Saturday 4th April 2020

Daily Diary: Big Brother, Bunny Poo and Virtual TV Panel Shows

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The breeze is warm and the common has family clusters around bicycles and pushchairs. The lockdown goes on and the police are extra vigilant, out to stop visitors at rural and coastal beauty spots.

I watch how information technology has crept into state control of the virus as I do my daily stint on the rowing machine. There are fears that the state won’t let go of its newly acquired powers easily and after the coronavirus crisis we sleepwalk into a surveillance state. It’s a particular issue with China where state control is becoming as all-consuming as any dystopian fiction.

What is going to be hard for the West is that state control will mean China comes out of the Covid-19 crisis sooner and stronger than its major competitors. It will have a head-start and their government will do what any politician will do, namely crow loudly about it from the highest rooftops.

Is this the end of the postwar ‘era of freedom?’ Freedom, unchecked, is seen to weaken, make more vulnerable, unsuitable to deal with just one viral disease. All its benefits become brushed aside in a state-centralised view of ‘the common good.’

Could what is becoming a different world view from what we imagined last forever (such a naïve thought!) and become the dominant way in which the evolution of human civilisation progresses? I feel that insecurity and I sense that it is a general insecurity the West feels in general.

On a completely different tack, I’m working on a board game as an Easter present for Emily and Tom. They like games, and although it is simple it should be fun. It’s an Easter egg hunt but with a lawn, stepping stones and bushes. If the player lands on a bush rather than a stepping stone s/he picks up a card. If it shows one or more Easter eggs the player takes that many steps forward. If it’s bunny poo the player goes back. The board is illustrated with a combination of Easter and pandemic pictures.

As I clear my relentless supply of emails the local network – Nextdoor – gives me a feel of what’s going on in the neighbourhood and unsurprisingly there are messages that paint a picture of the isolation crisis. One says:

“People are still driving to walks in my local area, even though there are many open spaces within less than a five minute walk.”


“Hi. I’m disabled and wondered if anyone locally was making and selling homemade meals. My carer is now unavailable. Looking for possibly three evenings a week when my husband is working.”

To which a reply comes:

“My wife says she will bring you 3 meals a week free of charge, if you let us know what you like.”

And finally, a plea:

“Does anyone know where I can get garden plants and soil, please?”

Home deliveries are still an impossibility as we are not needy enough, according to the inflexible criteria that don’t cover all bases by any stretch of the imagination. I receive emails from supermarket chains telling me all that they’re doing, but all I want is a delivery. Then I feel selfish, needing either to rely on our daughter or take the plunge and risk the viral consequences. That goes on to thinking that there are those who are much worse off than we are.

Tech, as all infotech is now being called, is coming into its own. Seeing panel shows like Have I Got News for You being broadcast, slightly clunkily, from both the contestants’ and host’s living rooms. The Mash Report works slightly better, although in both cases the studio audience is missed. AI is also coming to the fore. It is helping to trace contacts, it’s being looked into for triage and allowing clinicians not to be alone in making life and death decisions, and I’m sure it will really show what it’s capable of achieving with genomics.

Why genomics? Because, among other things, it will answer the mystery why some are so much more susceptible to coronavirus than others, why two nurses in their thirties die from being infected. Yet the septuagenarian Donald Trump, overweight and hardly fit, goes on regardless and you can be forgiven for thinking that some dark Faustian bargain has been struck.

However irrational the thought happens to be.

The Bigger Picture: On The Edge of Losing Control

Today, worldwide cases of Covid-19 top one million. In less than six months it will be a million deaths across the world. In Britain the number of cases of Covid-19 rises to 41,903, an increase of 3,735, in other words 9.8 per cent over the last twenty-four hours. But in fact, we don’t know, because there is no community testing. A new Covid-19 app suggests that 1.9 million Brits are infected, but it’s an estimate, an extrapolation and no one can be sure. We’re even in the dark about what constitutes being infected as we wrestle with the unknown of asymptomatic cases, or exactly what the symptoms are as loss of taste and smell are not to be added to the Covid-19 checklist at this time.

The UK death rate, at 4313 is even more alarming. There’s been an overnight increase of 708, that’s almost a twenty per cent increase over a single day. It’s a death rate steeper than Italy’s and London’s deaths exceed Wuhan’s and if a UK citizen is admitted to hospital the prospect of dying from the disease is alarmingly high.

Those in the frontline are particularly vulnerable and there are a number of stories about them being insufficiently well protected. Two nurses in their thirties die within hours of each other. Areema Nasreen, 36, died shortly after midnight on Friday at Walsall Manor hospital, where she had worked for sixteen years. Aimee O’Rourke, 38, who joined the NHS in 2017 and worked at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother hospital in Margate, died hours earlier, on Thursday night. Both were mothers of three children.

Two NHS healthcare assistants have also died. The family of one, Thomas Harvey, 57, who worked in north-east London, believe he would still be alive today if he had been given proper PPE.

Another healthcare assistant in north-west London, Tracy Brennan, quit her job after she was asked to remove a surgical face mask she had bought herself, despite a patient coughing into her unprotected face, because she was working on a non-covid ward. The combination of a PPE shortage, political pressures and a failure to recognise the nature of how pandemics spread meant that a hospital trust could steer away from the preventative principle of “do no harm” that has underpinned medical ethics since ancient times.

But that’s where Britain’s at on 4th April 2020.                           

In the midst of all this health secretary Matt Hancock reassures us announces that 2,000 critical care beds in the UK remain free for Covid-19 patients and there’s a commitment to by ventilators by the tens of thousands, if needs be. But it hides the live issues of the life-and-death crisis the country is lurching into. Matt Hancock also announces that wristbands or certificates could be brought in to prove that people can’t carry or catch Covid-19, even though the pattern of immunity isn’t understood, a viable antibody test is still under development and how it will be organised has barely been thought through. Say something – anything – to lead people to believe that things are in hand, like a fool setting out to conceal his folly by taking others for fools.

Boris Johnson knows he will be judged on the next four weeks. He’s sick with Covid-19 too. And the Queen is to address nation tomorrow with a television message recorded from Windsor Castle, a rare action reserved for times of crisis.

In fact, the crisis is so overwhelming it almost totally eclipses Keir Starmer’s election as Leader of the Labour Party with Angela Rayner as his deputy. In quieter times the seismic shift in left of centre politics with all its implications for the country’s future would have been major news. Instead, it is relegated to a side show.

In the United States Americans are underestimating how long coronavirus disruptions will last. Epicentre after epicentre comes into being around the country, sending out deadly ripples like the first raindrops on a millpond. The seeds of a second wave are being sown. Nearly 1,500 Americans killed in 24 hours, the worst single-day death surge in the world.

And Germany, who had made so much progress with community testing, and was the envy of neighbouring European states now reaches the upper limits of its capacity.

All that’s left is our own behaviour.

It only takes a minority to fail to change their behaviour for the virus to run freely through a population and there are plenty who are unable or unwilling to engage with that law of nature.

Australia’s Prime Minister has told all foreign visitors and students to leave the country now amid fury at backpackers for failing to follow social distancing rules. A hostel party in a Sidney hostel that needed to be broken up by the police, overcrowding on Bondi Beach despite warnings not to gather outdoors and a crass suggestion from one British backpacker that people were simply jealous that others were having fun all stoked up public outrage in a country struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19. Travelling medics aside, PM Scott Morrison said, it was past time for everyone else to ‘make their way home’.

Restrictions, arising from widespread calls for people around the world to practice social distancing, can lead to resentment. Covid-19 lockdown tensions are rising. Whether it’s shouts of, “Stay at home, idiot!” or snitching quietly online or by phone to the police, some neighbours have started to turn on each other.

Muslims in India fear they will face growing Islamophobia after hundreds of coronavirus cases were linked to a recent weeks-long event in Delhi attended by thousands of Muslims from India and abroad. As attendees made their way home from the congregation, however, states across India began to report dozens of positive coronavirus cases believed to be linked to the event, with more than 300 of the country’s roughly 2,500 cases believed to be linked to the gathering.

By contrast, Wuhan has learned, along with the rest of China, as it marks the sombre Tomb Sweeping Festival. Traditionally whole families meet and picnic around the graves of their ancestors, many of which are designed for such gatherings. This year, unable to honour the dead in person, Chinese people are turning to online alternatives.

Putting barriers in the virus’ way works. Distance works. Staying in your own home works. Open spaces work. As do masks. But in Western countries, unused to wearing masks and having wrestled recently with face coverings and identity, masks are not being taken up quite so readily.

So when the United States CDC advises to wear non-medical masks, President Trump tells Americans, “I’m choosing not to do it. It’s only a recommendation.”

There are a number of cases of senior politicians around the world dissuading people who are not directly in the frontline from wearing medical masks and people’s knowledge about masks in general, along with appropriate non-medical alternatives, is limited. I’ve now been wearing a mask since before the beginning of lockdown. My rationale is the preventative principle – the very same reason why I always wear a helmet, or carry a reserve parachute when paragliding. But I find myself on a learning curve too. A month ago, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said all government officials will stop wearing face masks unless it is necessary as she stressed that supplies must be given to those with greater need, admitting her government has been not quite successful in purchasing masks overseas because other governments are also accumulating supplies for the purpose of preventing Covid-19 from spreading in their own countries. The top priority had to be to ensure the supply of surgical masks for workers in healthcare settings or those in contact with patients.

It’s an understandable restraint, honestly put.

Western countries get round the same problem by saying nothing, or even in the case of Tracey Hannan, actively dissuading their use. Leaving me feeling like some kind of weirdo as I fill up at my local petrol station.

Which I don’t seem to be doing much of.

I must confess to have been pretty dismissive of the psychological consequences of isolation, the ultimately secure distancing from the virus. It’s nothing to be proud of – just my own narrowness of perspective. I used to think that the psychological impact of extended spaceflight, especially if you had fellow astronauts on board with you, was somewhat over-egged. It’s pretty clear now that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Human beings are by nature social animals and Covid-19 is already harming people’s mental health.

So when Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, the 13-year-old South Londoner who died from Covid-19, is buried without his family, because two siblings have tested positive and his mother has had to self-isolate, I can feel the shadows of horror and pain and begin to grasp the sheer awfulness of the situation we are all in.

It’s that, I think, that has spurred a drive for people to find creative ways to support each other. The common enemy has healed divisions. Restaurants, having lost their usual clients, prepare meals for the homeless, people volunteer for mental health phone hotlines, food banks, running errands and shopping for the house-bound, streaming entertainment online and generally looking out for each other. It might all be ‘for now’ but it’s special, and displays a set of values that drowns in pre-covid consumerism.

Life is changing.

  • A ground-breaking drone start-up in Ireland delivers medicines and groceries to vulnerable people who are self-isolating due to Covid-19.
  • The Royal Mail issues strict new rules for deliveries to tackle Covid-19.
  • Tech plays a bigger part than ever before in making isolation a little more bearable.
  • Online tours of museums and galleries are available.
  • And in the car depleted streets the bicycle makes a comeback. There is a boom in sales.

And while we are locked down in our homes advice comes from all sorts of quarters about productive ways in which we can spend our time.

Here are ten recommendations from ‘Hello’ magazine:

  • Learn a language
  • Organise your wardrobe
  • Learn to play an instrument
  • Update your CV and professional accounts
  • Write a novel
  • Start a blog
  • Get fit
  • Do some gardening
  • Upcycle your furniture
  • Learn to code

Finally, not a green shoot of the end to the coronavirus nightmare. Maybe a germinating seed as Brits are ‘to be asked’ to volunteer for Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials.

A glimmer of hope.

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