Tuesday 7th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Mystery of The Plumstead Common Lines

It’s the sort of day that I’d be out paragliding. There’s a westerly breeze, a clear day and a warm sun. The novelty of lockdown is wearing thin, but this is counterbalanced by emerging tales of horror from a virus that can kill and is discriminate in its choice of victim. This is a virus that stops breathing. It doesn’t seek to do so; in fact, that’s a weak point in its evolutionary game plan – if a blind mechanism can have a game plan, that is. Understanding the virus has become the 24-7 work of research laboratories across the world.

Having gathered my daily newsfeeds and checked through my Twitter account, I take my day’s exercise on the rowing machine and decide to post the self-assembly game (I called it aggjackt, Swedish for egg hunt and like a self-assembly product in IKEA). The Royal Mail label and stamp online service is working, so I get it organised and go to post the package. I leave the front door and wait for people on the street to pass by, so we can keep distance and I follow a young woman, who looks back nervously to check I’m not catching up, but it feels weird. I walk down an adjoining street and she does too. We make a point of being on the opposite side of the road. There’s definitely a social discomfort I’ve never felt walking down a street before.

As if the very existence of the coronavirus has infected my consciousness.

When I reached the postbox its mouth isn’t quite wide enough. I can’t fold the pack too much because it will spoil it. Going to a post office becomes what seems like a dangerous possibility. I’m troubled by my own mind – this is real neurotic stuff! Things we took totally for granted not so long ago become matters of life and death, at least in the theatre of the mind. It’s with some relief that I find I can just about squeeze the A4 package in through the tight wee slot of the pillar-box, and with a feeling of great relief I hear it drop to the bottom of the box. It’s on its way, and here’s hoping it gets to Em and Tom before the end of this week.

On the way back I take a few photos of people in their ones and twos on the common. I see my artist neighbour Barry talking to an old man with a dog. They’re at a safe distance. I come over and we form a triangle, well-spaced. I’m mindful too of the wind. The man is a Glaswegian, sounding much like Gregor Fisher’s Rab C. Nesbit. In fact, squint your eyes a little and he could be Rab C. Nesbit. He’s rough and unshaven, clutching a can of strong cider and telling us he has nae time for this wee virus. He’s lived this long, this way, and reckons he’ll continue to do so.

“Yer nae frit of dyin’, are ye?” he asks Barry.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Barry replies, qualifying his words with, “But I don’t want it to happen.”

“Aye. We’ll see the other side of it,” the old Glaswegian says. His dog, looking like a cross between a corgi and an Alsatian, and outmatching her owner in dog-years, waits patiently.

“She’s a bitch,” Barry observes.

“Aye. Seventeen years auld. That’s a hundred and thirty in human years, y’know.”

The razzled old Scotsman walked on. Barry and I chat a bit about passing time under lockdown. He’s still got assignments to complete, working at the moment for a park in Bexley. You never think – at least I never used to – who are the artists who make those wonderful illustrated plans in parks and ornamental gardens, but they do exist of course and Barry’s one of them. Barry is a fine artist, almost a draughtsman with a precise hand and a good eye.

“Have you noticed something about the daisies?” he asks.

I look behind and there are the daisies. They are in parallel lines running a little over a metre apart.

“It’s where the hundred metre track was for school sports day last July,” he tells me. “Daisies really like calcium.”

The daisies are growing along where lane lines had been chalked out.

“You would have thought that the rain would have washed the marking out. But clearly it hasn’t. Not fully, at least.”

“Nature is really subtle,” I say, and I think about all the nuances of the pandemic and how the virus spreads itself through a human population that thinks it’s smarter than it really is, a view confirmed by a group of large youths, around eighteen years of age, congregating around a park bench. There are around eight of them, clearly not giving a toss about social distancing. Not thinking about possible consequences. Part of me is angry at the sight, and wants to go over to confront them. Part of me doesn’t want the consequences of a misfired confrontation.

I bottle it.

I wonder if I’ve done the right thing.

Sooner or later selfishness and thoughtlessness could strip us all of our freedom to be outside. Or so we fear in these anxious times.

Returning to the conversation with Barry. We talk about the sorts of thing men at our age do. Of blood pressure, fitness, failing knees and eyesight, with a little putting the world to rights thrown in for good measure.

Then we each retreat to the shelter of our respective houses.

The Bigger Picture: Bluff, Guff, Bluster And Battling For Breath

We have a very sick PM. He’s in intensive care, although reportedly not on a ventilator. Dominic Raab is next in line if PM has to take time off work, but in the style of Armando Iannucci’s ‘Death of Stalin,’ like a parody of a parody, Number 10 insists that the PM is still in charge. Meanwhile, senior minister, Michael Gove is self-isolating after one of his family displayed Covid-19 symptoms.

There is the feeling of being in a kind of political limbo.

So the man, famed, loved and hated in equal measure for all his bravado, braggadocio, bluff, guff and bluster is battling for each breath he takes. Here is the great optimist who promised we would “get this thing beat” in the next couple of months, while in reality some local health bosses have just effectively said that all over-75-year olds in care homes: do not resuscitate; let ‘em die.”

Triage is under trial. The tough ethical decisions doctors face with Covid-19. When the concept of trade-offs is all too real.

We don’t know, but we hope ICU capacity across the country doesn’t reach that point.

It’s not just politicians who bluff, guff and bluster. I’ve often thought it was something that happens when people get too much public exposure. A bit like too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer, and of course too much exposure to SARS-CoV-2 can cause the most horrific of sicknesses, too much public exposure has this weird effect on people. I have a couple of friends who pilot executive jets for a living and heard for myself how some celebrities have become convinced about their own self-importance, so it comes as no surprise that there are celebrities peddling conspiracy theories.

On message at the moment burning its way through WhatsApp like a forest fire is that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is down to the new 5G wireless network. Some of coronavirus’s biggest misinformation peddlers are popular celebrities, wilfully spreading dangerous myths that they are repeatedly told are simply untrue.

  • Professional boxer Amir Khan yesterday stated on Instagram that coronavirus was man-made and “put there… while they test 5G.”
  • ‘Dancing On Ice’ judge Jason Gardiner posted encouraged his Twitter followers to sign petitions to stop the roll-out of 5G.
  • People have started torching communications towers and harassing telecoms engineers. ‘Made In Chelsea’ reality star Lucy Watson virtually fans the flames when she tweets, “fuck 5G.”

There’s no evidence for a secret plot by China, or any other government. There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that it’s spread through human contact, and can only be prevented through self-isolation and social distancing.

We’ve got something wrong. We put people on pedestals for one thing of merit and good fortune and seem to accept that they can stay on that pedestal for everything else. Celebrity validates people and creates a culture that puts a premium on it. And in celebrities it creates a tone deafness, from posting videos of themselves complaining about boredom from their multi-million-pound mansions to mash-ups of famous people singing “Imagine,” failing to acknowledge their wealth, privilege as people lose their jobs and their lives.

The media are also responsible for amplifying celebrities’ voices. Celebrities generate stories out of all too often trivial beginnings. There’s an ecology here. Stories are like fish food scattered on the surface of a pond, inviting a feeding frenzy of consumers who have been conditioned to gorge without limit, as they have been with money and goods and what they believe to be entitlements.

5G has become the main story, with the fact that it’s totally lacking in evidence very much an afternote. It’s not only a number of newspapers, but even the BBC, which reported on the 5G conspiracy without clarifying that it was unfounded.

Platforms such Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could delete these posts themselves, listening to warnings from users on cases of misinformation and introduce a specific tool to report fake news on coronavirus. At best they’re slow.

The pandemic also creates its own celebrities. There are countless daily acts that might be described as heroic. One or two stand out and break through the filter of the news media.

Such as Brett Crozier, captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who would not let the US Navy brass stifle his concerns about a Covid-19 outbreak on board the one hundred thousand tonne aircraft carrier.

“Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” hundreds of sailors chanted as he walked down the gangway, relieved of his command, on the warm Guam evening of April 3rd.

“Now that’s how you send out one of the greatest captains you ever had,” remarked a sailor in the crowd.

President Trump didn’t agree. But then I doubt if he empathised either.

A capacity for empathy is more important than ever as we struggle with maintaining relationships more than ever as surviving the pandemic means loss of human contact. Even forming relationships in the first place becomes more out of reach as all sorts of get-togethers are replaced by Zoom conferencing as the creator of the video-conferencing app becomes one of the world’s newest billionaires.

For others it’s stir-crazy time.

Cooped up could mean more sex. Some wonder whether there will be a post-coronavirus baby boom, although the evidence suggests that deadly epidemics depress the birthrate. What is for sure is that at the moment the sex accessories industry is booming.

Cooped up, however, has a darker side, as being together, unpunctuated by all people’s pre-covid extraneous activities, creates deep frictions. People, especially women, all too become prisoners of those they live with. It’s emerging as a global problem after country after country locks down. UN chief António Guterres urges governments to prioritise women’s and girls’ safety, as domestic abuse surges during the coronavirus lockdown.

Coronavirus exposes another major human weakness.

Cooped up seeks creative outlets. France records its highest daily death toll, with 833 Covid-19 fatalities in the last 24 hours. When the numbers are as horrific as this people are in full retreat as much as they can.

But there are still those who seek to lighten the load. In Paris an actor, Noam Cartozo, entertains his neighbours from his apartment with a nightly window to window quiz, hosting the event after the nightly clapping of frontline workers at 8 pm.

Food becomes more central in our lives, from a craze over breadmaking to testing out all sorts of recipes. Many try to emulate the dishes momma made. Others attempt to be more exotic.

Food reveals itself to be more central in our way of lives as well. Lettuce left to die in California’s fields as demand for it withers under Covid-19, a consequence of thousands of restaurants closing. Whether part of the trimmings of a burger or a side accompaniment in haute cuisine, the humble lettuce proves its centrality in our eating out.

There are worries too across western Europe as borders close itinerant farmhands can no longer travel to harvest the crops. Some American states too are curbing travel to fight the virus, affecting interstate travel.

At the other end of food supplies in Britain, additional demand has overwhelmed their home delivery services, especially to the housebound and vulnerable. The larger chains, like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are beginning to get a regular service in for vulnerable shoppers. Others, like Ocado are still struggling.

The displaced form a huge, wide-ranging category. During the lockdown in Poland, it’s migrants who are being hit the hardest. The refugee camps in Greece are becoming a simmering pot-boiler, coronavirus showing no respect for barbed wire. The displaced on British streets become a growing concern and 4,000 rough sleepers in England have already been housed in hotels.

While those displaced because of their sense of adventure end up stranded in dozens of foreign lands, their borders closed. Government is set to charter more flights to bring stranded Brits home. A total of 14 airlines have now signed up to the government’s £75 million scheme, including BA and Ryanair. India, Nepal, the Philippines and South Africa are on the list for repatriation flights. The airlines welcome the charter contracts at a time of great economic uncertainty. It’s a bad time for the travel industry overall, and for thousands of consumers still awaiting stalled refunds, and a warning from ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents, that the UK taxpayer faces a £4.5 billion bill if no change is made to the law.

It’s not the only news about services being hit hard, as the media industry announces layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.

But when it comes to the economy there’s a global weirding going on. The world hasn’t experienced a global pandemic for a century and the economic order was vastly different then. There hadn’t been a Keynes or a Bretton Woods and at Versailles Germany was to suffer punitive damages that would cripple its economy, create a surge of ultra-nationalism that would lead to a further world war. There is no model for a global natural catastrophe, so while bankers warn of challenges ahead for the economy the stock market shows a resilience that few expected, rallying and recovering on each speculative hope that we might be passing the worst.

Little do we know!

The developing world begins to display anxieties. In Addis Ababa: African Union finance ministers and the IMF have called for debt relief and delays on repayment as the continent battles Covid-19. The G20 nations are facing calls to delay payment deadlines and provide support with balance of payments and liquidity.

They know from past experience that the richer nations will look after themselves first, for all their sanctimonious proclamations.

Back in Britain Birmingham becomes the biggest hotspot after London. Between the sixth and seventh of April the Covid-19 death rate leaps from 439 to 786. Of all these terrible tragedies the one that tears the heart most is from North London, where a mother to be with Covid-19 dies during labour as doctors fight to save the newborn child.

There is a growing tension between public health and the country’s economic priorities. Those with most to lose start to apply pressure, and a government spawned from libertarian ideology is at odds with creating an ethos of individual sacrifice for the common good. That is the greatest tragic irony of the British Covid-19 narrative, as inescapable as the deep severance it seeks from the EU, but that’s another story.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty warns that it’s a mistake to discuss ending the UK lockdown before the peak. It is too early, he adds, to begin predicting the next phase of managing the pandemic.

But it’s for his political masters to actually decide that, whatever he says.

And its leader is in an ICU in St Thomas Hospital.

Despite Downing Street still telling us all he’s very much in charge.

For the past couple of decades in the west in particular we’ve experienced a culture that has sneered at science. Perhaps there is a cycle here and we’ve passed its low ebb. In the 1950s science was almost revered, but got itself trapped in the rigid institutions of the era, so when the counterculture appeared in the sixties and early seventies, along with its alternative world views, science and scientists were victims of that move. It was uncool to be a geek. It was cool to be able to express yourself. To generate charisma.

It was supercool to become a celebrity. Then everyone would listen to what you had to say.

Including about 5G.

Now, with celebrities self-isolating along with the rest of us, we realise that it will be science, not stardom that will save us.

Icelandic scientists, using data from 10,000 volunteers’ swabs find the coronavirus had three epicentres, one in Italy, one in Austria, and one from the football match at Anfield between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, attended by seven carriers, ironically on the same day that Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, March 11th.

While in Manchester scientists are trying to work out why coronavirus hits some harder than others. The curious phenomenon of the cytokine storm, where the virus has triggered a dangerously out of control immune response, and the patient suffers from the consequences of the overproduction of certain proteins, such as interferon and interleukin that themselves cause severe inflammation, tissue damage, even death.

Another observation is that countries with high BCG Tuberculosis vaccination rates have fewer coronavirus deaths. Some hold out hope that they might have found a potential game-changer. It isn’t so. It’s easy to confuse correlation with causality, especially when clutching at straws in trying to end a global pandemic.

The same is true for remdesivir, produced by Gilead. It raises hopes and the science behind the drug is impressive and intriguing. The drug is designed to interfere with the process SARS-CoV-2 uses to make copies of itself. The resulting copies of the virus lack their full RNA genome, so they can’t replicate themselves or infect other cells.

It came to light with treating Ebola and developments worked well in the laboratory, but not so well in the field, where it did not produce the survival benefits that two other drugs did, and it was dropped as a therapy.

Now remdesivir is back in laboratory in vitro trials, and there are hopes, as there are with Glaxo Smith Kline and Vir, aiming to take on Covid-19 with antibodies and CRISPR nucleic acid technology.

In the meantime, there is no hugely efficacious treatment in general use and so mechanical developments to get oxygen into the patient’s body remain critical, big names coming to the fore. Tesla shows off prototype ventilator made of electric car parts, while Xerox will mass produce cheap, disposable ‘ventilators, costing around $100, in partnership with Vortron.

Testing for Covid-19 still progresses slowly but it looks like police officers may be able to get tests to check if they have Covid-19 by the end of the month.

But there appears to be a lack of clarity about what testing should be setting out to achieve, not least the key difference between antigen test to see if someone is infected, and an antibody test, which can detect a previous Covid-19 infection. Antigen tests are much more useful, Antibody tests haven’t been regularly used due to uncertainties around their importance.

Nevertheless, millions of Covid-19 antibody tests ordered by the government are not usable. The tests, which were ordered from China can only detect the virus in people who were severely ill and the UK had decided not to order millions more from the retailer.

We’re reassured that antibody tests will be crucial in determining when to lift lockdowns.

In reality that doesn’t happen.

It goes something like this. Those who have got their heads around an issue and are quick on the uptake about what’s going on are not the same as those who make the decisions, who are much slower on the uptake about what’s going on. They in turn tell the rest of us that they are ‘following the science.’ It gives them extra credibility. But in fact, what they are doing is following a pick and mix of ideas that have in the first place come from scientists but don’t necessarily hold together with any meaningful coherence.

Which brings me to face masks. If you want a classic example of jumbled thinking and mixed messaging it’s face masks.

In the UK, citizens are being actively discouraged from wearing face masks. I started wearing a face mask about mid-March, especially if I had to go to a confined public space, like a supermarket. It seemed pretty logical that since everyone was wearing a mask in places like China, South Korea and Vietnam as a result of Covid-19 sooner or later it would happen over here, so better to start sooner rather than later. People in South East Asia had experienced other outbreaks in the past and there had to be a reason based on experience why they behaved in this way at such times.

I’ve had to go through a learning process about what masks exactly to wear. The first ones I got were slightly scary, more fitting to an ICU than the street, and it had a valve that I learned protected me, but not so much others from my exhaled air, should I become infected, and especially if I became an asymptomatic carrier. At the time of writing, I must have gone through at least half a dozen mask incarnations and I have learned a few things too from my sister Judith, who has been manufacturing and selling them to raise funds for her local hospice.

Under current advice in the UK, people have been discouraged from wearing masks on a day-to-day basis, with only those with symptoms or looking after someone with suspected Covid-19 urged to wear masks to cover their mouth and nose to prevent the spread of the virus.

“There is no evidence that general wearing of face masks by members of the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society.”

England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van Tam and Public Health England both currently maintain that there is little evidence of widespread benefit from wearing masks outside clinical settings, even if it was widely the case in other cases.

Maybe a stiff upper lip keeps the virus at bay!

In contrast, the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that Americans wear a face cover when they go out in public, for example when they visit a pharmacy or a grocery store. The CDC said the face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected, and goes alongside, rather than being a substitute for social distancing.

Which seems sensible….

Only the US President said he had no intention of following the advice himself, which goes on to create a culture war worthy of a chapter in Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ between Trump’s supporters, who overtly would not wear masks because they undermine personal freedom and the ‘American Way,’ and ‘woke lefties,’ succumbing to the will of the deep state. Even though they claimed they were protecting themselves and others from the spread of Covid-19, now fully established as a particularly deadly virus – at least for some.

 WHO, the World Health Organisation, is equally ambiguous. It currently advises that healthy people only need to wear masks when they are caring for someone diagnosed or suspected of being infected with Covid-19. Then they say this advice is currently under review. People should also wear a mask if they themselves are experiencing coronavirus symptoms such as coughing.

According to WHO:

  • those using a mask should cover their nose and mouth with it,
  • and make sure there are no gaps between the mask and the face.
  • they should also avoid touching the mask while it’s in use and thoroughly wash your hands after.
  • the mask should be replaced as soon as it is damp.
  • masks are only effective if combined with frequent hand-washing and when they’re used and disposed of properly.
  • people should also practice social-distancing, staying two metres apart from each other, even when wearing a mask.

The truth is experts seem to disagree when it comes to masks, which generates confusion amongst the public. In the British Medical Journal, researchers highlighted that the WHO’s own guidance was inconsistent as it was advising masks for hospital staff but not regular citizens. They wrote: “WHO is providing important leadership in the current pandemic. On mask wearing, however, its interim guidance seems to generate confusion and would benefit from urgent revisions that clarify these inconsistencies.”

And there is a mystery here. The origins of plague masks to prevent infection goes back to the seventeenth century and is credited to Charles de Lorme, personal physician to the House of Medici as well as the French court. His masks clearly served him well, despite having their characteristic raven’s face, beaked appearance and were adopted by plague doctors until the nineteenth century – not to mention present-day steam punk afficionados.

Recognisable masks became widespread in the Spanish Flu pandemic that started in 1918 and were universally used for surgical procedures from the early 1960s.

Masks have been around a long time, have been worn widely, especially in South East Asia, yet so little is known about their effectiveness that when there is a pandemic there is confusion and disarray, enough to lead to countless unnecessary and untimely deaths.

What is missing in the ‘masks are not necessary’ argument is the precautionary principle and a failure to assess the risk. If the worst-case scenario is death, then you should take big steps to mitigate the risk, even if the risk itself is small. When I paraglide, I always carry a reserve parachute – falling out of the sky could just finish me off. I have flown thousands of flights. I have never thrown it in an emergency. I don’t intend to.

I always carry a working reserve. That’s the precautionary principle. I wear a mask, wash my hands and socially distance for the same reason.

We get responses like Professor Susan Michie telling ITV:

“[Masks] do not protect against the virus getting into the eyes. Only close-fitting goggles do this. People may not fit the masks properly or take them on and off. Touching face masks and not taking them off in the correct way may mean people contaminate their hands and spread the virus. People may have a false sense of reassurance and thus pay less attention to other behaviours key to reducing transmission such as social distancing and hand-washing.”

I’m left wondering if all this weaving around the precautionary principle is to do with the fact that many NHS staff around the country are complaining about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) amid fears of a shortage in supply.

Maybe, like the Taiwan government, our government should tell us straight.

Facing the same problem of worldwide supply and demand, they rationed their masks.

Masks are clearly absent from this NHS advice to the public:

Ten tips to help you if you are worries about Covid-19:

  1. Stay connected with other people
  2. Talk about your worries
  3. Support and help others
  4. Feel prepared
  5. Look after your body
  6. Stick to the facts
  7. Stay on top of difficult feelings
  8. Do things you enjoy – invent new ways to do things, like hosting online pub quizzes and music concerts
  9. Focus on the present: relaxation techniques can also help some people deal with feelings of anxiety, or you could try a mindful breathing video.
  10. Look after your sleep.

While my local police station sends this message out on Nextdoor:

“Stay Home, Save Lives: Just a reminder that as warmer weather approaches let’s not forget to stick to the government website guidelines. As much as we desire to be out, please stay home – it really will help to save lives. Do not visit the parks and beaches, at this difficult time we ask [you] to remain sensible and continue to social distance, only travel when it’s essential. If you need the teams please don’t hesitate to drop us a line.”

Every country seems to be on its own journey of discovery. Finding out what works and what doesn’t, what can be emulated from elsewhere and what can’t along with the character and limitations. Three countries that have featured well recently have been Japan, South Korea and Austria.

Japan was one of the first countries outside of the original epicentre in neighbouring China to confirm a coronavirus infection and it has fared better than most, with about 3,650 reported cases as of Monday, a jump from less than 500 just a month ago and the lowest number in the G7 countries.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo draws close to declaring a state of emergency. Japan’s leader had hoped to avoid locking down against the virus. He also unveils massive Covid-19 stimulus, worth 20% of GDP and set a target of 70 per cent fewer commuter. The level of compliance from the Japanese people was high and even though working from home was a major social, emotional and psychological challenge in a country where work culture demands constant face-to-face interaction, partly to show respect, they managed.

South Korea is successfully tackling Covid-19 without shutting down the country by quick testing and contact tracing from the beginning, efficient development of testing centres and systems and a mobile phone alert system that unlike its British equivalent, yet to happen, both works and is trusted. Perhaps having experienced viral epidemics in the last two decades citizens see the app as being a survival aid rather than an intrusion into people’s personal privacy.

Austria led Europe into the freeze, having had its first two cases on the 25th February. It shut its borders pretty much immediately, went into a strict lockdown and enjoys a well-resourced health system with many more ventilators per head of population than most other countries. Austria has been methodical and systematic, and has now become the first European country to lay down plans for lifting the lockdown with phased steps starting on April 14th, making the final steps at the end of June.

Finally, an update from New York’s Bronx Zoo. Nadia, a four-year-old Malay tiger was tested for coronavirus on the 2nd April after developing a dry cough and a decreased appetite on 27th March. She caught the coronavirus from her asymptomatic zookeeper. Nadia’s sister Azul, two Amur tigers and three African lions also developed a dry cough and loss of appetite but have not been tested for Covid-19.

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