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.

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