Thursday 2nd April 2020

Daily Diary: The View From a Bubble

The forsythia bush in the back garden is bright yellow and there is a pale, lime-green haze over the trees as spring comes into being. The air is definitely warming up and I don’t feel that wintry bite in the conservatory where I make my first handwritten notes for the daily diary.

Perhaps the hardest thing is the wall to wall news coverage of the pandemic on the TV and it begins to be a strain. So we’ve decided not to watch news programmes and we’re trusting to iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon Prime to see us through.

We’re waiting for our daughter, Emily, to come through with the groceries, but still hoping for an alternative elsewhere. When it comes to pandemic logistics it’s still SNAFU and the whole country is trying to find its feet.

I sign a petition for PPE for frontline workers. I also sign up to Open Democracy Covid-19 Watch. There are concerns that the pandemic, having forced changes in government and curtailed citizens’ rights, has drawn too much power to leaders. Viktor Orban has already become de facto leader of Hungary and the EU appears toothless in doing anything about it, other than expressing concerns with the faux-ineffectualness of Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory. So how proportionate are these changes? How long lasting? History teaches us that power, once acquired, is very hard to relinquish. This is a global problem following a global pandemic.

The virus has the capacity to be really nasty. It appears to hit the muscles enabling ventilation really hard, making inhalation very difficult. With that comes fear. Will it infect anyone close? Will it affect those in our family who already have health issues? We have relatives with Alzheimers, asthma, diabetes and post-cancer throat surgery. It’s all too easy to be drawn into all this and the line between carting and worrying is a fine one.

I get an email from Toyota credit brokers. Fortunately, on a personal level we haven’t so far been financially hit hard by the crisis but we are aware that many have been, and it’s all been quite a lottery. It’s not just the rents and mortgages, but in the green new deal that’s already beginning to impact in London when it comes to motoring, we’re all being encouraged to buy newer and more environmentally friendly vehicles, there must be thousands upon thousands of unpayable debts. It’s a story that hasn’t been picked up by the press and news media yet. Maybe it will, but in these uncertain times you can’t be sure about anything.

I feel like I’m staring out of a bubble, not being sure whether the real world is inside or out.

The Bigger Picture: The Castle Keep

“You feel breathless and you understand this might be your last breath.”

So spoke a survivor as in the UK a person is dying from Covid-19 every two and a half minutes. With a 24 per cent death toll increase in the last 24 hours – some 569 souls – Britain sees its largest daily increase.

This is the castle-keep. If the coronavirus has got this far there have been a few failures.

The first is a failure of government. In Britain the obsession with Brexit has not only contributed to the delay in the Government’s response to the pandemic, but also in an attitude of insularity that meant Britain turning its back on collaborative efforts with neighbouring states, leaving  the European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC),  the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and turning down an offer of being involved in the EU ventilator scheme.

There is still not a full grasp of the efficacy of social distancing measures, despite the fact that data from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic shows the tighter the restrictions the better the outcomes. The use of face masks is little understood, yet recommendations that people not wear face masks unless they are sick with Covid-19 or caring for someone who is sick are being made by the World Health Organisation as recently as two days ago. Whether this is a medically held view (you would have thought there had been enough respiratory epidemics around for them to know by now) or the very practical problem of there not being enough face masks to go round, and as Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the WHO, said at a briefing two days ago that it is important “we prioritize the use of masks for those who need it most,” which would be frontline health care workers, is not spelled out, but today the British government urges citizens to start wearing face masks, albeit in a somewhat muddled way about where and when.

While people around the country take up sewing masks, and some hospitals, facing dire shortage, welcome them.

There’s been a failure in testing and tracing. Such a system works well when an epidemic is in its early stages, or if the rate of transmission is relatively slow. It soon gets overwhelmed by a rapidly spreading pandemic, especially on where there are so many asymptomatic carriers. We are still learning the finer points of Covid-19’s symptoms and some research is indicating that loss of taste and smell are an early symptom of infection. There are developments, an antibody test will soon be available, although it indicates whether a person has had the disease, not whether they are infectious. Stable doors and bolting horses come to mind. Smartphone apps are appearing, although there are concerns about this is the thin end of the wedge in becoming a surveillance society.

It did not help that the UK government abandoned widespread test and trace a fortnight ago

So, to be infected the virus has had to cross those potential hurdles and at the moment, without a vaccine in sight, it does so without too much difficulty.

And reaches the castle-keep.

4,244 people test positive for Covid-19 in the United Kingdom today, but since so many of these tests are admissions to hospital the figure is not a fair indication of how widespread it is. Over twenty-two thousand casualties are already hospitalised, and of those four and a half thousand in intensive care. 574 are on mechanical ventilators and in the last twenty-four hours there have been 569 deaths.

That’s a fair bit of battling inside the keep. It’s not the derring-do of Errol Flynn but the grim, knackering slog of dedicated medics and the personal mortal struggle of hundreds of patients, many in induced comas, left to communicate their plight only by the numbers, traces and bleeps of bedside instruments. And behind the façade generated by tubes, wires and electronics the reality is that doctors are for the most part treating the disease with tech from the 1980s.

Promising possibilities are being shown by AI in triaging and information sharing, but the speed of spread by the pandemic currently outstrips that as frontline staff deal with the relentless day to day.

In many cases there’s even the inner sanctum within the keep as hospitals across Europe and the US either split into Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 zones, partition entirely, with entire hospitals dedicated to the coronavirus, while temporary hospitals are being set up for other needs, or create Covid-19 field hospitals of one sort or another, such as the Nightingale hospitals emerging in the UK.

Even so, the shortfalls are staggering. New York alone needs to contend with the coming wave: 3.3 million N95 masks, 2.1 million surgical masks, 100,000 isolation gowns and 400 additional ventilators.

To rub salt into the wound, the US does have a ventilator stockpile but thousands do not work due to expired maintenance contracts.

Some scientists in the UK say they’re confident they have reached a turning point in the battle, but it will still be a month before that translates into what most could see as things getting better. Meanwhile, the daily stress, the witnessing of continuing human tragedy and the relentlessness of it all takes its toll on healthcare workers and there are concerns about the kind of moral injury previously seen in combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan appearing in their ranks.

Despite that Boris Johnson’s approval rating is 72 per cent – the highest since Thatcher during the Falklands War. So far, the British public are being pretty forgiving of all the mistakes the Government have made.

It also appears to be regardless of the fact that many people’s lives have become fraught with real financial difficulties. There are a number of cases of financial institutions being less than helpful in unexpected hard times. Business minister Ashok Sharma criticises as ‘unacceptable’ banks for refusing financial help to small companies.

Too many people will also be left behind by the help for the self-employed. The flexibility within the UK job market and its lack of protections becomes really problematic during a major health crisis, particularly with a trend towards franchises and zero hours contracts.

But for now, it hasn’t eaten its way into the wider public consciousness. We like to think that we’re all in it together ….

But some are more in it than others.

Will it last?

That will depend, among other things, on how UK deaths compare to other places.

And that will take time to pan out.

As with every day, across Britain, the pandemic is characterised by many stories:

  • The COP26 climate change conference due in Glasgow this November has been postponed. It has been an aspirational landmark for PM Johnson’s ‘Green Britain.’ It now has to wait another year.
  • BA is expected to suspend 36,000 staff after coronavirus grounds flights.
  • It’s looking more and more like the coronavirus is on its way to sinking the cruise-ship business. Its PR could not be worse with nightmarish stories going back to February when outbreak on the British registered Diamond Princess claimed 700 cases and 14 deaths. Environmentally unfriendly, with a history of other non-Covid outbreaks, the industry has been losing friends. It may well be that the elderly, the core of its customer base, will shun it for good.
  • There’s some unsettlingly gothic about cemeteries becoming closed to the public. More to the point, unsettlingly tragic.
  • There’s a public outcry when Tottenham Hotspur footballers continue to be paid the full whack of £70K per week, but other workers there are now on an 80 per cent wage.
  • Some pubs adapt. Two thousand are to reopen as click and collect supermarkets during the coronavirus lockdown. Greene King, Admiral Taverns and St Austell will allow tenants and leaseholders to open grocery stores.
  • Loneliness in coronavirus lockdown is fast becoming an issue. Some, especially elderly people on their own, are frightened of contacting others for fear of being a nuisance.
  • While some approaches are distinctly unwelcome as text messages appear, telling people they have been fined for stepping outside during lockdown. With a phishing link included. Welcome to the low-life among us who see the pandemic as an opportunity for predation.

As it is abroad:

  • Belarus Football League continues to play matches as the rest of Europe locks down. With less than 100 positive cases and no deaths in Belarus, president Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the global health crisis as a “psychosis”, and refuses to follow the example of much of the globe by imposing a lockdown, suggesting “there shouldn’t be any panic.”
  • In France fruit farmers struggle amid the coronavirus lockdown, as migrant labour from eastern Europe can no longer cross borders.
  • In France too, the homeless are having a hard time. The French Red Cross sets up shelters in car parks.
  • Portugal launches ‘Host a hero,’  where people with empty properties encouraged by an online scheme to help health workers keep their families safe.
  • In Kenya, president Uhuru Kenyatta has apologised for his heavy-handed policing of the country’s lockdown after a 13-year-old boy was repeatedly shot dead. The police’s handling of the lockdown will be investigated.
  • And in the US, president Trump announces insurance waivers on coronavirus healthcare.

He does some right things when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, but it’s too much like a stopped clock telling the right time twice a day.

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