to prepare a lesson or two on the topic and that awareness would come to mind. For most of us living lives in the western mainstream HIV, horrific as it was, could be looked at as a problem of someone else’s way of life, whether by accident of sexuality or simply that you happened to be born in the wrong part of the planet. There was the shadow of a thought that you might be the unfortunate recipient of contaminated blood or blood plasma, but the chances were remote enough not to prey on day to day consciousness.

As a disease it scared the socks off us.

As a reality it was something most of us were observers rather than victims.

Now we were witnessing on out TV sets every evening horrific scenes of overwhelmed ICUs in Lombardy and at the time we didn’t fully register the reach of this virus. But it looked as if it could be coming for any one of us.

But then we also knew that for some it would be little more than a case of flu. There were voices around telling us not to panic. After all we knew what the virus looked like. We knew its sequence of RNA that was causing all the damage to our tissues and organs. We could detect it – since January 13th there was a test available. We weren’t, however, told by such reassuring voices that systematic testing and tracing had already been abandoned by the British government and that it was limited to hospital admissions only.

Eighty percent of cases are mild, people heal afterwards and symptoms appear to be mild in children. And anyway, there is ‘the other side’ to the pandemic, we were reassured. The strong control and isolation measures put in place by the Chinese authorities are paying off already and for a while now the daily number of cases were on the decrease.

As for the virus, it wasn’t that hardy. It could be wiped away with disinfectant, screened with masks, goggles and body coverings. A number of vaccine prototypes were already in existence and antiviral treatments such as remdesivir were already showing some effect in treating the most seriously affected. When all was said and done, science was onto it, and when science gets onto problems sooner or later there were good outcomes.

If there is going to be a storm it’s going to be how we’re going to weather it.

Back to Boris:

He’s under pressure to start daily public briefings on the coronavirus, after a weekend of confusion. To be fair, he had started briefing the general public but had given up on March 4th, the day after the shaking hands debacle.

Why exactly he had given up keeping the public informed in the face of a national emergency is a mystery.

Part of me thinks he just didn’t think it was his thing.

Introduction to The Covid Chronicle

A personal history of a pandemic

I never in my wildest dreams thought I would involve myself in such an all-consuming project as this and still think that I stumbled into it, rather than it was some great design.

This is how it all began.

I like the drive to wherever I go paragliding. It’s usually a run between just under an hour to over three, much of it along motorways and major highways. On the way there I always feel a sense of anticipation and excitement. I still get butterflies in my stomach. Even though I have flown countless times that sense of nervous expectation has never left me.

On the return journey it’s always different. Whatever I needed to get out of my system by getting my boots off the ground has been got out. I’m usually pretty mellow and chilled about things in general and there’s no pressure to get home. I always find myself driving more slowly and in the liminal space of the car I often find myself thinking and can’t help but do so if I’m listening to talk radio, like LBC.

More and more I found myself thinking about what was happening with the coronavirus. Not least how it would change our lives.

The pandemic had certainly been a mental presence for quite a while. My first clear memory of the spectre of the coronavirus was when my wife, Vicky and I had been to a Shen Yun Chinese theatre performance at the Hammersmith Apollo on January 22nd. I remember being aware of coughing in the audience and saying to each other that we hoped it wasn’t because someone in the audience was infected with the coronavirus. It turned out that no one was, but it’s the first time the threat of the virus memorably entered our consciousness. For the most part it was a distant plague in a city we didn’t know the name of before all this happened.

Then as the news progressed it was clear a deadly virus was spreading. There were alarming stories coming from Italy and cruise liners especially, and despite the complacency shown by a Johnson government, whose focus was on leaving the EU on January 31st, it was coming our way.

The grimness of it all deepened when on the 11th March the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic. It would still be twelve more days before Britain would lock down, but the seriousness of an imminent threat was emerging in people’s minds.

It was two days later, on 13th March, driving back home after flying at Dunstable Downs I started thinking about what was increasingly looking like a public health catastrophe in the making. If it turned out in any way as serious as I imagined it to be it was going to change the world on the same scale as world wars had done in the last century. It wasn’t just that technology would have moved on, but the way in which we saw the world would have moved on too. There would be a pre-covid and post-covid era and they would be different from each other. There would be paradigm shifts. The world wasn’t going to be the same again.

To be honest, I didn’t know what those changes would be, their extent, or the way they would change all our lives. But in a nebulous way I knew something would happen. And it would be big.

So I decided I would keep a diary of every day, both of my domestic and personal life. I would be honest about the mundane and banal and I would contrast it with my online newsfeeds. I had this mental picture of Raymond Briggs’ “Where the Wind Blows,” of an ageing couple beset by world events. More manically, I had a similar image in my head of Richard Condie’s, “Big Snit,” a short animation on the same theme, only more edgy and a lot funnier. Check it out on You Tube. At the very least you can figure out if you share my sense of humour.

As time passed I convinced myself that big events like this needed recording and to do that it needed record-keepers. If I did nothing more than that then it was a task worth taking on.

Then it occurred to me that there was no point in recording events if I wasn’t going to share them. That’s quite daunting. Who on earth was I in the first place to do this? I’m not famous. I’m no more interesting than anyone reading this. I’m probably in the dullest demographic around – an ageing white, middle-class male, way past the time of grasping out and clutching a rising star. Hardly an established journalist or professor of history either.

But then I reassured myself that my sheer ordinariness, my unexceptionalism was a qualification in itself. I wasn’t going to be on the frontline or at the forefront of research and decision-making. My life wasn’t going to be turned upside down by events any more than most others, maybe less. But what I could do is be an observer while trying as best I can to avoid as much of the drama as possible.

And anyway, dramatic events are bad for keeping up with a diary. They tend to devour time and energy.

Then there was the problem about how to communicate the record I’d kept. It seemed futile simply to keep a record and doing nothing about sharing it.

I could, I suppose, try to publish it as a book. But a lot of time could go by, by which time the world may well have veered into its next crisis. There are going to be a lot of books, and a pecking order about whose book would get published first, celebrities, well known writers, authoritative historians. And anyway, I’ve written are far too many words and having spent a lot of time writing I really don’t want to spend a lot more editing.

So I went for my third option. I’d post my lockdown diary, my Covid Chronicle online, a day at a time. To start with it would be every day exactly a year on, although taking more than a day to write about each day it would take five or six weeks. An old schoolfriend and writer, Chris Crowcroft, suggested that I should try and make sense of each day, as far as I could, so after the daily diary entry each day starts with an essay of sorts about the stories of the day that stood out most strongly, followed by headlines, local stories and the experiences of people as they faced the plague of the century.

I’d post links on social media, and hope readers will drop by and take part of sharing this story.

It’s not a research study. Just an attempt by a little-known person to make sense of what he sees on a daily basis, both personally and limited, and through the newsfeeds that came his way from well over a hundred sources describing a global phenomenon, the likes of which I can only hope we have the wisdom and collective learning experience not to experience again.


The Covid Chronicle has turned out to be travelogue, even if I did stay put and the world did all the moving. I know that all of you reading this made your own journey too. I hope, at least some things will resonate.

The story begins tomorrow.

John Finagin

14th March 2021