Day Forty Three: Monday 27th April 2020

Daily Diary: A Mundizzy View From The Chimney Pot

I’ve come across this new word – mundizziness. I have no idea where the word came from but you can be sure it’s not in the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact you’d get nothing by googling it either. I can’t even be sure writing about this over a year after I scribbled the daily diary in my notebook that I made it up.

So be it.

Mundizziness is (to my mind) making yourself busy in a mundane way. I seem to be getting pretty good at it and I’m certainly not at a loss about how to pass the day.

Last night Vicky’s toothache returned. The problem with toothache is it doesn’t go away of its own accord. At its worst, and left to its own devices it will worsen, progressing from an infection to an abscess, followed if neglected by further and deepening consequences like sepsis and fever. It is a perfect example of empathy in the universe. What you need to be concerned about is not that order will naturally descend into disorder, but how quickly it does so. She’s understandably worried that to treat her toothache will be the first time we will have broken out of the safety net of isolation to engage with a wild and unforgiving world out there, where, like in any self-respecting epic fantasy, the forces of chaos are running rife. But it has to be done. Like in such fantasy epics a dangerous journey must be made into a world of darkness.

Or so it seems from our safe little niche.

In our world the fact that there are countless brave people who go out into the virozone every day to ensure our safety passes us by. The medics, the other key workers, the organisers and fixers – all of whom are going where I cannot (or is it will not) go, in a world that if I blink twice and pinch myself has transformed into a science fiction dystopia.

I ring the dental surgery and get given a contact number by the head of the practice. So Vicky rings the contact number and is invited to leave a message on voicemail. Now it’s looking more like a thriller. Leave a message. Leave your telephone number. Will there be a reply? Or will it involve contacting another telephone number, or clicking on a link in an email, or picking up a brown paper package behind the third bush on the left – you know the one I mean.

Then there’s a knock on the door. It’s a passer-by, a short bearded bloke in his thirties. He looks concerned about something.

“There’s a cat on your roof. A black and white cat,” he tells me. “Do you know whose it is?”

“It’s our neighbour’s,” I reply through the glass.

“He’s up there…..”

“I know. Cats do that kind of stuff round here. They’re playing ‘Top Cat,’ outdoing each other over who can get the highest.”

“But he doesn’t look safe.”

“Oh he is. He’s done it before.”

“And he can get in through people’s top windows.”

“He’ll be fine,” I reassure him. “He’s being a cat. Thank you for your concern.”

“I just thought I’d let you know.” .


The surreal conversation through the glass pane of our front door ends there.

Cathy and Tom are pretty chilled about their two cats’ urban escapades and we’re all blessed to be in a tolerant neighbourhood. They come. They go. We know they can act as possible coronavirus vectors, but no one in our little corner of the planet seems to have it, so we let this rampant wildcard interface between the human and animal worlds happen. Here and there it’s been noted that cat species, large and small, have been infected with Covid-19, especially in New York, but the chances I think are too slim to justify a ding-dong about whether our neighbours should be letting their cats out. Keep them in with a litter tray and the whole house starts to stink of the nether emissions of cat. I know what I’d do in the circumstances.

After the exchange I do go out. There’s some garbage for the bin and I need to check if there’s been a stationery delivery. Tom is having an exchange with the postman. I think it’s about how to sign for a delivery while maintaining social distancing. This is an example of the many ways in which we are all learning by doing, and I’m sure all the postman’s clients have their own way of doing things in the absence of a procedure. It gets sorted and the postman then tells me that he’s sorry if there are delays with the deliveries, but the Post Office are being run off their feet by the sheer increase in the volume of parcels being delivered, so they’re constantly chasing their own tails, and all the post is a day or two behind as a result. I tell him not to worry as I’ve all the time in the world and, what’s more, I’m not going anywhere. He laughs and continues his round, going around the corner and vanishing from sight.

Then my first Zoom tutorial, spraying the chassis of the model 15 cwt Chevrolet that my dad was so familiar with in the Western Desert in World War II, and transfer the germinating geraniums from the kitchen paper hatching bed to a compost nursery. They are growing so well and it’s exciting watching them doing so.

Along with the routine rowing machine exercise and the research, a failed attempt to phone Nigel about Steve U’s Zoom presentation tomorrow, it’s all been so mundizzy.

The Bigger Picture: The Return Of The Man Who Would Be King

A narrative built up from the day’s news stories…..

Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns to work at Number Ten. He’s facing a number of real problems, resulting in part from a raging pandemic, in part from the disruptive, even chaotic way in which his government is running the country, and in part because of the central character he has created for himself in his own idiosyncratic personal narrative. It’s a moment that more pedestrian beings, as he would see them, would take stock of their brush with oblivion in an ICU and re-think the cornerstones of their lives.

Many watch his next moves and hope for a change.

Like Rabbit, hoping that Tigger will be traumatised into losing his bounce, expect to be disappointed. It does not happen. Some credit the influence of Johnson’s maternal grandmother, the artistic and colourful Frances Beatrice Lowe, who inspired him. He even quoted her advice:

“Darling, remember, it’s not how you’re doing; it’s what you’re doing.”

Living in the moment, not worrying about the consequences, was a childhood theme, leading to the mantra “Get on with it!”

The scenario is grim. In the last twenty four hours there have been 4309 recorded new cases, 360 deaths and an average daily death rate over the past week of 641. With a shaky and incomplete test and trace system the recorded cases only represent a fraction of what is almost certainly happening out in the population. In fact the country is flying blind through a fog of ignorance and the PM faces imminent pressure over PPE, testing and easing the lockdown.

Doctors are warning that protective equipment shortages are worsening, doctors warn and foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who has been standing in for Boris Johnson, raises fresh doubts about supplies. It’s dire. A third of physicians in high-risk settings lack long-sleeved gowns or full-face visors, a situation that has worsened over the past three weeks.

Teething troubles continue to blight the Government’s new Covid-19 test booking platform, with home kits running out again by 9 am. More than 10 million essential workers and their households are now eligible for Covid-19 tests as the Government scrambles to hit its much-hyped 100,000 a day target by this Thursday. Health minister Matthew Hancock says NHS staff should not have to wait for test results. The reality is very different. Some staff have had to wait for up to 24 days, making testing utterly pointless.

It’s announced that the military are to run ‘pop up’ testing sites for key workers and vulnerable people. At least 96 units will be set up by the end of May, travelling to care homes, police and fire stations, prisons and benefits centres.

It’s not a problem unique to Britain. In the US, testing shortages continue to impede governors’ abilities to reopen their states. As in Britain, great faith is being placed in newly developed antibody tests, and misunderstanding too in the way that they differ fundamentally from antigen tests in preventing the spread of the virus. There are concerns too about the tests’ quality. A team of 50 scientists evaluated 14 available tests for Covid-19 antibodies. Only three met the required standard. Governors still lack what experts say they need to track and contain outbreaks.

In both countries – others too – test and trace is seen to be critical in lifting lockdown, but real problems exist with regard to its organisation. At a certain level it works well, such as in the control of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, but Covid-19 is burning its way through the population like a wildfire. Had the threat of the pandemic been registered and acted upon earlier, such as in New Zealand, test and trace would have been manageable. As it is, all current systems have been overwhelmed.

Another problem is that Britain’s borders remain open. Arrangements have just been announced that passengers entering the UK ‘to be quarantined for two weeks’ in new plans to halt the coronavirus spread. It’s belated and in the months to come, half-hearted and inadequately enforced. The irony is that a populist government has come to power in response to a demand from a large enough slice of the populace for tougher border control in response to a range of anxieties about identity, culture and economic security, and it has failed miserably to keep out a viral plague.

When it came to anxieties no one thought for a moment about the possibilities of a pandemic.

Rumour has it there has been a decline in crystal ball sales and enrolment on divination courses.

The day was crowned with PM Johnson delivering his first post-ordeal speech today. He described being infected with Covid-19 as being attacked by an invisible, unexpected, physical assailant “and we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.” It’s Johnsonian, colourful rhetoric that calls up recent memories of TV footage of Usman Khan being wrestled to the floor on London Bridge by fellow ex-prisoners after the tragic murder of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones at Fishmonger’s Hall during a rehabilitation meeting at the end of November.

He praised the British people for their forbearance, good sense and altruism during lockdown and warned against “the risk of a second spike.,” which could cause an economic disaster.” He said, “The UK needs to pace itself before ‘firing up’ the engines of the economy.”

He outlined ‘five tests’ that were needed to ease the lockdown: deaths falling, the NHS protected, the R-rate down below one, sorting out the challenges of testing and PHE and avoiding a second spike. He promised to be more transparent, to share more with the British people and relying on science as he had, he claimed, from the beginning.

Obvious by its omission was any mention of controlling the disease at the UK’s borders. It is to remain a major issue over the coming twelve months and more. There is a serious blind spot that there is no point controlling the virus within when it continues to arrive from outside.

Meanwhile, Johnson is warned that Post-Brexit talks with the EU are on a course to fail. In the circumstances it would have been wise to extend the transition period. First. because negotiators cannot meet face to face and, even in the age of Zoom, this is a huge handicap. Formal negotiations form only part of the discussions and informal chats behind the scenes are a vital part of the process. They are much less likely to happen in the current climate. Second, businesses which would be frantically preparing for a December deadline are, instead, wrestling with Covid-19. For many of them it is a life and death struggle, and it is at best naïve to believe they can also plan for our separation from the UK. Third, the Government itself has a limited capacity to deal with crises. It’s unrealistic and to expect ministers and civil servants to cope with a December deadline and Covid-19 simultaneously. The prime minister will take time to recover from the coronavirus and the same is true for the machinery of government.

During transition, not being fully severed from the EU has helped during the crisis. Many frontline staff, both in the NHS, but also in the care and other services are from Europe. The UK opted in to the EU scheme to bring citizens home from abroad. The UK is still eligible for many of the EU’s schemes to tackle a global pandemic, from financial aid to early warning systems to medical testing, along with We numerous acts of support from the continent, including the donation of 60 ventilators for our NHS from Germany.

This week Romanian workers were flown to the UK to help feed Britain. Giving the daily COVID-19 briefing, Environment Secretary George Eustice said only a third of the migrant workers who normally picked fruit and vegetables were currently in the country. Although the international food chain was continuing to “work well”, Mr Eustice said he expected there would be a need to recruit staff in the UK to harvest crops in the coming weeks. However, decades of disengagement with manual and particularly agricultural labour within British society has left a lack of motivation within the workforce and even urging furloughed workers to go out into the orchards and fields doesn’t fill the gap.

In many farms crops rot in the field. It is a legacy. We’re reaping what we’ve sown.

Or not, as the case might be.

A combination of Brexit, a toxic atmosphere of unwelcomeness and Covid-19 have depleted the numbers of EU migrants, many of whom have now returned home. For all migrants, the UK Government’s ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ policy creates a sufficiently significant human rights issue to get the attention of Amnesty International, who describe it as “a scandal of neglect,” warning that many migrant workers are currently on the frontline of the coronavirus response in the UK, but without access to financial support many are being forced to continue working ‘at great personal and societal risk’. Others have lost work due to the pandemic and need support for themselves and families. The ‘No Recourse To Public Funds’ rules bar many migrants from accessing Universal Credit during the coronavirus crisis.

Steve Valdez-Symonds Amnesty UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director added, “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate on the basis of citizenship or immigration status but it’s clear the UK’s immigration system does ….. It beggars belief that during one of the most dangerous and devastating public health crises the UK has seen, migrants subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule still cannot access crucial support they need to stay safe and healthy.

This coincides with United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston criticising the UK government’s coronavirus response as “utterly hypocritical” after successive administrations implemented policies of austerity and public-sector cuts.

He added that globally “the most vulnerable have been short-changed or excluded” by official responses to the disease, which had claimed over 203,670 lives by Sunday evening, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“The policies of many states reflect a social Darwinism philosophy that prioritises the economic interests of the wealthiest while doing little for those who are hard at work providing essential services or unable to support themselves,” Alston said, warning that the pandemic could push more than half a billion additional people into poverty globally.

“Governments have shut down entire countries without making even minimal efforts to ensure people can get by,” he said. “Many in poverty live day to day, with no savings or surplus food. And of course, homeless people cannot simply stay home.”

He highlighted how the most vulnerable populations had been neglected, which “forces them to continue working in unsafe conditions, putting everyone’s health at risk.” And he warned that, while some nations were seeing curves flattening, the virus was “poised to wreak havoc in poorer countries”.

“As for the UK, my thoughts of course hark back to the sense of how utterly hypocritical it is now to abandon ‘austerity’ with such alacrity, after all the harm and misery caused to individuals and the fatal weakening of the community’s capacity to cope and respond over the past 10 years.

“And of course, many of the worst and most damaging aspects of ‘austerity’ cannot and will not be undone. The damage caused to community cohesion and to the social infrastructure are likely to prove permanent.”

The stretching and even tearing of the social fabric of the UK by a decade of austerity have left the country more vulnerable to the pandemic than it would otherwise have been. Food banks, which give out at least 1.6m parcels a year, have lacked supplies while care homes, where thousands are dying from Covid-19, have struggled for essentials including PPE and to maintain staffing levels. There have been real-terms cuts in public funding of social care in the UK, according to the King’s Fund, with a £700m reduction between 2011 and 2018.

“This pandemic has exposed the bankruptcy of social support systems in many countries.” Alston said. “While some governments have embraced far-ranging measures previously dismissed as unrealistic, most programmes have been short-term, stop-gap measures that merely buy time rather than address the immense challenges that will continue well into the future. Now is the time for deep structural reforms that will protect populations as a whole and will build resilience in the face of an uncertain future.”

The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the prevailing global social Darwinism mindset in a blatant and uncompromising way and as it spreads to the global south the stark gap between haves and have-nots, and the ultimate interdependence to which the haves have applied a selective partial blindness for so long becomes increasingly inescapable.

Gordon Brown declares, “The solution to this crisis is still global.”

He’s right, but to achieve that solution the haves, principally the West, have to transform their economic logic. History teaches us that those that have a surplus also have more power and use that power to share that surplus with others, and where expectations of economic growth have been shattered by the pandemic and the largest recession in history that accompanied it, local self-interest will prevail over wider largesse. The UK economy will take three years to recover from Covid-19, according to economic forecaster Ernst and Young.

Other current news about the economic fallout from Covid-19 include:

  • Germany worrying through a decision to provide state aid to national carrier Lufthansa.
  • While in Britain MPs are demanding that airlines should be made to cut their carbon dioxide emissions in exchange for a bailout.
  • Wimbledon’s organisers have demonstrated prudence and foresight in taking out pandemic insurance since 2003.
  • In the US the Trump administration is looking to use federal Covid-19 relief to prop up oil and gas industry.

Also in America Deborah Birx is bothered that Trump’s disinfectant comment remains in the news. Dr Birx has an exemplary career as a physician, diplomat and adviser. The level of her embarrassment was squirmingly obvious on video footage.

Covid-19 has weirded out politics: Walled off from voters in a distinctive kind of lockdown, Mr Biden has developed a routine of sorts, as he seeks the presidency from his basement. It seems to be working as a rash of ominous new polls and President Trump’s erratic briefings have the GOP worried about a Democrat takeover of both the presidency and the Senate in November if Mr Trump does not put the nation on a radically improved course.

There have now been Covid-19 superspreader events in 28 countries. The vast majority of superspreader events are indoor and the idea that the virus is transmitted by airborne droplets is gaining traction. Despite the fact that respiratory viruses have been commonplace for time immemorial it turns out we have very limited scientific knowledge about the mechanics of droplet transmission.

There is still much that is unknown. There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from the disease are subsequently immune to it, the WHO stressed on Saturday, cautioning against the use of so-called ‘immunity passports.’ An initial study in New South Wales schools in Australia,  suggests that children are unlikely to transmit the virus. Despite the study not yet being peer-reviewed, the limited scale of the study or the fact that asymptomatic transmission  could be a possibility PM Scott Morrison uses the report to urge the reopening of schools. This becomes a continuing phenomenon in a number of countries, including the UK, where schools become an avenue to sustaining the spread of the virus.

Two other unknowns:

  • Homeless people on the street have turned out to be less susceptible to Covid-19 than expected.
  • Although children have been found to be massively less susceptible than adults NHS issues an urgent alert amid a spike in the number of children being admitted to intensive care with a new, possibly Covid-19 related ‘inflammatory syndrome.’

Blood oxygen levels offer an infection red flag. Professor Babak Javid, a consultant in infectious diseases at Cambridge University said measuring blood oxygen levels could help with the early detection of those experiencing Covid-19 symptoms. A low level of oxygen in the blood was a sign of Covid-19 – a symptom that could be measured with a blood oximeter. A ‘danger sign’ if oxygen levels fell below 96 per cent, especially with mild exercise, such as walking upstairs or going for a short walk.

An app that tracks self-reported symptoms of coronavirus among the general population suggests that there are more than 350,000 people in the UK who would be likely to test positive for Covid-19. The Covid Symptom Tracker app has provided “unprecedented amounts of data” according to researchers at King’s College London, who are working on the app with healthcare data science start-up Zoe. This is more than double the official figure of just over 140,000 positive tests in the UK, recorded by the Department of Health and Social Care, as testing is not routinely offered to people experiencing symptoms that do not require hospitalisation.

The app has been downloaded by more than 2.4 million people, with users asked to self-report daily on what, if any, symptoms they are experiencing.

While fever and persistent cough are the best-known symptoms of the disease, the app was also useful for flagging up other predictive symptoms of coronavirus. Loss of taste and smell was one particularly notable symptom that can be a unique identifier for coronavirus. Severe fatigue is another symptom that could be indicative of a positive test, he said.

The app is providing data faster than hospital records and is helping to track the patterns and spread of the disease in “real-time.”

In being on the front line in dealing with the virus the daily stresses faced by NHS staff is becoming an increasing matter of concern, both in terms of mental health due to the emotional and physical intensity required of them and the risk of the relentless trauma of the Covid-19 frontline leaving them with flashbacks, anxiety and PTSD, and in staff retention. The NHS could face an exodus of ‘burnt-out’ nurses after the crisis.

Meanwhile many patients with chronic conditions are staying away from what they perceive to be a greater risk. “Don’t leave non-covid conditions untreated,” UK authorities warn amid ‘empty’ hospital wards.

This is a bleak time. Not least in New York, who have experienced as bad a pandemic as anywhere. With no clue about when the pandemic may subside, New Yorkers are growing grimmer. Evidence of a mood shift could be seen in little spikes on data compiled by the city. Complaints to 311 rose in reports of loud televisions and a broad new category – lax social distancing. “There is a grieving of life as we once knew it wasn’t there before, as we try to come to terms with the new reality,” a psychologist in Manhattan said.

Every hospital in New York has struggled to cope with the pandemic, but the outbreak has laid bare the deep disparities in the city’s health system. The virus is killing black and Latino New Yorkers at about twice the rate of white residents, and hospitals serving the sickest patients often work with the fewest resources.

The situation in a Belarus orphanage for children with developmental difficulties is ‘extremely critical’ after at least 23 people contracted Covid-19, a charity has warned. The orphanage in Vasnova, some 175 km from Chernobyl cares for 174 children and young adults with genetic disorders, severe disabilities and compromised immune systems. It is supported by the Adi Roche Chernobyl Children, an Irish NGO. According to the charity, the situation is now ‘extremely critical’ after 13 children and 10 members of staff contracted Covid-19.

In the Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham the holy month of Ramadan is underway. It should be full of worshippers but this year the main arrivals are the dead. While the mosque in the central English city has been closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, its parking lot has been transformed into a temporary morgue with room for 150 bodies.

While the Church of England launches a free ‘dial in’ service for the elderly.

There are many other tales from today’s lockdown:

  • Plea for urgent action on domestic abuse amid lockdown as calls to hotline rise by 50 per cent.
  • The London Marathon is replaced by the ‘2.6 challenge’ and has raised more than £4.6 million for UK charities. It will go on to raise over £11 million in the fullness of time. The 2.6 Challenge can be any activity you like – from running 2.6 miles to holding an online workout with 26 of your friends – remembering, of course, to follow Government guidelines on how to exercise safely.
  • Schools in England are warned over a ‘blind spot’ as vulnerable children stay home.
  • Two thirds of Brits altered their spending habits during the first month of lockdown.
  • The Premier League will survive lockdown. It is the rest of the sport we should worry about.
  • The Chelsea Flower Show goes digital with ‘virtual garden tours.’
  • In America during lockdown it’s 5 o’clock everywhere. From its birth in the Prohibition era to its death during the tech boom and now the soaring return of cocktail hour. What goes around, so the saying goes ….. is a little umbrella next to that olive in your glass ….. or is it a Maraschino cherry?
  • A Facebook group of art re-enactors that started in Moscow has gained 540,000 followers across the locked-down globe. Using frozen dumplings for skulls and air conditioning ducts as neck ruffs, re-enactors pair their photos with the originals.
  • New York couples are allowed to wed by video-conference amid lockdown.
  • South Koreans are confident that rumours of Kim Jong Un’s illness are wrong. BBC News reports a heart condition. He will go on to lose a lot of weight during the pandemic – as much as 20 kilos. So will his citizens. Some will starve.
  • 25 Dutch students on a sailing venture cruise in the Caribbean completed a transatlantic crossing in the same boat, a 60 foot schooner, Wylde Swan. Aged 14-17, they have little sailing experience. They were supervised by 12 experienced crew members and three teachers. Coronavirus prevented them from flying home from Cuba.
  • A high school student makes a plea to the editor of the Los Angeles Times to always remember the clean air of April 2020.

But the human condition is bruised, not defeated by the virus. After weeks of shutdown, people begin to slowly and cautiously re-emerge.

  • People flock to California’s beaches again, bringing hand sanitiser and hope.
  • Spain’s children are allowed out.
  • Italy to begin phased lifting of lockdown with reopening of some businesses next week. Beaches are getting ‘anti-coronavirus’ ready to save the holiday season.
  • Wuhan discharges all its Covid-19 patients as Beijing takes steps to stop a second wave.
  • New Zealand is preparing to ease its strict and successful lockdown rules.

Finally, from i-columnist Stefano Hatfield:

“Let’s celebrate the small things we’ve achieved in lockdown. I may not have perfected my Chinese or redecorated the house more tastefully, but I have kept my basil plant alive.”

Some went viral, others got knighted, but Stefano sums it up for most of us.

Day Forty Two: Sunday 26th April 2020

Daily Diary: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

The sky is blue again. On BBC’s Andrew Marr Show there’s talk of the skies being uncommonly blue, of the traffic haze being gone. But there is high cirrostratus – fine and wispy – suggesting that this idyllic weather will change in a day or so as a warm weather front approaches. I don’t study the weather anywhere near as closely as I do when I’m planning to fly, but obsessions are hard to bury. I tell myself it’s observation and all about growing plants.

About which the three geranium cuttings are beginning to look healthy enough to be potted, so I can use their planting tray to bring on the germinating geranium seedlings. At first the seeds looked like tiny gold nuggets, smaller than grains of rice and glittering like little treasures. This is day two and they have already begun to sprout. About half the 30 seeds have emergent roots, looking like tiny plumes from toy guardsmen on parade, with all their countless root hairs. I shall wait another day or so before the next stage of planting them.

I still need to look at the Zoom tutorial and book myself into Steve U’s online lecture on testing paragliders. I shall email the club committee about how I’m going to approach this and set up a Zoom group with them this coming week.

Out front the common looks busy. Inside it’s quiet. I confess to being intrigued by plagues in literature and download ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus onto my Kindle.

You’d have thought that having a real plague out there I’d download something else!

The Bigger Picture: If Everything On Earth Were Rational, Nothing Would Happen

There’s a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky that’s stuck in my mind as a stubborn meme and I believe the only way I can dislodge it is to write it down.

“If everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen.”

Throughout history plagues have been alike in three ways. The first is that they have in common the pathogens – bacteria and viruses – that cause them. The second is that the initial responses people make towards these pathogens have always been the same. The third is that rumours and misinformation run rife.

It doesn’t seem to matter when the plague struck, the initial response to the outbreak of an epidemic has always been denial. National and local governments have always been late to respond and have distorted facts and manipulated figures to deny the existence of an outbreak.

In “A Journal of the Plague Year,” Daniel Defoe wrote that in 1664, local authorities in some neighbourhoods of London tried to make the number of plague deaths appear lower than it was by registering other, invented diseases as the recorded cause of death. In the current pandemic at least one NHS Trust had told doctors they were not required to put Covid-19 on death certificates. Following a Pre-Action Letter from the Good Law Project, they have withdrawn the faulty guidance and ordered a review into all death certificates issued in the last three weeks.

Nor does it seem to matter that there have been precedents, and there would have been lessons learned. But these precedents are in different places, different times, and even though promises are made in the weary aftermath, they soon become forgotten. So epidemic after epidemic spread rapidly because the restrictions introduced were insufficient, their enforcement was lax and citizens didn’t heed them.

In Belarus, arguably the European country most in denial, more than two million, about a quarter of population, including doctors and nurses, took part in a government-decreed national day of civic labour, despite worries about the country’s sharply rising Covid-19 infections, four times that of neighbouring Ukraine.

The plague is certainly unforgiving in its exposure of the carelessness, incompetence and selfishness of those in power, and the more power-obsessed leaders are, the harsher and more blatant it is its exposure. Confidence in populist leaders especially erodes, as real events are pitched against rhetoric and the idealism they promote us to believe in is swept away by the cynicism that all too often follows broken dreams. In the past the public raged against the institutions of organised religion, as they became powerless against a divine will that allows widespread human suffering. In the present there are more secular expectations are that the institutions of the modern state will be up to mitigating the worst and there will be the leadership to enable those institutions to function together to make it so.

The problem with populism lies in the fact that it plays to citizens’ desires, to some extent manipulated, but not entirely so, and many of those desires reflect the carelessness, unwillingness to take responsibility and selfishness of significant numbers of people – significant enough to get elected.

Mobile phone data are already showing that Britons are starting to flaunt the lockdown.

In America many flocked to beaches on Saturday, as one Florida county expanded access and California experienced a heatwave, even as Covid-19 cases hit a record high in the US the day before and deaths topped 200,000 worldwide. Hair salons and other shops in Georgia, Oklahoma and some other states opened for a second day as pockets of the country sought to restart their economies following a month of government-ordered lockdowns.

It appears that the pandemic is as much a morality play, a tale about the human condition, as it is about the biomechanics of pathogens. It’s as much about human behaviour as it is about anything else. It accounts for humanity’s other universal and seemingly unprompted response to pandemics – the creation of rumours and spread of false information.

Most previous plagues ran their virulent course in a sparsely informed world where newspapers, radio, television or internet left the largely illiterate populace with only their imaginations to figure out where the danger lay, how serious the danger was and the extent of the torment it could cause. For some it could be a malevolent, demonic presence who went about in the dark smearing plague-infected liquid on doorknobs and water fountains. For others, a human agent with malign intent. As time progressed and superstitions haunted imaginations less the agent of pestilence transformed into a miasma, an elemental entity of the air in the twilight zone between myth and reason.

But almost all the time the plague was foreign. It appealed to xenophobic fears, which in a world outside of reason gained traction as rumours circulated. When he wrote about the Plague of Athens (429-426 BCE), Thucydides began by noting that the outbreak had started far away, in Ethiopia and Egypt. The disease is foreign, it comes from outside, it is brought in with malicious intent. Rumours about the supposed identity of its original carriers are always the most pervasive and popular. Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians in the Roman Empire for the Antonine smallpox plague, as they did not join the rituals to propitiate the Roman gods. And during subsequent plagues Jews were accused of poisoning the wells both in the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe.

You would have thought that the information-rich world infected with Covid-19 would be largely protected from such misconception and miscommunication, but it’s not so. Unfounded rumours and accusations based on nationalist, religious, ethnic and regionalist identity have had a significant effect on how events have unfolded during the pandemic, along with social media and right-wing populist media’s inclination towards amplifying lies.

So what we end up with is an ugly hybrid of reliable information about the pandemic, with animated charts and video footage of ICUs, military convoys carrying the dead, grieving relatives and a cocktail of real life terror, experiencing our possible fate in advance, along with rumours about how the virus came from outside.

Most of the world believes Covid-19 originated in China. It’s a reasonable and rational belief, the bulk of the evidence pointing that way. But the narrative from the Chinese authorities already is that it came from outside its borders, from imported seafood and its packaging, from the US military, and even eventually from Europe.

The plague came from outside.

It always does.

So now that a number of US states have started legal proceedings to sue China we know it’s the machinations of gesture rather than achieving any practical outcome. We come to realise that the world of Lemuel Gulliver is not confined to the eighteenth century, that somehow people were more absurd then than they are now.

“If everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen.”

President Trump (a name worthy of a Lilliputian character) wants to have control over pandemic relief, with zero accountability. So now he’s declared ‘presidential supervision’ over the new pandemic-related inspector general. Claiming executive authority, Trump says he’s planning to block this new watchdog from sharing information with Congress unless the inspector general has Trump’s explicit prior consent.

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump declares.

With almost forty thousand covid-related deaths in the US to date, his recent remarks about ingesting disinfectant and shining bright light under the skin make a mockery of that self-proclaimed total authority.

And people laugh, every bit as much as if the emperor had no clothes and that mushroom was just as Stormy Daniels described it on TV.

He hates being laughed at.

That’s for lesser beings.

Donald Trump skips his national coronavirus briefing, saying “they are not worth the time and effort.” The White House is considering scaling back Trump’s daily Covid-19 briefings in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, having placed what personal authority he has with his followers behind hyping the anti-malarial, hydroxychloroquine, as an antidote to Covid-19, the drug is now in short supply. For many sufferers of Lupus, dependent on hydroxychloroquine as a medically well-established treatment the shortage becomes a serious matter.

In Britain Boris Johnson claims he is ‘raring to go’ with his characteristic boosterism, as if he wants us all to believe that his gusto and enthusiasm will more than compensate for the mountain of problems he will be facing. The pressure to lift lockdown, particularly from his right wing backbenchers is intense, while scientists warn over grim virus data. Labour leader Keir Starmer steps up his demand on a lockdown ‘exit strategy,’ while playing the card that she knows she can appear more competent than Johnson, politically astute First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland may diverge from the rest of the UK.

In England there is no clear strategy. Without a vaccine the only possible way out of lockdown is test, trace and isolate, and it turns out the NHS has been using a flawed Covid-19 test, missing 25% of positives. Health minister Matt Hancock is under pressure to resign as leaked documents show that the NHS is using flawed tests. Warnings of ‘inferior’ Covid-19 tests were made two months ago and demands are made for an explanation why tests are being used that might ‘propagate’ the epidemic.

But there is hope, and the story of the flawed test is swallowed up by a more positive one about testing. The headline comes from London’s Evening Standard:

Immunity tests ‘developed by UK scientists’ in possible ‘breakthrough moment in coronavirus battle.

But this story about testing is about antibody, rather than antigen tests. Antigen tests show the presence of the virus. They warn of the presence of the disease and its capacity to infect others. Antibody tests show that someone has been infected, whether they displayed symptoms or not. They have their uses, but the Government describing them as a ‘game changer’ is hype. Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted is replacing horse riding with searching for your adventurous steed, both sources of exercise, but not exactly the same thing.

The World Health Organisation announces there is no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 have protection from future infections, and although in time it is shown by both infection and vaccination that immunity lasting a few months at least can be conferred, at this point in time this aspect of science is still in the dark.

But it’s hope, and that matters.

“If everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen.”

We need signs that things are happening. That we feel that the ship is somehow navigating its way through the storm and not just being bobbed about at random like a cork.

So when we read or see on TV that soldiers to man nearly 100 mobile testing units across the UK or that a contact tracing app is to be released within weeks we all feel we are getting somewhere.

In Europe, Spain’s downward death toll trend signals that the worst is over, the French parliament is shortly to vote on how to ease lockdown measures and as the virus lockdown eases, Italy ponders what went wrong.

Wizz Air has become one of the first airlines in Europe to resume flights during the pandemic. The budget airline said in a statement that some routes will be operating from Luton Airport from Friday. It said the aircraft would be disinfected each night and the cabin crew would wear masks and gloves on board and distribute sanitising wipes to passengers.

While Germany, notable so far for its prudence during this stage of the pandemic, warns against a race to restart tourism.

Further afield:

  • In secretive North Korea, leader Kim Jong Un has not been seen for days and is absent on Armed Forces Anniversary. There is speculation and rumour about his health.
  • Saudi Arabia partially relaxes lockdown for Ramadan but keeps a 24 hour curfew in Mecca. Aerial images show Mecca completely empty.
  • The pandemic’s devastating impact on the hospitality industry has left many migrant hotel workers in the United Arab Emirates fearing for their future and at increased risk of debt bondage.
  • While in the Gaza Strip, for the first time in years, sewing factories are back working at full capacity producing masks, gloves and protective gowns, some of which are bound for Israel.
  • Cuba has sent 216 healthcare workers to South Africa on Saturday, the latest of more than 20 medical brigades it has sent worldwide to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, in what some call socialist solidarity and others medical diplomacy. The communist-run country has sent around 1,200 healthcare workers largely to African and Caribbean nations, but also to rich European countries such as Italy that have been particularly hit by the novel coronavirus. The administration of US President Donald Trump has urged nations not to accept Cuba’s medical missions on charges it exploits its workers, which Havana denies. But the calls have gone largely unheeded as overwhelmed healthcare systems have welcomed the help.
  • Japan’s government refuses to impose a Covid-19 lockdown, dividing the country.
  • As cases first appear on the continent of Africa and testing for the virus begins.

The new reality tests people at the beginning and end of life:

  • A mother must wear a mask while caring for her newborn. A pregnant Belgian woman diagnosed with Covid-19 has given birth to a healthy daughter, but must learn to care for her newborn wearing and sleeping with a protective mask.
  • A woman is left alone and disconnected as she is unable to call her dying partner. Barbara Parry arranged to switch her phone and broadband from Sky to Now TV in March, a week before lockdown. Instead, She was left incommunicado as her line was cancelled and her phone number reallocated.
  • Self-isolation make-unders trend with celebrities. In a culture driven by narcissism, Hollywood’s biggest celebrities are eager to show how they have changed during quarantine, without stylists, colourists and make-up artists to keep them looking red carpet ready. In London some celebrities find an opportunity to model masks, a “smile for our NHS” fundraiser, launched by designer Ron Arad, with masks featuring famous artists.
  • And bizarrely, a Thai zoo forced a captive chimpanzee to entertain the crowd and make fun of the Covid-19 pandemic by riding a bicycle, wearing PPE and spraying toxic sanitiser at the crowd.

In my email inbox I’m reminded of this strange twilight zone we’ve drifted into with two public notice messages.

The first is from the Mayor of London:

“We want to hear directly from you about how your life has changed and what you would like us to do to help. Take the survey here…..”

The second, the NHS –

“Coronavirus: If you have the symptoms, even if they are mild, do not leave the house for 7 days. Everyone in your house must stay home for 14 days.”

And the WHO warns that the worst is yet to come…..

Day Forty One: Saturday 25th April 2020

Daily Diary: A Clear Blue Sky With Confetti Petals

Today is everything you’d imagine a fine April day to be. The sun is shining and there is a clear blue sky. There is a breeze, maybe ten to twelve knots and it is cold. It’s a day for making you’re in the sunshine and not in the shade. If you’re outside, that is, and for most of the day most still won’t be. It’s nice to have garden. A real privilege as it means an additional outdoor room. The apple blossom is at its end and the pink petals swirl about our small urban garden, like lost confetti, pirouetting in rise and fall spirals in the gusts that come and go.

A card came through from the council today. It reads:

Are you self-isolating? Do you need help? Do you know somebody else who needs help?

The Royal Borough of Greenwich Community Hub is here for you.

Then there are contact details, followed by:

Our volunteers and community partners are helping with things like:

  • Shopping/food supplies
  • Medicines and prescription collection/delivery
  • Phoning for a chat if someone’s on their own.
  • Dog walking.
  • Topping up gas/electricity meters.
  • Collecting pensions.
  • Putting out bins.
  • Connecting people with local groups, services and advice, such as how to stay active.

The virus has raised the importance of being a member of a community, of helping each other out, of the fact that despite whatever Margaret Thatcher said there is such a thing as society, especially in testing times.

Phil rang today and asked if we could do him a favour. It’s his wife Heather’s birthday on May 6th and, unable to arrange a weekend out somewhere special, wants to secretly buy her some presents. To keep the surprise would we be the delivery address, then he could collect them from our front lobby, aka ‘the airlock,’ the day beforehand when he comes off shift? Of course he can; more than happy to help.

I ask Phil how things are going. He’s a paramedic, so really front line. He alternates between manning the call centre phones in Waterloo and being out ‘in the van.’ The pandemic, he tells me, doesn’t stop people having strokes, heart attacks and other major health crises. Now, of course, everything is masked, gloved and aproned. The backlog of calls can run into hundreds – there aren’t enough ambulances to meet the demand by a long shot. At one point he told me there was a backlog of five hundred calls and the pressure on the front line was hard to imagine.

He tells me of the lack of liminal space between work and home. Those punctuation marks in life that defuse the stresses and pressures of twenty first century life, and even moreso during a pandemic. For my friend Phil his two main waking activities involve enduring working for a highly pressurised public health service and the demands of life at home, sharing the care and home-schooling of two young boys at home, bearing in mind that Heather works as well. Just keeping up must be very hard. I tell him that my problem is just the opposite. By comparison I have an easy and unpressured existence. All Vicky and I have to do is do our best to stay out of harm’s way and avoid placing an additional burden on Phil and his colleagues. I feel a sense of guilt, I tell him, of being looked after by our daughter, of being cosseted against the pressures that so many others are facing. He tells me not to. It makes no sense to feel guilty about your circumstances.

He’s right, but it doesn’t dissipate the guilt altogether.

Funny old thing, being human.

It’s all about minimalising risk and in practice that can be a tough one. If we could all self-isolate if we’re not absolutely essential then the coronavirus would only have a small part of the population to spread through. In a matter of weeks it would have ‘nowhere to go.’ But life’s not quite like that and we still need to occasionally to go out for food, medicines and other things too. Then the ‘perfect del’ falls apart and we end up in the kind of messy no-man’s land we’re in at the moment.

People in many countries are wearying of quarantine and there’s an understandable eagerness to end it. But the scourge of the virus is nothing personal. It just does, exploiting the weaknesses in our social interactions.

Meanwhile the box for Vicky arrives. All 6 notebooks are A5. They’re cute and look handy, but to a slightly OCD obsessive like me they’ve got to be A4 for this project.

I should have realised the price was too good to be true!

Which brings me on to The Covid Chronicle. I’m on the third notebook already. I have ten, maybe eleven days to get a new order in.

In the meantime there is much to record.

The Bigger Picture: You Want The Science? You Can’t Handle The Science!

Covid-19 has infected more than 2.7 million people around the world, with the death toll passing 195,000. By the time the pandemic has run its course there will be a number of individual countries with more cases and deaths than this number. Even before the arrival of Covid-19, humanity found itself stuck in several crises at once. If we’re lucky enough to live in the rich world then we can watch the ever-unfolding theatre of calamity on TV and display whatever level of empathy your genes and upbringing have endowed you with and take an action somewhere along the spectrum between making an immediate charitable donation to switching channel to watch something that leaves you feeling more comfortable.

The psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman said that humans are up to thinking about things in much the same way as cats are about swimming – we can do it, but we’d rather not, thanks.

If you’re unlucky enough to live in a less affluent spot on the planet then you are as likely as not to find yourself as a bit player in that theatre of calamity. You might even be scripted a few lines. Something like:

“It’s the same the whole world over,

It’s the poor what gets the blame,

It’s the rich what gets the gravy,

Ain’t it all a bleeding shame?”

Whether geographically or sociologically, it will be the poorest who are set to bear the brunt. Slowly but surely, babystep by babystep, two steps forward then a step back, there had been progress since the millennium, but now global poverty is expected to increase for the first time in over 20 years. The World Bank projects that the pandemic could push 40 to 60 million people into extreme poverty, setting us back three years of progress.

It’s not that the poorest countries can’t afford to print money, or furlough millions. It’s worse than that – they are being forced to choose between protecting people from Covid-19 and paying their debts. And if that doesn’t sink in, figure this –  the Democratic Republic of the Congo has five ventilators and an unknown ICU capacity for a population of 90 million, compared to Germany, which has approximately 25,000 ventilators and 28,000 ICU beds for a population of 84 million people. They also have to cope with Ebola and other tropical diseases alongside Covid-19.

What the world really needs is a new Bretton Woods to update the working order of the global economy. For some there are hopes that the current shock delivered by the virus could accelerate a paradigm shift that was already underway, resulting in a better and more sustainable world, brought closer together by this terrible shared experience.

Pinch yourself – it’s not to be.

Instead, Covid-19 will further deepen the fault lines that have been emerging since the financial crisis. We are seeing an increase in protectionism, the polarisation of society and a further shift to the right. What little was left of multilateralism has failed. We are experiencing the return of power politics.

The problem is that there are too many alpha males in the room. Authoritarianism rules, whether in Japan, China, the United States, the UK or India, basing their legitimacy on ultra-nationalism. The give and take of diplomacy proves much harder for them as they fear that compromises would make them appear weak. So there is a second pandemic of power grabs as autocrats see opportunity in disaster. The world is distracted, the public need saving and for now at least global protest movements have been dampened by lockdown. It’s a strongman’s dream. China is already taking advantage in Hong Kong.

I remember being riveted by a book called ‘The Emergence of Man’ by John Pfeiffer. I was so inspired by my own biology teacher, Don Belcher, who by pure coincidence bore a physical resemblance to the younger Charles Darwin, that I went on to teach biology myself. My interest in biology started with a small Japanese microscope I was given for my tenth birthday, where I could enter a world within a world. By the time I reached the sixth form, Mr Belcher nurtured this interest. I did a research project on human evolution. I’d have fun writing to hardline creationist groups – all they ever did in reply was send me a large number of leaflets and booklets with biblical references and slightly bizarre illustrations that were as much about post-war bible belt ideals as they were about principled argument, but hey, each to their own.

In the book there’s a chapter about baboons as social primates, the role of the alpha male in a baboon troupe and how that structured the wider social order. The first school I taught in was a large boys’ secondary school in South East London and I would reflect on how much the social order, and even tribalism among teenage boys resembled male dominance patterns I was reading about. As time passed it became clear this wasn’t just a baboon-thing but extended to a large number of animals.

I began to wonder if somehow this was ‘wired’ into human behaviour, especially when if we can find an easy ride out of thinking stuff out. Maintaining being the leader becomes more important than where exactly you’re leading people to. And it seems to be a male phenomenon too. Women leaders have on the whole are leading their countries much more successfully through the pandemic than their male counterparts, and alpha males, such as Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson are performing particularly poorly.

So when Trump utters his now infamous line: “I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in one minute ….. is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside, or almost a cleaning?” there are those who find the remark ridiculous, even infuriating among those who already believe he’s risked lives with other ‘unproven cure’ remedies, but he’s not directly called out for it, and when challenged a day or so later passes it off as being sarcastic, and that in itself goes unchallenged.

Stable genius or dangerous ignoramus?

No one dares challenge the alpha male about the latter. Careers have been terminated for less. So he takes that as being an endorsement for the former, as he play acts sorting out the disruption of his own making. The world then becomes a stage for the ultimate performance and the adulation of millions – who are as unwilling to think it through as a pet cat is to join you in the pool – simply reinforces the delusion behind the spectacle.

It’s horribly Nero-esque.

When an epidemic killed thousands in ancient Rome, the chief physician of the emperor Nero circulated a recipe for an old miracle cure. It was an attempt by the emperor to sustain his legitimacy in the midst of this catastrophic event.

Two thousand years later, Trump does the same with hydroxychloroquine, , an anti-malaria drug that has not been shown to be safe or effective against Covid-19.

“What do you have to lose? Take it,” the president urged. It seems he’d been inspired by a lawyer, falsely claiming an affiliation with Stanford University, appearing on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight to declare the results: a “100% cure rate against coronavirus”.

Within hours Trump had hailed the drug as a ‘game changer,’ promoted it strongly and, facing questions from the press about his aggressive promotion of an unproven treatment, he argued against waiting for the completion of clinical trials. “In France, they had a very good test,” he said. “But we don’t have time to go and say, ‘Gee, let’s take a couple of years and test it out, and let’s go and test with the test tubes and the laboratories.’”

Meanwhile, Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease doctor, has repeatedly warned that there is no conclusive evidence to support using the drug. Asked whether it should be considered a treatment for Covid-19, he said on 24 March: “The answer is no.”

Four days later guidelines were issued to patients and carers about using hydroxychloroquine sulphate. The FDA had been bypassed and the drug had been given Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA), letting federal officials greenlight the use of unapproved medical products in a time of emergency.

Never mind the science, don’t worry about the safety, just follow the leader.

It’s not been unique to the US.

The NSRA, National Security Risk Assessment was a 600-page confidential report produced for the eyes of Number Ten during 2019. It was, however, leaked to the Guardian newspaper. The Government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, one of the key figures steering the Covid-19 response, signed off the briefing and impressed the need for ‘robust’ plans to deal with a pandemic. The assessment said a relatively mild outbreak of ‘moderate virulence’ could lead to 65,600 deaths and could cost the UK £2.35trillion.   

Theresa May was prime minister when the report was written, but it was mothballed on the advice of Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill so ministers and officials could focus on Brexit.

The Committee of cabinet ministers who were the intended audience, the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee (THRCC), was scrapped by Boris Johnson in July 2019, six months before the coronavirus arrived. The THRCC had also been tasked with following through the findings of Exercise Cygnus, a simulation of a viral pandemic that was carried out in 2016. The Cygnus report concluded:

“The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors.” 

The Cygnus report found that nobody in the centre had oversight over everyone else. There were also particular concerns about the impact of a pandemic on the social care sector. Though discussed at an NHS board meeting and mentioned in a speech by the former chief medical officer, the report on Cygnus has never been published. In a response to a freedom of information request, the Department of Health claimed that the report needed to be kept secret so as to inform policy development.

However, the current health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that he had been told that all of its recommendations had already been implemented, suggesting its role in informing policy was complete.

It’s hard to see how that would have been possible.

So Johnson’s first major error, an act of careless expedience or Brexit tunnel-vision, happened within days of his coming into office as he ripped out the opportunity for central oversight at the start of any pandemic.

A former Cabinet minister who was a member of THRCC until it was axed said it could have ensured the Government reacted more quickly to coronavirus, adding: ‘Once the pandemic took hold in Italy… alarm bells would have been ringing.

It wasn’t simply that he was unprepared. He had removed the capacity to be prepared.

It was the act of a man with a history of being a chancer. The analogy that comes to my mind is skydiving without a reserve parachute. Only he had the whole country clipped onto his harness as a passenger.

Still more science-related stories:

  • On the subject of chancing, addiction specialists say there’s been a surge in advertising for online gambling during the lockdown, something campaigners warn is giving rise to new forms of addiction. The UK government says it will launch a parliamentary inquiry into the impact of problem gambling. In the meantime sports minister Nigel Huddleston writes a letter to the five chief executives of the largest gambling companies, urging them to go beyond existing proposals laid down by the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) in a 10-point pledge that has been branded “weak” by MPs. Nothing much happens as a result and gambling increases during lockdown as a result, with half of those gambling switching to betting online. It’s a secondary effect, driven, like the mismanagement of the virus itself by financial interests trumping what’s known to science and public health, an ever-repeating leitmotif of the pandemic.
  • We’re being told repeatedly by Johnson that the Government’s following the science, while the Government’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings attends meetings of SAGE, a supposedly ‘independent’ science panel advising Number Ten. Cummings has a degree in history and expertise in propaganda.
  • British armed forces are to be given insect repellent to protect them against Covid-19 infection, it has emerged. The Ministry of Defence confirmed on Friday that it plans to buy stocks of a product containing a lemon eucalyptus oil called citriodiol. But questions remain about its effectiveness with British officials refusing to reveal any evidence it would work.
  • Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told the Commons Science and Technology Committee that the “only circumstances” in which he would use the phrase “herd immunity” would be to refer to a population being vaccinated – a strong hint that he disagrees with others in Government who have misused the phrase.
  • The WHO launches a global initiative on treatments for Covid-19. The challenge is how to develop vaccines and drugs then get them to 7 billion people?
  • Pathologists are eager to quickly conduct post-mortems on as many Covid-19 victims as possible. They aim to determine who is at greatest risk from the virus and what damage it causes inside the body. Initial results are already available.
  • The results of Covid-19 serosurveys are starting to be released.
  • Hospitals are using AI to predict the decline of Covid-19 patients – before knowing whether it works.
  • Dyson’s £20 million ventilator is ‘no longer required’ by the Government.
  • There’s still no Covid-19 screening of passengers arriving in the UK. We’re the jumbled-Brits, all at sea in a sieve.

Financially, the body blow continues, as economies wrestle with the consequences:

  • In the US the Congressional Budget Office forecasts a $3.7 trillion deficit, a 5.6 per cent economic contraction and an unemployment rate of nearly 12 per cent by the year’s end.
  • The EU has managed to come up with a possible solution, using the EU budget to transfer money to those parts of Europe that need it most. Ursula von der Leyen made it clear that it would not be measured in billions but rather be more like one trillion euros. Though precisely how much, and what proportion will be grants rather than loans, will clearly be at the root of the contentious decisions yet to be made.
  • In the UK insurers face £1.2 billion in payments for the coronavirus crisis.
  • While two thirds of British restaurants will not survive without a rent holiday.

As Britain pass the peak of cases, hospitalisations and deaths politicians consider how restrictions are going to be eased. Each of the four nations differ over how and when to ease restrictions. Scotland, who have already published documentation, are already ahead of the curve. The government in England struggles with imposing rules. The irony is that much as it likes to take as many of the reins of power as it can, its libertarian ideology works against presenting itself as overly authoritarian.

George Orwell captured that deep conflict between the desire to feel free within a state whose electorate and political history shows all too well a disposition towards a right of centre mentality, when he wrote:

“Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas, and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.”

Perhaps it’s the same conflict within Johnson himself that creates a resonance with so many of the electorate, that counter-intuitively they surrender to being gaslighted and become the sheep in the power games of people they have little or nothing to do with on anything approaching a personal level.

Could it be the same conflict manifesting itself in the Government’s muddled guidance on social behaviour during a pandemic? For example, Choose ten lockdown friends and family, as the Government considers ‘stay at home’ rules to allow small groups to meet for meals, share childcare and let couples who do not live together to see each other.

Or is the muddle more a matter of competence?

Progress with test and trace would suggest that, with poor collaboration, confusion and lack of capacity: How the UK’s efforts to ramp up Covid-19 testing have failed. Expansion of testing is branded an “utter mess” after the website closes. The Government’s new Covid-19 testing website for essential workers has had to be shut down after its 5,000 home kits ran out within just two minutes. Some 46,000 people tried to access the website, 16,000 tests in total were booked and the site was back up later in the day. Capacity rose to 51,121 per day. And as UK runs out of home tests for key workers, as concerns raised over need to drive to testing centres.

“A lot of people don’t drive or don’t own a car,” a Bristol councillor pointed out.

The new reality that’s overtaken us all reveals itself in a number of today’s stories:

  • Destroyer USS Kidd becomes the second US Navy ship hit by a major coronavirus outbreak on patrol to intercept drug smuggling. As of 22nd April CNN reported a total of 26 US Navy vessels in which crew members have tested positive. The US Navy recommended reinstating Captain Crozier, the fired captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, who requested help with the outbreak on his ship. It never happens. As if to rub sea salt into the wounds, following an investigation in to the Theodore Roosevelt’s outbreak, the captain, an officer with a hitherto distinguished naval career will be criticised for the inadequate social distancing and quarantine measures on board his ship.
  • Across Europe, takeaway food services have experienced a noticeable spike since self-isolation measures began. This is being put down to what is best described as “cooking fatigue,” the feeling of wanting to eat lazily rather than having to cook all our own meals from scratch.
  • There’s a children’s confinement dance growing in popularity in France. Designed to keep children amused during the lockdown, it is growing in popularity in France. Lucas Elziere, a 35 year old musician in Rennes, developed the choreography to save his brother’s children from boredom.
  • There has been a surge in animal adoptions and fostering. But beware! Many cats and dogs have started behaving differently, since lockdown began, spooked by the change in the daily rhythm and their owners always being around. Some pets are growing clingy. Others are pouncing on exercise equipment, gliding across countertops, or hiding in corners, whining, growling and even shooting their owners concerned stares.
  • As if to remind ourselves that stay at home orders unsettle human beings as well there’s shocking footage showing Scots police clashing with louts in an East Lothian residential street. Since Police Scotland issued an appeal to observe corona lockdown rules there have been more than 4,000 orders to disperse, 1600 fixed penalty notices and 78 arrests across the country issued to those flouting the lifesaving measures.
  • Groups of adolescent and young adult males clustering is a growing feature across many parts of the UK. On my Nextdoor network a concerned woman seeks online advice about  reporting large groups gathering on Winns Common.
  • There is now hunger crisis in the UK, with 1.5 million people a day are going without food.
  • Labour launches a review into the Covid-19 impact on BAME people. Equality and justice campaigner Baroness Doreen Lawrence has been asked to lead the review and has been appointed as the party’s race relations adviser.
  • The lockdown is already leading to certain kinds of crime. Customs officers have found cocaine smuggled in a consignment of masks. There are fears that children could be recruited by gangs. Metropolitan Police officers are arresting around 100 people a day for domestic violence offences during lockdown. Charges and cautions from 9th March rose 24 per cent higher than last year.

By this time the world finds itself with an unevenly spread deadly virus. Some countries have been through the worst and believe they have reached better times ahead, as if a pandemic is a passing storm. It isn’t.

  • Some realise that fact. “It’s too early to celebrate.” Iceland’s prime minister speaks about her country’s Covid-19 success.
  • Some want to advertise their success to the whole world as if to compensate for a darker underlying truth. For the tenth straight day China reported no new deaths from the virus. Twelve new cases were reported on Saturday, 11 of them brought from overseas and one local transmission in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. How exactly the pandemic began in China remains a mystery and will continue to do so for a long time. The EU have released a report alleging that Beijing was spreading disinformation about the Covid-19 outbreak. China has sought to block it.
  • South Korea has reported 10 fresh cases of Covid-19, the eighth day in a row that the daily increase has been less than 20, as its outbreak slows amid tighter border controls and waning infections in the worst hit city of Daegu. The country also reported no deaths for the second straight day on Saturday.
  • Mexico says its auto factories are to reopen with virus safeguards.
  • India has eased the stringent lockdown for 1.3 billion people by allowing local and standalone shops to open with restrictions, such as 50 per cent of workers, wearing face masks and keeping social distancing.
  • While Sri Lanka imposes a curfew.
  • Cases of Covid-19 are overwhelming hospitals, morgues and cemeteries across Brazil as the country veers closer to becoming one of the world’s pandemic hot spots. Medical officials in Rio de Janiero and at least four other major cities have warned that the hospital systems are on the verge of collapse, or are too overwhelmed to take any more patients.
  • Congo’s smugglers keep hustling through the Covid-19 lockdown. The illicit economy makes it hard to stem the spread of the disease.
  • The Australian aborigine territory, Arnhem Land, is under lockdown, but you can visit it through online concerts.
  • While Vladimir Putin stays out of sight as Covid-19 hits the economy. It is very hard to gauge what kind of pandemic experience Russia has had. Information coming out of the country is far from reliable.

Finally, the pandemic can always be best caught in people’s personal stories. Look very carefully and you’ll see that the bigger picture is actually a mosaic of tiny individual pictures, each with a fractal reality in its own right. As mine is. As yours is too.

  • At the start of Ramadan the Prince of Wales has paid tribute to Ismail Mohammed Abdul Abdulwahab, a 13 year old boy who died after contracting Covid-19.
  • Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton and Hove, says she doesn’t miss the PMQs scrum but she does miss the atmosphere. Like 649 others, she has a virtual MP finding it hard to build up momentum in Parliament’s Zoom waiting room.
  • 99 year old Captain Tom Moore and singer Michael Ball reached Number One in the UK singles chart with their rendition of, “You’ll never walk alone.”
  • On the Isle of Wight nine camping carers on ITV’s ‘This Morning’ explain why they couldn’t leave elderly residents during the pandemic.

In the last two stories I’m minded that some of those we admire will be remembered forever. Some haven’t passed first base when it comes to knowing their names.

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what they achieved to earn our admiration.