Day Thirty Five: Sunday 19th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Apocryphal Critter in a Pan of Water

It’s a bright and breezy Sunday. The sky is blue without a cloud in sight. People are out and about on the common, mostly in ones and twos. Exercising or walking back from the Co-op. I’m sure there are some who are using exercising as an opportunity to meet up against the rules and get away with it. There is an almost-benign all-seeing eye from the police, but their presence, to be fair, is pretty discreet. There are more cars than I’d have expected, going from A to B – one wonders exactly where. It’s human nature to resent being told, to be controlled. We see the rebel as our champion, so long, that is, that the rebel knows his or her place and continues to rebel, rather than becomes an alternative force for control.

In politics at the moment that’s the current tension. Lockdown is by its very nature a government micro-managing its population. Taking control. In America there are protests in several cities against the lockdown limiting their God-given freedom. But it’s freedom that the virus also enjoys. That is if an unconscious Dawkinsian entity can enjoy anything. Perhaps benefit is a more appropriate word. Freedom allows the explosion of millions of moments of human weakness, but some of us would rather that than be exposed to the weaknesses of a select few controlling us, and with it their power and greed.

With that comes a pernicious denial to others and inevitable a cruelty of one sort or another follows.

The other weird thing about being in lockdown and being able to witness it from afar through your TV screen, your laptop or smartphone is how we adjust to a wider horror. In the past twenty four hours there have been an additional 5850 cases (on admission to hospital) and an additional 596 deaths. I’ve checked back to my first diary entry on the 15th March. It reads:

“The death rate rises from 21 to 35 overnight. It was 10 the previous day.” 

But irrationally, I switch mode and find myself pleased, after a fashion, that the deaths have only increased by 3.9%, the lowest increment so far, and see the still-horrifying numbers as an improvement, as progress, as somehow something is working.

Like the apocryphal critter in a pan of warming water.

In front of me as I write are three geranium cuttings, now in potting compost. It looks as though they are taking. Even the weakest is sprouting the beginnings of an adventitious bud. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that life is winning and it’s a metaphor for the bigger picture.

The Bigger Picture: In The Thicket. In The Thick of It.

In many fairy tales there is a point when wandering into the deep dark woods ends up with becoming lost. At this point, whichever way you turn there’s an unclear outcome. We’re there. In the thicket. In the thick of it.

Boris Johnson is ‘recovering well’ and is in ‘cheerful spirits, according to Michael Gove. He said the PM spoke to Dominic Raab on Friday. But how the PM has got us this deep into the woods this quickly remains an issue that just won’t go away as shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth demands ‘clear answers’ from the government about why Boris Johnson is reported to have skipped five Cobra meetings about the Covid-19 crisis and lost the country precious time. The response from Gove was a staunch defence of Boris Johnson’s management of the Covid-19 crisis. He also insisted the government “should not be thinking of lifting” lockdown restrictions yet as calls mount for Covid-19 lockdown exit strategy amid a backlash over the pandemic response.

Wellcome Trust director and infectious disease expert, Sir Jeremy Farrar said he hopes some lockdown measures could begin to be lifted within around three to four weeks’ time – on the proviso that the number of infections and hospital patients drops ‘dramatically.’ In fact it will be many more weeks before such numbers will drop significantly enough. But there is an underlying pressure that a populist government will ultimately appease prematurely.

America is even more uneasy about  locking down, and those most uneasy are the president’s own base. Protests are spreading across the country and Trump foments them with anti-lockdown tweets.

Trump began with a tweet to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” quickly followed with “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

All three states are currently headed by Democratic governors, and Michigan is considered crucial to his re-election bid in November.

These are early beginnings in an incited train of behaviour that led to the storming of the Capitol in a few months’ time. A message that Trump expected his supporters to go beyond protest and into insurrection if it suited the president’s purposes.

Back in Westminster the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer tells the government,: “When we get through this crisis we cannot return to business as usual.” He refers in particular to social care. “For too long social care has been neglected. Our care workers left underpaid and undervalued. Our relatives denied the dignity that they deserve at the end of their life.”

This comes as The National Care Forum, which represents not-for-profit care providers, has estimated that more than 4,000 people may have died after contracting Covid-19 across all residential and nursing homes before April 13th.

Other government actions today are:

Ministers also find themselves under pressure to review Britain’s China relationship after the pandemic. Conservative politicians accuse Beijing of underplaying the original outbreak and say it can no longer be ‘business as usual.’ Britain is not alone in its criticism. There are African voices saying China must pay reparations to Africa for its Covid-19 failures.

President Trump’s attitude was more perplexing. After all his recriminatory rhetoric about “the China virus,” some of it pretty vitriolic, when asked if there should be consequences for China if they were responsible for all the virus spread, he said, “Sure, unless it was a mistake.”

The virus is becoming less enigmatic. It was easy enough to read its genome, which contains instructions for making just 28 different proteins, in contrast to the millions of proteins that are coded for in human DNA. But to compare the two is to compare poetry to a novel. Both can capture the human condition but poetry does it with an exquisite economy of language. So it is with Covid-19. It does not need the mind-boggling orders of hierarchy to make more of itself, as we do. All it needs is us.

There’s a dark ‘intelligence’ in how natural selection works. I’ve never fallen into the trap of mistaking ‘the fittest’ in survival of the fittest, with our normal understanding of fitness, that you could be forgiven for associating with morning sessions of Joe Wickes’ exercise classes, even though such a notion is not a million miles away. Rather it is goodness of fit, like how your hand fits into a well-made glove. The better the fit to its particular niche, the more likely it will replicate itself, the cycle repeating itself with all the subtle variants of its offspring.

If you’re too proud to associate that with intelligence just consider how much you’ve learned by trial and error, or for that matter how second-rate so many humans are at learning from observing the mistakes of others.

There’s a saying I picked up from paragliding:

“Smart people learn from the mistakes of others.

Most of us have to learn from our own.

Eejits make the same mistake over and over again.”

And most of us have been eejits from time to time. It’s a tough one, isn’t it, to come off our high horses when it comes to intelligence?

In the case of the Covid-19 coronavirus the dark intelligence somewhere down the line has found one of our more serious physiological Achilles’ Heels – the angiotensin controlling enzyme – better known as ACE2, which exists on cell membranes in many parts of the body, including the lungs.

Angiotensin binds to many receptors in the body to affect several systems. It can increase blood pressure by constricting the blood vessels. It can also trigger thirst or the desire for salt. Angiotensin is responsible for the release of the pituitary gland’s anti-diuretic hormone which in turn regulates water loss. If the system that includes angiotensin goes on the blink then you can have consequences every bit as serious as a better known system involving blood glucose and insulin going wrong.

So ACE2 on cell membranes keeps blood pressure and ion balance on an even keel. That’s what the spikes on the outside of the coronavirus latch on to with an unprecedented efficiency, and because the lung lining is exposed to the outside world the cells are particularly vulnerable.

If you try to block off the ACE2 receptors to the virus you can’t control angiotensin and the whole system it’s part of (like insulin is with glucose metabolism) goes awry, with serious lung and circulatory consequences. The same happens if the ACE2 receptors get latched on to by the virus, so managing an infection becomes horrendously complicated.

Blood pressure regulation becomes more of an issue as people get older, and the body adapts by creating more ACE2 receptors, creating more opportunities for the virus to latch on and infect.

The virus has another nasty trick up its sleeve. Some parts of the Covid-19 spike protein can ‘tweak’ ACE2 for a better fit, behaving like prion proteins in mad cow disease, and it’s that ability that gives it a cutting edge over predecessors like SARS and MERS, which although are three and ten times more fatal respectively, are much less infectious. With a mortality rate of 3.4% Covid-19 is still deadly enough to ultimately kill millions worldwide.

Once the virus has latched on to the cell membrane the cell takes it in by a process known as endocytosis, the RNA genome enters the cell and the mass duplication begins.

That’s what we’re all up against and it’s seriously scary!

Our tools for dealing with the pandemic are limited. We stay apart from each other. We lock down until a means of dealing with it can be found. Some, like Germany, are seeking a path out of lockdown through broad, random tests for antibodies, Germany seeks a (scientific) path out of lockdown.

Others are backing the development of vaccines. Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at Oxford University, said the prospect of finding one are “very good,” and her team hopes to begin clinical trials towards the end of next week. She cannot yet be certain she tells Andrew Marr on BBC, until the trials are complete.

It’s a kind of compensation that there are positive environmental paybacks. Air quality has improved during lockdown, although some point out that delivery trucks are more polluting than cars. And more stories of wildlife benefiting appear. In Florida loggerhead turtles are thriving, now that people are stuck indoors, jackals have been spotted in a Tel Aviv park as people stay away amid the covid confinement and some believe that Covid-19 could be a blessing for the much-trafficked pangolin.

For all of us new day to day realities occupy our lives.

  • é, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and Elton John took part in the concert.

Those day to day realities are made up of so many personal stories. For some of achievement:

For others, of personal ordeals, vulnerability and the risk of tragedy:

Europe:  the virus tolls tops ten thousand, with Belgium a particular hotspot. The Belgian government claims it is because they are using their statistics more thoroughly than other EU countries, but it doesn’t account for the whole picture. The EU is facing a ‘moment of truth,’ Emmanuel Macron says as he calls for greater financial burden sharing.

California: resists plans to lift limits on nurse-practitioners during the Covid-19 pandemic, as demand for medical services begins to look like will exceed supply. A number of other US states have eased the degree to which nurse-practitioners require physicians’ oversight, but in the Golden State it has become a political issue.

Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the US and Canada have agreed to keep their border closed to non-essential travel for another 30 days.

Pakistan: is to keep mosques open during Ramadan.

Iran: has allowed some businesses and the capital and nearby towns to reopen on Saturday after weeks of lockdown aimed at controlling the Covid-19 outbreak in the Middle East.

Australia: A German cruise ship has left Western Australia State after a three week stay, during which three people on board died of Covid-19. The Artania began its journey from Fremantle to Europe, keeping its scheduled early afternoon departure time on Saturday. A total of 79 crew and passengers from the Artania tested positive for Covid-19 in Western Australia. They included a 42 year old crewman from the Philippines, who died in Perth Hospital on Thursday, raising the state’s total to seven.

China:  on Saturday reported 27 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, as it tries to stem an upsurge in infections in the north eastern province bordering Russia. The border with Russia has been closed.

Japan: on Saturday reported 556 new cases of the coronavirus, surpassing a total of 10,000 about three months after the first case was detected in the country. Nearly one third of domestic cases come from Tokyo, where the daily surge has overcrowded hospitals, triggering fears that the medical system will collapse.

Africa: will be the next Covid-19 epicentre, says WHO. Africa now has more than 1,000 deaths from Covid-19, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 52 of the continent’s 54 countries have reported the virus, with overall cases numbering more than 19,800 as of Saturday morning. The World Health Organisation has noted a 51 per cent increase in cases in Africa and a 60 per cent jump in deaths. Bur the WHO chief has warned that because of a shortage of testing “it’s likely that the real numbers are higher than reported.” The Africa CDC has said more than a million test kits will be rolled out, starting next week.

South Korea: has reported 18 new cases of the coronavirus, its lowest daily jump since February 20th, continuing a downward trend as officials discuss more sustainable forms of social distancing that allows for some commercial and economic activity. Figures released by South Korea’s CDC on Saturday brought national totals to 10,653 cases and 232 virus-related deaths.

Russia: suffers a record Covid-19 rise in cases as Moscow mayor says he has enough beds for two weeks but cannot make promises beyond this, despite a giant new hospital.

India: There’s a critical risk of debt bondage for India’s informal workers amid the Covid-19 lockdown. Meanwhile, the main train station in the north Indian city of Varanasi is a sprawling building that has witnessed its share of delays in more than a century of rail travel. Sometimes the waits are long, and sometimes they are pleasantly short. But it has never seen anything like this. Inside a high-ceilinged room, a group of 50 travellers from all walks of life and across India has waited in vain for a train that never came.

Finally, closer to home life is more prosaic as I read the following message on Nextdoor:

“Does anyone know if any of the local supermarkets in Welling or the surrounding areas have any compost or bark chippings in stock? I may go out tomorrow for a weekly shop and I would like to pick some up.”

I ordered my compost online.

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