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.

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