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…..

2 thoughts on “Day Forty Two: Sunday 26th April 2020

  1. Good stuff and fascinating to read it some time on without the benefit of hindsight. Plagues often change the way we live forever – the Black Death upped the wages and mobility of the lowest class and promoted the yeoman/middle class who took leases from the monasteries rather than direct labour; 1665 outlawed building in other than brick/stone in London. Today we are considering the home/workplace balance.


    • Thanks Chris. You are right. Plagues have a way of being historical watersheds and that is what’s made authoring this blog so compulsive, because I want to know exactly how the Covid-19 will be a watershed in this era. I try to anchor ‘The Bigger Picture’ in key news stories ‘of the day,’ although every now and then a story makes more sense, or has more depth when it’s part of a longer narrative but I do try to exercise some restraint with that. The personal diary is absolutely locked in time – I find that helps me to locate the wider national and global ‘moment.’


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