Day Thirty Three: Friday 17th April 2020

Daily Diary: Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

‘Em Deliveries’ arriving at our doorstep has become a weekly highlight. Always around five thirty in the afternoon, and along with the topping up of supplies comes the weekly banter. There’s something about a face to face chat that goes beyond seeing each other on a screen. They are like two forms of reality. I remember talking with my students about comparing the real experience of free-flying with a computer game. It’s not simply about not being able to press reset in the real world where it is so easy in a virtual one, it’s that real experience has a totality about it. We are so immersed in it. We cannot escape from it. So Emily, the other side of our front garden wall, wearing her mask, along with a pair of Marigold gloves is still somehow more real than talking close face on a WhatsApp video call.

So here’s the scene. Vicky’s sitting on the outside sill to our living room window. Emily is in the street next to our family car. In the background, the other side of a narrow, fairly sleepy street (by London standards) is the common with people moving to and fro, singly or in pairs. Occasionally, a small family group. Every time there’s a passer-by Emily takes a step back. Some say sorry, others thank you. Vicky calls out to passer-by, “Hi there! How are you doing?” And passers-by would respond somewhere on the spectrum between open friendliness with strangers and awkward embarrassment, but all give a reply. I smile and nod.

Emily’s had a busy day. An early start with Tom being run to Tunbridge Wells Station to take the train ‘up-town,’ where a whole load of stuff faces him about the crisis. We don’t ask him, partly out of respect, partly because it would be totally inappropriate to do so, and partly because we represent a different room in his reality, and we all need to move to our different rooms from time to time. Then she goes to her local Sainsbury’s. She has consolidated the three shopping lists – for herself and Tom, for Mitzi, and for us – into a mega-list to make the task so much more efficient. There’s a half-hour wait outside the store as shoppers are marshalled in one at a time.

Emily reassures us that the trip around the shop is not onerous. The shelves are mostly stocked, maybe not with the exact product, but it is invariably something close.

“I’m used to it,” Emily tells us. “I call it Montserrat-Plus, because, although a little limited here and there, it’s so much easier than shopping for groceries in Montserrat. So I count my blessings.”

Metzi still can’t get her exact tipple of choice – a dry Vermouth, which seems to have left the shelves. Whisky, on the other hand, has been less of a challenge and she has been consistently successful in supplying us with Famous Grouse.

The checkout has its own procedure too. A masked member of staff at the till, protected by a Perspex screen. The customer has to feed the conveyor from one end, then collect it from the other, with a lot more stretch for the card reader.

Vicky and I have been spared all this and are grateful. There is still, however, the feeling of being dependent – those boomers yet again being fed like cuckoos by younger generations in an upside-down metaphor. It is a growing theme I’m reading about – how will the old pay the young back when all of this is over? There are right wingers in the States who are saying the old should do ‘their bit’ by being allowed to be the sacrifice so that the young can work. Gerontocide ….. or is it geriacide? But perhaps it goes beyond that – have we reached the point as a human society that we have to question the virtue of work at all, bearing in mind that millions of us will be replaced by AI in the decades ahead. Perhaps this is the chance we have to make a paradigm shift that is both inevitable and inescapable.

Our chat over the garden wall continues. For Em and Tom Friday night has become Zoom Night, where their social network, built up through Montserrat and Moscow and now scattered to the four corners of the globe get together. Vicky and I are intrigued. It may be something we can look into. Maybe I could hold a virtual club meeting in the months ahead this way. They play Zoom charades and it all sounds like a lot of fun.

Last weekend Em and Tom decided to have a night out indoors. They set up a bar in the attic-room, Soca Cabana style, after the beach bar near Brades on Montserrat. They sprinkled sea shells on the floor and consumed rum punches before moving on to the restaurant. Since Tom had been the barman, so Em became the waiter – she even fashioned a moustache for the part – alternating between waiter and customer by donning and removing the tache. A restaurant clip on You Tube generates the ambient chatter of the venue.

Needless to say, both Vicky and I are envious of all this creativity, but being the old farts we are we end up binge-watching Netflix.

Outside it is raining heavily. The droplets are making the sweet peas dance.

I’m sure they are.


The Bigger Picture: Let’s Resist Like It’s 1776 – And Forget About Collective Selective Memory

It‘s an extreme irony that those who declare their First Amendment right to hold and spread antivax views that the particular brand of Democracy that has made it possible would not have come into being were it not for George Washington’s success against his first great adversary – a virus. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1776 smallpox infection rates raged at 20 per cent. Across the colonies authorities had banned the practice of variolation, the predecessor of vaccination, in which people were intentionally infected with a mild case of smallpox to protect against a more serious and deadly form of the disease.   

Smallpox ran through the population unchecked until following Washington’s order the lawmakers of the Continental Congress repealed those bans. Infection rates dropped to just one per cent. It was the first piece of American public health legislation, and having won the war against smallpox it was then possible to win against Britain and establish itself as a new nation, with its own constitution and much cherished freedoms and rights.

Now a new epidemic paradoxically is bringing Americans together, but in doing so begins to polarise them into two camps.

Sometimes, the bringing together creates a sense of common purpose in, if not defeating the virus, then certainly keeping it at bay. Face masks have become the ‘new normal’ for New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania on governors’ orders and Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths in New York drop for the third day in a row.

At other times, the bringing together becomes more about the First Amendment itself and the fear of its loss, however irrational:

“Resist like it’s 1776,” has an irony that rings as loudly as the Liberty Bell itself.

If only they knew!

President Trump, disrupter-in-chief, has far from helped matters when he’s told governors that states could begin allowing public activities before May 1st.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” he tells them, knowing that the pro and anti-lockdown supporters are split down party lines.

It is a very brave Republican governor who’s going to enforce controls, and securing votes has rarely anything to do with bravery.

Some professing patriotism are prepared to limit Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to the under-70s. Texas Lieutenant Governor Don Patrick voices it loud and clear when he says, “America’s elderly should be more willing to put their lives on the line to keep the economy going for the young.”


That’s more irony ringing louder than Sweet Liberty herself.

“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

I don’t see anything to do about an upper age limit in the small print.

The $2 trillion relief package that Congress passed at the end of March was the largest in American history. Turns out it also wasn’t enough. More than 5.2 million US workers filed for unemployment last week, pushing the four week total to a staggering 22 million.

Meanwhile, Netflix shares hit a record high as its valuation overtakes Disney.

The vulnerability that comes with balancing freedom of speech and the eternal potential for anarchy that comes with it against the systems and controls needed to control a pandemic is for all to see and it brings to the fore what kind of regimes people should be living under. Strongmen leaders see the need for control as an opportunity to consolidate power. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro  Jair Bolsonaro fires his popular health minister who was calling for stricter Covid-19 precautions. He will go on to fir two more in the coming twelve months.

Although the WHO does have a problem with China, the fact of the matter, as Josh Rogin of the Washington Post points out, the WHO has a dictator problem, and in a Trumpian world autocrats have become emboldened.

Control the country and you control the narrative. Emmanuel Macron is right to question China’s handling of the Covid-19. Things have happened in China we don’t know about. China adds nearly 1,300 deaths to official Wuhan toll, blaming reporting delays. China only admitted there was a problem in the first place when the powers that be in Beijing came to learn the news of a Covid-19 outbreak had leaked through the biomedical community to Taiwan, and from there, via New York, to the rest of the world.

Freedom of speech, the authorities project, kills people. It creates disorder. So accept that China might have had a problem, but in a well-managed society, the best of all possible Panglossian worlds, it is resolved so much more easily than in the overindulged West.

It matters, because these are two alternative ways of how people should be living in the near future and they are as immiscible as oil and water. And the scene of the pandemic is the battlefield upon which this contest will be played.

So China is selective in its messaging. It plays hardball with its rival the US, using export restrictions reportedly delaying medical shipments, while at the same time driving a propaganda campaign, as it hands out medical equipment to other countries, making sure the cameras see it.

And the rivalry is both deadly and for real.

It matters existentially on an island nation off the North West coast of Europe as the UK is forecast to become one of the three countries with the worst covid death toll in the coming days. It’s a pandemic that’s getting the better of us and there are still the following questions to be asked:

At the moment it’s still early days. We don’t even have a handle on the most basic statistic – how many have died from Covid-19 as official Covid-19 death tolls still undercount the true number of fatalities.

We’re still very much in the dark.

Getting some understanding of the scale of the pandemic at least would help, but the UK, with the capacity for 35,000 tests a day is carrying out barely half. It’s a symptom of a much bigger muddle. Another is that the UK paid two Chinese companies $20 million for two million new covid tests that didn’t work. An overpriced, unproven, cash up front, take it or leave it, collect it yourself deal. British taxpayers were as much mugged off as Andre Poisson was when he was scammed into buying the Eiffel Tower in 1920. In less than a year’s time the Brits would be congratulating themselves over another gamble that paid off  – the vaccine programme. We’d be wise to remember that there were a number that didn’t in a climate where we had a gambler for a PM, were in dire straits and the desperation British officials felt as public pressure has mounted over the slow response to the virus.

It’s part of a bigger picture which includes fraudsters taking advantage of the pandemic to scam authorities. It’s an international problem, Interpol have warned.

By contrast, plans are afoot for self-testing kits to be delivered in the UK by Amazon.

Things don’t seem to quite join up, it seems.

In the meantime it’s lockdown.

Britain should brace for a year of lockdown restrictions, because a vaccine could be the only way to end social distancing, experts warn. At the very least it will be extended for three weeks in the UK. Social distancing, working from home, business closures and isolation  will continue into May, Dominic Raab announces.

There is now a Police lockdown checklist of valid excuses, issued by the National Police Chief’s Council and College of Policing (NPCC). It comes after more than 3,200 fines were handed out to people considered to be flouting the rules in England between March 27th and April 13th.

It itemises what citizens can and cannot do. To be fair, it is meant to help and bring clarity – challenging people about whether they are breaking lockdown rules has been a catalogue of muddy episodes. However, Brits have not experienced restrictions like this since the Second World War and there are those across the political spectrum, whether from a libertarian or civil liberties position, who are deeply perturbed by this development.

So here is the list of dos and don’ts:

Shopping – what you can do:

  • Buy several days’ worth of food, including luxury items and alcohol.
  • Buy a small amount of a staple item or necessity, e.g. a newspaper, pet food, loaf of bread, pint of milk.
  • Collect surplus basic food items for a friend
  • Buy tools and supplies to repair a fence panel damaged by bad weather.

Shopping – what you can’t do:

Police say it is not reasonable to pop out for DIY supplies so you can do up your kitchen, for example.

Exercise – what is allowed:

  • Going for a run or a cycle, practising yoga, walking in the countryside, or in cities attending an allotment.
  • Driving to the countryside and walking (where more time is spent walking than driving).
  • Stopping to rest or eat lunch on a long walk.
  • In some circumstances, exercising more than once a day.

Exercise – what isn’t allowed:

Police say exercise must involve some movement.

Work – what you can do:

  • Key workers, or other essential workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.
  • Some non-key workers or non-essential key workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.
  • Deliver food packages to vulnerable people.

Key workers, or other essential workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.

The government has clarified who counts as a key worker and is allowed to travel to work ofr bring their children to school during the day.

However, some non-key workers have been allowed to travel if they are unable to work from home or if their employer requires them to come in.

The guidelines also state that you cannot work from local gardens or parks while working from home.

Other reasons to leave home – what you can do:

  • Go to the vet for essential treatment
  • Move to a friend’s address for several days to allow a “cooling off” following arguments at home.
  • Provide support to vulnerable people.

What you cannot do:

  • Visit a vet’s surgery in person to renew a prescription, where this can be done over the phone.
  • Visiting a friend at their address or meeting in person to socialise.

The rules only set markers for the emerging New Reality, that’s morphing in so many ways:

  • There is a growing awareness that those who we have been praising and clapping as heroes are among our most poorly paid and there’s a call for those on minimum wages should be given a pay rise after the pandemic. But the folk tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin comes to mind, and with folk tales often come hard truths about ourselves.
  • Many people won’t want to hear the messy stories of healthcare workers when it all calms down. People tend to want stories that fit into a particular narrative, so they can move on. Healthcare workers will just have to carry their memories isolated in the truth, suffering the moral injury with varying degrees of quietness.
  • There is a genuine plight among sex workers. Lockdown measures prevent human contact and leave a marginalised part of our society that feels uneasy and lacks the honesty of coming to terms with it particularly vulnerable. Despite the fact that sex workers are adversely affected by the pandemic, they are excluded from government relief and protection programmes as well as health services. About a third carry on face to face meetings regardless, taking enormous risks for themselves and others. Homelessness, destitution and even suicide attempts are not unknown.
  • Some are coming to believe that civil aviation will never be the same again. Major airlines have already taken steps to axe their fleets of giant carriers – the A-380s and 747s. The growth of and refinement of videoconferencing as a result of the pandemic may well reduce the need for business class passengers, and security measures, already in place since 9/11 will now include biosecurity. How we travel is changing.
  • Along with that comes a growing awareness of the part our leisure activities play in incubating and exporting coronavirus, as the newsworthy events include ski resorts and cruise ships as superspreaders.
  • Free audiobooks for children, from Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, are booming during lockdown,.
  • “100 staff are fostering pets:” How animal shelters are coping with Covid-19. As rescue centres struggle to rehome pets under social distancing measures, they’re faced with new challenges.
  • A Survey shows that only 9 per cent of Britons want life to return to ‘normal’ once lockdown is over.
  • And lockdown has created a return to love in anticipation and a revisiting of the old-fashioned love letter in a modern context. Tinder has become so pre-covid!

With those anecdotes also come very personal stories:

  • Patient One: The first person diagnosed with Covid-19 in Italy was a healthy 38 year old who arrived in his local emergency room in Cordogno, south of Milan on February 20th with flu-like symptoms. He spent weeks on a ventilator before he could breathe again and was released from hospital on March 22nd. While he was still in hospital his father died of Covid-19, and his wife, nearly 8 months pregnant tested positive as well, although she eventually recovered. He turned out to be a ‘super-spreader’ who infected scores of others, including people in his amateur soccer league and at the hospital where he was diagnosed. He is a continuing tale of asymptomatic contagion and the unpreparedness of hospitals. Officials believe Patient Zero is likely to have been a German who travelled to Northern Italy around January 25th.
  • 43 year old Purna Ghale, a hospital cleaner travels 4,500 miles from Nepal to London. Having worked at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow for 16 years, he was anxious to get back to the UK to “do his bit.” Having known many Nepalese people I’m in no way surprised.
  • “My wife hates it when I work from home,” Banksy says as he unveils his new work – a toilet and basin overrun with naughty mural-rats.
  • War veteran Captain Tom Moore, 99, says he’d be ‘amazed’ to meet the Queen amid petitions for a knighthood. The Duke of Cambridge thanks Captain Tom Moore for NHS fund-raising – and donates to the campaign.
  • A 90 year old woman, inspired by the brave captain, is climbing the equivalent of a Highland mountain on her staircase and has exceeded her target to raise £10,000 for the NHS and a hospice. Margaret Payne plans to climb the height of Suilven – 2,398 feet – by making 282 trips upstairs.
  • Megan Markle and Prince Harry are pictured for the first time in Los Angeles delivering food for charity in masks and gloves after the duchess wanted her husband to see the city “through the eyes of philanthropy.”
  • Princess Beatrice’s wedding is ‘officially cancelled.’

My final bulletins today come from Europe:

  • Ursula von der Leyen extended a ‘heartfelt apology’ to Italy on behalf of Europe, admitting that it had not been by its side since the beginning of the crisis.
  • The Swedish government is granted special powers to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Stranded or shunned, Europe’s migrant workers are caught in no-man’s land.
  • Malaria drug: The French president Emmanuel Macron has called for a controversial dual therapy based on hydroxychloroquine, to be tested as soon as possible, and described the infectious diseases specialist, Professor Didier Raoult, as a “great scientist.” Critics have lambasted Raoult’s methodology and have claimed that the results of his two studies are purely observational. 
  • Feeling the pinch: The Ukrainian government, like most across Europe, has closed many shops and is encouraging people to stay at home. Yet, Ukraine’s social security system is not as strong as many wealthier European countries, meaning people are mostly left on their own when they become unemployed. How people are coping with an at-times drastic loss of income.
  • How deep will the economic downturns in rich countries be? Those in central and southern Europe seem the most vulnerable.

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