Thursday 16th April 2020

Daily Diary: Today I’m Feeling Like Jesse

Today, I feel like Jesse from ‘The Fast Show.’           

Today, I planted out the sweet pea plants that Emily bought from Sainsbury’s last week. I didn’t have any canes or even sticks, so I made my own from some scrap tongue and groove I had left over from doing the porch ceiling. One of the best tools I have ever bought was a Bosch jigsaw and there’s something very satisfying about cutting wood with it.

I learned how to do it off a couple of You Tube videos, then I built my ‘wigwams’ out of my cut sticks, tying the top with old paraglider line, which I have learned is the best string on the planet. It knots easily – too easily sometimes, especially out on the hill – and is ridiculously superpower-strong. You can even pick a favourite colour. Mine was an old stabilo line, yellow and a bit faded.

(A stabilo line manages the wingtips of a paraglider, especially when launching, so the canopy inflates without tucking in at the tips. You need your canopy to be as tidy and stable as possible before you launch.)

I had just enough Levington John Innes Number One potting compost.

There’s a warm front coming through, resulting in a dull leaden sky that threatens to rain, but in the end does little more than spit, so I get the job done.

I’m a bit behind myself, so today’s entry is brief.

The Bigger Picture: Global Problems

Everyone born after the end of the Second World War has been part of an increasingly globalised  world. A world in which first goods and then people could move freely. For those in the rich world it was an era of consumer dreams, where a morning coffee came from Colombia, an evening wine came from New Zealand and the strawberries for dessert were grown in Kenya. It was all too good to be true.

Then it turned out that a deadly virus, behaving in ways we didn’t fully understand, could also travel as freely as goods and people, and the whole world recoiled. Some say the pandemic has sounded the death knell for liberal globalisation. Some hail the rebirth of the nation state as the first step in a new era. It’s certainly the case that leaders are enjoying a short-term boost during the Covid-19 crisis.

Whether that short-term boost will last or not will depend on the count of their country’s body bags in the months ahead.

Some leaders realised that harsh fact of life (and death) early on, then set about controlling the virus, closing borders and taking measures to eliminate its spread. Examples are Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Shinzo Abe of Japan, Tsai Ing Wen of Taiwan and Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland. They will have the best paybacks.

Others, believing the problem of having to close borders then set about eliminating the virus from the population to be too great, set about doing the alternative – politicising and posturing, hoping they can ride the tiger before the next election. Examples are Donald Trump of America, Jair Bolsnaro of Brazil, Andres Manuel Lopez of Mexico and, until he met a virus on the ‘Road to Damascus,’ Boris Johnson of the UK. They are in the process of creating outcomes that will come back to haunt them.

Trump withdrawing funding from the World Health Organisation, as a punitive measure for being insufficiently hard on China, falls into that category. It is an act of ‘America First’ extreme nationalism and appeals to those instincts to rebuff globalisation and recreate the United States as a nation state.

But during a global pandemic it makes no sense. Even the head of America’s CDC distances himself from Trump’s WHO criticism, saying the agencies “continue to have a strong relationship.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says about Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw funding:

“Covid-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies. Neither do we. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat. A dangerous enemy. When we’re divided the virus exploits the cracks between us.”

Withdrawing funding does not only hinder dealing with the pandemic, but all the other diseases the WHO tries to control, even eradicate across the world. Already, Covid-19 is eroding the global fight against many other diseases. And in doing so the WHO, along with a number of NGOs, such as UNICEF, Water Aid and Action Against Poverty seek to keep people informed and safe, prevent the spread of Covid-19 (one in ten people globally don’t have anywhere to wash their hands) and try to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on livelihoods.

It’s a dangerous combination of denial and showmanship. Trump had started by saying the coronavirus crisis was a politicised hoax perpetrated by Democrats. But the virus could not be simply talked away. Now it’s gone on to deflecting the blame, first on China, then on the WHO for not being tough enough on them. He already declared at the end of February that like a miracle the pandemic will disappear and hectored that, with respect to the cost of the measures needed to deal with the pandemic, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease itself.”

There are similarities to climate change, about which Donald Trump has long been in denial, only the pandemic is moving what seems like a hundred times faster. In the Trumpian playbook it’s a hoax created by scientists, the Chinese are again responsible, it’ll change itself back again and that it amounts to a very expensive form of tax. Spot the parallels?

The climate activist and author Bill McKibben said you can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry, you can’t compromise with them or spin them away, and Covid-19 is teaching us precisely this lesson about biology as well.

“Reality is real and sometimes it bites pretty hard.”

The Republican pollster Neil Newhouse put it more bluntly:

“Denial is not likely to be a successful strategy for survival.”

The human activities that lead to climate change are also part of the problem. Deforestation continuously forces wildlife and humans to come forever closer, and with it, zoonosis, the means by which pathogens jump host species. It’s easy to think of it as being a tropical and subtropical problem, but it isn’t. As the planet warms, and there are now heatwaves in the Arctic circle, the permafrost is starting to thaw, and with it the possibility of zombie viruses and pathogens that have been on ice. Could the next pandemic come from there?

Burning fossil fuels not only exacerbates the damage Covid-19 can do, but the dirty air it makes leads to a host of deadly human diseases and disorders in its own right. Here are the major ones and they affect not just the lungs, but every body system. Here are the major diseases caused by air pollution:

Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodevelopmental disorders, coronary artery disease, heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, diminished fertility, premature births, low birth weight and poor infant health.

Clean air is not just a beautiful thing. It is necessary for our health.

In China 1.8 million died from air pollution in 2019, India 1.7 million and the United States over 60,000. In the UK that year, toxic air led to the premature deaths of at least 40,000 – 9,000 in London – and it has left hundreds of thousands more suffering serious long-term health problems.

The blue skies of lockdown have shown this is a choice of national lifestyle and the Committee on Climate Change are to push UK government to deliver a climate-resilient Covid-19 recovery.

What will actually happen remains to be seen.

The question is whether economies can recover at the same time as moving away from carbon energy. To date over half the world has asked the IMF for emergency funding.

In the United States Goldman Sachs predicts 37 million jobs will be lost by the end of May, while US retail sales have suffered the biggest plunge on record in March, dropping 8.7%, as the pandemic shuts stores and wallets.

However, Covid-19 social distancing saves the US $5 trillion, according to a Wyoming study. The economic benefits of lives saved substantially outweigh the value of the projected losses to the US economy.

And social distancing proves all the more important as research published in the medical journal Nature Medicine suggests people with Covid-19 were at their most infectious right when symptoms began, or even a few days before, presenting yet another hurdle for controlling the spread.

That makes Covid-19 such a frightening disease. Frightening enough that it has led to a sharp rise in the number of seriously ill people dying at home because they are reluctant to call for an ambulance. Dozens more people than usual are dying each day at home of cardiac arrest, some related to coronavirus, before ambulance crews can reach them.

Stories about ventilators still get a lot of news coverage, but the narrative is starting to change. Epic tales of automotive production lines and light engineering companies such as Dyson repurposing to manufacturing these life-saving machines, but the fact of the matter is that although it looks as though something is being done, in actuality it’s only part of a much bigger picture. In many cases it’s not access to ventilators that’s the issue, but everything else that goes with it, such as the availability of oxygen, along with in the US half of the medicines needed for Covid-19 patients who are placed on ventilators are being filled and shipped to hospital. Everyone going on to a ventilator needs a regime of sedatives, anaesthetics, painkillers, and muscle relaxants, which are now in short supply.

And the regime matters every bit as much as the machines themselves. It’s not like knocking out an aeroplane a day from a Northampton shoe factory for the war effort in the nineteen forties. The reality at the hard end of a pandemic is much more complex and involved than that. That’s bad for news stories.

Vaccinating is still some way off. It will be the cornerstone in finally ending the pandemic. Optum’s CEO Sir Andrew Witty, a heavyweight in the business, takes leave to assist the World Health Organization in developing a vaccine for COVID-19. But it’s early days. We don’t even know at this stage that a vaccine will work.

Something has to dominate the narrative and that’s now testing, tracing and isolating. 

It’s the only possible way at the moment, as Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, and Iceland have all shown that the coronavirus can be stopped. But many countries, including the US and UK are getting in on the act too late. Early testing, tracing and isolating is effective. Later on, the virus has embedded itself within the population and with asymptomatic transmission it’s all but impossible to control its spread by this method alone.

It has become obvious that scant testing is a barrier to reopening. Business leaders urge Trump to scale up Covid-19 testing.

NHS leaders warn that they will hold MPs to account over ‘false test promises.’ Just 11,700 people were tested in the last 24 hour period, but ministers say the UK is on track to meet an ambitious target by the end of April.

The UK has failed pretty badly on testing people for the virus so far. Time is running out to hit the government’s target, with ministers woefully off-course for delivering on pledges. A lot of faith is being placed in smartphone contact tracing apps. Part of it is a kind of naïve fascination with widgets and gadgets. I takes time for people to become healthily sceptical of pretty much any technology. That it won’t be perfect. That there may be unforeseen consequences to its use. I’m sure it dawned on the first citizen to inadvertently step in some horse poo in an ancient Sumerian street that there was a down side to equine transport.

So there’s a lot of excitement about all the imagined benefits and stories about how it has been central to South Korea’s success in controlling the virus, and there is a temptation to allow it to deflect away from the bigger system of testing, tracing and isolating. The one which has been established for years, that was used to track STDs and particularly HIV/AIDS. The grunt one, with boots on the ground and people putting in the hours. The one that the NHS and local authorities did so well for so long, but the government put out to private tender at great expense.

As it was, the significantly more compliant South Korean population, ninety per cent of whom have smartphones, readily accepted the obligation, surrendered their privacy and allowed themselves to be pestered up to a dozen times a day with text alerts, something even they are now finding wearisome. Even becoming a nuisance.

But somehow or other the idea is that somehow or other such app-based approaches will translate into more individualistic western cultures. But in collectivistic societies like India, China and South Korea, the desire for greater privacy is a lower threshold than what we have in Western countries, especially when there is an argument for greater public good.

“If I got the virus, I would provide my details to the government without hesitating,” a South Korean university student admitted.

“I don’t know if what South Korea did was right. It’s something I wouldn’t like,” an American professor declared, adding, “But then again, I am an American.”

How well the apps will work in the West remains to be seen.

On the biomedical science front things are looking increasingly promising as Abbott Labs rolling out Covid-19 antibody tests, fifty thousand a day. The first Covid-19 saliva testing site opens in US after emergency FDA authorisation. For the time being it’s still those horrid nose swabs as the cornerstone of testing, but it’s a promising development.

Increased testing starts the debate about immunity passports, but it’s still early days, with only testing providing evidence that travellers are ‘safe.’ The general consensus at the moment is that it is too soon, but it’s a debate that won’t go away, but it will take the arrival of vaccines to take it to the next level.

Finally, one of the key weaknesses of testing and tracing emerges as, fearing deportation, many immigrants are at a higher risk of Covid-19, are afraid to seek testing or care.

Nowhere are the weaknesses in testing, tracing and isolating more evident than in social care. Without it in any systematic sense the most vulnerable members of society and their carers are not protected. Caring is the Cinderella of our society and it’s as clear as daylight that no one in government particularly cares for it, despite it being one of PM Johnson’s earliest pledges. It was broken, but in fairness he has had a habit of breaking pledges.

Helen Whately, Care Minister admits, “We don’t have a figure” for care home worker deaths in a heated clash with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. “We know that also, some workers have died who work in social care, and I’ll be straight with you, we don’t have a figure for that.”

It’s not as if this is something new.

“Day after day we are losing people to this virus,” a care worker describes her situation. “Each shift is getting worse.”

There is also pressure to allow Care workers’ visas are extended, free of charge for one year, in line with the NHS. In a fortnight’s time the government will concede to do this.

In the meantime families get the right to say goodbye to loved ones in care homes and hospitals, subject to strict conditions. More testing was also announced for care home residents and employees.

But still, according to the British Medical Association, there are alarming reports from members across the UK about a lack of PPE in their workplaces. There are others in what has now become known as the front line in an even worse predicament when it comes to the risk of infection. Bus drivers ‘running out of patience’ with the lack of Covid-19 protection.

“I have personal sanitiser,” says one bus driver, “ but I am concerned for my wife, who is high risk because she is in remission from cancer.”

The coronavirus death toll among London’s bus drivers will turn out to be three times the national average.

The new reality is a very mixed bag:

  • Surprising: A humble virtual pub quiz for the locals at the Greenfield pub in a small town in Lancashire, closed because of lockdown, created a global community. By the day of the quiz, the Facebook event set up by 38-year-old Jay Flynn had more than half a million people ‘interested’, and more than 200,000 actually took part.
  • Creative: As culinary habits evolve from batch Bolognese to sag aloo pie and countless Brits are set to become much better cooks as a result of lockdown.
  • Exploitative: As price-gouging becomes part of our way of life. These are the spivs of the covid crisis.
  • Unifying: As over 100 more artists have been added to Global Citizen’s ‘One World Together at Home’ performathon lineup.
  • Educational: Schools outside London and Birmingham could reopen next month in lockdown easing, but as schools reopen in Denmark, concerned parents push back.
  • Inspirational: 99 year old Captain Tom Moore completes his final fundraising lap for the NHS as donations soar past £12 million. A petition appears to build a statue of Captain John Moore outside the Nightingale.
  • Disappointing: Despite the disproportionate number of medics and carers on the front line being from minority groups, and despite their paying a disproportionate price during the pandemic Mary Seacole is not being recognised in any of the Covid-19 hospitals in England and Wales. It contrasts with the many ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ appearing all over the country. Eventually this issue id=s addressed, but at present the omission is stark.
  • Memorable: A professional singer who claims to have contracted the coronavirus and survived, held an Easter concert for her neighbours in the courtyard of her apartment building in Paris. Adèle Belmont, who performs regularly at the Opéra National de Paris, said she wanted to thank her neighbours for all their support as she struggled with the illness.
  • Tragic: Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, who worked at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital for five years, died on Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Her baby was delivered successfully via an emergency caesarean operation.
  • Unforgiveable: A sixty year old key worker in Glasgow, delivering groceries, is threatened at knifepoint and robbed. All for some alcoholic drinks he had in the van.

Then there are those who simply aren’t taking the lockdown seriously. I read on my local Nextdoor.

“Walking each day I come across a party of about 30 people congregating at the area of Winn’s Common hidden by the wooded area near Bleak Hill Lane. Their cars were parked along Bleak Hill Lane. “Definitely not socially isolating.”

It’s hard to tell where this complacency has come from. It’s easy to blame the UK government, who allegedly at this moment have no exit plan for the lockdown. But such casual behaviour is not unique to Britain.

Issues facing the government at the moment include resuming the Brexit talks next week, pressure from the disability community who are fighting deadly discrimination, fears of homelessness as rents and mortgage payments go into arrears for many, and the call for a new digital Parliament will allow all MPs to give robust scrutiny of the government during this crisis.

As it is, the government is enjoying the free rein it has from being held to account. Along with an 80 seat majority and the Coronavirus Act in the pipeline this is the nearest the UK has come to autocratic rule in people’s lifetimes.

In Europe:

  • Power grabs are not unique to the United Kingdom. They appear in Europe too. First Hungary, now Poland.
  • With only 101 deaths in a country of around 11 million Greece has a much lower toll for Covid-19 than its fellow southern European nations, Italy and Spain, but also far fewer fatalities than Germany or Denmark. Britain’s death toll today stands at 13,729. Per capita it’s over twenty times greater.
  • Germany set to ease some lockdown measures, while German retailers say partial relaxation of Covid-19 rules confusing.
  • Belgium, a country that exports 90 per cent of its potatoes, finds itself with a 750,000 tonne surplus of spuds. The Belgian potato chief (yes, there is one!) appeals for the government to chip in. The politicians act true to form and encourage all Belgians to eat chips twice a week.

In America:

  • The sporadic and unpredictable Trump melodrama continue threatens to adjourn both chambers of Congress.
  • Medical intelligence warned of an impending pandemic in US in February.
  • Governors from both parties said that, while they were a long way from telling Americans to return to their normal lives, it was not too early to make plans.
  • Across the US shelters are closing their doors to stop the spread of Covid-19, leaving many runaway youths (from stressed homes during lockdown) nowhere to go.
  • US Navy says it may reinstate fired Captain Crozier to command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

And further afield:

  • China’s busy reopening its factories.
  • The Guangzhou McDonald’s has apologised after putting up a sign saying that African customers were no longer welcome. It comes as African visitors to the city, a major hub of Sino-African trade, have faced forced evictions and homelessness as rumours spread online that African travellers were spreading Covid-19.
  • Japan’s prime minister issues a state of emergency for the nation.
  • Latin America’s health systems brace for a battering. Despite recent improvement, the region’s health care is not ready.
  • In Australia all Ruby Princess crew are to be tested for Covid-19 within 48 hours.
  • New Zealand’s government announces its ministers, including the PM, Jacinda Ardern, will take a 20 per cent pay cut in solidarity with those facing financial pressures during lockdown.
  • Malawi: Dozens of hospital workers, including doctors, nurses and lab technicians have staged a sit-in at the QEH hospital capital Blantyre in protest at inadequate personal protection equipment.
  • Covid-19 is spreading rapidly to developing countries, such as Sierra Leone, where 54 per cent of the population live in poverty and health systems are weak. Or Uganda, where the government has introduced lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the disease, but in its overcrowded refugee camps people are running out of food and social distancing is near impossible.

Today’s ‘Bigger Picture’ ends with something that is local, national and global. It’s actually a notice on my local Nextdoor networking site, but sadly and worryingly it is as universal as the pandemic itself. I won’t elaborate ……

“Information and support on domestic abuse. If you’re at risk of domestic abuse, free and confidential support is available. Call the GDVA helpline on 020-8317-8273 (Mon-Fri 9,30 am to 8 pm). There’s also a free 24 hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808-2000-247. In an emergency always call 999.”

It’s not just the virus that’s sickening minds and harming bodies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s