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.

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