Day Forty: Friday 24th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Phony Gardener

We didn’t have much of a conversation yesterday when Emily came round with our weekly supplies. Someone had brought a big truck into the neighbourhood and took up her parking space along with a couple of others. It’s pretty rare, but it does happen from time to time. Never for long, as the drivers invariably know the by-laws, but it’s a nuisance. So dear Em has to park on the street corner and can’t do so for very long. It’s a sharp corner at the top of a hill, so cars come round far too fast and there’s always a risk of being winged and dinged by someone who hasn’t figured out how to use a steering wheel. It’s a shame, because part of the joy of Em Deliveries has been the bit of street banter thrown in for good measure.

I have a chat with my old friend Steve U over the phone. I must admit I’m more than a little intimidated by holding a meeting via Zoom and his advice is really helpful. Steve U is a TV engineer who has worked on all sorts of programmes, from Tony Hart’s art show, where Morph (and Aardman) entered the public consciousness, to ‘Later’ with Jools Holland. I don’t know of anyone else who’s more technically literate and all he has to say is welcome. I confess to not being a tech-natural. I’ve used computers in education since the mid-1970s, but I only know the stuff I routinely do and I struggle with new waves of tech. Unlike Em and Tom, or for that matter a number of my friends who have held social events online I don’t naturally gravitate towards it.

I bank upon decades of knowledge, but with such a fast-moving tech it’s still easy to get left behind. The long and the short of it is that if I want to hold a club meeting via Zoom I’ve got a steep learning curve …. And the deadline is only two weeks from today. Don’t panic!

I don’t manage to keep up with all the news today. It’s a veritable tsunami, this coronavirus story. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the headlines but there’s always an awareness about how deep you can go. I have to come to terms with my barnacle analogy, that sitting here on my laptop I’m not going to catch everything and I’m thinking about how I’m going to structure my diary once I commit to writing.

It’s also been a horticultural day. The cuttings have now graduated out of the propagator and the space now goes to the geranium seeds to germinate. The sweet peas still need a bit of training. They still look like very fragile shoots ….. here’s hoping, and I potted a basil plant from Sainsbury’s, courtesy Em Deliveries. I also have three Marks and Spencer ‘Little Garden’ seedling kits – beetroot, cress and forget-me-not. They’re for kids and we were going to pass them on to Vicky’s god-daughter, Summer. But we’re unlikely to catch up with her, her dad Paul or grandma Kath for a long time, so I plant them. There’s a touch of stealing sweeties about all of this, but I think I can deal with it. I also need to deal with feeling a bit of a fraud, as Vicky is normally the gardener of the house, but I’m getting a lot of satisfaction with watching plants grow, the sense of hope that comes with it, and Vicky’s going along with it.

Under lockdown there’s plenty of time to watch plants grow!

The Bigger Picture: The Power of The Great Unknown

As long as the gods are not known on a personal level, the high priests have power. With great authority they speak of what pleases and irks the gods (and themselves) as the supreme interlocutors of the Great Unknown.

Cut out these middle-men and you could be in deep trouble for heresy.

Religious extremists aside, most of us have little time for high priests – nowadays we have political leaders instead. They do have access to Great Unknowns, such as issues of national security and increasingly anything that might destroy our faith in them, lest we decline to give them our next vote at the polls.

Covid-19 has entered that domain, on both scores, and there’s no doubt there’s enough about the virus for it to qualify as a great unknown. In many cases when it first appeared within a population is hard to establish, with asymptomatic transmission and deaths being attributed to other cause, such as pneumonia. It’s for that reason that there has been a tendency to undercount the extent of the disease. China’s early Covid-19 cases may have been four times higher than the official tally, a new study suggests.

It may be down to Covid-19 being a Great Unknown. Or it may be down to China’s politicians in high priest mode being the interlocutors and deciding what the rest of us should know.

Nevertheless, the spread of the disease is now feared by many to be a top international threat, along with terrorism, nuclear weapons and cyber-attacks.

Traditionally, where such fears existed the priests calmed our souls.

These days we expect our leaders to, and where there is doubt there is heresy.

So when Rick Bright, the doctor who had been leading the federal effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine asks whether President Trump putting politics and cronyism ahead of science as he openly disagrees with the president about hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment his heresy leads to his removal from the Department of Health and Human Services and reassignment to a narrower role in the National Institutes of Health.

The Johnson government has created its own priesthood it calls SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. It is a group made up of scientists, but nobody knows who those scientists are. Its list of members is secret; its meetings are closed; its recommendations are private; and the minutes of its deliberations are published much later, if at all.

Yet Johnson and his ministers invoke SAGE’s name, along with the repeated mantra that they are “guided by the science.”

“Is the science being followed by the government on coronavirus?” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the Blair government. “I don’t know because I don’t know what the advice is, and there isn’t the freedom for the scientists to tell the public what their advice is.”

Like the gods of ancient times, as long as the scientists are not known, Boris Johnson has power. With great authority he can speak of what conclusions they have come to as the Supreme Interlocutor of the Great Unknown.

So the Supreme Interlocutor can reassure us that the Covid-19 risk was “moderate,” even though its high level of transmission was already known from China and elsewhere. He can reassure us from the underestimates his secret advisers when it came to speed of transmission and degree of hospitalisation. He can recommend less stringent social distancing measures on March 9th when France and Ireland were banning large events and ordering lockdowns, and there was ample evidence from Italy of the epidemic’s rapid and lethal spread.

Referring to Boris Johnson, his ministers and other officials, Professor Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University said, “It has become a shield for them. If things go off, you can always say, ‘Well, it was the experts who told us.’ ”

The lack of transparency, the foil that he is always following the science, without any critical examination of what that really means – it’s far from a given that scientists always agree, the personal authority he places behind those “scientific” decisions becomes a hallmark of the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic. As the Supreme Interlocutor of the Great Unknown  he announces misstep after misstep until the United Kingdom has one of the worst per capita death rates in the world and it’s only when the vaccine programme gets underway that he will have a break from the consequences of his own decision-making.

 As the gap widens between the Government’s claims and its performance so too is the wider malaise of trust and confidence. There are brutal results for journalists in the recent You Gov polling for Sky News. Asked how much people trusted journalists when it comes to Covid-19 only 17 per cent of respondents said they did, next to 72 per cent who didn’t. The same applied, to a lesser degree to TV journalists, who are reputed to ensure impartiality: 24 per cent trusted them, compared to 64 per cent who did not.

While the Great Unknown crosses the line from faith to superstition. Twitter bans fifty conspiracy theorists from sharing harmful misinformation. It turns out there is a massive overlap between coronavirus denial and climate denial.

It’s anti-science – using the technology that’s evolved from three centuries of scientific rational thought to take us back to a new dark age.

That way madness lies.

In the engagement with much more established ‘Great Unknown,’ Ramadan under lockdown begins. It has been central to Islam for the last millennium and a half, and like the Christian custom of Lent, to which it is historically related, is about self-discipline being a cornerstone of an orderly and civilised society. Unlike most western Christians’ experience of Lent (forty days – where the word ‘quarantine,’ so widely used these days comes from) Ramadan has strong community ties, so the after-sunset meal, iftar, is traditionally a social event, especially within families but also more widely as well.

Muslims adapt to lockdown. There are no news stories about protests or loud objections. They fall back on social media, especially Zoom, and iftar, along with worship goes virtual. Perhaps it is because restraint and self-discipline are central to Ramadan itself. Islam is by no means the only religion which nurtures these personal qualities so that humans transcend their more basic instincts and rise above the beasts, nor is it the only one that never fully achieves these worthy goals – welcome to humanity – but the calm and quiet acceptance of life’s harsher restraints of both fasting and locking down and the absence of news commentary to the opposite effect are worthy of both recognition and respect.

Covid’s Great Unknown does not reveal itself easily to science, that is caught in the cleft stick of having to be good and fast at the same time. It’s not always possible. With every plague, whether cholera, Spanish flu or AIDS, have come intriguing hypotheses, loosely framed theories and snake oil therapies. Covid-19 is no different and in our collective quest to make sense of it all, people come up with a seemingly endless list of correlations linking all sorts of factors with the ongoing pandemic: age, use of face masks by the public, MMR vaccine, influenza vaccine, malaria endemicity, warm weather, ABO blood group, air pollution, smoking, vaping, 5G network towers, ibuprofen, vitamin D, and more besides.

It’s not just the scientists, but anyone can now explore the territory online. Even publicise their own ideas about what’s going on, whether they understand the basic point that correlation does not necessarily mean causality, or not. Or for that matter if there are biases confounding conclusions, or that the data is the flawed product of poor surveillance and testing capability. Even scientific papers are coming out as pre-prints – there isn’t the time for peer review such is the speed at which the pandemic is evolving.

The pandemic is still at a stage where it is hard to find an international standard for defining both cases and deaths, with misclassification, political tampering and under-reporting being thrown into the mix. And because different countries are at different stages of the pandemic comparisons become additionally difficult.

So while the pandemic evolves at breakneck speed, rigorous science struggles to keep up, politicians find themselves making decisions based on low-quality correlation evidence, often because it has attracted media attention though it fails to meet widely accepted standards of causal inference.

Ignorance is always dangerous.

It also is an inescapable part of any Great Unknown.

Something very similar is also happening with the response to the pandemic. Instead of collaborating and seeding innovation some groups are effectively duplicating each other’s work or competing for limited resources, which hinders progress. As one researcher who led technology efforts for Ebola response programmes in West Africa said, “While these efforts are well-meaning, they do lower all boats in a way.”

Covid-19 might not reveal itself easily to science, but it starts to reveal other things about ourselves. Not least the unfairness of human societies, and as it casts a light on the disproportionate way it metes out harm to individuals from minority backgrounds, questions start to be asked about the structural racism within many societies. In the US it seems that African Americans may be bearing the brunt of Covid-19, but at the moment access to data is limited.

The Great Unspoken is that when it comes to enduring a pandemic, some lives appear to matter more than others. It’s a nagging doubt. An underlying concern and it will feed a growing sense of wrongness. The explosive mixture is there, just waiting for a catalyst.

Although it doesn’t seem like it at the moment the virus will pass, but it will, and the question is how will any change to a new post-covid world happen? The pandemic will leave the rich world deep in debt and force some hard choices. Who takes the pain, and can there be gain?

Economic records are being broken in lots of places today – and not in a good way. France’s business activity plunged to the lowest level on record. The IHS Markit flash purchasing managers’ index for services tumbled to 10.4 in April from 27.4 in March. In Germany it was a similar picture as the same measure fell to 15.9 this month from 31.9 in March. Overall the euro area composite PMI dropped to 13.5 in April from 29.7 the previous month.

More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment this week. Investors hope we are over the peak, while, having been called out larger public companies are rushing to repay Paycheck Protection Program loans after government warnings about abusing emergency financing for small businesses.

EU leaders meet by video amid fears the coronavirus could destroy European unity. There’s been a fair bit of squabbling over who should bear the budgetary cost and at first glance it’s not a good look for the EU. But they are tackling what is a thorny issue and its an acknowledgement that the sooner economies address the fiscal burden incurred by the recession, the sooner that post-covid normality can be resumed, and that a combination of taxpayers, consumers and bondholders will have to foot the bill in the end.

In the meantime in America, states struggle with the cost of the pandemic. There is considerable pressure to ease restrictions, even though a majority want public health to be prioritised over reopening the economy.

Republican-led states like Georgia and Tennessee, are pushing to reopen earlier than Democratic governors, like Michigan, Virginia and New York, maintain more restrictive stay-at-home orders. There is a North-South divide, with the irony that the South is likely to have America’s highest death rate for Covid-19. It has unusually unhealthy residents and few ICU beds. Polling is starting to reflect that schism: Two in five Republicans nationwide now say that restrictions are causing more harm than good, an increase from last month. The reality is that pandemics are pernicious. Germs don’t care about state lines, particularly in a country where people can travel far.

So what results is an already divided country adopting a half-in, half-out approach to lockdowns. Those who want to exercise restraint versus those who find themselves going stir-crazy, those who are cautious about the virus versus those prepared to take a chance – life is one big gamble after all –  those who see the need for everyone to act for a greater common good versus those arguing that any restrictions limit individual freedoms and harm the economy.

And it polarises along the lines of Republicans versus Democrats.

Protestors in the streets of Pittsburgh in the US state of Pennsylvania voice their opposition to Covid-19 confinement measures. The demonstrators, some carrying firearms, others covering their faces – called upon the authorities to reopen businesses.

Pennsylvania has a Democrat administration. You could place a bet that the protestors were Republicans.

There are to be more protests in Philadelphia in the months ahead and the city remains a turbulent expression of how divided America is for the rest of President Trump’s time in office.

There’s a similar, but less fierce divide about health versus the economy in Britain. There is considerable pressure on the government from MPs on the right of the Tory party pushing government to reveal how and when it will end lockdown, wanting to see a phased release by early May. The Welsh government announces it hopes to ease lockdown measures from next month as the first stage of a gradual exit from the Covid-19 gridlock and the Scottish government published a plan for a way out of lockdown, both stealing a march on Westminster.

New York is launching the largest ever contact tracing initiative, costing more than $10 million and using resources from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said preliminary activity tests suggested that about 14 per cent of people surveyed in New York tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies, suggesting they had already had the disease – a whopping ten times higher than the state’s presumed infection rate, although still far from what would be considered to be herd immunity, or when over 60 per cent of the population is immune to a disease. The maxim “Test-trace-isolate” describes the vital strategy needed to try to contain the virus so that social distancing measures can be relaxed.

In Britain Covid-19 tests are now open to all key workers, who will be able to book a Covid-19 test online in a bid to increase testing. Matt Hancock announces a plan to make testing easier and more available in an effort to reach the Government’s ambitious target. But it all becomes farcical as home testing kits run out in two minutes.

There were only 5,000 available.

But amid it all, step by painful step we inch our way towards dealing with the nightmare. There is a vision, as Bill Gates predicts breakthroughs in vaccinology, diagnostics and antiviral drugs as outcomes of the pandemic. There are promising green shoots as vaccine trials begin in the UK and get the green light in Germany.

There is an international commitment, as in a virtual event, co-hosted by the WHO and the President of France, heads of state and global health leaders today made an unprecedented commitment to work together to accelerate the development and production of new vaccines, tests and treatments for COVID-19 and assure equitable access worldwide. Neither the president of the United States nor a representative from his administration were present.

There are setbacks too, as leaked study data shows finds no benefit of Remdesivir on Covid-19 patients, sending Gilead stock tumbling, but the company puts a brave face on it and declares it still sees reasons for hope.

In Britain, hospitals and frontline staff have been forced to turn to homemade PPE as Boris Johnson’s government struggles to secure supplies. New advice recommends reusable gowns or long-sleeved laboratory coats in the absence of fluid-repellent full length gowns. The BMA is deeply critical, while a cottage PPE industry sprouts up on sewing machines, 3D printers and living rooms across the country.

And while the press feeds us on a diet of our desperate need PPE, ventilators and, increasingly, oxygen there are other shortages that don’t make the news – lung catheters to suck the never-ending mucosal gunk out of intubated covid lungs, ICU feeding pumps, arterial blood gas syringes, or for that matter even sanitising wipes. The arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus is far more extensive than first meets the eye.

Meanwhile, the all consuming nature of this fiendish virus drives other patients away. The disease is a clinical cuckoo, emptying the nest of other human medical interventions. A survey of nine major US hospitals showed that the number of major heart attacks being treated has dropped nearly 40 per cent. The number of childhood immunisations has also fallen sharply during the pandemic, putting millions at risk for measles, whooping cough and other life-threatening illnesses.

Elsewhere, Greece has made a better start with the pandemic than many expected. The country closed down its economy early on, imposing lockdown on March 23rd when its death toll stood at 17. Only 121 people have so far lost their lives to Covid-19 in Greece and the country has kept the infection rate very low. By contrast, the official UK death toll currently stands at 19,506, although there are estimates of over 43,000.

In Romania, strong measures to restrict movement and limit the spread of the coronavirus appear to have had an impact, with the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, announcing that authorities would look at starting to ease restrictions from 15th May. Romanians will be allowed to move more freely, without needing to present documentation, he said, with other aspects like the reopening of schools to follow, step by step.

France does not look so positive. In Paris there have been multiple nights of violence between police and residents in some of the poorest Parisian banlieues. Residents say the enforcement of a national lockdown is the latest example of heavy-handed policing. But the Paris prefecture disputes this, and these latest clashes seem to be opening old wounds that have arisen from deep social inequalities.

If there is one thing Covid-19 exposes with an unavoidable ruthlessness it’s the deep unfairnesses in society. Perhaps the cruellest exposure is that of refugees, where the pandemic has made the struggle of getting to a better place all the more treacherous. The creeping pandemic results in a significant deterioration in sanitation and medical support and is putting refugees seeking safety at huge risk.

While in America:

Only 18 per cent of couples in quarantine are satisfied with their communication during the pandemic. Married and engaged couples in quarantine are fighting more; the most common is when to have sex, according to an April survey conducted on 1,200 married and engaged couples who are co-quarantining – by publication ‘The Knot’ and the app ‘Lasting.’

United Airlines have just ordered flight attendants to wear masks. Passengers may well follow suit.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been cancelled this year, but a sister and brother who are former participants are planning a bee of their own.

Finally, you can be forgiven for thinking that in some zero sum game what’s harming humanity is helping the environment. As people stay at home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner. In the US, Washington has its clearest spring air in 25 years, and the projected worldwide fall in carbon dioxide emissions is five and a half per cent.

High above India a NASA satellite reveals a huge drop in air pollution over parts of India during lockdown, and if to confirm that we are heading for a greener, better world a mass influx of flamingos turn Navi Mumbai into a pink playground as, following lockdown measures, there is a huge increase, between 25 and 30 per cent. The whole area has become a pink carpet. “The air is much cleaner,” environmentalist Shruti Agarwal said. “There is no pollution, there is no human activity going on, there is no construction activity to see around the place, so there are more birds coming to this place and definitely I think, after the closure, we have to work on the same things, to see that these places are not disturbed.”

Now pinch yourself…..

327 square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon basin was deforested in March, the highest level since 2008, as the illegal loggers take advantage of reduced law enforcement.

It is an even bigger existential challenge than Covid-19.

And once all of this is over – even beforehand – we still have a long way to go.

Day Thirty Nine: Thursday 23rd April 2020

Daily Diary: A Giving Tree In A Changing World

Outside the front of our house on the common there is a stump that is used by many people in many different ways. Kids sit on it when out with their parents taking the air. Exercisers use it as a prop – then sit on it when out of breath. I’ve even seen it take centre-stage in a photo-shoot between (I hope) housemates. It was an elm until not so long ago, until it succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. It became necrotic and we feared it would die and fall our way. We were particularly concerned for Midge next door, whose house would most likely take the brunt, but cars in the street were vulnerable too. More troubling still was the risk to life and limb. We have a large secondary school a couple of hundred metres away and the thought of a tree crashing down on a child didn’t bear entertaining. So I sent an email to the council, politely stating the risk and gently letting them know that they would be sued in the event of any damage – and we really didn’t want that ugly little scenario, did we?

 Public safety is one thing. The jitters in a council legal department is quite another. All credit to them, the tree came down within three days of sending. I was pretty sad about the whole matter. Instigating the felling of a tree, even a sick one, is not a pleasant thing to do. Not quite in the same league as taking your pet on a one way journey to the vet’s, but it’s down the same road.

The long and the short of it all is there is a stump, that is still giving. It reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s bittersweet children’s story, ‘The Giving Tree.’ If you haven’t read it (or seen the You Tube clip), do.

Transformations are fascinating. How one reality morphs into another, sometimes suddenly, at other times almost imperceptibly.

That’s what’s happening with lockdown.

This morning I had black coffee. The leaking milk container a week ago has meant we have run out. So black it is and I quite enjoyed it. Washing, drying and putting away the crockery and cutlery has become part of the day. First the glassware, then the mugs, then the plates, followed by the cutlery, pots and pans. Each phase has something in the sink and something draining dry. I combine it with the research and writing that goes into this journal, so when I want to clear my head I move the wash one step along the production line. I don’t need to do much drying, as everything drains and evaporation does most of the work. It’s part of a system. Part of a routine, and I keep telling myself that the loss of a dishwasher is no big deal.

Even though in my heart of hearts I know it is, but allow me a little blend of OCD and denial – it’s good for lockdown morale.

But in that process, life has changed. Getting groceries has changed, purchasing goods exclusively online has changed, even the rhythm of the day has changed, even though Vicky and I are both retired, along with all its accompanying rituals and disciplines.

Things have transformed. There’s even tacit social messaging that they should do. Leaving me an intrigued witness to it all.

I’m treating the mail in a new way today. I’m using Ultraviolet (UV) irradiation. It stops the sogginess that comes with bleach, along with the municipal bath smell afterwards. I’m using a portable UV lamp and a box. I tell myself that for larger items a small cupboard or understairs toilet will suffice (even though I never get round to it). However, UV is dangerous – that’s why we can sterilise with it – so I always use gloves, wear sunnies and avoid looking directly at the light, pretty though it is. The UV also produces ozone which acts as a disinfectant, so best if it’s confined. Ten minutes each side – it’s a bit like grilling.

A couple of months ago I’d never have dreamt of doing this!

The Bigger Picture: The Emperor’s New Clues

I’m sure that the 23rd April 2020 will long be remembered for President Trump’s very public and truly bizarre foray into the medical treatment of Covid-19. It had all the madness of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’

Only yesterday Rick Bright left his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), allegedly for disagreeing and therefore being disloyal to the president. Which could explain why the medical experts at the televised Covid-19 briefing session were so uneasily silent. Dr Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator was visibly uneasy, to the point of squirming as her boss spouted nonsense about injecting household disinfectant and “hitting the body with ultraviolet or very strong light.”

These insane ramblings had no effect on the level of support from his base, but did on medical emergency callouts.

An NIH expert panel has recommended against using the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat the coronavirus outside clinical trials, undercutting early claims that the drug was a promising treatment. New guidelines for the federal agency led by Dr Anthony Fauci said there is no proven drug for treating Covid-19 patients. For weeks Dr Fauci has emphasised the lack of scientific evidence to support any potential treatment.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 is spreading to America’s South with unnerving speed. In spite of that Southern governors are beginning to reopen their states. For most, it is too early, but despite that there is pressure as an informal coalition of conservative groups has been working to nurture protests and apply legal and political pressure to overturn stay-at-home orders.

There is evidence that that kind of denial is dangerous. News emerges today that two weeks after Republicans in Wisconsin State legislature forced the state to hold in-person  election, Milwaukee health officials have announced the first cases of voters testing positive for Covid-19.

In some world views life comes cheap.

In a desperate quest to have supplies available of sedatives and paralytics to treat the most severe covid patients a group of doctors write an open letter to correctional facilities in those twenty five states that still have the death penalty. Public records indicate that Florida, Nevada and Tennessee have at least enough medicine to treat 137 patients. Some states declare nothing, knowing pharmaceutical companies stance on the use of their products – rightly so – and keeping their cards close to their chests. Other states refuse to hand their stockpiles over.

While these drugs may only alleviate a small fraction of the total anticipated deaths, the letter argues, attempting to save each life is a central ethical directive. The letter concludes:

“At this crucial moment for our country we must prioritise the needs and lives of patients above ending the lives of prisoners.”

By contrast, in the months ahead, the president will authorise thirteen federal executions before he leaves office, the most any president has done in at least a century. If there aren’t enough drugs to facilitate execution by lethal injection the US Justice Department revises permissible methods to include hanging, electrocution, poison gas and even death by firing squad.

When Trump leaves office the death toll from Covid-19 will surpass four hundred thousand souls.

In some world views life comes cheap.

The xenophobia card is still there to play as President Trump declared yesterday that he would temporarily halt issuing green cards. It’s a card which has worked well in securing his base ever since he ran for office way back in 2016, starting with managing the southern border.

Step by step that xenophobia has now come to include China, now America’s greatest rival, as an ill-chosen war of words escalates into growing and dangerous tensions. Trump’s “China virus” and “kung-flu” inflame, rather than moderate and diplomacy. China, now expansive and aggressive, is by no means an innocent party. Intelligence agencies report the spreading of disinformation, China’s propaganda machine has highlighted other countries’ mistakes during this pandemic, while suppressing domestic problems, fuelling anger towards foreigners and domestic critics as well. While American warships have sailed into disputed waters in the South China Sea and a war of words between the US and China over the pandemic intensifies.

There are now two highly contrasting views in an increasingly existential struggle for the mind and soul of humankind.

It is one of a number of major paradigm shifts catalysed by the pandemic, telling us that life afterwards will never be the same.

The president has other distractions too, as the Trump International Hotel in Washington seeks a break on the terms of the its lease from the landlord, which happens to be his own administration.

But that has little to do with Covid-19.

Covid-19 is a disease with three stages – an airborne viral infection, a violent immune system overreaction known as a cytokine storm, and the slow to emerge, and even slower to understand, long covid. Dealing with the first two stages is problematic. Damp down the immune system too soon and the body’s defenceless against the virus or any other opportunistic infection. Do nothing and the body’s own immune system goes into auto-destruct mode, shutting down the lungs and other vital organs.

It’s not a one size fits all. Elderly patients are more likely to enter the second stage because the ACE2 receptors found in lung lining cells become more numerous with age, giving more viruses a chance to get a hold, and in turn stimulating a more extreme immune overreaction. But some relatively younger sufferers draw the short straw, simply through the perverse lottery of genetic variation. The fittest can still be at death’s door in some cruel game of chance.

The father of a middle aged marathon runner described the virus as “a combination of ‘Alien,’ ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still,’ ‘The Andromeda Strain’ and ’Apocalypse Now.’”

I would add ‘Life,’ and I might be guilty of scribbling corona critters, but I won’t give the virus a name like Calvin.

If you haven’t seen the movie, check it out.

The runner’s cytokine storm was arrested with the anti-inflammatory drug, Actemra, repurposed from treating  rheumatoid arthritis, another disease where the immune system goes into overdrive, following a process of induction by the physician and some encouraging results from China. There are other promising drugs, such as sarilumab, also known as Kezvara, in Italy, doing much the same thing.

It was yet another drug repurposed from treating rheumatoid arthritis, tocilizumab, along with sarilumab that were used to treat British PM, Boris Johnson. Jenny McGee, one of the two nurses dedicated to his treatment said he “absolutely needed” intensive care treatment after his symptoms worsened.

Repurposing a number of drugs, not just for treating rheumatoid arthritis, but also for dealing with other viral pathogens such as Ebola and HIV, is beginning to yield positive outcomes, shortening the length of the most critical second stage of the disease, but also improving survival rates. But in the process it becomes evident that beating future pandemics will require more medical laboratory professionals. People are dying from Covid-19 because we’re not fast enough at clinical research and research into other diseases such as cancer and Alzheimers has been overtaken in the drive to beat the virus.

It’s one of many ways in which Covid-19 is stealing the show when it comes to healthcare. Other critical functions falter. Transplants plummet as overwhelmed hospitals focus on the coronavirus.

But step by step we’re getting there as , not just in terms of how the disease works, but also in the way it spreads through the population.

Tens of thousands of households in England are being asked to take part in a new study to track the spread of Covid-19 infection and how many people have developed antibodies to the virus. The first part of the study will involve 20,000 households in England, chosen to be representative of the UK population in age and geography.

Mutations might be one of our biggest concerns about the virus, but thanks to genomics it helps in tracking the virus and understanding how it travels through a population. So the genetic sequence of the coronavirus that was detected in Seattle-area man who was initially believed to be the country’s first confirmed infection has become a crucial clue in understanding how the pathogen gained a foothold in the US. The fact that other preceding cases since emerged shows that the virus had not been seeded by a single point of entry. That broader ‘leakiness’ has been one of the major factors in countries like the US and UK where air travel and border fluidity have made the virus almost impossible to keep under any kind of control.

The spread of the virus is also counter-intuitive, or more to the point it cannot be figured out by a simple line of reasoning. For example frontline healthcare workers are found to be at no greater risk of catching Covid-19 than other NHS workers, according to research published in the Lancet. The study compared infection rates in Newcastle hospitals between doctors and nurses who deal directly with Covid-19 patients and the other hospital and administrative staff found that out of the 1,029 staff tested, the rate of infection among patient-facing staff was 15.4 per cent while for non-clinical workers it was 16.3 per cent. For non-clinical staff, such as finance or IT workers, the risk of being infected was higher, at 18.4 per cent.

We also find that zoonosis is a two way street. Two cats in separate areas of New York have tested positive for Covid-19 after showing symptoms of a mild respiratory illness. As time passes the transit of the virus to not only cats, but other animals too such as mink, happens to be more commonplace than was originally thought.

The virus and how it hitches a ride on the human population is not fully understood. There are fears, as the American CDC director warns that that second Covid-19 wave will be “even more difficult,” while the only hope of a way out for many – a working vaccine – is met with caution by the scientific and pharma communities, despite tens of millions of pounds being spent on trials that are now starting. Professor Chris Whitty, England’s CMO, poured cold water on the hope that an impending vaccine could be the way out of lockdown, while the CEO of Roche described a coronavirus vaccine in 12 to 18 months as “ambitious.”

Part of the reason why there are black holes in our knowledge of the pandemic is that it is a horrendously complex phenomenon, that becomes increasingly so as it spreads through the world’s population. But part of the reason is the wilful lack of transparency by governments, not finding the moral courage to admit that those in power, like everyone else, make errors of judgement.

China is very much in the spotlight on this score. In its bid for global hegemony its leadership cannot be allowed to be seen as in any way flawed. The country’s leaders have been accused of a cover-up, of simply not reporting the true scale of deaths in a country of over a billion people. “It can’t be right,” a Wuhan resident told Radio Free Asia on Friday. “The incinerators have been working around the clock, so how is it so few people have died?”

A Chinese journalist who went missing for nearly two months after streaming videos from Wuhan has reappeared, and claims he was detained and forcibly quarantined by police. Li Zehua was one of the Chinese journalists reporting from Wuhan’s front lines during the Covid-19 epidemic who mysteriously disappeared. A former employee of state broadcaster CCTV, the 25 year old was last seen on February 26th in a video he posted online. The hours-long live stream ended when agents entered his apartment – and he hasn’t been seen since.

But it’s not unique to China. In some parts of Europe people have accused their governments of not being transparent in the figures they are publishing. In Germany, Italy and Spain and elsewhere, daily death tolls are hospitals-only fatalities, which don’t include care homes and the community. Worryingly, according to a Financial Times analysis published today, in the UK 41,000 people may have already died, which is more than double the official figure of 17,337. There is also a BBC-leaked memo of recording Covid-19 deaths as pneumonia etc.

Number 10 becomes truly Orwellian as it coerces Simon McDonald, senior civil servant at the FCO, into retracting his words to contradict what he had reported to a Parliamentary Select Committee – that a ‘distancing’ from the EU was at least part responsible for the current PPE supply problems. While Matt Hancock’s department of Health and Social Care had ‘warned Number 10’ not to publicise PPE shipments.

You might not approve, but you can understand how soldiers can be expected to surrender their lives in support of a political narrative. But health and care workers?

It’s dark, but for now, by kicking the can of an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, the Government escapes scrutiny.

Belgium appears to be an exception. It is a small country of 11 million people, which, at the time of writing, has over 6,200 recorded coronavirus-related deaths. But, unlike elsewhere, more than half of these deaths were recorded in retirement homes. And of the total deaths that occurred in those homes, four per cent were cases confirmed by a Covid-19 test and 96 per cent were suspected ones. The prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, said that the government “made the choice of full transparency when communicating deaths” linked to the virus, even if it resulted in “numbers that were sometimes overestimated.”

Some other countries use Belgium’s poor per-capita death toll as a means of pointing out their own figures, borne largely from less transparency, are not so bad.

So it goes.

Little over a month ago 50,000 fans watched Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid at Anfield, Lewis Capaldi sang to 12,000 fans (although fair, but slightly misguided, play to him, he advised them to bring hand sanitiser), the Government had all but abandoned test and trace in the community, announcing it was moving out of the “contain” phase into the “delay” phase, terms that were lost as they confused the pre-lockdown populace. The spike of infections was to be flattened over time, so the most serious cases could be managed over a longer period of time until herd immunity was to be reached.

Orwell’s pigs planning the fate of the sheep.

The rationale was something like this:

“The social distancing for the coronavirus is destroying the economy. Wouldn’t it make more sense to isolate the elderly and vulnerable and expose all the young and healthy people to the virus, thereby stopping the spread as they recover?”

But the Government went back on the plan when it occurred to them that not only would this result in a catastrophic death toll among the elderly, but the level of hospitalisations and intensive care far exceeded the healthcare resources that could be mustered.

There was talk that doctors would have to choose whom of those hospitalised to treat, and then the disease would start to kill those who should have survived, including the young and healthy. Italy reached the brink, and unofficial reports from Iran suggest they’d passed it. As a health crisis it would be calamitous.

But from a government perspective, as a political crisis it would be catastrophic, as, still focused on Brexit they had failed to protect us all.

Ask a politician in the Government now about their original discussions about herd immunity, look at your watch and count the seconds. It will be less than ten seconds before they change the subject, and in a year’s time they’ll be demanding your gratitude for the vaccine.

So it goes.

There is a set of metaphysical scales. At a glance they could be easily be mistaken for the scales of justice. But not so this time. The scales have the economy in one pan and human lives, like pennyweights in the other.

Senior Tory MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls on the Government to give businesses “hope” as to when some sort of normality might resume. Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey said it plans to resume work on its construction sites on May 14th. Aston Martin, worried that after a difficult 2019, reopen their factory in South Wales.

But for most, returning to normality is some way off. By 4 pm yesterday, the Government’s furlough scheme has received 387,000 applications, covering 2.8 million employees. The help is not getting everywhere: a Government-backed start-up faces bankruptcy after being refused a Covid-19 loan. A street food vendor who launched his dream business with a startup loan scheme is now facing bankruptcy. In fact there are three and a half million the scheme does not reach.

If you are among that three and a half million there are captive animals doing better than you. Zoos and aquariums are to get emergency help to avert financial disaster. Animals still have to be fed and looked after, but no money is coming through the turnstiles. There were understandable fears that many animals in zoos might be destroyed, and one zoo in Germany had effectively set up an in-house food-chain, with its prized polar bear as the top exhibit, much to the public’s horror when the contingency plans leaked out.

As public borrowing surges to its highest March level since 2016.

In the US, the Senate on Tuesday passed the next phase of Covid-19 relief, a $484 billion piece of legislation that will replenish the small business loan programme established last month, as well as allocating funds for hospitals and virus testing.

All we have to do is to live from one day to the next and watch the old reality morph into the new like a Tik-Tok sequence in slow motion:

  • The Government announces that  social distancing restrictions are to stay until the end of the year, with schools set to remain closed until at least June 1st. It places much more of a burden on women, who are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to both looking after children and seeing that they are educated, in many cases while holding down a job online. There are many men who share the load, but the level of parity is disappointing, according to a number of preliminary studies. Covid-19, in the stark way in which it reveals weaknesses in society, demonstrates how far we still are from gender equity, let alone equality.
  • Coupled with that trend, domestic violence has increased during lockdowns. In America cities reports rose after shutdowns, while other crimes fell, but it’s not just America – it turns out to be a worldwide trend.
  • We spend more time watching TV and movies at home. Netflix adds 15.8 million subscribers in the first quarter.
  • For those who read the pandemic becomes its own obsession. Penguin sees a surge in sales of books about viruses. Plague books are popular too.
  • We get the first virtual Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. There were technical problems and MPs being like so many of the rest of us in being fazed, while traditionalists like Jacob Rees Mogg worried about something that was totally post-Victorian getting derailed. But it happened, and it worked, with a hybrid working model of a few MPs in the chamber and the rest appearing on-screen. With prime minister Boris Johnson still recovering it was Dominic Raab who stands at the Dispatch Box.  Keir Starmer grills Dominic Raab over the low levels of testing for Covid-19 in the UK. The new Labour leader used his first PMQs to grill Dominic Raab, and said that the UK is “way behind the curve” in terms of testing. It’s a massive challenge that the Government will continue to struggle with over the months ahead, but without it there is no way a lockdown can be ended safely.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic is causing hotels to raise the hygiene bar. Marriott International, the world’s third largest hotel chain, is rolling out hospital-grade disinfectants.
  • Andorra, the landlocked nation between France and Spain, has adopted a unique way of easing lockdown restrictions. Those who live in even-numbered homes are allowed to go out on even dates, while those who reside in odd-numbered homes follow suit on all other days.
  • David Attenborough hopes that working from home becomes permanent after the pandemic.

The new reality amongst medics on the frontline is now dominated by the shortage of PPE and the fear of both being infected and infecting others. Putting on a brave face becomes central to the political narrative. Deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, who believes she has had Covid-19, although in the early days if you didn’t go to hospital it was unlikely you’d be tested, has said the issue of whether members of the public should wear face masks is “difficult.”

It’s not that difficult, but it’s a reply that captures the moment. Human coronaviruses are mostly respiratory, and although other modes of infection, such as oral and faecal, are by no means unknown, the primary route is airborne. So the precautionary principle should apply and everyone ought to place additional barriers between themselves and others, and even if there is still much to be learned about Covid-19. That should have been the default position.

But in a government that’s gone from delay to crisis and is now enduring the chaotic consequences. The issue of masks is one of panicking over supply and demand whereas a little imagination would have come up with any face covering being better than no face covering at all. If we all went round like Jesse James on a bank job it would be better than not putting two barriers between two neighbouring people. Better still – and it’s beginning already – a cottage industry emerges to produce non-surgical masks.

Meanwhile, nearly three quarters of anaesthetists fear for their health due to inadequate supplies of protective equipment. A survey of the Royal College of Anaesthetists members finds that more than a quarter of the 2,100 respondents felt pressured to treat coronavirus patients without adequate PPE, It was also found that 17 per cent were unable to access the PPE they needed.

At least three London paramedics have been lost to Covid-19. They are inadequately protected and have to go into confined, often poorly ventilated and sometimes unsanitary places. In time there will be a number more.

What always stick in my mind are the personal lockdown stories. Here are four of today’s:

  • “I’ve moved back in with my parents to pay off my debt. It’s not what I expected in 2020.
  • “I’ve been looking for gluten-free self-raising flour now for the past two to three weeks. I’m in isolation on the shielding list. I’m terminal, along with many other issues, if you look at my main page, but we have found nothing as it is always sold out. Could anyone please help us? Obviously not after freebies, so will be fully reimbursed. Thanks so much x”
  • A teacher gave birth in her car outside a supermarket after a passing ambulance crew mistook her husband’s attempt to flag them down as cheers of gratitude towards the NHS. Hannah Howells, 33, and her husband, Andy, from Hamble in Hampshire, were driving to Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton on April 19th when she realised she wasn’t going to arrive in time.
  • The older generation in Russia are finding lockdown a struggle. One 80 year old is refusing to conform. “Old people have got to stay between four walls most of the time anyway, so not letting us go out is a torture.”

Globally, the outlook is bleak. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, CEO of the World Health Organisation warns that many countries are still in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the head of the UN, Antonio Guterres sent a video message warning that there is discrimination in the delivery of public service, and there are “structural inequalities that impede access to them.” He said the pandemic has also seen “disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risk of heavy handed security responses undoing the health response.

There is a concern that poor countries might easily be forgotten in the Covid-19 battle.

And not just from Covid-19.

The world also faces a famine of “biblical” proportions, in which the number suffering from extreme hunger could increase from 135 million to more than 250 million, David Beasley, the Director of the World Food programme has warned the UN. The risk is particularly acute in ten countries – Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti – but has the risk of spreading further afield if swift action is not taken.

I have followed the work of Dr Jane Goodall ever since I was in the sixth form way back in the late sixties. In my pantheon of people to admire she’s up there with David Attenborough. So when she says that warnings of a pandemic were ignored and humanity has “disrespected the natural world” I listen. The renowned primatologist, 86, said she was not surprised at the current global health crisis, listing the trading of wildlife and the encroachment on habitats as contributing factors.

Some news from countries around the world:

  • European leaders continue to wrangle over the covid recovery package. Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, has said that “the bloc itself is at risk. In this crisis, either we all sink or we all float. Spain wants everyone to float, for sure.” EU leaders have already agreed to a 500 billion euro package, but Madrid wants more long term aid, and is calling for a 1.5 trillion euro recovery package, to be financed by perpetual debt. They are not alone.
  • The Netherlands, likely to carry a greater financial burden in the rescue package, are not at all happy about the arrangement. They find themselves in a position reminiscent of pre-Brexit Britain, isolated in a recent European Union council of ministers, with attitudes described by other European leaders past and present as “repugnant”.
  • The French government wants all retail outlets other than restaurants and bars to reopen once the national lockdown is lifted on May 11th, finance minister Bruno Le Maire said on Thursday.
  • There are virus warnings for Ramadan as Pakistan keeps its mosques open.
  • The Peronist president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández has dealt well with the pandemic, but the virus arrived in a country already deep in recession and the country’s finances rather than the disease that will make or break it. Countries need stimulus packages as part of their overall recovery. Creating one when deep debt is already a problem will be a major challenge.
  • Cyril Ramaphosa has unveiled a stimulus package worth ten per cent of South African GDP – $25 billion – and will seek loans and support from the IMF and World Bank in a bid to prevent the lockdown triggering a severe depression.
  • Justin Trudeau is facing calls to increase the share available to people living in urban areas or living outside of reservations of a $350 million fund to help Canada’s indigenous population. Just $15 million is available, despite the fact that half of Canada’s indigenous population live off reservation.

Finally, I was intrigued by a set of predictions made today in iNews and, briefly, how they turned out twelve months later

Ten ways in which Covid-19 will change life in the UK:

Health: long term boosts for the NHS.

The NHS England budget is shown to fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22. In 2020/21 NHS England got £18 bn in extra funding for its Covid-19 response, in 2021/22 it will get just £3 bn in extra funding, although the cost of the Covid-19 response is unlikely to have fallen so sharply.

Economy: struggles for jobs and higher tax bills for those in work.

Low Covid infection rates and vaccinations lead to a surge in consumer spending. The unemployment rate is also lower than expected. The recovery is looking V-shaped, but what that means for the average person remains to be seen. There are concerns about inflation.

Politics: Brexit is delayed, the state grows and an inquiry awaits.

Boris Johnson secures the thinnest of free trade deals with the EU, with destructive consequences for exports, Northern Ireland and, most ironically, fishing. The state does grow and become increasingly autocratic, while the Covid-19 inquiry is kicked down the road, seemingly when its findings emerge after the next election, which the Tories are confident about winning.

Retail: high streets suffer but independents benefit.

This happens, with some major outlets like Debenhams folding up after 200 years on the high street.

Social care: funding issue is finally confronted.

This doesn’t happen. Social care is barely mentioned in the Queen’s Speech on May 11th 2021.

Education: inequalities grow at school as hard-up universities turn to remote learning.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 15% of teachers from deprived schools reported that more than a third of pupils would not have electronic access to school work compared to 2% at more affluent state schools. The government scheme to ensure digital access for all pupils falls short, leaving many poorer households limited in how much children’s education is supported. There is a strong backlash from university students who find remote learning inadequate and certainly not value for money for the high fees they are paying.

Technology: consumer tech market falls, as surveillance grows.

The consumer tech market grows significantly with video-conferencing becoming a new norm, online purchasing growing considerably, telehealth, robotics, 3-D printing and more. Consumer desire for 5G outpaces hesitancy over surveillance, despite numerous conspiracy theories.

Environment: big climate-change challenges, but greener lifestyles.

There were almost immediate positive environmental effects, particularly for air quality and wildlife as people travelled less, and with this has come a growing and more widespread environmental awareness among people that change was possible. However, as lockdown was lifted people quickly returned to their pre-pandemic patterns of behaviour. Certain environmental issues, such as water quality have had more mixed outcomes and there has been no impact on use of plastic. When it comes to greener lifestyles there’s still some way to go.

Justice: more video witnesses with police needing to restore trust.

Confused messaging to the police by politicians along with home secretary Priti Patel’s draconian policing bill that exploited protest events during the pandemic leave the police with an uphill battle if they are to restore public trust.

Entertainment: more repeats as BBC bounces back.

The BBC and other entertainment channels become remarkably creative and adaptable. Initially there were more repeats but fresh material grew as the year progressed. Online and hybrid audiences in many shows became the norm. More viewers turned to Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services.

What we saw then and what we know now: It all goes to show how hard predicting the future is.

All we can do is try our best to anticipate it as best we can.

Day Thirty Eight: Wednesday 22nd April 2020

Daily Diary: The Postman Rings Twice

Another blue sky day, not as windy as yesterday but I’ve seen very little of it. It’s been a strange, disrupted day where nothing goes quite to plan and everything runs late.

The postman arrives and rings twice. He has two packages, along with a Private Eye magazine and a letter from BUPA. We do the usual gesturing through the glass pane of the front door and I retreat to put on a pair of gloves before I get to the front door. They’re in the conservatory at the back. Just as I reach them the doorbell rings again. I rush back, donning my yellow Marigolds as I go along.

“Your post! It’s down here!” the postman calls out.

“I know! I was getting my gloves,” I reply.

“Your what?”

“My gloves!” I wave my Marigolds. Jazz hands shouldn’t look like this.

“Ah! I was worried they’d get nicked,” he said.

“That’s okay. Thanks again.”

And he went on his way. It’s now totally permissible to be eccentrically OCD. OCD is good. OCD is wise. OCD prevents you from winning a Darwin Award.

I take the post, including the third item – a green package the postie had put on the ground next to the front door – and put it on the table in the conservatory, spraying it with a mist of bleach and leave to dry, connecting double door to the rest of the house, conservatory windows open, so the whole place doesn’t whiff of an Olympic swimming pool.

 It’s obvious what’s in the green package. It’s my resupply of socks from M&S. For some reason I seem to be wearing my way through socks like they’re about to go out of fashion. Vicky says it’s because I don’t wear slippers. I’m old enough now to wear slippers and a cardigan without ridicule, but I don’t, so I guess the socks take a hammering.

Item four, on the other hand, is a box. And a mystery. I’ve ordered quite a few things that could come in a box this size. It could be the rooting powder, or a supply of seeds, or the LED lightbulbs for the conservatory lights. It turns out to be none of the above. Among the expanded polystyrene sausage shapes that look like anaemic Wotsits (they’re probably not cheesy either) there are three tubes of Beroccas.

I believe in the efficacy of the Vitamin B group, since so many of the substances contained within it are coenzymes, and some are coenzymes that facilitate respiratory pathways in cells. It’s like keeping your mobile phone fully charged to know that your cytochrome chain is going to be fully functional. But don’t let me distract you with all of this – it’s probably my very own personal unresearched belief in the magic of Vitamin B, and it’s probably just as quirky and oddball as other people’s weird health beliefs. Each to their own myths and fables, I say. If the heir to the throne can believe in homeopathy, I can believe in the potency of Vitamin B. At least I can argue the scientific basis for my delusions!

Then there’s the email I have to send to the flying club about fears that some enthusiasts making the rest of us look like complete irresponsible twats during lockdown. It’s preaching to the largely converted about the crass inadvisability of taking out your giant paraglider wing and floating it over your head with varying degrees of success in wide open spaces, advertising your foolishness to the world at large. I hope it works.

Also under lockdown I haven’t caught up with many of the members about their personal best medals. So how to get them out to them without costing the club an arm and a leg? I finally decide to print the post-paid labels online. It’s important. They represent some real achievements. At the top end there’s a medal going out for a 200km flight from Wiltshire to the Wash and several hours’ duration. No motor – just understanding the air, working it well and having the endurance of an Olympic athlete. Something like that shouldn’t be sitting in a box in my room.

Finally, the plan to hold the next club meeting on Zoom, something about which I have more than a little trepidation. At this stage I am very much a novice and it all seems so big and daunting. I’ll have a committee meeting first and we can test it out among a small group used to being mutually supportive. Here’s hoping!

All of this, plus Keir Starmer’s first PMQs in a semi-virtual parliament have set me back and I’ve still got the day’s news reports to do. Not only that, but Vicky’s taken a shine to the conservatory for her writing, so today I have to get this done elsewhere.

I suppose it is fair to share. Bags it tomorrow!

Oh, there’s the shopping list as well.

Busy times!

The Bigger Picture: What An Unholy, Haphazard, Disorganised Mess!

As the tyres on the undercarriage of the first of three heavy military transports with a desperately awaited cargo of medical gowns – shortly to be found to be useless – hit the asphalt with an ear-piercing screech Boris Johnson prepares to return to work with phone calls to President Trump and the Queen. We don’t know who he rang first.

The saga of the Turkish gowns has been running for a few days now, fed oxygen by the hype from government minister Robert Jenrick. It’s reported that they will constitute enough to be a three day supply for the NHS. But it’s dramatic, with side stories about customs issues and Anglo-Turkish diplomacy, and it’s a distraction from the haphazard and disorganised mess the Government finds itself in, as Dominic Raab, deputising for Boris Johnson is facing questions over the slow response to the Covid-19 outbreak that’s got the UK to this sorry point.

Ex-prime minister Tony Blair says he sympathises with Boris Johnson but adds there can’t be a void in decision making and suggests that the whole of the Government needs to be reordered in order to tackle the crisis, and said that mass testing is of vital importance.

Testing has to be reliable too.

In much the same way you’d need a parachute to be.

Some NHS workers have received letters asking them to be retested for Covid-19 following concerns that previous tests were faulty. Health minister Helen Whately told Sky News that early tests were evaluated and found to be “not effective enough.” Following that euphemism Ms Whately reveals that a total of 61 NHS staff are known to have died after becoming infected with the virus. In other words some of the staff could have returned to work while infected.

Helen Whately defended the Government’s efforts to acquire PPE for health and care workers. She said the Government had been contacted by more than 8,000 potential suppliers and that ministers are concentrating on those with established supply chains. It sounds as though the Government is spoilt for choice, but a year later it will emerge Government used an exclusive WhatsApp group, creating a VIP ‘fast track’ for Tory donors and cronies of those in power.

The defence became that it was a moment of crisis and following ‘needs-must’ the Government was doing “whatever it takes.”

The problem is that it doesn’t add up. Ministers were forced to defend the disclosure that millions of pieces of equipment, including respirators and masks had been shipped from British warehouses to Spain, Italy and Germany. It looks like half a million boxes of visors ready for the NHS could be exported.

It’s an Unholy, Haphazard, Disorganised Mess. The sort of muddle and mayhem that comic operettas and music hall acts mocked the government of the day in the nineteenth century, but the daily death toll makes it all unfunny. The Government misses out on 16 million face masks for the NHS in four weeks. Local government minister Simon Clarke said that the current “guidance does not support wearing face masks in public” and that supplies to NHS workers were the current priority. NHS chiefs have expressed concerns that supplies to frontline staff could be jeopardised if people are advised to wear masks.

The muddle and mayhem is even used as an excuse as health minister Helen Whately also reiterates the Government’s line that its failure to join a Brussels-led PPE procurement scheme was not politically motivated, as had been claimed by Simon Stevens the top civil servant at the Foreign Office.

“It’s very frustrating,” she says. “It appears that there was a communications error, an email that went astray and that meant we didn’t participate in a scheme that’s running.”

Brussels immediately contradicts the Government line insisting that Britain had “ample opportunity” to take part in EU joint procurement exercises for protective gear and medical equipment to tackle coronavirus.

Meanwhile social care groups are struggling to secure enough PPE on the open market. Plans to allow them to access the NHS supply chain had left them in a dire situation, with all PPE due to run out within days.

And predatory Brexiteer-run hedge funds are betting against firms that make vital PPE for doctors and nurses, despite pleas for them to stop.

Writer Philip Pullman says that ministers should face charges if PPE supplies were delayed ‘for political reasons.’

Unlike the sinister Magisterium in ‘His Dark Materials’ this Government lacks any depth of order.

But like the Magisterium they are untouchable.

America discovers it has been hosting the virus for over three weeks longer than had first been thought. Santa Clara County, California, officials said two people had died at home on February 6th and 17th. Previously, the first reported American death from the virus was on February 29th in Kirkland, Washington. That the virus could have been stealthily spreading through the population is unsettling.

The idea that it was imported from elsewhere to a country where many enjoy its isolationism breeds xenophobia and Americans take an even more negative view of China, especially if they are older and vote Republican. This is reflected in the US state of Missouri suing the Chinese government over its handling of Covid-19 as Beijing calls for solidarity and less “finger pointing” during the pandemic.

President Trump taps into that isolationism and says he’ll sign an executive order to temporarily halt immigration to the US as the covid outbreak continues to spread.

Referring to the coronavirus, or “the Invisible Enemy”, as well as “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens”, Trump tweeted that he will “be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

He whips up outrage, especially from Democrats and immigration lawyers, slamming him for ‘xenophobic scapegoating,’ but it’s the politics of division he feeds off and thrives on.

But Trump is right in one respect. Covid-19 is “the Invisible Enemy,” made even more so by the  shortage of tests. Contact tracing of any kind is impossible to carry out on a large enough scale. A comprehensive contact-tracing programme would mean performing 2.5 million tests a day, according to one estimate, but national daily testing capacity has plateaued at about 145,000. The bottom line is that any testing strategy has to be part of a much broader and coordinated public health effort, and public health in the US has its fractures. State governors have said a shortage of tests was among the a barrier to lifting restrictions, in some cases rejecting the Trump administration’s claim that the supply was adequate.

Meanwhile governors are finding covid costly. States are already draining their unemployment funds, meaning they might need a future federal bailout. Georgia is taking aggressive steps to reopen the economy and some businesses could be open as early as Friday.

In six months’ time Georgia will have the sixth highest number of Covid-19 cases and the tenth highest death rate in the United States.

You can’t get rid of covid with magical thinking.

That’s supernatural.

A virus is natural.

Unlike Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, the Bank of England chief Andrew Bailey understands that there is no ‘either the economy or the virus’ and he warns against early easing of lockdown. Pandemic economics is hard to understand. We know that the pandemic has hit countries hard, we know that huge debts are being created by governments to steer the citizens through the storm. But the indexes, alarming as they are, are not as disastrous as many feared. The ONS report that rate of the Consumer Price Index inflation decreased by 0.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent in March.

Hedge funds have performed well amid the world’s economic uncertainty.

Cynics say that’s because they have the option to bet against losers.

Some lose because of corporate weakness, especially among airlines, as they find themselves with too little to secure funds before they succumb to the coronavirus. The collapse of Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd after the briefest of fights, for example.

And while we’re with Virgin, some lose because no one easily forgets acts of meanness. Richard Branson sued the NHS when Virgin Healthcare lost out on an £82 million contract. When Nigel Lawson once said the NHS was the closest thing the English had to a religion, he might have said it with disdain and despair, but never a truer word has been said. You might as pickpocket the Pope in St Peter’s, or spray-can a caricature of the Prophet on a wall in Riyadh as disrespect the NHS in Blighty. We might not subscribe to the “not the done thing” mentality  any more – except when it comes to our National Health Service, that is.

I personally felt that it was mean-spirited at the time, and now, seeking a government bailout for his ailing airline, Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard is having his comeuppance.

Some lose temporarily. Online fashion retailer Boohoo suffered a marked fall in March sales as the coronavirus crisis deepened. But, being an online retailer, it recovered as customers got over the shock of markedly changed circumstances. In two months’ time Boohoo’s share price would reach an all-time high.

Sadly, for many high street retail stores losing becomes permanent as the shift to online speeds up.

In fact, there seems to be no end of losers as stocks plunge and oil prices continue to drop.

And those insuring such ventures lose too. Hiscox faces up to £142 million payments over covid claims.

In the pain of loss many businesses recoil, like rock pool sea anemones touched. A reflex action of withdrawal as finance leaders with scary balance sheets for costs to cut, are considering reducing the need for office space by permanently shifting to a position of employees to working remotely.

There will, in time, be some return to the office, but much will never be quite the same again for the world of work as well as the property market.

But it’s when ordinary people become losers that the pandemic is particularly cruel in ways that stretch far beyond its immediate effect. Time and again it reveals human unfairnesses. Big airlines and travel firms are denying refunds, despite the fact that it is illegal to do so. Working on a business model that one punter’s booking was actually funding someone else’s holiday, that the travel industry was eternally in debt to the future, when bookings dried up there was no one to pay up when holidays could not be provided.

In other walks of life you could go to prison for paying returns that were actually the ‘believed investments’ of others. But here it was, going on in plain sight, and at the very least the public were providing interest-free loans.

Then there are those who fall between the cracks of Covid-19 rescue plans. “I’m terrified of what the future holds. I have no income.” This is the story of the three million workers who can’t access Government support. “My dreams are shattered. All the Government needs to do is change the scheme to allow me and all the others affected to access it.”

For the most part they don’t.

Deaths in England have hit a 20 year high. The UK ONS reported 18,500 deaths in the week up to 10th April, about 8,000 more than usual for this time of year. New analysis also reveals that as many as 41,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, not 17,337, as the Government reports. From now on the official figure will be those who died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, and that 24,000 death discrepancy, including home deaths early in the pandemic, will always be there.

Structural under-reporting, if you like. We are, after all, according to Dr Pangloss, in the best of all possible worlds. So certain politicians would have us believe.

In France, scientists warn that the current level of infection won’t be enough to prevent a second wave. It’s true for Britain and most other countries too.

Where people are in close confinement the virus spreads particularly aggressively. Thirty three more members of an Italian registered cruise ship, the Costa Atlantica, docked in southern Japan have tested positive, a day after the first case on the ship was reported. There were no passengers on board and a crew of over 600. While prisons worldwide risk becoming incubators of Covid-19. Governments have few ideas about how to stop it. Even freeing inmates carries big risks.

Where a country does reach the recovery stage, there’s a sinister long reach as China finds many of its early patients are unable to shed Covid-19.

Back in Britain we’re nowhere near that, although lingering after effects are already being noticed.

Where Britain is at is like the height of the Blitz.

There are gestures of national spirit. Stephen Hawking’s ventilator has been donated to the NHS to help treat Covid-19 patients at a hospital in Cambridge.

“It’s like building Spitfires,” an enthusiastic journalist describes the work of Formula 1 engineers scratch-building ventilators and helping to battle Covid-19. VentilatorChallengeUK is a consortium of fifteen engineering and medical companies collaborating to scale up the production of two existing ventilators, the Penlon ESO 2 Emergency Ventilator device and the Smiths paraPAC Plus™.

It’s a much publicised venture and produces over thirteen thousand ventilators for the NHS, before the project is folded up and the engineers return to their core business seven weeks from now.

It was an achievement in collaboration, logistics and production. By September Britain will have a stockpile of 30,000 ventilators. 2,150 were used by the NHS.

More than the laudable work by highly skilled professionals, it has to be said that it also was an achievement of public relations. When VentilatorChallengeUK did end Michael Gove exaggerated the number of ventilators made. By a thousand.

The reality is that simultaneous with wartime assembly triumphs new analysis is coming out in medical journals revealing the need for less reliance on ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients. Invasive ventilation involving intubation carries its own risks and there is a growing recognition that some Covid-19 patients, even those with severe disease as shown by the extent of lung infection, can be safely treated with simple nose prongs or face masks. What really matters is access to oxygen.

Treatment drugs still remain a problem. Much of it involves repurposing existing medicines. Not always with success. In a small, randomised control study, researchers in China find that the HIV drug Kaletra and influenza drug Arbidol have no effect on patients with mild to moderately severe Covid-19 infections.

The ongoing debate about hydroxychloroquine continues.

In a retrospective study which has not been peer-reviewed, doctors examined patient outcomes for US military veterans with Covid-19 who were given hydroxychloroquine and compared them to patients who did not receive that treatment; the researchers concluded that there was no overall benefit – and there were more deaths when treated with hydroxychloroquine alone.

It’s his rejection of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 that results in Rick Bright, Director of BARDA, the US agency for vaccine development leaving his role suddenly. It’s read as disloyalty to the president. Trump has repeatedly promoted hydroxychloroquine as a therapeutic treatment for coronavirus, touting its possible effects at White House briefings as recently as April 13th.

Asked to weigh in on Bright’s departure at today’s press briefing, the president went into denial worthy of Saint Peter when Jesus was in a rough spot.

“I’ve never heard of him. When did this happen?” Trump asked, then added, “I never heard of him. Guy says he was pushed out of a job, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.”

Worse than that, Trump’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine lands a number of his followers in a very bad place. It’s an ingredient of a number of domestic products and the US CDC finds there has been a rise in accidental poisonings with cleaners and disinfectants linked to the pandemic.

The only real ray of light – and it’s a faint glimmer at the moment is that day by day we are beginning to hear news about vaccine development. The leader of a team of British scientists seeking to develop a Covid-19 vaccine has said he is “very confident” one will be found. Professor Robin Shattock from Imperial College’s Department of Infectious Diseases, said Covid-19 is a less difficult target than diseases like HIV and influenza. Furthermore, Covid-19 vaccine testing is to start this week in the UK.

It’s exciting. A real achievement, and even though we should be cautious in our optimism there are early signs there might be a way out of the mess we find ourselves in.

News of our new reality:

Is cruel to care home residents: At least 70 residents of a nursing home in New Jersey have died from Covid-19, among more than 7,000 deaths at nursing homes across the country.

One of the most shocking aspects of France’s coronavirus crisis has been the number of deaths in retirement homes. Anelise Borges visited the Hector Mandel nursing home on the outskirts of Paris – a part of a collective of sites that houses 1,150 people. It took weeks for them to get protective masks and they are still short of protective gowns and oxygen concentrators – a device that removes nitrogen from the air and produces oxygen-enriched gas for patients to inhale.

Is dismissive of the departed: Not even the funeral business is finding the pandemic profitable. Funerals are now almost entirely no-frills.

Is doubly harsh on the vulnerable: “It made me realise he needs help.” Living with addicted loved ones in lockdown. Supporting a loved one with an addiction is difficult at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.

Is skewing our world view: More than 50 per cent of US political ads on TV are about the coronavirus, the first time that a majority of ads were focused on the outbreak, according to Advertising Analytics.

Is encouraging our reading habits: The worldwide lockdowns mean e-book sales have increased. But many book lovers say reading a tablet doesn’t compare to feeling the turning of the pages of an actual book. And now readers in Rome can breathe a sigh of relief as bookstores across Italy are open for business once more.

Brings out the best in some celebrities: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, George Stephanopoulos: covid-recovered celebrities donating plasma for a cure. The One World: Together at Home online concert raised over £100 million in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Creates new rituals of respect: Hospital staff lined the streets to pay their respects to ‘devoted’ orthopaedic surgeon who died after testing positive for Covid-19. Sadiq Elhewsh, 58, a father of four who had worked for St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospital NHS Trust in Merseyside for 17 years, died at Whiston Hospital, a spokesman for the health trust said.

But sadly, respect is not universal. The pandemic breeds a whole new clutch of crimes:

  • A 21 year old man who claimed to have Covid-19, spat at police while being arrested for a domestic assault after assaulting a woman in her home and damaging the property has been jailed.
  • Adverts promoting intravenous drips that claimed to boost immunity to Covid-19 have been banned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority.
  • A recruitment firm tricked a number of nurses, then sent them to the pandemic front lines.
  • The British National Cyber Security Centre announced on Monday that it had taken down more than 2,000 scams in a single month. The swindles included: 471 stores selling fraudulent coronavirus related items, 555 websites trying to launch malware on visitors, 200 phishing sites seeking personal information such as passwords or credit card details, and 832 “advance-fee frauds” where victims are duped into handing over a “set-up” payment in the belief they’ll get a large sum in return.
  • The American Food and Drug Administration has warned that some businesses are making false claims about their products, resulting in deeply flawed tests.

In more vulnerable parts of the world calamities are colliding. The United Nations warns that the world is on the brink of a ‘hunger pandemic.’

The UN children’s agency has called for an extra £73 million to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa region. UNICEF says conflicts and wars have led to the highest number of children in need of assistance in the world. The agency estimates nearly 25 million children are suffering, many of whom are refugees or are internally displaced.

Around the world:

  • Lockdown eased as Netherlands and France plan to reopen primary schools.
  • China has no new deaths from Covid-19 but registered 30 new cases, 23 brought from abroad.
  • Ecuador prepares to reactivate its economy after Covid-19 quarantine.
  • With most of the continent on lockdown it’s still business as usual in Belarus. President Lukashenko has advised drinking more vodka, while the country’s top flight football league is the only one still playing in Europe. Testing, however, remains limited and the approach being adopted in Minsk has created divisions.
  • The Pope, on the eve of a summit, urges a fractured EU to find unity over Covid-19.

It will be a different world after the pandemic. Already, some are making their predictions about how our lives will change. This is from Forbes:

  • Healthcare for all will become more universally accepted.
  • Supply chains will become more local than global.
  • Unemployment benefit won’t be seen as ‘just for the lazy.’
  • We will shop, work and play more online.
  • The bias towards home will increase dramatically.
  • The digital divide will become a chasm.
  • Loss of trust will take some time to recover.
  • Insurance will become more centre stage.

Finally, I’m encouraged to take part in the Million Claps appeal to support our NHS in my newsfeed. It simply tells me:

Texting ‘CLAP’ to 70507 will result in a £5 donation to NHS charities.

So I do.

Day Thirty Seven: Tuesday 21st April 2020

Daily Diary: That Dark Demon, Time

Today is our dear friend and neighbour Peggy’s funeral. It’s a little over a month since she died, after three weeks in hospital. She was in her nineties and in deteriorating health. She much Have been bed-bound for at least a decade, in her front room, just a wall away from ours. That was her life, almost totally immobile with the television her main companion. Her infirmity created a physical distance between us and we knew her carers better than we knew her at the end – two women, one black, the other Asian in her hajib, both lovely people, always cheerful and good-spirited. They are more than carers – they are gifts from an outside world. Occasionally we would be invited in to steal a moment or two in their tight schedule to say hello, and there would be Peggy, more portly from being bedbound, but still the same sweet, good-natured soul.

It’s hard to believe that when we first moved in twenty eight years ago she was younger than we are now. Time is merciless. If you look closely at some of the more traditional Buddhist mandalas you will see a fearsome-looking demonic creature. We bought three mandalas in Kathmandu from the college of art and meditation, tucked away in the maze of the old city. All the mandalas we saw were exquisitely beautiful, painted in egg tempera from ground Himalayan minerals. But we stayed away from the creature mandalas – the traditional design – where you can’t escape the demonic creature.

“Who is this creature?” I asked one of the art students.

“It is Time,” the Nepalese student replied.

“It’s a frightening image,” Vicky observed.

“We are all frightened by Time,” said the student.

In those days Peggy was vital and full of energy. She was slim and we’d see and chat with her over the wooden garden fence. We had three cats then and she would spoil them all, so they became her cats as they were ours ……. Or, to be more precise she became their human as much as we were. We knew whenever we went away for a few days our cats would be looked after well, and they were.

Peggy, when she was young, was a biker. I don’t mean a biker’s chick, as the slang went way back then. I mean a real biker, with a beast of a Triumph motorbike, the leathers and all the gear. Who’d-a-thought it, this petite, sweet-natured, gentle and kindly cat-lover …….. but that’s life …… we morph from one form to another through time. We need to remind ourselves daily to do whatever we promise ourselves to do now, while we can, because some day, for one reason or another it will no longer be possible.

Peggy’s funeral is where almost all of us round these parts will end up – at Eltham Crematorium. Her daughter, Claire and her partner, John, are attending. There’s a massive discouragement for others to be there. There’s no doubt at all that in non-corona times Vicky and I, dressed smartly as a final expression of our love and respect for a recently passed soul, who left this world before cruel Covid-19 could reach her. Is there a mercy in that?

The sky meanwhile, remains blue and clear, but a strong wind blows.

And the weakest geranium is budding leaves in an affirmation of the potency of life.

The Bigger Picture: Deep Causes, Deep Consequences

I was told by a friend who had been a forensic scientist that wherever we go we pick up a little of where we are and leave behind a little of ourselves. That process can be subtle, but that’s not to say it’s of no consequence. There’s a trail of highly toxic PFA (polyfluoroalkyl) chemicals leading all the way up Mount Everest, courtesy the weatherproof coating shed from the clothing of thousands of climbers seeking their special moment to be on top of the world. There are strands of nucleic acid that seep from the natural to the human world. We call them viruses.

It’s about half a million years, as far as we know, that our ancestors built shelters in open ground. It’s at least ten thousand years since they built settlements. Ever since then the emergence of modern humans has involved engineering ways of separating ourselves from the vicissitudes of the natural world, with a large level of success. Like so much else in human experience it’s a two-edged sword. A product of that success has been a mindset that separation from nature is a desirable outcome of all our collective endeavours.

 We pay lip-service, by strolling in the great outdoors, some of us perhaps as far as Everest, make charitable donations to the protection of wildlife and support campaigns over issues like the metastasis of oil palm plantations across regions more accustomed to tropical forests, but almost all of us then retreat to the safe comfort that current technology affords us.

But the process of the two-way infiltration between the natural and artificial worlds is subtle. Nature is not simply something without, but at a molecular level it’s also something within, and that mindset of separation from nature has for a long time blinded us to that realisation.

Beyond being infectious agents, little was known about viruses until the late nineteenth century when the Russian scientist, Dmitri Ivanovsky, and the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck found that tobacco plants could become infected with tobacco mosaic disease, even when the source of the infection had been filtered of all bacteria. There had, therefore, to be infectious agents that were smaller than bacteria. It was not until the 1930s, with the advent of the electron microscope, that images of viruses could be seen, and not until 1955, thanks to the x-ray crystallography work of Rosalind Franklin, better known for DNA, that the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus was understood.

The evolution of our knowledge of nucleic acids – DNA and RNA – follows a similar timeline, It’s all recent history. So much so that there’s still a lot that we don’t understand about viruses, especially the part they play in both the environment and the evolution of life, including ourselves. It’s estimated that there are a hundred million times more viruses than there are bacteria, making them the commonest carriers of genetic material on the planet by far.

However much we try to distance ourselves from nature we cannot escape and human activity encroaches on the last twenty per cent of the natural environment, that seepage of nucleic acid that’s simply adapting to its changing world, driven by the laws of mathematics and blindly indifferent to our existence beyond a source of opportunities will continue. It’s a reality we have to accept if we are to prevent the chaos of a highly likely future pandemic.

And chaos it is, as it infects the ‘metabolic workings’ of the world we have spent millennia creating to escape the capricious, elemental, natural world.

This is where ecology and economics meet and at the moment in the west the virus has triggered a sense of deep pessimism. Some have likened the state of the US economy as being in an ICU unit, with fears of it falling off a cliff. America is far from being alone in that respect. Around 22 per cent of businesses in Scotland, encompassing 900,000 jobs, have been closed, John Lewis shares plunge as online growth fails to offset shop closures, with people buying more scrabble sets but fewer sofas. Primark cancels its interim share dividend.

The strapline of the moment is, “Whatever it takes,” as the Government pours in billions from the public purse to keep the patient alive. Rishi Sunak reveals just how many firms have applied for Government funding to pay 80 per cent of the wages of staff ‘furloughed’ during the crisis. In just 8 hours 140,000 firms had applied – 67,000 had applied in the first thirty minutes that the scheme went live. That’s a million workers who would have been otherwise laid off.

An example of such support for the economy comes via a public service notice on Nextdoor, from Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London:

“A new way to support business in your community. Today we are launching #PayItForwardLondon – in partnership with Crowdfunder – to help small businesses stay afloat during Covid-19. Through this platform small businesses can pre-sell goods and services for customers to redeem once businesses reopen, to help them manage cash flow during this challenging time. Find out how you can become involved today.”

The White House and congressional Democrats are reaching an agreement 0n a $450 billion relief package to replenish an emergency fund for small businesses and expand testing. A year ago such governmental funding was unthinkable. So would be the number of freeloaders, a sad fact of humanity not unique to America, but in the US a lot of money from the country’s paycheck protection programme meant to help struggling small businesses hit by Covid-19 went to those with the best relationships with power, not the neediest or the most deserving.

And covid-economics is weird too. The price of oil has dipped below zero for the first time in history. Oil producers are paying buyers to take the commodity off their hands over fears that storage capacity will run out in May. It briefly reached a low of minus $38, as storage facilities became overwhelmed, forcing US oil producers to pay to have it taken off their hands. The price, which has since rebounded, though its $1 price is still a record low by any standard.

It even finds a Singapore oil baron Lim Oon Kuin filing for bankruptcy, as the barrels of oil he was using as collateral for loans became worthless.

While the west struggles with the consequences of libertarian governments’ paradoxical delegitimisation of governance itself, a process started arguably by President Reagan, who once famously announced, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” East Asian societies have held to the principle for societies to succeed they need, as Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen described, “the invisible hand of free markets and the visible hand of good governance.”

It’s a principle that transcends the region’s political systems – the trust in the husbandry of governments and the understanding that that is part of the social contract. But what it has achieved is a greater ability to control the pandemic and return to economic strength.

While the west suffers in the ICU the east sees a moment of opportunity. Of ascendency to hegemony. That a greater sense of order will outweigh the benefits of personal freedom alongside the risk of chaos as a consequence.

Note well my friend, a virus did this.

Many in Britain believe that business is now too weak for a second wave of Brexit dogma. But the country is being served it nonetheless. The interplay between Brexit and Covid-19 is a strange one. Boris Johnson, possibly spurred on by his senior adviser, is hell-bent on seeing the project through come what may. There might be a fear that any delay would derail the project completely in Number 10, and although the country has already left the EU there’s an unwillingness to make any compromise over matters like extending the transition period, during which Britain effectively remains in the single market and customs union. That Buddhist demon Time blunts most things, including being seen to ‘get Brexit done.”

That particular focus has led to a failure to concentrate on the most pressing priority. It was the masquerade that distracted Prince Prospero’s courtiers from the plague in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death.’ It was the obsessive focus, along with more earthy distractions that caught the prime minister’s attention. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg reported that ‘senior figures’ in Government now admitted that they were a ‘fortnight behind’ in getting enough testing and protective equipment to cope with the virus. It was more than a fortnight, but the concession tells all. In a crisis, what else were they doing at the time?

The abiding principle when faced with any plague is to keep it out in the first place. Australia closed all its ports of entry during the Spanish Flu pandemic at the end of World War 1 and remained free from infection. New Zealand has effectively done much the same a hundred years later. Once within a population dealing with an epidemic becomes more difficult by several orders of magnitude. The first stage of the Black Death in Europe began with the Mongol army aerially launching plague-infected corpses by trebuchet over the walls of Caffa in 1346. Outside the walls, as in Prospero’s castle, the plague could do nothing. Vile and destructive it might be. Magical it isn’t. Inside it quickly wrought chaos.

That’s how pandemics work. 

Covid-19 was aerially launched into Britain by machines that landed at Heathrow, Gatwick and other tarmacked ports of entry by the thousand.


So now covid’s among us, seeded deep within our population and ready to wreak chaos.

There are headless chickens in government, realising that what could be managed with difficulty had just become a hundred times trickier. Ministers talk of adjusting measures due to fears of a second peak and the need to avoid it, without a full grasp of what ‘it’ is. Downing Street has banned the phrase ‘exit strategy’ from internal and external communications and is preparing to tell the country that restrictions will stay in place throughout 2020.

In the midst of miscomprehension there is a hope that something else they don’t fully grasp could come to the rescue.


The Government could use apps and text messages to help lift the Covid-19 lockdown. It has a certain appeal to it. It’s snappy, on trend and up to date. Most people now own smartphones. But it will lead to a mire of technological incompetence, and an even deeper mire of civil liberties and fears of a surveillance state and covid-safe ID cards.

While across the country empty Covid-19 testing centres are eerily silent, despite vow to hit 100,000 tests a day.

Responding to the latest ONS figures, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis calls the Government’s Covid-19 handling a “shambles,” saying, “This doubling in deaths is shocking evidence of the handling of the covid crisis. Staff working in care homes and those looking after other people in the community have been massively let down. The ongoing lack of protective kit has ,left many terrified they’ll spread this deadly virus or become infected themselves.

While UK hospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls told MPs the moratorium on evictions must be extended to give a breathing space of “six to nine months.” She said, “If you rely on landlords and lessees to sort it out individually themselves, it would be a bloodbath come June, when we have the next quarter rent that becomes due. If we don’t get that invitation on rent, if we are forced to remain closed until Christmas, then I think you could put a third of that sector at risk.

It’s come to light that Americans at the World Health Organisation told the Trump administration about Covid-19 ‘late last year.’ Whether that refers to China’s belated admission that they had a coronavirus problem, not wanting to be caught out by leaks that had reached the west via Taiwan through the biomedical community, some of whom were arrested for their act of betraying the Chinese state, or whether officials at the WHO knew beforehand remains unclear.

The fact of the matter is that it is inconceivable that Trump knew nothing at the very start of January 2021. But, like Johnson in Britain, he has allowed a problem to develop and now Trump’s job rating slides as US satisfaction tumbles as Americans become increasingly concerned about the spread of the pandemic and fearful of Covid-19 restrictions being lifted too soon. Nearly 60 per cent are wary that lifting stay-at-home orders will quickly fuel the pandemic. Most state governors, closer to the realities of the pandemic than the White house are aware of such concerns, and in response most Americans like how their governor is handling the coronavirus outbreak.

But America, nurtured by four years of Trumpian rhetoric is deeply polarised. In a bizarre but predictable move Donald Trump, Head of Government, leans into anti-government messaging. With his poll numbers fading after a rally-round-the -leader bump, the president is stoking protests against stay at home orders.

The madness of misinformation has seized the reasoning of Trump’s supporters. Some of whom are protesting for the freedom to catch the coronavirus, disregarding completely other people’s freedom not to be infected by a potentially lethal disease.

“Mr President, are you telling New York City to drop dead?” mayor Bill de Blasio asks as he  calls for billions in federal assistance as funding for city services are redirected to fight covid. New York remains an epicentre of the world pandemic.

The New York Times describes the pandemic in the newspaper’s home city in eleven numbers. Here they are:

Without a single demographic or medical statistic they describe the scourge of Covid-19.

There’s a long way to go. Only a tiny proportion of the global population. As few as two to three per cent appear to have antibodies in the blood showing they have been infected with Covid-19, according to the World Health Organisation, a finding that bodes ill for hopes that herd immunity will ease the next exit from lockdown.

While England and Wales experienced the highest weekly death toll in twenty years as deaths involving Covid-19 were 41 per cent higher than previously recorded by the ONS, with the number of UK Covid-19 deaths rising by 449 to 16,509. There’s been a four-fold increase in care home fatalities. But there is a glimmer of hope that the lockdown is beginning to have an effect as the number of people inside hospital with the virus appears to be flattening, with London seeing its seventh day running of falling cases.

I get a message from Cancer Research UK that they are redirecting their energies towards Covid-19:

“In order to get back to the business of beating cancer we must first beat Covid-19.”

The virus is sucking the capacity of science to cope with all our other health needs, and there will be many whose delayed cancer treatments will lead to metastasis and death.

It is also capable of misdirecting and sending research on wild goose chases like Novartis stepping up to study hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19.

It’s not the only wild goose chase. There’s a mad scramble for PPE as globally the demand for gear against Covid-19 can’t be met to deal with the ever-spreading virus. Many countries try to side-step or unblock their bottlenecks.

The UK, in its Brexit-conscious spirit of having to go it alone, its original reserves inadequate to the point of negligence, is mucking in the scramble like its PM once did during an Eton wall game. An RAF aircraft left the UK for Turkey to pick up a delayed delivery of protective kit amid a row over a shortage in the NHS. It aims to collect 400,000 gowns. In fact the UK only finally asked Turkey for a PPE shipment help on Sunday – after telling Britons it was on its way.

It is the beginning of one small, sorry saga, nested within the wider epic as all 400,000 end up not meeting minimum safety standards.

Meanwhile, the development and production of PPE by countless manufacturers, from sewing machines in lockdown front rooms to teenagers with 3D printers, has begun across the country, at various levels of scale and sophistication. The London Hospital Trust opens a 3D printing firm to make visors for NHS staff during the lockdown.

These are the pots, pans and railings of the pandemic ‘Blitz.’

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that the country’s lockdown will end this week. New Zealand, which locked down with just 120 cases, is one of the few countries still able to pursue a strategy of total elimination of the virus due to its early lockdown and lack of a land border.

Other countries are taking the first tentative steps to ending their lockdowns, albeit from not as strong a position as New Zealand:

The shifted reality as a result of the pandemic and the pessimism that comes with not being out of the woods yet still continues. Britain builds an extra thirty thousand mortuary places in preparation for the worst possible Covid-19 outcome. We are minded too that there have been schools that have stayed open and teachers who have worked over Easter to look after key workers’ and vulnerable children. Things are still raw.

And our behaviour seems to have changed:

Some glimpses of today’s pandemic across the world:

  • The months of magical thinking. As the coronavirus swept over China some experts were in denial.
  • Lebanon reports no new cases. Under Lebanon’s lockdown since mid-March, people can only leave their homes to buy food or medicine. A curfew also bans going outside between 8 pm and 5 am, with security forces enforcing curbs.
  • New deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus in Spain are slightly up again on Tuesday, with 430 fatalities that bring the total to 21,282 from a week ,low of 399 deaths on Monday.
  • In Germany, Oktoberfest is cancelled, as has Spain’s famous annual San Fermin bull-running festival.
  • The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is almost deserted on Saturday’s Christian Orthodox Easter service.
  • Singapore will extend a partial lockdown until June 1st to curb a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections in the city-state, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday.
  • There’s parliamentary disagreement in Canada. The ruling Liberals have reached an agreement with the left wing NDP and Greens about how parliament should operate in an era of social distancing, but the Conservatives, the largest opposition party, have condemned the plans as inadequate, leaving the future arrangements for parliamentary procedure in doubt.
  • India savours a rare upside to Covid-19: clean air.
  • And on a dark and troubling note: Africa has five ICU beds per million people.

Finally, female world leaders are hailed as voices of reason amid the covid chaos:

  • New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern
  • Norway – Erna Solberg
  • Iceland – Katrín Jakobsdóttir
  • Germany – Angela Merkel
  • Taiwan – Tsai Ing-Wen
  • Sint Maarten – Silveria Jacobs

In the months that follow few conduct any serious investigation why, even though it may include valuable insights into the future stewardship of all humanity.

The unspokenness in itself is a matter of concern.