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.