Day Thirty Four: Saturday 18th April 2020

Daily Diary: About Sweet Peas, Plastic Artillery and Moral Injury

I transferred the geranium cuttings to the potting nursery in the recently acquired propagator. I was disappointed that the cuttings hadn’t grown root systems in the bottle and I started to be concerned that if I left them any longer the water would start to be contaminated by bacteria. So let’s see how they go.

I’ve trained the sweet peas using very loose loops of paraglider line and they look more disciplined now. I’m also admiring the apple blossom and tempted to trim the branches back. The leaves actually look much healthier. Last year the old leaves got pretty diseased so maybe there is something that can be done to restore health and vigour this season. Some minor fence repairs too, which I might have a go at this weekend.

Along with keeping up with the diary it’s important to do other things. I still keep up with my Twitter account, but in view of all the other information I’m processing I stick to responding to notifications. There are only so many hours in a day.

I’ve also been working on a plastic model. I’m trying to recreate my father’s portee anti-tank gun. There is no kit for it, but I have a Japanese manufactured model of a British military two pounder assembled. It was the fiddliest model I’ve ever constructed. Some pieces were actually the size of a pinhead and much of the constructing had to be done under a magnifying lens. There were over a hundred pieces and I’m awestruck by the level of detail and quality of moulding. The truck part of the portee is a modified 15 cwt Chevrolet, manufactured in Canada. It’s less fiddly but it also presents its own challenges.

The secret is to take your time. Don’t rush anything. Things always ‘go wrong,’ so have the strategy of dealing with it when they do. Having the right tools helps a lot. I enjoy having to solve problems, even if they are of little consequence. There was a tiny part missing and I built a facsimile from sprue and a leftover from a previous project. All put into place and I can’t tell the difference, and certainly won’t when the model is painted. The gun platform on the back of the truck will need scratch building from polystyrene card and rod. In the Western Desert the RHA did the same, improvising their way around mounting a light artillery piece on a chassis, so my scratch building has got to mirror that improvisation. I have pulled together quite a good archive of photos, including a painting by David Shepherd of Lieutenant Ward Gunn holding the line against all odds at the battle of Sidi Rezegh. My dad was in the next vehicle.

“Wow!” I said to my dad. “You saw someone getting the Victoria Cross.”

“Bloody fool!” my dad had replied. “Playing a Boys’ Own Paper hero, when he should have been more concerned about the safety of his men.”

Lieutenant Ward Gunn was awarded the VC posthumously. I was a bit stung by my dad’s reply, but as I’ve got older I’ve begun to understand what lay behind it. My dad had been decorated himself for bravery in the field with the Military Medal and was a sergeant at the time. He had a character fully capable of acts of dash and bravery, but for him the carnage of battle meant much so more. ‘J’ Battery, 3rd Royal Horse Artillery, now known as ‘Sidi Rezegh’ battery, was decimated from its original fighting strength of 120 men to only fourteen survivors. Half of them went with another lieutenant and surrendered to the advancing panzers. The other half went with the battery sergeant – my father – and got back to allied lines.

After the war there was an annual reunion of J Battery’s  fourteen survivors, a number that dwindled over the years. My father always went, but I remember from a conversation with my mother over the breakfast table, it was through a deep sense of regimental duty and he went with a heavy heart.

Whatever happened on the battlefield between the sergeant and the junior officer when they went their separate ways remains unknown, but a tension between them existed for the rest of their days.

It taught me about moral injury – the emotional fallout that can appear from extreme, dangerous and challenging events – and I see and read about cases of moral injury suffered by medics as they face the coronavirus in long shifts day after day after day.

Simply knowing that is humbling.

The Bigger Picture: When Giant Egos Meet Huge Uncertainties

There are many enigmas about the Great Covid Pandemic of 2020. They are enigmas not so much because they take our scientific explorations to the very edge of what we understand. With science that’s always so. But it is about ourselves and how we enabled certain individuals to be able to make decisions, when with a moment’s thought we would have realised that they weren’t the full shilling when it came to decision-making. Especially when the consequences of their decisions involved the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

For example, most Americans say Trump was too slow in the initial response to the Covid-19 threat and there are now widespread concerns that the states will lift restrictions too quickly. But in spite of that there were no protests, Fox News was behind him all of the way, it was said of CNN commentators “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Or something very similar.

If anyone looked at Donald Trump’s comments on the outbreak they would have seen that they didn’t quite meet the observed growing horror show in the world around them. Wouldn’t they?

But many didn’t.

Here are some announcements from the American President over a couple of months:

January 22nd:”We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

February 19th: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April and the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that.”

February 26th: “We only have 15 people, and they’re getting better and hopefully they’re all better soon.”

February 28: “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. And this is their new hoax.”

March 15th: “It’s a very contagious virus. It’s incredible, but it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

March 16th:”I was talking about what we’re doing is under control, but I’m not talking about the virus.”

March 17th: “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they are going to be.

March 24th: “I would love to have it open by Easter. Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?”

March 29th: “If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number — maybe even less. But to 100,000. We all together have done a very good job.”

Even the utterances describe a narrative and you don’t need much imagination to see how a deadly virus is not only invading the United States of America but also making it the epicentre of a global pandemic. So much so that people across the world start talking about the demise of the world’s greatest superpower, albeit prematurely.

Simply trying to understand where Donald Trump was coming from only gets you halfway there. What matters is, as Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of “The Art of The Deal,” observes, is the resonance his world view has with our darkest instincts.

He reflects a view held by those who believe that the world is a dangerous place, and that staying safe requires being vigilant, aggressive, and full of certainty. It’s a set of instincts that no doubt served our prehistoric ancestors well and one that registers on some level with all of us. But it’s crude, lacks nuance and doesn’t match the complexities of modern life., let alone the consequences of a viral pandemic.

His skill, I believe more intuitive than calculated, is to tap into those feelings of fear, insecurity and inadequacy, and present himself as confident and certain, free from the volatility and unpredictability of a wider world. And there’s a feel-good factor that someone can manage that and the binary reality he offers has an illusion of comfort and security.

Some, history teaches us, will follow someone to Hell and back for that illusion.

Many are following Trump on that score.

As Tony Schwartz put it:

“If I wasn’t a hundred per cent right, I was a hundred percent wrong. If I wasn’t all good, I was all bad. It was win or lose, and there wasn’t much in between.”

The evidence doesn’t matter. That steals a moment or two to think about and consider and the emotion evaporates in the process. What does matter is the confidence and radiating it becomes an addiction that not only Trump, but populists elsewhere, such as Johnson and Bolsonaro fall prey to as well.

So it’s in that vein that Trump encouraged resistance against three Democrat governors’ lockdowns, echoing right wing protestors’ call to ‘liberate’ these states. In a series of all-caps tweets Mr Trump declared, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” AND “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” – two states where Democrat governors have imposed social distancing restrictions that have shut down businesses and closed schools and forced people to stay at home. He also tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and “Save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

And riding that wave the right wing media come in right behind their president. “Time to get your freedom back.” Fox News media personalities Laura Ingraham. Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson are supporting protestors demonstrating against stay-at-home orders across the country, even as governors maintain that restrictions are slowing the spread of the virus.

It’s also in that vein that stimulus cheques are delayed because Trump wants his name printed on them.

And that the first seeds of Trump’s downfall are sown as, in the light of the pandemic,  consideration is given to encouraging voting by mail in November’s election. He fears, quite rightly, that mail voters are more likely to vote Democrat. Republicans have form in suppressing votes from neighbourhoods more likely to vote Democrat, and doing whatever they can to hinder postal voting rises up the political agenda. They believe they have a nuclear option – voter fraud – and have every intention of using it.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, is due to be released from federal prison, having taken the bullet for his client. It was a bitter episode, made more so by Cohen’s deal for a tell-all book due to come out in the autumn, which triggers a string of angry tweets from the president, rubbishing Cohen. The irony is that when he first sought a book deal it was going to flatter the president.

“A love letter to Trump,” the president called it.

Hell hath no fury like a lover spurned.

It’s part of a much bigger picture about how Trump treats people and we all know about having to be careful how you treat people on the way up, because they’ll still be waiting for you on the way down.

And it’s another seed sown.

It’s both easy and lazy to declare that Boris Johnson is ‘Britain’s Trump.’ But they do have some things in common. Both have giant egos. Both place a higher premium on telling people what they want to hear than what they need to know. The former wins approval, even when the latter makes more sense. The former can be achieved by winging it, the latter requires attention to detail, a lot of worrying through and frankly, hard work.

Live from one moment to the next. Please people from one moment to the next, and if the consequences of one moment turn sour they can be buried in the here and now of a future moment. For a long time Brexit was perfect for such game-play. Four and a half years of promises that could not be tested against reality. Say what you like. Even drive a JCB digger through a polystyrene wall. Goof about. Entertain people.

Like in  that movie when gumshoe detective Eddie Valiant asks sultry femme-fatale Jessica about her surreally screwy husband, Roger Rabbit, “Seriously, what do you see in that guy?”

She replies, “He makes me laugh.”

It’s funny because we can all see in that reply a deeper truth.

Seriously, why did some people vote for Johnson? Enough to put him in a position of great power. Everyone knows of his skulduggery and shenanigans, but in being a clown he stands out from a dour crowd, most of whom we also don’t trust.

Stopping pandemics is serious stuff. It requires attention to detail. His predecessor, Theresa May,  was serious and showed attention to detail. It wasn’t appreciated. She went unloved because of it. Most were glad to see her humourless presence leave centre-stage.

Boris makes us laugh. He promises us the wonderful payback from an as yet untested Brexit – his vehicle to power. His complacency was that of a man with savoir-faire. If we believe, like believing in fairies to revive Tinkerbelle in a pre-pandemic panto, all will be well. And the “Oh no it won’t!” will be drowned out by all the cries of “Oh yes it will,” with the tousled haired panto clown conducting the audience like the London Philharmonic.

If we could believe enough, then we wouldn’t feel so down about critical shortages of ventilators, PPE and testing. Or be deeply disturbed by the possible need for triage into intensive care units or that his closest adviser had latched on to the dark possibilities of herd immunity.

Meanwhile Britain was heading for one of the highest death rates per million of any European country.

“I’m following the science,” became Johnson’s mantra, echoed by those around him

It sounded good. It made him look more of the genuine article than President Trump, but what it really meant was following whatever utterances by scientists fitted in with his agenda at the time. He was no more following the science than Richard the Lionheart was following the teachings of Christ on his crusades to the Holy Land.

“The Science” is presented as some Great Recipe concocted by the Wise Ones.

The reality looks somewhat different when one adviser, Professor Neil Ferguson accuses ministers of failing to carry out enough work on the exit strategy.

Getting the exit strategy right is not just about people’s health. The pandemic is ravaging local finances as English councils are set for a one billion pound bailout.

We understand the economic impact of the pandemic less than we understand its epidemiology. The UNHCR warns that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic could be worse than the health impact, including a depression resulting from Covid-19 having the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of children a year.

That’s because, unlike the biology of viruses, no one can agree about how economic systems work.

So in America airlines are being bailed out again. The asked for $50 billion and got $25 billion and no one’s sure if it’s good money after bad. German carmakers are going to have to open up their factories and car dealerships soon – otherwise they could face a widespread collapse. That would be disastrous for the German economy. And a British food producer, despite the pandemic, has chartered a flight to bring 150 Romanians into the UK to help pick fruit and vegetables. Farmers across both the UK and the whole of Europe have complained of having to either throw away their harvests or leave them to rot in the field. The sources of both clients and seasonal workers have been thrown into disarray.

A crisis with default online loans is likely. Lost income for some due to the pandemic and ease of borrowing do not run in sync. What this will turn into nobody knows.

Yet even here the darkest of clouds has a silver lining as the economic downturn is expected to expose a decade’s worth of swindling and aggressive accounting. Downturns are the corporate fraudsters’ worst enemy.

Understanding Covid-19’s epidemiology, however, is far from straightforward. It’s as imprecise as weather forecasting for much the same reason – it’s trying to make sense out of a chaotic system. Some governments tried to mirror what had happened elsewhere, only to find that differences in the nature of government, the Covid-19 control rules in a particular country and the culture and behaviour of its citizens all contributed to how the virus spread through the population. Two countries did not have to be that different for significant differences in the spread of the disease. The butterfly effect.

Some tried to create ‘agent-based models,’ working along similar lines to Sim City. This had already been done with previous seasonal flu outbreaks with some success. But so much about Covid-19 was significantly different from seasonal flu, and the consequences of models being out of sync with reality less critical.

As a result of issues relating to the models and the different ways they worked, the projections differed enormously. This hasn’t been communicated well to the general public, leading to mixed messaging and a loss of confidence in science in general. Politicians picked and chose the projections that suited their purposes adding to the confusion. 

In the absence of adequate testing asymptomatic transmission is an alarming characteristic of Covid-19. An antibody study suggests that the virus is much more widespread than previously thought. At the time of the study, Santa Clara county in California had 1,094 confirmed cases, resulting in 50 deaths. But based on the number of people who have antibodies, it is likely that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had been infected.

That’s underestimating the number of cases by 50 to 80 times.

So how can you model when you don’t know?

Then there are Chinese and South Korean coronavirus survivors who retest positive, raising questions about whether second time positive patients are actually infected again or are victims of erroneous tests. There is no evidence to support that people who have recovered from Covid-19 have immunity, WHO has said.

So we’re caught out time and time again by shocking new horrors.

Like more than 7,500 care home residents are feared to have died from the coronavirus. Twenty die in one Scottish home alone, including four people in a day. A new European study reveals that it’s care homes where over half of Europe’s Covid-19 deaths occur.

Or that a number meat processing plants in particular across the world have turned out to be epicentres for local outbreaks. Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, owned by a Chinese billionaire, has become the largest Covid-19 hotbed in the United States, with about 735 associated cases. The state governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, has yet to issue a stay-at-home order.

Or that border controls could play such a catastrophic role in widening the spread of the virus across a whole geographical region, as Guatemala declares that migrants deported from US are infected  amid fears of contagion spread from ICE facilities.

In our ignorance we create chaos.

Also chaos theory.

Imagine this. If a third of the weather balloons that were sent up returned data that was simply wrong weather forecasting would be totally up the creek. Positive covid test results happen to be almost always true positives, but of every hundred people who give negative test results thirty are actually infected. This is particularly true for rapid, lateral flow, tests that give a result in less than 30 minutes, but it’s also true for self-administered tests, because with even the snazziest of nasal swabs, and a new polyester swab has just been given the green light by the FDA in the US, the fact is that it’s down to human error rather than molecular technology.  

So ease of access in the sense that I can easily buy lateral flow tests online and in a few months’ time I’ll be able to get them free, courtesy of the UK government, misleads. It’s me, the eejit who hates gagging and having it tickle my nasal cavity, who will let the side down.

Some medics are suggesting the use of CT scans as an alternative. Covid-19  but not only is their use likely to be too cumbersome for the scale and speed of response, but they too can miss Covid-19 cases. Just forty per cent of the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess who tested positive with a swab PCR test had the covid characteristic lung opacities on their CT scans.

All of that is just the first step in a strategy for dealing with covid. Isolation, tracing and quarantining all who have come into contact with an infected person are also essential elements for controlling the disease. When an outbreak first reaches a population these actions are possible. Once deep-rooted and embedded the possibility vanishes.

Whatever model is being used.

The only practical solution is to socially distance. Isolate if possible. The virus might seem to have the better of us, but it is in no way magical.

Those who can’t must be protected, so it is really worrying that some British hospitals face running out of PPE this weekend amid growing concerns about supplies. Some medical staff were asked to reuse equipment. The British Medical Association responds that doctors and nurses should not be asked to ‘put their lives on the line’ to save others.

Babies are given tiny face shields in a bid to stop the spreads of Covid-19. Experts believe that children are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers and could be inadvertently spreading the virus.

The quest for a way out continues. In the US the NIH partners with 16 drug companies in hopes of accelerating Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. The drug of the moment is remdesivir and its manufacturer’s stock jumps eight per cent. Originally a treatment for other viral diseases, including hepatitis C, Ebola and Marburg fever it’s a repurposed medication. Its major effect, demonstrable statistically, is to accelerate recoveries. Whether it increases the proportion of covid patients who do recover is harder to show. It isn’t preventative and won’t influence transmission, but in these dark times any step forward is met with much excitement by the media. Like successes in manufacturing ventilators these are morsels of news that give us hope.

At the moment hope is important.

Hope is also created by news about a vaccine. In Britain, researchers at Oxford University expect to inject the first volunteer in a major clinical trial of the vaccine in a week or so. Business Secretary Alok Sharma announces £14 million funding into the programme, saying that any potential vaccine will be made available to the public as quickly as possible. The Vaccination Taskforce is set up by the government to co-ordinate rapid vaccine development and production providing industry and researchers with the resources and support material.

It turns out to be the smartest move the Johnson administration has made since it came to power in 2019. Some would argue the only smart move.

Despite all the caveats a number of governments are starting to ease restrictions. Gradually, cautiously and with only a hazy idea about what works. Scientists work with data and modelling. Politicians, however, continue to work more from their gut instincts. And by that I mean their gut instincts about our gut instincts.

In other words, taking two steps back from reality and of course expecting it all to work just fine and dandy.

In Germany many are growing impatient with the hesitant pace of efforts by the government to loosen the lockdown imposed to bring down the number of Covid-19 infections under control. But there’s little agreement on whether the measures are appropriate. Scientists fear they go too far and business leaders say they do little to change anything. The Leopoldina National Academy, Germany’s academy of sciences, recommends that schools be opened soon, businesses and public authorities are also expected to be reopened gradually and travel should also be permitted under certain conditions.

The British government outlines its five tests to end lockdown:

  • Can the NHS function?
  • Have we have moved beyond the peak, seeing a consistent daily fall in the death rate?
  • Is the rate of infection is decreasing? How many further cases does each Covid-19 patient lead to? This becomes known as the R Number and will be central to government both making and being accountable for decisions.
  • Do we have enough testing and PPE supplies to meet demand?
  • Are we certain we won’t simply end up with a second peak – that is to say we don’t exit lockdown only to trigger a fresh spike in cases?

They’re worthy questions. They sound scientific and rational. Whether they’ll hold to them or bow to public pressure remains to be seen.

Trump too, tries to appear rational, outlining phases for reopening states once coronavirus cases begin to decline. The same caveat applies.

Meanwhile, it seems like the whole world is locked down, and much of it is.

It impacts on the whole human life cycle: From either putting a complete stop to, or severely restricting IVF treatment, through the many challenges of giving birth, the far reaching effect on childhood and in one way or another every phase of adult life. Not even death remains untouched, as funerals become pared down and no frills.

It changes many of our pastimes, hobbies and interests: Dozens of free online courses appear, from Joe Wickes’ workouts to history of art courses, yoga classes, language courses and business and career development. There are even invitations to become a citizen-scientist on monitoring projects like DETECT, Covid Near You and Flu Near Me. I’m even sent the recipe for a new dish this week – rhubarb crumble – if, like many I’ve been bitten by culinary bug.

Mistakes are made: A programme to free prisoners early to help jails cope with Covid-19 has been paused after six inmates were released by mistake.

Hearts are touched: As a little terrier pup is finding a new family after its owners died from Covid-19, a US animal shelter has revealed.

Experiences are shared: The Personal experiences of doctors and nurses become compulsive viewing for many on both mainstream and online media. Their level of intimacy and sharing of intense emotions are unprecedented. Mental well-being of medics is becoming a big issue. A senior clinician at the country’s maiden Nightingale Hospital has called for military expertise to deal with the mental health of the staff and volunteers at the facility.

We distract ourselves with entertainment: A sitcom called, “The Quarantine Diaries ,” poking fun at life under lockdown becomes a hit in Spain. And Global Citizen premieres on BBC1 and TV channels across the world, “One World Together At Home.”

We remember: Plans are under way for a Spitfire flypast to mark the 100th birthday of Captain John Moore, who has raised more than £21 million so far for NHS Charities Together.

We do not forget: As Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe is ‘waiting for news’ about whether she will be returning to prison.

We respect and appreciate: UK firefighters deliver medicines to the elderly and vulnerable.

The truly weird happens:

  • I read the following on my local Nextdoor: My hair is enormous! My unqualified wife wants to go cut it so badly, but I’m refusing to let her anywhere near it! If I get 100 Twitter likes she can do what she likes with it ….. beard too! Dunno how this works!
  • A man who bought a ghost town with a sinister past has been forced to quarantine there after a snowstorm left him trapped. Brent Underwood had to resort to melting snow for water after his week-long stay in Cerro Gordo, California, was unexpectedly prolonged by the lockdown.
  • A zoo in Northern Germany has said that, since their income has decreased during the pandemic they will sacrifice some of the animals in their care by feeding them to others, if they have to. They’ve even decided in advance which animals would live and die, promising their 12 foot tall polar bear would be the top of the food chain.

Not everyone is behaving themselves:

  • Clashes between police and orthodox Jewish worshippers shake Jerusalem neighbourhood.
  • 150 people break Covid-19 rules to attend a funeral on Sheppey Way in North Kent. Two men were arrested and another injured in a motorbike collision after around 150 people flouted covid social distancing rules.

Finally, on the score of naughtiness there is an online warning from the local police:

“You may have seen a letter that has been circulating on social media sites with a Met Police logo stating the ‘Code Red’ lockdown is being activated. The message also mentions that on the 15th April at 9 pm that London will be sprayed with disinfectant. Please be reassured that this letter and others like it are fake and we will continue to work with partners to tackle misinformation with Covid-19.”

There’s only one question I want to ask myself…..


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