Day Forty Five: Wednesday 29th April 2020

Daily Diary: So Many Stories

Today, I’m finding myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of coronavirus stories. They are relentless and the big story is changing all the time.

Steve U’s Zoom presentation on choosing the right paraglider went well and I started to get an insight into how Zoom could be used. Nigel and I had a long conversation about Zoom and its potential with a view to the next step of taking it to the club committee. Meanwhile, another good friend Ian has extended a Zoom invitation to his 60th birthday this coming Sunday at 3 pm and I’ll ‘go,’ beer in hand.

At the chemist’s, waiting for Vicky’s antibiotic mixture to be concocted I have an exchange with another customer who tells me he’s heard that if you smoke you’re less likely to be affected by the virus and it’s a reminder of the dangers of rumours, hokum and snake-oil medicine that are currently running rife.

I get the heads up from Andy, a local airsports veteran, that someone’s base-jumped off the Lizzy Bridge at Dartford. Whoever it was I’m putting in the same league as the headbangers out there who are using the empty roads to clock up speeds of over 150 mph. They walk, drive and even free-fall among us.

As does the hooded walker in the eighteenth century plague mask wandering the depths of Norfolk.

So be it.

Carrie Symonds gives birth to a baby boy, and Boris Johnson distracts us all yet one more time away from the folly and stupidity that all too often surrounds him.

The Bigger Picture: It All Ends With Someone Jumping Off A Bridge

The pandemic has layers. There’s my own personal experience and decisions being profoundly influenced by the all-pervasive presence of the virus, whether it’s in the air I breathe and the things I touch or not. There are those near and dear to me, under my roof, then among my family and friends. There’s my neighbourhood and the wider behaviour of those local to me. Then there’s the whole national state of things and the degree of competence and leadership with which it’s being managed. Then of course there’s the whole world, but even that is two layers rather than one. We have got into the habit of thinking about ‘the world’ as being the human world, when this pandemic has starkly reminded us that it is a ball of minerals with a thin living film on it – the biosphere – subject to natural laws which we abide by or break at our peril.

If you want to get a mental picture of exactly how thin that living film is, just wet an unwaxed apple. It’s a sobering thought.

The best analogy I’ve come across about how the pandemic spreads is a forest fire. It only takes an ember to be carried in the air to set up further fires elsewhere. It’s easy to extinguish an ember but all hell to put out a forest fire. The proviso is, of course, that every single ember needs to be put out in time. In the case of the virus the embers can’t be seen, so policymakers have to engage with the acute problem it presents in the abstract in order to prevent it from becoming a nightmare in easily recognisable reality.

Abstraction is something populist governments would rather avoid.

It’s impossible to do abstraction in an easily remembered three word slogan.

But there are those who start to imagine what the fallout will be for the human world. A pandemic is a major disruption of human progress. In some cases quite the reverse as a UN official warns that the pandemic response could become a human rights disaster. The United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) has warned that the pandemic could spell disaster for women’s rights around the world. UNPFA says lockdowns and school closures designed to contain the spread of Covid-19 could critically undermine progress made in family planning, as well as causing an increase in child marriage and female genital mutilation.

Meanwhile, Global arms spending continues to rise. Optimists claim that Covid-19 will trim budgets and in the post-pandemic world governments will have other priorities. Realists look at the conflicts in countries that by all reasoning are the least able to afford them that are still raging on and think otherwise.

Another warning from the UN is that Covid-19 could double the number of people suffering from acute hunger, with nearly 265 million people at risk of starvation.

It’s not just the developing world where hunger is a problem.

“If I eat lunch, I don’t eat dinner,” Zakarias Darouich, a truck driver from Barcelona, tells Euronews as lockdown punishes Spain’s poorest, who can now barely afford food.

It’s not just simply a matter of money. The pandemic has seriously disrupted the whole supply chain.   A lack of seasonal workers is a big part of the problem. In Germany you are talking about 300,000 agricultural labourers who would usually work in the country’s farms. In France, the number is 200,000, while in Spain it’s 70,000 to 80,000 seasonal workers.

Go it alone Britain decided on recruiting local labour. After all, there was plenty about with lockdown and furlough. There has been a fair amount of wishful thinking here, including getting pensioners to be out there in the fields, harvesting essential crops. No consideration of creaky spines, grating hip joints and dodgy knees. Nor was there any real consideration that orchards and fields were on urban doorsteps where the lion’s share of the furloughed workers were. As it was, 36,000 applications were filled by British people in recent months, but only 6,000 completed interviews and a staggering 112 ended up accepting a job.

The UK has a clerical, computer-screen based education system that steers young people away from doing stuff with their bare hands. Mucky fingers? Yecch! That’s how we got to depend on migrant labour in the first place – before the country was encouraged to grumble about eastern European migrants and things got out of hand.

But that’s another story.

 So farmers and companies have been forced to charter planes and fly in thousands of eastern Europeans to pick that asparagus, those strawberries and grapes. And the UK government mulls over future visa arrangements, to get over their cognitive dissonance of ending free movement.

But it’s similarly confused elsewhere too. The EU has demanded that countries treat seasonal labourers as key workers, but some are still facing difficulties getting across borders . Like Hungary, for example, which has shut them completely. Or in Poland, where people have been put off travelling. With new rules stating that when you return, you must spend two weeks in quarantine, many will decide that it’s simply not worth it.

This is not just a European problem.

In America, meat supplies could be jeopardised as abattoirs also lose staff. Furthermore, meat plants, where animals are slaughtered and their bodies processed are considered essential during the pandemic and have therefore continued to operate. But rather than adapt and safeguard against the spread of Covid-19, these facilities are responding to the crisis by either cutting corners at the expense of animal welfare, or maintaining dangerous pre-Covid-style conditions for its workers that can cause infection rates to spike. In fact, several factories are already ‘hot spots.’

Animals and humans are suffering.

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that in the developing world the situation is going to be worse.

It’s emerged that Covid-19 has now killed more Americans than the Vietnam War, as the model used by the White House increases the death toll for the second time in a week. The world’s greatest superpower that should have been well prepared to fight the pandemic is floundering instead, hampered by slow decision-making, inequality and a safety-net full of holes.

To the country’s credit there have been countless acts of philanthropy, from corporations and foundations to individuals, who have so far collectively raised 5.3 billion US dollars to more than 1,200 organisations around the world, not to mention daily acts of more local generosity and charity, such as landlords waiving rent payments for some of the 26 million Americans who have so far applied for unemployment insurance and neighbours making lunches for local children who relied on their schools for a good meal. It has to be said that donations to immediate coronavirus relief efforts do make a huge difference, but will do nothing to tackle the structural problems the virus has exposed. And though impressive, the billions that philanthropists can muster is just a sliver of the trillions that the American government can unleash in stimulus packages. The virus hitting vulnerable groups hardest is a long-term consequence of social and economic inequality. When society does rebuild, pre-pandemic normality is no the place to return to.

Other news from the US:

  • New hospitalisations in New York drop below 1,000 for the first day in a month.
  • “I can’t imagine why.” Trump declares, as he denies responsibility for a spike in disinfectant emergency calls.
  • While hospital demand for Trump’s much touted medicine, hydroxychloroquine, to treat Covid-19, is waning.
  • High profile cases are being delayed by Covid-19, including multiple murders.
  • Nursing ranks are filled with Filipino Americans. The pandemic is taking an outsized toll on them.

And elsewhere:

  • Migrant workers cooped up in Gulf dormitories, largely ignored by governments, fear infection.
  • Clues are thrown up about Kim Jong Un’s Agatha Christie style disappearance Satellite images of luxury boats further suggest that North Korea’s dictator is at his favourite villa.
  • The penny drops that China has near-total control of the world’s antibiotic supply, exposing the biomedical insecurity of the west.

In Britain counting the Covid-19 death toll changes as Public Health England (PHE) develops a methodology that links data from three sources to provide broader coverage of deaths among people with a confirmed COVID-19 laboratory test, whether they occurred in hospitals, care homes or the wider community. There is a sudden jump from 21,678 to 26,097, although the real discrepancy is believed by many to be closer to 20,000. Even on the official figures, Environment Secretary George Eustice admits the UK may well end up with the worst death toll in Europe.

There have been 23,660 deaths in France, 23,822 in Spain and 27,359 in Italy, according to John Hopkins University Covid-19 tracker.

Despite these gloomy picture PM Boris Johnson has returned to work, delay paternity leave to deal with the outbreak and bringing his characteristic positivity with him, although a number of his critics prefer to call it “optimism delusion.” Critics he would dismiss out of hand as “doomsters” and “gloomsters.”

Things are bad. Even allowing for the change in counting there will have been around six hundred deaths in the last 24 hours. 

To succeed, Johnson will need to back up his rhetoric with results. He is already eager to lift the lockdown and is planning to both consult his scientific advisers and hold a summit with opposition leaders. Not far beneath the surface, however, Dominic Cummings is more than a bystander in Sage meetings, two people who were present at the 18th March have told Bloomberg, saying that the Downing Street senior aide pushed for pub closures and full lockdown.

Poor policy decisions and mismanagement lead to consequences with an unforgiving rapidity when it comes to covid, quickly putting ministers on the back foot. “The thing is, I think that’s unreasonable as a question, actually,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said when asked to apologise for rising care home deaths.

It would have seemed to have made pragmatic sense to extend the Brexit transition period until Britain was at the other side of the pandemic, solving one problem at a time. But the Government’s political sense to ‘get Brexit done’ remains, a dangerous and damaging obsession with the country under a serious biomedical threat, but one which intends to play to the base.  So Dominic Raab, when asked about the EU negotiations, said the UK’s position remains ‘unchanged’ on the transition period coming to an end at the end of this year. He said that not doing so would add to the ‘uncertainty.’

Meanwhile, actor Emma Thompson urges the UK Government to protect migrants during the Covid-19 lockdown. “It’s imperative that our Government shows decency and humanity,” she said.

In the coming year her expectations are far from fully met.

Locking down is definitely working with hospitals becoming quieter. Admissions have fallen from a peak of 3565 at the start of this month to 1488 today and it is a definite downward trend. But from previous pandemics it is by no means over yet and we have to hold our nerve for a second peak. The chief executive of the Nightingale field hospital suggests it should take Covid-19 patients from other London hospitals to enable them to become ‘covid-free’ and restart normal treatment, the backlog of cases of other medical problems rising inexorably, stoking up a problem for the future.

There are also unanswered questions. There is an urgent  need to investigate patterns like the high number of BAME patients with Covid-19.

The other big question concerns transmission of the virus. Airborne transmission is suspected. The results from a study by a team of doctors and scientists in two Wuhan hospitals and published in Nature indicate that room ventilation, open space, sanitization of protective apparel, and proper use and disinfection of toilet areas can effectively limit the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in aerosols, with a recommendation that future work should explore the infectivity of aerosolised virus.

The droplet-transmission theory is independently borne out by other academics. Lindsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech says, “Those are going to stay in the air, floating around for at least two hours. It strongly suggests there is potential for airborne transmission.”

The idea is catching on with policymakers. The Scottish government have recommended that people cover their faces while in some enclosed public spaces, such as shops and public transport. But not everyone is convinced.  Professor Angela McLean, the government’s deputy chief medical adviser. Said there is “weak” evidence of a “small” beneficial effect for face coverings.

It’s a mystery with flu routinely causing thousands of deaths annually in the UK for countless years before the pandemic that airborne transmission has been relatively sparsely studied. It’s not exactly a new idea. More than a century ago, epidemiologist Dr Thomas Tuttle prescribed face masks and social distancing to slow the influenza pandemic. He made a lot of enemies. It cost him his job. But it worked.

Personally, I’ve been wearing a mask since early March, not because I knew about how the virus was transmitted but because of the precautionary principle, in the same way that I always have a reserve parachute when I go out paragliding, and I struggle to grasp that so many others don’t see things the same way.

It’s a common human error to assume everyone else sees the world the same as you do, and I’m just as prone to that error as anyone else.

Social distancing, including locking down and quarantining is one of two key elements in controlling covid. The other is testing and tracing. The UK is far from reaching its 100,000 target promised for tomorrow. Health secretary, Matt Hancock unveiled a major expansion of free Covid-19 tests by the “middle of May.. They will cover not just the staff and residents in care homes and NHS hospitals without symptoms, but also all people over 65 with symptoms, or people who need to travel for work and have symptoms. With any lockdown easing dependent on such a plan, it’s the first clue to a date for a shift in policy towards wider community testing, although it’s early days.

Thousands of Londoners were today urged to get tested for Covid-19 to help get the capital ‘back on its feet’ as the deadline loomed for the Government’s target of 100,000 deaths a day.

In America, the White House Covid-19 testing strategy puts the onus on states, says the federal government is a ‘last resort.’ CVS Health, Walgreens, Walmart and other retailers with pharmacies are prepping hundreds of parking lots and store drive-thru windows in a much anticipated effort to test Americans for Covid-19. By the end of May there may be nearly 2,000 retail sites open.

Another benefit of testing is that it creates data by which the pandemic may be better understood in subsequent research and analysis. More than a third of people in one of Italy’s hardest-hit provinces have had Covid-19 over the last two months. Authorities in Bergamo, Lombardy, made the estimation based on analysis of the Covid-19 tracking app released earlier this month.

One of the key emergent problems of the pandemic is that very few people appear to be capable of looking at the problem holistically. People’s mindsets travel down two divergent roads. The first is the epidemiological path. Lockdowns are a tried and tested means of controlling the spread of an epidemic, but they are blunt instruments, disruptive to economic activity. The second is the business path, but wealth is created by human activity, not all of which can happen remotely. That means human interactions, and with every one the chance of spreading the virus grows.

And things are worrying. HSBC profits plunge as Europe’s biggest bank faces a coronavirus hit.

No one seems to have found a middle path and the pendulum of trade-offs, along with the opinions of those who espouse them, swings between extremes. So the European Commission is now calling for a new ‘Marshall Plan,’ using money from the EU budget to keep the EU tourism industry afloat during the crucial summer season, without factoring in the effects of mixing populations on spreading the virus and enabling it to mutate, recombine and become more effective and runs counter to other governments’ initiatives to pay citizens’ wages (or at least a substantial part of them) to keep them away from mixing.

It’s a step taken not only by richer nations. In Malawi, for example, more than a million people will receive a monthly payment of 35,000 kwacha, equivalent to the country’s minimum wage, as part of the package of income-support measures for the country’s poorest and to help small businesses through the nation’s anti-Covid-19, President Peter Muthenika has announced.

Back to the EU’s new ‘Marshall Plan.’ The tourism industry is huge. In a couple of generations the prosperity of not only the west, but elsewhere too, has grown, and with it our demand for leisure. That meant a demand for travel, accommodation, eating out that’s grown out of all recognition over the last fifty years. As the virus hit country by country that sector became the first commercial casualty. British Airways is set to make 12,000 workers redundant, as it is expected to take “several years” for the airline industry to recover. Other airlines are not reimbursing customers for flights cancelled due to the pandemic and are now facing class action, as a British legal firm is threatening legal action against Air France, KLM and Ryanair over this apparent, and illegal, refusal to refund.

The airlines include some companies who avoided paying tax in good times and there is a growing sentiment they shouldn’t be getting bailouts now.

But the harsh economic reality is not universal. Elon Musk is expected to soon bank the biggest payday of his life during the global pandemic – a stock jackpot worth $600 million or more. And the pandemic is proving to be liberating firms to experiment with radical new ideas. Some of these will persist after the crisis passes.

There are well-founded fears that closing schools for Covid-19 does lifelong harm and widens inequality. Primary schools in particular are vital for social mobility. In America, President Trump is encouraging  governors to ‘seriously consider’ reopening schools, even though the professional consensus is that it is still too early to do so, especially as the spread of Covid-19 among children is largely unknown.

On the upside there is a drive to create online resources, with David Attenborough joining a host of stars, including Danny Dyer, Jodie Whittaker and Liam Payne stepping in to tech virtual lessons for children at home. The environmentalist-extraordinaire will be teaching geography through BBC Bitesize.

On the downside, there is a troubling lack of competence within the Government in making sure that such online resources can be accessed. Frustratingly to many, as it is still refuses to set out a plan for how children who don’t have adequate internet access or a device to access education during the lockdown.

In many families it’s a mess, with unprepared parents and limited resources trying to manage the learning and progression of children. It’s a contributory factor to the decline in the nation’s mental health.

As are money worries, and the omnipresent prowling of a deadly adversary in the invisible beyond.

Revealing a growth in human misery as seen in panic attacks, relationship breakdowns, drug abuse and alcoholism. To have weathered the disease in full strength can lead to PTSD among sufferers and deep anxiety among those closest to them. This is a cruel disease that also messes with minds.

The question remains:

“Can we flatten the curve without crushing our mental health?”

Theresa May urged ministers to consider rising domestic abuse and mental health, as well as the economy, when deciding how quickly to lift restrictions. “We cannot have a situation where the cure for the disease itself,” she said.

The horror of Covid-19 is all too real:

  • Death toll among NHS and social care workers rises to 108 as Sir Keir Starmer laments UK’s fatalities as “truly awful.”
  • The Government needs to prioritise care homes. Death tolls are heartbreakingly high and workers are struggling. For people with dementia, the pandemic is a particular nightmare, and it may do long term damage to efforts to improve their lot.
  • In the US there is a growing demand for insurance companies to reimburse fairly for tele-mentalhealth during Covid-19.

Pretty much from the beginning of lockdown, getting out of it has been at the front of people’s minds, from politicians to ordinary punters.

Eyes turn to Sweden, unique in Europe as a country that resisted lockdown in the first place.

Sweden, overconfident that the individual responsibility of its citizens, despite the pandemic needing community-centred approaches, and overconfident that if the elderly and more vulnerable could be shielded that herd immunity was the best way forward, allowing the virus to pass through the younger population, where serious illness and death were much less likely, acted as a beacon for all lockdown sceptics, especially in the west. “Lockdown-free” Stockholm “could achieve herd immunity in May,” has been claimed by the Swedish ambassador to the UK as she reveals that 30 per cent of the city’s population already have immunity.

Sweden’s approach had a particular appeal to postmodern libertarians in their opposition against modern authority, along with the tedium of ‘unemotional’ rationality and science, along an anti-traditionalist stance towards older generations.

It is a cliché that the young will always rebel against their forbears, but this rebellion, where the blending of COVID-19 epidemiology and postmodernism is such a dangerous – deadly – combination.

Neighbouring Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is being turned into a giant open-air café, with authorities opening bars and restaurants to set up tables outside, free of charge, in order to respect social distancing rules as the country gradually eases lockdown restrictions. Shops, hairdressing and beauty parlours, libraries, museums and cafes were allowed to reopen across Lithuania on Monday as the country started to lift some restrictions imposed to control the spread of Covid-19.

Britain, by contrast, starts considering its first tentative step in opening garden centres. Dominic Raab reassures a green-fingered public that SAGE have “looked specifically at garden centres and we will continue, as I’ve indicated earlier, to keep the evidence on each individual measure under very close review.”

While a Michelin-starred restaurant to reopen as a casual bistro to survive after the lockdown. The Oxford Kitchen will reopen as 215 Kitchen and offer the same quality food and standout dishes, but will adapt its new concept in a new world.

And in America, the state of Georgia opens for business, but patrons are few and far between.

Within lockdown, stories of the new reality continue:

Ahead of his landmark birthday on Thursday, Captain Tom Moore has already received more than 125,000 birthday cards.

Sleep-tracking data show Britons enjoy 42 extra minutes of lie-in under lockdown.

A food bank in London says it has seen a surge in demand as the economic consequences of the lockdown begin to make their impact known. The Hammersmith and Fulham food bank is handing out as much food per day as it would in a week. “This kind of thing, a crisis like this, it impacts the poorest people the hardest, it always does. And it’s not just right, it’s not fair,” said the food bank’s chief executive and funder, Daphine Aikens.

Lovers find absence makes the heart grow fonder: “I haven’t seen my girlfriend for six weeks – this lockdown has changed us as a couple. In our physical absence we have been more present for each other than ever.”

Couples wanting families are showing much more interest in home births.

While at the other end of life the pandemic also changes the norms: “To me, the role of a funeral director is to provide gentle care for those who die during their last days on Earth and to walk alongside their loved ones, helping and supporting them through their grief and helping them to say goodbye. So much of that has changed in recent weeks. We can’t sit down with families to learn about the person they’ve lost and what will make a fitting farewell. We can’t comfort them when they are upset. And we’re finding ourselves having to say no when we would normally say yes, while the restrictions are in place. And it’s the “no” in response to them wanting their family and friends to be there that hurts the most.”

The disabled hope that experience of lockdown will bring about a change in people’s attitude towards them: “Becoming disabled in my twenties helped prepare me for lockdown. After Covid-19 I hope society will be more empathic towards disabled people.”

In Norfolk, a walker in a plague doctor outfit draws the attention of police, reminding me of the sinister clowns craze.

In the Netherlands, trumpet-player, Ellister van der Mole did her best to keep music live in the shared garden of an apartment complex in Amsterdam. She stood exactly one and a half metres from her organist, Bob Wijnen. Their audience, high above their heads, huddled together on the balconies.

Finally, I get a very strange heads-up from a fellow paraglider pilot:

“John. Base jumping community have been off ban for ages. Heads up, there was a jump of the QE2 Bridge at 1 a.m. FACT – it did happen just before the rain and there are many still doing stuff. Crazy, but true. Anyway, think things will start to relax soon enough. Hope all is good.”

That’s the problem.

When it comes to humanity, it takes all sorts.

Day Forty Four: Tuesday 28th April 2020

Daily Diary: Such a Badass Day!

 Such a badass day! It does not start well. Our house burglar alarm goes off in its intentionally jarring, “this is the company ship Nostromo and I’m about to blow myself, the Alien and all other living things, along with a lot of industrial hardware, up into thermonuclear oblivion,” way. By the time I get downstairs to switch it off it has already alerted our neighbour via the ADT call centre, who kindly comes around to see if everything’s okay.

It is okay, I tell her. No burglar. No attempted entry.

I check the control panel and find it’s the kitchen PIR that got triggered. It must have been a mouse. ADT ring the landline but I don’t get to it in time. Then the mobile …… that just happens to be charging in another room. I miss both You can’t call back on the same number, but I have ADT’s number on speed dial and I call them.

The sympathetic guy in the switchboard tells me he’s had mouse problems as well.

“How did you deal with it?” I asked.

“Smell. They really are sensitive. Barring getting a cat, it’s the only way.”

He talked about mopping the kitchen floor with peppermint oil in the water until the smell drove him to the edge of sanity, let alone any mouse.

“I even thought of borrowing my friend’s cat.”

“It works, I believe, I said. “We never had a mouse problem when we had cats.”

We talked about mice getting smarter and more trap-shy. Every time you remove a not particularly bright mouse from the gene pool mice as a whole become more intelligent. That’s evolution. Deal with it. They simply don’t respond to traps any more. It doesn’t matter what bait you use. The rodent terminator from Environ, when he came round, said that mice were neophobic. They didn’t trust anything that was unfamiliar and tended to give such things a wide berth.

“I’m just an old-fashioned mouse

In an old-fashioned house.

I might be small and squeaky,

But credit me with nous.”

If you’re very lucky you can catch mice singing this, although it might sound to human ears, that happen to exist in a somewhat different reality, like a lot of squeaking. But slow down the recording and you can be forgiven for thinking it’s Eartha Kitt (not a very mouselike surname) singing, “I’m just an old fashioned girl.”

But I digress.

The prospect of getting a cat any time soon is unlikely at a time of coronavirus, and the presence of a litter tray is not something either Vicky or I would welcome at the moment.

That leaves war.

Ironic, isn’t it, that we can keep a virus out of the house, but are struggling with a small mammal. It’s that boundary between humans and nature that is so problematic in so many ways. On the one hand, we can only exist at all because of the stark, even cruel and certainly unforgiving natural laws. Of likelihoods leading to outcomes in a ‘biased-random’ way we sometimes call luck.

Well, it’s effing unlucky we’ve got mice!

So the day sees me spraying deterrent spray into strategic locations. Let’s assault the little critters’ nostrils and drive them somewhere else. Having a habitat that’s human friendly but rodent hostile is challenging.

Then I try to get a prescription changed. Would I phone the pharmacy, Vicky asks. Mike, our dentist, did get back to Vicky yesterday and did fix up a prescription of antibiotics to address her toothache. Lockdown means containment in many ways. It means deferring the inevitable – in this case the treatment/repair/removal of a tooth – until safer days in a less dangerous future. I fear such days are still some months, maybe a year or more ahead when there’s an available working vaccine, a drug that mitigates the more severe symptoms of the disease, making a Covid-19 infection not only survivable but bearable, or a means of telling whether another person is ‘safe’ or not. In the meantime we hide behind closed doors and wait for it all to pass with an unknowing hope it will do so.

I head over to the pharmacy across the common. I have my camera with me and have photographed life on the common countless times. I had even thought of making a daily photo diary from January 1st to December 31st and putting it out on You Tube, but had never quite risen to such a commitment. There’s a family flying a kite, or at least trying to do so. It is an image that has a character worth catching a moment of. I had thought of local pics being part of the diary. There’s also an Asian guy kicking a ball around with his kid a good hundred metres away.

“Oi!” he shouts. “Don’t take pictures of my kid!”


“Don’t take pictures of my kid! You’re taking pictures of my kid.”

He starts striding towards me.

“What’s your problem?” I ask. “I’m taking a picture of that family flying a kite.”

“You’re taking pictures of my kid.”

“No I’m not. I think you’ve got problems mate.”

“Don’t take pictures of my kid.”

I feel that sense of adrenaline rising and that visceral unease that naturally accompanies aggression and confrontation. It’s one of the ways being an adult is a welcome escape from the emotional state of being a boy in his mid-teens, and it’s not a sensation I relish returning to. But this guy – jeez, I think he’s got a screw loose. Or maybe five weeks of lockdown has made him really edgy. From over a hundred metres away with a pocket camera, FFS! But I’ve been infected with his edginess. His hypersensitivity. That it’s not possible to take a picture of daily life without causing offence. Point a camera in the general direction of anyone and somehow that’s twisted, nasty, paedophilic. And the fact that in some people’s minds that level of suspicion, of paranoia exists is not just troubling, it’s a heartbreaking revelation about our wider humanity. From ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to ‘The Green Mile’ that reality of misinterpretation of motive, of prejudiced perception is deeply troubling.

“Look,” I tell him firmly. “I’m keeping a diary of this lockdown. This is part of it. This is social history. I don’t know what your problem is but deal with it.”

I turn and walk to the chemists. He does not follow, there’s no Parthian blow of a final retort and the encounter ends. But the exchange troubled me. The implied suggestion he had made and what must have been going on in his head to make it was really creepy.


I get to the pharmacy. It’s two customers at a time, but there’s no queue. I put on my mask and a pair of disposable gloves and go in. There’s a line two metres from the counter, with an X where to park my feet. It looks more like a post office than a pharmacy, with the counter glazed off and the assistant wearing a mask and gloves. She has the prescription and I collect it, buying a couple of interdent brush packs as I do so. I notice some bottles of hand sanitiser on the counter. It’s the first I’ve seen for months. Looks like a 100 millilitre bottle. Maybe 120 millilitres. There are also some single use masks for sale at £1.25 each.

“How much is the hand sanitiser?” I ask.

“£8.25 a bottle,” the woman behind the counter tells me.

Volume for volume I can buy an 18 year old single malt for around that price.

I didn’t tell her that.

“I’ll stick to soap and water,” I said, remembering days not so long ago when I could pick up that much hand sanitiser for less than a quid.

I return home across the common. The angry man kicking a ball around with his son is no longer there. Nor is the family with the kite. I put the prescription bag, the interdent brushes and the mask I was wearing into my home made UV sterilisation chamber. Then I pass the medicines to Vicky. She doesn’t open them until much later. They’re pills. Vicky has trouble swallowing pills and antibiotics are the most unpleasant of all to chew and swallow, so she tells me.

I ring the pharmacy. The pharmacist tells me he cannot change the capsules for a suspension. That would need a fresh prescription.

“It’s the law,” he explains.

So Vicky rings Mike the dentist, who’s busy with another patient. It all works out in the end but it’s a long trek around the houses to get there.

The episode with the angry delivery driver with my stationery barely warrants a mention. He was frustrated that the plastic wrapping had split. The rain is pouring on him almost as hard as if he were taking a shower. It’s been much like that on and off all day, so I can figure out why he’s so pissed off at life. I tell him to put it in the ‘airlock’ of our front porch – there’s no problem with it being wet from my point of view, and thank you….

So when my paragliding friend Nigel rings me about Zoom and club business the poor guy gets the brunt of a frustrating morning. He’s saved by someone ringing his front doorbell.

If I were Nigel listening to me, I would have rung it myself!

The Bigger Picture: Pinning the Tale On the Butt End of Events

“It’s not much of a tail, but I’m sort of attached to it,” said Eeyore in ‘Winnie The Pooh.’

We’ve got the same problem with some of our leaders, who seem to be stuck to the ass-end of events, and we seem to be stuck with them. Despite serious errors of judgement and other flaws, some leading to innumerable deaths, politicians’ approval ratings are generally more positively than expected. It’s as if whole societies are capable of suffering from a collective Stockholm syndrome.

We have a government happy to cheerlead a public display of gratitude to frontline workers by clapping and pot-banging, along with calling for one minute’s silence for those who have died saving others but slow to extend the offer of a visa extension, while sacked hospitality workers sleep rough at the height of a pandemic. The need for foodbanks has skyrocketed, while some farmers don’t know what to do with the excess produce. If they can get workers to harvest it, that is.

It comes home to me via my local Nextdoor forum. 

“I have a government food package delivered to my flat in Naval House but I didn’t request it. Please let me know if you live in Naval House and ordered one. I will drop it off at your flat.”

To which another local resident replies:

“I live in Woolwich Dockyard. Please may I be considered? Thank you.”

Mobile phone data shows that poorer workers are likelier than rich ones to keep commuting. Most frontline work is lower income.

And the huge deal about working from home overshadows that stark fact. The better off steal the show. It pervades the whole of society. Even universities, bastions of educated liberalism are not exempt as Covid-19 shows up shameful employment practices, with 54 per cent of staff on insecure contracts.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announces that families of frontline NHS and social care staff who have died from Covid-19 will get a £60,000 payout. He also admitted there was ‘a lot of work’ to do to hit his target of 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day.

Frontline workers elsewhere receive no such compensation.

Boris Johnson is set to share his new lockdown plan as the country endures the crest of the first wave. He urges caution, as he comes down on the side of those in Cabinet and his party arguing about the importance of avoiding a second wave. He also pledged to include the opposition parties as much as possible in the debate over what comes next. In the fullness of time neither good intention comes to fruition, as the PM remains torn between his populist motivations and the need to be pragmatic.

The public are being led to believe that the Government is following ‘the science.’ It’s a useful foil for both good and bad decisions. There is a naïve belief being promoted that there is only one science, a virtuous body of knowledge, a universal truth to which the Government subscribes, and in doing so claims credibility and authority.

The reality is different. First, ‘the science’ is a massive endeavour involving thousands of scientists trying to answer fundamental, vital, and unprecedented questions. How fast does the virus spread if left unabated? How lethal is it? How many people have already had it? If so, are they now immune? What drugs can fight it? What can societies do to slow it? What happens when we selectively evolve and relax our public health interventions? Can we develop a vaccine to stop it? Should cloth masks become mandatory?

Second, data and analyses are shifting daily, honest disagreements among academic experts with different training, scientific backgrounds, and perspectives are both unavoidable and desirable. So when those disagreements are freely discussed and resolved they need to be influenced by scientific insights independent of political philosophies and party affiliations. What comes out of such discussions and resolutions is then taken on board by policymakers, academics, and interested members of the public to consider differing point of views and decide, at each moment, the best courses of action.

So when a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said they felt Dominic Cummings’ interventions had sometimes inappropriately influenced what is supposed to be an impartial scientific process, the conduct of science becomes indistinguishable from politics.

This is not following ‘the science,’ but steering the science to be followed.

There is a similar process going on in the United States. Donald Trump also experiences the deep conflict between promoting a political agenda and pragmatic necessity. Following the embarrassing household cleaner and subcutaneous sunlight farce on the presidential podium Trump has openly expressed a reluctance to make further announcements to the nation. The White House briefing is on, then off, then on again.

He hates being the object of ridicule – that’s for other lesser beings to endure from him –  but he thrives on media exposure. Since March 9th, when in the US public consciousness, the virus outbreak began leading to widespread disruptions, Mr Trump has spoken 260,000 words about the virus. The New York Times analysed every word and has found self-congratulation to be the most common theme.

Then, to add horror upon horror we find we’ve got the Covid-19 death count wrong. For England it’s around forty per cent higher than previously reported, new figures show. The figures from the ONS giving details of the fatalities where Covid-19 was on the death certificate, show 21,284 deaths in England up to April 17th. The previously published figure for that date was 14,576. NHS England have started to report the number of patient deaths where there has been no COVID-19 positive test result, but where COVID-19 is documented as a direct or underlying cause of death on part 1 or part 2 of the death certification process.

A problem with measuring the pandemic is that the parameters of what we are measuring change as time passes, and our understanding of what’s happening evolves. The number of cases depends on the number of tests being carried out, that in turn depend on the availability of tests to the general public, and their access to them. Hospitalisations also have a lot of variables in the situations that lead to them occurring, and ICU patients is a subset of that. There is not yet a fully reliable measure of a death being attributable to Covid-19 in a number of cases. Meanwhile, asymptomatic cases lurk like submarines, embedded within the population and ready to re-emerge as restrictions become relaxed.

Many fear what the UK prime minister talked about on returning to work this morning – a second wave. If Britain eases restrictions too quickly it would be to “throw away all the effort and sacrifice.” He is right to be concerned. Throughout history, epidemics have battered us in waves. The first reported plague outbreak in Athens hit in 430 BCE, 429 BCE and 427 BCE to 426 BCE, bringing misery and death with it year after year. The same was true of the Black Death in the 14th century and Smallpox  in the 18th century. And also, notably, the so-called Spanish Flu a century ago, which hit Europe in the spring of 1918, before re-emerging later the same year and then in 1919. Worryingly, it was the second wave in the autumn and winter of 1918 that proved more deadly in some places. Most scientists think that there will be a second wave of the novel coronavirus most likely in the second half of this year.

Trying to establish how deeply embedded the virus is within the population we’re still learning to identify the disease. On Sunday the US CDC officially added these six symptoms to its list: chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headaches, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, in addition to previously known symptoms of fever, cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing. The symptoms can appear within two to fourteen days after exposure to Covid-19, according to the guidelines. In addition, the CDC described a set of emergency warning signs that should warrant immediate medical attention, including trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure on the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, bluish lips or face.

Covid-19 is a disease with many different faces and a study finds that people’s genes determine how severely people get Covid-19.

It is also a cuckoo-condition, driving other conditions out of the nest. Health authorities in the UK are encouraging people to seek help if needed, amid fears that people may be letting cancer and other serious conditions go untreated, because they’re scared of contracting Covid-19 if they go to hospital. Public Health England said visits to hospital emergency departments had fallen by almost 50 per cent in April, compared with the same month last year.

It’s also unforgiving of misconceived policy decisions. The elderly are paying the price for Sweden’s no-testing, no-lockdown Covid-19 strategy. Critics say it will not be looked upon favourably by the rest of Europe. It might be true that different countries should follow different approaches to Covid-19 based on their socioeconomic circumstances but it’s becoming clear that the policy of one country has repercussions on others, especially when it comes to a contagious killer virus.

For now, all we can do is keep ourselves out of contact with others, through various degrees of isolation, social distancing and covering ourselves. In the UK, stockpile failures date back 11 years, with the last stockpile having been created in 2009. One in four doctors are having to reuse personal protective equipment as claims are made that the Government failed to stockpile gowns, visors, swabs and body bags. Protective clothing should only be worn once and then discarded. The son of a doctor who died after a PPE warning demands an apology from Matt Hancock. 

The wider public are moving increasingly to wearing facemasks, whether by government edict or not. Germany demands masks in public transport, while Saxony becomes the first German state to make masks mandatory. Rio puts facemasks on its public statues. Russia’s famous matryoshka dolls get a Covid-19 makeover – they’re now wearing masks.

With the disease so new, and with so much yet to understand about it, there is no bespoke medication. Drug after drug gets repurposed. Hopes are raised and often dashed.

There appear to be three main avenues down which these repurposed drugs are set to treat hospitalised Covid-19 patients. The first is to attack the capacity of the virus to replicate itself. The hottest contender here is Remdesivir, manufactured by Gilead Pharmaceuticals and repurposed from being used to treat Hepatitis C, Ebola and Marburg. Remdesivir interrupts the replication of viral RNA by replacing one of its code components, adenosine. The molecule then behaves like a damaged zip fastener and the enzyme RNA polymerase can’t function in replicating it. A less successful medicine, Lopinavir, also known as Kaletra, repurposed from treating HIV and HPV, inhibits the assembly of viral proteins.

The second is to suppress an extreme immune response from the patient to the virus known as a ‘cytokine storm,’ in which small proteins called cytokines are released in overwhelming quantities and gunk up body processes, especially in the lungs, heart, liver and kidneys, but also elsewhere. Kevzara, aka Sarilumab, from Regeneron and Sanofi, has a track record as an anti-rheumatic dealing with auto-immune disorders.

Associated with suppressing an extreme immune response has been the observation that 75 per cent of Covid-19 patients needing ICU treatment have been adult males, who are also much more likely to die from the disease. Women’s immune systems have been known to be much more robust than men’s and a key element of that is believed to be the different balance of sex hormones between the sexes. The question is being asked and explored: can oestrogen help men survive Covid-19?

The third way is to swamp the body with bespoke antibodies before the virus can get a full hold. Actemra, from Roche, also known as Tocilizumab, from a background of treating autoimmune diseases is the most promising, although monoclonal antibodies remain very expensive.

There is a real urgency here, sending jitters through stockmarkets with each twist and turn in the saga as it reveals itself. With the pandemic being such a recent phenomenon, trials are small-scale, often without the rigour you’d expect in non-pandemic times, and with small sample sizes. Sometimes it’s simply been a lack of availability of the drugs to be trialled. Outcomes often contradict each other – when it came to Remdesivir clinical trials, positive results from Chicago were at odds with results from China where there was no difference between test and control groups. Sometimes there have been issues with ethics or the absence of a placebo group. 

But as George D. Yancopoulos, Regeneron’s founder and chief scientific officer, put it:

“When you try everything under the kitchen sink, most of the time it’s not going to deliver the results that you want, no matter what the small 20 or 30 patient studies say.”

At other times there would be the luxury of time.

It’s a commodity in short supply .

With a head start, Oxford scientists say their vaccine could be available by September. If it works. In Montana, six monkeys were injected with the Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine last month and have remained healthy despite exposure to the virus, unlike other unvaccinated monkeys in the lab. It’s a grisly reminder that to save our lives, other sentient beings without the capacity to object pay the ultimate price.

Meanwhile, the pressure group, Global Citizen, reminds us it’s Immunisation Week.

There is a whole world out there to vaccinate before we’re through with this plague.

It won’t be easy.

Nor is it easy to make sense of the pandemic’s economic fallout.  From the turmoil come winners, such as the speculator Carl Icahn, who bought oil when it was at a rock-bottom price earlier this month, knowing the price will rise back to pre-pandemic levels, is now taking a multibillion short position against the commercial real estate market, which he has predicted, will ‘blow up’ in a similar fashion to the 2008 financial crisis and banking on changes to post-pandemic working structures and practices.

There are losers, such as the customers of a number of airlines, both in the UK and EU, who have refused to provide refunds to customers whose flights were cancelled due to Covid-19, in contravention of UK and EU regulations. This comes despite massive bailouts to airlines by national governments.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant comes to mind. For those who thumb their bibles it’s Matthew 18: 21-35.

Try cutting and paste the reference into Google, if you’re sitting comfortably at your screen and can’t be bothered to go over to your Zoom bookshelf.

There are knock-on effects from the harsh effects on air travel from lockdown. Airbus warns it is ion an existential crisis, as it furloughs 3,000 staff in Wales after warning it is ‘bleeding cash.’

In the United States, the government isn’t disclosing which companies received aid under a troubled $349 billion loan programme that was part of the rescue package signed into law last month. That makes a full accounting of the Paycheck Protection Program impossible. Things are hard among working Americans as measures introduced to put one in every seven mortgages on a payment holiday.

So the desire to lift lockdown and return to normality is strong, not just among politicians and business leaders but the wider population too.

Green shoots are beginning to show:

  • New Zealanders queued for coffee and takeaways today as a month-long lockdown was eased. About 400,000 people returned to work after PM Jacinda Ardern shifted the country’s alert level down a notch. How New Zealand will ease lockdown rules after reporting five new cases of Covid-19. Some businesses will be allowed to reopen but the country’s borders will remain shut.
  • Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said today most civil servants will gradually return to work from May 4th, although the government has not yet decided whether to ease travel and social distancing restrictions that are due to expire next week. Hong Kong reported no new infections for a second day yesterday. It has recorded 1,038 cases and four deaths since the outbreak began in January.
  • The UK boss of McDonald’s has said that the restaurant chain is carrying out its tests behind closed doors this week in preparation for reopening sites.
  • In America, Georgia diners are set to reopen, and the restaurant chain, Waffle House, braces for a slow recovery.
  • Iran, which has had one of the world’s worst outbreaks, will begin reopening mosques.
  • India eases Covid-19 restrictions.
  • Bangladesh’s factories, a pillar of its economy, reopen, but workers fear infection.
  • Switzerland eases lockdown, as Austria loosens its lockdown further, allowing events of up to ten people.
  • Italy’s plans to ease Europe’s longest lockdown get a cool welcome.
  • While in France, a reopening plan spurs controversy even before it is unveiled. Many believe it has been rushed.

Like in France, not everyone is confident. With some justification. Many US states are far short of Covid-19 testing levels needed for safe reopening, a new analysis shows.

Some countries are still cautious:

  • President Erdogan announces that Turkey will keep Covid-19 rules in place through May.
  • It is too early to consider lifting Japan’s state of emergency over the coronavirus, the head of a powerful physicians’ lobby said on Tuesday, adding that Tokyo would find it tough to host next year’s Olympics without an effective vaccine.

While locally, less cautious citizens are ending their own lockdowns themselves. Someone from my neck of the woods complains:

Has the lockdown ended? Gallions Park on Warepoint Drive resembles a Butlins Holiday Camp! Has anyone seen the police?

I didn’t see an answer.

But through a combination of strict rules, soft enforcement and in the case of a noticeable minority limited compliance a ‘new normal’ is taking shape:

Some find it harsh:

“Families are really struggling:” London foodbank sees a five-fold surge. “This kind of thing, a crisis like this, it impacts the poorest people the hardest. It always does.”

Some find it unbearable:

Calls to domestic abuse hotline in the UK have increased by 49 per cent and killings doubled in the three weeks after lockdown restrictions began. Researchers at the Counting Dead Women Project told British MPs 14 women and two children had been killed in the first three weeks of lockdown – the highest number in a three week period for 11 years and double the average rate.

Some find it unfair:

FC Utrecht is preparing to challenge the decision by the Dutch Football Association to call off the football season, after the prime minister, Mark Rutte announced that all major events would be cancelled until September. The team was three points away from a place in the UEFA Football League, with one game to play and a superior goal difference.

Some find it unsettling:

The pandemic is found to even infecting people’s dreams as it sabotages sleep worldwide.

Some find it frustrating:

Julian Assange, Elizabeth Holmes and other high profile people have had their court cases postponed due to the pandemic.

Some find it heartbreaking:

A woman shares the final text from her fiancée who died with Covid-19.

“Once I am asleep, I am in God’s hands”

This one simple story is a haunting reminder of the horror of the pandemic. Perhaps it’s its simplicity. Perhaps it is the imagery it conjures. But I find myself, above all other stories, unable to forget it.

Not all is bad, but I see it as the silver linings to towering dark thunderclouds:

Some find it inspirational:

Tom Moore smashes Guinness World Records. Captain Tom Moore, 99 year old World War 2 veteran has achieved the record title for the most money raised for charity by an individual, raising more than £28 million.


Former state school pupils are inspiring younger generations in their careers. For ten years FutureFirst has been giving state school pupils an alumni network, and that’s continuing under lockdown.

Some find it strangely futuristic:

SoftBank-backed robotics firm Brain raises $36 million for expansion beyond autonomous scrubbers during the coronavirus crisis. “You always hear about sexy robots. I always say a sexy robot is lousy business. We want boring robots that actually solve problems and now it’s becoming more important because of Covid-19,” Eugene Izhikevich, Brain’s co-founder and CEO tells Forbes. “Robots don’t sneeze, they don’t cough and they don’t have fevers.”

Some find it eye-opening:

15 virtual classes to learn skills from around the world. Video classes to take you from Australia to Marrakech, have you cooking Thai food, yodelling in the hills and painting like Andy Warhol.

And some find it raises hopes and possibilities in times to come:

Residents of Istanbul have been treated to the rare sight of dolphins in the Bosphorus Strait. Much of the country is in ,lockdown with people confined to their homes for a firm day curfew over the weekend, but for dolphins there have been new and exciting worlds to explore.

There are other stories too from around the world:

  • San Marino is currently the world’s worst country in terms of Covid-19 related deaths per capita. The microstate has decided to take a more aggressive approach to battling the pandemic through intense tracking, a two-test strategy (a molecular and a serology test), medical home visits and generous relief packages.
  • France has severely controlled the sale of nicotine products after a study suggested smokers may be less likely to contract Covid-19. The measures aim to “prevent the health risk linked to the excessive consumption or misuse of nicotine products by people hoping to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus and to ‘guarantee the continuous supply for people requiring medications to stop smoking,’ the decree states.
  • The small southern Italian town of Castellino del Biferno is minting money to help the local community cope with the pressures of the pandemic. “However small this economy may be, there are three or four businesses still open, without considering bars and pubs,” town mayor, Enrico Fratangelo, said. He received €5,500 from the government to issue food vouchers to vulnerable families. The town council added its savings and distributed “Ducati” banknotes to 200 local families.
  • Argentina has banned all internal and international commercial flights until September 1st. The country closed its borders last month and imposed a strict lockdown, which has been credited with helping to keep confined cases to about 4,000, with just 200 deaths.
  • More than 2,200 Indonesians have died with acute Covid-19 symptoms but were not recorded as victims, a Reuters review of data from 16 of the country’s 34 provinces has shown. The figures indicate the national death toll is likely to be far higher than the official figure of 765, medical experts said.
  • Extremists compound the threat of Covid-19 in Burkina-Faso.
  • Covid-19 is spreading rapidly across Latin America, with fears that relatively weak health infrastructures could be easily overwhelmed. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is under fire for his crisis management, Ecuadorian authorities are digging mass graves at cemeteries and Cuba is dispatching doctors to South Africa.
  • Killing in Mogadishu, Somalia: An officer has been arrested and people have taken to the streets after at least one person was shot dead by police enforcing the country’s lockdown.
  • Kenya has demoted a top scientist in charge of overseeing the country’s Covid-19 testing, raising concerns about prompting criticism of the government’s directive. Dr Joel Lutomiah, the deputy director of the Centre for Virus Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute was dismissed from the role after test results were delayed, according to news reports. Scientists at the Institute, however, said that he was fired for standing up to government officials and demanding more funding during this crucial period.
  • The Mexican government has almost entirely emptied its network of migrant detention centres, deporting people in them, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among detainees, the authorities announced.
  • Afghanistan is set to release 60 per cent of prisoners as Covid-19 spreads.
  • Health care workers in Mexico, India and other countries are facing attacks. Ignorance, superstition and misinformation take a cruel toll.

Finally, a notice from my local council:

The Royal Borough of Greenwich Community Hub is here for you. If you are self-isolating and have not got a family member, friend or neighbour who can help, please get in touch with the community hub on 0800-470-4831, 7 days a week, between 8.30 am and 6 pm.

Good to know. There are people out there trying to do their best.