Thursday 9th April 2020

Daily Diary: Getting That Feeling Dystopia’s Creeping Up On You

I get up late, having slept soundly, and that sets me up for a day that is running late and I know how much I still have to do! The diary has become an obligation and I’m too cussed and stubborn to drop it now.

Shortly after I get up, the doorbell rings and I go through the ritual:

  1. Rush downstairs in my dressing gown.
  2. Fiddle with the front door lock.
  3. Entering a sign language exchange with our postman. Neither of us is deaf.
  4. Pick up parcel …. carefully.
  5. Wipe parcel with methylated spirits
  6. Leave to stand, while washing hands for 20 seconds
  7. Open package
  8. Wash hands again

It’s some massage oil for Vicky’s shoulder. Hopefully it will do what it said on the label, ‘for muscle relief.’ We’ll see. Ironically it comes with a number of offer slips, including one which says, ‘30% off your first grocery shop’ for Ocado.

FFS! I’ve been trying to get through to Ocado for weeks!

Emily’s due today on her weekly mission of mercy for the oldies. We had a great chat on WhatsApp yesterday and she is so careful about avoiding infection. Every action has to be seen as a risk and you must do everything in your power to limit that risk. Protective clothing. Sterile techniques. These are not absolutes in what they promise, but you can cut risks to a near zero chance. It has to be assumed that everything outside has the potential to be deadly, and we have to act as if it is so. Even if 99 per cent survive a corona attack, the fact is one per cent is still a lot of people and if I was going on an airline flight with a one percent chance of crashing, I’d have second thoughts. An airline with a one per cent chance of crashing would soon be out of business!

I also get an understanding of halal and haram, of kosher and whatever non-kosher is, along with cleanliness being next to godliness. Coronavirus’ habitat is our bodies, particularly our respiratory systems. But its niche is human behaviour.

On that score there is the discussion about masks. They prevent the entry and departure of viruses to a degree, and it’s to a degree that really matters. It’s all about getting those risks as low as possible. If you’re an antelope, get into the middle of the herd. If you’re a blenny, get yourself into that crevice. No absolute guarantees. Just loading the dice, counting the cards.

So here we are, snug in our lockdown bubble, sticking to our personal regimes and learning how to bring in variations to break the monotony of it all. There is a viral video of Russian ballet dancers improvising in their kitchen, of a comedian singing,” A mugful of vodka helps the lockdown go down.” Video conferencing becomes a way of life and I might just ‘attend ‘my friend Phil’s video-presentation on cross-country techniques to the Dunstable Hang Gliding Club. Emily and Tom meet ‘for a drink’ with their friends on Zoom. The times they are a-changing.

The seeming safety of the lockdown itself comes under threat. First the dishwasher breaks down. Not just a ‘must rinse the filter’ or ‘clean the seal’ breakdown, but a real breakdown, where the programme has gone awry and then it won’t switch off with an ominous working pump sound when there shouldn’t be one. Now I’ve got to say that I really like the dishwasher. It’s a magic box that stops washing up from being a never ending chore to steal precious time. Getting an engineer at the moment would be haram, a risk, a danger, a chink in the armour. So we put it to bed – well at least unplug it – and try to alter our mindset to accommodate the therapeutic benefits of hands in a sink. It’s not so bad. It becomes engrained in the daily routine, and thank our lucky stars it wasn’t the washing machine, cooker or, God forbid, fridge. But you do get that slightly unsettling feeling that dystopia’s creeping up on you.

Then, in the internet wanderings that create this diary I get a malware attack. That was even worse than the dishwasher. It’s all systems go on the computer’s security systems, bells and whistles. It works. The machine is safe, but not before I have a bit of a panic attack at first.

It’s a bit like a crab has snuck into the blenny’s crevice and nipped its arse.

The Bigger Picture: A Fragile Good Will

It looks like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is continuing to improve in intensive care. The leader story for the day in most papers is how much longer the lockdown will last, but the Mail headlines:

As daily death toll soars to nearly 1,000 and virus batters economy, the grim prediction…


Then adds:


Two ‘domestic’ pictures show jolly royals Charles and Camilla and William and Kate.

And the Express reports that he’s sitting up in bed.

There’s something about the public mood at the moment that, despite having made so many mistakes at the outset, many are still behind the PM, and there has been a lot of sympathy with his personal journey though Covid-19.

Someone who claims she isn’t a fan of Boris Johnson claims he’s inspired confidence, has taken advice from experts and is respected by his ministers. He’s done a decent job of controlling the public without causing a full-on panic. If it had been Trump in charge she tells us she would have thrown herself off a roof by now.

There is relief within a shaky government. For much of the period of sickness the PR spin was that everything was under his control. That he was simply going into St Thomas Hospital for tests. There was only scant provision for a PM’s death or long term absence through illness. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was technically Number Two, but the reality is that all decisions are on ice. Ministers are not giving the same answer to the question, “When will the cabinet ease the lockdown” and the review has been pushed back. Health minister Vaughan Gethy has told BBC Breakfast that there is ‘zero prospect’ of the lockdown ending any time soon, and that people need to carry on for a while longer.

How the lockdown will be enforced is also unclear. There is talk of the police being days away from checking shopping trolleys and having roadside checks as lockdown rules are being flouted and ministers are under fresh pressure to shut down building sites over fears that construction workers could spread Covid-19. More than 50 MPs have signed a letter calling for more restrictive rules on building sites.

It’s all a bit muddy but for now, there is a fragile good will.

Some of that good will is being won by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as Britain makes a bold bet to protect jobs from Covid-19. It could cost £50 billion, but it matters in a world where one and a quarter billion workers are facing a major hit from Covid-19. Along with the job protection the Government also announces plans to release £750 million to charities helping people through the coronavirus crisis. By comparison with many other countries the move is decisive, thanks to the Bank of England financing UK government Covid-19 crisis spending. It has become the first central bank in the world to directly finance state spending during the coronavirus crisis, as the British government expands its ways and means account rather than borrow money from the market, with a view to boosting market stability.

It contrasts with the larger, more unwieldy and bureaucratic Eurozone. European finance ministers ponder coronabonds and once again, the Eurozone is consumed by rows over debt, with Italy’s prime minister warns that the coronavirus pandemic could break the EU. Brexit Britain needs that. It needs to demonstrate a certain agility as a state and it has been far from nimble in controlling the virus.

A sick prime minister has an upside to those who wish to cling on to power. Appealing to feeling is near the top of the list in the populist playbook.   

But it is limited. A key reason why it works so well in campaigning and so badly in governing.

It’s becoming evident in America where President Trump’s approval ratings have begun to slide. The president never grasped the devastating potential of a pandemic; certainly nowhere near the depth of engagement that key influencers like Bill and Melinda Gates had. Plans for developing cheaper ventilators and millions of reusable face masks were scrapped back in 2017, shortly after he took office. 

In what his government referred to as ‘streamlining’ he closed the Pandemic Preparedness Office in the White House National Security Council, made the Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDCs) less influential. They haven’t given a press briefing for over a month, even though at grassroots level they have been sending out teams of epidemiologists across the country. And removed an American representative from China’s CDC.

It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities to see the danger coming. Hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer foresaw it. In early February he warned employees of his Elliott Management hedge that they should prepare for a monthlong quarantine. By contrast, Trump was describing Covid-19 as being no worse than seasonal flu until the start of March.

When it came to dealing with the emerging crisis, it had to be done the Trump way, especially when it came to supply and distribution. The main source of imported medical supplies was China, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) operating as part of the Department of Homeland Security. When there were issues with quality a licencing system was introduced, creating another layer of bureaucracy or a trade in fake permits, depending on the scruples of the supplier and importer.

Getting supplies out to front lines across the United States was happening through private companies rather than the fed and it’s been a profitable time for a growing cohort of middle men and the grifter’s art of price-gouging. At a time when a country should be getting a grip on a direct threat to the biosecurity of the nation states are being encouraged to bid against each other and the federal government. It’s every state for itself, its ability to fight Covid-19 depending on how rich it is.

The competition extends all the way down to the hospitals.

“It’s a cage match,” one hospital describes the process.

Add to that Trump’s grace and favour approach, doling out scarce equipment to friendly governors. Playing politics with a dire situation that so much more demands statesmanship. Populism at its most raw. At its most toxic.

“If they don’t treat you right,” he told the White House Press Corps recently, referring to state governors. “I don’t call.”

The question we must all ask ourselves is would we treat a military threat in the same way?

Don’t answer, The question’s rhetorical.

Experts are not expected to contradict his decisions in public. Some do and end up at the receiving end of Trump’s verbal attacks, many on Twitter. Yet again he brings a family member, his son in law Jared Kushner, back from the Middle East where he has been generating high levels of PR about Israel’s relationships with Arab states in the Gulf, while side-stepping the Palestinians completely. It’s a story that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but it has little to do with Covid-19, so I’ll leave it there.

But never has there been a president so brazen about his nepotism. We’ve culturally adapted to (that doesn’t mean fully accepted) Mafia bosses acting this way, but running the world’s largest democracy? Again, I’ll leave the story there.

Finally, there’s all the noise. The obsession with the ‘great ratings’ of his press briefings. The rantings about China or the WHO, the debacle over a Covid-19 outbreak on an aircraft carrier, or his promotion of the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine, about which the US Poison Control Centres reports an increase in the drug’s misuse.

Covid-19 has infected a presidency and in time it will exact its toll.

Other news from America today:

More and more evidence is emerging for the consequences of people collecting in large groups. Called the cluster effect, social gatherings have become rocket fuel for superspreading Covid-19. Here are six examples from across the world:

  • An evangelical pray-in attended by over two thousand Christian worshippers from around the world in Mulhouse, France on February 18th. It triggered the biggest clusters in France and around 2,500 cases have since been linked to it as congregants took the illness home. Church officials said 17 members have died of complications linked to Covid-19
  • In Heinsberg, Germany, in mid-February, at least seven people pick up the virus at a 300 strong carnival party from one infected person and in turn create a regional epicentre for the disease. The district closes schools and kindergartens for a week.
  • A wealthy Vietnamese jet-setter who tested positive for coronavirus after a trip to Europe attended luxury catwalk shows at fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, is accused of bringing the virus back into Vietnam on a plane from Europe.
  • Leaked internal emails reveal that New Orleans city officials seriously and tragically underestimated the ability of Covid-19 to spread through a large gathering of people during the Mardi Gras carnival on February 25th. At the time of preparing for a possible outbreak there were only fifteen cases in the US and the virulence of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, hadn’t been fully grasped. Following Mardi Gras, New Orleans became one of the largest hot spots in the country and sowed the seeds of other outbreaks. By Monday, April 6th state officials had reported more than 10,500 coronavirus cases in Orleans Parish and the adjacent suburb of Jefferson Parish. Across the state, at least 840 residents infected with the coronavirus have died.
  • In Puglia, Italy the funeral of a man who had been infected with coronavirus became a hotspot.
  • Australia, Bondi Beach: At least 30 people became infected at a beach party the night before restrictions came into force. Many of the hundreds party goers are foreign backpackers crowding and flouting already existing restrictions. It results in the beach being closed to the public. 

Also in Australia, police are questioning crew members of the Ruby Princess after it dropped off without testing 2,600 passengers, despite widespread concerns over the outbreak on board and multiple previous outbreaks on cruise ships elsewhere. It was the country’s largest breach of biosecurity at its borders.

In Britain too, large gatherings and flouting restrictions are a problem. Deaths continue to climb – 928 in the last 24 hours – and the NHS under strain, with stories like Watford General Hospital turning away patients as its oxygen system reaches maximum capacity. Yet there have been 1,100 gatherings since March 25th, including over 500 house parties, of which 166 have been broken up by police.

There is a growing and unsettling awareness that ethnicity is a source of comorbidity with Covid-19 in both America and the UK.

In America two important pieces of coronavirus research came out yesterday. One showed that African Americans are getting infected and dying from Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates. The other finding is that countries with higher levels of pollution are seeing higher levels of coronavirus deaths than cleaner ones.

In Britain, research from the Intensive Care National Audit (ICNA) up to the beginning of April find that of nearly 2,000 critically ill patients, 33% were non-white. This was despite black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people accounting for only 13% of the population in Britain.

It’s also a disturbing reality that BAME citizens in both countries are significantly more likely to be living in more highly polluted neighbourhoods.

Vaccines are still a little way away. Time is so pressing and Covid-19 so virulent that there’s a call from Dr Richard Hutchett, head of the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) for pharma companies to start making Covid-19 vaccines before we know they work. Money up front from desperate governments in a £22 billion gamble.

With so many suffering from severe consequences of the disease the cost of medication comes to the forefront. The profit-based system of pharma within medicine is becoming increasingly questioned in the shadow of a major public health crisis, not just with respect to Covid-19 but for many widespread conditions, such as the cost of insulin for diabetes.

Roche partners with Arrakis Therapeutics to develop drugs that target RNA.

The search for an antiviral drug continues. There are three possible courses in which such a drug can act: to stop the virus entering the cell, to stop it replicating or to stop the immune system from going haywire. The journey to a Covid-specific medicine is every bit as long and tortuous as the quest for a vaccine. At best at the moment there is repurposing other medicines, the most promising being the corticosteroid dexamethasone.

In Britain ICUs find themselves running short of ventilators. Britain has ten thousand ventilators. Germany has 25-30 thousand. However, doctors say the machines are overused for Covid-19, especially with the invasive procedure of putting a patient on a ventilator, which can also involve an induced coma. There are concerns about the treatment itself causing harm to patients, especially the elderly. Many patients, including PM Johnson, recover equally as well on respirators supplying oxygen enriched air.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Covid-19 is silent transmission. Masks are becoming increasingly the physical manifestation of the pandemic, the very symbol of our New Reality. For some they come to represent state authority. It’s madness to do so, but it’s an understandable madness, especially in an era dominated by conspiracy theories.

The events of 9/11 led to surrendering privacy to enable security. It was inevitable. Terrorism brings fear to our everyday lives and society cannot function properly unless it feels safe to do so. But the surrendering of privacy in itself led to anxieties about a ‘deep state’ with dark intentions. In Britain government deceit about weapons of mass destruction sent a disturbing message that we lived in a country that was prepared to lie in order to put its servicemen and women in harm’s way. Other lies followed, not least in connection with the Brexit campaign.

So coronavirus entered societies, especially America and Britain where there was already distrust, both rational and irrational, but to large degree understandable. 

So when tech companies, governments and international agencies announce measures to help contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus the concerns are genuine, and where there are unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation and misinformation being tested around the world many worry. Especially when trust has been lost.

And when governments and their agencies turn to companies like Palantir Tech that are associated with security services and intelligence for surveillance some feel vindicated that it ‘dark choices’ have been made.

It’s only a small step then for conspiracy theorists to close the loop that incorporates masks, authority and trust in our institutions.

It will result in countless deaths yet to come.


  • Singapore coronavirus surge raises fears of post-lockdown breakouts. City state reports 142 new infections as other countries eye ways out of the lockdown amid economic fears.
  • While the world spends on Covid-19 bailouts, China holds back, instead embarking on drive to reopen its factories.
  • A Hong Kong holiday camp has been turned into a quarantine facility. Life in quarantine with its regimented meals, temperature checks and PPE-wearing staff, feels like an odd mix of being in school, at camp and in prison.
  • Citing the pandemic, Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire in the war in Yemen. Sadly It didn’t last long.
  • The pandemic has exposed fissures within religions. Across the world worshippers are suspending worshipping rites hitherto regarded as vital.

In my own neighbourhood there’s an appeal for donations to the local hospice and a warning from the police about antisocial behaviour.

Finally there is some advice about our own mental health through lockdown. To be ourselves. To accept what we are incapable of changing. That such an acceptance is an act of courage, and in being so empowers.

And to have faith in something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe something infinitely big.

To endure something so infinitesimally small. 

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