Friday 3rd April 2020

Daily Diary: Street Hopscotch And Other Such Things

There are bluebells out the front today. The air is a little cooler and the sky is active with racing clouds. I’m making a special point of not looking too closely at them, and my weather head that comes with fairly regular paragliding has been put well aside. It’s best not to think about what you’ve lost. The things you’ve enjoyed. The past. There is only the here and now, and that’s all that matters.

There are the little things that matter as we sail on through this period of isolation. Watching people walk across the common in ones and twos. Dogwalkers, families with small children, bats and balls. It’s like being next to a playground – a source of sanity in an otherwise claustrophobic world. Just around the corner, going down to post a letter, I can see paving slabs chalked over for hopscotch. I can’t remember that being done since childhood days and it brings back those simple pleasures that hold together human experience. Lockdown has revealed the importance of human interaction by making it a commodity in short supply.

There is the online daily reality as well. I get an email from Café Rouge with a recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon under the heading ‘Quarantine Menu.’ Big sister Corrie (she’s always been Big Sis as I’ve been Little Bro) sends me a Beatles spoof via Facebook, “I’m gonna wash my hands….”

Little Sis Judith has just joined Facebook today. We exchange a couple of messages. Em Deliveries all happens via WhatsApp and I promise myself to look into Zoom. Family connectivity almost totally virtual.

Emily did come round with the groceries at 5.20 yesterday afternoon. It’s just nice seeing our daughter, even if it is two eyes above a mask and jazz Marigold hands. Vicky and I can’t spell out too much how grateful we are for all that she’s doing for us. We have become the dependent oldies long before we ever planned to (does anyone ever plan for that?) and we’re quite conflicted both psychologically and emotionally. But coronavirus is unforgiving. We are reminded that a force of nature has no feelings, makes no judgements and does not care because it is unable to care. I’ve long been aware that there is a total indifference in the universe. I know this through paragliding and when you first come upon this stark realisation it is both daunting and frightening.

It’s humbling too.

The only thing each and every one of us is to lessen the risk until it is as near to zero as it can possibly be. Sure, there is such a thing as luck, but only a fool would count on something so arbitrary and capricious.

At eight o’clock Vicky and I go out for the Thursday Clap. It is louder this time. Claire comes out next door and Cathy and Tom next door but one. The clap becomes a conversation which lasts half an hour or so. Socially distanced, of course. We put the world to rights and talk about the bizarre consequences of being isolated. People don’t quite know how to behave towards each other in the street. There’s a slightly awkward friendliness between fellow isolates. People say hello, then avert their eyes. It’s politeness, but it’s strange. Joggers say sorry as they pass you in the street, or re-route so they pass at least two metres away. There is a joke doing the rounds that the over-60s have finally learned measure in metric.

The temperature drops as evening falls. Eventually I go in, but Vicky stays out for a conversation that lasts an hour and a half, as darkness swallows the street. Vicky loves the heat and hates the cold, and there she is in jeans, t-shirt and stockinged feet on the paving slabs. I bring her my flying jacket – a light but warm mountaineer’s jacket – and drape it over her shoulders, but I don’t have anything at hand for her feet. But she and Cathy are so absorbed in conversation she carries on when I wimp out and return to watch TV in the warmth. We were watching a film, “The Leisure Seeker,” with Donald Sutherland as an ageing retired lecturer with Alzheimers, and his wife, Helen Mirren, who’s dying of cancer. They were on a final road trip to Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida. It’s touching and poignant, and perhaps spells out the hurdles of the next decade or two …. But I paused it while Vicky was chatting and watched a daft ‘real life’ programme about driving tests. We decided not to watch the news on TV. The coronavirus epic is so overwhelming and so all-consuming that, outside of this diary, we’re giving it a wide berth.

The weird thing is that I can detach myself while collecting stories for the diary – it’s somehow different.

That’s both strange and disconcerting.

The Bigger Picture: The Dawn of Problems With Belief

Half of humanity is now under lockdown as ninety countries call for confinement. It’s the first pandemic that can be tracked through the location information of smartphones that themselves spread like a virus through the human population a decade earlier. Google publishes location data across 130 countries to show how the coronavirus lockdowns are working.

Covid-19’s death toll appears to be higher than official figures suggest and there’s emerging evidence of countries, especially the richer ones, already looking after their own interests first. There’s a lot of virtue-signalling politicians are making to the WHO, but I’m left with a horrible feeling that for the most part it’s hypocrisy and window-dressing.        

The fight against the coronavirus has paralysed whole societies and their economies. Lockdown measures are short-term solutions, tried and tested through history, actions of last resort that threaten rapid economic destruction and the erosion of social order. There are troubling parallels with a patient severely infected with the coronavirus being killed by his own immune response.

But the principles behind the good people of Eyam, who kept the outbreak of the 1665 plague from spreading to its neighbouring Derbyshire communities apply as much today as they ever did. Eyam, was one of the few places outside London to be infected. They kept it that way.

Isolation is hard and involves sacrifices.

Politicians in the West don’t like having to ask citizens to make sacrifices. Such actions cost votes in their calculations.

So what follows is a problem with belief.                   

And that for the British government, which came to power promising an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit as its overriding priority before being overwhelmed by Covid-19, is going to prove difficult. PM Boris Johnson remains bullish on this, and for now there is little dissent. Whether it being part of the honeymoon period or the public being distracted by the pandemic is hard to tell, but beneath the surface, for those more directly involved in dealing with Brexit there are concerns.

BBC reporter, Lewis Goodall tweeted: “Have talked to officials across a number of departments in Whitehall. As I reported on Newsnight just now they are expecting an extension of the Brexit transition period. One told me, “if it doesn’t come, I don’t know what we’ll do – with coronavirus we realistically can’t do both.”

Time will test this tweet.

The public persona of Boris Johnson before his isolation with Covid-19 was a leader guided by science, appearing flanked by senior scientific and public health advisers. The reality is that the UK’s approach to dealing with coronavirus has been decided by politicians especially those in Number 10 – not scientists. It was the government that decided how many test kits would be available and how social distancing was to be implemented and enforced.

It’s a useful deceit, but for now people are believing and supporting it.

They’re even accepting the doctrine they sneered at when it came to the former leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. The outbreak shows one point at least he was right – that when there is a crisis, money can always be found.

With community testing, having abandoned testing mid-March, the UK now lags behind other countries, but Matt Hancock, the health minister has now pledged to up the ante with a new action plan for Covid-19 testing. But it’s not clear what that plan is going to be. Evidence emerges that Covid-19 is spreading too fast for traditional contact tracing, and whether a government in catch-up will be able to get things moving fast enough in the foreseeable future.

At one level it is terrifying. We don’t fully know where and when the cases – and deaths – will peak. We don’t know whether not just the NHS, but health services in other countries, are going to be overwhelmed. Visions of that beginning to happen in northern Italy haven’t faded in people’s minds.

“Absolutely Mission Impossible,” says the CEO of Drägerwerk, a world leader in the production of ventilators, really challenged to keep up with the current demand, as the coronavirus crisis accelerates. Others chip in from other engineering quarters, turning their hand to building these life-saving machines. Formula 1 comes up with a breathing machine. Racing car engineers are applying their expertise to medicine.

While on the frontline ethical systems are being developed to allocate scarce ventilators and ICU beds to avoid counting any group out. Survivability while under treatment and longer-term survivability for the over-75s are primary issues, with a year’s continuation of life as being the reference line.

The triage between treatment and palliative care, between life and death comes closer to being a reality with each passing day.

For the most part the public are spared this horror.

There is a problem with belief for the US government too. CIA hunts for virus totals in China. Dismissing Chinese government tallies, intelligence officials have told the White House for weeks that China has vastly understated the spread of the coronavirus and the damage the pandemic has done.

And there is a problem with the US government’s own credibility. The Environment Protection Agency, it’s Trump appointee chief, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist committed to as many environmental rollbacks as he can manage, with dozens already under his belt, is allegedly using Covid-19 as an excuse to stop policing massive polluters.

But these blows to people’s beliefs are not only the act of governments. Social media is already contributing. A bizarre conspiracy theory circulates on Facebook that 5G is causing the coronavirus pandemic by lowering human immunity to it – theory about towers, Wuhan (which is not alone in China with its use of 5G) and radiation. Some people take the rumour-mongering so seriously that towers are damaged, even destroyed, the irony being that social media itself becomes harmed in the process.

It’s not the only conspiracy theory. Trump’s senior medical adviser, and advocate of sensible preventative behaviour, Dr Anthony Fauci’s personal security has been stepped up after threats to his safety. Dealing with the pandemic has become tribalised and politicised, and what should be calm and rational behaviour to protect the common good, becomes something much darker and more hysterical.

If people stop believing how will it be possible to protect society through its own collective action?

It’s a spin-off pandemic of its own kind as viral memes change the perception of human brains.

Unemployment rises. It hits 3.3 million in the United States but Rishi Sunak’s early intervention largely prevents a similar catastrophe in the UK. Food prices do too. Governments splash to keep big companies afloat, but struggle with which merit supporting and how they set about doing it. New companies, particularly technology startups are especially vulnerable, because they haven’t had time to build up the track record necessary

 In Europe, the danger of a new euro crisis is growing. Weak member states like Italy need help if they’re going to survive the coronavirus lockdown financially. But the call for Eurobonds has been met with stiff resistance, especially from the Germans.

While in Britain, March was the best month for UK supermarkets. No prizes for the top selling lines!

Finally, here are a few things that coloured our day to day reality in the newsfeeds on April 2nd:

  • Amazon tribes are at acute risk from the coronavirus. The vectors are often missionaries. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro does nothing to help them.
  • And to lighten our darker moods the British entertainment industry tries out creative ideas. National Theatre’s first live showing took place on Thursday 2nd April at 7 pm. “One Man, Flu, Two Guvnors.” Have I Got News for You will return for a new series, assuming the form of an elaborate video conference, with producers building a virtual set around Ian Hislop. Paul Merton and the other show’s guests will beam in from their living rooms. Again, we will be distracted by their bookshelves.

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