Day Thirty Six: Monday 20th April 2020

Daily Diary: Music, Bicycle, Paraglider

I was going to wax lyrical about Global Citizen’s “One World: Together at Home” concert, pulled together by Lady Gaga and presented on BBC1. It was enjoyable. It was good to see Lady Gaga without the glitz and glamour singing a touching rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s signature song, “Smile,” with only a simple keyboard as an accompaniment. The Stones were in their disparate living rooms singing, “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” well, although we were all left wondering whether Charlie Watts’ drumkit was invisible, electronic, or simply imagined. The old boy seemed to be enjoying himself nonetheless. I always feel that there is something awkward about tributes and homilies, and Paul McCartney was certainly in homiletic form. But all in all I enjoyed the show, and there were a number of good performances, with Elton John as much on form as he always has been, allowing for old age stealing his upper register – it still worked. Of course there was the nagging question – how did he get that baby grand piano out into his garden without breaking lockdown rules? Who knows, and I’m treating the mystery as an enigma, along with Charlie Watts’ drums.

There was a story on Nextdoor that really struck a chord with me, and many others it seems. Galileo Aragona, an NHS nurse, completed a 13 hour shift to find his bike got stolen inside the hospital premises.

“If anyone can give any information or help me track down my bike. I would be very grateful – it’s my only means of transport to and from work. It’s been a stressful time at work, and now this. Thanks to anyone who can help.”

My first reaction was to the appalling, mean-spirited nature of the crime.. It reminded me of those stories of looters during the Blitz, a reminder that even during our ‘finest hours’ there were still those who were low enough to behave as if they have just slithered out of the gutter.

Then came the response on Nextdoor. People in the community doing what they could to help. Some of us reposted Galileo’s plight on Twitter and Facebook, that in going viral it stood a much better chance of creating leads and improving the chances of Galileo being reunited with his vitally necessary property. Others offered to contribute to Galileo purchasing a replacement bike. Others set up a fundraising group. David Cracknell, a local bicycle mechanic had a spare bike available and gave it to Galileo. All of which restored my faith in human nature. It’s not exactly all’s well that ends well, but it shows how an online community can pull itself together and come to each other’s support.

I got a phone call from Nigel. Had I seen the club chat on WhatsApp about ground handling? I told Nigel I was giving the whole free-flying thing a wide berth for the time being. Best not to think about it. But perhaps I’m wrong – I should still keep half an eye. Ground handling is an important part of paragliding. It improves how pilots manage their giant canopies while on the ground. It’s important during take-off especially, but also when landing. In many ways a paraglider is a very large and powerful kite.

As such ground handling can still be dangerous. Pilots can still be dragged by canopies. Sometimes into other things, or even people. There is a risk of injury – and that means taking precious NHS staff away from other duties at this critical time. It’s clear that cabin fever is getting to some, but going out ground handling, whatever its merits for the sport, is not the solution. I’ll need to tell club members soon, along with various other notices, so I’ve started thinking about a wider message which will include this.

I thought it wise to double-check with the Kent Police, so I do so via live chat. I chat to a helpful officer called Sharon, who clarifies that if you want to go somewhere simply to ground handle then according to the guidelines this is not an essential activity, and something as exotic as paraglider ground handling would not be considered to be an approved activity for exercise. I’m not surprised, and a little relieved that I can pin this one on the boys and girls in blue.

Blue sky, strong wind and all the plants are still growing.

Life under lockdown continues…..

The Bigger Picture: The Aftermath of a Not-Accident

Two things come to mind today about accidents. The first is that in the grand scheme of things almost all accidents are not accidents at all, but incidents, the consequences of our own decisions and behaviour. The second is that for a short but seemingly endless amount of time in our memories after such incidents happen we’re in a state of shock. Often we don’t even know whether we’ve suffered significant injuries.

Then there is a cold light of day period when reality dawns and we now know there’s a need to adjust.

So it’s been with this pandemic.

For five and a half weeks Britain sleepwalked into disaster. Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Like the kid who leaves doing his homework until late in the eleventh hour and then finds it’s a damn sight more difficult he had reckoned on the government finds itself facing much greater difficulties than it needed to had it acted in a more timely fashion. With the death toll exceeding 16,000 and rising there’s anger at PPE delays as Covid-19 death toll exceeds 16,000 and hospital managers express exasperation as they at the government over failed PPE deliveries.

In the depths of the crisis Johnson appoints a close associate from 2012, London Olympics chief, Lord Deighton, to lead the PPE manufacturing drive, who will work to ‘unleash the potential’ of British firms in making PPE for NHS staff.

In the shock of being struck when the pandemic came to and exploded across Britain, simply counting the dead remains a challenge. In the confusion Covid-19 deaths in care homes are far higher than the official figures. Without a grasp on actual numbers the government cannot yet effectively manage this crisis.

Locking down becomes the only resort. Tried and tested for millennia, plagues can be stopped if people can be persuaded or made to stay away from each other. But as societies have become ever more complex that has become increasingly difficult. It’s not just economies, but whole social structures that rely on a whole raft of interpersonal transactions. When those can no longer make the world go round in the way we have been accustomed we become insecure and ill at ease, and much as that has been mitigated by advances in online technology they don’t go far enough to ease the anxiety. Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University said that the government lockdown was likely to do more damage than the pandemic itself, and a senior police officer warns that Britain must prepare for a “volatile and agitated society” after lockdown is lifted.

Those anxieties, along with a general sense of unease within British society are reflected in this public online notice on Nextdoor from the Metropolitan Police:

“No excuses – just exercise. We have been out patrolling our open spaces over the past few shifts and due to warmer weather returning we are having to remind people that yes, they can use the parks and open spaces, but please do it responsibly. The main focus of these spots is to exercise, either alone or with people from your own household. Please do not abuse the open spaces by meeting up with your friends or sunbathing – these are not valid reasons to be out. We understand how difficult it can be but please do not be tempted to use gym equipment, playgrounds or ballcourts. Greenwich Council have locked these up and taped them off for a reason. Stay safe and enjoy green spaces responsibly.”

This is both local and worldwide. Rioting breaks out on French housing estates as lockdown tensions mount and fears rise that stirrings of unrest around the world could portend turmoil as economies collapse.

In the US, where the Covid-19 death toll is more than 40,000 lockdown is more problematic. Locking down itself has become a bipartisan political flare-up, the flames being fanned by none other than the president himself who openly announces that some governors – Democrats – have “gone too far” with Covid-19 restrictions.

As a result there are demonstrations across the country violated social distancing orders to call for the reopening of states and the American economy. The rallies, like the one outside the state capitol in Austin, Texas, rode a wave of similar protests this past week. Saturday alone, people gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana, Carson City, Nevada, Annapolis, Maryland, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Brookfield, Wisconsin. President Trump on Friday openly encouraged right wing protests in states with stay-at-home orders, even after officially and publicly conceding that reopening was up to governors.

It’s a dangerous game Trump’s playing, setting in train a behaviour pattern among his supporters that will reach a crescendo with the storming of the US Capitol nine months from now.

Lift lockdowns slowly and carefully, the World Health Organisation warns everyone. They need to end haltingly with a clear plan of action and putting safety first. It won’t be easy and might not keep Covid-19 at bay indefinitely. It needs criteria, such as reopening only after covid cases declined for 14 days, 90 per cent of contacts of infected people could be traced, infections of health care workers were eradicated, recuperation sites existed for mild cases, along with many other hard to reach goals.

Boris Johnson, still recovering from the virus, is said to be cautious about relaxing the existing lockdown restrictions due to fears that such a move could unleash a second wave of the pandemic. During his convalescence a ‘quad’ of senior ministers –  Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock – are to consider ‘traffic light’ plan to reopen the economy. Effectively an inner cabinet.

The British pub has become the symbol of freedom beyond lockdown. There have been suggestions that pubs won’t open until Christmas, but culture secretary Oliver Dowden downplays them.

Meanwhile, zoos are facing their own crisis during the lockdown. With daily running costs running into thousands there are nightmare visions of animals facing mass euthanasia if zoos collapse. Like so many other enterprises they scrape by.

In mainland Europe the first steps to lift lockdown have begun in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg, among others. Germans returned to the shops on Monday, craving retail therapy after a month of lockdown, but Chancellor Angela Merkel, frustrated by ‘discussion orgies’ among fellow politicians worries and urges citizens to remain disciplined to avoid a relapse in the fight against the coronavirus.

Yet there are signs of better things beyond as Australia’s success in controlling the virus leads to Sydney’s beaches being opened.

And the possibility that a country might survive the pandemic without locking down at all, as other countries observe Sweden whose government is working from the belief that citizens will choose to be sensible.

It’s an act of faith and like all faiths it intrigues non-believers.

Life for so many of the rest of us is in a state of arrested development. We are in economic hibernation.

We call it furlough.

It will stop many (but not all) businesses from dying, and the horrendous consequences of a full blown economic depression when we get to the ‘other side.’

The furlough pay scheme for employees who are kept on the payroll despite not working due to Covid-19 opens for applications today. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme pays workers 80 per cent of their usual earnings, capped at £2,500 per person, meaning they will not be laid off from their place of work as businesses try to cope with the fallout from the pandemic. The head of HMRC is confident that the system running job retention scheme will work.

However, three million people are being left behind in the government’s coronavirus aid schemes and support packages:

For them, many months of hardship, even penury, lie ahead.

But in many cases it helps as a bailout to the rich. The hot story today is Victoria Beckham applying for furlough for her 25 staff at her VB fashion label. Assuming each would get the maximum of £2,500 per month, the total monthly cost would be £62,500, Victoria Beckham’s current net worth is reported to be £450 million.

It follows the Beckhams introducing Elton John on the Covid-19 global charity fundraiser, in which she said:

“Our thanks to all of the healthcare workers all around the world who are working so, so hard, leaving their families to go to work to protect us and our children. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

TV presenter Piers Morgan hit back hard with a tweet:

‘Sorry, but this makes me puke. If you care this much about the NHS, @victoriabeckham – then why are you taking taxpayer money the NHS desperately needs – and you DON’T need – to furlough your staff & prop up your failing business?’

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden declined to comment.

Meanwhile, on a VB Fashion on steroids bid, Sir Richard Branson has warned the government that his Virgin Atlantic airline will collapse and thousands of jobs will be lost unless it receives taxpayer support. He’s seeking a loan, believed to be up to £500 million, putting up Necker Island as collateral. A £600m loan has already been granted to easyJet. It’s got under many people’s skins in the UK. For a start, Branson, a resident of the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, has a long history of tax evasion and is now asking to borrow from the public purse. Then, with a personal wealth of £3.5 billion, there are strong feelings that the super-rich should be making a greater personal contribution during such hard times (most actually became wealthier during the pandemic). Finally, Virgin Atlantic was 49% owned by Delta Airlines, an American company.

 Virgin Atlantic’s initial bid has been rejected and Sir Richard had been told to explore other ways to raise cash before seeking a state bailout.

It would be unfair to present businesses solely as takers of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic. Many have made an active contribution. The AA are providing a free breakdown service to AA’s breakdown rescue of more than 1,500 essential NHS staff free of charge, getting them to work; and a focus on putting more ambulances on the road. Burberry have switched production from fashion to protective wear. The campaign is now serving nearly 10,000 meals per day to NHS frontline staff. It was a concept inspired by former Formula One boss Ron Dennis’s daughter, who is an NHS doctor, and has relied on Tesco and the delivery service Yodel. 

But it’s a mixed bag as some businesses have worked with genuine altruism, whereas others it has been as much to do with ‘brand purpose’ and good PR and in these more sceptical times it’s often hard to tell.

So in this post-shock period there’s a stock-taking of where we’re at. Options on treatment, particularly those suffering the most severe symptoms, beyond ventilating and ‘riding the storm’ are limited. Drugs like remdesivir alleviate, but neither prevent nor cure. The UK is preparing to collect the blood from Covid-19 survivors to investigate if convalescent plasma transfusions could improve a Covid-19 patient’s speed of recovery and chances of survival. It’s an approach to treatment that’s over a century old. However, the scale of the pandemic might simply result in convalescent plasma not keeping pace. In time, the concept of dosing patients with antibodies will arrive as monoclonal antibody treatment, but it will be prohibitively expensive and not for widespread use.

But all is not lost as there are celebrations as the first Covid-19 patients are discharged from London’s Nightingale hospital. The custom of ‘clapping a survivor out’ becomes one of the pandemic’s visual memes.

Cautious hopes are placed in the development of a vaccine. There is the realisation that the virus could become a ‘constant threat’ if the vaccine doesn’t work. The whole world holds its breath as it awaits news of a vaccine, understanding there is no guarantee that one will be developed. It’s also not clear whether recovery from the virus and antibodies confer immunity. If they do, or are believed to, societies will end up, at least for a while, split into two classes: those protected (or thought to be) and those still vulnerable, adding an extra layer of complication in returning people to their pre-pandemic freedoms they once so readily took for granted and now expect as their rights.

Senior science adviser to the government, Sir Patrick Vallance, tells British citizens they need to temper their expectations.

But all is not lost as a group of Oxford University researchers will begin clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine next week.

For the population as a whole that only leaves test, trace and isolating. It’s highly uncertain when a vaccine programme will roll out at this stage and the belief at the moment is that treatments are likely to arise before a vaccine. At the moment the understanding in this post-shock dawning of the reality we’re in is that the virus can be kept in check, but  only with expanded resources like widespread testing, but for the most part countries are falling way behind the level of testing needed.

But all is not lost as Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, and Iceland show that the coronavirus can be stopped through a well-managed and timely test, trace and isolate programme.

As we enter the post-shock reality the following appears in the news:

Nature continues to celebrate humanity locking down:

While further afield:

  • Venice considers a new tourism model after Covid-19 lockdown. On the upside, Venetians are actually meeting other Venetians!
  • Tblisi city hall cleaning teams took to the streets of the Georgian capital yesterday alongside firefighters to carry out overnight disinfection works as strict new measures to curb Covid-19 come into force.
  • Covid-19 hits the Afghanistan Presidential Palace.
  • Migrant workers are the source of Singapore’s Covid-19 spike.

Finally, a tribute to Dr June Almeida who discovered the coronavirus decades ago, in 1964. An electron microscope, then a leading technology, and her keen eye saw circular shapes surrounded by spokes, looking like a crown in two dimensions, from which the name coronavirus was coined. The coronavirus was that of the common cold. She went on to demonstrate visually how antibodies attacked the virus, revealed many more viruses and established a means by which viral diseases could be diagnosed. Like Michael Faraday, she started out as a technician and went on to make a massive contribution to science. Unlike Faraday, she did not get the recognition she deserved.

Remember her.

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