Wednesday 8th April 2020

Daily Diary: A Tooth And A Tsunami

There’s a beauty in the lime-green sprouting leaves on the trees on the common. It’s another pleasant spring day.

Vicky told me last night that she had a tooth beginning to play up. This was one of our fears. One of us would get toothache. Maybe even worse. At our age it seems that if a tooth goes wrong it is more likely to form an abscess, a scenario that could put either of us into hospital. There’s a chill feeling that the safety and security we’ve done our best to maintain could be broken by a single tooth.

We phone our local practice. There is a recorded message, saying the Government has given an instruction to stop all face-to-face dental treatment during the coronavirus crisis and to ring a mobile number for emergency dental advice during normal working hours, Monday to Friday. There is a feeling of abandonment.

They might as well say, “FFS tie your tooth to the door!”

Phil sends me a message on Twitter, saying he hopes we’re alright and if there’s anything he can do for us, let us know. Vicky and I are pretty touched by this. For Phil, it’s been full-on every shift. He’s a paramedic and is right there on the front line. I had been meaning to get in touch but after all the diary work, I hadn’t. I feel guilty and I say so in my reply. Life, he tells me, is frenetic and I can only imagine in the quiet stillness of our not so splendid isolation. I am a terrible procrastinator. I get things done, but only just, or when I get prompted by anxiety or guilt. I know I’m not alone on that score.

The one thing about keeping a diary, though, is that you cannot procrastinate. The outside news rolls in like an unceasing tsunami. At times I find it overwhelming. The TV news is the worst, because it chews everything over like a cow masticating the grunge from one of its stomachs: don’t ask me about the exact anatomical details – it never captured my interest at the best of times. Person X comments on it, then Person Y. Person X hasn’t a scoobie about what’s going on, but is a well-known figure the camera likes. Person Y may or may not be the same, but it goes on the same, with some vox pop thrown in for good measure. Eventually it drives you crazy, so you pour yourself a shot, take a toke, get some powder up your nose or swallow a happy pill or two, none of which is good for your already creaking mental health, and none of which I can recommend, although, being in confessional mode, there are weaker moments when a whisky on the rocks does reassure.

So you turn off the news and watch some mental bubblegum on Netflix instead.

Months of this ahead!

Ho hum! So it goes!

Postscript: Our dentist did call back, and we’re reminded about the wonders of penicillin.

The Bigger Picture: The Art Of Attention (Seeking)

It is ironic that yesterday was World Health Day. It passed largely unnoticed, drowned out by news surrounding the greatest pandemic in a century and there remain concerns about the poorest 900 million worldwide.

Perhaps the poorest on the planet haven’t mastered the art of attention-seeking.

Not so, when it comes to arguably the world’s most powerful human being (and he’s loving it), the President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.

The noise he generates never goes unnoticed.

Not least – and here’s another irony – that the US may withhold funding to the World Health Authority (WHO), on the basis that the organisation is far too ‘China-friendly.’ China-hating has become a cornerstone of Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric to stir up his base. They’re stealing good American jobs, he claims, don’t play fair and the fact that the pandemic started in China suits that narrative well. “The Chinaaaah virus,” he calls Covid-19, with a deep exhalation

Like so many sentiments that catch on there is some substance. China’s data does reveal a puzzling link between Covid-19 cases and political events and erratic infection numbers raise questions about the accuracy of the country’s statistics. Like the attempts the authorities made to silence whistle-blowing Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, who died of Covid-19 on 6th February and the way China’s leadership had already downplayed the severity of the virus, initially trying to keep it secret.

And it is the case that the WHO had trod gently in investigating the outbreak, by all appearances taking the word of the Chinese authorities at face value. But with the disrespect Trump had shown for international agencies, without those agencies, including the WHO, confident that they had America covering their backs, the world has in so many ways become broken into the domains of strongmen, leaving international agencies without any leverage to drive global issues.

Nevertheless, it suited Trump’s playbook to unite his base within by demonising the enemy beyond. And that’s precisely what he’s doing.

America first.

That maxim also comes into its own with Trump’s attempts to stop 3M exporting medical-grade masks to Canada and Latin America, saving them instead for the home market.

The company has traditionally exported about 6 million masks a month to Canada and Latin America, where 3M is a primary supplier. 3M objected to stopping those exports, adding it raises “significant humanitarian implications” and will backfire by causing other countries to retaliate against the US.

In response Trump tweeted that 3M “will have a big price to pay,” further threatening to use the Defence Act to stop the exports.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded Trump that essential health supplies and workers flow both ways across the border, and blocking exports of 3M masks would be a mistake.

“I think of the thousands of nurses who cross the bridge in Windsor to work in the Detroit medical system every day,” he said. “These are things American rely on.”

The company said, however, that it has been boosting production for the past two months and working with the Trump administration since last weekend to improve the supply of masks, raising U.S. production of N95 masks from 22 million in January to 35 million in March, with the entire increase being distributed in the United States. 3M said 10 million N95 masks that it produced in China will be shipped to the U.S. 3M have stepped up production and, in the end, Trump stepped down.

They had more than doubled production.

It was growing into a storm in a surgical mask. Trump stopped short of the row getting totally out of hand and he stepped down.

It’s a repeat of a recent row he had had with General Motors.  Just last week, Trump invoked the same 1950 law to force General Motors to build ventilators used to treat COVID-19 patients, accusing GM of not moving quickly enough to ramp up production, and of trying to overcharge the government.

GM said in response it had been working on ventilators for weeks.

Two days later, Trump praised GM, saying it was “doing a fantastic job.”

In another move the president removed Glenn Fine from his position as the acting inspector general at the Pentagon, effectively ousting him from his role as head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PARC), tasked with overseeing the implementation of the relief bill. Democrats in Congress, seeing it as the muting of a government watchdog and concerned about the potential for wasteful spending and funding that might benefit those close to the president, have insisted they will do what they can to conduct oversight of the trillions in spending.

That blurring of vested interests has long been an issue about Donald Trump. After all his sounding off about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19 it turns out he has a personal financial interest in Sanofi, the drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the drug’s brand name.

Then to make the final attention-seeking place in today’s news Trump announces special support for Boris Johnson’s doctors.

He’s been in touch with great advice, he adds.

While in America sickness and chaos continue, mostly without the attention it truly deserves and partly because of denial by the White House. A memo, dated 29th January, from Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, and the national Defence Production Act policy coordinator, warning, “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenceless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on US soil,” and that there could be a death toll of half a million citizens and trillions of dollars lost from the US economy, was leaked to New York Times. The memo went to the NSA and several offices within the administration. It is inconceivable that President Trump was unaware of it.

Steve Bannon, Former White House chief strategist, was clearly aware of it.

The “naivete, arrogance and ignorance” of White House advisers who disagreed with Navarro “put the country and the world in jeopardy,” Bannon said, adding, “In this Kafkaesque nightmare, nobody would pay attention to him or the facts.”

Trump denied ever seeing the memo, and subsequently Navarro was sidelined from the task force.

New York State reported 731 more deaths, the largest one-day increase. New York’s death toll tops 9/11 at the same time Wuhan ends its lockdown. It’s the starting point for China’s government to sell its authoritarian ideology that it can sort out the pandemic in the way that the freer – or more chaotic and unreliable western democracies cannot. It’s a story that will run and run, and fresh anxieties emerge in the West that a decline may have begun.

It’s not the only beginning of a troubled narrative. Stark statistics are coming to light only now and in piecemeal fashion, showing that African Americans are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. The virus is not even-handed. Is not fair. But it will emerge that the uneven handedness and unfairness will be a more human phenomenon that the virus exposes.

A third troubled narrative sprouting its first leaves is the impact of the coronavirus on voting. It deters many from voting in person in the Wisconsin elections, and the alternative, absentee, or postal, voting was being made more difficult and Republicans were aware that absentee voting significantly favours Democrats.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday night ruled that Wisconsin cannot accept absentee ballots postmarked after its voting day Tuesday.

It was a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the conservative justices sided with Republican state lawmakers by halting a lower court order to extend absentee voting to April 13, a measure that would have expanded options for avoiding in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The ruling was given just twelve hours before the polls opened.

It was not just the presidential primaries as well as referendums and elections for judges, mayors, village boards and—most significantly—a seat on the state’s Supreme Court.

The ruling favours Republican interests and continued attempts to invalidate absentee voting characterise 2020 elections well beyond Wisconsin’s state borders.

Meanwhile, another chapter in an ongoing saga of Captain Crozier, the captain of the corona-stricken aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, relieved of his command when the ship docked at Guam, now sitting in quarantine, infected with Covid-19.

The firing sent shock waves through the crew, which was made worse on Monday when acting Navy secretary Thomas B. Modly flew to the US naval base on Guam to berate the captain, saying he was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”

He also rebuked the crew for having cheered their captain as he left the ship.

With those actions, Modly turned what could have been a straightforward health matter into a political crisis.

Modly was acting along a chain of command, responding to Commander-in-Chief Trump’s initial reaction to Captain Crozier’s actions. His boss, Secretary of State for Defence, Mark Esper has carefully followed the administration line since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, including urging military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the virus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of Trump’s confident messaging on the growing health challenge.

But in the same spirit as the knights who followed the angry words of Henry II and murdered Thomas Becket, Modly went and fired the captain of a plague-stricken capital ship. With Trump’s initial blessing.

But when Mark Esper alerted his president to outrage across the military, with whom Trump had never enjoyed a good working relationship (calling combat casualties ‘suckers’ wasn’t forgotten) he started to have second thoughts.

“I may look into it,” the president told reporters, “from the standpoint that something should be resolved.”

Modly was fired.

In Britain politics is much quieter. At least at the moment:

It’s unsurprising that the fashion industry became an early victim of the coronavirus crisis, as it was so dependent on cheap production, workshops that were hard to covid-manage and its dependence on people getting together.

It’s more surprising, certainly at first, that coronavirus-related layoffs have hit health tech startups, but second consideration shows how much the health industry has been skewed.

And as businesses shut down, and many work from home around the world, electricity demand has dropped in Covid-19 hotspots. Some hope it will be an opportunity for renewables to establish themselves further.  

EU will raise more than 15 billion euros to fight Covid-19, Ursula von der Leyen promises, but it’s proving difficult for the EU to get its act together. Europe’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been “poor and uncoordinated, and now is the time for solidarity,” says Irish PM Leo Varadkar.

It’s bad enough for the EU’s chief scientist, Professor Ferrari, to resign over the disappointing and bureaucratic response of the EU to the coronavirus.

And while the richer countries of Europe tussle over how and where to support twenty seven countries the reality is that emerging countries with much weaker economies are also having lockdowns to contain Covid-19, only their economies are too small to provide handouts. Few emerging economy governments can avoid a general fiscal response. Few are able to offer them.

Even more desperate are the world’s refugee camps. A coronavirus disaster in waiting. Most are still free from the virus but desperately ill-equipped to withstand it.

The banks seem to date to have weathered the storm, although there is a long way to go before this pandemic will have run its course.

In some ways safeguarding actions after the 2007 banking crisis have left lenders in a stronger position than they were beforehand. On the other hand, it could well have been austerity measures that have meant health systems, not just in Britain, but elsewhere too, were in a lack of preparedness. “Previously, drills were carried out with a certain frequency to get ready for these events,” Professor Aguado of Alicante’s Miguel Hernández University explained. Adding,” This came to a halt because of the post-crisis years of austerity. Budget cuts were requested and money was saved in those areas that were thought to be non-essential. What’s happening could have been foreseen, but policies and decision-making went the other way.”

It’s an echo of a warning from software developer and philanthropist Bill Gates.

In 2015 he gave a Ted Talk in which, three years after the MERS outbreak, he warned that the world was not ready for a future pandemic. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus, rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Part of the reason for this is that we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, we have actually invested very little in the system to stop an epidemic. We are not ready for the next epidemic.”

The warnings of Gates and others went unheeded, especially when public health became a soft target for austerity cuts.

As for Bill Gates, he is currently spending billions to ‘save months’ on a coronavirus vaccine. To reduce the time taken, he announced he plans to fund factories to mass produce the seven most promising vaccine candidates now.

UK coronavirus deaths have risen to 6159 with a record 786 people dying in 24 hours. However, there are signs the trend is towards the curve flattening. France’s death toll tops ten thousand as Paris ramps up restrictions. In the US over eighteen thousand have died.

Referring to President Trump’s response to the pandemic in America STAT’s Matthew Herper makes clear a serious underlying problem:

“What’s missing is an appreciation of the value of data, and humanity’s mastery of it, as the one weapon we have against an out-of-control virus. (It’s) the desire to believe that you can force the world into being fixed without understanding it first.

The misinformation that has facilitated both Trump and his GOP and also Johnson and his Brexit Tories is now proving lethal. Some go as far as to say that the misinformation itself about an outbreak like Covid-19 is important health data.

And the leadership in both countries have both fed off it and been empowered by it.

So, no one quite knows what to believe.

It’s possible that the UK is beginning to flatten the coronavirus curve, says Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance. Just checked the data – it isn’t.

Some talk of the warmer weather bringing a decline in coronavirus. The WHO is clear that Covid-19 can be caught by individuals no matter how sunny, or hot the weather, and that it can be transmitted in all weathers, including hot and humid conditions.

Even as deaths mount, officials see signs that the pandemic’s toll may not match worst fears. Great! Which is a bit like the hospital joke:

The bad news: We’re really sorry, but we amputated the wrong leg first of all, so you’ve lost both of them.

The good news: The patient across the ward – the one who’s smiling and waving at you – is putting in an offer of twenty quid for your slippers.

On the upside, some of the bioscience news is really promising:

The science is now moving fast. We cross our fingers and hope that the virus won’t be faster.

As each day passes new little nuggets of news define what has become as ‘The New Reality’

Simple pleasures grow in their importance and fear of their loss all too real:

Outdoor time during the lockdown is crucial. Let’s learn to enjoy it together, apart. Draconian measures, like closing parks will transform our new routine from lazy to painful purgatory.

And finally, a warning from our local police.

Unfortunately, in these testing times some undesirables will be very much chancing their luck. Please be aware that there are scammers out there preying on people. Take a look at the link below to familiarise yourself with some of the things we are all up against and let’s combat this together. Stay Home, Save Lives and Stay Safe.

It’s shocking and sad that there are those who will exploit the misfortunes of others at such a hard time.

But it was true during the Blitz as well.

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