Day Thirty Six: Monday 20th April 2020

Daily Diary: Music, Bicycle, Paraglider

I was going to wax lyrical about Global Citizen’s “One World: Together at Home” concert, pulled together by Lady Gaga and presented on BBC1. It was enjoyable. It was good to see Lady Gaga without the glitz and glamour singing a touching rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s signature song, “Smile,” with only a simple keyboard as an accompaniment. The Stones were in their disparate living rooms singing, “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” well, although we were all left wondering whether Charlie Watts’ drumkit was invisible, electronic, or simply imagined. The old boy seemed to be enjoying himself nonetheless. I always feel that there is something awkward about tributes and homilies, and Paul McCartney was certainly in homiletic form. But all in all I enjoyed the show, and there were a number of good performances, with Elton John as much on form as he always has been, allowing for old age stealing his upper register – it still worked. Of course there was the nagging question – how did he get that baby grand piano out into his garden without breaking lockdown rules? Who knows, and I’m treating the mystery as an enigma, along with Charlie Watts’ drums.

There was a story on Nextdoor that really struck a chord with me, and many others it seems. Galileo Aragona, an NHS nurse, completed a 13 hour shift to find his bike got stolen inside the hospital premises.

“If anyone can give any information or help me track down my bike. I would be very grateful – it’s my only means of transport to and from work. It’s been a stressful time at work, and now this. Thanks to anyone who can help.”

My first reaction was to the appalling, mean-spirited nature of the crime.. It reminded me of those stories of looters during the Blitz, a reminder that even during our ‘finest hours’ there were still those who were low enough to behave as if they have just slithered out of the gutter.

Then came the response on Nextdoor. People in the community doing what they could to help. Some of us reposted Galileo’s plight on Twitter and Facebook, that in going viral it stood a much better chance of creating leads and improving the chances of Galileo being reunited with his vitally necessary property. Others offered to contribute to Galileo purchasing a replacement bike. Others set up a fundraising group. David Cracknell, a local bicycle mechanic had a spare bike available and gave it to Galileo. All of which restored my faith in human nature. It’s not exactly all’s well that ends well, but it shows how an online community can pull itself together and come to each other’s support.

I got a phone call from Nigel. Had I seen the club chat on WhatsApp about ground handling? I told Nigel I was giving the whole free-flying thing a wide berth for the time being. Best not to think about it. But perhaps I’m wrong – I should still keep half an eye. Ground handling is an important part of paragliding. It improves how pilots manage their giant canopies while on the ground. It’s important during take-off especially, but also when landing. In many ways a paraglider is a very large and powerful kite.

As such ground handling can still be dangerous. Pilots can still be dragged by canopies. Sometimes into other things, or even people. There is a risk of injury – and that means taking precious NHS staff away from other duties at this critical time. It’s clear that cabin fever is getting to some, but going out ground handling, whatever its merits for the sport, is not the solution. I’ll need to tell club members soon, along with various other notices, so I’ve started thinking about a wider message which will include this.

I thought it wise to double-check with the Kent Police, so I do so via live chat. I chat to a helpful officer called Sharon, who clarifies that if you want to go somewhere simply to ground handle then according to the guidelines this is not an essential activity, and something as exotic as paraglider ground handling would not be considered to be an approved activity for exercise. I’m not surprised, and a little relieved that I can pin this one on the boys and girls in blue.

Blue sky, strong wind and all the plants are still growing.

Life under lockdown continues…..

The Bigger Picture: The Aftermath of a Not-Accident

Two things come to mind today about accidents. The first is that in the grand scheme of things almost all accidents are not accidents at all, but incidents, the consequences of our own decisions and behaviour. The second is that for a short but seemingly endless amount of time in our memories after such incidents happen we’re in a state of shock. Often we don’t even know whether we’ve suffered significant injuries.

Then there is a cold light of day period when reality dawns and we now know there’s a need to adjust.

So it’s been with this pandemic.

For five and a half weeks Britain sleepwalked into disaster. Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Like the kid who leaves doing his homework until late in the eleventh hour and then finds it’s a damn sight more difficult he had reckoned on the government finds itself facing much greater difficulties than it needed to had it acted in a more timely fashion. With the death toll exceeding 16,000 and rising there’s anger at PPE delays as Covid-19 death toll exceeds 16,000 and hospital managers express exasperation as they at the government over failed PPE deliveries.

In the depths of the crisis Johnson appoints a close associate from 2012, London Olympics chief, Lord Deighton, to lead the PPE manufacturing drive, who will work to ‘unleash the potential’ of British firms in making PPE for NHS staff.

In the shock of being struck when the pandemic came to and exploded across Britain, simply counting the dead remains a challenge. In the confusion Covid-19 deaths in care homes are far higher than the official figures. Without a grasp on actual numbers the government cannot yet effectively manage this crisis.

Locking down becomes the only resort. Tried and tested for millennia, plagues can be stopped if people can be persuaded or made to stay away from each other. But as societies have become ever more complex that has become increasingly difficult. It’s not just economies, but whole social structures that rely on a whole raft of interpersonal transactions. When those can no longer make the world go round in the way we have been accustomed we become insecure and ill at ease, and much as that has been mitigated by advances in online technology they don’t go far enough to ease the anxiety. Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University said that the government lockdown was likely to do more damage than the pandemic itself, and a senior police officer warns that Britain must prepare for a “volatile and agitated society” after lockdown is lifted.

Those anxieties, along with a general sense of unease within British society are reflected in this public online notice on Nextdoor from the Metropolitan Police:

“No excuses – just exercise. We have been out patrolling our open spaces over the past few shifts and due to warmer weather returning we are having to remind people that yes, they can use the parks and open spaces, but please do it responsibly. The main focus of these spots is to exercise, either alone or with people from your own household. Please do not abuse the open spaces by meeting up with your friends or sunbathing – these are not valid reasons to be out. We understand how difficult it can be but please do not be tempted to use gym equipment, playgrounds or ballcourts. Greenwich Council have locked these up and taped them off for a reason. Stay safe and enjoy green spaces responsibly.”

This is both local and worldwide. Rioting breaks out on French housing estates as lockdown tensions mount and fears rise that stirrings of unrest around the world could portend turmoil as economies collapse.

In the US, where the Covid-19 death toll is more than 40,000 lockdown is more problematic. Locking down itself has become a bipartisan political flare-up, the flames being fanned by none other than the president himself who openly announces that some governors – Democrats – have “gone too far” with Covid-19 restrictions.

As a result there are demonstrations across the country violated social distancing orders to call for the reopening of states and the American economy. The rallies, like the one outside the state capitol in Austin, Texas, rode a wave of similar protests this past week. Saturday alone, people gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana, Carson City, Nevada, Annapolis, Maryland, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Brookfield, Wisconsin. President Trump on Friday openly encouraged right wing protests in states with stay-at-home orders, even after officially and publicly conceding that reopening was up to governors.

It’s a dangerous game Trump’s playing, setting in train a behaviour pattern among his supporters that will reach a crescendo with the storming of the US Capitol nine months from now.

Lift lockdowns slowly and carefully, the World Health Organisation warns everyone. They need to end haltingly with a clear plan of action and putting safety first. It won’t be easy and might not keep Covid-19 at bay indefinitely. It needs criteria, such as reopening only after covid cases declined for 14 days, 90 per cent of contacts of infected people could be traced, infections of health care workers were eradicated, recuperation sites existed for mild cases, along with many other hard to reach goals.

Boris Johnson, still recovering from the virus, is said to be cautious about relaxing the existing lockdown restrictions due to fears that such a move could unleash a second wave of the pandemic. During his convalescence a ‘quad’ of senior ministers –  Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock – are to consider ‘traffic light’ plan to reopen the economy. Effectively an inner cabinet.

The British pub has become the symbol of freedom beyond lockdown. There have been suggestions that pubs won’t open until Christmas, but culture secretary Oliver Dowden downplays them.

Meanwhile, zoos are facing their own crisis during the lockdown. With daily running costs running into thousands there are nightmare visions of animals facing mass euthanasia if zoos collapse. Like so many other enterprises they scrape by.

In mainland Europe the first steps to lift lockdown have begun in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg, among others. Germans returned to the shops on Monday, craving retail therapy after a month of lockdown, but Chancellor Angela Merkel, frustrated by ‘discussion orgies’ among fellow politicians worries and urges citizens to remain disciplined to avoid a relapse in the fight against the coronavirus.

Yet there are signs of better things beyond as Australia’s success in controlling the virus leads to Sydney’s beaches being opened.

And the possibility that a country might survive the pandemic without locking down at all, as other countries observe Sweden whose government is working from the belief that citizens will choose to be sensible.

It’s an act of faith and like all faiths it intrigues non-believers.

Life for so many of the rest of us is in a state of arrested development. We are in economic hibernation.

We call it furlough.

It will stop many (but not all) businesses from dying, and the horrendous consequences of a full blown economic depression when we get to the ‘other side.’

The furlough pay scheme for employees who are kept on the payroll despite not working due to Covid-19 opens for applications today. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme pays workers 80 per cent of their usual earnings, capped at £2,500 per person, meaning they will not be laid off from their place of work as businesses try to cope with the fallout from the pandemic. The head of HMRC is confident that the system running job retention scheme will work.

However, three million people are being left behind in the government’s coronavirus aid schemes and support packages:

For them, many months of hardship, even penury, lie ahead.

But in many cases it helps as a bailout to the rich. The hot story today is Victoria Beckham applying for furlough for her 25 staff at her VB fashion label. Assuming each would get the maximum of £2,500 per month, the total monthly cost would be £62,500, Victoria Beckham’s current net worth is reported to be £450 million.

It follows the Beckhams introducing Elton John on the Covid-19 global charity fundraiser, in which she said:

“Our thanks to all of the healthcare workers all around the world who are working so, so hard, leaving their families to go to work to protect us and our children. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

TV presenter Piers Morgan hit back hard with a tweet:

‘Sorry, but this makes me puke. If you care this much about the NHS, @victoriabeckham – then why are you taking taxpayer money the NHS desperately needs – and you DON’T need – to furlough your staff & prop up your failing business?’

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden declined to comment.

Meanwhile, on a VB Fashion on steroids bid, Sir Richard Branson has warned the government that his Virgin Atlantic airline will collapse and thousands of jobs will be lost unless it receives taxpayer support. He’s seeking a loan, believed to be up to £500 million, putting up Necker Island as collateral. A £600m loan has already been granted to easyJet. It’s got under many people’s skins in the UK. For a start, Branson, a resident of the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, has a long history of tax evasion and is now asking to borrow from the public purse. Then, with a personal wealth of £3.5 billion, there are strong feelings that the super-rich should be making a greater personal contribution during such hard times (most actually became wealthier during the pandemic). Finally, Virgin Atlantic was 49% owned by Delta Airlines, an American company.

 Virgin Atlantic’s initial bid has been rejected and Sir Richard had been told to explore other ways to raise cash before seeking a state bailout.

It would be unfair to present businesses solely as takers of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic. Many have made an active contribution. The AA are providing a free breakdown service to AA’s breakdown rescue of more than 1,500 essential NHS staff free of charge, getting them to work; and a focus on putting more ambulances on the road. Burberry have switched production from fashion to protective wear. The campaign is now serving nearly 10,000 meals per day to NHS frontline staff. It was a concept inspired by former Formula One boss Ron Dennis’s daughter, who is an NHS doctor, and has relied on Tesco and the delivery service Yodel. 

But it’s a mixed bag as some businesses have worked with genuine altruism, whereas others it has been as much to do with ‘brand purpose’ and good PR and in these more sceptical times it’s often hard to tell.

So in this post-shock period there’s a stock-taking of where we’re at. Options on treatment, particularly those suffering the most severe symptoms, beyond ventilating and ‘riding the storm’ are limited. Drugs like remdesivir alleviate, but neither prevent nor cure. The UK is preparing to collect the blood from Covid-19 survivors to investigate if convalescent plasma transfusions could improve a Covid-19 patient’s speed of recovery and chances of survival. It’s an approach to treatment that’s over a century old. However, the scale of the pandemic might simply result in convalescent plasma not keeping pace. In time, the concept of dosing patients with antibodies will arrive as monoclonal antibody treatment, but it will be prohibitively expensive and not for widespread use.

But all is not lost as there are celebrations as the first Covid-19 patients are discharged from London’s Nightingale hospital. The custom of ‘clapping a survivor out’ becomes one of the pandemic’s visual memes.

Cautious hopes are placed in the development of a vaccine. There is the realisation that the virus could become a ‘constant threat’ if the vaccine doesn’t work. The whole world holds its breath as it awaits news of a vaccine, understanding there is no guarantee that one will be developed. It’s also not clear whether recovery from the virus and antibodies confer immunity. If they do, or are believed to, societies will end up, at least for a while, split into two classes: those protected (or thought to be) and those still vulnerable, adding an extra layer of complication in returning people to their pre-pandemic freedoms they once so readily took for granted and now expect as their rights.

Senior science adviser to the government, Sir Patrick Vallance, tells British citizens they need to temper their expectations.

But all is not lost as a group of Oxford University researchers will begin clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine next week.

For the population as a whole that only leaves test, trace and isolating. It’s highly uncertain when a vaccine programme will roll out at this stage and the belief at the moment is that treatments are likely to arise before a vaccine. At the moment the understanding in this post-shock dawning of the reality we’re in is that the virus can be kept in check, but  only with expanded resources like widespread testing, but for the most part countries are falling way behind the level of testing needed.

But all is not lost as Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, and Iceland show that the coronavirus can be stopped through a well-managed and timely test, trace and isolate programme.

As we enter the post-shock reality the following appears in the news:

Nature continues to celebrate humanity locking down:

While further afield:

  • Venice considers a new tourism model after Covid-19 lockdown. On the upside, Venetians are actually meeting other Venetians!
  • Tblisi city hall cleaning teams took to the streets of the Georgian capital yesterday alongside firefighters to carry out overnight disinfection works as strict new measures to curb Covid-19 come into force.
  • Covid-19 hits the Afghanistan Presidential Palace.
  • Migrant workers are the source of Singapore’s Covid-19 spike.

Finally, a tribute to Dr June Almeida who discovered the coronavirus decades ago, in 1964. An electron microscope, then a leading technology, and her keen eye saw circular shapes surrounded by spokes, looking like a crown in two dimensions, from which the name coronavirus was coined. The coronavirus was that of the common cold. She went on to demonstrate visually how antibodies attacked the virus, revealed many more viruses and established a means by which viral diseases could be diagnosed. Like Michael Faraday, she started out as a technician and went on to make a massive contribution to science. Unlike Faraday, she did not get the recognition she deserved.

Remember her.

Day Thirty Five: Sunday 19th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Apocryphal Critter in a Pan of Water

It’s a bright and breezy Sunday. The sky is blue without a cloud in sight. People are out and about on the common, mostly in ones and twos. Exercising or walking back from the Co-op. I’m sure there are some who are using exercising as an opportunity to meet up against the rules and get away with it. There is an almost-benign all-seeing eye from the police, but their presence, to be fair, is pretty discreet. There are more cars than I’d have expected, going from A to B – one wonders exactly where. It’s human nature to resent being told, to be controlled. We see the rebel as our champion, so long, that is, that the rebel knows his or her place and continues to rebel, rather than becomes an alternative force for control.

In politics at the moment that’s the current tension. Lockdown is by its very nature a government micro-managing its population. Taking control. In America there are protests in several cities against the lockdown limiting their God-given freedom. But it’s freedom that the virus also enjoys. That is if an unconscious Dawkinsian entity can enjoy anything. Perhaps benefit is a more appropriate word. Freedom allows the explosion of millions of moments of human weakness, but some of us would rather that than be exposed to the weaknesses of a select few controlling us, and with it their power and greed.

With that comes a pernicious denial to others and inevitable a cruelty of one sort or another follows.

The other weird thing about being in lockdown and being able to witness it from afar through your TV screen, your laptop or smartphone is how we adjust to a wider horror. In the past twenty four hours there have been an additional 5850 cases (on admission to hospital) and an additional 596 deaths. I’ve checked back to my first diary entry on the 15th March. It reads:

“The death rate rises from 21 to 35 overnight. It was 10 the previous day.” 

But irrationally, I switch mode and find myself pleased, after a fashion, that the deaths have only increased by 3.9%, the lowest increment so far, and see the still-horrifying numbers as an improvement, as progress, as somehow something is working.

Like the apocryphal critter in a pan of warming water.

In front of me as I write are three geranium cuttings, now in potting compost. It looks as though they are taking. Even the weakest is sprouting the beginnings of an adventitious bud. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that life is winning and it’s a metaphor for the bigger picture.

The Bigger Picture: In The Thicket. In The Thick of It.

In many fairy tales there is a point when wandering into the deep dark woods ends up with becoming lost. At this point, whichever way you turn there’s an unclear outcome. We’re there. In the thicket. In the thick of it.

Boris Johnson is ‘recovering well’ and is in ‘cheerful spirits, according to Michael Gove. He said the PM spoke to Dominic Raab on Friday. But how the PM has got us this deep into the woods this quickly remains an issue that just won’t go away as shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth demands ‘clear answers’ from the government about why Boris Johnson is reported to have skipped five Cobra meetings about the Covid-19 crisis and lost the country precious time. The response from Gove was a staunch defence of Boris Johnson’s management of the Covid-19 crisis. He also insisted the government “should not be thinking of lifting” lockdown restrictions yet as calls mount for Covid-19 lockdown exit strategy amid a backlash over the pandemic response.

Wellcome Trust director and infectious disease expert, Sir Jeremy Farrar said he hopes some lockdown measures could begin to be lifted within around three to four weeks’ time – on the proviso that the number of infections and hospital patients drops ‘dramatically.’ In fact it will be many more weeks before such numbers will drop significantly enough. But there is an underlying pressure that a populist government will ultimately appease prematurely.

America is even more uneasy about  locking down, and those most uneasy are the president’s own base. Protests are spreading across the country and Trump foments them with anti-lockdown tweets.

Trump began with a tweet to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” quickly followed with “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

All three states are currently headed by Democratic governors, and Michigan is considered crucial to his re-election bid in November.

These are early beginnings in an incited train of behaviour that led to the storming of the Capitol in a few months’ time. A message that Trump expected his supporters to go beyond protest and into insurrection if it suited the president’s purposes.

Back in Westminster the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer tells the government,: “When we get through this crisis we cannot return to business as usual.” He refers in particular to social care. “For too long social care has been neglected. Our care workers left underpaid and undervalued. Our relatives denied the dignity that they deserve at the end of their life.”

This comes as The National Care Forum, which represents not-for-profit care providers, has estimated that more than 4,000 people may have died after contracting Covid-19 across all residential and nursing homes before April 13th.

Other government actions today are:

Ministers also find themselves under pressure to review Britain’s China relationship after the pandemic. Conservative politicians accuse Beijing of underplaying the original outbreak and say it can no longer be ‘business as usual.’ Britain is not alone in its criticism. There are African voices saying China must pay reparations to Africa for its Covid-19 failures.

President Trump’s attitude was more perplexing. After all his recriminatory rhetoric about “the China virus,” some of it pretty vitriolic, when asked if there should be consequences for China if they were responsible for all the virus spread, he said, “Sure, unless it was a mistake.”

The virus is becoming less enigmatic. It was easy enough to read its genome, which contains instructions for making just 28 different proteins, in contrast to the millions of proteins that are coded for in human DNA. But to compare the two is to compare poetry to a novel. Both can capture the human condition but poetry does it with an exquisite economy of language. So it is with Covid-19. It does not need the mind-boggling orders of hierarchy to make more of itself, as we do. All it needs is us.

There’s a dark ‘intelligence’ in how natural selection works. I’ve never fallen into the trap of mistaking ‘the fittest’ in survival of the fittest, with our normal understanding of fitness, that you could be forgiven for associating with morning sessions of Joe Wickes’ exercise classes, even though such a notion is not a million miles away. Rather it is goodness of fit, like how your hand fits into a well-made glove. The better the fit to its particular niche, the more likely it will replicate itself, the cycle repeating itself with all the subtle variants of its offspring.

If you’re too proud to associate that with intelligence just consider how much you’ve learned by trial and error, or for that matter how second-rate so many humans are at learning from observing the mistakes of others.

There’s a saying I picked up from paragliding:

“Smart people learn from the mistakes of others.

Most of us have to learn from our own.

Eejits make the same mistake over and over again.”

And most of us have been eejits from time to time. It’s a tough one, isn’t it, to come off our high horses when it comes to intelligence?

In the case of the Covid-19 coronavirus the dark intelligence somewhere down the line has found one of our more serious physiological Achilles’ Heels – the angiotensin controlling enzyme – better known as ACE2, which exists on cell membranes in many parts of the body, including the lungs.

Angiotensin binds to many receptors in the body to affect several systems. It can increase blood pressure by constricting the blood vessels. It can also trigger thirst or the desire for salt. Angiotensin is responsible for the release of the pituitary gland’s anti-diuretic hormone which in turn regulates water loss. If the system that includes angiotensin goes on the blink then you can have consequences every bit as serious as a better known system involving blood glucose and insulin going wrong.

So ACE2 on cell membranes keeps blood pressure and ion balance on an even keel. That’s what the spikes on the outside of the coronavirus latch on to with an unprecedented efficiency, and because the lung lining is exposed to the outside world the cells are particularly vulnerable.

If you try to block off the ACE2 receptors to the virus you can’t control angiotensin and the whole system it’s part of (like insulin is with glucose metabolism) goes awry, with serious lung and circulatory consequences. The same happens if the ACE2 receptors get latched on to by the virus, so managing an infection becomes horrendously complicated.

Blood pressure regulation becomes more of an issue as people get older, and the body adapts by creating more ACE2 receptors, creating more opportunities for the virus to latch on and infect.

The virus has another nasty trick up its sleeve. Some parts of the Covid-19 spike protein can ‘tweak’ ACE2 for a better fit, behaving like prion proteins in mad cow disease, and it’s that ability that gives it a cutting edge over predecessors like SARS and MERS, which although are three and ten times more fatal respectively, are much less infectious. With a mortality rate of 3.4% Covid-19 is still deadly enough to ultimately kill millions worldwide.

Once the virus has latched on to the cell membrane the cell takes it in by a process known as endocytosis, the RNA genome enters the cell and the mass duplication begins.

That’s what we’re all up against and it’s seriously scary!

Our tools for dealing with the pandemic are limited. We stay apart from each other. We lock down until a means of dealing with it can be found. Some, like Germany, are seeking a path out of lockdown through broad, random tests for antibodies, Germany seeks a (scientific) path out of lockdown.

Others are backing the development of vaccines. Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at Oxford University, said the prospect of finding one are “very good,” and her team hopes to begin clinical trials towards the end of next week. She cannot yet be certain she tells Andrew Marr on BBC, until the trials are complete.

It’s a kind of compensation that there are positive environmental paybacks. Air quality has improved during lockdown, although some point out that delivery trucks are more polluting than cars. And more stories of wildlife benefiting appear. In Florida loggerhead turtles are thriving, now that people are stuck indoors, jackals have been spotted in a Tel Aviv park as people stay away amid the covid confinement and some believe that Covid-19 could be a blessing for the much-trafficked pangolin.

For all of us new day to day realities occupy our lives.

  • é, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and Elton John took part in the concert.

Those day to day realities are made up of so many personal stories. For some of achievement:

For others, of personal ordeals, vulnerability and the risk of tragedy:

Europe:  the virus tolls tops ten thousand, with Belgium a particular hotspot. The Belgian government claims it is because they are using their statistics more thoroughly than other EU countries, but it doesn’t account for the whole picture. The EU is facing a ‘moment of truth,’ Emmanuel Macron says as he calls for greater financial burden sharing.

California: resists plans to lift limits on nurse-practitioners during the Covid-19 pandemic, as demand for medical services begins to look like will exceed supply. A number of other US states have eased the degree to which nurse-practitioners require physicians’ oversight, but in the Golden State it has become a political issue.

Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the US and Canada have agreed to keep their border closed to non-essential travel for another 30 days.

Pakistan: is to keep mosques open during Ramadan.

Iran: has allowed some businesses and the capital and nearby towns to reopen on Saturday after weeks of lockdown aimed at controlling the Covid-19 outbreak in the Middle East.

Australia: A German cruise ship has left Western Australia State after a three week stay, during which three people on board died of Covid-19. The Artania began its journey from Fremantle to Europe, keeping its scheduled early afternoon departure time on Saturday. A total of 79 crew and passengers from the Artania tested positive for Covid-19 in Western Australia. They included a 42 year old crewman from the Philippines, who died in Perth Hospital on Thursday, raising the state’s total to seven.

China:  on Saturday reported 27 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, as it tries to stem an upsurge in infections in the north eastern province bordering Russia. The border with Russia has been closed.

Japan: on Saturday reported 556 new cases of the coronavirus, surpassing a total of 10,000 about three months after the first case was detected in the country. Nearly one third of domestic cases come from Tokyo, where the daily surge has overcrowded hospitals, triggering fears that the medical system will collapse.

Africa: will be the next Covid-19 epicentre, says WHO. Africa now has more than 1,000 deaths from Covid-19, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 52 of the continent’s 54 countries have reported the virus, with overall cases numbering more than 19,800 as of Saturday morning. The World Health Organisation has noted a 51 per cent increase in cases in Africa and a 60 per cent jump in deaths. Bur the WHO chief has warned that because of a shortage of testing “it’s likely that the real numbers are higher than reported.” The Africa CDC has said more than a million test kits will be rolled out, starting next week.

South Korea: has reported 18 new cases of the coronavirus, its lowest daily jump since February 20th, continuing a downward trend as officials discuss more sustainable forms of social distancing that allows for some commercial and economic activity. Figures released by South Korea’s CDC on Saturday brought national totals to 10,653 cases and 232 virus-related deaths.

Russia: suffers a record Covid-19 rise in cases as Moscow mayor says he has enough beds for two weeks but cannot make promises beyond this, despite a giant new hospital.

India: There’s a critical risk of debt bondage for India’s informal workers amid the Covid-19 lockdown. Meanwhile, the main train station in the north Indian city of Varanasi is a sprawling building that has witnessed its share of delays in more than a century of rail travel. Sometimes the waits are long, and sometimes they are pleasantly short. But it has never seen anything like this. Inside a high-ceilinged room, a group of 50 travellers from all walks of life and across India has waited in vain for a train that never came.

Finally, closer to home life is more prosaic as I read the following message on Nextdoor:

“Does anyone know if any of the local supermarkets in Welling or the surrounding areas have any compost or bark chippings in stock? I may go out tomorrow for a weekly shop and I would like to pick some up.”

I ordered my compost online.

Day Thirty Four: Saturday 18th April 2020

Daily Diary: About Sweet Peas, Plastic Artillery and Moral Injury

I transferred the geranium cuttings to the potting nursery in the recently acquired propagator. I was disappointed that the cuttings hadn’t grown root systems in the bottle and I started to be concerned that if I left them any longer the water would start to be contaminated by bacteria. So let’s see how they go.

I’ve trained the sweet peas using very loose loops of paraglider line and they look more disciplined now. I’m also admiring the apple blossom and tempted to trim the branches back. The leaves actually look much healthier. Last year the old leaves got pretty diseased so maybe there is something that can be done to restore health and vigour this season. Some minor fence repairs too, which I might have a go at this weekend.

Along with keeping up with the diary it’s important to do other things. I still keep up with my Twitter account, but in view of all the other information I’m processing I stick to responding to notifications. There are only so many hours in a day.

I’ve also been working on a plastic model. I’m trying to recreate my father’s portee anti-tank gun. There is no kit for it, but I have a Japanese manufactured model of a British military two pounder assembled. It was the fiddliest model I’ve ever constructed. Some pieces were actually the size of a pinhead and much of the constructing had to be done under a magnifying lens. There were over a hundred pieces and I’m awestruck by the level of detail and quality of moulding. The truck part of the portee is a modified 15 cwt Chevrolet, manufactured in Canada. It’s less fiddly but it also presents its own challenges.

The secret is to take your time. Don’t rush anything. Things always ‘go wrong,’ so have the strategy of dealing with it when they do. Having the right tools helps a lot. I enjoy having to solve problems, even if they are of little consequence. There was a tiny part missing and I built a facsimile from sprue and a leftover from a previous project. All put into place and I can’t tell the difference, and certainly won’t when the model is painted. The gun platform on the back of the truck will need scratch building from polystyrene card and rod. In the Western Desert the RHA did the same, improvising their way around mounting a light artillery piece on a chassis, so my scratch building has got to mirror that improvisation. I have pulled together quite a good archive of photos, including a painting by David Shepherd of Lieutenant Ward Gunn holding the line against all odds at the battle of Sidi Rezegh. My dad was in the next vehicle.

“Wow!” I said to my dad. “You saw someone getting the Victoria Cross.”

“Bloody fool!” my dad had replied. “Playing a Boys’ Own Paper hero, when he should have been more concerned about the safety of his men.”

Lieutenant Ward Gunn was awarded the VC posthumously. I was a bit stung by my dad’s reply, but as I’ve got older I’ve begun to understand what lay behind it. My dad had been decorated himself for bravery in the field with the Military Medal and was a sergeant at the time. He had a character fully capable of acts of dash and bravery, but for him the carnage of battle meant much so more. ‘J’ Battery, 3rd Royal Horse Artillery, now known as ‘Sidi Rezegh’ battery, was decimated from its original fighting strength of 120 men to only fourteen survivors. Half of them went with another lieutenant and surrendered to the advancing panzers. The other half went with the battery sergeant – my father – and got back to allied lines.

After the war there was an annual reunion of J Battery’s  fourteen survivors, a number that dwindled over the years. My father always went, but I remember from a conversation with my mother over the breakfast table, it was through a deep sense of regimental duty and he went with a heavy heart.

Whatever happened on the battlefield between the sergeant and the junior officer when they went their separate ways remains unknown, but a tension between them existed for the rest of their days.

It taught me about moral injury – the emotional fallout that can appear from extreme, dangerous and challenging events – and I see and read about cases of moral injury suffered by medics as they face the coronavirus in long shifts day after day after day.

Simply knowing that is humbling.

The Bigger Picture: When Giant Egos Meet Huge Uncertainties

There are many enigmas about the Great Covid Pandemic of 2020. They are enigmas not so much because they take our scientific explorations to the very edge of what we understand. With science that’s always so. But it is about ourselves and how we enabled certain individuals to be able to make decisions, when with a moment’s thought we would have realised that they weren’t the full shilling when it came to decision-making. Especially when the consequences of their decisions involved the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

For example, most Americans say Trump was too slow in the initial response to the Covid-19 threat and there are now widespread concerns that the states will lift restrictions too quickly. But in spite of that there were no protests, Fox News was behind him all of the way, it was said of CNN commentators “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Or something very similar.

If anyone looked at Donald Trump’s comments on the outbreak they would have seen that they didn’t quite meet the observed growing horror show in the world around them. Wouldn’t they?

But many didn’t.

Here are some announcements from the American President over a couple of months:

January 22nd:”We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

February 19th: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April and the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that.”

February 26th: “We only have 15 people, and they’re getting better and hopefully they’re all better soon.”

February 28: “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. And this is their new hoax.”

March 15th: “It’s a very contagious virus. It’s incredible, but it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

March 16th:”I was talking about what we’re doing is under control, but I’m not talking about the virus.”

March 17th: “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they are going to be.

March 24th: “I would love to have it open by Easter. Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?”

March 29th: “If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number — maybe even less. But to 100,000. We all together have done a very good job.”

Even the utterances describe a narrative and you don’t need much imagination to see how a deadly virus is not only invading the United States of America but also making it the epicentre of a global pandemic. So much so that people across the world start talking about the demise of the world’s greatest superpower, albeit prematurely.

Simply trying to understand where Donald Trump was coming from only gets you halfway there. What matters is, as Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of “The Art of The Deal,” observes, is the resonance his world view has with our darkest instincts.

He reflects a view held by those who believe that the world is a dangerous place, and that staying safe requires being vigilant, aggressive, and full of certainty. It’s a set of instincts that no doubt served our prehistoric ancestors well and one that registers on some level with all of us. But it’s crude, lacks nuance and doesn’t match the complexities of modern life., let alone the consequences of a viral pandemic.

His skill, I believe more intuitive than calculated, is to tap into those feelings of fear, insecurity and inadequacy, and present himself as confident and certain, free from the volatility and unpredictability of a wider world. And there’s a feel-good factor that someone can manage that and the binary reality he offers has an illusion of comfort and security.

Some, history teaches us, will follow someone to Hell and back for that illusion.

Many are following Trump on that score.

As Tony Schwartz put it:

“If I wasn’t a hundred per cent right, I was a hundred percent wrong. If I wasn’t all good, I was all bad. It was win or lose, and there wasn’t much in between.”

The evidence doesn’t matter. That steals a moment or two to think about and consider and the emotion evaporates in the process. What does matter is the confidence and radiating it becomes an addiction that not only Trump, but populists elsewhere, such as Johnson and Bolsonaro fall prey to as well.

So it’s in that vein that Trump encouraged resistance against three Democrat governors’ lockdowns, echoing right wing protestors’ call to ‘liberate’ these states. In a series of all-caps tweets Mr Trump declared, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” AND “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” – two states where Democrat governors have imposed social distancing restrictions that have shut down businesses and closed schools and forced people to stay at home. He also tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and “Save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

And riding that wave the right wing media come in right behind their president. “Time to get your freedom back.” Fox News media personalities Laura Ingraham. Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson are supporting protestors demonstrating against stay-at-home orders across the country, even as governors maintain that restrictions are slowing the spread of the virus.

It’s also in that vein that stimulus cheques are delayed because Trump wants his name printed on them.

And that the first seeds of Trump’s downfall are sown as, in the light of the pandemic,  consideration is given to encouraging voting by mail in November’s election. He fears, quite rightly, that mail voters are more likely to vote Democrat. Republicans have form in suppressing votes from neighbourhoods more likely to vote Democrat, and doing whatever they can to hinder postal voting rises up the political agenda. They believe they have a nuclear option – voter fraud – and have every intention of using it.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, is due to be released from federal prison, having taken the bullet for his client. It was a bitter episode, made more so by Cohen’s deal for a tell-all book due to come out in the autumn, which triggers a string of angry tweets from the president, rubbishing Cohen. The irony is that when he first sought a book deal it was going to flatter the president.

“A love letter to Trump,” the president called it.

Hell hath no fury like a lover spurned.

It’s part of a much bigger picture about how Trump treats people and we all know about having to be careful how you treat people on the way up, because they’ll still be waiting for you on the way down.

And it’s another seed sown.

It’s both easy and lazy to declare that Boris Johnson is ‘Britain’s Trump.’ But they do have some things in common. Both have giant egos. Both place a higher premium on telling people what they want to hear than what they need to know. The former wins approval, even when the latter makes more sense. The former can be achieved by winging it, the latter requires attention to detail, a lot of worrying through and frankly, hard work.

Live from one moment to the next. Please people from one moment to the next, and if the consequences of one moment turn sour they can be buried in the here and now of a future moment. For a long time Brexit was perfect for such game-play. Four and a half years of promises that could not be tested against reality. Say what you like. Even drive a JCB digger through a polystyrene wall. Goof about. Entertain people.

Like in  that movie when gumshoe detective Eddie Valiant asks sultry femme-fatale Jessica about her surreally screwy husband, Roger Rabbit, “Seriously, what do you see in that guy?”

She replies, “He makes me laugh.”

It’s funny because we can all see in that reply a deeper truth.

Seriously, why did some people vote for Johnson? Enough to put him in a position of great power. Everyone knows of his skulduggery and shenanigans, but in being a clown he stands out from a dour crowd, most of whom we also don’t trust.

Stopping pandemics is serious stuff. It requires attention to detail. His predecessor, Theresa May,  was serious and showed attention to detail. It wasn’t appreciated. She went unloved because of it. Most were glad to see her humourless presence leave centre-stage.

Boris makes us laugh. He promises us the wonderful payback from an as yet untested Brexit – his vehicle to power. His complacency was that of a man with savoir-faire. If we believe, like believing in fairies to revive Tinkerbelle in a pre-pandemic panto, all will be well. And the “Oh no it won’t!” will be drowned out by all the cries of “Oh yes it will,” with the tousled haired panto clown conducting the audience like the London Philharmonic.

If we could believe enough, then we wouldn’t feel so down about critical shortages of ventilators, PPE and testing. Or be deeply disturbed by the possible need for triage into intensive care units or that his closest adviser had latched on to the dark possibilities of herd immunity.

Meanwhile Britain was heading for one of the highest death rates per million of any European country.

“I’m following the science,” became Johnson’s mantra, echoed by those around him

It sounded good. It made him look more of the genuine article than President Trump, but what it really meant was following whatever utterances by scientists fitted in with his agenda at the time. He was no more following the science than Richard the Lionheart was following the teachings of Christ on his crusades to the Holy Land.

“The Science” is presented as some Great Recipe concocted by the Wise Ones.

The reality looks somewhat different when one adviser, Professor Neil Ferguson accuses ministers of failing to carry out enough work on the exit strategy.

Getting the exit strategy right is not just about people’s health. The pandemic is ravaging local finances as English councils are set for a one billion pound bailout.

We understand the economic impact of the pandemic less than we understand its epidemiology. The UNHCR warns that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic could be worse than the health impact, including a depression resulting from Covid-19 having the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of children a year.

That’s because, unlike the biology of viruses, no one can agree about how economic systems work.

So in America airlines are being bailed out again. The asked for $50 billion and got $25 billion and no one’s sure if it’s good money after bad. German carmakers are going to have to open up their factories and car dealerships soon – otherwise they could face a widespread collapse. That would be disastrous for the German economy. And a British food producer, despite the pandemic, has chartered a flight to bring 150 Romanians into the UK to help pick fruit and vegetables. Farmers across both the UK and the whole of Europe have complained of having to either throw away their harvests or leave them to rot in the field. The sources of both clients and seasonal workers have been thrown into disarray.

A crisis with default online loans is likely. Lost income for some due to the pandemic and ease of borrowing do not run in sync. What this will turn into nobody knows.

Yet even here the darkest of clouds has a silver lining as the economic downturn is expected to expose a decade’s worth of swindling and aggressive accounting. Downturns are the corporate fraudsters’ worst enemy.

Understanding Covid-19’s epidemiology, however, is far from straightforward. It’s as imprecise as weather forecasting for much the same reason – it’s trying to make sense out of a chaotic system. Some governments tried to mirror what had happened elsewhere, only to find that differences in the nature of government, the Covid-19 control rules in a particular country and the culture and behaviour of its citizens all contributed to how the virus spread through the population. Two countries did not have to be that different for significant differences in the spread of the disease. The butterfly effect.

Some tried to create ‘agent-based models,’ working along similar lines to Sim City. This had already been done with previous seasonal flu outbreaks with some success. But so much about Covid-19 was significantly different from seasonal flu, and the consequences of models being out of sync with reality less critical.

As a result of issues relating to the models and the different ways they worked, the projections differed enormously. This hasn’t been communicated well to the general public, leading to mixed messaging and a loss of confidence in science in general. Politicians picked and chose the projections that suited their purposes adding to the confusion. 

In the absence of adequate testing asymptomatic transmission is an alarming characteristic of Covid-19. An antibody study suggests that the virus is much more widespread than previously thought. At the time of the study, Santa Clara county in California had 1,094 confirmed cases, resulting in 50 deaths. But based on the number of people who have antibodies, it is likely that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had been infected.

That’s underestimating the number of cases by 50 to 80 times.

So how can you model when you don’t know?

Then there are Chinese and South Korean coronavirus survivors who retest positive, raising questions about whether second time positive patients are actually infected again or are victims of erroneous tests. There is no evidence to support that people who have recovered from Covid-19 have immunity, WHO has said.

So we’re caught out time and time again by shocking new horrors.

Like more than 7,500 care home residents are feared to have died from the coronavirus. Twenty die in one Scottish home alone, including four people in a day. A new European study reveals that it’s care homes where over half of Europe’s Covid-19 deaths occur.

Or that a number meat processing plants in particular across the world have turned out to be epicentres for local outbreaks. Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, owned by a Chinese billionaire, has become the largest Covid-19 hotbed in the United States, with about 735 associated cases. The state governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, has yet to issue a stay-at-home order.

Or that border controls could play such a catastrophic role in widening the spread of the virus across a whole geographical region, as Guatemala declares that migrants deported from US are infected  amid fears of contagion spread from ICE facilities.

In our ignorance we create chaos.

Also chaos theory.

Imagine this. If a third of the weather balloons that were sent up returned data that was simply wrong weather forecasting would be totally up the creek. Positive covid test results happen to be almost always true positives, but of every hundred people who give negative test results thirty are actually infected. This is particularly true for rapid, lateral flow, tests that give a result in less than 30 minutes, but it’s also true for self-administered tests, because with even the snazziest of nasal swabs, and a new polyester swab has just been given the green light by the FDA in the US, the fact is that it’s down to human error rather than molecular technology.  

So ease of access in the sense that I can easily buy lateral flow tests online and in a few months’ time I’ll be able to get them free, courtesy of the UK government, misleads. It’s me, the eejit who hates gagging and having it tickle my nasal cavity, who will let the side down.

Some medics are suggesting the use of CT scans as an alternative. Covid-19  but not only is their use likely to be too cumbersome for the scale and speed of response, but they too can miss Covid-19 cases. Just forty per cent of the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess who tested positive with a swab PCR test had the covid characteristic lung opacities on their CT scans.

All of that is just the first step in a strategy for dealing with covid. Isolation, tracing and quarantining all who have come into contact with an infected person are also essential elements for controlling the disease. When an outbreak first reaches a population these actions are possible. Once deep-rooted and embedded the possibility vanishes.

Whatever model is being used.

The only practical solution is to socially distance. Isolate if possible. The virus might seem to have the better of us, but it is in no way magical.

Those who can’t must be protected, so it is really worrying that some British hospitals face running out of PPE this weekend amid growing concerns about supplies. Some medical staff were asked to reuse equipment. The British Medical Association responds that doctors and nurses should not be asked to ‘put their lives on the line’ to save others.

Babies are given tiny face shields in a bid to stop the spreads of Covid-19. Experts believe that children are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers and could be inadvertently spreading the virus.

The quest for a way out continues. In the US the NIH partners with 16 drug companies in hopes of accelerating Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. The drug of the moment is remdesivir and its manufacturer’s stock jumps eight per cent. Originally a treatment for other viral diseases, including hepatitis C, Ebola and Marburg fever it’s a repurposed medication. Its major effect, demonstrable statistically, is to accelerate recoveries. Whether it increases the proportion of covid patients who do recover is harder to show. It isn’t preventative and won’t influence transmission, but in these dark times any step forward is met with much excitement by the media. Like successes in manufacturing ventilators these are morsels of news that give us hope.

At the moment hope is important.

Hope is also created by news about a vaccine. In Britain, researchers at Oxford University expect to inject the first volunteer in a major clinical trial of the vaccine in a week or so. Business Secretary Alok Sharma announces £14 million funding into the programme, saying that any potential vaccine will be made available to the public as quickly as possible. The Vaccination Taskforce is set up by the government to co-ordinate rapid vaccine development and production providing industry and researchers with the resources and support material.

It turns out to be the smartest move the Johnson administration has made since it came to power in 2019. Some would argue the only smart move.

Despite all the caveats a number of governments are starting to ease restrictions. Gradually, cautiously and with only a hazy idea about what works. Scientists work with data and modelling. Politicians, however, continue to work more from their gut instincts. And by that I mean their gut instincts about our gut instincts.

In other words, taking two steps back from reality and of course expecting it all to work just fine and dandy.

In Germany many are growing impatient with the hesitant pace of efforts by the government to loosen the lockdown imposed to bring down the number of Covid-19 infections under control. But there’s little agreement on whether the measures are appropriate. Scientists fear they go too far and business leaders say they do little to change anything. The Leopoldina National Academy, Germany’s academy of sciences, recommends that schools be opened soon, businesses and public authorities are also expected to be reopened gradually and travel should also be permitted under certain conditions.

The British government outlines its five tests to end lockdown:

  • Can the NHS function?
  • Have we have moved beyond the peak, seeing a consistent daily fall in the death rate?
  • Is the rate of infection is decreasing? How many further cases does each Covid-19 patient lead to? This becomes known as the R Number and will be central to government both making and being accountable for decisions.
  • Do we have enough testing and PPE supplies to meet demand?
  • Are we certain we won’t simply end up with a second peak – that is to say we don’t exit lockdown only to trigger a fresh spike in cases?

They’re worthy questions. They sound scientific and rational. Whether they’ll hold to them or bow to public pressure remains to be seen.

Trump too, tries to appear rational, outlining phases for reopening states once coronavirus cases begin to decline. The same caveat applies.

Meanwhile, it seems like the whole world is locked down, and much of it is.

It impacts on the whole human life cycle: From either putting a complete stop to, or severely restricting IVF treatment, through the many challenges of giving birth, the far reaching effect on childhood and in one way or another every phase of adult life. Not even death remains untouched, as funerals become pared down and no frills.

It changes many of our pastimes, hobbies and interests: Dozens of free online courses appear, from Joe Wickes’ workouts to history of art courses, yoga classes, language courses and business and career development. There are even invitations to become a citizen-scientist on monitoring projects like DETECT, Covid Near You and Flu Near Me. I’m even sent the recipe for a new dish this week – rhubarb crumble – if, like many I’ve been bitten by culinary bug.

Mistakes are made: A programme to free prisoners early to help jails cope with Covid-19 has been paused after six inmates were released by mistake.

Hearts are touched: As a little terrier pup is finding a new family after its owners died from Covid-19, a US animal shelter has revealed.

Experiences are shared: The Personal experiences of doctors and nurses become compulsive viewing for many on both mainstream and online media. Their level of intimacy and sharing of intense emotions are unprecedented. Mental well-being of medics is becoming a big issue. A senior clinician at the country’s maiden Nightingale Hospital has called for military expertise to deal with the mental health of the staff and volunteers at the facility.

We distract ourselves with entertainment: A sitcom called, “The Quarantine Diaries ,” poking fun at life under lockdown becomes a hit in Spain. And Global Citizen premieres on BBC1 and TV channels across the world, “One World Together At Home.”

We remember: Plans are under way for a Spitfire flypast to mark the 100th birthday of Captain John Moore, who has raised more than £21 million so far for NHS Charities Together.

We do not forget: As Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe is ‘waiting for news’ about whether she will be returning to prison.

We respect and appreciate: UK firefighters deliver medicines to the elderly and vulnerable.

The truly weird happens:

  • I read the following on my local Nextdoor: My hair is enormous! My unqualified wife wants to go cut it so badly, but I’m refusing to let her anywhere near it! If I get 100 Twitter likes she can do what she likes with it ….. beard too! Dunno how this works!
  • A man who bought a ghost town with a sinister past has been forced to quarantine there after a snowstorm left him trapped. Brent Underwood had to resort to melting snow for water after his week-long stay in Cerro Gordo, California, was unexpectedly prolonged by the lockdown.
  • A zoo in Northern Germany has said that, since their income has decreased during the pandemic they will sacrifice some of the animals in their care by feeding them to others, if they have to. They’ve even decided in advance which animals would live and die, promising their 12 foot tall polar bear would be the top of the food chain.

Not everyone is behaving themselves:

  • Clashes between police and orthodox Jewish worshippers shake Jerusalem neighbourhood.
  • 150 people break Covid-19 rules to attend a funeral on Sheppey Way in North Kent. Two men were arrested and another injured in a motorbike collision after around 150 people flouted covid social distancing rules.

Finally, on the score of naughtiness there is an online warning from the local police:

“You may have seen a letter that has been circulating on social media sites with a Met Police logo stating the ‘Code Red’ lockdown is being activated. The message also mentions that on the 15th April at 9 pm that London will be sprayed with disinfectant. Please be reassured that this letter and others like it are fake and we will continue to work with partners to tackle misinformation with Covid-19.”

There’s only one question I want to ask myself…..


Day Thirty Three: Friday 17th April 2020

Daily Diary: Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

‘Em Deliveries’ arriving at our doorstep has become a weekly highlight. Always around five thirty in the afternoon, and along with the topping up of supplies comes the weekly banter. There’s something about a face to face chat that goes beyond seeing each other on a screen. They are like two forms of reality. I remember talking with my students about comparing the real experience of free-flying with a computer game. It’s not simply about not being able to press reset in the real world where it is so easy in a virtual one, it’s that real experience has a totality about it. We are so immersed in it. We cannot escape from it. So Emily, the other side of our front garden wall, wearing her mask, along with a pair of Marigold gloves is still somehow more real than talking close face on a WhatsApp video call.

So here’s the scene. Vicky’s sitting on the outside sill to our living room window. Emily is in the street next to our family car. In the background, the other side of a narrow, fairly sleepy street (by London standards) is the common with people moving to and fro, singly or in pairs. Occasionally, a small family group. Every time there’s a passer-by Emily takes a step back. Some say sorry, others thank you. Vicky calls out to passer-by, “Hi there! How are you doing?” And passers-by would respond somewhere on the spectrum between open friendliness with strangers and awkward embarrassment, but all give a reply. I smile and nod.

Emily’s had a busy day. An early start with Tom being run to Tunbridge Wells Station to take the train ‘up-town,’ where a whole load of stuff faces him about the crisis. We don’t ask him, partly out of respect, partly because it would be totally inappropriate to do so, and partly because we represent a different room in his reality, and we all need to move to our different rooms from time to time. Then she goes to her local Sainsbury’s. She has consolidated the three shopping lists – for herself and Tom, for Mitzi, and for us – into a mega-list to make the task so much more efficient. There’s a half-hour wait outside the store as shoppers are marshalled in one at a time.

Emily reassures us that the trip around the shop is not onerous. The shelves are mostly stocked, maybe not with the exact product, but it is invariably something close.

“I’m used to it,” Emily tells us. “I call it Montserrat-Plus, because, although a little limited here and there, it’s so much easier than shopping for groceries in Montserrat. So I count my blessings.”

Metzi still can’t get her exact tipple of choice – a dry Vermouth, which seems to have left the shelves. Whisky, on the other hand, has been less of a challenge and she has been consistently successful in supplying us with Famous Grouse.

The checkout has its own procedure too. A masked member of staff at the till, protected by a Perspex screen. The customer has to feed the conveyor from one end, then collect it from the other, with a lot more stretch for the card reader.

Vicky and I have been spared all this and are grateful. There is still, however, the feeling of being dependent – those boomers yet again being fed like cuckoos by younger generations in an upside-down metaphor. It is a growing theme I’m reading about – how will the old pay the young back when all of this is over? There are right wingers in the States who are saying the old should do ‘their bit’ by being allowed to be the sacrifice so that the young can work. Gerontocide ….. or is it geriacide? But perhaps it goes beyond that – have we reached the point as a human society that we have to question the virtue of work at all, bearing in mind that millions of us will be replaced by AI in the decades ahead. Perhaps this is the chance we have to make a paradigm shift that is both inevitable and inescapable.

Our chat over the garden wall continues. For Em and Tom Friday night has become Zoom Night, where their social network, built up through Montserrat and Moscow and now scattered to the four corners of the globe get together. Vicky and I are intrigued. It may be something we can look into. Maybe I could hold a virtual club meeting in the months ahead this way. They play Zoom charades and it all sounds like a lot of fun.

Last weekend Em and Tom decided to have a night out indoors. They set up a bar in the attic-room, Soca Cabana style, after the beach bar near Brades on Montserrat. They sprinkled sea shells on the floor and consumed rum punches before moving on to the restaurant. Since Tom had been the barman, so Em became the waiter – she even fashioned a moustache for the part – alternating between waiter and customer by donning and removing the tache. A restaurant clip on You Tube generates the ambient chatter of the venue.

Needless to say, both Vicky and I are envious of all this creativity, but being the old farts we are we end up binge-watching Netflix.

Outside it is raining heavily. The droplets are making the sweet peas dance.

I’m sure they are.


The Bigger Picture: Let’s Resist Like It’s 1776 – And Forget About Collective Selective Memory

It‘s an extreme irony that those who declare their First Amendment right to hold and spread antivax views that the particular brand of Democracy that has made it possible would not have come into being were it not for George Washington’s success against his first great adversary – a virus. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1776 smallpox infection rates raged at 20 per cent. Across the colonies authorities had banned the practice of variolation, the predecessor of vaccination, in which people were intentionally infected with a mild case of smallpox to protect against a more serious and deadly form of the disease.   

Smallpox ran through the population unchecked until following Washington’s order the lawmakers of the Continental Congress repealed those bans. Infection rates dropped to just one per cent. It was the first piece of American public health legislation, and having won the war against smallpox it was then possible to win against Britain and establish itself as a new nation, with its own constitution and much cherished freedoms and rights.

Now a new epidemic paradoxically is bringing Americans together, but in doing so begins to polarise them into two camps.

Sometimes, the bringing together creates a sense of common purpose in, if not defeating the virus, then certainly keeping it at bay. Face masks have become the ‘new normal’ for New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania on governors’ orders and Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths in New York drop for the third day in a row.

At other times, the bringing together becomes more about the First Amendment itself and the fear of its loss, however irrational:

“Resist like it’s 1776,” has an irony that rings as loudly as the Liberty Bell itself.

If only they knew!

President Trump, disrupter-in-chief, has far from helped matters when he’s told governors that states could begin allowing public activities before May 1st.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” he tells them, knowing that the pro and anti-lockdown supporters are split down party lines.

It is a very brave Republican governor who’s going to enforce controls, and securing votes has rarely anything to do with bravery.

Some professing patriotism are prepared to limit Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to the under-70s. Texas Lieutenant Governor Don Patrick voices it loud and clear when he says, “America’s elderly should be more willing to put their lives on the line to keep the economy going for the young.”


That’s more irony ringing louder than Sweet Liberty herself.

“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

I don’t see anything to do about an upper age limit in the small print.

The $2 trillion relief package that Congress passed at the end of March was the largest in American history. Turns out it also wasn’t enough. More than 5.2 million US workers filed for unemployment last week, pushing the four week total to a staggering 22 million.

Meanwhile, Netflix shares hit a record high as its valuation overtakes Disney.

The vulnerability that comes with balancing freedom of speech and the eternal potential for anarchy that comes with it against the systems and controls needed to control a pandemic is for all to see and it brings to the fore what kind of regimes people should be living under. Strongmen leaders see the need for control as an opportunity to consolidate power. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro  Jair Bolsonaro fires his popular health minister who was calling for stricter Covid-19 precautions. He will go on to fir two more in the coming twelve months.

Although the WHO does have a problem with China, the fact of the matter, as Josh Rogin of the Washington Post points out, the WHO has a dictator problem, and in a Trumpian world autocrats have become emboldened.

Control the country and you control the narrative. Emmanuel Macron is right to question China’s handling of the Covid-19. Things have happened in China we don’t know about. China adds nearly 1,300 deaths to official Wuhan toll, blaming reporting delays. China only admitted there was a problem in the first place when the powers that be in Beijing came to learn the news of a Covid-19 outbreak had leaked through the biomedical community to Taiwan, and from there, via New York, to the rest of the world.

Freedom of speech, the authorities project, kills people. It creates disorder. So accept that China might have had a problem, but in a well-managed society, the best of all possible Panglossian worlds, it is resolved so much more easily than in the overindulged West.

It matters, because these are two alternative ways of how people should be living in the near future and they are as immiscible as oil and water. And the scene of the pandemic is the battlefield upon which this contest will be played.

So China is selective in its messaging. It plays hardball with its rival the US, using export restrictions reportedly delaying medical shipments, while at the same time driving a propaganda campaign, as it hands out medical equipment to other countries, making sure the cameras see it.

And the rivalry is both deadly and for real.

It matters existentially on an island nation off the North West coast of Europe as the UK is forecast to become one of the three countries with the worst covid death toll in the coming days. It’s a pandemic that’s getting the better of us and there are still the following questions to be asked:

At the moment it’s still early days. We don’t even have a handle on the most basic statistic – how many have died from Covid-19 as official Covid-19 death tolls still undercount the true number of fatalities.

We’re still very much in the dark.

Getting some understanding of the scale of the pandemic at least would help, but the UK, with the capacity for 35,000 tests a day is carrying out barely half. It’s a symptom of a much bigger muddle. Another is that the UK paid two Chinese companies $20 million for two million new covid tests that didn’t work. An overpriced, unproven, cash up front, take it or leave it, collect it yourself deal. British taxpayers were as much mugged off as Andre Poisson was when he was scammed into buying the Eiffel Tower in 1920. In less than a year’s time the Brits would be congratulating themselves over another gamble that paid off  – the vaccine programme. We’d be wise to remember that there were a number that didn’t in a climate where we had a gambler for a PM, were in dire straits and the desperation British officials felt as public pressure has mounted over the slow response to the virus.

It’s part of a bigger picture which includes fraudsters taking advantage of the pandemic to scam authorities. It’s an international problem, Interpol have warned.

By contrast, plans are afoot for self-testing kits to be delivered in the UK by Amazon.

Things don’t seem to quite join up, it seems.

In the meantime it’s lockdown.

Britain should brace for a year of lockdown restrictions, because a vaccine could be the only way to end social distancing, experts warn. At the very least it will be extended for three weeks in the UK. Social distancing, working from home, business closures and isolation  will continue into May, Dominic Raab announces.

There is now a Police lockdown checklist of valid excuses, issued by the National Police Chief’s Council and College of Policing (NPCC). It comes after more than 3,200 fines were handed out to people considered to be flouting the rules in England between March 27th and April 13th.

It itemises what citizens can and cannot do. To be fair, it is meant to help and bring clarity – challenging people about whether they are breaking lockdown rules has been a catalogue of muddy episodes. However, Brits have not experienced restrictions like this since the Second World War and there are those across the political spectrum, whether from a libertarian or civil liberties position, who are deeply perturbed by this development.

So here is the list of dos and don’ts:

Shopping – what you can do:

  • Buy several days’ worth of food, including luxury items and alcohol.
  • Buy a small amount of a staple item or necessity, e.g. a newspaper, pet food, loaf of bread, pint of milk.
  • Collect surplus basic food items for a friend
  • Buy tools and supplies to repair a fence panel damaged by bad weather.

Shopping – what you can’t do:

Police say it is not reasonable to pop out for DIY supplies so you can do up your kitchen, for example.

Exercise – what is allowed:

  • Going for a run or a cycle, practising yoga, walking in the countryside, or in cities attending an allotment.
  • Driving to the countryside and walking (where more time is spent walking than driving).
  • Stopping to rest or eat lunch on a long walk.
  • In some circumstances, exercising more than once a day.

Exercise – what isn’t allowed:

Police say exercise must involve some movement.

Work – what you can do:

  • Key workers, or other essential workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.
  • Some non-key workers or non-essential key workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.
  • Deliver food packages to vulnerable people.

Key workers, or other essential workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.

The government has clarified who counts as a key worker and is allowed to travel to work ofr bring their children to school during the day.

However, some non-key workers have been allowed to travel if they are unable to work from home or if their employer requires them to come in.

The guidelines also state that you cannot work from local gardens or parks while working from home.

Other reasons to leave home – what you can do:

  • Go to the vet for essential treatment
  • Move to a friend’s address for several days to allow a “cooling off” following arguments at home.
  • Provide support to vulnerable people.

What you cannot do:

  • Visit a vet’s surgery in person to renew a prescription, where this can be done over the phone.
  • Visiting a friend at their address or meeting in person to socialise.

The rules only set markers for the emerging New Reality, that’s morphing in so many ways:

  • There is a growing awareness that those who we have been praising and clapping as heroes are among our most poorly paid and there’s a call for those on minimum wages should be given a pay rise after the pandemic. But the folk tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin comes to mind, and with folk tales often come hard truths about ourselves.
  • Many people won’t want to hear the messy stories of healthcare workers when it all calms down. People tend to want stories that fit into a particular narrative, so they can move on. Healthcare workers will just have to carry their memories isolated in the truth, suffering the moral injury with varying degrees of quietness.
  • There is a genuine plight among sex workers. Lockdown measures prevent human contact and leave a marginalised part of our society that feels uneasy and lacks the honesty of coming to terms with it particularly vulnerable. Despite the fact that sex workers are adversely affected by the pandemic, they are excluded from government relief and protection programmes as well as health services. About a third carry on face to face meetings regardless, taking enormous risks for themselves and others. Homelessness, destitution and even suicide attempts are not unknown.
  • Some are coming to believe that civil aviation will never be the same again. Major airlines have already taken steps to axe their fleets of giant carriers – the A-380s and 747s. The growth of and refinement of videoconferencing as a result of the pandemic may well reduce the need for business class passengers, and security measures, already in place since 9/11 will now include biosecurity. How we travel is changing.
  • Along with that comes a growing awareness of the part our leisure activities play in incubating and exporting coronavirus, as the newsworthy events include ski resorts and cruise ships as superspreaders.
  • Free audiobooks for children, from Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, are booming during lockdown,.
  • “100 staff are fostering pets:” How animal shelters are coping with Covid-19. As rescue centres struggle to rehome pets under social distancing measures, they’re faced with new challenges.
  • A Survey shows that only 9 per cent of Britons want life to return to ‘normal’ once lockdown is over.
  • And lockdown has created a return to love in anticipation and a revisiting of the old-fashioned love letter in a modern context. Tinder has become so pre-covid!

With those anecdotes also come very personal stories:

  • Patient One: The first person diagnosed with Covid-19 in Italy was a healthy 38 year old who arrived in his local emergency room in Cordogno, south of Milan on February 20th with flu-like symptoms. He spent weeks on a ventilator before he could breathe again and was released from hospital on March 22nd. While he was still in hospital his father died of Covid-19, and his wife, nearly 8 months pregnant tested positive as well, although she eventually recovered. He turned out to be a ‘super-spreader’ who infected scores of others, including people in his amateur soccer league and at the hospital where he was diagnosed. He is a continuing tale of asymptomatic contagion and the unpreparedness of hospitals. Officials believe Patient Zero is likely to have been a German who travelled to Northern Italy around January 25th.
  • 43 year old Purna Ghale, a hospital cleaner travels 4,500 miles from Nepal to London. Having worked at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow for 16 years, he was anxious to get back to the UK to “do his bit.” Having known many Nepalese people I’m in no way surprised.
  • “My wife hates it when I work from home,” Banksy says as he unveils his new work – a toilet and basin overrun with naughty mural-rats.
  • War veteran Captain Tom Moore, 99, says he’d be ‘amazed’ to meet the Queen amid petitions for a knighthood. The Duke of Cambridge thanks Captain Tom Moore for NHS fund-raising – and donates to the campaign.
  • A 90 year old woman, inspired by the brave captain, is climbing the equivalent of a Highland mountain on her staircase and has exceeded her target to raise £10,000 for the NHS and a hospice. Margaret Payne plans to climb the height of Suilven – 2,398 feet – by making 282 trips upstairs.
  • Megan Markle and Prince Harry are pictured for the first time in Los Angeles delivering food for charity in masks and gloves after the duchess wanted her husband to see the city “through the eyes of philanthropy.”
  • Princess Beatrice’s wedding is ‘officially cancelled.’

My final bulletins today come from Europe:

  • Ursula von der Leyen extended a ‘heartfelt apology’ to Italy on behalf of Europe, admitting that it had not been by its side since the beginning of the crisis.
  • The Swedish government is granted special powers to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Stranded or shunned, Europe’s migrant workers are caught in no-man’s land.
  • Malaria drug: The French president Emmanuel Macron has called for a controversial dual therapy based on hydroxychloroquine, to be tested as soon as possible, and described the infectious diseases specialist, Professor Didier Raoult, as a “great scientist.” Critics have lambasted Raoult’s methodology and have claimed that the results of his two studies are purely observational. 
  • Feeling the pinch: The Ukrainian government, like most across Europe, has closed many shops and is encouraging people to stay at home. Yet, Ukraine’s social security system is not as strong as many wealthier European countries, meaning people are mostly left on their own when they become unemployed. How people are coping with an at-times drastic loss of income.
  • How deep will the economic downturns in rich countries be? Those in central and southern Europe seem the most vulnerable.

Thursday 16th April 2020

Daily Diary: Today I’m Feeling Like Jesse

Today, I feel like Jesse from ‘The Fast Show.’           

Today, I planted out the sweet pea plants that Emily bought from Sainsbury’s last week. I didn’t have any canes or even sticks, so I made my own from some scrap tongue and groove I had left over from doing the porch ceiling. One of the best tools I have ever bought was a Bosch jigsaw and there’s something very satisfying about cutting wood with it.

I learned how to do it off a couple of You Tube videos, then I built my ‘wigwams’ out of my cut sticks, tying the top with old paraglider line, which I have learned is the best string on the planet. It knots easily – too easily sometimes, especially out on the hill – and is ridiculously superpower-strong. You can even pick a favourite colour. Mine was an old stabilo line, yellow and a bit faded.

(A stabilo line manages the wingtips of a paraglider, especially when launching, so the canopy inflates without tucking in at the tips. You need your canopy to be as tidy and stable as possible before you launch.)

I had just enough Levington John Innes Number One potting compost.

There’s a warm front coming through, resulting in a dull leaden sky that threatens to rain, but in the end does little more than spit, so I get the job done.

I’m a bit behind myself, so today’s entry is brief.

The Bigger Picture: Global Problems

Everyone born after the end of the Second World War has been part of an increasingly globalised  world. A world in which first goods and then people could move freely. For those in the rich world it was an era of consumer dreams, where a morning coffee came from Colombia, an evening wine came from New Zealand and the strawberries for dessert were grown in Kenya. It was all too good to be true.

Then it turned out that a deadly virus, behaving in ways we didn’t fully understand, could also travel as freely as goods and people, and the whole world recoiled. Some say the pandemic has sounded the death knell for liberal globalisation. Some hail the rebirth of the nation state as the first step in a new era. It’s certainly the case that leaders are enjoying a short-term boost during the Covid-19 crisis.

Whether that short-term boost will last or not will depend on the count of their country’s body bags in the months ahead.

Some leaders realised that harsh fact of life (and death) early on, then set about controlling the virus, closing borders and taking measures to eliminate its spread. Examples are Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Shinzo Abe of Japan, Tsai Ing Wen of Taiwan and Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland. They will have the best paybacks.

Others, believing the problem of having to close borders then set about eliminating the virus from the population to be too great, set about doing the alternative – politicising and posturing, hoping they can ride the tiger before the next election. Examples are Donald Trump of America, Jair Bolsnaro of Brazil, Andres Manuel Lopez of Mexico and, until he met a virus on the ‘Road to Damascus,’ Boris Johnson of the UK. They are in the process of creating outcomes that will come back to haunt them.

Trump withdrawing funding from the World Health Organisation, as a punitive measure for being insufficiently hard on China, falls into that category. It is an act of ‘America First’ extreme nationalism and appeals to those instincts to rebuff globalisation and recreate the United States as a nation state.

But during a global pandemic it makes no sense. Even the head of America’s CDC distances himself from Trump’s WHO criticism, saying the agencies “continue to have a strong relationship.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says about Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw funding:

“Covid-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies. Neither do we. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat. A dangerous enemy. When we’re divided the virus exploits the cracks between us.”

Withdrawing funding does not only hinder dealing with the pandemic, but all the other diseases the WHO tries to control, even eradicate across the world. Already, Covid-19 is eroding the global fight against many other diseases. And in doing so the WHO, along with a number of NGOs, such as UNICEF, Water Aid and Action Against Poverty seek to keep people informed and safe, prevent the spread of Covid-19 (one in ten people globally don’t have anywhere to wash their hands) and try to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on livelihoods.

It’s a dangerous combination of denial and showmanship. Trump had started by saying the coronavirus crisis was a politicised hoax perpetrated by Democrats. But the virus could not be simply talked away. Now it’s gone on to deflecting the blame, first on China, then on the WHO for not being tough enough on them. He already declared at the end of February that like a miracle the pandemic will disappear and hectored that, with respect to the cost of the measures needed to deal with the pandemic, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease itself.”

There are similarities to climate change, about which Donald Trump has long been in denial, only the pandemic is moving what seems like a hundred times faster. In the Trumpian playbook it’s a hoax created by scientists, the Chinese are again responsible, it’ll change itself back again and that it amounts to a very expensive form of tax. Spot the parallels?

The climate activist and author Bill McKibben said you can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry, you can’t compromise with them or spin them away, and Covid-19 is teaching us precisely this lesson about biology as well.

“Reality is real and sometimes it bites pretty hard.”

The Republican pollster Neil Newhouse put it more bluntly:

“Denial is not likely to be a successful strategy for survival.”

The human activities that lead to climate change are also part of the problem. Deforestation continuously forces wildlife and humans to come forever closer, and with it, zoonosis, the means by which pathogens jump host species. It’s easy to think of it as being a tropical and subtropical problem, but it isn’t. As the planet warms, and there are now heatwaves in the Arctic circle, the permafrost is starting to thaw, and with it the possibility of zombie viruses and pathogens that have been on ice. Could the next pandemic come from there?

Burning fossil fuels not only exacerbates the damage Covid-19 can do, but the dirty air it makes leads to a host of deadly human diseases and disorders in its own right. Here are the major ones and they affect not just the lungs, but every body system. Here are the major diseases caused by air pollution:

Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodevelopmental disorders, coronary artery disease, heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, diminished fertility, premature births, low birth weight and poor infant health.

Clean air is not just a beautiful thing. It is necessary for our health.

In China 1.8 million died from air pollution in 2019, India 1.7 million and the United States over 60,000. In the UK that year, toxic air led to the premature deaths of at least 40,000 – 9,000 in London – and it has left hundreds of thousands more suffering serious long-term health problems.

The blue skies of lockdown have shown this is a choice of national lifestyle and the Committee on Climate Change are to push UK government to deliver a climate-resilient Covid-19 recovery.

What will actually happen remains to be seen.

The question is whether economies can recover at the same time as moving away from carbon energy. To date over half the world has asked the IMF for emergency funding.

In the United States Goldman Sachs predicts 37 million jobs will be lost by the end of May, while US retail sales have suffered the biggest plunge on record in March, dropping 8.7%, as the pandemic shuts stores and wallets.

However, Covid-19 social distancing saves the US $5 trillion, according to a Wyoming study. The economic benefits of lives saved substantially outweigh the value of the projected losses to the US economy.

And social distancing proves all the more important as research published in the medical journal Nature Medicine suggests people with Covid-19 were at their most infectious right when symptoms began, or even a few days before, presenting yet another hurdle for controlling the spread.

That makes Covid-19 such a frightening disease. Frightening enough that it has led to a sharp rise in the number of seriously ill people dying at home because they are reluctant to call for an ambulance. Dozens more people than usual are dying each day at home of cardiac arrest, some related to coronavirus, before ambulance crews can reach them.

Stories about ventilators still get a lot of news coverage, but the narrative is starting to change. Epic tales of automotive production lines and light engineering companies such as Dyson repurposing to manufacturing these life-saving machines, but the fact of the matter is that although it looks as though something is being done, in actuality it’s only part of a much bigger picture. In many cases it’s not access to ventilators that’s the issue, but everything else that goes with it, such as the availability of oxygen, along with in the US half of the medicines needed for Covid-19 patients who are placed on ventilators are being filled and shipped to hospital. Everyone going on to a ventilator needs a regime of sedatives, anaesthetics, painkillers, and muscle relaxants, which are now in short supply.

And the regime matters every bit as much as the machines themselves. It’s not like knocking out an aeroplane a day from a Northampton shoe factory for the war effort in the nineteen forties. The reality at the hard end of a pandemic is much more complex and involved than that. That’s bad for news stories.

Vaccinating is still some way off. It will be the cornerstone in finally ending the pandemic. Optum’s CEO Sir Andrew Witty, a heavyweight in the business, takes leave to assist the World Health Organization in developing a vaccine for COVID-19. But it’s early days. We don’t even know at this stage that a vaccine will work.

Something has to dominate the narrative and that’s now testing, tracing and isolating. 

It’s the only possible way at the moment, as Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, and Iceland have all shown that the coronavirus can be stopped. But many countries, including the US and UK are getting in on the act too late. Early testing, tracing and isolating is effective. Later on, the virus has embedded itself within the population and with asymptomatic transmission it’s all but impossible to control its spread by this method alone.

It has become obvious that scant testing is a barrier to reopening. Business leaders urge Trump to scale up Covid-19 testing.

NHS leaders warn that they will hold MPs to account over ‘false test promises.’ Just 11,700 people were tested in the last 24 hour period, but ministers say the UK is on track to meet an ambitious target by the end of April.

The UK has failed pretty badly on testing people for the virus so far. Time is running out to hit the government’s target, with ministers woefully off-course for delivering on pledges. A lot of faith is being placed in smartphone contact tracing apps. Part of it is a kind of naïve fascination with widgets and gadgets. I takes time for people to become healthily sceptical of pretty much any technology. That it won’t be perfect. That there may be unforeseen consequences to its use. I’m sure it dawned on the first citizen to inadvertently step in some horse poo in an ancient Sumerian street that there was a down side to equine transport.

So there’s a lot of excitement about all the imagined benefits and stories about how it has been central to South Korea’s success in controlling the virus, and there is a temptation to allow it to deflect away from the bigger system of testing, tracing and isolating. The one which has been established for years, that was used to track STDs and particularly HIV/AIDS. The grunt one, with boots on the ground and people putting in the hours. The one that the NHS and local authorities did so well for so long, but the government put out to private tender at great expense.

As it was, the significantly more compliant South Korean population, ninety per cent of whom have smartphones, readily accepted the obligation, surrendered their privacy and allowed themselves to be pestered up to a dozen times a day with text alerts, something even they are now finding wearisome. Even becoming a nuisance.

But somehow or other the idea is that somehow or other such app-based approaches will translate into more individualistic western cultures. But in collectivistic societies like India, China and South Korea, the desire for greater privacy is a lower threshold than what we have in Western countries, especially when there is an argument for greater public good.

“If I got the virus, I would provide my details to the government without hesitating,” a South Korean university student admitted.

“I don’t know if what South Korea did was right. It’s something I wouldn’t like,” an American professor declared, adding, “But then again, I am an American.”

How well the apps will work in the West remains to be seen.

On the biomedical science front things are looking increasingly promising as Abbott Labs rolling out Covid-19 antibody tests, fifty thousand a day. The first Covid-19 saliva testing site opens in US after emergency FDA authorisation. For the time being it’s still those horrid nose swabs as the cornerstone of testing, but it’s a promising development.

Increased testing starts the debate about immunity passports, but it’s still early days, with only testing providing evidence that travellers are ‘safe.’ The general consensus at the moment is that it is too soon, but it’s a debate that won’t go away, but it will take the arrival of vaccines to take it to the next level.

Finally, one of the key weaknesses of testing and tracing emerges as, fearing deportation, many immigrants are at a higher risk of Covid-19, are afraid to seek testing or care.

Nowhere are the weaknesses in testing, tracing and isolating more evident than in social care. Without it in any systematic sense the most vulnerable members of society and their carers are not protected. Caring is the Cinderella of our society and it’s as clear as daylight that no one in government particularly cares for it, despite it being one of PM Johnson’s earliest pledges. It was broken, but in fairness he has had a habit of breaking pledges.

Helen Whately, Care Minister admits, “We don’t have a figure” for care home worker deaths in a heated clash with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. “We know that also, some workers have died who work in social care, and I’ll be straight with you, we don’t have a figure for that.”

It’s not as if this is something new.

“Day after day we are losing people to this virus,” a care worker describes her situation. “Each shift is getting worse.”

There is also pressure to allow Care workers’ visas are extended, free of charge for one year, in line with the NHS. In a fortnight’s time the government will concede to do this.

In the meantime families get the right to say goodbye to loved ones in care homes and hospitals, subject to strict conditions. More testing was also announced for care home residents and employees.

But still, according to the British Medical Association, there are alarming reports from members across the UK about a lack of PPE in their workplaces. There are others in what has now become known as the front line in an even worse predicament when it comes to the risk of infection. Bus drivers ‘running out of patience’ with the lack of Covid-19 protection.

“I have personal sanitiser,” says one bus driver, “ but I am concerned for my wife, who is high risk because she is in remission from cancer.”

The coronavirus death toll among London’s bus drivers will turn out to be three times the national average.

The new reality is a very mixed bag:

  • Surprising: A humble virtual pub quiz for the locals at the Greenfield pub in a small town in Lancashire, closed because of lockdown, created a global community. By the day of the quiz, the Facebook event set up by 38-year-old Jay Flynn had more than half a million people ‘interested’, and more than 200,000 actually took part.
  • Creative: As culinary habits evolve from batch Bolognese to sag aloo pie and countless Brits are set to become much better cooks as a result of lockdown.
  • Exploitative: As price-gouging becomes part of our way of life. These are the spivs of the covid crisis.
  • Unifying: As over 100 more artists have been added to Global Citizen’s ‘One World Together at Home’ performathon lineup.
  • Educational: Schools outside London and Birmingham could reopen next month in lockdown easing, but as schools reopen in Denmark, concerned parents push back.
  • Inspirational: 99 year old Captain Tom Moore completes his final fundraising lap for the NHS as donations soar past £12 million. A petition appears to build a statue of Captain John Moore outside the Nightingale.
  • Disappointing: Despite the disproportionate number of medics and carers on the front line being from minority groups, and despite their paying a disproportionate price during the pandemic Mary Seacole is not being recognised in any of the Covid-19 hospitals in England and Wales. It contrasts with the many ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ appearing all over the country. Eventually this issue id=s addressed, but at present the omission is stark.
  • Memorable: A professional singer who claims to have contracted the coronavirus and survived, held an Easter concert for her neighbours in the courtyard of her apartment building in Paris. Adèle Belmont, who performs regularly at the Opéra National de Paris, said she wanted to thank her neighbours for all their support as she struggled with the illness.
  • Tragic: Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, who worked at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital for five years, died on Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Her baby was delivered successfully via an emergency caesarean operation.
  • Unforgiveable: A sixty year old key worker in Glasgow, delivering groceries, is threatened at knifepoint and robbed. All for some alcoholic drinks he had in the van.

Then there are those who simply aren’t taking the lockdown seriously. I read on my local Nextdoor.

“Walking each day I come across a party of about 30 people congregating at the area of Winn’s Common hidden by the wooded area near Bleak Hill Lane. Their cars were parked along Bleak Hill Lane. “Definitely not socially isolating.”

It’s hard to tell where this complacency has come from. It’s easy to blame the UK government, who allegedly at this moment have no exit plan for the lockdown. But such casual behaviour is not unique to Britain.

Issues facing the government at the moment include resuming the Brexit talks next week, pressure from the disability community who are fighting deadly discrimination, fears of homelessness as rents and mortgage payments go into arrears for many, and the call for a new digital Parliament will allow all MPs to give robust scrutiny of the government during this crisis.

As it is, the government is enjoying the free rein it has from being held to account. Along with an 80 seat majority and the Coronavirus Act in the pipeline this is the nearest the UK has come to autocratic rule in people’s lifetimes.

In Europe:

  • Power grabs are not unique to the United Kingdom. They appear in Europe too. First Hungary, now Poland.
  • With only 101 deaths in a country of around 11 million Greece has a much lower toll for Covid-19 than its fellow southern European nations, Italy and Spain, but also far fewer fatalities than Germany or Denmark. Britain’s death toll today stands at 13,729. Per capita it’s over twenty times greater.
  • Germany set to ease some lockdown measures, while German retailers say partial relaxation of Covid-19 rules confusing.
  • Belgium, a country that exports 90 per cent of its potatoes, finds itself with a 750,000 tonne surplus of spuds. The Belgian potato chief (yes, there is one!) appeals for the government to chip in. The politicians act true to form and encourage all Belgians to eat chips twice a week.

In America:

  • The sporadic and unpredictable Trump melodrama continue threatens to adjourn both chambers of Congress.
  • Medical intelligence warned of an impending pandemic in US in February.
  • Governors from both parties said that, while they were a long way from telling Americans to return to their normal lives, it was not too early to make plans.
  • Across the US shelters are closing their doors to stop the spread of Covid-19, leaving many runaway youths (from stressed homes during lockdown) nowhere to go.
  • US Navy says it may reinstate fired Captain Crozier to command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

And further afield:

  • China’s busy reopening its factories.
  • The Guangzhou McDonald’s has apologised after putting up a sign saying that African customers were no longer welcome. It comes as African visitors to the city, a major hub of Sino-African trade, have faced forced evictions and homelessness as rumours spread online that African travellers were spreading Covid-19.
  • Japan’s prime minister issues a state of emergency for the nation.
  • Latin America’s health systems brace for a battering. Despite recent improvement, the region’s health care is not ready.
  • In Australia all Ruby Princess crew are to be tested for Covid-19 within 48 hours.
  • New Zealand’s government announces its ministers, including the PM, Jacinda Ardern, will take a 20 per cent pay cut in solidarity with those facing financial pressures during lockdown.
  • Malawi: Dozens of hospital workers, including doctors, nurses and lab technicians have staged a sit-in at the QEH hospital capital Blantyre in protest at inadequate personal protection equipment.
  • Covid-19 is spreading rapidly to developing countries, such as Sierra Leone, where 54 per cent of the population live in poverty and health systems are weak. Or Uganda, where the government has introduced lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the disease, but in its overcrowded refugee camps people are running out of food and social distancing is near impossible.

Today’s ‘Bigger Picture’ ends with something that is local, national and global. It’s actually a notice on my local Nextdoor networking site, but sadly and worryingly it is as universal as the pandemic itself. I won’t elaborate ……

“Information and support on domestic abuse. If you’re at risk of domestic abuse, free and confidential support is available. Call the GDVA helpline on 020-8317-8273 (Mon-Fri 9,30 am to 8 pm). There’s also a free 24 hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808-2000-247. In an emergency always call 999.”

It’s not just the virus that’s sickening minds and harming bodies.

Wednesday 15th April 2020

Daily Diary: What An Oddly Mundane Catastrophe!

It was a cold, clear night last night. Looking north from our bedroom at the top of the house, across Galleons Reach that just catches the buildings and streetlights from East London and reflects them in lines of white, yellow and amber, I can see out to the Essex hills. The lights are so noticeably clear, like bright stars, free from haze that would fuzz them. Each house, each streetlight a bright point. The once never ending hum from the city is quieter, so quiet in fact that I can hear our central heating gas boiler’s exhaust. Normally there’s a 24/7 hum, from subsonic to mid-range, reassuring me that all is well with the engine of human activity.

This morning, waking up at half past seven, I make a point of revisiting the view. There is a little inversion haze, but it is white, untainted by the purple-brown of motor vehicle exhaust pollution. Up here on the common the air is pretty good for London, but now it is even cleaner. Purer.

The cuttings are making mixed progress. One is rooting for sure. It was always the strongest. The weakest is not progressing and I’m worried that the threads on the base of the cut stem are actually filamentous bacteria. Emily brought us a tray of sweet peas to plant out but I need to find sticks for them to climb up. Maybe tomorrow.

A month has passed and the corona story is bigger than I’d ever imagined. It’s still growing, with all its ramifications and it is becoming a several hours a day effort keeping up with it. I try to include at least one other activity each day so I don’t get too obsessed, too wrapped up, but I fear that that’s going to be a losing battle.

The postman arrives with a collection of letters and packages. It’s decontamination time. I have a diluted bleach solution in a plant sprayer, and everything gets sprayed, plastic as well as paper. What comes into the house has to be treated as potentially contaminated. The conservatory smells like the municipal baths and all ventilation options are set to GO!

Then the young woman from the pharmacy arrives. We have a small lobby at the front of the house that acts as an ‘air lock.’ She drops off the bag of medicines in the lobby and picks up the envelope with the money in it. I then pick up the pharmacy bag once she’s outside again, so there is no proximity and always a door between us. The pharmacy bag is sprayed with methylated spirit because it evaporates faster than bleach.

We have a long chat with Emily, who’s chosen not to continue with the special school. She was assigned to an autistic girl called Amelie, but Amelie is now at home, so going in is optional. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Tom would have begun his Berlin posting this week, but that’s on hold as his skills have been harnessed in Whitehall. If there are any money issues arising from the decision, we’re not spending anything on holidays this year, so we can help out if necessary. Families are the cornerstone of society. Families see each other right.

Back in the seventies, when I was in my early twenties, I bought a book called ‘The Limits to Growth.’ Written by an international team of scientists, economists and politicians. The premise was that human civilisation couldn’t continue growing in number and prosperity. Resources would increasingly be consumed. Waste would increasingly be produced. It’s a key principle known to every biologist. It’s called the sigmoid curve If all goes well, like a child growing into an adult, the curve is a graceful S-shape, but it need not be. Sometimes it levels. Sometimes, like yeast cells poisoned by its own waste product – ethanol – it crashes. We simply don’t know what the human population growth curve will do, or when it levels, how exactly that comes about.

It’s certainly true that the same principles apply to economic growth. The world simply can’t carry on getting richer forever. Something has to check it. The rich are far too greedy to give up the system that feeds their wealth, so something has to give. It’s become increasingly clear that things weren’t going to evolve in some benign and decent way – there are far too many Trumpoids out there believing there is a virtue in selfishness and humanity has been in this bind since records began. The coronavirus pandemic is as much a consequence of how our civilisation functions as it is about anything else.

So will the change going to take the form of a René Thom catastrophe? Will the old world order be tipped over by events rather than respond to human wisdom?

Would it happen suddenly?

Perhaps it already has.

And it was so mundane we barely noticed it.

The Bigger Picture: When Knowledge Is An Option

It’s hard to hide the truth while searching for it at the same time. If science had progressed that way, the Age of Enlightenment would never have happened, and we’d still be performing alchemy, necromancy and attributing magical powers to mathematics. It’s only by pure coincidence that the truth and the most desired narrative ever come into alignment.

Politicians know that in the same way that engineers know about gravity. If truth and the narrative don’t align there are three choices – come clean and take a pin to the delicate bubbles of people’s confidence, allow a false narrative to roll on, repeating and emphasising it along the way, or say nothing?

China chose the third option. For six days after senior Chinese officials had secretly come to the conclusion that they were facing a pandemic from a novel coronavirus they said nothing to warn the public. So it was that the city of Wuhan at the epicentre of the disease hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people and millions began travelling home for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Saving face was more important than saving lives.

It’s likely that the culture of secrecy has also made it very difficult and maybe impossible to identify patient zero, the first person to have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Effectively it means that a choice has been made that knowledge is an option rather than a necessity when it comes to uncomfortable and unpalatable truths.

So we don’t know how Covid-19 started. We don’t know where it came from. We don’t know if it jumped species in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan or whether it came via stray dogs eating bat meat. Indeed, nearly 30 per cent of Americans, encouraged by their president, believe that the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, despite a complete lack of evidence. Rumours, conspiracies and theories abound, and that suits an authoritarian regime just fine, as it can’t be pinned down. It’s the same government that backs unproven treatments for Covid-19. Traditional medicine is not just a placebo, it claims.

It’s easy to China-bash in the circumstances. The UK government, preoccupied with celebrating Brexit, its casual leader taking holidays and ignoring scientific counsel rather than preparing the nation’s defences preparing the nation’s defences against the inexorably approaching pandemic in January and February, when those in the know were well aware of the dangers, chose not to know, or at least advertise the fact that they might.

America too.

It was known to those who wished to know. On January 21st the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today confirmed the first case of in Washington state and that the patient concerned had travelled from Wuhan on January 15th. The first alert had gone out from the CDC to physicians on January 8th, about a week after details about Covid-19 had been declared by the Chinese authorities (a day after it had leaked out of China online).

On January 28th Dr Carter Mecher, a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veteran Affairs, emailed a group of public health experts scattered around government and universities, “Any way you cut this, it is going to be bad. The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”

There was no way Trump couldn’t have known, and he admitted as much on tape in an interview with veteran reporter of Watergate fame, Bob Woodward.

But knowledge, at least widespread knowledge, was an option to be declined. The president focussed instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he chose to tell the nation, that had come out of nowhere and couldn’t have been foreseen.

But it could. There was a Pandemic Playbook. The CDC did have a pandemic plan. And Crimson Contagion – a joint exercise conducted from January to August 2019, in which numerous national, state and local, private and public organizations in the US participated, in order to test the capacity of the federal government and twelve states to respond to a severe pandemic of influenza originating in China.

It wasn’t just knowledge of the fact, but knowledge of the extent of the fact. In the absence of systematic test and trace, in many places no one is quite sure about how far the disease has spread. It’s like we’re flying through fog with a faulty altimeter. So attributing deaths to Covid-19 is hit and miss, particularly in the case of the stricken who never made it to hospital. Pneumonia is pneumonia and it has carried the elderly off so much so it has long travelled as ‘the old person’s friend.’

New York City death toll soars past 10,000 in a revised virus count, adding more than 3,700 additional people who were presumed to have died from the virus but had never tested positive.

In England too, Covid deaths could be 15 per cent higher than government estimates. The head of the charity Age UK warned that elderly people in nursing homes have been ‘airbrushed out’ of the official Covid-19 figures, and carers are being overlooked in the fight against the disease. There are fears of a virus running wild in adult social care and ministers have promised to ramp up testing for care home residents and staff, as fears grow that the virus is ‘running wild.’

The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said the welcomed the promise but said that the country’s testing capacity is “far from where it needs to be.”

President Trump says some states could reopen by May 1st. Dr Fauci doesn’t agree, saying that the US is “not there yet,” and floating the concept of a “floating re-entry” under which areas with fewer cases that are easier to track and quarantine will be able to resume normal life sooner. “It is not going to be a light switch,” he said on CNN’s State of The Union. “It is going to be depending on where you are in the country, the nature of the outbreak you’ve already experienced, and the threat of an outbreak you have not yet experienced. New York is going to be very different from Arkansas.”

The United States is now the global epicentre of the virus with more than 557,000 confirmed cases and more than 220,000 deaths.

There is friction between the president and a number of governors who are more cautious about lifting restrictions. Trump tries to be bullish and attempts to assert ‘total’ authority to overrule them. But the authority to make such decisions lies with individual states, not the president, and some governors, such as Andrew Cuomo of New York, say they’re prepared to resist such orders.

There’s also friction between Trump and the rest of the world. His move cut WHO funding at the height of a pandemic is criticised worldwide. Many Russians say it’s selfish. Bill Gates says it’s dangerous. Diplomats use the word “regrettable,” but it’s a very mild representation of the anger felt and expressed in dozens of other countries large and small.

Eliot Engel, Chair of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee summed up the frustration at such an ill-considered move.

“With each passing day of this worsening crisis, the president is showing us his political playbook: Blame the WHO, blame China, blame his political opponents, blame his predecessors – do whatever it takes to deflect from the fact that his administration mismanaged this crisis and it‘s now costing thousands of American lives,”

Trump’s response is to play a campaign-style video defending his Covid-19 response at a press briefing.

The virus is also disrupting the workings of the country. The Census Bureau announces a delay in the 2020 count, saying it would extend the deadlines for collecting census data, and would ask Congress for a delay in providing final counts used for congressional restructuring.

And in a closing chapter of the outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a sailor who had the virus died two weeks after Captain Crozier fateful request for help.

Since the 1960s there has been a growing idea that economics would somehow be constrained by the limitations of the global environment, The economist Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth.’ It would take over five decades for that concept to enter a wider grasp of how economics worked. Where humanity collided with their environment, such as in environmental damage or zoonosis – diseases jumping species – economics would suffer.

The consequences of climate change, notably in forest fires and the consequence of more frequent storm events, were beginning to have serious impacts, but set against the scale of the whole planet it was hard to build up a global picture at any one point in time. Economic damage was largely localised, in line with environmental damage. It’s taken the pandemic to cause widespread economic damage.

When people become sick on any large scale, so do economies.

In Britain the impact of Covid-19 is said by some, including the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to be the biggest economic shock since 1709. Two million people could lose their jobs through the virus, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak warns “more tough times” lay ahead and declares health to be the top priority. GDP could fall by 35 per cent in the second quarter according to the OBR, although they add it could bounce back quickly, and banks have more resilience than they had in 2009.

There are winners and losers too.

On the winning side Amazon hired 100,000 people last month. Now it’s hiring another 75,000. The emerging demand in PPE, where demand far outstrips supply, creates an army of disaster profiteers and price-gougers.

While the Trump administration tries to assist some of the losers when they reach an agreement in principle with major US airlines over a $25 billion bailout to prop up the struggling industry.

Treating Covid-19 at present can be best described as climbing a steep learning curve:

  • At the moment it’s largely immediate problem solving. Such as who gets the last available ventilator?  What are the criteria? How can it be fair, if in practice it’s an unthinkable choice. But it’s real in both European and American hospitals.
  • We receive a letter from Cancer Research UK telling supporters it’s turning its efforts temporarily to Covid-19.
  • Plasma therapy, the transfer of blood plasma from those recovering to those suffering. It’s a method going back to the nineteenth century, but it’s being seriously considered to help treat Covid-19 patients.
  • The development of vaccines has been going on since January, well before most political leaders grasped what was going on. Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline collaborate to speed up vaccine development as the EU eyes mass investment through its next long term budget to restart growth.

Elsewhere, different countries had different stories to tell:

  • France is to stay in strict lockdown for another month. Emmanuel Macron admits failings and tells the nation that the end to the crisis is not yet in sight. A year after the blaze, Notre Dame restoration is halted by the virus. And the Tour de France postponed as Macron extends a ban on public gatherings until July.
  • In Italy, coronavirus books rush to publication.
  • Italy and Spain ease lockdown restrictions. Others watch out for the repercussions.
  • In Austria some shops are reopening after a month of restrictions. Austria has seen a relatively low death toll, the latest being 384.
  • Portugal has not been hit as hard by Covid-19 as neighbouring Spain. Only 535 against 18,000. Two key factors seem to apply. The first is that Portugal was about 3 weeks behind Italy and a week and half behind Spain. This gave the country  time to get hospitals ready and increase capacity in intensive care units. The second reason being given is that Portuguese citizens are in general prone to be more compliant and obedient of the authorities, particularly in the light of Spain’s recent unsettled politics.
  • Putin makes a rare and bleak Covid-19 admission. “We don’t have much to brag about.” Russia’s president acknowledged that his country risks being overwhelmed by Covid-19.
  • To me it struck a chord – a primary mover of the virus has been relative wealth and mobility, along with a lack of respect for the age-old way of dealing with a plague – social distancing.

About social distancing:

  • A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that some social distancing may be needed into 2022 to keep Covid-19 in check.
  • There is a lack of clarity about whether we should be wearing face masks. Different countries have different takes on this. Even within countries there are deep divisions. So much so that it breeds mask tribalism for the whole duration of the pandemic. In America mask-defiance for the extreme right becomes a political statement, which seems bizarre, bearing in mind all it does is filter virus-containing particles and droplets out of the air we breathe. I have worn a mask since early March. It’s prophylactic. It’s the precautionary principle, no different for why I always paraglide with a reserve parachute. It’s nothing to do with fear. It’s simply common sense. The British Government responds with predictable fudging – a review on whether face masks should be recommended for more widespread use is ongoing.
  • There is also a lack of clarity about how far apart we should be from each other. Some say two metres, some say one and a half and others say one is fine. No one has fully explained how far air can carry coronaviruses or even the difference between indoors and outdoors, or well ventilated and less well ventilated spaces.
  • Prisons, with all the confinement and close proximity issues present significant social distancing problems. Decarceration can reduce Covid-19 spread and in a number of US states prison governors start to ‘quietly’ release hundreds of prisoners convicted of non-violent, non-sexual crimes.

It’s all part of a new reality. A reality we often take to describing with the language of war. It might not be correct to do so, but there are many parallels. Nested in this ‘world on tilt’ come the following day’s stories describing a locked down world.

  • Thousands of rough sleepers are still not safely housed, charities say.
  • Greedy cats are the big losers for the Covid-19 community WhatsApp groups. New neighbours are now connecting and cat owners are learning that their pets are cheating on them.
  • People adapting to online dating during lockdown. The pros and cons, but Tinder has increased take-up considerably.
  • More people are considering switching to electric vehicles thanks to improved air conditions during the pandemic.
  • Drinking alcohol doesn’t kill Covid-19, but it does increase the risk of lockdown violence, says WHO. “Fear and misinformation have created a dangerous myth that consuming high-strength alcohol can kill of the Covid-19 virus. It does not.”
  • Designers in Vietnam are creating hand-embroidered and stylish face masks, hoping to convince people to don protective gear in the fight against coronavirus.
  • Theatre costumiers turn their hand to PPE. Costumes from the TV series ‘Chernobyl’ are donated to the Covid-19 fight.
  • England women footballers donate to #PlayersTogether to help the NHS during the coronavirus crisis.
  • Two are arrested over false Covid-19 tests.

Finally there are the personal stories:

A devoted husband using a ‘cherrypicker’ to pay his wife of 61 years a visit after the couple were separated for more than a month due to the pandemic. A daughter who having lost her nurse mother vows to buy more PPE for the hospital. And a doctor describing the anguish of the front line:

“The hardest part of treating coronavirus patients is letting them die without their loved ones. My job as a doctor includes giving people a comfortable, dignified and peaceful death. Covid-19 has made this harder than ever.”

Let us never forget.

Tuesday 14th April 2020

Daily Diary: A List That Binds Us

There’s a clear blue sky and an icy north wind but if you can get yourself organised to be in a sheltered spot the sunshine is strong enough to feel warm.

I look up at the three geranium cuttings sitting hydroponically in small medicine bottles of water. It’s hard to see if they are beginning to sprout roots and in the absence of rooting hormone it’s hard to tell whether they will.

Yesterday Vicky made a chick out of a polystyrene egg supplied by Emily and I made a ‘Lady Posh-Totty’ out of mine. That was Task 3 done. In this family we extend occasions to weeks. So a birthday becomes a birthday week, Christmas becomes Christmas week, and it follows that Easter becomes Easter week. There are still two more tasks to do! One’s an egg hunt (or a creative alternative), the other a colouring-in Easter card, which I think we’ll pass on.

Today was also the day I believe I finally closed the door to Montmorency. The crafty, easy access point has been filled. Access denied! The battle with this mouse has been a bit like the relationship between Peter Rabbit and Mister McGregor. Will Monty and his crew find another route to bring irritation to an otherwise calm Victorian terrace? Time will tell. The mouse-catcher told me that mice are neophobic – they have a fear of the new, and that all too often far more than compensates for the yummiest of baits and diabolical (if you’re a mouse, that is) of traps.

Emily rang, thinking for some reason it was Wednesday, about the shopping list. We chat about preferred purchases, stopping spuds from going green and other grocery small talk. Tom comes in from the garden where he’s been reading. We have a chat about this diary and he tells me that he’s working for Dominic Raab, who’s deputising for the PM at the moment. It’s been hard work, but he feels a great sense of satisfaction about “doing his bit.” Wow, I tell him, we have a Whitehall Mandarin in the family. Next birthday we’ll buy him a shirt with dragons and big sleeves.

I mean really, really, really big sleeves!

Meanwhile, in the living room, Vicky is singing along to a DVD of ‘Phantom of the Opera.’

She has a lovely voice.

The Bigger Picture: A Clash of Titans

Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci were both born New Yorkers. Neighbours, in fact, from Queens and Brooklyn.

Both are also Titans.

Trump, because of his larger than life persona – love him or loathe him, and there seems no inbetween, no-one can ignore him, his inseparability from big money – whether he owns it or owes it seems to follow different rules from mere mortals, and his presidential power which he exercises with such unpredictability it evokes an awe and wonder about it, as it would a Marvel comic supervillain.

Fauci’s titanic superpower is his reputation, experience and expertise with infectious diseases. There are many who say that he is among the most trusted medical figures in America, having served public health for more than 50 years, advising every president since Ronald Reagan. He became director of the NIAID in 1984 and has made contributions to HIV/AIDS research and other immunodeficiency diseases. From 1983 to 2002, Fauci was one of the world’s most frequently-cited scientists across all scientific journals and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, in 2008.

Fauci was put on the spot two days ago in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Despite being as diplomatic as anyone is likely to have been he said “I mean, obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” continuing, “”What goes into those kinds of decisions is – is complicated. But you’re right. I mean, obviously, if we had, right from the very beginning, shut everything down, it may have been a little bit different. But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”

Trump, who on Sunday re-tweeted a supporters’ statement that Fauci should be fired, was furious, calling the epidemic expert to the podium early in a presidential coronavirus briefing.

Fauci, ever the diplomat, stepped back from the brink. It was a poor choice of words, he said.

Also, “Hypothetical questions sometimes can get you into some difficulty.”

It was a realisation of how thin-skinned Trump was, Supervillains do have their equivalent of Achilles Heels.

But Fauci was right. Trump could have seen what was coming. The president had been warned about the potential for a pandemic but internal divisions, lack of planning, and his faith in his own instincts led to the slow Federal response.

“Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” President Trump has repeatedly stated.


The president told Watergate veteran Bob Woodward in a taped interviews on February 7th and March 19th that he had known about the deadly nature of the Covid-19 outbreak and its potential to become a pandemic since a presidential briefing on 28th January, and he set out to play it down because he did not want the people to panic. It would be almost five months before this entered the mainstream media arena, but it throws light on what are a set of erratic decisions and a declaration from Tom Frieden, a former director of the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that the country is less safe from Covid-19 when the channels of communication between the agency and the American public are erratic.

Behind the scenes Trump was torn between his business friends including Michael Corbut of Citigroup, Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, Steve Schwarzman  of Blackstone and the investors Paul Tudor Jones and Nelson Peltz, who wanted a quick reopening of the economy and medical experts who were pushing back against the move. His natural instinct, from a lifetime of immersion, was with the business community. In truth, in his ramblings about ventilators and off the wall medications, he had trouble engaging with the science.

Trump wants to be very much in charge.

“I will decide on easing coronavirus guidelines, not governors,” he declared, even though he actually can’t as to do so would be unconstitutional and his flexing of presidential power gets pushback across the political spectrum.

By the time it came to today’s presidential briefing he rolled back on that. But the briefing itself, where he rambled on for over an hour, was off the rails, bizarre and troubling. He pulled the US out of the World Health Organisation amid a tapestry of half-truths and conspiracy theories, made some totally weird and often factually incorrect statements about ventilators, lashed out at China and Democrats in roughly equal measure and was rude and abrupt to a number of journalists who had gathered in the Rose Garden.

It isn’t necessarily the first time that President Trump had displayed his inability to manage the pandemic, but it was a turning point in how observers saw the helplessness of a flailing Titan in the face of a rising pandemic and the human toll it was exacting.

And time will show that Fauci would outlast his president.

Other American news:

Back in Blighty:

Dominic Raab says, “Our plan is working,” but it’s too early to relax lockdown rules. The lockdown is set for a three week extension as worldwide cases of Covid-19 near 2 million. There’s also a call to scrap ‘triple lock’ on UK pensions after the coronavirus crisis. It’s expected to raise £20 billion.

But it will be some time before the situation improves significantly. There have been 777 deaths in the UK in the last 24 hours, leading to an overall death toll of 12,107. Hospitals are still under enormous pressure. At least 38 NHS workers have died from Covid-19, ranging from a 23 year old nurse to a 79 year old professor. There are many accounts of medics who find themselves treating their own colleagues critically ill for Covid-19.

Pressure on the NHS over admissions and transfers to ICUs is such that it issues the Covid-19 Decision Support Tool to help triage which patients go into intensive care. With about 5,000 coronavirus cases presenting every day and some intensive care wards already approaching capacity, doctors will score patients on three metrics — their age, frailty and underlying conditions — according to a chart circulated to clinicians.

It is recommended that patients with a combined score of more than eight points across the three categories should probably not be admitted to intensive care, although clinical discretion could override that decision.

Some deaths from the virus don’t even make it to hospital. About half are in care homes and to give a sense of scale of the problem, coronavirus outbreaks have been detected in 92 care homes in the last 24 hours. The Covid-19 death toll at a care home in Stanley, County Durham, hits 13.

Care workers are not as well protected by PPE and staff recruitment has always been a problem, even in pre-pandemic times. In Scotland, care workers are given a 3.3 per cent pay rise in view of the problem. It doesn’t happen elsewhere in the UK.

When it comes to PPE there is a deadly combination of the care sector being the poor relation to medicine in Health and Social Care and a desperate overall shortage. Even in the medical sector unions are warning that the UK stock of protective gowns is critically low.

Some of that shortage is political. The British government, deep in its Brexit mindset, decided not to participate in the EU purchasing consortium. It is going it alone, and as time will tell, muddling its way through.

Testing and tracing, abandoned in the early stages of the outbreak when, as Germany has shown, it could have been most effective in controlling Covid-19 creaks along in the UK, run by private contractors with little real experience in terms of rapidly creating an effective system. I looks very much that those in government simply haven’t got their head around the task at hand.

“We need an army,” said an expert in contact tracing, who had deal with outbreaks of Ebola, HIV and tuberculosis, as he observed the rise of Covid-19.

We currently have a privately hired militia.

And a fad in what’s fashionable among a smartphone obsessed population. Government orders NHS Bluetooth technology app after tech giants give the green light. The NHS is now working with Apple and Google to develop an app that will track how close users get to those with Covid-19.

The only time I will ever come to use this app, when it finally arrives, when I am in an indoor venue with other people in six months’ time, I find I appear to be the only customer using it.

Tech isn’t tech unless it can solve a problem. That’s what tech means. Most, even those in high places, with power and control over all our lives, forget it.

Vaccination still remains a hope rather than a reality. Much of the science behind developments that have been quietly underway since January has been repurposing existing vaccines to the new Covid-19 genome. The concept of general immunity has also been raised  as negative  correlations are reported between systematic BCG vaccinations as a national public health enterprise and the impact of Covid-19. But desperate times breed wishful thinking and critics are quick to point out the myriad of other variables such as socioeconomic status, demographic structure, rural versus urban settings, time of arrival of the pandemic, number of diagnostic tests and criteria for testing, and national control strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19.

What is known and worrying, however, is that according to UN agencies 117 million children may miss their measles shots due to Covid-19.

And for all our ability to gather knowledge, wisdom is harder to come by, exemplified by a deadly Covid-19 cluster in North West Tasmania may have been sparked by an ‘illegal dinner party’ of healthcare workers, and a premier drug company became a ‘virus super-spreader’ as a conference among Biogen employees unwittingly spread the coronavirus from Massachusetts to Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina.

“Don’t bet on a quick global resurrection. The speed of economic recovery will be more tortoise than hare.” Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist and Covid-19 modeller predicts.

The coronavirus’s economic effects are hitting ethnic minorities and the young hardest. It’s a universal problem, the more vulnerable the group, the harder hit it is by Covid-19 and it’s indicative of human societies, whatever they claim, that governments, and even the rest of more advantaged citizens simply don’t do enough.

Globally, there are now 1.9 million cases of Covid-19 and more than 120,000 deaths. It’s a number that will rise into millions. Worldwide institutions become necessary to prevent an outbreak of economic disasters as the IMF provides debt relief to help 25 countries deal with the pandemic. But the slump in economic activity looks like it may lead to the biggest fall in carbon emissions since World War II. But experts warn that without structural change emissions declines caused by Covid-19 could be short-lived as economies get back to normal.

That will involve burning oil. The bitter price war between major oil producers has come to a truce – for now. Production will be cut by nearly 10 million barrels a day from May for the coming two months. It’s the largest cut ever and a reduced supply for up to two years.

It’s a time that oil markets have become erratic and as non-carbon-based energy alternatives lie at the heart of planning post-covid recovery it could mark the beginning of the end.

You could be forgiven for thinking about coronavirus as an agent of positive environmental change, particularly with respect to climate change, but don’t be fooled – the pandemic is far from environmentally friendly as opportunists take advantage of the crisis and deforestation spikes in the Amazon.

In Europe:

  • és and restaurants) has had to give way to more disciplined and structured meetings via Zoom and similar social media platforms.

Further afield:

While, step by step, daily reality is mutating:

Two things touch me on a personal level. The first is, were this not the height of a pandemic, this message from the local police congratulating the public for good behaviour would seem Orwellian, Now, it doesn’t shock.

“Over the weekend we have been all over #Bexley, #Lewisham and #Greenwich keeping you safe. We are really pleased to say that the majority of people we spoke with were exercising responsibly and others understood and walked on when asked, #StayHomeSaveLives.”

The second is someone declaring they have gone the full Bridget Jones and started a lockdown diary. Up to ten pages a day when they didn’t shower, leave the flat or see another living person.

How did they manage it?

Monday 13th April 2020

Daily Diary: Easter Arts And Crafts

Happy Easter Monday!

Yesterday Vicky and I met two of Emily’s Easter challenges. The first was to make an Easter chick out of a yellow balloon, bits of laminated card and felt. A pair of googly eyes  was included for good measure. Then we were to photograph it and share our achievements on WhatsApp. Unfortunately, Vicky’s balloon exploded early in the proceedings, but we sent a picture of that nonetheless. My chick fared a bit better – that is, it survived long enough to be photographed and WhatsApped. Emily responded with her own – a chick with really long legs. Maybe it was a hen-harrier chick!

So far, so good.

Then on to the mask. Vicky goes to town on hers, starting with half a paper plate and turning it into an Aztec-come-shaman creation. I thought of leaving it blank, so it looked like a PPE mask. Bit of a cheat. But I couldn’t resist putting a big toothy grin on it with a black marker pen and produced something deeply disturbing and certainly not Easter-like.

We chat about our endeavours on WhatsApp video and say hello to Tom, who’s resting after a hard-pressed week in Whitehall as one of the civil servants addressing the crisis. We make a point of not talking about his work, but he has been busy and we worry. He’s the most front-line of all of us, taking the train up to London, now largely empty, and entering ‘hostile territory’ a number of times a week.

The weather’s turned. There’s a strong northerly wind and it’s ten degrees cooler than it was a couple of days ago. The common has only the hardiest of outdoor venturers – mostly joggers and dog-walkers. Certainly not the sunbathers. There has been a police request on Nextdoor to stop gatherings near the Slade pond nearby, but today doesn’t look much like a gathering day.

I’ve lost a stone over lockdown. Maybe it’s the rowing machine. Maybe it’s being restrained in what we eat. Maybe the bathroom scales are kaput. Who knows?

The Bigger Picture: de Pfeffel’s Progress

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has been discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital and is recovering at Chequers, his prime ministerial convalescent home in the Buckinghamshire countryside, ahead of a review into social distancing. He’s thanked the NHS for saving his life, especially Jenny and Luis, the nurses from New Zealand and Portugal for staying at his “ICU bedside for 48 hours, when things could have gone either way,” and implores the British to stay at home to beat Covid-19.

He has good reason to as the UK becomes the worst-hit country in Europe, the death toll from Covid-19 passing ten thousand.

Flirtation with herd immunity, slowness to respond and the negligent abandoning of testing when it could have been so effective in the early stages of the outbreak, in the same way a fire extinguisher can prevent a flare up turning into a full-blown conflagration, something more comprehensive like a sprinkler system even more so.

By contrast Germany’s early success, leading to less than a third of the deaths, owes much to 1.3 million tests followed up with a thorough programme of contact tracing. The UK has tested less than a quarter of that and has all but abandoned attempts to aggressively trace contacts. As Johnson saw this as his opportunity to revive his Churchillian wartime bombast, the messaging in Germany was much more sombre and down to earth.

“The pandemic is not a war,” German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at an Easter Sunday address. “It does not pit nations against nations, or soldiers against soldiers. Rather, it is a test of our humanity.”

Dealing with the pandemic is about empathy. Understanding at a deep level about what is meant by the common good and engaging with it. It’s not about the Johnson show with human suffering as a backdrop, or at best a chorus-line.

At the moment, he has suffered with countless others and his personal approval ratings rise to an all-time high of plus 38 as the populace identifies with his very human journey.

Don’t be fooled. It won’t last and any passing parallels with Evita Peron are ephemeral. Madonna won’t be playing Bojo any time soon.

And don’t think there has been any far-reaching consideration of who will make the sacrifices. Even the bailout will make the rich richer still and ordinary people will have to pay.

Structurally, British society hasn’t travelled far since the Great Crash of 2008. Virtually no sacrifices have been demanded of banks, landlords or profitable corporations, such as utility companies. The only people in society not being asked to share the burden are ‘rentiers:’ those who own assets they can charge others to use.

Down the line Covid-19 will make this ever clearer, as it will BAME people, who are still being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. They currently make up more than a third of patients in critical care, yet are only 16 per cent of the British population. It’s the British Medical Association who raise the alarm.

It’s the haves and have-nots. The powerful and powerless and the underlying selfishness that has, in some massive con, been made respectable.

The lack of PPE does arise from a government that failed to create a stockpile. A government that sleepwalked into a pandemic, and as will be revealed in the future, a government whose cronies will profit enormously through untendered multimillion pound contracts.

The price is paid by those in the front line. The carers in residential homes. Immigration workers who are forced to move asylum seekers without PPE, despite deportation flights being grounded. And nurses who have reached an unthinkable point of desperation that the Royal College of Nursing has issued guidelines telling nurses they can refuse to work if they aren’t protected from the coronavirus.

Those inequities are by no means limited to Britain. In his Easter message, Pope Francis calls for debt relief and an end to sanctions.

Across many countries leaders seize powers to fight Covid-19, and fear grows for democracy. France and Bolivia have postponed elections. Peru handed its president new legislative authority. Israel sharply ramped up the reach of its surveillance state.

Countries are facing pressures to loosen Covid-19 restrictions. Money is the new global deity (was it ever so new?) and when it can’t flow so easily It becomes an angry god, demanding human lives to appease It. So much so that Donald Trump, arch-priest of Money, lashes out at Dr Anthony Fauci after the good doctor said more lives could have been saved from the novel coronavirus if the country had been shut down earlier.

Covid and Money are at odds with each other.

Except for the price-gougers and profiteers from the pandemic. But that’s another story.

Other stories from across the world:

  • A Danish journalist watching Sweden’s more relaxed reaction to Covid-19 was like “watching a horror movie.” The exponential rise in Sweden contrasts strongly with other Scandinavian countries.
  • Spain has 619 new deaths from Covid-19, up from 510 reported on Saturday, yet it is to lift some of its lockdown rules.
  • Polish MPs are set to debate an abortion ban, while the lockdown prevents (an otherwise inevitable) protest. A similar bid to ban abortions in 2016 was defeated in parliament after thousands of women demonstrated in the streets. It’s not just Poland, from childbirth to the economy, women’s rights are endangered by the pandemic, particularly with regard to childbirth, abortion, fertility treatment, a parallel pandemic of domestic abuse and carrying the lion’s share of responsibility for children at home under lockdown
  • China’s Covid-19 cases rise to a six-week high, claimed to be primarily down to Chinese people returning home from other countries.
  • Which is also the case in South Africa has a number of stark contrasts with the empty street images we’ve become used to in western cities under quarantine. Poverty and inequality limit safe and distanced space, and unlike Ebola elsewhere in Africa this disease has been imported into the country not by the poor, but by those wealthy enough to have free access to the globalised superhighways of the twenty first century world. The first confirmed case was a South African returning from Italy on March 5th and a key hotspot in Johannesburg has been the financial centre, people who had travelled to other cities around the world, come back and gone to parties. The poor, in their impossible to pandemic-proof townships simply picked up the tab. Some even got to shouting, ‘Corona! Corona!’ at westerners passing through, because they thought it was a disease of rich white people.

In the United Kingdom:

  • Covid-19 lockdown sees Northern Ireland house fires increase by 50 per cent.
  • According to headteachers, schools in England could reopen in June after the summer half term.
  • Lord Sugar says the next series of ‘The Apprentice’ could be delayed until 2021.
  • Tesco introduces changes to adapt to Covid-19. These are one-way aisles, increase to contactless payments, new delivery slots, especially for vulnerable customers, with more on the way, encouraging customers to come at quiet times to avoid queuing, and protective screens. A number of product restrictions removed, as they encouraged stockpiling – the pandemic will long be remembered for the mass hoarding of toilet rolls!

There’s a local request on Nextdoor:

“Is there anyone who can recommend someone who does washing machine repairs please? Due to Covid, just some advice would be great if a visit cannot be arranged.”

We’re grateful it was our dishwasher and not our washer-dryer that went on the fritz early in lockdown. It is what under normal circumstances would be a minor domestic emergency turning into something much more ominous.

And a cautionary request from the neighbourhood police:

“While we would like to wish you all a Happy Easter, it’s disappointing that PC Teresa had to follow up reports of people still congregating at Slade Pond. Please #StayHome. Enjoy your chocolate, it can’t be made any clearer to help. #ProtectThe NHS, #Save lives.”

We see them out on the common. Always calm, patient and forbearing. It’s not a job I’d want to be doing at the moment.

Sunday 12th April 2020

Daily Diary: A Lockdown Easter Challenge

Happy Easter!

On Thursday Emily left an Easter bag with the shopping. Because we cannot go to the shops, Emily is being our angel of mercy doing our weekly shopping run for us. Inside one of the bags she has composed an Easter booklet, which says the following:

Front Cover:

Easter box

Open on Easter Sunday

(cartoons of a rabbit, a chick, a chick coming out of an egg and a daffodil.)


Happy Easter Sunday

So I thought (cartoon Emily with a thought bubble):

What do we do at Easter?

  • see each other
  • eat chocolate eggs
  • decorate eggs together

Then I thought (cartoon Emily with an idea lightbulb):

If I get some activities together, I could send you these in a box to you, and by joining in the activities we will be having fun, united together.

So, Ta Dah!! Here is the Easter box. (cartoon of box)

The box contains:

  • 5 envelopes
  • Bag of chocolate eggs

Each envelope contains an activity with all the materials you will need, including glue. So no excuses! (smiley emoji)

You can do all the activities in any order. I will (if I haven’t already) set up a WhatsApp group called ‘Easter fun time’ where we can share photos and video clips of each other.

Note on Safety:

With all of our health and safety very prominent in my mind, rest assured that every item (including the delivery box) has been carefully prepared.

Items that could have been cleaned have been wiped down with my favourite bleach and water solution.

Every item (including this paper and pen) has been handled with clean Marigold gloves and I even wore a face mask (cartoon of Emily wearing a mask)

For items that could not be wiped, e.g. feathers, the original outer packaging has been cleaned and dried, then the item removed and placed in a paper envelope.

Every item was prepared well over 72 hours before being sent.

Right! That’s the health and safety bit! Now it’s time for fun!

Enjoy yourselves, have fun and we are looking forward to sharing the photos xx

Back Cover

(large cartoon of rear view of Easter Bunny)

I put a couple of beers in the fridge, pour today’s whisky ration into the decanter and set my alarm for 5 pm, when we take on the challenge.

Meanwhile there’s a cold front coming in to end all the fine weather we’ve been having. The clouds are starting to tower and look dark underneath and from time to time we can hear the rumblings of thunder from the static caused by mixing air.

The Bigger Picture: A Perfect Storm

And on the seventh day was Boris Johnson discharged from hospital. Not only is it the wrong number of days to come back from the dead for Easter but Boris Johnson is no Messiah. Jesus spent his handful of years of ministry encouraging the common good, self-restraint and selflessness. Boris Johnson spent his years in a different kind of ministry promoting libertarianism, the ideology of self-interest and the indulgences it allows to those who succeed through it.

It was that ideology that was always balanced against the advice of scientists in a false equivalence, so he could say he was following the science, while actually doing the opposite. It was also that ideology that led to Brexit, which in turn led to a wilful distancing, illustrated by Britain missing a total of eight conference calls or meetings about Covid-19 between EU states or health ministers – meetings Britain was still entitled to join.

It seemed to some at first that his relaxed manner and refusal to panic was reassuring. Those who had not yet learned that the core feature of Johnsonism – to promise the Earth but deliver nothing more than a kid’s plastic bucketful of earth – but the reality was that in a country that led the world in medical and bioscience, the leader did not engage, did not listen, followed his faith in those instincts he always felt served him well, and in the midst of an alarming public death rate, fell ill himself.

Now he’s out and recuperating at Chequers.

As another, older, both historically and actually, leader, the Queen reassures the nation in her first Easter message about “New Hopes.”

It is formal and formulaic, even though she has never given an Easter speech before. But it projects a strange stability that echoes royal speeches going back ninety years and has a quality of ritual that so many Brits buy into. It’s irrational. But then Brits are, as we applaud the NHS, clapping and banging kitchenware, despite routinely, while voting for a whole decade for a political party with a track record of trying to cripple it.

For now the NHS is heroic – deservedly so – as it battles the rising viral tide. British Covid-19 hospital deaths pass 10,000 after 657 die in England in the last 24 hours. Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and an expert on infectious diseases who’s published over 600 papers, warns that the signs are there that the UK coronavirus death toll could end up being the highest in Europe.

Time will prove him right.

Britain faces a perfect storm. It’s not just lackadaisical leadership and ideological and political instincts that obstruct dealing with the virus. Nor is it an accident of geography that the country finds itself being a hub on the northwest of Europe, actively reaching out to the far corners of the globe. Much of it is what Britain has set out to be for the last forty years – a country that had decided to be a land of individual opportunity. A share-holding, property-owning democracy, as Margaret Thatcher had once egged on the country to be.

There is a school of thought that all political ideas, when put into practice continue down a particular road until they pass the point of usefulness or benefit, and steamroller on, like a giant behemoth until they become counterproductive ay best, and destructive or even absurd at worst. People bought shares in newly privatised industries, sold them to financial institutions to make a nominal profit, and the shares drift from private to corporate ownership. Same with the selling of council houses. Properties become major assets to cash in on and the rental market passes from public housing programmes whose primary purpose is to meet the changing needs of both individuals and communities, to private landlords and a free market that makes homes unaffordable.

“Blessed are the wealthmakers,” Saint Margaret of Thatcher might have said.

“Blessed are the professionals, the organisers,” other noteworthies might well have added. “The players of keys, movers and shakers of software files.”

Most will not get us all out of the fix we’re in.

Much has been said in praise of health and care workers. Rightly so. But it’s also the underpaid, hitherto overlooked and undervalued to meet our needs and make the machinery behind our lives continue to function – the drivers of trains, buses and taxis, the deliverers of groceries and takeaways, the supermarket checkout staff.

It seems that those we have most taken for granted are those who we need most. Our definition of essential has changed.

For the rest of us it’s working from home where possible, furlough on 80% income where it’s not and redundancies for the unlucky who have been caught out by the wrong pandemic, in the wrong place at the wrong time. I count myself lucky – and a little guilty – to be retired on a pension. The whole world of employment has been tipped on its head.

Those who can do their best to hide from harm’s way. The virus isn’t magical. It can’t travel through walls and closed doors.

Italy and Spain have passed the peaks of their epidemics; UK, early in its epidemic, faces an accelerating death toll, as does America whose total number of Covid-19 deaths in the US has overtaken Italy, although the per-capita death rate is lower. But all that’s for now as America’s far-flung geography and relatively sparse population density have helped cushion the country so far.

The exact epidemiology is still unclear. It is much more harmful to some than others and in cases such as the outbreak on the Diamond Princess, the residents of Vò in Italy where all 3,300 people were tested twice and Japanese citizens evacuated from Wuhan at the start of its outbreak half of people who tested positive were asymptomatic.

Covid-19 is looking increasingly like a virus that can spread silently. By being silent it has spread faster than official data suggest. In America just 0.1% of the population have been tested positive. In Italy it’s 0.2%. That’s because testing has happened sparingly, concentrating on the sick. In Vò the rate was fifteen times higher at 3%.

But for most testing for the virus is not part of the course, and certainly not systematic testing. Instead proxies are being used, from smart thermometers to checking out whether there are other symptoms of influenza-like illness (ILI) like a dry and persistent cough to a loss of taste and smell. The spread of the disease throughout most of the countries the virus has reached is still relying on nineteenth century diagnostics, with clinicians reporting the frequency of ILIs as a broad indication of how widely Covid-19 has spread. Germany, one of very few countries to move beyond this, increases its Covid-19 tests to 500,000 per week, so It’s not the fact that testing technology hasn’t been developed – it has. It’s just the fact that in most countries the systems to make that technology work for the common good aren’t in place.

The principle is called test, trace and isolate. Apple and Google have announced they will allow users to share location data to trace the spread of Covid-19. Development is rapid and there are opportunities for the UK to become part of worldwide app schemes, but post-Brexit glorious isolationism looks very much like the reason why the government decides that the NHS, through NHSX, its technology arm, will develop its own app which would trace those who have been in contact with infected people and alert them to get tested.

According to press releases the NHSX system is being developed ‘at breakneck speed,’ and hopes are being lifted by the prospect that tech will be the magic bullet to end the nightmare, by a government desperate to raise hopes during a time of darkness.

There’s also much hope too invested in the new Covid-19 antibody test. Will it allow us to go back to school or work? Will there be Covid-19 ‘immunity certificates’? To some extent the antigen and antibody tests become mixed up and muddled in people’s heads, in the same way that other complex issues like the ozone layer and global warming become confused. Even a number of politicians give garbled responses on this one, unless they’ve been well-briefed beforehand.

Add to that the emerging fact that half of all cases express no symptoms at all and there’s a deeply troubling picture of how out of control most of humanity is at the moment.

And how much in the dark we all are in the face of a lethal threat – at least for some.

Like a tortoise facing a threat, we pull in our heads and feet and go nowhere.

We lock down.

Not even Singapore has been able to avoid a lockdown. The affluent city-state has learned that contact tracing won’t stop the virus on its own. Italy extends its lockdown to May in a signal to European business. The Moscow lockdown is extended as the mayor warns that things are getting worse.

But lockdown is a far from ideal state of play. There is evidence that domestic abuse has risen under lockdown, and this is a global phenomenon. There are worries about lockdowns colliding with natural disasters like tornadoes, floods and earthquakes that displace people from their homes. How do hundreds of people get shelter?

And of course, people don’t behave themselves as yesterday hundreds flock to London’s parks to be in the sun. It resulted in the following message from the Metropolitan Police in my Nextdoor social media inbox:

“So with the sun shining on us this weekend the team would like to wish you all a Happy Easter, and the only thing we ask of you is please stay at home to enjoy it. We are aware of the temptation to be out in the parks having egg hunts, but please stay at home and let’s be honest, the chocolates would melt out there anyway ….. #StayHomeSaveLives

We used to take painted hard-boiled eggs to Greenwich Park and roll them down the slopes near the observatory. I guess that would be frowned upon too.

But friends of our environment see upsides. Country Living magazine lists seven ways the planet is healing, thanks to global lockdown:

  1. Air pollution levels have plummeted.
  2. People have taken less airline flights.
  3. Venice’s canals have cleared up.
  4. Animals have reclaimed land.
  5. Charities are continuing to fight for the planet.
  6. People are reconnecting with nature.
  7. Cows are returning to the Giant’s Causeway.    

I know it’s woolly and I’m sure there are many more ecological imperatives than the return of cattle to the Giant’s Causeway, or at least the grassy bits near the rocks, but the sentiment’s good and it has raised the whole issue about the relationship between all our activities and the state of the Earth and citing pollution decrease, it has encouraged scientists to take the opportunity to call for permanent changes post-covid.

Covid-19, the product of zoonosis – the crossing of the barrier between the natural and human worlds – returns back to the natural world as orangutan conservationists protect their critically endangered species from the coronavirus.

Today was no different from any other lockdown day in the countless woven tales that made it what it is. Here are a few:

  • Tim Brooke-Taylor, Goodies star, dies from Covid-19.
  • Tatiana Datolla and Armanda De Rosa were married on Saturday by a City Hall official in Rome, all of them wearing masks in a ceremony they had booked a year ago. They lowered their masks for a kiss.
  • My new normal: I ditched my day job to become a supermarket key worker.
  • Julian Assange’s partner, Stella Morris, reveals that they had two children and urges bail in the light of the Covid-19 risk at HMP Belmarsh. “I can’t believe there are people today protesting outside Belmarsh prison,” a local
  • “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Lyon choir sings for lockdown.
  • ICE detainees fail to refuse working, despite a lack of basic coronavirus protection. The program pays just $1 a day. There have been reports from some facilities where if detainees refuse to participate in the programme they are threatened with solitary confinement. Detainees from the Bristol House of Correction and Jail went on strike to make sure their demands were heard.
  • Virtual zoo trips are added to the entertainment arsenal for bored children: San Diego Zoo with its live cams, Chester Zoo its additional learning materials and Cincinnati Zoo winning the prize with its  feeding time, home safari and the Fiona the Hippo Show.


  • Human rights groups warn that some regimes are taking advantage of the pandemic to control civil liberties. This has been, almost unsurprisingly, the case with Viktor Orban of Hungary, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel (suspending the courts) and Duterte of the Philippines. On a wider scale, emergency measures have left more than 500 million people unrepresented and another 1.7 billion with parliamentary activity postponed or reduced.
  • It’s devastating for hospitals. Across Europe there are real fears that hospitals could run out of the drugs needed to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients within a week. In America there has been a marked decrease in organ transplants, while military helicopters are deployed across the country to carry Covid-19 patients to hospital as part of a new 300-strong task force.
  • Cracks appear in the Belgian Easter egg market as the Covid-19 lockdown bites.
  • Germany flies in seasonal workers with strict Covid-19 precautions.
  • While Spain continues to battle a dire coronavirus outbreak, the situation is vastly better in neighbouring Portugal.
  • China muzzles its Bat Woman, so named after having spent years in dank caves researching coronaviruses and their hosts. Beijing authorities hushed up the findings of scientist Shi Zengli, who unlocked the genetic makeup of SARS CoV-2, vital for tests and vaccines, within days of the outbreak.
  • Turkey’s last-minute two-day curfew brings thousands to the streets. Maybe, just maybe, giving two hours’ notice before imposing a weekend curfew in a city of 16 million might not be the brightest idea.


An eleven month old girl becomes the second to die of Ebola in the Congo amid fears of a new wave. Reminding us all of the worry that more than one pandemic can be a real possibility.

Happy Easter!

Saturday 11th April 2020

Daily Diary: Of Mouse And Man

You know you’ve been in lockdown too long when your high point of the day is discovering at long last how that pesky mouse is getting into the house. Coming downstairs I see the wee beastie scuttle across the room into the corner. I have a pair of trainers there and I’ve often wondered if the wee beastie uses them for cover. It hasn’t. It’s vanished. So I investigate and find out that where the central heating pipes rise from the floor there’s a hole. In humanworld it’s hard to see and easy to overlook, but in mouseworld it’s a wide open door.

Access denied! Hah! I have a plan to block it up in a non-mousechompable way. So far I have denied it access to the cupboard under the sink, stinking the house out with toxic fumes as I fibreglassed it off limits to all miniature mammals.

There’s another hole too that I have covered with a steel blanking plate. Chew your way through that, Montmorency!

I think the solution this time is to block it up with scrunched up foil, or perhaps iron wool, and put a centimetre’s depth of rapid-setting cement over it.

But I get the feeling that, despite the virtues of pest control, there is something mildly unhinged about triumphing over a mouse. We’ve tried pretty much everything, including traps with every mouse’s favourite bait. Allegedly. Including the distasteful business of laying poison bait. Rentokil did that for £200, then wanted to burn us out of £700 more to ‘proof’ the house. No way are we going to pay £700, but then again we don’t want to continue to be harassed by one or more small rodents.

The solution is to get a cat. The man from Rentokil told me that city mice have evolved to be ultra-cautious, as the bolder beasties having met their doom nibbling bait of one life-threatening sort or another. You can have the fanciest trap in the world – there is one that zaps them for £30 – but if they won’t taste the bait it’s a waste of time and money.

We decided to get a cat from the Battersea Home after we had returned from our European tour – to Annecy, Bavaria, Berlin, then Dordrecht in Holland. But of course, the tour is off for the time being. And we still don’t have a cat. When we did have cats we never had mice and the nice man from Rentokil said, coming to think of it, he had never been called to a house where there was one.

To make matters a little trickier, cats can catch Covid-19. A roaming cat could, at least in theory, bring it into the house. Zoonosis is a two-way street.

We think the mouse problem began with our next door neighbour Peggy sadly passing away recently in her late nineties. She missed the scourge of the coronavirus by a matter of days. Peggy had been invalided, bed-bound for many years, watching telly 24/7, a substantial part of which was the QVC shopping channel, but that’s another story.

After passing away, her daughter Claire set about clearing out the house and the Great Period of Peace and Serenity for housemice ended. Disrupted like refugees from a warzone, they fled, crossing borders between Victorian terraced houses in search of a new habitat, and not unlike the southernmost states in Europe we were the first port of call.

But mousies, the border’s closing! Begone on your journey to pastures new!

Outside it is balmy and warm. The sky is blue and free from clouds. A pleasant breeze blows. My phone tells me that the local temperature is twenty two degrees Celsius. It was forecast to rise to twenty six.

I’m going to attack the weeds with the strimmer after this. Today it’s me versus nature and I intend to win …… in a small, acceptably woke way of course.

Perhaps the one thing that’s niggled me most has been the government’s response to a petition I and forty six thousand others have signed, asking for the transition period to be extended. The response was somewhere on the spectrum between stupid wooden-headedness and dangerous lunacy. Even strident arch-Brexit journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, tweeted it was crazy to cut all our ties in the middle of a coronavirus crisis. Frankly, it’s suicidal.

The other observation has been the number of suggestions online about how to fill your lockdown hours. Exercise, baking, arts and crafts, making silly videos and all sorts of other creative hobbies and activities. But for me, this journal is keeping me more than busy.

I am aware that it might be quiet in here. Quiet enough for a mouse. But I’m still looking out at a world where there is a lot of stuff happening.

Outside, the common is strangely quiet.

Postscript: I’ve subsequently learned from trial and error that sprays that deter cats and dogs from scratching furniture also deter mice. Mice have a very keen sense of smell and are neophobic by nature, so a change in how something smells makes them suspicious and hesitant. But be prudent in its use and wear a mask when spraying, as such a spray can irritate human nostrils too.

The Bigger Picture: Six Breaths of Separation

There are over 1.5 million Covid-19 cases worldwide. Human civilisation has seen nothing like this before. It is the first event that has affected every nation on the planet, reached into every corner. There are, it’s widely maintained, no more than six degrees of separation. Some call it the six handshakes rule. You could equally say the coronavirus is no more than six breaths away from the most remote person from you on the planet.

Previous global catastrophes have been world wars, but huge tracts of the globe escaped the harm they caused. They were significantly partial. Covid-19 is total.

The damage the virus is causing is staggering. Its future damage even more so. The human population seen as a whole is not ready for it. A billion people live in slums worldwide. Half a billion more could be pushed into poverty, a UN report says, while the IMF warns that the economic hit from Covid-19 will be the worst since the Great Depression.

Each country’s economy is like the metabolism of an individual cell and failed economies all but synonymous with failed states. The sickness reaches way beyond individuals into the systems and mechanisms that keep civilisation turning. The world is sick. Richer countries become absorbed in their own problems as the greater movement of people within and between them spreads the viruses.

One breath.

Two breaths.


But it’s clear that in a global catastrophe the rich, sick as they might be, need to help out the poor, for the well-being of humanity as a whole. To preserve civilisation.

Failed economies are synonymous with failed states. Failed states are by nature corrupt. So what emergency financial relief packages go to countries need to have transparency and anti-corruption measures. Global rights groups have raised this alarm with the IMF executive board.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warns that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic may prove to be worse than its health impact and the UN Secretary General warns that the pandemic is threatening international peace, while the WHO warns of a ‘deadly resurgence’ if coronavirus controls are lifted too soon.

Pope Francis said he believes the pandemic is “certainly nature’s response” to humanity’s failure to respond to “partial catastrophes” wrought by human-induced climate change.

It’s more than that. Climate change has become common currency for describing human civilisation’s dysfunctional relationship with the biosphere.

Dr Fazlun Khalid, UN Advisor on environmental ethics, takes it a step further and hits the nail more squarely on the head:

“Scientists have long warned of the inevitability of a pandemic, due to our civilisation’s relentless encroachment on to natural ecosystems and wildlife, resulting in the repeated breaking of ecological boundaries.”

All too often, environmental destruction has been local affair. So the world might well have looked on and gasped in horror, but stayed as members of a global television audience looking in from the outside, but local actions thousands of miles away can impact in depth our everyday lives. While nothing happened we remained complacent. Even the Great Cassandras among us, like Greta Thunberg, are listened to by most in passing and with maybe a little fascination, before returning to the easy comfort and complacency millennia of human progress, if that is the right word, has created for us.

Who would have thought that an animal market in the Far East could well have set off a pandemic that would kill millions? Who would have considered the countless meat markets across the world were able to amplify a pandemic? And how do we set about co-ordinated global action over animal markets to help prevent the next one?

And what kind of post-pandemic world do we need to have to make that so?

What got me to start this project was the awareness that, despite the fact that I knew next to nothing about it, the pandemic would trigger paradigm shifts, and it would be an interesting exercise to not only compare ‘big history’ with the ordinariness, even banality of my everyday life as it became constrained by lockdown, but also to try to seek out what those paradigm shifts were, and how and when they might appear.

This early in lockdown images begin to appear about what kind of world will follow. Some suggest that our personal lives will be changed forever.

It’s hard to predict but there will be changes in our behaviour. Will there be long-lasting adaptations we make, like my parents’ generation did after the Second World War, like ‘waste not, want not’ and ‘mend and make do’? Will we develop the ultra-hygiene we’d associate with germophobes and sufferers of OCDs? Will our social and interpersonal behaviour become more distanced?

Already the parting words in phone calls, SMS and emails  are often, “Stay safe.”

Are they simply trends of the moment, or are these behaviours that will enter our culture defining our era?

For white-collar employees, remote working is likely to be here to stay, with all the knock on effects for office space, public transport and even the nature and economics of cities. There may well consequences for property investment and its importance as a reservoir of wealth. The consequences of online shopping range from the decline of the high street as a focus for retail, but maybe its re-emergence in a different form.

What the world will seek, post-pandemic, is stability, and in some respects it will succeed. There will be greater awareness of the massive devastation a pandemic can bring and how far and fast it can spread, along with care along our frontiers with the rest of nature, the human food chain, how we travel – immunity passports are likely to be a feature of all international air travel, and how well prepared our public health services happen to be. The pandemic is likely to affect the balance between the common good and self-interest towards the former.

We are, when all is said and done, all no more than six breaths away from each other.

If the pandemic has done anything, it has revealed how vulnerable humanity is. It’s been a long time coming. From when the early astronauts came back with photographs of a planet with the thinnest of skins of an atmosphere travelling through the hostile blackness of space we had a sense of fragility. The most recent witnesses of that thin blue skin on the International Space Station are, incidentally, preparing to return to a planet that wasn’t pandemic-stricken when they set out.

But for the vast majority of us, in the day to day, it was something we could put to the back of our minds. Not so with a pandemic. The virus is out there and any of us could catch it.

There is a feeling that once all of this is over all will be well. But it won’t. Other threats to global stability are out there, threatening to end the rise of civilisation and throw us all into a dystopian dark age.  

For a start there’s the relentless march of climate change. It’s believed that carbon dioxide emissions are likely to drop because of Covid-19, but there’s no evidence to suggest it will be enough. In the EU there are pressures from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to reboot their economies with coal. German politicians have been calling for industry to be shielded from too much environmental protection during the coronavirus crisis, even though most corporations are distancing themselves, having managed to turn carbon dioxide reduction into a competitive advantage a long time ago.

Multiply those interests across the world and you can see it’s a problem that’s far from having gone away.

Access to fresh water is another growing problem, along with the loss of biodiversity, soil depletion, the destruction of our oceans, our inability to efficiently manage our waste and many other impacts on the environment. Coupled with the problems we present to each other such as religious and political extremism, tides of migrants from the most afflicted parts of our world, and with that the frictions of xenophobia, and a volatile financial system driven as much by the erratic foibles of human behaviour as it is by material circumstances and needs.

In business there are both disasters and, for some, opportunities. Existing smaller companies are already much more vulnerable. A survey in the United States by an insurance company, along with the US Chamber of commerce found that over half of non-sole proprietor companies with less than 500 employees had either closed already, or were expected to close in the coming weeks. If a government supports too few there is the catastrophe of the heart a country’s economy being torn out. Support to too great an extent and you get a zombie economy. The big will survive, like large mammals surviving severe winters, but they too will change.

The global supply chain has also evolved into becoming a Chinese supply chain and other countries’ dependence on China, having outsourced production there, has made them starkly vulnerable, as is the case with PPE. The move has already started to seek other supply chains independent of Beijing. In some cases, returning production locally.

Getting medics protective gear is a “Herculean effort,” Hancock admits.

And with it a realisation that getting something cheaper means something very different from something costing less. A realisation of where we had sleep-walked for decades, and in that realisation comes a paradigm shift that global business will never be the same again in a parallel way to the impact of tech on the workplace – users of Zoom have grown from 10 million to 200 million almost overnight – and the shrinking need for premises.

From all of this come ideas about how economies will change after the watershed of the Covid-19 pandemic ends, as is the case with all other plagues throughout history it will do so. Plagues like the Black Death in the middle ages also changed economic systems. One such idea, gaining traction and being adopted by the Dutch city of Amsterdam is based on the Oxford University economist, Kate Raworth, called the doughnut model. It starts on the inner ring with a commitment to meet citizen’s needs to lead a good life – food, clean water, sanitation, affordable housing, energy, education, healthcare, income and societal freedoms. It is bounded on the outer ring with the boundaries we must not cross to avoid environmental degradation.

Between the two are all the activities that humans enjoy, where human and planetary needs are being met.

Not only are we capable of imagining futures but we are already to test those imaginings. What matters is Covid-19 has stopped us sleepwalking because we’ve been forced to stop doing things the same old way.

Back in the present the pandemic rolls on relentlessly.

We’re in the thick of it, nearing the peak at 5233 cases and 917 deaths over the past 24 hours in the UK.  The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan van Tam tries to make something positive out of the continuing bad news by saying Covid-19 curve “beginning to bend” as UK’s hard work “pays off.” It’s partly true, but it’s more to reassure those who think the nightmare has no end to it.

And Covid has that ability to dash hopes and breed uncertainties. In South Korea dozens of recovered coronavirus patients test positive again. No one quite knows why and it’s a blow to immunity hopes. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where hopes were that the two year Ebola outbreak was over, a new case appears, reminding us of the persistence deadly viruses can have.

It’s not “a little flu,” as Brazil’s leader Jair Bolsonaro would have it as he shrugs off Covid-19 and flouts distancing rules, while a teenager from an indigenous tribe had died after contracting Covid-19 , raising fears about the spread of the virus in protected lands.

Nor is it, as BBC presenter, Emily Maitliss, declared a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone – rich or poor – suffers the same

“You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us,” she said as she opened Wednesday Newsnight show.

“This is a myth which needs debunking. Those on the front line right now – bus drivers and shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shop keepers – are disproportionately the lowest paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed.”

“Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown a lot tougher. Those who work in manual jobs will be unable to work from home.”

Low wages are often accompanied by the kind of work most would not want to do. A poultry worker’s death illustrates this as coronavirus spreads in meat plants.

There’s a huge cognitive dissonance when it comes to the stark fact that the better-off, the keyboard bashers of society are utterly dependent on those who have no choice but confront the dangers of a pandemic to pay the rent and feed the cat. It comes out at moments like when the US Surgeon General exhorts the BAME community to stay at home moments after admitting that their jobs don’t enable them to.

“Do it for your big momma,” he says, paying lip service, and nothing more.

Those even worse off are faced with even starker realities. In the biggest outbreak at a homeless shelter in California to date, San Francisco’s mayor announced on Friday that 70 people have tested positive for Covid-19, creating anger those who had sought more aggressive action to protect the homeless.

As Americans record their deadliest day from the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first country to reach 2,000 deaths in 24 hours, as the number of infections reaches half a million, President Trump says about nationwide testing being necessary to reopen the country, “I don’t think it’s needed.”

It causes a rapid loss of faith in his handling of the outbreak, while Democrats scramble to turn the 2020 election into a referendum on Trump’s Covid-19 response.

The White House has put its faith in a model put forward by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) at the University of Washington, that predicts there will be zero deaths by June 14th and it seems that it’s been treated as a prediction by Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s magical thinking. So why test? Why do anything to curtail liberty? The virus will go away all of its own accord.

Dr Anthony Fauci knows that can’t be true:

“You need to make sure it doesn’t resurge and that will require the ability to test, to identify, to isolate and to do contact tracing,” he said in Saturday’s White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference.  

But Trump thinks he knows better.

And what Trump thinks, he believes.

There will be a total of 115,586 deaths by June 14th. But that lies in the future. Variety Magazine predicted that Rock ‘n Roll would be gone by June way back in 1955. It was just as wrong, only less grisly.

In the meantime the virus wreaks havoc:

But there are some signs of progress. Governor Cuomo says there’s been “dramatic decline” in the rate of New York hospitalisations.

Some insights too.

Treating severe Covid-19 still remains in what will be looked back at as in the early stages. There are many stories of resourceful light engineering companies and laboratories improvising ventilators. In California ventilators are being fashioned from diving gear and plumbing supplies. Ventilators from the set of BBC drama ‘Holby City’ have been donated to the new NHS Nightingale Hospital in London. There’s a ‘mend and make-do’ spirit. Some recall wartime years, whether they’ve lived them or heard them from their parents and grandparents.

What can broadly be described as medicines are still limited. There is no Covid-19 specific medication; only age-old practices like plasma therapy that had been used in treating the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago and repurposed drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir, neither of which were ideal, both of which had harmful side-effects. Hydroxychloroquine will be later abandoned, but current choices are desperate ones and recovery is much more about nursing care and good luck than it is to do with medication,

History will mark and enter into our collective memory not only the progress of a disease throughout the world’s population, nor humanity’s eventual response to it, with all its twists and turns but also how people come to understand it. Some, like Vietnam, Taiwan and Rwanda came to understand it from recent experience of other epidemics. Others, like New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and Cyprus had observed the current and past experience and actions of others, for good or ill. Others yet again, like Britain, the United States and Brazil had neither learned from their own experience nor that of others. The virus gets a hold quickly and the response has to be hard and fast. Nothing less will do.

Britain’s coronavirus history to date is a sorry example of what happens when that doesn’t happen. The first meeting of a number of expert advisers on respiratory diseases was on the 13th January. The story of a highly infectious SARS had leaked out on to the internet, first within China, then within hours globally two weeks previously on 30th December. Chinese authorities, now the cat was out of the bag, confirmed it a day later. SARS was well understood to have pandemic potential from the 2004 outbreak and Britain’s global interconnectedness, particularly in terms of being an airline hub, had been long  known, if only that the airspace around South East England is among the busiest in the world, something that has given me headaches as a paraglider pilot on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, they were united in their belief that the risk to Britain from the “novel coronavirus” appearing in Wuhan was “very low”.

There had been just one reported death, but it was equally well known from the previous outbreak that China had form for cover ups and misinformation. There was a political mindset of pre-Brexit boosterism and no such thing as negative news. The climate was not right for any precautionary principle applying here.

A week later it was upgraded to “low.”

Wuhan was locked down on 23rd January. The UK’s first confirmed cases came on 31 January, both in York, the same day a planeload of Britons flew home from Wuhan and were placed in a two-week quarantine in Merseyside. The NHS declared a Level 4 critical emergency.

The experts continued to meet regularly. Outbreaks of coronavirus started appearing elsewhere – in Iran, Italy and on cruise ships. Estimates that, if unchecked, the virus could infect 45 million people and lead to 500,000 deaths. Medics and scientists knew trouble was on its way and the UK started setting up clinical trials for possible Covid-19 treatments, as well as developing tests to track the spread of the illness around the country.

Boris Johnson missed five Cobra emergency meetings about Covid-19, finally attending on March 2nd. Four days later the first Brit dies of Covid-19.

Still, not enough gets done. MPs still pack in to the Commons, restaurants, bars, schools remain open and football matches and the Cheltenham races continue to take place. The contrast between the UK’s response and that elsewhere grew ever more stark.

At that point, the only official advice on offer to the vast majority of Britons, except those who had already fallen ill, was to wash their hands for 20 seconds. Other countries were already taking much more dramatic measures. They had banned mass gatherings, shut down restaurants and bars, closed schools and cancelled events such as football matches.

There were two definite examples of cognitive dissonance.

The first can be illustrated by a scientific pre-print from Professor Tom Pike of Imperial College, London simply extrapolated what had happened in China to other countries populations and assumed that the UK could expect 7,000 deaths, as if policy decisions and human behaviour had nothing to do with it. The BBC reported it widely.

The second was a failure to grasp non-linear growth – that consequences accelerate as time passes. 

We were set up to learn the hard way.

Lockdown came late, on March 23rd.

Boris Johnson, incapacitated, arguably, by his own carelessness and complacency, is taken into hospital shortly afterwards. He’s now out of intensive care and is reported as having taken short walks, played computer games and watched movies as he starts on the road to recovery. It’s an echo of Lloyd George’s Spanish Flu experience just over a century ago. Both were 55. Both infected, went through a period of ‘touch and go’ then recovered.

Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, escaped the Spanish flu completely, but had some very strange ideas about it.

“Man is a gregarious animal,” he wrote in ‘Their Finest Hour’ in 1949, “and apparently the mischievous microbes he exhales fight and neutralise each other. They go out and devour each other, and Man walks off unharmed. If this is not scientifically correct, it ought to be.”

Perhaps there is an echo there too.

It seems though that Johnson’s carelessness and complacency is infectious too as Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, someone who has been instructing the public to stay at home is caught out travelling forty miles, despite travel restrictions, to visit his mother and father, aged 69 and 79 respectively. He claims he is delivering essentials, including food and medicine and that he’s been maintaining social distancing.

Not everyone’s convinced and that begins to sow the seeds of mistrust and cynicism among many.

It comes in the light of a tightening lockdown as we enter the Easter holiday with a spring heatwave reaching 26 degrees Celsius.

“We have to take the pain now,” says Professor Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy CMO, adding “Signs that UK lockdown are beginning to pay off,” although it’s hard to see that from the data, which shows the UK is far from being out of the woods and the government is being less than candid about where the edge of the woods is or how long it’s likely to take us to get there. The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales are at least trying to be clearer and over time that will generate a view that they know what they are doing more than Westminster does.

Lift lockdown too soon and, as projections have indicated in the US, all you’ll get in thanks is a fresh spike of cases and deaths in the summer.

The police are doing their best. They don’t get the same plaudits as NHS workers but they have to enforce the rules without going over the top about them. They’re the ones making sure that people stay at home and don’t make unnecessary journeys, including to second homes. That the guidelines aren’t optional.

A policewoman gets bitten on the arm while explaining Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Also largely unsung are the care home workers. Alex Crawford, reporting for Sky sums it up:

“What’s happening in UK care homes right now is a scandal our grandchildren will ask about.”

More stories piece together within the wider narrative:

But finishing on a more positive note from my local Nextdoor group:

“Well done Wickham Street!” for Thursday’s pots and pans and cheering.

Even though in our street only one other person came out.

But she banged that pan for twenty!