Saturday 11th April 2020

Daily Diary: Of Mouse And Man

You know you’ve been in lockdown too long when your high point of the day is discovering at long last how that pesky mouse is getting into the house. Coming downstairs I see the wee beastie scuttle across the room into the corner. I have a pair of trainers there and I’ve often wondered if the wee beastie uses them for cover. It hasn’t. It’s vanished. So I investigate and find out that where the central heating pipes rise from the floor there’s a hole. In humanworld it’s hard to see and easy to overlook, but in mouseworld it’s a wide open door.

Access denied! Hah! I have a plan to block it up in a non-mousechompable way. So far I have denied it access to the cupboard under the sink, stinking the house out with toxic fumes as I fibreglassed it off limits to all miniature mammals.

There’s another hole too that I have covered with a steel blanking plate. Chew your way through that, Montmorency!

I think the solution this time is to block it up with scrunched up foil, or perhaps iron wool, and put a centimetre’s depth of rapid-setting cement over it.

But I get the feeling that, despite the virtues of pest control, there is something mildly unhinged about triumphing over a mouse. We’ve tried pretty much everything, including traps with every mouse’s favourite bait. Allegedly. Including the distasteful business of laying poison bait. Rentokil did that for £200, then wanted to burn us out of £700 more to ‘proof’ the house. No way are we going to pay £700, but then again we don’t want to continue to be harassed by one or more small rodents.

The solution is to get a cat. The man from Rentokil told me that city mice have evolved to be ultra-cautious, as the bolder beasties having met their doom nibbling bait of one life-threatening sort or another. You can have the fanciest trap in the world – there is one that zaps them for £30 – but if they won’t taste the bait it’s a waste of time and money.

We decided to get a cat from the Battersea Home after we had returned from our European tour – to Annecy, Bavaria, Berlin, then Dordrecht in Holland. But of course, the tour is off for the time being. And we still don’t have a cat. When we did have cats we never had mice and the nice man from Rentokil said, coming to think of it, he had never been called to a house where there was one.

To make matters a little trickier, cats can catch Covid-19. A roaming cat could, at least in theory, bring it into the house. Zoonosis is a two-way street.

We think the mouse problem began with our next door neighbour Peggy sadly passing away recently in her late nineties. She missed the scourge of the coronavirus by a matter of days. Peggy had been invalided, bed-bound for many years, watching telly 24/7, a substantial part of which was the QVC shopping channel, but that’s another story.

After passing away, her daughter Claire set about clearing out the house and the Great Period of Peace and Serenity for housemice ended. Disrupted like refugees from a warzone, they fled, crossing borders between Victorian terraced houses in search of a new habitat, and not unlike the southernmost states in Europe we were the first port of call.

But mousies, the border’s closing! Begone on your journey to pastures new!

Outside it is balmy and warm. The sky is blue and free from clouds. A pleasant breeze blows. My phone tells me that the local temperature is twenty two degrees Celsius. It was forecast to rise to twenty six.

I’m going to attack the weeds with the strimmer after this. Today it’s me versus nature and I intend to win …… in a small, acceptably woke way of course.

Perhaps the one thing that’s niggled me most has been the government’s response to a petition I and forty six thousand others have signed, asking for the transition period to be extended. The response was somewhere on the spectrum between stupid wooden-headedness and dangerous lunacy. Even strident arch-Brexit journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, tweeted it was crazy to cut all our ties in the middle of a coronavirus crisis. Frankly, it’s suicidal.

The other observation has been the number of suggestions online about how to fill your lockdown hours. Exercise, baking, arts and crafts, making silly videos and all sorts of other creative hobbies and activities. But for me, this journal is keeping me more than busy.

I am aware that it might be quiet in here. Quiet enough for a mouse. But I’m still looking out at a world where there is a lot of stuff happening.

Outside, the common is strangely quiet.

Postscript: I’ve subsequently learned from trial and error that sprays that deter cats and dogs from scratching furniture also deter mice. Mice have a very keen sense of smell and are neophobic by nature, so a change in how something smells makes them suspicious and hesitant. But be prudent in its use and wear a mask when spraying, as such a spray can irritate human nostrils too.

The Bigger Picture: Six Breaths of Separation

There are over 1.5 million Covid-19 cases worldwide. Human civilisation has seen nothing like this before. It is the first event that has affected every nation on the planet, reached into every corner. There are, it’s widely maintained, no more than six degrees of separation. Some call it the six handshakes rule. You could equally say the coronavirus is no more than six breaths away from the most remote person from you on the planet.

Previous global catastrophes have been world wars, but huge tracts of the globe escaped the harm they caused. They were significantly partial. Covid-19 is total.

The damage the virus is causing is staggering. Its future damage even more so. The human population seen as a whole is not ready for it. A billion people live in slums worldwide. Half a billion more could be pushed into poverty, a UN report says, while the IMF warns that the economic hit from Covid-19 will be the worst since the Great Depression.

Each country’s economy is like the metabolism of an individual cell and failed economies all but synonymous with failed states. The sickness reaches way beyond individuals into the systems and mechanisms that keep civilisation turning. The world is sick. Richer countries become absorbed in their own problems as the greater movement of people within and between them spreads the viruses.

One breath.

Two breaths.


But it’s clear that in a global catastrophe the rich, sick as they might be, need to help out the poor, for the well-being of humanity as a whole. To preserve civilisation.

Failed economies are synonymous with failed states. Failed states are by nature corrupt. So what emergency financial relief packages go to countries need to have transparency and anti-corruption measures. Global rights groups have raised this alarm with the IMF executive board.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warns that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic may prove to be worse than its health impact and the UN Secretary General warns that the pandemic is threatening international peace, while the WHO warns of a ‘deadly resurgence’ if coronavirus controls are lifted too soon.

Pope Francis said he believes the pandemic is “certainly nature’s response” to humanity’s failure to respond to “partial catastrophes” wrought by human-induced climate change.

It’s more than that. Climate change has become common currency for describing human civilisation’s dysfunctional relationship with the biosphere.

Dr Fazlun Khalid, UN Advisor on environmental ethics, takes it a step further and hits the nail more squarely on the head:

“Scientists have long warned of the inevitability of a pandemic, due to our civilisation’s relentless encroachment on to natural ecosystems and wildlife, resulting in the repeated breaking of ecological boundaries.”

All too often, environmental destruction has been local affair. So the world might well have looked on and gasped in horror, but stayed as members of a global television audience looking in from the outside, but local actions thousands of miles away can impact in depth our everyday lives. While nothing happened we remained complacent. Even the Great Cassandras among us, like Greta Thunberg, are listened to by most in passing and with maybe a little fascination, before returning to the easy comfort and complacency millennia of human progress, if that is the right word, has created for us.

Who would have thought that an animal market in the Far East could well have set off a pandemic that would kill millions? Who would have considered the countless meat markets across the world were able to amplify a pandemic? And how do we set about co-ordinated global action over animal markets to help prevent the next one?

And what kind of post-pandemic world do we need to have to make that so?

What got me to start this project was the awareness that, despite the fact that I knew next to nothing about it, the pandemic would trigger paradigm shifts, and it would be an interesting exercise to not only compare ‘big history’ with the ordinariness, even banality of my everyday life as it became constrained by lockdown, but also to try to seek out what those paradigm shifts were, and how and when they might appear.

This early in lockdown images begin to appear about what kind of world will follow. Some suggest that our personal lives will be changed forever.

It’s hard to predict but there will be changes in our behaviour. Will there be long-lasting adaptations we make, like my parents’ generation did after the Second World War, like ‘waste not, want not’ and ‘mend and make do’? Will we develop the ultra-hygiene we’d associate with germophobes and sufferers of OCDs? Will our social and interpersonal behaviour become more distanced?

Already the parting words in phone calls, SMS and emails  are often, “Stay safe.”

Are they simply trends of the moment, or are these behaviours that will enter our culture defining our era?

For white-collar employees, remote working is likely to be here to stay, with all the knock on effects for office space, public transport and even the nature and economics of cities. There may well consequences for property investment and its importance as a reservoir of wealth. The consequences of online shopping range from the decline of the high street as a focus for retail, but maybe its re-emergence in a different form.

What the world will seek, post-pandemic, is stability, and in some respects it will succeed. There will be greater awareness of the massive devastation a pandemic can bring and how far and fast it can spread, along with care along our frontiers with the rest of nature, the human food chain, how we travel – immunity passports are likely to be a feature of all international air travel, and how well prepared our public health services happen to be. The pandemic is likely to affect the balance between the common good and self-interest towards the former.

We are, when all is said and done, all no more than six breaths away from each other.

If the pandemic has done anything, it has revealed how vulnerable humanity is. It’s been a long time coming. From when the early astronauts came back with photographs of a planet with the thinnest of skins of an atmosphere travelling through the hostile blackness of space we had a sense of fragility. The most recent witnesses of that thin blue skin on the International Space Station are, incidentally, preparing to return to a planet that wasn’t pandemic-stricken when they set out.

But for the vast majority of us, in the day to day, it was something we could put to the back of our minds. Not so with a pandemic. The virus is out there and any of us could catch it.

There is a feeling that once all of this is over all will be well. But it won’t. Other threats to global stability are out there, threatening to end the rise of civilisation and throw us all into a dystopian dark age.  

For a start there’s the relentless march of climate change. It’s believed that carbon dioxide emissions are likely to drop because of Covid-19, but there’s no evidence to suggest it will be enough. In the EU there are pressures from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to reboot their economies with coal. German politicians have been calling for industry to be shielded from too much environmental protection during the coronavirus crisis, even though most corporations are distancing themselves, having managed to turn carbon dioxide reduction into a competitive advantage a long time ago.

Multiply those interests across the world and you can see it’s a problem that’s far from having gone away.

Access to fresh water is another growing problem, along with the loss of biodiversity, soil depletion, the destruction of our oceans, our inability to efficiently manage our waste and many other impacts on the environment. Coupled with the problems we present to each other such as religious and political extremism, tides of migrants from the most afflicted parts of our world, and with that the frictions of xenophobia, and a volatile financial system driven as much by the erratic foibles of human behaviour as it is by material circumstances and needs.

In business there are both disasters and, for some, opportunities. Existing smaller companies are already much more vulnerable. A survey in the United States by an insurance company, along with the US Chamber of commerce found that over half of non-sole proprietor companies with less than 500 employees had either closed already, or were expected to close in the coming weeks. If a government supports too few there is the catastrophe of the heart a country’s economy being torn out. Support to too great an extent and you get a zombie economy. The big will survive, like large mammals surviving severe winters, but they too will change.

The global supply chain has also evolved into becoming a Chinese supply chain and other countries’ dependence on China, having outsourced production there, has made them starkly vulnerable, as is the case with PPE. The move has already started to seek other supply chains independent of Beijing. In some cases, returning production locally.

Getting medics protective gear is a “Herculean effort,” Hancock admits.

And with it a realisation that getting something cheaper means something very different from something costing less. A realisation of where we had sleep-walked for decades, and in that realisation comes a paradigm shift that global business will never be the same again in a parallel way to the impact of tech on the workplace – users of Zoom have grown from 10 million to 200 million almost overnight – and the shrinking need for premises.

From all of this come ideas about how economies will change after the watershed of the Covid-19 pandemic ends, as is the case with all other plagues throughout history it will do so. Plagues like the Black Death in the middle ages also changed economic systems. One such idea, gaining traction and being adopted by the Dutch city of Amsterdam is based on the Oxford University economist, Kate Raworth, called the doughnut model. It starts on the inner ring with a commitment to meet citizen’s needs to lead a good life – food, clean water, sanitation, affordable housing, energy, education, healthcare, income and societal freedoms. It is bounded on the outer ring with the boundaries we must not cross to avoid environmental degradation.

Between the two are all the activities that humans enjoy, where human and planetary needs are being met.

Not only are we capable of imagining futures but we are already to test those imaginings. What matters is Covid-19 has stopped us sleepwalking because we’ve been forced to stop doing things the same old way.

Back in the present the pandemic rolls on relentlessly.

We’re in the thick of it, nearing the peak at 5233 cases and 917 deaths over the past 24 hours in the UK.  The Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan van Tam tries to make something positive out of the continuing bad news by saying Covid-19 curve “beginning to bend” as UK’s hard work “pays off.” It’s partly true, but it’s more to reassure those who think the nightmare has no end to it.

And Covid has that ability to dash hopes and breed uncertainties. In South Korea dozens of recovered coronavirus patients test positive again. No one quite knows why and it’s a blow to immunity hopes. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where hopes were that the two year Ebola outbreak was over, a new case appears, reminding us of the persistence deadly viruses can have.

It’s not “a little flu,” as Brazil’s leader Jair Bolsonaro would have it as he shrugs off Covid-19 and flouts distancing rules, while a teenager from an indigenous tribe had died after contracting Covid-19 , raising fears about the spread of the virus in protected lands.

Nor is it, as BBC presenter, Emily Maitliss, declared a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone – rich or poor – suffers the same

“You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us,” she said as she opened Wednesday Newsnight show.

“This is a myth which needs debunking. Those on the front line right now – bus drivers and shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shop keepers – are disproportionately the lowest paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed.”

“Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lockdown a lot tougher. Those who work in manual jobs will be unable to work from home.”

Low wages are often accompanied by the kind of work most would not want to do. A poultry worker’s death illustrates this as coronavirus spreads in meat plants.

There’s a huge cognitive dissonance when it comes to the stark fact that the better-off, the keyboard bashers of society are utterly dependent on those who have no choice but confront the dangers of a pandemic to pay the rent and feed the cat. It comes out at moments like when the US Surgeon General exhorts the BAME community to stay at home moments after admitting that their jobs don’t enable them to.

“Do it for your big momma,” he says, paying lip service, and nothing more.

Those even worse off are faced with even starker realities. In the biggest outbreak at a homeless shelter in California to date, San Francisco’s mayor announced on Friday that 70 people have tested positive for Covid-19, creating anger those who had sought more aggressive action to protect the homeless.

As Americans record their deadliest day from the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first country to reach 2,000 deaths in 24 hours, as the number of infections reaches half a million, President Trump says about nationwide testing being necessary to reopen the country, “I don’t think it’s needed.”

It causes a rapid loss of faith in his handling of the outbreak, while Democrats scramble to turn the 2020 election into a referendum on Trump’s Covid-19 response.

The White House has put its faith in a model put forward by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) at the University of Washington, that predicts there will be zero deaths by June 14th and it seems that it’s been treated as a prediction by Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s magical thinking. So why test? Why do anything to curtail liberty? The virus will go away all of its own accord.

Dr Anthony Fauci knows that can’t be true:

“You need to make sure it doesn’t resurge and that will require the ability to test, to identify, to isolate and to do contact tracing,” he said in Saturday’s White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference.  

But Trump thinks he knows better.

And what Trump thinks, he believes.

There will be a total of 115,586 deaths by June 14th. But that lies in the future. Variety Magazine predicted that Rock ‘n Roll would be gone by June way back in 1955. It was just as wrong, only less grisly.

In the meantime the virus wreaks havoc:

But there are some signs of progress. Governor Cuomo says there’s been “dramatic decline” in the rate of New York hospitalisations.

Some insights too.

Treating severe Covid-19 still remains in what will be looked back at as in the early stages. There are many stories of resourceful light engineering companies and laboratories improvising ventilators. In California ventilators are being fashioned from diving gear and plumbing supplies. Ventilators from the set of BBC drama ‘Holby City’ have been donated to the new NHS Nightingale Hospital in London. There’s a ‘mend and make-do’ spirit. Some recall wartime years, whether they’ve lived them or heard them from their parents and grandparents.

What can broadly be described as medicines are still limited. There is no Covid-19 specific medication; only age-old practices like plasma therapy that had been used in treating the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago and repurposed drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir, neither of which were ideal, both of which had harmful side-effects. Hydroxychloroquine will be later abandoned, but current choices are desperate ones and recovery is much more about nursing care and good luck than it is to do with medication,

History will mark and enter into our collective memory not only the progress of a disease throughout the world’s population, nor humanity’s eventual response to it, with all its twists and turns but also how people come to understand it. Some, like Vietnam, Taiwan and Rwanda came to understand it from recent experience of other epidemics. Others, like New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and Cyprus had observed the current and past experience and actions of others, for good or ill. Others yet again, like Britain, the United States and Brazil had neither learned from their own experience nor that of others. The virus gets a hold quickly and the response has to be hard and fast. Nothing less will do.

Britain’s coronavirus history to date is a sorry example of what happens when that doesn’t happen. The first meeting of a number of expert advisers on respiratory diseases was on the 13th January. The story of a highly infectious SARS had leaked out on to the internet, first within China, then within hours globally two weeks previously on 30th December. Chinese authorities, now the cat was out of the bag, confirmed it a day later. SARS was well understood to have pandemic potential from the 2004 outbreak and Britain’s global interconnectedness, particularly in terms of being an airline hub, had been long  known, if only that the airspace around South East England is among the busiest in the world, something that has given me headaches as a paraglider pilot on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, they were united in their belief that the risk to Britain from the “novel coronavirus” appearing in Wuhan was “very low”.

There had been just one reported death, but it was equally well known from the previous outbreak that China had form for cover ups and misinformation. There was a political mindset of pre-Brexit boosterism and no such thing as negative news. The climate was not right for any precautionary principle applying here.

A week later it was upgraded to “low.”

Wuhan was locked down on 23rd January. The UK’s first confirmed cases came on 31 January, both in York, the same day a planeload of Britons flew home from Wuhan and were placed in a two-week quarantine in Merseyside. The NHS declared a Level 4 critical emergency.

The experts continued to meet regularly. Outbreaks of coronavirus started appearing elsewhere – in Iran, Italy and on cruise ships. Estimates that, if unchecked, the virus could infect 45 million people and lead to 500,000 deaths. Medics and scientists knew trouble was on its way and the UK started setting up clinical trials for possible Covid-19 treatments, as well as developing tests to track the spread of the illness around the country.

Boris Johnson missed five Cobra emergency meetings about Covid-19, finally attending on March 2nd. Four days later the first Brit dies of Covid-19.

Still, not enough gets done. MPs still pack in to the Commons, restaurants, bars, schools remain open and football matches and the Cheltenham races continue to take place. The contrast between the UK’s response and that elsewhere grew ever more stark.

At that point, the only official advice on offer to the vast majority of Britons, except those who had already fallen ill, was to wash their hands for 20 seconds. Other countries were already taking much more dramatic measures. They had banned mass gatherings, shut down restaurants and bars, closed schools and cancelled events such as football matches.

There were two definite examples of cognitive dissonance.

The first can be illustrated by a scientific pre-print from Professor Tom Pike of Imperial College, London simply extrapolated what had happened in China to other countries populations and assumed that the UK could expect 7,000 deaths, as if policy decisions and human behaviour had nothing to do with it. The BBC reported it widely.

The second was a failure to grasp non-linear growth – that consequences accelerate as time passes. 

We were set up to learn the hard way.

Lockdown came late, on March 23rd.

Boris Johnson, incapacitated, arguably, by his own carelessness and complacency, is taken into hospital shortly afterwards. He’s now out of intensive care and is reported as having taken short walks, played computer games and watched movies as he starts on the road to recovery. It’s an echo of Lloyd George’s Spanish Flu experience just over a century ago. Both were 55. Both infected, went through a period of ‘touch and go’ then recovered.

Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, escaped the Spanish flu completely, but had some very strange ideas about it.

“Man is a gregarious animal,” he wrote in ‘Their Finest Hour’ in 1949, “and apparently the mischievous microbes he exhales fight and neutralise each other. They go out and devour each other, and Man walks off unharmed. If this is not scientifically correct, it ought to be.”

Perhaps there is an echo there too.

It seems though that Johnson’s carelessness and complacency is infectious too as Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, someone who has been instructing the public to stay at home is caught out travelling forty miles, despite travel restrictions, to visit his mother and father, aged 69 and 79 respectively. He claims he is delivering essentials, including food and medicine and that he’s been maintaining social distancing.

Not everyone’s convinced and that begins to sow the seeds of mistrust and cynicism among many.

It comes in the light of a tightening lockdown as we enter the Easter holiday with a spring heatwave reaching 26 degrees Celsius.

“We have to take the pain now,” says Professor Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy CMO, adding “Signs that UK lockdown are beginning to pay off,” although it’s hard to see that from the data, which shows the UK is far from being out of the woods and the government is being less than candid about where the edge of the woods is or how long it’s likely to take us to get there. The devolved governments in Scotland and Wales are at least trying to be clearer and over time that will generate a view that they know what they are doing more than Westminster does.

Lift lockdown too soon and, as projections have indicated in the US, all you’ll get in thanks is a fresh spike of cases and deaths in the summer.

The police are doing their best. They don’t get the same plaudits as NHS workers but they have to enforce the rules without going over the top about them. They’re the ones making sure that people stay at home and don’t make unnecessary journeys, including to second homes. That the guidelines aren’t optional.

A policewoman gets bitten on the arm while explaining Covid-19 lockdown rules.

Also largely unsung are the care home workers. Alex Crawford, reporting for Sky sums it up:

“What’s happening in UK care homes right now is a scandal our grandchildren will ask about.”

More stories piece together within the wider narrative:

But finishing on a more positive note from my local Nextdoor group:

“Well done Wickham Street!” for Thursday’s pots and pans and cheering.

Even though in our street only one other person came out.

But she banged that pan for twenty!

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