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.

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