Friday 10th April 2020

Daily Diary: That One Moment Of Weakness

I’ve always wondered what was so good about Good Friday, and I certainly don’t want to figure out what’s good about it today, other than the fact that it’s a beautiful spring day with a soft breeze, a slightly hazy sky and warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt. It seems a very small sacrifice to be under lockdown in such near-perfect conditions. The police have announced that they will be out over the Easter weekend, stopping those who can’t resist temptation.

I’m minded that ‘quarantine’ comes from the French for forty days and this is the end of Lent, where Jesus was tempted over and over again by Satan, Prince of Darkness. Succumbing to temptation is the very weakness within ourselves that the coronavirus is seeking out.

That one moment of weakness.

I’m one to talk! I had to learn the hard way. Just over a couple of years ago Vicky and I were flying back from Nepal. I had already learned in Pokhara, where I’d gone to paraglide, to avoid meat. A night of the screaming shits followed by a day of raw bowels and dehydration taught me that. At the restaurant I learned that the Nepalese version of a vegetable biriani made for a really appetising meal and omelettes for breakfast were a must. I’d learned about Nepalese omelettes from my flying friend Deepak Purna Thapa who I’d go out flying with around the hills of England and Wales. They were cold and in a polythene container, but still tasty. But a freshly prepared Nepalese omelette was something special, and it seemed wherever you ate it. The hotel we stayed at in Kathmandu, The Moonlight, was a really nice hotel that did good food, but on the morning we were due to depart I made a mistake.

Breakfast was slow that morning, especially the omelettes. I think the small stove they used to prepare them had broken down. I settled for a chicken sausage instead.

I broke my own rule. 

Within a couple of hours I wasn’t feeling well and from then on the journey back to London became one of survival, dealing with a fever all the way. Kathmandu Airport’s ageing and not fit for purpose departure lounge was crammed full of people. Its toilets were utterly foul. It was a relief to make the short walk across the tarmac to embark on the Etihad A320 to Abu Dhabi. On the plane the cabin crew were brilliant, but it was a tough journey, including weathering a five hour stopover at Abu Dhabi. Despite the never ending buffet in the business class lounge I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t even abide the sight of food. The most I could manage was sipping a little water. The A380 to Heathrow was more luxurious, which meant I could stretch out and weather it out, arriving at Heathrow at the height of the ‘Beast from the East’ blizzard. It was bitterly cold. There was a long and worrisome delay for a taxi from Addison Lee, but our lift arrived, having struggled through infernal road conditions to get to us. Our taxi driver was an older, well-educated Jewish gentleman, who raised spirits and sang Jewish songs along with Vicky, while I curled up pathetically. All I could think was getting home and being warm again.

A moment’s weakness. That’s all it took. The memory of the far-reaching consequences of a trivial mistake makes me cautious. Vicky and I talk about it between – and sometimes over – movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. There is no such thing as one hundred per cent safety. All we can do is keep our risks down to a minimum.

There is a Home Office leak that is truly frightening. According to Byline Times, Home Office Rupert Shute stated that we will all get Covid-19 eventually. I’m torn between the shallowness and stupidity of the remark. I’m not sure whether it is the absence of a duty of care or something far more serious. Unlike New Zealand, who have nipped the problem in the bud, our own government have faffed around for weeks, fiddling while the virus burns its way through human lungs. I’m left with the conclusion that these guys are no wiser than I am and are just bodging and blagging as they go along.

Something I’ve long noticed is that institutions invariably become extensions of their leaders. The projection of Johnsonism – winging it as you go along – makes sense, as the muddle kills people day after day.

In lockdown niggles become bigger. Perhaps there is more time to become absorbed by them. Perhaps in a little world everything becomes bigger. Who knows? I tried last night to pay Emily online, but couldn’t. The bank had put an extra layer of security to prevent fraud. Now it’s PIN then password plus a texted code to your mobile that confirms it’s you. Only my phone network has an alpha block on codes being sent by text, also a security measure. So it means that between them, the two the security systems preventing fraud work so well that they are stopping me from spending any money from my own account! So I try the card reader, only to find that the battery is low, so it doesn’t work either.

I feel somewhat vulnerable about this. I’m in a technology trap. I prefer at the moment to avoid cash – it’s haram – and although the chap from the bank was really helpful in my plight and got things sorted, what was a small problem had grown into something so much bigger with the lockdown.

As for the ongoing Covid-19 saga, it’s both incessant and far-reaching. I can no longer catch all of it in a day. I feel like a barnacle, a creature that has begun its life free swimming and ends up glued to a rock, waving its modified limbs, its cirri to catch its food. A lot of stuff drifts by but the little barnacle catches enough to get by.

That’s how I feel at the moment.

Barnacles, by the way, are cute. Watch them feed, why don’t you? I’m sure there’s a clip on You Tube.

The Bigger Picture: Eliminate or mitigate? That is the question.

I’m pretty obsessed with flying. These days it’s foot-launched flight, the nearest thing to flying like a bird and it’s the sheer physicality of being in the sky, using the sky to stay up and maybe go places. But I think that desire for flight came from an army childhood, flying out to postings, and after the age of eleven flying out on holiday to Malaysia and then Berlin.

Those were remarkable days for a little boy who loved aeroplanes. If you belonged to the airline’s junior jet-club you could go up to the cockpit, and on an internal flight in Malaya I could even sit at the controls and supervised by the pilot do a basic manoeuvre or two. Whether the thirty odd passengers in the cabin of the Fokker F-27 knew what was going on is a different matter.

It left me with a ‘what if’ scenario. What if, for some mysterious reason, the pilot and co-pilot were no longer flying the aircraft? A double heart attack, or abducted by a passing UFO with a passing whim to cause havoc in the local transportation system? And it fell to me to fly the aircraft?

I’d have to do a lot of learning as I went along, with the worrisome load of three dozen other lives in my hand.

That’s the problem dealing with the pandemic. Both scientists and doctors struggle to understand the virus and the disease while in a state of flux. Our knowledge is constantly changing and it’s often disseminated as hundreds of preliminary scientific reports that doctors on the ground might not have time to scan, busy as they are saving lives.

There are some mighty big questions, not least because Covid-19 is so unequal in the harm it causes:

  • Why is a fifty year old a couple of hundred times more likely to be hospitalised and die from Covid-19 than a twelve year old? Someone in their seventies is around a thousand times more likely?
  • Why are men around the world up to twice as likely to die from the disease than women? Is it to do with social norms and gender behaviours, and do these in themselves confuse our ability to understand what’s happening? Or is it primarily a matter of biology, bearing in mind that the human immune system is closely associated with the X chromosome.
  • Why are minorities most at risk from Covid-19 and to what degree does societal racism and inequality play a part? This is a question that is not going anywhere and it’s one with far-reaching implications.

For governments there is a much more basic question about how their countries should respond to Covid-19. Should they do everything possible to eliminate Covid-19 from their population or do they manage the disease within it, a process that’s become known as mitigation.

Almost all “western” nations have chosen the mitigation option, “flattening the curve” so that their healthcare systems can cope with the load. The exception is New Zealand, which has adopted an articulated elimination strategy with the goal of completely ending transmission of Covid-19 within its borders, and even though it only took up that strategy as late as March it appears to be working, with new case numbers falling. Most cases are now returning travellers, who are safely quarantined at the borders, and the few remaining case clusters in the community are being traced and further spread stamped out.

New Zealand exercised rigorous quarantine at the borders and locked down heavily for a month. They made robust interventions, expanding testing, surveillance and contact tracing to interrupt and then eliminate the chains of viral transmission. Unlike a number of Asian countries around the Pacific rim, New Zealand has never experienced a major pandemic and had been barely affected by Sars.

For PM Jacinda Ardern’s government it was a politically brave commitment. They had rightly figured from the evidence it was the least bad option but there would be massive social and economic costs in the short term, and would require a range of measures to protect those with the least resources, namely Māori and Pacific populations and low-income New Zealanders.

It works. Compared to Britain’s rapidly rising Covid-19 death toll of 7,978 (over a thousand have been in residential care and they may not be included in the official totals) there has only one death in the months ahead. It will only rise in single digits over the months ahead.

There’s nothing like the bold decisiveness of New Zealand’s government. By contrast, we’re in a mess.

 Leaked recordings of a Home Office conference call on Tuesday reveal that the government has all but given up its fight against the coronavirus, and is intent on simply finding a way of ‘managing it within the population.’ The recordings show Home Office Deputy Science Adviser Rupert Shute stating repeatedly that the government believes the ‘we will all get’ Covid-19 eventually. The call further implied that the government will now consider hundreds of thousands of deaths unavoidable over a long term period consisting of multiple peaks of the disease.

It’s bleak. There should be a public outrage, but there isn’t.

The only consolation is a twisted variant of schadenfreude that things are possibly more chaotic the other side of the Atlantic. In New York State, epicentre of the disease in America, the outbreak is reaching its peak, hospital admissions and deaths still rising but the numbers are levelling.

While New York subway people struggle to distance themselves.

“Everybody is very scared,” a subway traveller admits.

In the White House the Trump administration wilfully ignores scientists and public health experts and downplays the severity of the disease, helping to stoke the spread of misinformation. State governors are either playing the party line, or fearful that annoying the president will result in less support to their jurisdiction, which is engaged in a free-for-all in terms of obtaining the resources needed for their citizens. For many it paralyses them from acting in a timely fashion.

There is an animus by the Trump administration towards the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. It paralyses them too, hindering testing and stopping the distribution of masks nationwide.

“We’re being put at risk unnecessarily,” is a common complaint from medics.

It’s not clear where exactly President Trump is coming from when he plays these games, or what exactly he is trying to achieve, but it’s ordinary people who are suffering as a result.

The following is from a petition and it sums up the pain, frustration and betrayal:

“Debra is a patient with breast cancer who made the unbearable decision of delaying vital chemotherapy treatment for fear of going to the hospital during the Civid-19 outbreak. But instead of facts and reassurances Debra is frustrated by the lies, misinformation and lack of decisive action coming from Trump. We need your help in letting Americans know that it’s our President’s job to keep Americans, like Debra, safe.”

It’s a matter of degree as to whether mitigation is mismanagement. There’s a number of politicians in the US and Western Europe who are seeking to divert attention away from their lacklustre performance. China has become the convenient scapegoat. It’s not that China is without a lot to answer for? Why is patient zero so unknown, especially since it’s been possible to track the Spanish flu outbreak to a Kansas poultry farmer a hundred years ago? Why was China so secretive through late November and the whole of December 2020? They are valid questions and a resentment about a country that has been at the epicentre of the original outbreak is understandable, although disease outbreaks historically can happen anywhere.

Part of the resentment comes from seeing China get back on its feet again. In Wuhan the lockdown is being eased and citizens are returning to their normal lives, supported by Covid testing.

Another source of resentment is the way China has started to exploit the pandemic to cement domestic support internally and the political dependency of other nations. Now China is sending aid packages to the West, this time in the form of facemasks and breathing equipment. Its propaganda machine has gone into overdrive, enlisting China’s loyal captains of industry such as Jack Ma of Alibaba into the cause.

Along with China being an inexorably rising superpower, the dark side of a surveillance autocracy and ethnic cleansing of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province, a disease-ridden West is deeply insecure.

A disease-free rising power is something to be concerned about. But that concern should not transform into xenophobic hatred. But it is and there are consequences, as  new data shows that US companies are definitely leaving China.

There’s news from Brussels that after weeks of wrangling, EU finance ministers strike a €500 billion relief deal for countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

The European Parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg also address matters more directly, opening up to the homeless and vulnerable. In the case of Brussels, two spaces will be created inside one of its buildings. One for the homeless, and another for those who leave the hospital but still cannot return home. The kitchens will also work at full capacity, making more than 1,000 meals a day, for those in need, but also local hospital health workers. In the French city of Strasbourg, another European Parliament building will accept patients, but thoughts are already turning to exit strategies.

Economically, the hardest hit country in the eurozone is Greece, just as it looked as though things were going to improve.

While in the case of healthcare, in Spain the elderly suffer disproportionately. They aren’t usually being tested for COVID-19, nor are they being admitted to hospital intensive care units, which are prioritized for younger patients with a better chance of survival. Nationwide, only 3.4% of Spain’s ICU patients are over 80. It’s a similar situation in Italy. So the elderly suffer at home, alone, more isolated than ever and anxious about catching the virus, even from the medical teams they need.

In France fact echoes fiction, echoes fact. More than 1.2 million people left Greater Paris – or nearly a fifth of its population – during the week of the Covid-19 lockdown, according to an estimate by Orange, the mobile phone operator, based on aggregate data. Echoing the flight of Parisians from the city in ‘The Plague,’ by the French writer Albert Camus, in turn echoing the flight of wealthy Parisians from Nazi occupation in 1940. Coastal and rural villages alike have swelled as if it were August. The population on the Île de Ré, a chic holiday spot on the Atlantic coast, has jumped by thirty per cent.

It’s an exodus of the better off in cities across the globe.

Brits urged to stay at home over the Easter weekend as Boris Johnson fights the virus in hospital.

“Too early to lift lockdown,” says Dominic Raab – the Covid-19 peak is not expected for another two weeks.

Bogota police bid to arrest boredom of Colombians amid lockdown. Police in Colombia have been leading stretching and dance exercises as a new way of keeping people’s spirits up during the lockdown.

Good Friday is observed at home as in Japan a divide over the virus surfaces.

Turks try to ward off Covid-19 with eau de cologne. Soap is cheaper, but kolonya is a national obsession.

While in America there are queues outside methadone clinic lines and packed waiting rooms inside, leaving clients vulnerable to Covid-19. Problems have a tendency to layer on each other.

The pandemic weaves a tapestry of woeful human experiences. It’s in their retelling that it reveals itself:

  • Twin sisters, Eileen and Eleanor Andrews, aged 66,  who did everything together died within days of each other after they contracted Covid-19. They are believed to have contracted the virus at the home they shared together in South Wales.
  • A Grimsby primary teacher has been hailed as a local hero for walking five miles each day to deliver lunches to children who need them during the lockdown. Zane Powles, assistant headteacher at Western Primary School, delivers 78 packed lunches every morning to children who qualify for free school meals. Each lunch contains a sandwich, a packet of crisps, a biscuit and an apple.
  • Kay, a wedding dress seamstress has turned her skills to making NHS scrubs. With all the distractions and responsibilities that come with being a mother of four, she is still making about four sets of scrubs a day from home to help doctors, nurses and care workers.
  • Grandad, 101, becomes the oldest Brit to beat Covid-19 after two weeks in hospital. A Dutch woman of 107 was reported as Europe’s oldest survivor yesterday.
  • From a chief nurse: “Patients are understandably frightened. Staff are frightened as well – frightened that they can’t make their patients better, they can’t make this better – and they’re frightened for themselves, their loved ones, and their colleagues.”
  • Every single person discharged from Croydon University Hospital is treated like a lottery winner, a special celebration that is mirrored by hospital staff, not just from around the country but also the world.

The big fear at the moment is having to go to hospital and it’s easy to be side-tracked into believing that they are places of last resort when suffering from coronavirus. But health conditions haven’t gone on to hold. For some it might be a broken bone, for others a stroke or cardiac arrest, others yet again the consequences of deferring treatment for cancer the list is endless.

If only we could stop ourselves from getting poorly.

But it doesn’t end there.

The beginning of life has always been precarious, with risks and complications. During a pandemic those risks are both extended and magnified and As COVID-19 continues to spread, home births have become a compelling option to many pregnant women who’d previously planned to give birth in a hospital, and in the UK numbers of homebirths, always a minority choice (one in fifty in 2017) are starting to rise.

But it’s an option that presents its own problems. Two midwives are needed to attend a homebirth, pregnant women can contract Covid-19, although it’s believed it’s not likely to be transferred to the unborn child, if anything goes wrong it then demands an immediate response from already overstretched paramedics. The home is not always the best of physical environments, even though they have much to offer emotionally and psychologically, with issues like poor ventilation, possible limits to cleanliness and pets. In general, the NHS still prefers hospital births in a more controlled setting and during the pandemic deters all but the lowest risks.

Certainly, where there are any risks, especially co-morbidities such as asthma, or the need for a c-section, hospital is the only option. It’s not ideal. Maternity wards especially have to be kept as covid-free as possible, so childbirth becomes a lonely experience, with a limited or no presence at all of partners.

One mother described her treatment after a caesarean:

“All the staff I dealt with were kind, lovely and professional. I was taken care of and reassured. I had a reasonably calm experience.”

Another said:

“All the NHS staff we’ve come into contact with during and since the birth were working so hard and trying their best under such difficult circumstances.”

For most the time spent in hospital is as short as possible, rarely more than a night. One new mother who experienced complications stayed a second.

“The second night on the ward was almost eerie – they were so busy yet so understaffed. The midwives and nurses were simply amazing but you could really sense the fear of what was coming and how stressed they were.”

Beyond the labour wards, the Covid-19 surge creates further pressures in district hospitals. A number close, with all births relocated to larger city hospitals, often making the experience more lonely, distant and isolating.

Once back home Covid-19 continues its insidious effect on new mums, adding to the difficulties at what is all too often a very challenging time. For most this is the new normal:

“Since leaving hospital the follow-up midwife appointments have been very different to usual, with them wearing masks and no home visits allowed.”

Even one very vulnerable new mother, who had to isolate once she got back home, described the exceptional situation where she was visited:

“We haven’t been able to have the initial midwife checks in the house and have to weigh Violet in the porch to decrease the risk of catching the virus. The midwives wear protective gear when they come to the house and they have been absolutely amazing. I feel for them immensely.”

It’s easy to be drawn into the covid wards, into the ICUs, but the reality is that the impact of the virus is so much more far reaching for those who have dedicated their lives to the rest of our health and wellbeing.

For the mums, family and friends can’t visit. For some it’s letting everyone know with photos and mini-movies on Facebook and the like. For others, it’s walking round to gran’s and holding their beautiful newcomer to the family up to the window. For some, their partner is home-working, as a backhanded benefit. For others not so. The covid lottery begins.

Some are born into the new reality.

Most of us have to put up with it.

For example:

  • The pandemic provides the English Dictionary with new words: Covid-19, self-isolation and elbow bumping.
  • Theatre performances and shows go increasingly online.
  • Video dating evolves its own etiquette.
  • Hull Aquarium faces closure if it can’t get help. Its daily food bill comes to £6,500 for its marine wildlife.
  • Across Britain funerals are given 20 minute time slots to cope with the spike of Covid-19 deaths.
  • An unprecedented plunge in oil demand starts to turn the industry upside down. Electricity usage in the has also fallen sharply. As a result seismologists have been able to hear the Earth’s natural vibrations more clearly as the everyday hum of human activity has grown quieter.
  • A scaremongering message about overwhelmed ambulance services is spreading on WhatsApp. PHE warn it is fake news
  • While the EU identifies ‘pro-Kremlin sources’ as architects of disinformation. They don’t take sides, per se. They just like putting the boot in when people are down. As if a pandemic isn’t enough.

Finally, a notice  from the NHS, following features about Covid-19:

Stay at home to stop coronavirus spreading – here is what you can and can’t do. If you think you have the virus, don’t go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn’t available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.”

We all look forward to a future day when it will be nothing more than a historical curiosity.

It could be a long time coming.

Thursday 9th April 2020

Daily Diary: Getting That Feeling Dystopia’s Creeping Up On You

I get up late, having slept soundly, and that sets me up for a day that is running late and I know how much I still have to do! The diary has become an obligation and I’m too cussed and stubborn to drop it now.

Shortly after I get up, the doorbell rings and I go through the ritual:

  1. Rush downstairs in my dressing gown.
  2. Fiddle with the front door lock.
  3. Entering a sign language exchange with our postman. Neither of us is deaf.
  4. Pick up parcel …. carefully.
  5. Wipe parcel with methylated spirits
  6. Leave to stand, while washing hands for 20 seconds
  7. Open package
  8. Wash hands again

It’s some massage oil for Vicky’s shoulder. Hopefully it will do what it said on the label, ‘for muscle relief.’ We’ll see. Ironically it comes with a number of offer slips, including one which says, ‘30% off your first grocery shop’ for Ocado.

FFS! I’ve been trying to get through to Ocado for weeks!

Emily’s due today on her weekly mission of mercy for the oldies. We had a great chat on WhatsApp yesterday and she is so careful about avoiding infection. Every action has to be seen as a risk and you must do everything in your power to limit that risk. Protective clothing. Sterile techniques. These are not absolutes in what they promise, but you can cut risks to a near zero chance. It has to be assumed that everything outside has the potential to be deadly, and we have to act as if it is so. Even if 99 per cent survive a corona attack, the fact is one per cent is still a lot of people and if I was going on an airline flight with a one percent chance of crashing, I’d have second thoughts. An airline with a one per cent chance of crashing would soon be out of business!

I also get an understanding of halal and haram, of kosher and whatever non-kosher is, along with cleanliness being next to godliness. Coronavirus’ habitat is our bodies, particularly our respiratory systems. But its niche is human behaviour.

On that score there is the discussion about masks. They prevent the entry and departure of viruses to a degree, and it’s to a degree that really matters. It’s all about getting those risks as low as possible. If you’re an antelope, get into the middle of the herd. If you’re a blenny, get yourself into that crevice. No absolute guarantees. Just loading the dice, counting the cards.

So here we are, snug in our lockdown bubble, sticking to our personal regimes and learning how to bring in variations to break the monotony of it all. There is a viral video of Russian ballet dancers improvising in their kitchen, of a comedian singing,” A mugful of vodka helps the lockdown go down.” Video conferencing becomes a way of life and I might just ‘attend ‘my friend Phil’s video-presentation on cross-country techniques to the Dunstable Hang Gliding Club. Emily and Tom meet ‘for a drink’ with their friends on Zoom. The times they are a-changing.

The seeming safety of the lockdown itself comes under threat. First the dishwasher breaks down. Not just a ‘must rinse the filter’ or ‘clean the seal’ breakdown, but a real breakdown, where the programme has gone awry and then it won’t switch off with an ominous working pump sound when there shouldn’t be one. Now I’ve got to say that I really like the dishwasher. It’s a magic box that stops washing up from being a never ending chore to steal precious time. Getting an engineer at the moment would be haram, a risk, a danger, a chink in the armour. So we put it to bed – well at least unplug it – and try to alter our mindset to accommodate the therapeutic benefits of hands in a sink. It’s not so bad. It becomes engrained in the daily routine, and thank our lucky stars it wasn’t the washing machine, cooker or, God forbid, fridge. But you do get that slightly unsettling feeling that dystopia’s creeping up on you.

Then, in the internet wanderings that create this diary I get a malware attack. That was even worse than the dishwasher. It’s all systems go on the computer’s security systems, bells and whistles. It works. The machine is safe, but not before I have a bit of a panic attack at first.

It’s a bit like a crab has snuck into the blenny’s crevice and nipped its arse.

The Bigger Picture: A Fragile Good Will

It looks like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is continuing to improve in intensive care. The leader story for the day in most papers is how much longer the lockdown will last, but the Mail headlines:

As daily death toll soars to nearly 1,000 and virus batters economy, the grim prediction…


Then adds:


Two ‘domestic’ pictures show jolly royals Charles and Camilla and William and Kate.

And the Express reports that he’s sitting up in bed.

There’s something about the public mood at the moment that, despite having made so many mistakes at the outset, many are still behind the PM, and there has been a lot of sympathy with his personal journey though Covid-19.

Someone who claims she isn’t a fan of Boris Johnson claims he’s inspired confidence, has taken advice from experts and is respected by his ministers. He’s done a decent job of controlling the public without causing a full-on panic. If it had been Trump in charge she tells us she would have thrown herself off a roof by now.

There is relief within a shaky government. For much of the period of sickness the PR spin was that everything was under his control. That he was simply going into St Thomas Hospital for tests. There was only scant provision for a PM’s death or long term absence through illness. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was technically Number Two, but the reality is that all decisions are on ice. Ministers are not giving the same answer to the question, “When will the cabinet ease the lockdown” and the review has been pushed back. Health minister Vaughan Gethy has told BBC Breakfast that there is ‘zero prospect’ of the lockdown ending any time soon, and that people need to carry on for a while longer.

How the lockdown will be enforced is also unclear. There is talk of the police being days away from checking shopping trolleys and having roadside checks as lockdown rules are being flouted and ministers are under fresh pressure to shut down building sites over fears that construction workers could spread Covid-19. More than 50 MPs have signed a letter calling for more restrictive rules on building sites.

It’s all a bit muddy but for now, there is a fragile good will.

Some of that good will is being won by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as Britain makes a bold bet to protect jobs from Covid-19. It could cost £50 billion, but it matters in a world where one and a quarter billion workers are facing a major hit from Covid-19. Along with the job protection the Government also announces plans to release £750 million to charities helping people through the coronavirus crisis. By comparison with many other countries the move is decisive, thanks to the Bank of England financing UK government Covid-19 crisis spending. It has become the first central bank in the world to directly finance state spending during the coronavirus crisis, as the British government expands its ways and means account rather than borrow money from the market, with a view to boosting market stability.

It contrasts with the larger, more unwieldy and bureaucratic Eurozone. European finance ministers ponder coronabonds and once again, the Eurozone is consumed by rows over debt, with Italy’s prime minister warns that the coronavirus pandemic could break the EU. Brexit Britain needs that. It needs to demonstrate a certain agility as a state and it has been far from nimble in controlling the virus.

A sick prime minister has an upside to those who wish to cling on to power. Appealing to feeling is near the top of the list in the populist playbook.   

But it is limited. A key reason why it works so well in campaigning and so badly in governing.

It’s becoming evident in America where President Trump’s approval ratings have begun to slide. The president never grasped the devastating potential of a pandemic; certainly nowhere near the depth of engagement that key influencers like Bill and Melinda Gates had. Plans for developing cheaper ventilators and millions of reusable face masks were scrapped back in 2017, shortly after he took office. 

In what his government referred to as ‘streamlining’ he closed the Pandemic Preparedness Office in the White House National Security Council, made the Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (CDCs) less influential. They haven’t given a press briefing for over a month, even though at grassroots level they have been sending out teams of epidemiologists across the country. And removed an American representative from China’s CDC.

It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities to see the danger coming. Hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer foresaw it. In early February he warned employees of his Elliott Management hedge that they should prepare for a monthlong quarantine. By contrast, Trump was describing Covid-19 as being no worse than seasonal flu until the start of March.

When it came to dealing with the emerging crisis, it had to be done the Trump way, especially when it came to supply and distribution. The main source of imported medical supplies was China, via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) operating as part of the Department of Homeland Security. When there were issues with quality a licencing system was introduced, creating another layer of bureaucracy or a trade in fake permits, depending on the scruples of the supplier and importer.

Getting supplies out to front lines across the United States was happening through private companies rather than the fed and it’s been a profitable time for a growing cohort of middle men and the grifter’s art of price-gouging. At a time when a country should be getting a grip on a direct threat to the biosecurity of the nation states are being encouraged to bid against each other and the federal government. It’s every state for itself, its ability to fight Covid-19 depending on how rich it is.

The competition extends all the way down to the hospitals.

“It’s a cage match,” one hospital describes the process.

Add to that Trump’s grace and favour approach, doling out scarce equipment to friendly governors. Playing politics with a dire situation that so much more demands statesmanship. Populism at its most raw. At its most toxic.

“If they don’t treat you right,” he told the White House Press Corps recently, referring to state governors. “I don’t call.”

The question we must all ask ourselves is would we treat a military threat in the same way?

Don’t answer, The question’s rhetorical.

Experts are not expected to contradict his decisions in public. Some do and end up at the receiving end of Trump’s verbal attacks, many on Twitter. Yet again he brings a family member, his son in law Jared Kushner, back from the Middle East where he has been generating high levels of PR about Israel’s relationships with Arab states in the Gulf, while side-stepping the Palestinians completely. It’s a story that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but it has little to do with Covid-19, so I’ll leave it there.

But never has there been a president so brazen about his nepotism. We’ve culturally adapted to (that doesn’t mean fully accepted) Mafia bosses acting this way, but running the world’s largest democracy? Again, I’ll leave the story there.

Finally, there’s all the noise. The obsession with the ‘great ratings’ of his press briefings. The rantings about China or the WHO, the debacle over a Covid-19 outbreak on an aircraft carrier, or his promotion of the anti-malarial drug Hydroxychloroquine, about which the US Poison Control Centres reports an increase in the drug’s misuse.

Covid-19 has infected a presidency and in time it will exact its toll.

Other news from America today:

More and more evidence is emerging for the consequences of people collecting in large groups. Called the cluster effect, social gatherings have become rocket fuel for superspreading Covid-19. Here are six examples from across the world:

  • An evangelical pray-in attended by over two thousand Christian worshippers from around the world in Mulhouse, France on February 18th. It triggered the biggest clusters in France and around 2,500 cases have since been linked to it as congregants took the illness home. Church officials said 17 members have died of complications linked to Covid-19
  • In Heinsberg, Germany, in mid-February, at least seven people pick up the virus at a 300 strong carnival party from one infected person and in turn create a regional epicentre for the disease. The district closes schools and kindergartens for a week.
  • A wealthy Vietnamese jet-setter who tested positive for coronavirus after a trip to Europe attended luxury catwalk shows at fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, is accused of bringing the virus back into Vietnam on a plane from Europe.
  • Leaked internal emails reveal that New Orleans city officials seriously and tragically underestimated the ability of Covid-19 to spread through a large gathering of people during the Mardi Gras carnival on February 25th. At the time of preparing for a possible outbreak there were only fifteen cases in the US and the virulence of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, hadn’t been fully grasped. Following Mardi Gras, New Orleans became one of the largest hot spots in the country and sowed the seeds of other outbreaks. By Monday, April 6th state officials had reported more than 10,500 coronavirus cases in Orleans Parish and the adjacent suburb of Jefferson Parish. Across the state, at least 840 residents infected with the coronavirus have died.
  • In Puglia, Italy the funeral of a man who had been infected with coronavirus became a hotspot.
  • Australia, Bondi Beach: At least 30 people became infected at a beach party the night before restrictions came into force. Many of the hundreds party goers are foreign backpackers crowding and flouting already existing restrictions. It results in the beach being closed to the public. 

Also in Australia, police are questioning crew members of the Ruby Princess after it dropped off without testing 2,600 passengers, despite widespread concerns over the outbreak on board and multiple previous outbreaks on cruise ships elsewhere. It was the country’s largest breach of biosecurity at its borders.

In Britain too, large gatherings and flouting restrictions are a problem. Deaths continue to climb – 928 in the last 24 hours – and the NHS under strain, with stories like Watford General Hospital turning away patients as its oxygen system reaches maximum capacity. Yet there have been 1,100 gatherings since March 25th, including over 500 house parties, of which 166 have been broken up by police.

There is a growing and unsettling awareness that ethnicity is a source of comorbidity with Covid-19 in both America and the UK.

In America two important pieces of coronavirus research came out yesterday. One showed that African Americans are getting infected and dying from Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates. The other finding is that countries with higher levels of pollution are seeing higher levels of coronavirus deaths than cleaner ones.

In Britain, research from the Intensive Care National Audit (ICNA) up to the beginning of April find that of nearly 2,000 critically ill patients, 33% were non-white. This was despite black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people accounting for only 13% of the population in Britain.

It’s also a disturbing reality that BAME citizens in both countries are significantly more likely to be living in more highly polluted neighbourhoods.

Vaccines are still a little way away. Time is so pressing and Covid-19 so virulent that there’s a call from Dr Richard Hutchett, head of the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) for pharma companies to start making Covid-19 vaccines before we know they work. Money up front from desperate governments in a £22 billion gamble.

With so many suffering from severe consequences of the disease the cost of medication comes to the forefront. The profit-based system of pharma within medicine is becoming increasingly questioned in the shadow of a major public health crisis, not just with respect to Covid-19 but for many widespread conditions, such as the cost of insulin for diabetes.

Roche partners with Arrakis Therapeutics to develop drugs that target RNA.

The search for an antiviral drug continues. There are three possible courses in which such a drug can act: to stop the virus entering the cell, to stop it replicating or to stop the immune system from going haywire. The journey to a Covid-specific medicine is every bit as long and tortuous as the quest for a vaccine. At best at the moment there is repurposing other medicines, the most promising being the corticosteroid dexamethasone.

In Britain ICUs find themselves running short of ventilators. Britain has ten thousand ventilators. Germany has 25-30 thousand. However, doctors say the machines are overused for Covid-19, especially with the invasive procedure of putting a patient on a ventilator, which can also involve an induced coma. There are concerns about the treatment itself causing harm to patients, especially the elderly. Many patients, including PM Johnson, recover equally as well on respirators supplying oxygen enriched air.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Covid-19 is silent transmission. Masks are becoming increasingly the physical manifestation of the pandemic, the very symbol of our New Reality. For some they come to represent state authority. It’s madness to do so, but it’s an understandable madness, especially in an era dominated by conspiracy theories.

The events of 9/11 led to surrendering privacy to enable security. It was inevitable. Terrorism brings fear to our everyday lives and society cannot function properly unless it feels safe to do so. But the surrendering of privacy in itself led to anxieties about a ‘deep state’ with dark intentions. In Britain government deceit about weapons of mass destruction sent a disturbing message that we lived in a country that was prepared to lie in order to put its servicemen and women in harm’s way. Other lies followed, not least in connection with the Brexit campaign.

So coronavirus entered societies, especially America and Britain where there was already distrust, both rational and irrational, but to large degree understandable. 

So when tech companies, governments and international agencies announce measures to help contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus the concerns are genuine, and where there are unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation and misinformation being tested around the world many worry. Especially when trust has been lost.

And when governments and their agencies turn to companies like Palantir Tech that are associated with security services and intelligence for surveillance some feel vindicated that it ‘dark choices’ have been made.

It’s only a small step then for conspiracy theorists to close the loop that incorporates masks, authority and trust in our institutions.

It will result in countless deaths yet to come.


  • Singapore coronavirus surge raises fears of post-lockdown breakouts. City state reports 142 new infections as other countries eye ways out of the lockdown amid economic fears.
  • While the world spends on Covid-19 bailouts, China holds back, instead embarking on drive to reopen its factories.
  • A Hong Kong holiday camp has been turned into a quarantine facility. Life in quarantine with its regimented meals, temperature checks and PPE-wearing staff, feels like an odd mix of being in school, at camp and in prison.
  • Citing the pandemic, Saudi Arabia announced a ceasefire in the war in Yemen. Sadly It didn’t last long.
  • The pandemic has exposed fissures within religions. Across the world worshippers are suspending worshipping rites hitherto regarded as vital.

In my own neighbourhood there’s an appeal for donations to the local hospice and a warning from the police about antisocial behaviour.

Finally there is some advice about our own mental health through lockdown. To be ourselves. To accept what we are incapable of changing. That such an acceptance is an act of courage, and in being so empowers.

And to have faith in something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe something infinitely big.

To endure something so infinitesimally small. 

Wednesday 8th April 2020

Daily Diary: A Tooth And A Tsunami

There’s a beauty in the lime-green sprouting leaves on the trees on the common. It’s another pleasant spring day.

Vicky told me last night that she had a tooth beginning to play up. This was one of our fears. One of us would get toothache. Maybe even worse. At our age it seems that if a tooth goes wrong it is more likely to form an abscess, a scenario that could put either of us into hospital. There’s a chill feeling that the safety and security we’ve done our best to maintain could be broken by a single tooth.

We phone our local practice. There is a recorded message, saying the Government has given an instruction to stop all face-to-face dental treatment during the coronavirus crisis and to ring a mobile number for emergency dental advice during normal working hours, Monday to Friday. There is a feeling of abandonment.

They might as well say, “FFS tie your tooth to the door!”

Phil sends me a message on Twitter, saying he hopes we’re alright and if there’s anything he can do for us, let us know. Vicky and I are pretty touched by this. For Phil, it’s been full-on every shift. He’s a paramedic and is right there on the front line. I had been meaning to get in touch but after all the diary work, I hadn’t. I feel guilty and I say so in my reply. Life, he tells me, is frenetic and I can only imagine in the quiet stillness of our not so splendid isolation. I am a terrible procrastinator. I get things done, but only just, or when I get prompted by anxiety or guilt. I know I’m not alone on that score.

The one thing about keeping a diary, though, is that you cannot procrastinate. The outside news rolls in like an unceasing tsunami. At times I find it overwhelming. The TV news is the worst, because it chews everything over like a cow masticating the grunge from one of its stomachs: don’t ask me about the exact anatomical details – it never captured my interest at the best of times. Person X comments on it, then Person Y. Person X hasn’t a scoobie about what’s going on, but is a well-known figure the camera likes. Person Y may or may not be the same, but it goes on the same, with some vox pop thrown in for good measure. Eventually it drives you crazy, so you pour yourself a shot, take a toke, get some powder up your nose or swallow a happy pill or two, none of which is good for your already creaking mental health, and none of which I can recommend, although, being in confessional mode, there are weaker moments when a whisky on the rocks does reassure.

So you turn off the news and watch some mental bubblegum on Netflix instead.

Months of this ahead!

Ho hum! So it goes!

Postscript: Our dentist did call back, and we’re reminded about the wonders of penicillin.

The Bigger Picture: The Art Of Attention (Seeking)

It is ironic that yesterday was World Health Day. It passed largely unnoticed, drowned out by news surrounding the greatest pandemic in a century and there remain concerns about the poorest 900 million worldwide.

Perhaps the poorest on the planet haven’t mastered the art of attention-seeking.

Not so, when it comes to arguably the world’s most powerful human being (and he’s loving it), the President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump.

The noise he generates never goes unnoticed.

Not least – and here’s another irony – that the US may withhold funding to the World Health Authority (WHO), on the basis that the organisation is far too ‘China-friendly.’ China-hating has become a cornerstone of Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric to stir up his base. They’re stealing good American jobs, he claims, don’t play fair and the fact that the pandemic started in China suits that narrative well. “The Chinaaaah virus,” he calls Covid-19, with a deep exhalation

Like so many sentiments that catch on there is some substance. China’s data does reveal a puzzling link between Covid-19 cases and political events and erratic infection numbers raise questions about the accuracy of the country’s statistics. Like the attempts the authorities made to silence whistle-blowing Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, who died of Covid-19 on 6th February and the way China’s leadership had already downplayed the severity of the virus, initially trying to keep it secret.

And it is the case that the WHO had trod gently in investigating the outbreak, by all appearances taking the word of the Chinese authorities at face value. But with the disrespect Trump had shown for international agencies, without those agencies, including the WHO, confident that they had America covering their backs, the world has in so many ways become broken into the domains of strongmen, leaving international agencies without any leverage to drive global issues.

Nevertheless, it suited Trump’s playbook to unite his base within by demonising the enemy beyond. And that’s precisely what he’s doing.

America first.

That maxim also comes into its own with Trump’s attempts to stop 3M exporting medical-grade masks to Canada and Latin America, saving them instead for the home market.

The company has traditionally exported about 6 million masks a month to Canada and Latin America, where 3M is a primary supplier. 3M objected to stopping those exports, adding it raises “significant humanitarian implications” and will backfire by causing other countries to retaliate against the US.

In response Trump tweeted that 3M “will have a big price to pay,” further threatening to use the Defence Act to stop the exports.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reminded Trump that essential health supplies and workers flow both ways across the border, and blocking exports of 3M masks would be a mistake.

“I think of the thousands of nurses who cross the bridge in Windsor to work in the Detroit medical system every day,” he said. “These are things American rely on.”

The company said, however, that it has been boosting production for the past two months and working with the Trump administration since last weekend to improve the supply of masks, raising U.S. production of N95 masks from 22 million in January to 35 million in March, with the entire increase being distributed in the United States. 3M said 10 million N95 masks that it produced in China will be shipped to the U.S. 3M have stepped up production and, in the end, Trump stepped down.

They had more than doubled production.

It was growing into a storm in a surgical mask. Trump stopped short of the row getting totally out of hand and he stepped down.

It’s a repeat of a recent row he had had with General Motors.  Just last week, Trump invoked the same 1950 law to force General Motors to build ventilators used to treat COVID-19 patients, accusing GM of not moving quickly enough to ramp up production, and of trying to overcharge the government.

GM said in response it had been working on ventilators for weeks.

Two days later, Trump praised GM, saying it was “doing a fantastic job.”

In another move the president removed Glenn Fine from his position as the acting inspector general at the Pentagon, effectively ousting him from his role as head of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PARC), tasked with overseeing the implementation of the relief bill. Democrats in Congress, seeing it as the muting of a government watchdog and concerned about the potential for wasteful spending and funding that might benefit those close to the president, have insisted they will do what they can to conduct oversight of the trillions in spending.

That blurring of vested interests has long been an issue about Donald Trump. After all his sounding off about the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19 it turns out he has a personal financial interest in Sanofi, the drugmaker that makes Plaquenil, the drug’s brand name.

Then to make the final attention-seeking place in today’s news Trump announces special support for Boris Johnson’s doctors.

He’s been in touch with great advice, he adds.

While in America sickness and chaos continue, mostly without the attention it truly deserves and partly because of denial by the White House. A memo, dated 29th January, from Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President, Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, and the national Defence Production Act policy coordinator, warning, “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenceless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on US soil,” and that there could be a death toll of half a million citizens and trillions of dollars lost from the US economy, was leaked to New York Times. The memo went to the NSA and several offices within the administration. It is inconceivable that President Trump was unaware of it.

Steve Bannon, Former White House chief strategist, was clearly aware of it.

The “naivete, arrogance and ignorance” of White House advisers who disagreed with Navarro “put the country and the world in jeopardy,” Bannon said, adding, “In this Kafkaesque nightmare, nobody would pay attention to him or the facts.”

Trump denied ever seeing the memo, and subsequently Navarro was sidelined from the task force.

New York State reported 731 more deaths, the largest one-day increase. New York’s death toll tops 9/11 at the same time Wuhan ends its lockdown. It’s the starting point for China’s government to sell its authoritarian ideology that it can sort out the pandemic in the way that the freer – or more chaotic and unreliable western democracies cannot. It’s a story that will run and run, and fresh anxieties emerge in the West that a decline may have begun.

It’s not the only beginning of a troubled narrative. Stark statistics are coming to light only now and in piecemeal fashion, showing that African Americans are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. The virus is not even-handed. Is not fair. But it will emerge that the uneven handedness and unfairness will be a more human phenomenon that the virus exposes.

A third troubled narrative sprouting its first leaves is the impact of the coronavirus on voting. It deters many from voting in person in the Wisconsin elections, and the alternative, absentee, or postal, voting was being made more difficult and Republicans were aware that absentee voting significantly favours Democrats.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday night ruled that Wisconsin cannot accept absentee ballots postmarked after its voting day Tuesday.

It was a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the conservative justices sided with Republican state lawmakers by halting a lower court order to extend absentee voting to April 13, a measure that would have expanded options for avoiding in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The ruling was given just twelve hours before the polls opened.

It was not just the presidential primaries as well as referendums and elections for judges, mayors, village boards and—most significantly—a seat on the state’s Supreme Court.

The ruling favours Republican interests and continued attempts to invalidate absentee voting characterise 2020 elections well beyond Wisconsin’s state borders.

Meanwhile, another chapter in an ongoing saga of Captain Crozier, the captain of the corona-stricken aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, relieved of his command when the ship docked at Guam, now sitting in quarantine, infected with Covid-19.

The firing sent shock waves through the crew, which was made worse on Monday when acting Navy secretary Thomas B. Modly flew to the US naval base on Guam to berate the captain, saying he was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.”

He also rebuked the crew for having cheered their captain as he left the ship.

With those actions, Modly turned what could have been a straightforward health matter into a political crisis.

Modly was acting along a chain of command, responding to Commander-in-Chief Trump’s initial reaction to Captain Crozier’s actions. His boss, Secretary of State for Defence, Mark Esper has carefully followed the administration line since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, including urging military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the virus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of Trump’s confident messaging on the growing health challenge.

But in the same spirit as the knights who followed the angry words of Henry II and murdered Thomas Becket, Modly went and fired the captain of a plague-stricken capital ship. With Trump’s initial blessing.

But when Mark Esper alerted his president to outrage across the military, with whom Trump had never enjoyed a good working relationship (calling combat casualties ‘suckers’ wasn’t forgotten) he started to have second thoughts.

“I may look into it,” the president told reporters, “from the standpoint that something should be resolved.”

Modly was fired.

In Britain politics is much quieter. At least at the moment:

It’s unsurprising that the fashion industry became an early victim of the coronavirus crisis, as it was so dependent on cheap production, workshops that were hard to covid-manage and its dependence on people getting together.

It’s more surprising, certainly at first, that coronavirus-related layoffs have hit health tech startups, but second consideration shows how much the health industry has been skewed.

And as businesses shut down, and many work from home around the world, electricity demand has dropped in Covid-19 hotspots. Some hope it will be an opportunity for renewables to establish themselves further.  

EU will raise more than 15 billion euros to fight Covid-19, Ursula von der Leyen promises, but it’s proving difficult for the EU to get its act together. Europe’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been “poor and uncoordinated, and now is the time for solidarity,” says Irish PM Leo Varadkar.

It’s bad enough for the EU’s chief scientist, Professor Ferrari, to resign over the disappointing and bureaucratic response of the EU to the coronavirus.

And while the richer countries of Europe tussle over how and where to support twenty seven countries the reality is that emerging countries with much weaker economies are also having lockdowns to contain Covid-19, only their economies are too small to provide handouts. Few emerging economy governments can avoid a general fiscal response. Few are able to offer them.

Even more desperate are the world’s refugee camps. A coronavirus disaster in waiting. Most are still free from the virus but desperately ill-equipped to withstand it.

The banks seem to date to have weathered the storm, although there is a long way to go before this pandemic will have run its course.

In some ways safeguarding actions after the 2007 banking crisis have left lenders in a stronger position than they were beforehand. On the other hand, it could well have been austerity measures that have meant health systems, not just in Britain, but elsewhere too, were in a lack of preparedness. “Previously, drills were carried out with a certain frequency to get ready for these events,” Professor Aguado of Alicante’s Miguel Hernández University explained. Adding,” This came to a halt because of the post-crisis years of austerity. Budget cuts were requested and money was saved in those areas that were thought to be non-essential. What’s happening could have been foreseen, but policies and decision-making went the other way.”

It’s an echo of a warning from software developer and philanthropist Bill Gates.

In 2015 he gave a Ted Talk in which, three years after the MERS outbreak, he warned that the world was not ready for a future pandemic. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus, rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes. Part of the reason for this is that we have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, we have actually invested very little in the system to stop an epidemic. We are not ready for the next epidemic.”

The warnings of Gates and others went unheeded, especially when public health became a soft target for austerity cuts.

As for Bill Gates, he is currently spending billions to ‘save months’ on a coronavirus vaccine. To reduce the time taken, he announced he plans to fund factories to mass produce the seven most promising vaccine candidates now.

UK coronavirus deaths have risen to 6159 with a record 786 people dying in 24 hours. However, there are signs the trend is towards the curve flattening. France’s death toll tops ten thousand as Paris ramps up restrictions. In the US over eighteen thousand have died.

Referring to President Trump’s response to the pandemic in America STAT’s Matthew Herper makes clear a serious underlying problem:

“What’s missing is an appreciation of the value of data, and humanity’s mastery of it, as the one weapon we have against an out-of-control virus. (It’s) the desire to believe that you can force the world into being fixed without understanding it first.

The misinformation that has facilitated both Trump and his GOP and also Johnson and his Brexit Tories is now proving lethal. Some go as far as to say that the misinformation itself about an outbreak like Covid-19 is important health data.

And the leadership in both countries have both fed off it and been empowered by it.

So, no one quite knows what to believe.

It’s possible that the UK is beginning to flatten the coronavirus curve, says Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance. Just checked the data – it isn’t.

Some talk of the warmer weather bringing a decline in coronavirus. The WHO is clear that Covid-19 can be caught by individuals no matter how sunny, or hot the weather, and that it can be transmitted in all weathers, including hot and humid conditions.

Even as deaths mount, officials see signs that the pandemic’s toll may not match worst fears. Great! Which is a bit like the hospital joke:

The bad news: We’re really sorry, but we amputated the wrong leg first of all, so you’ve lost both of them.

The good news: The patient across the ward – the one who’s smiling and waving at you – is putting in an offer of twenty quid for your slippers.

On the upside, some of the bioscience news is really promising:

The science is now moving fast. We cross our fingers and hope that the virus won’t be faster.

As each day passes new little nuggets of news define what has become as ‘The New Reality’

Simple pleasures grow in their importance and fear of their loss all too real:

Outdoor time during the lockdown is crucial. Let’s learn to enjoy it together, apart. Draconian measures, like closing parks will transform our new routine from lazy to painful purgatory.

And finally, a warning from our local police.

Unfortunately, in these testing times some undesirables will be very much chancing their luck. Please be aware that there are scammers out there preying on people. Take a look at the link below to familiarise yourself with some of the things we are all up against and let’s combat this together. Stay Home, Save Lives and Stay Safe.

It’s shocking and sad that there are those who will exploit the misfortunes of others at such a hard time.

But it was true during the Blitz as well.

Tuesday 7th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Mystery of The Plumstead Common Lines

It’s the sort of day that I’d be out paragliding. There’s a westerly breeze, a clear day and a warm sun. The novelty of lockdown is wearing thin, but this is counterbalanced by emerging tales of horror from a virus that can kill and is discriminate in its choice of victim. This is a virus that stops breathing. It doesn’t seek to do so; in fact, that’s a weak point in its evolutionary game plan – if a blind mechanism can have a game plan, that is. Understanding the virus has become the 24-7 work of research laboratories across the world.

Having gathered my daily newsfeeds and checked through my Twitter account, I take my day’s exercise on the rowing machine and decide to post the self-assembly game (I called it aggjackt, Swedish for egg hunt and like a self-assembly product in IKEA). The Royal Mail label and stamp online service is working, so I get it organised and go to post the package. I leave the front door and wait for people on the street to pass by, so we can keep distance and I follow a young woman, who looks back nervously to check I’m not catching up, but it feels weird. I walk down an adjoining street and she does too. We make a point of being on the opposite side of the road. There’s definitely a social discomfort I’ve never felt walking down a street before.

As if the very existence of the coronavirus has infected my consciousness.

When I reached the postbox its mouth isn’t quite wide enough. I can’t fold the pack too much because it will spoil it. Going to a post office becomes what seems like a dangerous possibility. I’m troubled by my own mind – this is real neurotic stuff! Things we took totally for granted not so long ago become matters of life and death, at least in the theatre of the mind. It’s with some relief that I find I can just about squeeze the A4 package in through the tight wee slot of the pillar-box, and with a feeling of great relief I hear it drop to the bottom of the box. It’s on its way, and here’s hoping it gets to Em and Tom before the end of this week.

On the way back I take a few photos of people in their ones and twos on the common. I see my artist neighbour Barry talking to an old man with a dog. They’re at a safe distance. I come over and we form a triangle, well-spaced. I’m mindful too of the wind. The man is a Glaswegian, sounding much like Gregor Fisher’s Rab C. Nesbit. In fact, squint your eyes a little and he could be Rab C. Nesbit. He’s rough and unshaven, clutching a can of strong cider and telling us he has nae time for this wee virus. He’s lived this long, this way, and reckons he’ll continue to do so.

“Yer nae frit of dyin’, are ye?” he asks Barry.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Barry replies, qualifying his words with, “But I don’t want it to happen.”

“Aye. We’ll see the other side of it,” the old Glaswegian says. His dog, looking like a cross between a corgi and an Alsatian, and outmatching her owner in dog-years, waits patiently.

“She’s a bitch,” Barry observes.

“Aye. Seventeen years auld. That’s a hundred and thirty in human years, y’know.”

The razzled old Scotsman walked on. Barry and I chat a bit about passing time under lockdown. He’s still got assignments to complete, working at the moment for a park in Bexley. You never think – at least I never used to – who are the artists who make those wonderful illustrated plans in parks and ornamental gardens, but they do exist of course and Barry’s one of them. Barry is a fine artist, almost a draughtsman with a precise hand and a good eye.

“Have you noticed something about the daisies?” he asks.

I look behind and there are the daisies. They are in parallel lines running a little over a metre apart.

“It’s where the hundred metre track was for school sports day last July,” he tells me. “Daisies really like calcium.”

The daisies are growing along where lane lines had been chalked out.

“You would have thought that the rain would have washed the marking out. But clearly it hasn’t. Not fully, at least.”

“Nature is really subtle,” I say, and I think about all the nuances of the pandemic and how the virus spreads itself through a human population that thinks it’s smarter than it really is, a view confirmed by a group of large youths, around eighteen years of age, congregating around a park bench. There are around eight of them, clearly not giving a toss about social distancing. Not thinking about possible consequences. Part of me is angry at the sight, and wants to go over to confront them. Part of me doesn’t want the consequences of a misfired confrontation.

I bottle it.

I wonder if I’ve done the right thing.

Sooner or later selfishness and thoughtlessness could strip us all of our freedom to be outside. Or so we fear in these anxious times.

Returning to the conversation with Barry. We talk about the sorts of thing men at our age do. Of blood pressure, fitness, failing knees and eyesight, with a little putting the world to rights thrown in for good measure.

Then we each retreat to the shelter of our respective houses.

The Bigger Picture: Bluff, Guff, Bluster And Battling For Breath

We have a very sick PM. He’s in intensive care, although reportedly not on a ventilator. Dominic Raab is next in line if PM has to take time off work, but in the style of Armando Iannucci’s ‘Death of Stalin,’ like a parody of a parody, Number 10 insists that the PM is still in charge. Meanwhile, senior minister, Michael Gove is self-isolating after one of his family displayed Covid-19 symptoms.

There is the feeling of being in a kind of political limbo.

So the man, famed, loved and hated in equal measure for all his bravado, braggadocio, bluff, guff and bluster is battling for each breath he takes. Here is the great optimist who promised we would “get this thing beat” in the next couple of months, while in reality some local health bosses have just effectively said that all over-75-year olds in care homes: do not resuscitate; let ‘em die.”

Triage is under trial. The tough ethical decisions doctors face with Covid-19. When the concept of trade-offs is all too real.

We don’t know, but we hope ICU capacity across the country doesn’t reach that point.

It’s not just politicians who bluff, guff and bluster. I’ve often thought it was something that happens when people get too much public exposure. A bit like too much exposure to ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer, and of course too much exposure to SARS-CoV-2 can cause the most horrific of sicknesses, too much public exposure has this weird effect on people. I have a couple of friends who pilot executive jets for a living and heard for myself how some celebrities have become convinced about their own self-importance, so it comes as no surprise that there are celebrities peddling conspiracy theories.

On message at the moment burning its way through WhatsApp like a forest fire is that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is down to the new 5G wireless network. Some of coronavirus’s biggest misinformation peddlers are popular celebrities, wilfully spreading dangerous myths that they are repeatedly told are simply untrue.

  • Professional boxer Amir Khan yesterday stated on Instagram that coronavirus was man-made and “put there… while they test 5G.”
  • ‘Dancing On Ice’ judge Jason Gardiner posted encouraged his Twitter followers to sign petitions to stop the roll-out of 5G.
  • People have started torching communications towers and harassing telecoms engineers. ‘Made In Chelsea’ reality star Lucy Watson virtually fans the flames when she tweets, “fuck 5G.”

There’s no evidence for a secret plot by China, or any other government. There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that it’s spread through human contact, and can only be prevented through self-isolation and social distancing.

We’ve got something wrong. We put people on pedestals for one thing of merit and good fortune and seem to accept that they can stay on that pedestal for everything else. Celebrity validates people and creates a culture that puts a premium on it. And in celebrities it creates a tone deafness, from posting videos of themselves complaining about boredom from their multi-million-pound mansions to mash-ups of famous people singing “Imagine,” failing to acknowledge their wealth, privilege as people lose their jobs and their lives.

The media are also responsible for amplifying celebrities’ voices. Celebrities generate stories out of all too often trivial beginnings. There’s an ecology here. Stories are like fish food scattered on the surface of a pond, inviting a feeding frenzy of consumers who have been conditioned to gorge without limit, as they have been with money and goods and what they believe to be entitlements.

5G has become the main story, with the fact that it’s totally lacking in evidence very much an afternote. It’s not only a number of newspapers, but even the BBC, which reported on the 5G conspiracy without clarifying that it was unfounded.

Platforms such Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram could delete these posts themselves, listening to warnings from users on cases of misinformation and introduce a specific tool to report fake news on coronavirus. At best they’re slow.

The pandemic also creates its own celebrities. There are countless daily acts that might be described as heroic. One or two stand out and break through the filter of the news media.

Such as Brett Crozier, captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, who would not let the US Navy brass stifle his concerns about a Covid-19 outbreak on board the one hundred thousand tonne aircraft carrier.

“Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” hundreds of sailors chanted as he walked down the gangway, relieved of his command, on the warm Guam evening of April 3rd.

“Now that’s how you send out one of the greatest captains you ever had,” remarked a sailor in the crowd.

President Trump didn’t agree. But then I doubt if he empathised either.

A capacity for empathy is more important than ever as we struggle with maintaining relationships more than ever as surviving the pandemic means loss of human contact. Even forming relationships in the first place becomes more out of reach as all sorts of get-togethers are replaced by Zoom conferencing as the creator of the video-conferencing app becomes one of the world’s newest billionaires.

For others it’s stir-crazy time.

Cooped up could mean more sex. Some wonder whether there will be a post-coronavirus baby boom, although the evidence suggests that deadly epidemics depress the birthrate. What is for sure is that at the moment the sex accessories industry is booming.

Cooped up, however, has a darker side, as being together, unpunctuated by all people’s pre-covid extraneous activities, creates deep frictions. People, especially women, all too become prisoners of those they live with. It’s emerging as a global problem after country after country locks down. UN chief António Guterres urges governments to prioritise women’s and girls’ safety, as domestic abuse surges during the coronavirus lockdown.

Coronavirus exposes another major human weakness.

Cooped up seeks creative outlets. France records its highest daily death toll, with 833 Covid-19 fatalities in the last 24 hours. When the numbers are as horrific as this people are in full retreat as much as they can.

But there are still those who seek to lighten the load. In Paris an actor, Noam Cartozo, entertains his neighbours from his apartment with a nightly window to window quiz, hosting the event after the nightly clapping of frontline workers at 8 pm.

Food becomes more central in our lives, from a craze over breadmaking to testing out all sorts of recipes. Many try to emulate the dishes momma made. Others attempt to be more exotic.

Food reveals itself to be more central in our way of lives as well. Lettuce left to die in California’s fields as demand for it withers under Covid-19, a consequence of thousands of restaurants closing. Whether part of the trimmings of a burger or a side accompaniment in haute cuisine, the humble lettuce proves its centrality in our eating out.

There are worries too across western Europe as borders close itinerant farmhands can no longer travel to harvest the crops. Some American states too are curbing travel to fight the virus, affecting interstate travel.

At the other end of food supplies in Britain, additional demand has overwhelmed their home delivery services, especially to the housebound and vulnerable. The larger chains, like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are beginning to get a regular service in for vulnerable shoppers. Others, like Ocado are still struggling.

The displaced form a huge, wide-ranging category. During the lockdown in Poland, it’s migrants who are being hit the hardest. The refugee camps in Greece are becoming a simmering pot-boiler, coronavirus showing no respect for barbed wire. The displaced on British streets become a growing concern and 4,000 rough sleepers in England have already been housed in hotels.

While those displaced because of their sense of adventure end up stranded in dozens of foreign lands, their borders closed. Government is set to charter more flights to bring stranded Brits home. A total of 14 airlines have now signed up to the government’s £75 million scheme, including BA and Ryanair. India, Nepal, the Philippines and South Africa are on the list for repatriation flights. The airlines welcome the charter contracts at a time of great economic uncertainty. It’s a bad time for the travel industry overall, and for thousands of consumers still awaiting stalled refunds, and a warning from ABTA, the Association of British Travel Agents, that the UK taxpayer faces a £4.5 billion bill if no change is made to the law.

It’s not the only news about services being hit hard, as the media industry announces layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.

But when it comes to the economy there’s a global weirding going on. The world hasn’t experienced a global pandemic for a century and the economic order was vastly different then. There hadn’t been a Keynes or a Bretton Woods and at Versailles Germany was to suffer punitive damages that would cripple its economy, create a surge of ultra-nationalism that would lead to a further world war. There is no model for a global natural catastrophe, so while bankers warn of challenges ahead for the economy the stock market shows a resilience that few expected, rallying and recovering on each speculative hope that we might be passing the worst.

Little do we know!

The developing world begins to display anxieties. In Addis Ababa: African Union finance ministers and the IMF have called for debt relief and delays on repayment as the continent battles Covid-19. The G20 nations are facing calls to delay payment deadlines and provide support with balance of payments and liquidity.

They know from past experience that the richer nations will look after themselves first, for all their sanctimonious proclamations.

Back in Britain Birmingham becomes the biggest hotspot after London. Between the sixth and seventh of April the Covid-19 death rate leaps from 439 to 786. Of all these terrible tragedies the one that tears the heart most is from North London, where a mother to be with Covid-19 dies during labour as doctors fight to save the newborn child.

There is a growing tension between public health and the country’s economic priorities. Those with most to lose start to apply pressure, and a government spawned from libertarian ideology is at odds with creating an ethos of individual sacrifice for the common good. That is the greatest tragic irony of the British Covid-19 narrative, as inescapable as the deep severance it seeks from the EU, but that’s another story.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty warns that it’s a mistake to discuss ending the UK lockdown before the peak. It is too early, he adds, to begin predicting the next phase of managing the pandemic.

But it’s for his political masters to actually decide that, whatever he says.

And its leader is in an ICU in St Thomas Hospital.

Despite Downing Street still telling us all he’s very much in charge.

For the past couple of decades in the west in particular we’ve experienced a culture that has sneered at science. Perhaps there is a cycle here and we’ve passed its low ebb. In the 1950s science was almost revered, but got itself trapped in the rigid institutions of the era, so when the counterculture appeared in the sixties and early seventies, along with its alternative world views, science and scientists were victims of that move. It was uncool to be a geek. It was cool to be able to express yourself. To generate charisma.

It was supercool to become a celebrity. Then everyone would listen to what you had to say.

Including about 5G.

Now, with celebrities self-isolating along with the rest of us, we realise that it will be science, not stardom that will save us.

Icelandic scientists, using data from 10,000 volunteers’ swabs find the coronavirus had three epicentres, one in Italy, one in Austria, and one from the football match at Anfield between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, attended by seven carriers, ironically on the same day that Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, March 11th.

While in Manchester scientists are trying to work out why coronavirus hits some harder than others. The curious phenomenon of the cytokine storm, where the virus has triggered a dangerously out of control immune response, and the patient suffers from the consequences of the overproduction of certain proteins, such as interferon and interleukin that themselves cause severe inflammation, tissue damage, even death.

Another observation is that countries with high BCG Tuberculosis vaccination rates have fewer coronavirus deaths. Some hold out hope that they might have found a potential game-changer. It isn’t so. It’s easy to confuse correlation with causality, especially when clutching at straws in trying to end a global pandemic.

The same is true for remdesivir, produced by Gilead. It raises hopes and the science behind the drug is impressive and intriguing. The drug is designed to interfere with the process SARS-CoV-2 uses to make copies of itself. The resulting copies of the virus lack their full RNA genome, so they can’t replicate themselves or infect other cells.

It came to light with treating Ebola and developments worked well in the laboratory, but not so well in the field, where it did not produce the survival benefits that two other drugs did, and it was dropped as a therapy.

Now remdesivir is back in laboratory in vitro trials, and there are hopes, as there are with Glaxo Smith Kline and Vir, aiming to take on Covid-19 with antibodies and CRISPR nucleic acid technology.

In the meantime, there is no hugely efficacious treatment in general use and so mechanical developments to get oxygen into the patient’s body remain critical, big names coming to the fore. Tesla shows off prototype ventilator made of electric car parts, while Xerox will mass produce cheap, disposable ‘ventilators, costing around $100, in partnership with Vortron.

Testing for Covid-19 still progresses slowly but it looks like police officers may be able to get tests to check if they have Covid-19 by the end of the month.

But there appears to be a lack of clarity about what testing should be setting out to achieve, not least the key difference between antigen test to see if someone is infected, and an antibody test, which can detect a previous Covid-19 infection. Antigen tests are much more useful, Antibody tests haven’t been regularly used due to uncertainties around their importance.

Nevertheless, millions of Covid-19 antibody tests ordered by the government are not usable. The tests, which were ordered from China can only detect the virus in people who were severely ill and the UK had decided not to order millions more from the retailer.

We’re reassured that antibody tests will be crucial in determining when to lift lockdowns.

In reality that doesn’t happen.

It goes something like this. Those who have got their heads around an issue and are quick on the uptake about what’s going on are not the same as those who make the decisions, who are much slower on the uptake about what’s going on. They in turn tell the rest of us that they are ‘following the science.’ It gives them extra credibility. But in fact, what they are doing is following a pick and mix of ideas that have in the first place come from scientists but don’t necessarily hold together with any meaningful coherence.

Which brings me to face masks. If you want a classic example of jumbled thinking and mixed messaging it’s face masks.

In the UK, citizens are being actively discouraged from wearing face masks. I started wearing a face mask about mid-March, especially if I had to go to a confined public space, like a supermarket. It seemed pretty logical that since everyone was wearing a mask in places like China, South Korea and Vietnam as a result of Covid-19 sooner or later it would happen over here, so better to start sooner rather than later. People in South East Asia had experienced other outbreaks in the past and there had to be a reason based on experience why they behaved in this way at such times.

I’ve had to go through a learning process about what masks exactly to wear. The first ones I got were slightly scary, more fitting to an ICU than the street, and it had a valve that I learned protected me, but not so much others from my exhaled air, should I become infected, and especially if I became an asymptomatic carrier. At the time of writing, I must have gone through at least half a dozen mask incarnations and I have learned a few things too from my sister Judith, who has been manufacturing and selling them to raise funds for her local hospice.

Under current advice in the UK, people have been discouraged from wearing masks on a day-to-day basis, with only those with symptoms or looking after someone with suspected Covid-19 urged to wear masks to cover their mouth and nose to prevent the spread of the virus.

“There is no evidence that general wearing of face masks by members of the public who are well affects the spread of the disease in our society.”

England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van Tam and Public Health England both currently maintain that there is little evidence of widespread benefit from wearing masks outside clinical settings, even if it was widely the case in other cases.

Maybe a stiff upper lip keeps the virus at bay!

In contrast, the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that Americans wear a face cover when they go out in public, for example when they visit a pharmacy or a grocery store. The CDC said the face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected, and goes alongside, rather than being a substitute for social distancing.

Which seems sensible….

Only the US President said he had no intention of following the advice himself, which goes on to create a culture war worthy of a chapter in Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ between Trump’s supporters, who overtly would not wear masks because they undermine personal freedom and the ‘American Way,’ and ‘woke lefties,’ succumbing to the will of the deep state. Even though they claimed they were protecting themselves and others from the spread of Covid-19, now fully established as a particularly deadly virus – at least for some.

 WHO, the World Health Organisation, is equally ambiguous. It currently advises that healthy people only need to wear masks when they are caring for someone diagnosed or suspected of being infected with Covid-19. Then they say this advice is currently under review. People should also wear a mask if they themselves are experiencing coronavirus symptoms such as coughing.

According to WHO:

  • those using a mask should cover their nose and mouth with it,
  • and make sure there are no gaps between the mask and the face.
  • they should also avoid touching the mask while it’s in use and thoroughly wash your hands after.
  • the mask should be replaced as soon as it is damp.
  • masks are only effective if combined with frequent hand-washing and when they’re used and disposed of properly.
  • people should also practice social-distancing, staying two metres apart from each other, even when wearing a mask.

The truth is experts seem to disagree when it comes to masks, which generates confusion amongst the public. In the British Medical Journal, researchers highlighted that the WHO’s own guidance was inconsistent as it was advising masks for hospital staff but not regular citizens. They wrote: “WHO is providing important leadership in the current pandemic. On mask wearing, however, its interim guidance seems to generate confusion and would benefit from urgent revisions that clarify these inconsistencies.”

And there is a mystery here. The origins of plague masks to prevent infection goes back to the seventeenth century and is credited to Charles de Lorme, personal physician to the House of Medici as well as the French court. His masks clearly served him well, despite having their characteristic raven’s face, beaked appearance and were adopted by plague doctors until the nineteenth century – not to mention present-day steam punk afficionados.

Recognisable masks became widespread in the Spanish Flu pandemic that started in 1918 and were universally used for surgical procedures from the early 1960s.

Masks have been around a long time, have been worn widely, especially in South East Asia, yet so little is known about their effectiveness that when there is a pandemic there is confusion and disarray, enough to lead to countless unnecessary and untimely deaths.

What is missing in the ‘masks are not necessary’ argument is the precautionary principle and a failure to assess the risk. If the worst-case scenario is death, then you should take big steps to mitigate the risk, even if the risk itself is small. When I paraglide, I always carry a reserve parachute – falling out of the sky could just finish me off. I have flown thousands of flights. I have never thrown it in an emergency. I don’t intend to.

I always carry a working reserve. That’s the precautionary principle. I wear a mask, wash my hands and socially distance for the same reason.

We get responses like Professor Susan Michie telling ITV:

“[Masks] do not protect against the virus getting into the eyes. Only close-fitting goggles do this. People may not fit the masks properly or take them on and off. Touching face masks and not taking them off in the correct way may mean people contaminate their hands and spread the virus. People may have a false sense of reassurance and thus pay less attention to other behaviours key to reducing transmission such as social distancing and hand-washing.”

I’m left wondering if all this weaving around the precautionary principle is to do with the fact that many NHS staff around the country are complaining about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) amid fears of a shortage in supply.

Maybe, like the Taiwan government, our government should tell us straight.

Facing the same problem of worldwide supply and demand, they rationed their masks.

Masks are clearly absent from this NHS advice to the public:

Ten tips to help you if you are worries about Covid-19:

  1. Stay connected with other people
  2. Talk about your worries
  3. Support and help others
  4. Feel prepared
  5. Look after your body
  6. Stick to the facts
  7. Stay on top of difficult feelings
  8. Do things you enjoy – invent new ways to do things, like hosting online pub quizzes and music concerts
  9. Focus on the present: relaxation techniques can also help some people deal with feelings of anxiety, or you could try a mindful breathing video.
  10. Look after your sleep.

While my local police station sends this message out on Nextdoor:

“Stay Home, Save Lives: Just a reminder that as warmer weather approaches let’s not forget to stick to the government website guidelines. As much as we desire to be out, please stay home – it really will help to save lives. Do not visit the parks and beaches, at this difficult time we ask [you] to remain sensible and continue to social distance, only travel when it’s essential. If you need the teams please don’t hesitate to drop us a line.”

Every country seems to be on its own journey of discovery. Finding out what works and what doesn’t, what can be emulated from elsewhere and what can’t along with the character and limitations. Three countries that have featured well recently have been Japan, South Korea and Austria.

Japan was one of the first countries outside of the original epicentre in neighbouring China to confirm a coronavirus infection and it has fared better than most, with about 3,650 reported cases as of Monday, a jump from less than 500 just a month ago and the lowest number in the G7 countries.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo draws close to declaring a state of emergency. Japan’s leader had hoped to avoid locking down against the virus. He also unveils massive Covid-19 stimulus, worth 20% of GDP and set a target of 70 per cent fewer commuter. The level of compliance from the Japanese people was high and even though working from home was a major social, emotional and psychological challenge in a country where work culture demands constant face-to-face interaction, partly to show respect, they managed.

South Korea is successfully tackling Covid-19 without shutting down the country by quick testing and contact tracing from the beginning, efficient development of testing centres and systems and a mobile phone alert system that unlike its British equivalent, yet to happen, both works and is trusted. Perhaps having experienced viral epidemics in the last two decades citizens see the app as being a survival aid rather than an intrusion into people’s personal privacy.

Austria led Europe into the freeze, having had its first two cases on the 25th February. It shut its borders pretty much immediately, went into a strict lockdown and enjoys a well-resourced health system with many more ventilators per head of population than most other countries. Austria has been methodical and systematic, and has now become the first European country to lay down plans for lifting the lockdown with phased steps starting on April 14th, making the final steps at the end of June.

Finally, an update from New York’s Bronx Zoo. Nadia, a four-year-old Malay tiger was tested for coronavirus on the 2nd April after developing a dry cough and a decreased appetite on 27th March. She caught the coronavirus from her asymptomatic zookeeper. Nadia’s sister Azul, two Amur tigers and three African lions also developed a dry cough and loss of appetite but have not been tested for Covid-19.

Monday 6th April 2020

Daily Diary: When It’s All Over, A Place To Go

The days of siege continue. No one has any idea about how long they will go on for. No one is clear about how we come out of it. None of the supermarkets have a delivery slot still, and at 67 and 68 respectively with no recent health conditions we are highly at risk yet fall under the radar. I hear a few cross words in a nearby house and know the psychology of being cooped up is beginning to tell. The charity Refuge has a twenty-five per cent increase in calls for help and a hundred and fifty per cent increase in visits to its website. There has still been a persistent minority flouting social distancing by various activities in the open. There’s even a photo of someone kite-surfing. At least it’s socially-distanced. My concerns are about the crowds clustering cheek by jowl on the beach.

The Queen gave her speech to the nation last night. It was sombre, as she spoke from self-isolation at Windsor Castle, filmed by a solitary cameraman dressed as if he should have been at the other end of the camera in the movie “Contagion.” She was dignified and statesmanlike, urging us all to remember what we did in these dark hours with pride, with more than a passing reference to the Blitz, when as Princess Elizabeth, she gave her first address to the children of the nation. But it many ways it struggled not to be overshadowed by PM Boris Johnson being admitted to St Thomas Hospital ‘for a checkup.’ Today he’s been tweeting that he still has his pecker up and is in contact with his team.

No doubt, his personal melodrama will be followed by all.

It pays to be cheerful, although it’s testing. This is dystopia, it’s not fun and we’re all in it for the long haul.

I receive an uplifting email from the proprietor of the Auberge de Gorges du Loup in Provence. We had once booked to stay there but had subsequently cancelled – I can’t remember why. Needless to say, we ended up on her mailing list and she sent out a message saying she was sorry that the auberge was shut down for the coronavirus.

“As you know already the Auberge has been closed since March 15 due to the epidemic of the Covid-19 virus.

“Rest assured, we are all in good health, as our families.

“But the real reason for this message ………. and how are you?”

“Not a day goes by without us thinking of you, our loyal customers, our friends and we would like to hear from you.

“If you have the time and if you want, take five minutes to share your daily life with us during these moments of confinement, we hope that you and your loved ones are in good health, do not hesitate to reply to this message.

“Take good care of yourself and your loved ones, because nothing is more important than your health, we think of you and hope to see you very soon at the Auberge.

“Madeleine, Jean-Pierre, Francois, Julien, Stéphanie and Oualid”

Despite never having been there I’m still pretty touched, thinking of all those who had.

Maybe, when all of this is over, it’s a place to go.

I had this fanciful idea of making bread. It’s really trending. But was thwarted by supermarket shelves being totally devoid of flour.

If you’re going to have a lockdown hobby the lesson is: do something more original.

Anyway, it would have been shocking for my waistline…..

And when I go back into the air I’ll be flying like a house-brick!

The Bigger Picture: Driven By Weakness

Narratives are driven more by people’s weaknesses than it is by their strengths. It’s certainly true for novels, dramas and movies and you could argue that that’s a writer’s contrivance, but it’s not too difficult to see that that’s how it works out in real life too.

Covid-19 is an acid test, like jumping out of an aircraft is the ultimate way of testing a parachute. If prepared and deployed properly it will save a life. If not, it won’t. Allowing for the very rare exceptions who have landed in trees, snowdrifts, even on a couple of occasions five metre high piles of cardboard boxes (although that was deliberate) parachutes not opening have drastic, usually fatal, outcomes. There are no half measures, like half-opening your parachute or attaching it to just one of the two harness carabiners, in the belief that working half as well as it normally does should be okay.

Fail the acid test through not realising how all-or-nothing Covid-19 is and plummet into a disaster zone.

Fail as a leader and you take your people down with you and there are key behavioural changes that can make the pandemic worse.

The first is denial. Countries like Taiwan, which experienced SARS in 2003, were aware of the dangers of denial. Rather like cancer in a human body, denial allows the disease to spread, to metastasise and embed itself in the organs and systems, disabling physical and mental functions. Avoid denial, recognise the threat early and proactively set up control measures and the disease is so much easier to control.

The second is to engage in displacement activities that make it look as though you’re in control of your environment. So the great publicity attached to increased purchases of ventilators, or all the engineering firms put to task creating them, when the reality is there also is insufficient oxygen needed for them to work would be a case in hand. No one is going to openly criticise such stories, as it appears callous to do so, when it relates to people in their direst hours of need, so they distract, as does the ongoing saga of leaving the European Union. These are side shows that conceal a reality that demands a much tighter grip. 

The third is a thirst for good news. A false optimism in the face of adversity. If ever there was a master of promising good news tomorrow it is British PM Boris Johnson. There is even a name for it – boosterism. It won him an election, but now, repeatedly overpromising and underdelivering it’s proving disastrous with the virus.

As someone tweeted:

“It’s always a lovely day tomorrow with Johnson. And when tomorrow comes and it’s shite because of his actions yesterday, it’s still a lovely day tomorrow.”

Among the leaders who ticked all three boxes for what not to do was Boris Johnson. On March 3rd he said at a press conference:

“I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”

Nothing to see here and a deluded belief that there was some magical force behind his optimism that was absent from other people’s.

Deluded it was and Boris Johnson remains ill with Covid-19. His ministerial colleagues are putting up a brave front that he’s still working on matters of state. It’s reasonable to suppose the reality is different. That he’s struggling, caught out by denial, deflection, hubris and that he is an overweight man in his middle fifties who’s been doing a lot of social interaction and right in the firing line for an opportunistic gene-bot.

Nevertheless, most people appear to wish him well. This is a disease no one in their right minds would wish upon their worst enemy. When, hopefully he does recover, he will face tougher scrutiny from a newly reformed Labour opposition, now under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer QC, a successful human rights barrister in a former life, who subsequently became Director of Public Prosecutions and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, holding these roles between 2008 and 2013. He’s much more heavyweight, more pragmatic and less doctrinaire than his heavily ideological predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

He recognises the series of serious mistakes the Johnson government has made to date and intends to ask ‘difficult questions’ but avoid ‘point scoring.’ He intends to be not so much Johnson’s enemy, nor an ally to be taken for granted.

Critical friend is too soft a description.

More critical frenemy.

In America under President Donald J Trump denial, distraction and a thirst for good news is also the order of the day. Little wonder both countries either side of the pond have parallel tales of woe. Top US officials are saying the coming week will be as bad as 9/11 and news reporters are describing the country bracing itself for a ‘Pearl Harbour Moment’ as death toll approaches 10,000. Many believe that that number is actually undercounted. With no uniform system of reporting coronavirus related deaths in the US, and shortage of tests, some states and counties have improvised, obfuscated, and at times backtracked in counting the dead.

According to experts, the US is nowhere near reopening the economy.

In the midst of all this there is a face-saving fiasco as hundreds test positive for Covid-19 and a capital ship of the most powerful navy on the planet is as stricken as an infected cruise liner.

Trump condemns Brett Crozier, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt’s captain, who writes a scathing letter to three admirals, including the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet and Admiral Stuart P. Baker, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 9 and his immediate superior, including demanding the crew’s safety amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The letter leaks to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Captain Crozier is relieved of his command, and there are echoes of when the British establishment, heading the greatest naval power of that era, executed Admiral Byng in 1757.

More civilised these days but both for embarrassing the establishment of the day by having their own minds.

That’s not all though as the President of the United States uses his position and authority to again promote the unproven anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine.

Trump’s encouragement two days ago:

“What do you have to lose? Take it.”

Then yesterday:

“In France, they had a very good test,” he said. “But we don’t have time to go and say, ‘Gee, let’s take a couple of years and test it out, and let’s go and test with the test tubes and the laboratories.’”

It never is established that hydroxychloroquine is the effective treatment for Covid-19, but it will be some time before many come to terms that simply being president does not confer divine or magical medical insights.

Other aspects of Trumpism have a bearing on the progress of Covid-19. His disdain for international agencies has become decoupling the United States from those institutions, at least at the highest levels. It’s dangerous because it weakens those institutions, especially the World Health Organisation (WHO), from which Trump has withdrawn American support. It’s not just the serious loss of funding but also the loss of authority.

That loss of authority and weakness in leadership becomes deadly on a massive scale as the WHO’s failure to challenge China over the Covid-19 has cost the rest of the world dearly. The international body blithely accepted Beijing’s assurances that there was little to worry about.

The authoritarian regime in China can be credited with getting the virus under control and ultimately eliminated. But its deceit and face-saving mean that patient zero and how they came to be infected remain unknown. The origins and early stages of the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic are better understood than those of Covid-19 in 2020.

A country that has weathered the storm now lacking the kindness to all humanity of letting the rest of the world how it began.

Its leaders letting us guess, rather than admitting a weakness.

Welcome to the self-preservation of the most powerful, and with it the weakness of greed.

Which brings us to the store chain, Debenhams. There are 142 stores across the United Kingdom, employing 22,000 people and it’s fallen into administration for the second time in a year. Last time 22 stores were closed. The store chain’s owner, Sir Philip Green is blaming the coronavirus pandemic for “severely” impacting sales across its brands, but the fact of the matter is that the store was faltering in the first place and the ruthless virus culled it once and for all, like a predator making a herd stronger.

There has been a history of store closures in Green’s empire, and that firms were milked of their assets more than they were ever invested in. The scandal of the unpaid, and then reluctantly paid into – and only partial at that – BHS pension fund in 2016, the folding up of a list of well-established high street names, like Etam, Tammy, Principles and Richards, the collection of a £1.2 billion bonus, untaxed as it was banked in his wife’s account. She lives in Monaco.

In better times businesses thrive when profits are reinvested, and suffer if more is taken out than put back in. It’s not just money either. It’s commitment and being on the ball. It’s adapting to an ever-changing environment and doing what’s necessary to survive.

John Lewis, with a very different and more collective management model, has found the going hard, but has the capacity to survive, but reading the trends due to Covid-19, doing the research and upping its online offer from 40 per cent to over 60 per cent meant it’s doing what was necessary to continuing to be in the retail trade.

By comparison, Debenhams struggled to keep up, underinvested because the profits went elsewhere. Yachts in Monaco harbour are expensive assets to buy and maintain.

It’s puzzling that those with money most of us can barely imagine feel such a sense of entitlement to such great wealth. But it’s not something restricted to the questionable financial morality of tycoons. At a time of pandemic there’s a Premier League pay row. When Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday that players should ‘take a pay cut and play their part’ to help out during the coronavirus crisis, the Premier League announced the following day that all 20 clubs had unanimously agreed to consult their players over a thirty per cent salary cut.

The Professional Football Association, representing Premier League footballers, responded that the proposed 30 per cent wage cut would result in a £200 million loss to taxable contributions.

A compromise is reached, but there is reputational damage to both the League and its players. Was Matt Hancock’s remark careless or deliberately divisive in order to deflect public emotions away from the Government’s mishandling of the crisis?

Then there is that day to day greed. Of grifters seeking to screw a pound or two out of the situation. People living two or three doors away finding a way to easy money. The Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been investigating an increasing number of bogus medical products being sold through unauthorised websites claiming to treat or prevent Covid-19.

The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB), has seen an increase in coronavirus-related scams with British consumers losing a total of almost a billion pounds over the last couple of months.

If weakness of leadership has been ruthlessly exposed by the virus, so too has the weakness arising from the fragility of human psychology. In some cases, it’s the ability of some people’s minds to latch on to unproven preposterous ideas. So there are people who believe enough in what televangelist Kenneth Copeland says and does to attend his sermons, Or are they performances? And are they a congregation or an audience as he ‘blows the wind of God’ at the coronavirus during one such sermon, claiming that the pandemic is ‘destroyed’ in a sermon.

The pandemic continues to grow.

People still attend his sermon-performances.

And in a similar way some are so convinced by a conspiracy theory that 5G and coronavirus are connected that they go to the destructive lengths of setting phone masts on fire.

It’s not just such in extreme and bizarre mindsets that psychological fragility makes people vulnerable. It’s the day-to-day horror of commonplace but all to often unspoken behaviour as well. According to the charity Refuge, domestic abuse cases are up twenty-five per cent since the start of lockdown.

Some even go stir-crazy.

A Russian man was arrested on Saturday evening for allegedly shooting five neighbours (for making too much noise) with a hunting rifle in a town under quarantine because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

Perhaps the weakness coronavirus benefits from most is indulgence – the inability of some to show self-restraint.

Manchester City and England footballer Kyle Walker apologises for hosting a sex party at home during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s CMO, resigns after breaking lockdown, getting exposed by the Scottish Sun newspaper and then warned by police about two visits to her second home.

When passengers embarked at a downtown Sydney wharf on the ‘Ruby Princess’ on 15th March there had already been a number of coronavirus outbreaks on other cruise ships from as early as January. Some, like the story of sister ship the ‘Diamond Princess’ had made international headline and TV news. But cruise operators were still accepting bookings and people were still going on board, as if they really were looking for that holiday to die for.

With a wildfire epidemic in the region the ship’s crew had less than twelve hours to clean the vessel between cruises, so it was ready for the 2,647 passengers on its next voyage to see New Zealand’s fjords and mountains. Lip-service was paid to recognising the risk as a health questionnaire had to be completed for every passenger before they could board.

“We knew even before we got on things were serious,” one passenger said.

But got on they did, and during the voyage fifteen passengers died and 660 were infected. It has become the deadliest known outbreak on any cruise ship and the biggest individual contributor to cases in Australia.

The ship berthed again at Sydney, the passengers disembarked and dispersed unchecked to seed outbreaks widely across Australia, making a significant contribution to the spread of Covid-19 in the country.

So great has been the lack of due diligence that the Australian police have assembled a 30-strong team under the leadership of a homicide detective to investigate the ship and its owner, Miami-based Carnival, the world’s largest vacation travel company.

Many questions, not least why did people still go on cruises after the bad press about others?

As the same passenger explained:

“At the end of the day, we knew what was going on around the world. We knew how quickly it spread in ships. People just didn’t care.”

It would be an attitude that would expose so many to avoidable risk.

The coronavirus has a way of exposing, as it does our relationship with the natural world. The next pandemic is already coming unless humans change how we interact with wildlife, according to a number of scientists. By a process known as zoonosis a potentially deadly pathogen can jump from one species to another, such as from animals to humans.

And even back again, as four-year-old Malaya tiger Nadia contracts Covid-19 from an asymptomatic zoo keeper in Bronx Zoo, New York.

But there are other signs too, with Covid-19 looking like it could lead to a fall in CO2 not seen since the end of World War Two, and even more subtle signs like the fall in seismic activity as humans are less busy and shake Mother Earth less than they did before.

And the disease keeps rolling on.

  • Lynsay Coventry, a 54-year-old midwife and nurse Liz Glaniste, 68, an ‘at work mum,’ become the latest members of the NHS to die from the virus.
  • China, which thought it had beaten Covid-19, discovers asymptomatic cases turning up.
  • In Europe the rate of new infections starts to fall, as do new deaths. Spain sees the smallest rise in coronavirus deaths in almost two weeks – 637 – while the rate of new infections continues to fall as the government says universal basic income will be brought in ‘as soon as possible’ to help families.
  • Italy’s death toll is the lowest in two weeks. Lombardy insists on facemasks outside the home to stop Covid-19.
  • City in Ecuador runs out of coffins.
  • Twenty million jobs in Africa are at risk from the pandemic.
  • The market for Chinese-made masks is a madhouse, says broker.

While here in the UK, pharmacists raise concerns about a lack of PPE for their staff and Carers and elderly people have been abandoned to catch coronavirus with inadequate testing and equipment. The UK has no route out of the coronavirus crisis without mass testing and anything remotely resembling that is still some time away.

So we settle for the comfort of tradition as a televised message from the Queen is a rare occurrence which reflects the national crisis.

We can overcome enormous challenges to the daily lives of us all, she reassures us.

If we can be reassured, that is.

Sunday 5th April 2020

Daily Diary: All Locked Down And Nowhere To Go.

The doorbell rang and Vicky tells me not to answer it.

“It’s the post!” I respond. “I’m expecting a parcel.”

“You mustn’t open the door to anyone,” she tells me.

“Don’t worry. I won’t!”

I run downstairs in my dressing gown. It is the postman, delivering on a Sunday. The package was being tracked and I expected it two days ago. But these are coronatimes. The front door is glazed and leads into a small lobby that I have just finished improving, but that’s another story. The postie and I have a conversation made up entirely of mime. He points downwards to tell me he’s left the package on the front path.

Thumbs up!

Big smile!

Thank you!

I get myself a paper tissue and pick the package up as if it’s this week’s delivery of a package from Porton Down. I take it indoors and put it down on an improvised mat of kitchen paper. It’s one of those grey plastic-wrapped packages you get a lot of nowadays. I dowse some tissue with methylated spirit and wipe the package down. Then I wash my hands – twenty seconds, as advised and now totally in the habit of doing. Before I unload the dishwasher – twenty seconds. Before touching food – twenty seconds. After a wee – twenty seconds. I remember my paramedic friend Phil’s advice, “Wash your hands as if you’ve just cleared dog mess out of the garden and now you are about to prepare breakfast for the kids. There should be no doubt at all that your hands are squeaky clean – that’s the golden rule.”

Back to the biohazard box. I cut through the grey outer membrane and find a cellophane heat-sealed box inside and cut into that too.

Wash hands!

Wash scissors!

It’s OCD for survival and I’m doing just great. Everything outside MUST be dirty. Everything inside MIGHT be dirty. I normal times we’re all just a bunch of mucky pups. Cleanliness is next to godliness – unless you want to meet your maker sooner than you’d previously figured. We normally think nothing of throwing all sorts of crap at our immune systems and we know the consequences are insignificant.

“You’ve got to eat a pound of dirt before you die,” Nana, my grandmother used to say in her unforgettable Dutch accent.

She lived to a hundred and two.

Mind you, remembering hearing her wailing like a banshee during her nightmares, I reckon the Grim Reaper gave her a miss and waited until she’d quietened down a bit.

So under normal circumstances moving around, hugging, kissing, shouting, singing, talking and just getting up close and personal didn’t harm too much. But with coronavirus the consequences can be dire.

My nephew in Silicon Valley, California posts on Facebook that his best friend, only in his forties, has succumbed to Covid-19 and died. In California. Land of milk and honey, one of the most affluent parts of the planet and the coronavirus can take you.

Sobering thought.

So, isolation it is. Mass house arrest on a beautiful, sunny April day. Most people, and certainly everyone I’ve seen on the common is being sensible, but there are still those – a minority – flouting the rules. News features about two teams playing basketball in a Birmingham park and a barbeque on Brighton beach. A debate is emerging between those who want to stall the virus as much as possible and those who fear the negative consequences of the lockdown – people alone in small apartments, or trapped in abusive relationships or people unable to return to work even though they’ve had the disease and it appears they are immune.

The question of the day comes from Andrew Marr on BBC.

“How do we come out of it?” he asks.

The Bigger Picture: Up, Down, And Where We’re At

All stories have their ups and downs.

This is an up.

Sir Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party vows to ‘engage constructively’ with the Government to deal with the coronavirus. Although PM Johnson has been in isolation and has suffered a fever with Covid-19 he is reported as being in good spirits and he invites opposition leaders to Downing Street to ‘work together’ on the coronavirus emergency, saying he would invite all leaders of Britain’s opposition parties to a briefing next week with the country’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser.

But it will turn out to be a short-lived political honeymoon.

The Government is out of its depth.

That’s a down.

Minister for the Cabinet, Michael Gove, reassures the British public that hundreds of ventilators are being manufactured daily. The NHS should have 18,000 ventilators, but they probably won’t be ready in time for the Covid-19 peak. Daily announcements about progress with ventilators is at its peak. It is something, anything, for the Government to announce to put icing over the mess of a cake that lies underneath, like a ‘Bake-Off’ culinary trick. It has the ring of a Soviet politician making triumphant announcements about record numbers of ball-bearings. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture it’s unsettling.

Four thousand prisoners are released to avoid pressure on healthcare systems. Normally there would be mass hysteria in the tabloid press about the threat to public safety with so many wrong’uns being set loose on the rest of us. As it is, fear of the virus means it barely makes the news.

The Queen is to urge the nation to show strength in the face of the Covid-19 challenge. Still for many an up. The damage that will come to the people’s perception of the royal family when they watch series four of the Netflix drama, ‘The Crown’ is still four months away. 

There are other ways of seeing ‘up.’ Tory MP and Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment firm Somerset Capital Management stands to make a financial killing out of the turmoil caused by the coronavirus crisis by investing in businesses hit by falling share values. SCM says investors have a “once in a generation” chance of “super normal returns”. Although Mr Rees-Mogg stood down as a director of SCM to become Leader of the House of Commons he is still believed to have at least a 15% stake in the company.

SCM said it was focusing on clients’ long-term security, so while millions are facing serious financial hardship – a down – SCM managers are buying into businesses where valuations have tumbled, but should bounce back, yielding gains of up to five hundred per cent.

It came as the UK death toll rose by a record 708 – including a boy aged five, thirteen residents dying of Covid-19 in a Glasgow care home and the trade union Unite announced five of its members, London bus drivers, had also died from Covid-19

Definite downs.

The Government will not be rolling out antibody tests to the UK. Antibody tests do have their uses but they only reveal that someone has had the disease, not whether they are currently infected or whether they are infectious to others. Ideas like going back to work depending on someone having the right antibodies, which has been suggested in Italy and might be the case at some point in the UK, sound attractive but don’t fit into a wider strategy where who has the virus is a higher public health priority.

There is also some confusion between antibody and antigen tests, not just by the general public but by some politicians too. Boris Johnson called antibody tests a “game changer,” for example. They aren’t.

If having the disease confers immunity to future infection then it does have some use that a particular individual can be exposed to what would be a risk for others. But that’s an unknown, in part because the disease has not been around long enough, or has been sufficiently studied in that respect because of that lack of time. Science is not magic, Science needs a body of evidence, and amassing that body of evidence requires time.

At this point in time, we don’t even have a reliable means of counting the dead, the most obvious source of evidence available. If you can’t count the numbers properly it’s almost impossible to come to any conclusions of value.

Gin and gout, I was always told: garbage in – garbage out. The first principle of data science.

Every day we get one big figure for deaths occurring in the UK, which is presented as the latest toll. However, NHS England figures, which currently make up the bulk of UK deaths, refer to the day on which the death was reported, not the actual date of death, which can be days, even weeks, beforehand, so we don’t know how many deaths have taken place on any particular day, and where the death rate is rising the error is most likely to be an undercount.

But if the UK is partially sighted about the number of people dying it is totally blind to the number of infections. Only one third of infected people flying into the UK have been traced and systems for testing are not up to the most basic needs beyond hospital admissions.

The Royal College of Physicians found that only 31 per cent of doctors displaying symptoms of the virus can get hold of test swabs. Almost nine in 10 said they could not access a test for a member of their household with Covid-19 symptoms, while one in 10 reported being unable to procure swabs for patients who meet the testing criteria.

The survey of more than 2,500 members also showed that 22 per cent of the respondents did not have access to adequate protective equipment – one doctor claimed separately that NHS staff are forced to re-use masks and hold their breath due to lack of PPE during the coronavirus crisis.

A third of those surveyed suspected they had the virus.

So why does the UK find itself incapable of meeting the demands the pandemic has placed upon the population? Ever since the mid-1980s British universities were up there in the lead, alongside the US and Germany when it came to the biotech field of polymerase chain reactions (PCR). It was PCR that was the foundation of genetic fingerprinting that revolutionised forensics and paternity testing, pioneered in Britain. With science parks around many universities and countless startups in this field it would have seemed a ‘given’ that the United Kingdom would have been well-set to meet the challenge.

The problem seems to be that not enough is done to nurture some of these innovative startups and medium-sized companies into home-grown giants, part of a wider failure to invest in UK-based manufacturing industry that now goes back decades. It’s easier to make a fortune in the City than it ever is making anything, and globally orientated City has no special loyalties to home-grown concerns.

It’s little surprise, therefore, that beyond a certain level of success the companies tend to migrate to the US where venture capital and buyers are in more ready supply. Solexa, for example, a genetic sequencing company spun out of Cambridge, was acquired by Illumina in the US for about $650m in 2007 and is now worth about $40bn.

And whereas Germany can count on a hundred test labs and the manufacturing muscle of Roche, one of the world’s largest diagnostics companies, along with Qiagen, a major supplier of genetic testing kits, which are being used to diagnose Covid-19, to achieve its current level of more than 50,000 tests a day, the UK had had to start building from a lower base while scrambling around the world marketplace amid stiff competition for what it could get.

It would be unfair to portray the UK as being alone in struggling to meet demand. France has carried out even fewer tests than the UK, and Spain tried to bridge supply chain issues by buying millions of test kits from China that later had to be withdrawn after giving flawed results.

The years spent centralising testing labs by the NHS also has made the logistics of testing additionally difficult. Countries like Germany and Italy have more distributed lab testing systems. There are arguments for economies of scale, clinical robustness and guarantees of more standardised diagnostic procedures that make sense in non-covid times.

But this is a pandemic and the centralised approach is slower and more cumbersome.

That’s a down.

Once this nightmare is over, will Government learn from this or return to its former complacent ways?

It is the nation’s biosecurity, after all.

It turns out we don’t have much of a grasp of biosecurity in western nations.

“Not one single country on the planet has been prepared, fully prepared for this kind of crisis. No one.”

So spoke the man at the heart of the EU’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton.

Fair play, it could have been a number of political leaders saying much the same.

Only it just isn’t so.

Released in October 2019, The Global Health Security (GHS) Index was the most comprehensive global study on pandemic preparedness to date. It was a collaboration between the John Hopkins University, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Nuclear Health Initiative (NTI). It was two years in the making and placed the US and the UK first and second respectively in a global ranking of countries’ pandemic preparedness.

Even more impressively, Britain led the world in its reported ability to respond rapidly and halt the spread of devastating diseases.

The GHS Index couldn’t have got it more wrong. It was a total blind spot, that despite all the other assets, success in managing the pandemic before a vaccine appeared came down to how people behaved, both leaders and their citizens, Systems, however good they appeared on paper, simply didn’t work if people behaved outside the frameworks that had been set, if they didn’t follow the rules, or didn’t have faith in their leaders.

So the lackadaisical approach of British PM Boris Johnson, taking a month to apply any strict measures, along with leaving the country’s borders totally porous and unchecked, set in train all that followed. It’s easier to bale out a boat when the water’s ankle-deep than when it’s up to the gunwales. That wasn’t taken into account when the GHS Index was published.

Nor were President Trump’s erratic actions.

“Johns Hopkins, highly respected, … they did a study, comprehensive, the countries best and worst prepared for an epidemic,” Trump announced in a White House press conference on 26th February. “And the United States, we’re rated Number One!”

The message: nothing to worry about here.

If only!

In both cases leaders were unafraid and ultimately many – too many – of their followers modelled their behaviour accordingly.

By contrast, according to a recent YouGov poll, Vietnam exhibits the highest level of COVID-19 fear; 89 per cent of the Vietnamese population are “very” or “somewhat” concerned they will contract the disease. 95 per cent of Vietnamese people think their government is handling the pandemic “very” or “somewhat” well. Despite a population of 95 million and a close proximity to the source of the outbreak, the country has yet to report a single COVID-19 death.

In Europe, Germany’s death rate is low, even though it wasn’t a top-runner in the GHS Index. It was helped by the low average age of those infected at 49, compared to 62 in Italy and France, but pre-emptive action from the start, a large number of ICU beds (three and a half times the number in the UK), mass testing and tracking, along with robust public healthcare all contributed not only to dealing with the disease but also in winning public confidence.

“Maybe our biggest strength in Germany,” said Professor Kräusslich, a professor of virology at Heidelberg University, “is the rational decision-making at the highest level of government combined with the trust the government enjoys in the population.”

For now, at least.

If the Germans are modelling their behaviour on the rational decision-making of Angela Merkel, the New Zealanders on the cautious common sense of Jacinda Ardern then it seems that some Brits at least are modelling a casualness in the face of catastrophe on Boris Johnson. He’s begged people to stay at home during lockdown, but London’s parks become alarmingly crowded. The many bodies strewn across the well managed grassy lawns are not casualties but young Londoners basking in the spring sunshine.

Men play basketball in Erdington Park in Birmingham and two people in Brighton have a court summons following their beach barbeque. More besides.

A casual laissez-faire manner from those in charge turns into something more anxious, even panicky as health secretary threatens to ban outdoor exercise if Brits continue to defy the coronavirus lockdown.

A tiny minority behave in a truly bizarre way. A 20-year-old man has been arrested for allegedly wiping his saliva on products at a Bridport supermarket.

And it’s found that that sometimes-all-consuming behaviour, sex, can contribute to the spreading of coronavirus, even though not directly as it is a respiratory virus. Sex buddies are discouraged. Long term relationships depend on the infection status of the partner.

Sometimes celebrities have tried to act as role models. Sometimes successfully within the bubble of their audiences. American singer Pink has revealed she contracted coronavirus as she donated a million dollars to emergency funds and blasted Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis, telling her 7.7m followers on Instagram:

“It is an absolute travesty and failure of our government to not make testing more widely accessible. This illness is serious and real. People need to know that the illness affects the young and old, healthy and unhealthy, rich and poor, and we must make testing free and more widely accessible to protect our children, our families, our friends and our communities. These next two weeks are crucial: please stay home. Please. Stay. Home.”

The latest Covid-19-related death toll in America, according to John Hopkins University, is 7,151 and there have been more than 278,000 cases.

The pandemic even affects how entire countries behave towards each other as international tensions rise. Germany and France accuse the United States of facemask piracy, intercepting then buying up supplies from China while it is in transit through Thailand and bringing a whole new outlook on “America First.” Europe struggles to find a joint approach to the coronavirus catastrophe, both in terms of who gets what in financial support and the sudden appearance of border controls across the Schengen area.

And conspiracy theories start to circulate social media about how the whole horror show started in China, going as far as dramatic claims that research laboratory staff in Wuhan ‘got infected after being sprayed with blood,’ stoking up already widespread anti-Chinese sentiments in the west, Trump’s America in particular.

While the ups, downs and where we’re ats of everyday life carry on, including.

And finally, there’s a bizarre note on Nextdoor:

“Hi. Can anyone recommend a good family entertainment hotel that’s near waterparks, zoos etc. in Spain?”

I don’t know where that’s at!

Saturday 4th April 2020

Daily Diary: Big Brother, Bunny Poo and Virtual TV Panel Shows

It’s a beautiful sunny day. The breeze is warm and the common has family clusters around bicycles and pushchairs. The lockdown goes on and the police are extra vigilant, out to stop visitors at rural and coastal beauty spots.

I watch how information technology has crept into state control of the virus as I do my daily stint on the rowing machine. There are fears that the state won’t let go of its newly acquired powers easily and after the coronavirus crisis we sleepwalk into a surveillance state. It’s a particular issue with China where state control is becoming as all-consuming as any dystopian fiction.

What is going to be hard for the West is that state control will mean China comes out of the Covid-19 crisis sooner and stronger than its major competitors. It will have a head-start and their government will do what any politician will do, namely crow loudly about it from the highest rooftops.

Is this the end of the postwar ‘era of freedom?’ Freedom, unchecked, is seen to weaken, make more vulnerable, unsuitable to deal with just one viral disease. All its benefits become brushed aside in a state-centralised view of ‘the common good.’

Could what is becoming a different world view from what we imagined last forever (such a naïve thought!) and become the dominant way in which the evolution of human civilisation progresses? I feel that insecurity and I sense that it is a general insecurity the West feels in general.

On a completely different tack, I’m working on a board game as an Easter present for Emily and Tom. They like games, and although it is simple it should be fun. It’s an Easter egg hunt but with a lawn, stepping stones and bushes. If the player lands on a bush rather than a stepping stone s/he picks up a card. If it shows one or more Easter eggs the player takes that many steps forward. If it’s bunny poo the player goes back. The board is illustrated with a combination of Easter and pandemic pictures.

As I clear my relentless supply of emails the local network – Nextdoor – gives me a feel of what’s going on in the neighbourhood and unsurprisingly there are messages that paint a picture of the isolation crisis. One says:

“People are still driving to walks in my local area, even though there are many open spaces within less than a five minute walk.”


“Hi. I’m disabled and wondered if anyone locally was making and selling homemade meals. My carer is now unavailable. Looking for possibly three evenings a week when my husband is working.”

To which a reply comes:

“My wife says she will bring you 3 meals a week free of charge, if you let us know what you like.”

And finally, a plea:

“Does anyone know where I can get garden plants and soil, please?”

Home deliveries are still an impossibility as we are not needy enough, according to the inflexible criteria that don’t cover all bases by any stretch of the imagination. I receive emails from supermarket chains telling me all that they’re doing, but all I want is a delivery. Then I feel selfish, needing either to rely on our daughter or take the plunge and risk the viral consequences. That goes on to thinking that there are those who are much worse off than we are.

Tech, as all infotech is now being called, is coming into its own. Seeing panel shows like Have I Got News for You being broadcast, slightly clunkily, from both the contestants’ and host’s living rooms. The Mash Report works slightly better, although in both cases the studio audience is missed. AI is also coming to the fore. It is helping to trace contacts, it’s being looked into for triage and allowing clinicians not to be alone in making life and death decisions, and I’m sure it will really show what it’s capable of achieving with genomics.

Why genomics? Because, among other things, it will answer the mystery why some are so much more susceptible to coronavirus than others, why two nurses in their thirties die from being infected. Yet the septuagenarian Donald Trump, overweight and hardly fit, goes on regardless and you can be forgiven for thinking that some dark Faustian bargain has been struck.

However irrational the thought happens to be.

The Bigger Picture: On The Edge of Losing Control

Today, worldwide cases of Covid-19 top one million. In less than six months it will be a million deaths across the world. In Britain the number of cases of Covid-19 rises to 41,903, an increase of 3,735, in other words 9.8 per cent over the last twenty-four hours. But in fact, we don’t know, because there is no community testing. A new Covid-19 app suggests that 1.9 million Brits are infected, but it’s an estimate, an extrapolation and no one can be sure. We’re even in the dark about what constitutes being infected as we wrestle with the unknown of asymptomatic cases, or exactly what the symptoms are as loss of taste and smell are not to be added to the Covid-19 checklist at this time.

The UK death rate, at 4313 is even more alarming. There’s been an overnight increase of 708, that’s almost a twenty per cent increase over a single day. It’s a death rate steeper than Italy’s and London’s deaths exceed Wuhan’s and if a UK citizen is admitted to hospital the prospect of dying from the disease is alarmingly high.

Those in the frontline are particularly vulnerable and there are a number of stories about them being insufficiently well protected. Two nurses in their thirties die within hours of each other. Areema Nasreen, 36, died shortly after midnight on Friday at Walsall Manor hospital, where she had worked for sixteen years. Aimee O’Rourke, 38, who joined the NHS in 2017 and worked at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother hospital in Margate, died hours earlier, on Thursday night. Both were mothers of three children.

Two NHS healthcare assistants have also died. The family of one, Thomas Harvey, 57, who worked in north-east London, believe he would still be alive today if he had been given proper PPE.

Another healthcare assistant in north-west London, Tracy Brennan, quit her job after she was asked to remove a surgical face mask she had bought herself, despite a patient coughing into her unprotected face, because she was working on a non-covid ward. The combination of a PPE shortage, political pressures and a failure to recognise the nature of how pandemics spread meant that a hospital trust could steer away from the preventative principle of “do no harm” that has underpinned medical ethics since ancient times.

But that’s where Britain’s at on 4th April 2020.                           

In the midst of all this health secretary Matt Hancock reassures us announces that 2,000 critical care beds in the UK remain free for Covid-19 patients and there’s a commitment to by ventilators by the tens of thousands, if needs be. But it hides the live issues of the life-and-death crisis the country is lurching into. Matt Hancock also announces that wristbands or certificates could be brought in to prove that people can’t carry or catch Covid-19, even though the pattern of immunity isn’t understood, a viable antibody test is still under development and how it will be organised has barely been thought through. Say something – anything – to lead people to believe that things are in hand, like a fool setting out to conceal his folly by taking others for fools.

Boris Johnson knows he will be judged on the next four weeks. He’s sick with Covid-19 too. And the Queen is to address nation tomorrow with a television message recorded from Windsor Castle, a rare action reserved for times of crisis.

In fact, the crisis is so overwhelming it almost totally eclipses Keir Starmer’s election as Leader of the Labour Party with Angela Rayner as his deputy. In quieter times the seismic shift in left of centre politics with all its implications for the country’s future would have been major news. Instead, it is relegated to a side show.

In the United States Americans are underestimating how long coronavirus disruptions will last. Epicentre after epicentre comes into being around the country, sending out deadly ripples like the first raindrops on a millpond. The seeds of a second wave are being sown. Nearly 1,500 Americans killed in 24 hours, the worst single-day death surge in the world.

And Germany, who had made so much progress with community testing, and was the envy of neighbouring European states now reaches the upper limits of its capacity.

All that’s left is our own behaviour.

It only takes a minority to fail to change their behaviour for the virus to run freely through a population and there are plenty who are unable or unwilling to engage with that law of nature.

Australia’s Prime Minister has told all foreign visitors and students to leave the country now amid fury at backpackers for failing to follow social distancing rules. A hostel party in a Sidney hostel that needed to be broken up by the police, overcrowding on Bondi Beach despite warnings not to gather outdoors and a crass suggestion from one British backpacker that people were simply jealous that others were having fun all stoked up public outrage in a country struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19. Travelling medics aside, PM Scott Morrison said, it was past time for everyone else to ‘make their way home’.

Restrictions, arising from widespread calls for people around the world to practice social distancing, can lead to resentment. Covid-19 lockdown tensions are rising. Whether it’s shouts of, “Stay at home, idiot!” or snitching quietly online or by phone to the police, some neighbours have started to turn on each other.

Muslims in India fear they will face growing Islamophobia after hundreds of coronavirus cases were linked to a recent weeks-long event in Delhi attended by thousands of Muslims from India and abroad. As attendees made their way home from the congregation, however, states across India began to report dozens of positive coronavirus cases believed to be linked to the event, with more than 300 of the country’s roughly 2,500 cases believed to be linked to the gathering.

By contrast, Wuhan has learned, along with the rest of China, as it marks the sombre Tomb Sweeping Festival. Traditionally whole families meet and picnic around the graves of their ancestors, many of which are designed for such gatherings. This year, unable to honour the dead in person, Chinese people are turning to online alternatives.

Putting barriers in the virus’ way works. Distance works. Staying in your own home works. Open spaces work. As do masks. But in Western countries, unused to wearing masks and having wrestled recently with face coverings and identity, masks are not being taken up quite so readily.

So when the United States CDC advises to wear non-medical masks, President Trump tells Americans, “I’m choosing not to do it. It’s only a recommendation.”

There are a number of cases of senior politicians around the world dissuading people who are not directly in the frontline from wearing medical masks and people’s knowledge about masks in general, along with appropriate non-medical alternatives, is limited. I’ve now been wearing a mask since before the beginning of lockdown. My rationale is the preventative principle – the very same reason why I always wear a helmet, or carry a reserve parachute when paragliding. But I find myself on a learning curve too. A month ago, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said all government officials will stop wearing face masks unless it is necessary as she stressed that supplies must be given to those with greater need, admitting her government has been not quite successful in purchasing masks overseas because other governments are also accumulating supplies for the purpose of preventing Covid-19 from spreading in their own countries. The top priority had to be to ensure the supply of surgical masks for workers in healthcare settings or those in contact with patients.

It’s an understandable restraint, honestly put.

Western countries get round the same problem by saying nothing, or even in the case of Tracey Hannan, actively dissuading their use. Leaving me feeling like some kind of weirdo as I fill up at my local petrol station.

Which I don’t seem to be doing much of.

I must confess to have been pretty dismissive of the psychological consequences of isolation, the ultimately secure distancing from the virus. It’s nothing to be proud of – just my own narrowness of perspective. I used to think that the psychological impact of extended spaceflight, especially if you had fellow astronauts on board with you, was somewhat over-egged. It’s pretty clear now that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Human beings are by nature social animals and Covid-19 is already harming people’s mental health.

So when Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, the 13-year-old South Londoner who died from Covid-19, is buried without his family, because two siblings have tested positive and his mother has had to self-isolate, I can feel the shadows of horror and pain and begin to grasp the sheer awfulness of the situation we are all in.

It’s that, I think, that has spurred a drive for people to find creative ways to support each other. The common enemy has healed divisions. Restaurants, having lost their usual clients, prepare meals for the homeless, people volunteer for mental health phone hotlines, food banks, running errands and shopping for the house-bound, streaming entertainment online and generally looking out for each other. It might all be ‘for now’ but it’s special, and displays a set of values that drowns in pre-covid consumerism.

Life is changing.

  • A ground-breaking drone start-up in Ireland delivers medicines and groceries to vulnerable people who are self-isolating due to Covid-19.
  • The Royal Mail issues strict new rules for deliveries to tackle Covid-19.
  • Tech plays a bigger part than ever before in making isolation a little more bearable.
  • Online tours of museums and galleries are available.
  • And in the car depleted streets the bicycle makes a comeback. There is a boom in sales.

And while we are locked down in our homes advice comes from all sorts of quarters about productive ways in which we can spend our time.

Here are ten recommendations from ‘Hello’ magazine:

  • Learn a language
  • Organise your wardrobe
  • Learn to play an instrument
  • Update your CV and professional accounts
  • Write a novel
  • Start a blog
  • Get fit
  • Do some gardening
  • Upcycle your furniture
  • Learn to code

Finally, not a green shoot of the end to the coronavirus nightmare. Maybe a germinating seed as Brits are ‘to be asked’ to volunteer for Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials.

A glimmer of hope.

Friday 3rd April 2020

Daily Diary: Street Hopscotch And Other Such Things

There are bluebells out the front today. The air is a little cooler and the sky is active with racing clouds. I’m making a special point of not looking too closely at them, and my weather head that comes with fairly regular paragliding has been put well aside. It’s best not to think about what you’ve lost. The things you’ve enjoyed. The past. There is only the here and now, and that’s all that matters.

There are the little things that matter as we sail on through this period of isolation. Watching people walk across the common in ones and twos. Dogwalkers, families with small children, bats and balls. It’s like being next to a playground – a source of sanity in an otherwise claustrophobic world. Just around the corner, going down to post a letter, I can see paving slabs chalked over for hopscotch. I can’t remember that being done since childhood days and it brings back those simple pleasures that hold together human experience. Lockdown has revealed the importance of human interaction by making it a commodity in short supply.

There is the online daily reality as well. I get an email from Café Rouge with a recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon under the heading ‘Quarantine Menu.’ Big sister Corrie (she’s always been Big Sis as I’ve been Little Bro) sends me a Beatles spoof via Facebook, “I’m gonna wash my hands….”

Little Sis Judith has just joined Facebook today. We exchange a couple of messages. Em Deliveries all happens via WhatsApp and I promise myself to look into Zoom. Family connectivity almost totally virtual.

Emily did come round with the groceries at 5.20 yesterday afternoon. It’s just nice seeing our daughter, even if it is two eyes above a mask and jazz Marigold hands. Vicky and I can’t spell out too much how grateful we are for all that she’s doing for us. We have become the dependent oldies long before we ever planned to (does anyone ever plan for that?) and we’re quite conflicted both psychologically and emotionally. But coronavirus is unforgiving. We are reminded that a force of nature has no feelings, makes no judgements and does not care because it is unable to care. I’ve long been aware that there is a total indifference in the universe. I know this through paragliding and when you first come upon this stark realisation it is both daunting and frightening.

It’s humbling too.

The only thing each and every one of us is to lessen the risk until it is as near to zero as it can possibly be. Sure, there is such a thing as luck, but only a fool would count on something so arbitrary and capricious.

At eight o’clock Vicky and I go out for the Thursday Clap. It is louder this time. Claire comes out next door and Cathy and Tom next door but one. The clap becomes a conversation which lasts half an hour or so. Socially distanced, of course. We put the world to rights and talk about the bizarre consequences of being isolated. People don’t quite know how to behave towards each other in the street. There’s a slightly awkward friendliness between fellow isolates. People say hello, then avert their eyes. It’s politeness, but it’s strange. Joggers say sorry as they pass you in the street, or re-route so they pass at least two metres away. There is a joke doing the rounds that the over-60s have finally learned measure in metric.

The temperature drops as evening falls. Eventually I go in, but Vicky stays out for a conversation that lasts an hour and a half, as darkness swallows the street. Vicky loves the heat and hates the cold, and there she is in jeans, t-shirt and stockinged feet on the paving slabs. I bring her my flying jacket – a light but warm mountaineer’s jacket – and drape it over her shoulders, but I don’t have anything at hand for her feet. But she and Cathy are so absorbed in conversation she carries on when I wimp out and return to watch TV in the warmth. We were watching a film, “The Leisure Seeker,” with Donald Sutherland as an ageing retired lecturer with Alzheimers, and his wife, Helen Mirren, who’s dying of cancer. They were on a final road trip to Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida. It’s touching and poignant, and perhaps spells out the hurdles of the next decade or two …. But I paused it while Vicky was chatting and watched a daft ‘real life’ programme about driving tests. We decided not to watch the news on TV. The coronavirus epic is so overwhelming and so all-consuming that, outside of this diary, we’re giving it a wide berth.

The weird thing is that I can detach myself while collecting stories for the diary – it’s somehow different.

That’s both strange and disconcerting.

The Bigger Picture: The Dawn of Problems With Belief

Half of humanity is now under lockdown as ninety countries call for confinement. It’s the first pandemic that can be tracked through the location information of smartphones that themselves spread like a virus through the human population a decade earlier. Google publishes location data across 130 countries to show how the coronavirus lockdowns are working.

Covid-19’s death toll appears to be higher than official figures suggest and there’s emerging evidence of countries, especially the richer ones, already looking after their own interests first. There’s a lot of virtue-signalling politicians are making to the WHO, but I’m left with a horrible feeling that for the most part it’s hypocrisy and window-dressing.        

The fight against the coronavirus has paralysed whole societies and their economies. Lockdown measures are short-term solutions, tried and tested through history, actions of last resort that threaten rapid economic destruction and the erosion of social order. There are troubling parallels with a patient severely infected with the coronavirus being killed by his own immune response.

But the principles behind the good people of Eyam, who kept the outbreak of the 1665 plague from spreading to its neighbouring Derbyshire communities apply as much today as they ever did. Eyam, was one of the few places outside London to be infected. They kept it that way.

Isolation is hard and involves sacrifices.

Politicians in the West don’t like having to ask citizens to make sacrifices. Such actions cost votes in their calculations.

So what follows is a problem with belief.                   

And that for the British government, which came to power promising an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit as its overriding priority before being overwhelmed by Covid-19, is going to prove difficult. PM Boris Johnson remains bullish on this, and for now there is little dissent. Whether it being part of the honeymoon period or the public being distracted by the pandemic is hard to tell, but beneath the surface, for those more directly involved in dealing with Brexit there are concerns.

BBC reporter, Lewis Goodall tweeted: “Have talked to officials across a number of departments in Whitehall. As I reported on Newsnight just now they are expecting an extension of the Brexit transition period. One told me, “if it doesn’t come, I don’t know what we’ll do – with coronavirus we realistically can’t do both.”

Time will test this tweet.

The public persona of Boris Johnson before his isolation with Covid-19 was a leader guided by science, appearing flanked by senior scientific and public health advisers. The reality is that the UK’s approach to dealing with coronavirus has been decided by politicians especially those in Number 10 – not scientists. It was the government that decided how many test kits would be available and how social distancing was to be implemented and enforced.

It’s a useful deceit, but for now people are believing and supporting it.

They’re even accepting the doctrine they sneered at when it came to the former leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. The outbreak shows one point at least he was right – that when there is a crisis, money can always be found.

With community testing, having abandoned testing mid-March, the UK now lags behind other countries, but Matt Hancock, the health minister has now pledged to up the ante with a new action plan for Covid-19 testing. But it’s not clear what that plan is going to be. Evidence emerges that Covid-19 is spreading too fast for traditional contact tracing, and whether a government in catch-up will be able to get things moving fast enough in the foreseeable future.

At one level it is terrifying. We don’t fully know where and when the cases – and deaths – will peak. We don’t know whether not just the NHS, but health services in other countries, are going to be overwhelmed. Visions of that beginning to happen in northern Italy haven’t faded in people’s minds.

“Absolutely Mission Impossible,” says the CEO of Drägerwerk, a world leader in the production of ventilators, really challenged to keep up with the current demand, as the coronavirus crisis accelerates. Others chip in from other engineering quarters, turning their hand to building these life-saving machines. Formula 1 comes up with a breathing machine. Racing car engineers are applying their expertise to medicine.

While on the frontline ethical systems are being developed to allocate scarce ventilators and ICU beds to avoid counting any group out. Survivability while under treatment and longer-term survivability for the over-75s are primary issues, with a year’s continuation of life as being the reference line.

The triage between treatment and palliative care, between life and death comes closer to being a reality with each passing day.

For the most part the public are spared this horror.

There is a problem with belief for the US government too. CIA hunts for virus totals in China. Dismissing Chinese government tallies, intelligence officials have told the White House for weeks that China has vastly understated the spread of the coronavirus and the damage the pandemic has done.

And there is a problem with the US government’s own credibility. The Environment Protection Agency, it’s Trump appointee chief, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist committed to as many environmental rollbacks as he can manage, with dozens already under his belt, is allegedly using Covid-19 as an excuse to stop policing massive polluters.

But these blows to people’s beliefs are not only the act of governments. Social media is already contributing. A bizarre conspiracy theory circulates on Facebook that 5G is causing the coronavirus pandemic by lowering human immunity to it – theory about towers, Wuhan (which is not alone in China with its use of 5G) and radiation. Some people take the rumour-mongering so seriously that towers are damaged, even destroyed, the irony being that social media itself becomes harmed in the process.

It’s not the only conspiracy theory. Trump’s senior medical adviser, and advocate of sensible preventative behaviour, Dr Anthony Fauci’s personal security has been stepped up after threats to his safety. Dealing with the pandemic has become tribalised and politicised, and what should be calm and rational behaviour to protect the common good, becomes something much darker and more hysterical.

If people stop believing how will it be possible to protect society through its own collective action?

It’s a spin-off pandemic of its own kind as viral memes change the perception of human brains.

Unemployment rises. It hits 3.3 million in the United States but Rishi Sunak’s early intervention largely prevents a similar catastrophe in the UK. Food prices do too. Governments splash to keep big companies afloat, but struggle with which merit supporting and how they set about doing it. New companies, particularly technology startups are especially vulnerable, because they haven’t had time to build up the track record necessary

 In Europe, the danger of a new euro crisis is growing. Weak member states like Italy need help if they’re going to survive the coronavirus lockdown financially. But the call for Eurobonds has been met with stiff resistance, especially from the Germans.

While in Britain, March was the best month for UK supermarkets. No prizes for the top selling lines!

Finally, here are a few things that coloured our day to day reality in the newsfeeds on April 2nd:

  • Amazon tribes are at acute risk from the coronavirus. The vectors are often missionaries. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro does nothing to help them.
  • And to lighten our darker moods the British entertainment industry tries out creative ideas. National Theatre’s first live showing took place on Thursday 2nd April at 7 pm. “One Man, Flu, Two Guvnors.” Have I Got News for You will return for a new series, assuming the form of an elaborate video conference, with producers building a virtual set around Ian Hislop. Paul Merton and the other show’s guests will beam in from their living rooms. Again, we will be distracted by their bookshelves.

Thursday 2nd April 2020

Daily Diary: The View From a Bubble

The forsythia bush in the back garden is bright yellow and there is a pale, lime-green haze over the trees as spring comes into being. The air is definitely warming up and I don’t feel that wintry bite in the conservatory where I make my first handwritten notes for the daily diary.

Perhaps the hardest thing is the wall to wall news coverage of the pandemic on the TV and it begins to be a strain. So we’ve decided not to watch news programmes and we’re trusting to iPlayer, Netflix and Amazon Prime to see us through.

We’re waiting for our daughter, Emily, to come through with the groceries, but still hoping for an alternative elsewhere. When it comes to pandemic logistics it’s still SNAFU and the whole country is trying to find its feet.

I sign a petition for PPE for frontline workers. I also sign up to Open Democracy Covid-19 Watch. There are concerns that the pandemic, having forced changes in government and curtailed citizens’ rights, has drawn too much power to leaders. Viktor Orban has already become de facto leader of Hungary and the EU appears toothless in doing anything about it, other than expressing concerns with the faux-ineffectualness of Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory. So how proportionate are these changes? How long lasting? History teaches us that power, once acquired, is very hard to relinquish. This is a global problem following a global pandemic.

The virus has the capacity to be really nasty. It appears to hit the muscles enabling ventilation really hard, making inhalation very difficult. With that comes fear. Will it infect anyone close? Will it affect those in our family who already have health issues? We have relatives with Alzheimers, asthma, diabetes and post-cancer throat surgery. It’s all too easy to be drawn into all this and the line between carting and worrying is a fine one.

I get an email from Toyota credit brokers. Fortunately, on a personal level we haven’t so far been financially hit hard by the crisis but we are aware that many have been, and it’s all been quite a lottery. It’s not just the rents and mortgages, but in the green new deal that’s already beginning to impact in London when it comes to motoring, we’re all being encouraged to buy newer and more environmentally friendly vehicles, there must be thousands upon thousands of unpayable debts. It’s a story that hasn’t been picked up by the press and news media yet. Maybe it will, but in these uncertain times you can’t be sure about anything.

I feel like I’m staring out of a bubble, not being sure whether the real world is inside or out.

The Bigger Picture: The Castle Keep

“You feel breathless and you understand this might be your last breath.”

So spoke a survivor as in the UK a person is dying from Covid-19 every two and a half minutes. With a 24 per cent death toll increase in the last 24 hours – some 569 souls – Britain sees its largest daily increase.

This is the castle-keep. If the coronavirus has got this far there have been a few failures.

The first is a failure of government. In Britain the obsession with Brexit has not only contributed to the delay in the Government’s response to the pandemic, but also in an attitude of insularity that meant Britain turning its back on collaborative efforts with neighbouring states, leaving  the European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC),  the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and turning down an offer of being involved in the EU ventilator scheme.

There is still not a full grasp of the efficacy of social distancing measures, despite the fact that data from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic shows the tighter the restrictions the better the outcomes. The use of face masks is little understood, yet recommendations that people not wear face masks unless they are sick with Covid-19 or caring for someone who is sick are being made by the World Health Organisation as recently as two days ago. Whether this is a medically held view (you would have thought there had been enough respiratory epidemics around for them to know by now) or the very practical problem of there not being enough face masks to go round, and as Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the WHO, said at a briefing two days ago that it is important “we prioritize the use of masks for those who need it most,” which would be frontline health care workers, is not spelled out, but today the British government urges citizens to start wearing face masks, albeit in a somewhat muddled way about where and when.

While people around the country take up sewing masks, and some hospitals, facing dire shortage, welcome them.

There’s been a failure in testing and tracing. Such a system works well when an epidemic is in its early stages, or if the rate of transmission is relatively slow. It soon gets overwhelmed by a rapidly spreading pandemic, especially on where there are so many asymptomatic carriers. We are still learning the finer points of Covid-19’s symptoms and some research is indicating that loss of taste and smell are an early symptom of infection. There are developments, an antibody test will soon be available, although it indicates whether a person has had the disease, not whether they are infectious. Stable doors and bolting horses come to mind. Smartphone apps are appearing, although there are concerns about this is the thin end of the wedge in becoming a surveillance society.

It did not help that the UK government abandoned widespread test and trace a fortnight ago

So, to be infected the virus has had to cross those potential hurdles and at the moment, without a vaccine in sight, it does so without too much difficulty.

And reaches the castle-keep.

4,244 people test positive for Covid-19 in the United Kingdom today, but since so many of these tests are admissions to hospital the figure is not a fair indication of how widespread it is. Over twenty-two thousand casualties are already hospitalised, and of those four and a half thousand in intensive care. 574 are on mechanical ventilators and in the last twenty-four hours there have been 569 deaths.

That’s a fair bit of battling inside the keep. It’s not the derring-do of Errol Flynn but the grim, knackering slog of dedicated medics and the personal mortal struggle of hundreds of patients, many in induced comas, left to communicate their plight only by the numbers, traces and bleeps of bedside instruments. And behind the façade generated by tubes, wires and electronics the reality is that doctors are for the most part treating the disease with tech from the 1980s.

Promising possibilities are being shown by AI in triaging and information sharing, but the speed of spread by the pandemic currently outstrips that as frontline staff deal with the relentless day to day.

In many cases there’s even the inner sanctum within the keep as hospitals across Europe and the US either split into Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 zones, partition entirely, with entire hospitals dedicated to the coronavirus, while temporary hospitals are being set up for other needs, or create Covid-19 field hospitals of one sort or another, such as the Nightingale hospitals emerging in the UK.

Even so, the shortfalls are staggering. New York alone needs to contend with the coming wave: 3.3 million N95 masks, 2.1 million surgical masks, 100,000 isolation gowns and 400 additional ventilators.

To rub salt into the wound, the US does have a ventilator stockpile but thousands do not work due to expired maintenance contracts.

Some scientists in the UK say they’re confident they have reached a turning point in the battle, but it will still be a month before that translates into what most could see as things getting better. Meanwhile, the daily stress, the witnessing of continuing human tragedy and the relentlessness of it all takes its toll on healthcare workers and there are concerns about the kind of moral injury previously seen in combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan appearing in their ranks.

Despite that Boris Johnson’s approval rating is 72 per cent – the highest since Thatcher during the Falklands War. So far, the British public are being pretty forgiving of all the mistakes the Government have made.

It also appears to be regardless of the fact that many people’s lives have become fraught with real financial difficulties. There are a number of cases of financial institutions being less than helpful in unexpected hard times. Business minister Ashok Sharma criticises as ‘unacceptable’ banks for refusing financial help to small companies.

Too many people will also be left behind by the help for the self-employed. The flexibility within the UK job market and its lack of protections becomes really problematic during a major health crisis, particularly with a trend towards franchises and zero hours contracts.

But for now, it hasn’t eaten its way into the wider public consciousness. We like to think that we’re all in it together ….

But some are more in it than others.

Will it last?

That will depend, among other things, on how UK deaths compare to other places.

And that will take time to pan out.

As with every day, across Britain, the pandemic is characterised by many stories:

  • The COP26 climate change conference due in Glasgow this November has been postponed. It has been an aspirational landmark for PM Johnson’s ‘Green Britain.’ It now has to wait another year.
  • BA is expected to suspend 36,000 staff after coronavirus grounds flights.
  • It’s looking more and more like the coronavirus is on its way to sinking the cruise-ship business. Its PR could not be worse with nightmarish stories going back to February when outbreak on the British registered Diamond Princess claimed 700 cases and 14 deaths. Environmentally unfriendly, with a history of other non-Covid outbreaks, the industry has been losing friends. It may well be that the elderly, the core of its customer base, will shun it for good.
  • There’s some unsettlingly gothic about cemeteries becoming closed to the public. More to the point, unsettlingly tragic.
  • There’s a public outcry when Tottenham Hotspur footballers continue to be paid the full whack of £70K per week, but other workers there are now on an 80 per cent wage.
  • Some pubs adapt. Two thousand are to reopen as click and collect supermarkets during the coronavirus lockdown. Greene King, Admiral Taverns and St Austell will allow tenants and leaseholders to open grocery stores.
  • Loneliness in coronavirus lockdown is fast becoming an issue. Some, especially elderly people on their own, are frightened of contacting others for fear of being a nuisance.
  • While some approaches are distinctly unwelcome as text messages appear, telling people they have been fined for stepping outside during lockdown. With a phishing link included. Welcome to the low-life among us who see the pandemic as an opportunity for predation.

As it is abroad:

  • Belarus Football League continues to play matches as the rest of Europe locks down. With less than 100 positive cases and no deaths in Belarus, president Alexander Lukashenko has dismissed the global health crisis as a “psychosis”, and refuses to follow the example of much of the globe by imposing a lockdown, suggesting “there shouldn’t be any panic.”
  • In France fruit farmers struggle amid the coronavirus lockdown, as migrant labour from eastern Europe can no longer cross borders.
  • In France too, the homeless are having a hard time. The French Red Cross sets up shelters in car parks.
  • Portugal launches ‘Host a hero,’  where people with empty properties encouraged by an online scheme to help health workers keep their families safe.
  • In Kenya, president Uhuru Kenyatta has apologised for his heavy-handed policing of the country’s lockdown after a 13-year-old boy was repeatedly shot dead. The police’s handling of the lockdown will be investigated.
  • And in the US, president Trump announces insurance waivers on coronavirus healthcare.

He does some right things when it comes to the coronavirus crisis, but it’s too much like a stopped clock telling the right time twice a day.

Wednesday 1st April 2020

Daily Diary: Dark Odds And Stories That Don’t Have Legs

No pranks or mischievous little lies. No wind-ups and teases. Midday soon arrives and April Fool’s Day becomes like any other. It’s shopping list day and Vicky and I discuss supplies for the coming week – possibly two. Hopefully, Emily can do this again so we can remain in isolation. It seems selfish, but at the age we’re at we know we could develop severe symptoms if we become infected. It’s not fear of death, or even fear of a horrible death, when you’re too paralysed in the chest to breathe. It’s the impact each of us would have on many frontline health services and how, if one of us was hospitalised, the other would manage on their own.

Vicky worries about Emily and Tom, along with what we’re asking of them. News has come out of a twelve-year-old girl dying of the virus in Belgium and yesterday, a thirteen-year-old boy has died of Covid-19 in South East London. It’s a lottery, and even though it is weighted in favour of the young and fit, when it comes to health matters it can never be an absolute. Memories come back of Vicky believing, after the pre-op consultation with the consultant, that she’d be one of the 98 per cent who would come through an operation without complications, turning out to be one of the 2 per cent that would spend time at death’s door. Such lived experiences leave more than a belief that anyone can fall foul of medical misfortunes. They leave an understanding.

By a cruel coincidence the best estimate at present of the odds of dying from Covid-19 should you test positive is two percent. For both Vicky and I there’s a dark resonance in those odds.

The ex-Dukies, old boys from my old school, are exchanging emails about all sorts of issues, ably co-ordinated by my old friend and house captain, Chris Crowcroft. One wrote about his son:

“I’m pretty certain my son (mid-30s) in Boston has just had Covid-19. High fever. 103/39 for two days, muscle aches, cough. Self-isolated and almost back to normal now, three days later. He had dark urine, so he went to hospital to have a blood and urine test. No Covid test due to the King T policies. Elevated myoglobin indicating muscle damage, a known effect of flu and now known about Covid-19. A friend published (a paper) last week on the connection with cardiac damage – (heart being mainly muscle) and increased mortality. For those of you with cardiac issues, take note.”

I sign three petitions. The first one concerns missionaries in Brazil spreading the disease among the indigenous population. It’s a problem that preceded the Covid-19 outbreak and one that President Bolsonaro actively encourages. I put this one out on Twitter. It coincides with news that some churches are still inviting congregations. In Eyam all those years ago, in 1665 the good people weren’t as stupid as these fools are. I imagine there were such fools a-plenty in those days, only they never made it into the history books.

The second is to extend the transition period, especially so British bioscientists can work with their European partners, or that if a vaccine is developed on the continent there aren’t unanticipated barriers to importing it. Coronavirus exposes the Brexit rhetoric for what it is.

I had to wrestle with the third – a petition for partners to be present at the birth of their children during the Covid-19 outbreak. It’s a personal matter as well as one of principle, as it’s an issue within my family. I know there are PPE and public health issues. I know there have been a couple of cases worldwide, where a child dying during birth tested positive for coronavirus. It shows how inadequate our health service is that it is unable to provide sufficient protection and our society regresses to the less compassionate practices from bygone eras. I think it was that. It was a protest for the importance of our humanity that I did sign.

It’s very easy to polarise decisions. To do so simplifies. But we need to acknowledge the greyness. The ambiguity at the edges, despite the virus’s mechanical ruthlessness.

More news appears in my email inbox, especially what’s become known as the ‘Dukie-Loop’ of lost loved ones, of friends and relations dying from the virus. I know this means each and every one of us is just a couple of steps of separation away from infection. We hope, like grazing critters in the centre of the herd, it stays two steps away, but fear it could be one. Or even worse, zero.

I took a nice photo this morning from the front porch that looks out on the common. It’s of a man, seated on a bench, talking to a woman standing by a lamp post three metres away. I imagine what the backstory is, but the posture, body language and gesture describe a socially distanced friendship. Neighbours chatting? A liaison? I don’t know but I like how the pic comes out.

I’m too busy to continue my project of building a model portee two pounder anti-tank gun, used by my dad in the early years of the Western Desert campaign in the Second World War. It’s a project in memory of my father and there is no kit for it as such, which is quite a challenge. So I have shelved it to another day. I get a notice from Toyota about their much-diminished servicing arrangements, subscribe to The Economist and try to organise assistance to an older relative who appears to have slipped through the help-net. Age UK Coventry give us a list of addresses but are overloaded with respect to direct support. There are those who land on their feet and those that don’t.

It should be a story with legs. It’s a story that hardly climbs onboard.

The number of cases rises again. Two days ago, it was an increase of thirteen percent and in spite of politicians talking about “green shoots” it’s back to seventeen per cent, where it was on March 23rd. The death rate rises by an alarming thirty-one per cent, the second highest so far.

The pandemic is a force of nature.

A force that’s stress-testing us all.

The Bigger Picture: We Don’t Do Exponential Well

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us is that we don’t do exponential well and are fully capable of transitioning from idle complacency to total panic in hardly any time at all.

The UK’s Covid-19 death toll jumped 563 in a single day today. Yesterday, it was 381. On Monday, 180. Overall fatalities now stand at 2,352. More than 29,000 people have tested positive for the virus, mostly hospital admissions as there is no system in place to monitor on a wider basis.

Worldwide, sometime in the next twenty-four hours there will be a million cases and fifty thousand deaths. It’s projected by the White House that US deaths could possibly reach 240,000, or eighty 9/11s, and already, at over four thousand, exceed those in China. Donald Trump said the country should expect a “very, very painful two weeks”.

Spain’s number of Covid-19 cases has passed the hundred thousand mark and has reached a record daily death toll of 864.

It’s grim.

Russia too now sees itself facing the coronavirus outbreak and introduces strict covid laws after a rise of 500 including jail terms for breaking quarantine rules. President Putin self-isolates following a handshake a week ago with a doctor who tested positive.  Like so many other countries there are problems with PPE. Unlike many other countries the state makes every effort to stifle complaints from medics in the frontline.

Despite that, Russia has dispatched a cargo plane with masks and medical equipment to the US after Donald Trump accepted an offer of humanitarian aid from Vladimir Putin to fight the coronavirus outbreak. In America it is highly controversial. In Russia it’s great public relations.

Each day the statistics, grim though they are, sanitise the stories beneath the numbers. Each day the stories differ in the detail but paint a bigger picture of human suffering. Here are some:

Doctor Alfa Saadu becomes the first doctor to die from Covid-19, after returning from retirement to NHS. One former colleague writes in tribute: “He was loud, bold and loved a challenge. Enjoyed his football, family and was looking forward to retirement to spend it with his grandchildren.”

In Belgium Suzanne Hoylaerts, a ninety-year-old woman dies from coronavirus after refusing a ventilator. In a quiet act of personal courage, she asked if it could instead be used to save someone younger.

Thirteen-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, from Brixton in south London, died in King’s College Hospital early on Monday. He is thought to be the youngest person to have died with the virus in the UK. A statement on the fundraising webpage for his funeral said Ismail died without any family members close by due to the highly infectious nature of Covid-19.

John Carter, aged 75, A British national is among four people to have died aboard the coronavirus-stricken Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship departed from Buenos Aires on March 7, a day before the US State Department advised against cruise travel and before any substantial restrictions were in place in Florida. It had been scheduled to stop in San Antonio, Chile, then complete another 20-day cruise to arrive in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on April 7. But fear of coronavirus and the media publicity across Latin America, portraying the Zaandam as a plague ship resulted in her being denied permission to dock at port after port. Passing through the Panama Canal passengers were asked to keep their rooms dark and leave their curtains closed.

To reach Florida and find the state governor Ron DeSantis, often called ‘Florida’s Trump’ is reluctant to allow disembarkation for the more than 1,000 people on board the Zaandam.

“Just to drop people off at the place where we’re having the highest number of cases right now just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he told a news conference.

The matter went to the White House.

President Trump shows an uncharacteristic moment of compassion.

“They’re dying on the ship,” Mr Trump said at a coronavirus press briefing. “I’m going to do what’s right. Not only for us, but for humanity.”

A cat in Belgium fell ill with coronavirus after her owner suffered symptoms of the deadly virus following a trip to northern Italy. The cat had diarrhoea, vomited and suffered breathing problems. It illustrated how coronavirus can jump species and the cat family appear particularly susceptible. That black and white feline from two doors away that likes to sunbathe on our garden furniture seems just a little more sinister, even though she likes having her tummy tickled.

It’s becoming apparent that the principles behind dealing with the virus are straightforward. So long as it can be detected, treated and prevented from spreading through the population. The Chinese are now approaching the other side of their Covid-19 outbreak and are now moving on to asymptomatic cases: China reported 36 new Covid-19 cases and 130 new asymptomatic cases, bringing the total number of such cases under observation to 1,367.

This is a draconian society and visions of citizens being manhandled into ambulances and doctors being silenced are fresh in people’s memories. Such behaviour would be unacceptable in western democracies and the struggle to turn principles into practices in democracies is a central theme in the story of the pandemic.

Without detecting the virus, managing it becomes close to impossible. The UK government abandoned testing and tracing in the wider community in mid-March, limiting its use to hospital staff and admitted casualties. Reports suggest that the reason behind the struggle to increase the amount of testing to 25,000 per day is due to a shortage of equipment. The current level of testing is 8,200 a day, way behind the Germans who are at 500,000 every week. Germany tested early and tested a lot. It saved lives.

Health secretary Matthew Hancock has ordered all spare coronavirus tests to be used for NHS workers, as it emerged only a small proportion of those in isolation appear to really be ill with the virus.

Other than that, Britain is blind.

Treatment is limited to the general expertise of ICU medics, learning from each other’s practices, successes and experiences, for example that severe Covid-19 patients are more likely to recover lying on their fronts and that intubation is not always the best intervention. Coronavirus-specific interventions are still in their early stages and medications are on a hit and miss basis.

So, all we’re left with is preventing the virus from spreading, and Biosciences are far away from producing a vaccine, although the global race has begun.

Which means we are almost entirely dependent on people’s behaviour and fickle as it is, unless constrained in a straitjacket (sent mail-order from China?) that’s a tough call. Former president Barack Obama compares the White House’s response to climate change denial. 

When we don’t factor in the possible existence of the virus that’s when it does its worst. So a religious gathering at a New Delhi mosque becomes a superspreader event. Dozens test positive, some die and a thousand are isolated.

The capacity of society to cope is related to the scale of the pandemic. India isn’t coping too well and there is anger at how the country treats its poor, who are beaten up in the streets for breaking Covid-19 restrictions by police with batons and even hosed down with chemicals in the name of public health. Hundreds of thousands of day wage workers have been left without money, food and shelter across India’s cities.

Doctors call out for the public to exercise social distancing. It’s ignored by sun, sea and surf-seekers on Sidney’s Bondi Beach during much of March and this results in a spike in coronavirus cases. So Bondi Beach closes, as there are too many who are prepared to be careless about social distancing. The only visitors are to the Covid-19 testing centre which has been set up. Japan closes its schools until early May, and Brazil closes its border with Venezuela for health reasons, although many are still arriving in the country from abroad.

Italy’s lockdown measures are to be extended until April 13th. The health minister Roberto Speranza has the foresight to warn that Italians must not confuse the first positive signals with an ‘all clear’ signal.

Someone else who has shown foresight is Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who imposed sweeping measures days before a single case had been reported in his state. On 5th March Mr DeWine got a court order to shut down much of the Arnold Sports Festival – an annual event featuring 20,000 athletes from 80 countries, around 60,000 spectators each day, and an expected $53m for Columbus, the state’s largest city.

It was much criticised.

“This is a balancing test,” Mr DeWine responded.

Over the next three weeks spectators were excluded from major sporting events, well before US sports organisations cancelled their seasons. He was first in the nation to declare a state-wide school shutdown and invoked an emergency public health order to postpone Ohio’s presidential primary the night before it was scheduled on 17 March.

In short, Mr DeWine was one of few American leaders who acted pre-emptively and prevented his state being on catch-up.

Hi critics dismissed Ohio’s strict regulations as overblown and out of step with neighbouring states, let alone fellow Republican Donald Trump, who until later in March downplayed the threat of the virus, saying it would “go away”.

Mr DeWine selected Dr Amy Acton as Director of Ohio’s Department of Health, which was a smart move when it came to controlling the pandemic.

“Mistakes that I have made throughout my career have generally been because I didn’t have enough facts, I didn’t dig deep enough,” Mr DeWine said. “So, I made up my mind I was going to have the best information, the best data available.”

At a recent briefing Dr Acton said, “On the front end of a pandemic you look a little bit alarmist, you look a little bit like a Chicken Little, the sky is falling.”

Then added, “At the end of a pandemic, you didn’t do enough.”

Still, while Ohio’s infection numbers are rising, with 2,199 cases, 55 deaths and 585 hospitalisations, it has so far avoided the surges seen in states like New York, Washington, and Louisiana, ranking 15th nationwide in terms of reported cases.

“It has to be the type of response you take in war time because we have been invaded, literally.

“We’ve got to stay at it.”

Last week, Ohio reported 187,780 jobless claims – the second highest nationwide and almost half the total claims from all of last year. But the economic fallout is a consequence of doing what needs to be done. The two are neither ‘either-or’ in a zero-sum game way, nor are they mutually exclusive, tempting though both positions are being taken by some policymakers. There are broad patterns:

  • Firms dealing with personal services and hospitality, such as restaurants, hairdressers, clothing stores and cinemas are shutting down.
  • Elsewhere there are firms in demand: supermarkets (Tesco recruited 35,000 in 10 days in March), farming – 9,000 workers needed; transport and logistics – Morrisons extra 2,500 drivers and pickers and 1,000 more in distribution centres, food production, care workers, call workers, pharmacies.
  • Changes in people’s daily behaviour changes their energy needs. So the price of oil slumps, despite Saudi Arabia flooding the market and America trying to pump up prices. In the end the rules of supply and demand are so much stronger than individual countries’ tinkering.
  • All this leads to stock markets around the world, the first quarter was one of the worst in history. The start of the second isn’t looking any better, with Asian and European markets opening lower and US futures implying they will follow suit.

Both widespread lockdowns and the volatility of both national and global economies all have a bearing on our everyday lives. Here are some examples:

  • Art galleries and museums go online, but some of the ‘real thing’ is hard to replicate.
  • Covid-19 is creating a short-term boom to streaming services.
  • Petitions appear for PPE for frontline workers.
  • A family’s lockdown adaptation of Les Misérables song goes viral
  • Staff shortages could mean power blackouts
  • Disney’s multiplayer online game, Club Penguin is back and 6 million users have already signed up
  • Leslie Jordan, a sixty-five-year-old actor goes viral with live video feeds about enduring the day to day of lockdown. Looks like a lot less work than me writing all this, but I don’t think I’ll swap somehow. Makes me feel old too!
  • Postman delivers in fancy dress to cheer people up during lockdown
  • A puzzle company is selling a jigsaw that Is completely see-through
  • Corona fraud. To date Interpol have dealt with 30 Covid-19 scams and frozen more than 661,000 euros in bank accounts.

But there is one silver lining and its appearance is almost magical. The sudden halt of economic activity has led to a visible decrease in air pollution across Europe and beyond. The skies, especially in urban areas, become bluer and clearer. It holds promise, even if the changes are likely to be too short-lived to have any effect on climate change. Maybe the hardships of the pandemic itself will focus the public’s mind on the even greater threat in our future. Maybe humans are simply too fickle.

In truth, nobody knows.

But pandemic greening is a reality as nature starts to reassert itself. Goats invade Llandudno in Wales as empty streets give wildlife a chance to flourish during the coronavirus lockdown. A large herd of Kashmiri goats have been feasting on flowers and hedgerows and giving us all a feelgood story that’s brought us all out in a smile.

Excluding those who planted the flowerbeds, I guess.

But it’s not all roses – more likely tulips.

When nursing home workers were asked about their fear of catching and spreading the virus, one of them asked:

“Who else is going to take care of them?”

Back to reality…..

It’s raw and uncompromising.