Day Forty Seven: Friday 1st May 2020

Daily Diary: Silent Springtime

More spring! Passing showers and blue skies inbetween. One of the things I’ve noticed is how I don’t look at the weather in the same way as I did before lockdown. The plants are looking healthy and Emily has given us two wildflower seed packets. I really need to get outside, and Vicky reminds me about Midge’s garden, which gets wilder by the day. Out at the front the hedge needs trimming and gaps between the paving stones out front need whacking with the strimmer. I’m not a fan of herbicides.

It was good to see Emily again, and she’s offered to be invited to a Zoom session, so I can test the system as host. On Sunday, Ian, my good friend and erstwhile flying buddy – sharer of adventures in England, Wales and France, before, sadly, a problem with his shoulder grounded him – is going to have a Zoom party and this evening I’m going to test things out with always-helpful Nigel. I’m beginning to think that using Zoom for a meeting next Friday looks feasible.

Meanwhile, I try not to watch too much news on TV. Strangely enough, when you hear it, it has a different quality. The noise jars and it attacks your consciousness differently to picking it up in text and pictures. There’s a cerebral characteristic to finding stuff out silently, and often when I’m on task I am in silence. It’s peaceful. Even in lockdown things can get too loud, both for the ears and soul.

The Bigger Picture: The China Syndrome

Sooner or later we were bound to see how Covid-19 would change the world, not just as a widespread disease but in the way in which the direction of human civilisation would be set. “Things will never be the same,” you will hear the cliché, but there will be little qualification of how things will change and what the triggers of the inevitable paradigm shifts will be.

Consumer goods have become an almost universal addiction in wealthier nations and China, willing to produce them cheaper than anyone else, has become the dealer, profiting from the weaknesses that arise out of addiction, led to believe that endless acquisition is ‘freedom,’ an idea that was turbocharged by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s, based on the monetary theory of Milton Friedman.

But an economy with consumption at its core places a higher value on the price of goods and services than the means by which they were produced. Combined with the huge returns that came from financial investment in a global market, there was a much reduced emphasis on more local production, particularly manufacturing, and a level of ‘natural unemployment’ was seen as being an inevitable consequence of the economic model.

It’s not just that China, being run by an authoritarian government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) subscribes to a different economic model – its way of seeing the world is completely different. Western civilisation is as influenced by the ideas of Confucius as the Chinese are by those from the Age of Enlightenment. The Chinese leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping lifted the Mao-era ban on small businesses in 1979 and began the trend towards a current vibrant ecosystem of private enterprise, with its thriving startups and unicorns. Now, threatened by the more libertarian ideas that he sees accompanying free enterprise, China’s president, Xi Jinping is much more restrictive, favouring state-led development over the more agile of the private-sector.

The social attitudes that come with TikTok, AliBaba and Tencent, particularly among younger citizens are generational, and there is little natural appeal the elite, hand-clapping public sycophancy of the CCP hold for those a generation or two removed. 

In an authoritarian state you could be forgiven for thinking that’s the stuff paranoia’s made from.

Both superpowers see their vulnerability with respect to the other. Both desire hegemony. With hegemony comes power, with power comes control, with control comes the illusion that somehow the deep-rooted problems that have led to their vulnerability have gone away.

Each becomes the bogeyman to the other.

“China wants me to lose  re-election,” Trump announces, as if the United States of America will be beyond redemption without him as saviour.

It is at this point, with two conflicting views about the very way global economics should be working, along with growing trade friction that a pandemic appears.

A pandemic that in an overwhelming balance of probabilities started in China.

The autocratic CCP behaved to form. The state was slow to let the rest of the world know it had an outbreak, and in fact only did so when the story had leaked in the scientific community from mainland China to Taiwan, from which it rapidly reached first New York and then the rest of the world on December 31st 2019. China officially informed the rest of the world on January 3rd 2020, and made public Covid-19’s genetic sequence on the 11th.  

But China has remained opaque about two critical questions. The first is who is Patient Zero? The second is how did Covid-19 start to infect humans? The answer to the first question will most likely lead to being able to work out the second.

Was it the standard corporate response we’ve seen many times in environmental disasters – admit nothing? Was it the CPC’s intention not to present China as vulnerable in the current climate of clashing ideologies? Was it the understandable expectation that China admitting its liability would be played for all its political worth by President Trump and his officials?

Fu Ying is a former Chinese vice-minister of foreign affairs wrote in the current edition of The Economist:

“What has particularly dismayed the Chinese is a smear campaign against China by some American politicians and high-ranking officials, who try to shift the blame for their own underestimation of the threat, their slow response and the consequences. For me, the blame-game lays bare American ambitions to scapegoat China for its problems.”

That existing geopolitical tensions and a complete absence of trust in impartial analysis stop us all from knowing what happened.

It’s already happening, with a war of words breaking out between the Australian and Chinese governments, after the Chinese government warned that their consumers might boycott Australian goods after PM Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the spread of the virus. And it bullied the European Union over an official report into Chinese disinformation about the virus, with officials saying its publication would “be very bad for co-operation” and make China “very angry”.

So what we’re left with is a bitter realpolitik choice between no information at all and misinformation in a world that increasingly confuses narrative with what actually happens, with bad actors feeding off that phenomenon like vultures tearing at a carcass.

But no information at all doesn’t stop dangerous conspiracy theories from flourishing, especially when it comes to how Covid-19 came to infect human beings. But it’s possible that is what the CPC wants. States will commonly send out dozens of counter-narratives if they’ve something to hide. In the case of the Skripal poisoning Sputnik and Russia Today sent out a total of 138 counter-narratives, many contradicting each other. What actually happened gets lost in all the noise, the aim being not to have people believing one conclusion or another – it’s not to have people believing any conclusion at all.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both subscribe to the geographical origin of Wuhan, although Chinese media did report a story that the virus had been imported from outside China on frozen seafood, but the story didn’t stick. Nor did the story that the virus originated in America.

The first is that it originated in the wild, with bats or pangolins being the prime suspect and a wet food market in Wuhan being the point at which zoonosis, species-hopping by the virus, occurred. Whether from eating bats directly (they are not exactly the most popular Chinese delicacy) or from eating dogs who had picked up the virus from eating bats (it would only take one dog to scavenge on the remains of a dead bat) remains unclear. Likewise, it is illegal to eat pangolin meat in China, but not illegal to use their scales as a traditional Chinese medication, where they are claimed by practitioners to have properties that help with breastfeeding and poor circulation. Most pangolins, an endangered species and the most trafficked wild mammals in the world end up in China.

The second is that the virus escaped from a laboratory. It wouldn’t be the first time. SARS, a virus that killed 774 people in 2002-03, slipped out of a lab in Beijing twice in 2004. Laboratory escapes have happened elsewhere, including the US and UK. Between 2000 and 2009 America suffered 34 laboratory-acquired infections, resulting in four deaths. It happens, and one health-security index suggests that three-quarters of countries score poorly on biosecurity.

To add to that there are now around 70 “biosafety level-four” sites, designed to deal with fatal diseases lacking a cure or vaccine, in 30 countries. America has over a dozen. China has two, one at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Although there are no obvious signs of deliberate genetic modification, it is normal practice for such laboratories to research in making diseases even more dangerous – more effective transmission, for instance, or more drug resistance. Scientists at the Wuhan lab were engaging in such experiments, known as gain-of-function, in collaboration with American and Italian scientists. The rationale being the better we understand the behaviour of a new disease, the more likely it is to develop drugs and vaccines to save countless lives.

But it’s so easy to get Doctor Strangelove meets Chernobyl meets the Andromeda Strain. Part of me wants to throw in a Zombie movie for good measure, but that would be going too far.

And it’s that counter-paranoia that Trump weaponises to link the virus with Wuhan’s laboratory.

Diplomatic relations between America and China, the world’s two greatest superpowers, descends into mud-slinging and slagging each other off.

With it, any rational assessment of the outbreak’s origins is for the birds.

So, despite the plausibility, even possibility of a laboratory being the starting point of the Covid-19 outbreak, I’m inclined to go along with the view of a number of experts that conspiracy theories woven by prominent individuals are far from helpful.

Wet market species-hopping or laboratory breakout, it’s still not a good look for China, and if a state sees an opportunity to misinform its way out of a corner, don’t be too surprised if it tries to do so.

Pointing the finger at China suits the White House – a deflection from America’s statistics looking very grim indeed. There have been more than a million Covid-19 cases, the spread of the virus accelerating and now averaging 100,000 each day. On Wednesday April 29th the country blew past 60,000, more than three months before the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projected. Covid-19 has killed more Americans than any flu in half a century, and has surpassed the 58,220 deaths in the Vietnam War. The economy has shrunk by nearly 5 per cent.

Nevertheless, the White House declared on Wednesday that its response to the crisis has been “a great success story.” Little wonder a recent survey found that Americans trust doctors and the CDC and not Trump.

And it turns out that President Trump’s executive order declaring that slaughtering and processing of beef, chicken and pork to be ‘critical infrastructure’ followed weeks of lobbying by the meat industry. Whether he was hard to lobby, being a daily double Big Mac sort of fellow, is the stuff of speculation.

Meat processing industries, like so many others. Are experiencing a deep sense of threat from the virus. With a number of meat processing plants turning out to be local epicentres for Covid-19, it’s not too difficult to see why there was a need to lobby in order to survive. But there is a moral hazard here – that there is a lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences. If the chance of these potential epicentres remains, the spread of the disease and everything that goes with it, including death, goes with it.

Rarely has the scope for moral hazard seemed to have been as massive as it is now.  To slow the spread of Covid-19 most countries have needed to devastate much of their economies.

The eurozone’s economy shrank at the fastest rate on record in the first quarter of 2020. Its GDP fell by a massive 3.8 per cent. This is the largest drop since current measurements began in 1995 and is bigger than the height of the financial crisis. France and Italy have slipped into recession while Spain sees a record decline in its GDP.

In the US the Federal Reserve leaves its interest rates at zero, as its Chairman, Jerome Powell vows continued aggressive action to prop up the economy. The national debt is growing faster than the economy but now, he says, is not the time to act on those concerns. This is the Fed in emergency mode and this is a time for unprecedented action, as it announces initiatives worth trillions of dollars. Nevertheless, 38 million US workers filed jobless claims last week for a six week total of over 30 million, despite billions of dollars of stimulus spending.

But an economy suffering a heavy body blow tells only part of the story. A fuller picture is weird. US stocks have their best month since 1987. Right now, Amazon and Apple both reported a jump in revenue in the first quarter. Facebook reported first quarter earnings of $17.7 billion – up nearly 18 per cent from a year ago. “With people relying on our services more than ever, we’ve focused on keeping people safe, informed and connected,” said Mark Zuckerberg.

For tech giants it happens that luck has favoured their market niche and kept the money flowing in, despite a threatened and vulnerable economy.

Others stay in pocket through sheer ruthlessness and opportunism.

Las Vegas casino billionaire Phil Ruffin, close friend and business partner of President Donald Trump finds himself at the receiving end of Nevada’s Governor Sisolak’s March 17th order for all non-essential businesses to close, including the state’s economic lifeblood, casinos. He told his paying guests to check out of his hotels then furloughed 4,400 out of 5,500 employees without pay. Ruffin certainly has enough money to pay his furloughed employees’ salaries, having a net worth of $3.2 billion and an estimated corporate war chest of $500 million.

According to Forbes reporter Will Yacowicz, Ruffin has enough cash to keep his casinos closed for 20 years, but if you’re one of the little guys, maybe a teller on the casino floor, a bartender or room service that cash is not for you. Not even at the height of a pandemic.

Little guys don’t seem to be doing too well as customers either as airlines in Britain and Europe fail to reimburse customers for flights cancelled as a result of Covid-19. Some try to issue vouchers instead, as a ploy to avoid paying back the cash, a legislated requirement. European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it, “There are many passengers who would need the money. People may have lost their jobs, they may need money for medication, to pay their rent.”

Dumping liabilities on those who can afford it least. Another aspect of how we conduct our lives exposed by the coronavirus.

Little wonder then that the travel industry is going local, with the bigger a country’s Covid-19 outbreak, the bigger it seems is its shift away from foreign travel.

Other weird realities are also emerging, For example:

  • Half of managers are saying that workers are more productive at home.
  • Some are earning more money as unemployed than while working.
  • Furloughed workers need to consider the impact on their pensions, as if you are temporarily not working because you have been furloughed your monthly payments could decrease.

And some of that weirdness will be here to stay beyond the era of the Great Pandemic. For a while, unless you happen to be on a desert island out of contact with the rest of human civilisation, watching out, no doubt, for the ever-rising tides (but that’s another story), the economy and the way of life it drives, will not only be smaller, it will feel, as the old hippie song went, strangely strange but oddly normal.

We’ll settle for it. It is after all the alternative to the even weirder lockdown we’re experiencing and beggars can’t be choosers. There’s talk of the ‘ninety per cent economy.’ The world economy shrank by 1.3% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2020, driven by a 6.8% year-on-year decline in China’s GDP. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that the country’s GDP is currently running about 12% lower than it was a year ago.

Working habits have changed, especially from those who can be networked online, so a significant sector of the workforce find it possible, and in some cases preferable to work from home. Already, in China discretionary spending is 40 per cent down on what it was a year ago and there’s some indication from Sweden, one of the least locked down countries in Europe, that the spending effects of a lockdown will persist even after it is over.

After an initial near-complete shutdown, travel takes a strange twist, with airline flights and public transport down, but car sales less affected, with a growing number of people in China saying that the virus has increased their desire to buy a car—presumably in order to avoid the risk of infection on public transport. The number of passengers on Chinese underground trains is still about a third below last year’s level; surface traffic congestion is as bad now as it was then.

Wanting a car, though, will not mean being able to afford one. Many are now recouping the loss of income that they suffered during the most acute phase of the crisis, or paying down debt. All this points to high saving rates in the future, reinforcing low consumption.

With crisis support from governments every effort is being made to stop businesses from going bankrupt. For now at least. A rise in corporate and personal bankruptcies, long after the apparently acute phase of the pandemic, seems likely. While rents, both private and commercial are allowed to go unpaid. Even where possible, enforcing contracts and recovering debts has become extremely difficult, with many courts closed.

A lack of social interaction, also stifles innovation. Firms whose employees are unable to meet in person are less likely to be creative. Planning new projects is especially difficult and meeting online through social media like Zoom has a different dynamic than meeting in person, with spontaneity being particularly hard.

Cities are starting to empty. The richest and likely more educated are disproportionately moving out more. In New York, MoveBuddha, a relocation website, says that searches for places in New York City’s suburbs are up almost 250% compared with this time last year. With emptying cities the engines of ideas run more slowly.

While working at home has a negative impact on women’s careers more than men’s, as they are more likely to take care of home-schooling and keeping bored children occupied and entertained. Already, research by Tatyana Deryugina, Olga Shurchkov and Jenna Stearns, three economists, finds that the productivity of female economists, as measured by production of research papers, has fallen relative to male ones since the pandemic began.

Perhaps it is the way the virus exacerbates humans’ predisposition towards unfairness. It kicks the disadvantaged and leaves most of the better-off alone. So the greatest job losses in a shrinking economy are among those who are paid badly. Researchers at Oxford University have found that an American who normally earns less than $20,000 a year is twice as likely to have lost their job due to the pandemic as one earning $80,000-plus. Many of those unlucky people do not have the skills, nor the technology, that would enable them to work from home or to retrain for other jobs.

It was a strong and confident world economy when the pandemic struck. Sooner or later, with vaccines already in development the pandemic will have run its course. It will take at least a year, possibly younger. But the world economy that will emerge will not only be smaller, it will also be different, as it is difficult to predict.

But pass it will.

South Korea, once one of the hardest-hit countries, reported today that it had no domestic cases for the first time since February 29th. Similar success looks within reach in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

This could be reassuring. Or it could simply be a false flag.

An FT analysis of new and more complete data from the Chinese government has found that three-fifths of new Covid-19 cases were asymptomatic. It will further complicate the task of easing lockdown around the world. Professor Chris Witty, the Chief Medical Officer for England warns that eradicating Covid-19 is technically impossible and a second wave this winter could be more serious than the first.

Prof Willett, NHS England’s strategic incident director for coronavirus, said that the proportion of care home residents dying had increased from a quarter to 30%, adding, “The expectation is that for the next few weeks … those care homes will be the epicentres of transmission back into society and feeding the endemic problem that we will have going forward.”

There is a view among some, particularly those who have argued strongly against lockdown that most deaths among care homes’ elderly residents that most of them would soon have died of other causes. . In Britain many pundits have said that two-thirds of the country’s dead were already within a year of passing away.

It turns out not to be the case. Studies in Scotland, Wales and Italy reveal that Covid-19 had shortened life expectancies by an average of around 11 years and that even at the age of 80 the virus had cheated its victims of several years. Managing this particular niche of the pandemic is important, not just for society at large and the safety of care workers, but for the longer-term health and welfare of the resident themselves.

The virus has found other niches too. It’s begun to localise. Covid-19 death rates in London are significantly higher than in other parts of England, with the capital’s most deprived boroughs the worst-hit in the country.

Covid-19 is also not the only virus causing problems in Europe. There’s also African Swine Fever, ASF, which is a disease transferred from wild boar to farmed pigs. There is no risk to us. ASF can’t infect humans, but it does cause huge economic problems and Poland is currently on the front line. Originally, a cargo ship brought ASF with it from Africa to Georgia in 2007. It then spread through Russia and Eastern Europe, and entered Poland in 2014. Recently, the disease has entered Poland’s border with Germany. Wild boar are believed to be carrying it.

Covid’s pathology continues to puzzle doctors. Two aspects of the disease appear in today’s news. The first is heart damage. Up to one in five hospitalised patients have signs of heart injury. Cardiologists are trying to learn whether the virus attacks the organ.

The second is the way it creates skin conditions, including:

  • Chilblain-like symptoms.
  • Vesicular eruptions.
  • Wheals.
  • ‘Other maculopapules’ were identified in 47 per cent of cases and described as small, flat and raised red bumps. They were distributed around hair follicles in some cases and had varying degrees of scaling.
  • Livedo, or necrosis.

This incomplete knowledge has led to a vacuum that has started to fill with myths and theories. One suggestion after a study at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris is that nicotine may be a potential preventative agent against Covid-19 infection. Are smokers less likely to contract the virus, the question appears on Twitter. Meanwhile the Italian Health Ministry have debunked the idea that alcohol is a method to “boost the immune system.”

Part of the emerging covid mythology, are coronavirus parties. There is some basis for the stories from contact tracers who report cases where the virus was picked up at a party. Urban legend gets a hold and exaggerates these into tales of parties to deliberately infect themselves as part of a ‘natural herd immunity’ movement, or to get the disease over with, like the pox parties that were commonly held before the introduction of the varicella vaccine for chickenpox in 1995. Parties have happened, but usually the result of the folly of youth and defiance of lockdown rules.

The virus doesn’t care about whether there’s an ideology behind its victims’ behaviour or whether its plain reckless stupidity. It just infects.

Please don’t intentionally infect yourself, Professor Greta Bauer, an immunologist, warns in the New York Times, and gives the following seven reasons why ‘coronavirus parties’ are such a bad idea:

  • Immunity isn’t a sure thing.
  • Reinfection could be possible.
  • The virus could continue living inside you.
  • Even young people can be hospitalised.
  • Survivors could suffer long-term damage.
  • A ‘mild’ case is hardly mild.
  • There’s no shortcut to immunity.

Most people, however, are fearful of the disease. These include the retired medics returning to work. Thousands of NHS staff have signed up to help but their feelings about being in the thick of it again are hugely varied.

The quality of PPE is part of that concern. Especially issues about whether it is fit for purpose. An example is some healthcare workers on the frontline of the pandemic say that the standard sized PPE is mostly designed with male bodies in mind, and that puts women in danger as they treat coronavirus patients.

Delayed diagnoses and treatment in England due to the pandemic could result in 18,000 deaths from cancer, a new study by scientists at University College London and the Health Data Research Hub for Cancer suggests. The research found the predicted increase could also be the result of social distancing measures, along with a reluctance from patients to seek medical attention.

Dame Cally Palmer, national cancer director for NHS England said chemotherapy treatments were running at 70 per cent of normal levels, but two week referrals were down 62 per cent, she told MPs at the Health and Social Care Committee. She added that the NHS was still on track to meet a target of diagnosing 75 per cent of cancers at stage one and two by 2028, despite the pandemic.

Ms Walton told MPs that home births faced the biggest impact from the pandemic. She said, “Home birth services have been disrupted and there have been lots of reasons for that. Some services have had huge capacity issues with staffing, so in London at the peak of the staffing crisis there were 40 per cent shortages in midwives, so heads and directors of midwifery had to make decisions around how to keep women and services safe.”

As researchers across the world manage to design ventilators that cost less than $1,000 the move in ICUs is away from using them. A combination of elderly acute patients, the invasive nature of ventilation and the drawbacks of induced comas to make such procedures possible meant that in many cases the risks outweighed the benefits, so medics have started to depend increasingly on supplying oxygen and using drugs. They vary in efficacy. 

Gilead’s remdesivir has been among the more successful, reducing the mortality rate and shortening recovery time by almost a third. The Dow went up 500 points after news reached Wall Street. Now all that Gilead needs to do is manufacture enough to supply the world.

Doctors anticipate patient requests for experimental remdesivir before all the evidence comes in.

There is also promising news on the vaccine front.

More Covid-19 vaccines and treatments move towards human trials. Just three months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic several biotech companies are beginning trials of promising vaccines and treatments. It’s a race, and the Jenner Institute in Oxford leaps ahead, preparing for mass clinical trials, now that tests show their vaccine to be effective in monkeys.

There are currently 8,939 volunteers in 52 countries, willing to be infected with the live virus in order to test vaccines. These are what’s known as human challenge trials. It’s a new, bold idea that could speed up a vaccine. It’s also dangerous, and the trials run almost immediately into an ethical minefield. It will be almost a year before the first human challenge trial takes place, again in Oxford.

It’s a very special kind of bravery.

And mostly unsung.

Unlike PM Johnson, whose journalistic experience has played a major part in the theatre he likes to create. Today he has been gushing. In response to demands for more clarity about his plans to ease the UK out of its Covid-19 lockdown there’s a torrent of optimistic hyperbole for the front pages of British tabloids. We are officially “past the peak” of the pandemic in Britain, and he announces a “comprehensive plan” for the economy, schools, the workplace and travel. The wearing of face coverings has been endorsed by his scientific advisers. Oh, and there won’t be any new round of “austerity” to pay for the coronavirus crisis response.

Catch a story if you can.

Another politician across the pond, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has also been courting attention, using social media memes to change the Covid-19 message. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter her quirky, humorous signalling got the message across.

Less well adapted to online communications have been the Brexit negotiators, who have struggled with Zoom videoconferencing and missing badly those in formal exchanges over a drink or two. It hasn’t helped at all that the UK government has wilfully neglected to extend the transition period until the worst of Covid-19 is over.

While some politicians have to withdraw from the field, at least temporarily. Russian PM Mikhail Mishustin has gone into self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.

In the UK the grip of the government over even the basics is slipping. Johnson’s promise everything boosterism might have a momentary effect on some and his approval ratings in surveys remains high, although signs of slipping have returned. Food banks record an 81 per cent surge in demand as Covid-19 causes thousands to go hungry.

One catering firm has managed to recover over a million frozen airline meals, which were due to go to waste. The food has been sitting in a warehouse near Manchester Airport and now will be distributed to people in need across the region. Open Kitchen, Manchester, has been working with food businesses for nearly six years, repurposing food that would have otherwise gone to landfill. The 1.1 million rescued meals are set to be sent to homeless people, families in poverty and others in vulnerable categories during the Covid-19 pandemic. Corin Bell, the founder of Open Kitchen Manchester, says the decision to repurpose the airline meals was a “no brainer.” Though admittedly “on a much larger scale” than the enterprise’s usual workload. Bell explains that their mission is more relevant than ever. Fortunately they were able to receive support from a local logistics company, which lent the use of its industrial-sized freezer to help preserve the meals as long as possible.

Britain is by no means the only country where there’s an increase of those in need because of the pandemic. Nor is it the only one where resourcefulness has combined with public spiritedness.

Last summer Portugal was one of a number of European countries to take in asylum seekers arriving from the Mediterranean. It provided support, lodging and access to the country’s healthcare system to help thousands of refugees. Now, some of them are showing their gratitude by helping the country’s fight to contain the coronavirus pandemic, in a solidarity kitchen organised by the Braga International School in Northern Portugal. It has distributed over 9,000 meals to those in need. Some receiving food have lost their income. Others are isolated at a campsite because they are infected with Covid-19. Ahmad Sido, a Syrian refugee, told Filipa he can imagine what they are facing. “The disease is like a war,” he said. “It’s more complicated because people don’t have help or food. We know how to help and we help.”

Sometimes the story is not so positive. Covid exposes the cracks within society. One particularly horrific story has been dozens of decomposing bodies found in trucks at a Brooklyn funeral home, The funeral director said that he had used the trucks for storage after he ran out of space in his chapel of rest. “Bodies are coming out of our ears,” he said.

Another has been the growing ordeal faced by Belgian prisoners, feeling forgotten by the rest of society as they struggle with overcrowded facilities that prevent social distancing and to serious hygiene problems. In some cases it’s impossible to wash their hands because there’s no soap.

Also forgotten are the fifty thousand cruise ship crews cast adrift, juvenile justice centres and vulnerable youth abandoned as systems fail to cope.

But more alarming still has been the treatment of some migrant workers. Amnesty International recently reported that dozens of migrant workers in Qatar have been tricked into detention and deportation under the guise of being tested for Covid-19. Migrant workers in Qatar are already at a disadvantage under the kefala system – a sponsorship system of employment tying migrant workers to their employer, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and trapped in modern slavery.

Other stories from lockdown also catch the news:

  • An online fitness boom has emerged as the lucrative fitness industry becomes increasingly virtual.
  • Postboxes have been painted blue to thank NHS workers for their efforts during the crisis. Five have been given the new colour by the Royal Mail and bear the message, ‘Thank You NHS.’
  • BBC unveils Eurovision – despite contest cancellation this year.
  • All Costco customers will be required to wear a facemask inside stores starting on Monday, making it the first US retailer to mandate its customers to wear face coverings.
  • The suicide of two healthcare workers in New York, a doctor and a medical technician, cast an omen that there will be a Covid-19 mental health crisis.

It seems like the only beneficiary of lockdown is the environment.

  • Both China and Nepal have sent scientists to clean up Mount Everest during lockdown.
  • France wants to use the pandemic to make their national carrier greener. To receive 6.5 billion euros in aid, the Air France will have to cut carbon emissions along with less lucrative domestic flights. Germany’s Angela Merkel also presses for a green recovery.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic is predicted to usher in the biggest shock to the global energy system in more than 70 years. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its findings, which suggest that worldwide lockdowns will lead to a drop in demand of around six per cent. Carbon dioxide emissions are expected to decline by eight per cent to levels last seen ten years ago, the largest drop ever recorded. Having a third of the population under lockdown is actually a good way to give the environment a break from human pollution.
  • Climate change, however, hasn’t changed with the pandemic, even though air pollution plummets 45 per cent in major European cities. This is a looming, larger catastrophe, and it has its own inertia.

After releasing its findings the IEA’s executive director warned, “The only way to substantially reduce emissions is not through painful lockdowns, but by putting the right energy and climate policies in place.”

He’s right, No society can fix itself while in lockdown, and increasingly getting out of lockdown becomes many governments’ primary concern.

But how exactly to lift lockdown is unclear. Every country that tries to do so is carrying out its own experiment. There is no instruction manual.

The key appears to be Covid-19’s reproduction rate.  

The key is to keep the reproduction number, that is the number of people who can be infected by someone who contracts the disease (or even tests positive), below one. The most surefire way of doing that is through keeping people away from each other and the most surefire way of doing that is lockdown. In fact the appeal for locking down in the UK has been highly successful.

‘Slightly too successful,’ a leading statistician has suggested after data showed that Britons are fearful of easing a national lockdown. It turns out most Brits feel unsafe going to work and seeing friends if lockdown ended. A new poll finds strong support for social distancing measures to continue.

A poll in the US reveals that most Americans still want decreases in Covid-19 cases before returning to ‘normal.’

But where to start?

There is a view that governments should open schools first. There are many benefits to children and parents alike, but schools have the potential to become epicentres for the spread of the virus. Guidance on hygiene and social distancing, along with regular testing for Covid-19 become essential. It’s complex and requires sound management. To be fair most schools are up to that. Denmark has already reopened its primary schools. France is considering making attendance voluntary, but in doing so risk a loss of social mobility.

Some American states – Georgia, Hawaii and Florida – have started by opening restaurants, which soon become emblematic with freedom.

In the UK, KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s plan summer reopenings following lockdown. Independent restaurants lack the resources of the big chains, but must survive. Greggs will not reopen stores to customers next week in a U-turn decision, but they are going to practice operations and procedures with staff.

The South African government has eased its lockdown, with workers in the textile and manufacturing sectors, as well as some outdoor workers being allowed to return to work. Restaurants will be open, but only for takeaways. Outdoor activities such as running and cycling will be permitted for up to three hours a day, but wearing masks in public will be compulsory.

But there is an ominous spectre. Andrew Joseph writes in STAT, “It doesn’t stay where you started.” Reopening some states, he warns, heightens the risk of surges in others.

Lifting lockdown is going to be problematic, for sure.

Finally, an Imam in my neighbourhood Nextdoor, reminds me we have Ramadan under lockdown.

He gives the following advice:

“Staying at home during Ramadan will play an important part in the effort to slow the spread of Covid-19. Keeping yourself and your loved ones well during Ramadan this year will mean adapting the usual religious and cultural practices. This is particularly important for protecting vulnerable people who we are shielding because of underlying health conditions, as well as family, friends and carers of those who are most vulnerable.”

You don’t have to be a Muslim to be guided by it.

Simply a decent human being.

Day Forty Six: Thursday 30th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Arsehole Factor

It’s still quite cold, wet and windy for this time of year – we’re almost in May, halfway through spring already. The seedlings in the propagator are growing well, their cotyledons are out and it won’t now be long before the first foliage leaves appear. Five microcress have sprouted and are standing tall and proud, and there are signs that two of the beetroot seeds are just breaking the surface in their potlets. On the windowsill all three geranium cuttings are showing positive growth. I have a bank of ten potlets that came with the sweet peas that the cuttings will vacate for some of the larger seedlings to occupy. The sweet peas are doing well. There’s something life-affirming about watching plants grow – it’s slow, patient, intrinsically calm and reassuring. A message from nature that things are getting better.

I chat to Steve U over the phone. He wants feedback about his Zoom presentation on Tuesday evening and I do my best to give my impressions. Steve in turn is really helpful in getting me to my next step in the unfamiliar world of video-conferencing and I need to get my act together, getting a small team to test meeting up online. We talk about other stuff too, as you do in a conversation with a friend. I tell him about the Coronadiary (which was the name I had at the time for ‘The Covid Chronicle’), its demands and revelations. I told him that we would have to redefine what we meant by “freedom,” from something that is idealistic and unavailable, to something more pragmatic and realistic, and the tensions that come with that paradigm shift. It’s part of the wider struggle between rationalism and politico-psychological realities.

“There’s always what I call the arsehole factor,” he tells me. “It doesn’t matter what makes sense because there are always arseholes.”

I think the comment arose when I referred to some of the groupings I saw out on the common that were clearly not from the same household. Staying isolated prevents the spread of a truly nasty disease, with truly frightening mortality levels among those admitted to hospital.

“Arseholes,” Steve pronounces. “It’s not that they don’t know, or for that matter even care. They’re arseholes.”

He goes on to tell me how his father tried to get community projects going in a village in Nigeria. Some people were well off enough to be able to pool cash for the community as a whole, for water supply and to prevent soil erosion. Many were willing to put their money into a collective pot to achieve such purposeful ends. But a number were not.

“You want me to part with the extra money I made? I can put that money to better use building a nicer house.”

And stuff like that.

So money wasn’t directed to prevent soil erosion, as it was a preventative measure, unlike the visible asset of the borehole for water, and sure enough, within a handful of years it became a major issue and having nicer houses didn’t help those who had channelled their money that way.

The arsehole factor. Now we have an arsehole running the most powerful country on earth and it seems there’s little at the moment anyone can do about it ……. apart from being philosophical and calling out, “Arseholes.”

Back to freedom. I mentioned that we have to be much more nuanced – not thinking about freedom as a pure entity. It’s becoming clear by now that Covid-19 attacks certain human genomes more than others. If we knew everyone’s genome, which is feasible, bearing in mind the rapid development of AI, it should be possible to know the consequences of being infected. Who would succumb. Who would survive. Who would show no symptoms at all. Everything inbetween. It could be known within days, maybe even hours of an epidemic alert. But the trade-off would be our most intimate of data – our DNA.

Steve also says we’ve got to be a lot more nuanced about freedom. He’s ICT smart. More so than anyone else I know. He steers away from Microsoft and Google without cutting off his nose to spite his face and is savvy enough to work the alternatives. He also knows that big tech firms like Google make fortunes mining data and most of us, in our casual lassitude, give that up readily. For the most part it constitutes metadata, in which we are little more than anonymous ‘pixels.’

“All I make sure of,” says Steve, “is they’re welcome to have pictures of cats. They’re welcome to that.”

I know what he means.

“That ancient Greek philosopher – the one who said what price freedom. I’ve got this friend who was obsessed – paranoid even – that Google was mining his data. So I told him he could get an android phone that’s Google-free. You have the benefits of android without needing to worry about Google’s intrusions, digging for your personal data.”

He told him about phone providers who would supply a service where the android system did not involve Google. You could opt-in, like downloading Play Store, for example, but that was up to you. But most people don’t want that and it would cost £500 for such a service.

“I’m not paying that for a phone!” his friend protested.

So freedom had a price tag on this occasion and it was around a monkey in LSD. Hypocrisy, Steve calls it, and he’s right.

The Bigger Picture: Mysterious, frightening and far-reaching.

It’s the end of April and following the US and Italy, the UK’s coronavirus toll is the world’s third worst. We are in a state of crisis, largely because of Boris Johnson’s complacency at the outset. He could have done his homework. The evidence from overseas was already showing the explosive consequences of the pandemic if the blue touchpaper wasn’t snuffed out soon enough. Now he leads Cabinet lockdown talks, driven by the remorselessness of events. The consensus is that Covid-19 is not going away any time soon and some matters that the government had been at the very least negligent about, if not addressed urgently, will lead to politically damaging outcomes.

So the hitherto deeply anti-immigration Home Office has expanded its visa extension scheme to include midwives, radiographers, social care workers and pharmacists, as well as doctors and nurses, for fear of the NHS collapsing under the weight of the pandemic.

Along with for years, the Government had turned a deaf ear to the homeless, including record rough sleeping and overcrowded emergency accommodation – problems that could now spread the virus, creating hotspots. Not to mention a systemic social housing shortage and reliance on the private rented sector where prices are too high, leaving half of renters in work just one pay-cheque away from losing their home. Building social housing – which Britain urgently needs – was barely mentioned in the new chancellor’s first budget on 11th March.

Now the home became the heart of controlling the pandemic. To make lockdown work policies had to put a roof over the heads of the homeless, and protected the financially vulnerable from losing their homes.

Between 17 and 27 March, along with Rishi Sunak at the Treasury, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State For Housing, announced housing policy after housing policy which would have been considered “radical” pre-pandemic. The politically “impossible” became possible, the progressive became Conservative.

 “It shows just how much can be done when you have the political will,” Hannah Gousy, head of policy and campaigns at the homeless charity Crisis observed.

If people lost their jobs because of coronavirus, our welfare system wouldn’t be able to handle a scenario in which private renters were unable to pay their landlords because benefits had been cut while rents had gone up. This would lead to evictions, which would cause even more homelessness, completing a vicious circle of precarity and hardship.

So the Government was forced to act, fixing previous housing policy failures in just over a week, reminded that social housing, a key element of Beveridge’s welfare state, largely dismantled over the last thirty years was intended to be a safety net and coronavirus has provided a brutal reminder of why we needed it at all.

The chances are that these changes will be temporary, even though it shows that ending homelessness is possible

While the Welsh government, of a different political complexion to Westminster calls upon former prime minister Gordon Brown to help advise on the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.

Europe has shown positive signs that it is passing the peak of its coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said. Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said the continent – which has become an epicentre of the global Covid-19 pandemic – is now seeing evidence of “a plateau or reduction in new cases”. Italy currently has the worst death toll in Europe with 27,682 reported fatalities, followed by the UK at 26,097, Spain with 24,275 and France with 24,087. But during a virtual press briefing Dr Kluge said that the outbreak on the continent may now be heading in a new direction, adding a note of caution, “We must monitor this development very closely.”

He also urged governments to “reintroduce other health services quickly” amid concerns patients with cancer and other serious illnesses were not accessing essential care. “We cannot allow the impact of Covid-19 to be amplified by neglecting other health protection measures,” he said.

Nevertheless, despite this cautious optimism, how exactly the pandemic will progress remains as mysterious as many other aspects of the disease.

We think of covid-19 as a disease of the respiratory tract. When future generations look back on this pandemic, its iconic symbol will probably be the ventilator. But, although respiratory problems are at the core of the disease, covid-19 has revealed itself to be more than a straightforward viral pneumonia. It doesn’t confine its ravages to the lungs, but can push kidneys into failure, send the body’s immune system into catastrophic overdrive, and cause blood clots that impede circulation to the lungs, heart, or brain. It’s a disease of remarkable complexity, which even the most experienced doctors are struggling to understand.

The shortness of breath that’s most characteristic of covid-19 is reasonably well understood. It originates in the air sacs of the lungs, called alveoli, where blood and air are separated by such thin membranes that oxygen and carbon dioxide can pass into and out of the bloodstream, respectively. Between them, the lungs have somewhere in the neighbourhood of six hundred million alveoli. Severe covid-19 causes many of them to either collapse or fill with fluid. The virus attacks the cells lining the alveoli; our overactive immune systems, in trying to fight the virus, may be damaging them as well. The result is that not enough oxygen gets into the blood.

Doctors trying to solve this problem have two basic tools at their disposal: oxygen and pressure. They can give patients concentrated oxygen beyond the usual twenty-one per cent that is found in normal air. Alternatively, using a CPAP machine or ventilator, they can create a kind of sustained air pressure within the lungs, a “positive end-expiratory pressure,” or peep, which keeps the alveoli open, and thus more receptive to oxygen, at moments when the lungs would ordinarily be emptier of air. Doctors have also been improving oxygenation by “proning” patients—that is, periodically turning them onto their stomachs. Such positioning takes advantage of gravity to match areas of air-filled lung with areas of higher blood flow.

But doctors are finding, bizarrely, that some covid-19 patients can remain subjectively comfortable even when their saturation levels fall far below these ranges. This “silent hypoxemia” is frightening for physicians, who associate such low numbers with imminent death. And it’s deeply mystifying, since the numbers seem implausible. No one knows at this stage what leads to silent hypoxia.

Within hours of a viral invasion, the body’s immune system swings into action. The “innate” immune system, which recognizes protein structures common to many pathogens, reacts first, by releasing a family of chemical distress signals called cytokines. They spread from the site of the infection, instructing the body to raise its temperature and divert blood flow to the affected area; they also activate other immune-system cells, which begin developing antibodies specifically targeting the invaders. Without cytokines, the immune system would slumber while infections wreak havoc. But the cytokine system has a weakness. Some pathogens can provoke it in a perverse way, so that it goads the immune system as a whole into overdrive. In what’s known as a cytokine storm, fever and inflammation spike out of control. It’s unclear why some patients might experience this phenomenon while others do not.

Faced with a cytokine storm in a patient, a doctor can try to modulate the immune system’s response. The problem is striking the right balance. While some patients may benefit from a degree of medically induced immunosuppression, there are others for whom such an intervention could cause great harm. Some hospitals have begun cautiously administering steroids or drugs that inhibit the cytokine IL-6. High-quality clinical-trial data about such treatments won’t be ready for a long time.

It’s not only the immune system that must maintain a delicate balance. The bloodstream, too, exists in a perpetual tug-of-war between bleeding and clotting. Too much bleeding, and the smallest trauma can cause haemorrhage, even to the point of death; too far in the other direction, and clots will form in the absence of trauma, potentially obstructing blood vessels and causing lethal damage if they travel to the heart, lungs, or brain.

Doctors often test critically ill patients for cardiac-specific troponins—proteins in the bloodstream that are normally found only in the muscles of the heart. The presence of such proteins in blood suggests heart damage. Some severe covid-19 patients have elevated troponin levels; their hearts appear to be damaged. No one’s entirely sure what’s causing the damage, though, and so no one knows exactly how to treat it.

One major cause of heart damage is oxygen starvation: it’s what happens in a heart attack, when the sudden obstruction of a coronary artery prevents oxygen from reaching heart muscle. Starvation can also occur when failing lungs prevent oxygen from entering the bloodstream, or when sepsis causes such a drop in blood pressure that even properly oxygenated blood can’t get to the heart fast enough. These problems are significant, and, in broad terms, doctors know how to respond to them.

Another suggestion, from China, is that the virus could be attacking the heart muscle directly, causing a syndrome known as myocarditis. No one knows for sure what the best treatment for this form of myocarditis might be. Some doctors have reported that steroids can help—and yet steroids also act as an immunosuppressant. In critical care, it’s often hard to bring one organ system into balance without destabilizing another.

A similar story appears to be unfolding around the kidneys. Complete kidney failure is a death sentence if it’s not quickly addressed. Unfortunately, many critically ill covid-19 patients are developing it. Just as ventilators are substituting for failing lungs, so dialysis machines are taking over for failing kidneys. This is leading to shortages of the resources needed for dialysis: dialysis machines, the fluid used in the dialysis process, and dialysis-trained nurses.

We don’t yet know how kidney injury plays out in covid-19 patients. It’s likely that some people will recover their kidney function, while others could lose it permanently. We also don’t know why people are going into kidney failure in the first place. As with the heart, it’s possible that oxygen starvation is the problem. But some clinicians argue that the virus is attacking kidney cells directly—and there is post-mortem data out of China that supports this thesis, too.

Still other organ systems may be involved in covid-19. The ace-2 receptor protein, which is used by the coronavirus to enter human cells, resides not just in the respiratory tract but also on cells in the stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. There are reports of coronavirus patients with encephalitis—a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain—and signs of an increased incidence of stroke. There have been covid-19 patients suffering from a severe complication of diabetes called diabetic ketoacidosis, despite having no history as diabetics.

In a month doctors have gone from asking about fever and coughs to understanding that the disease manifests in other ways, or sometimes proceeds with no symptoms at all.

It is a mysterious disease that despite the fact that at least 777,286 people around the world are known to have been infected since the outbreak began, and 37,140 people have died, much is still not sufficiently understood.

The science historian, Lorraine Daston, writes it’s natural to cast about for answers at the dawn of a pandemic:

“At moments of extreme scientific uncertainty, observation, usually treated as the poor relation of experiment and statistics in science, comes into its own.”

And as Clifford Marks and Trevor Pour of the New Yorker concluded:

Confronting a new disease, doctors have no choice but to turn to “suggestive single cases, striking anomalies, partial patterns.” Slowly, as our ideas about “what works and what doesn’t” help tell us “what to test, what to count,” the picture clarifies. Until then, “we are back in the seventeenth century, the age of ground-zero empiricism, and observing as if our lives depended on it.” One patient at a time, we have to work our way into the present.

In the UK a third of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital are dying, with figures indicating the virus is just as deadly as Ebola for those forced to seek emergency medical treatment. The most common symptoms reported included a cough, seen in 70 per cent of patients, fever in 69 per cent and shortness of breath in 65 per cent. Coughing up mucus, a sore throat, a runny nose, wheeze, chest pain, muscle pain, joint pain, fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea were also observed. Professor Semple, who led the studies at Liverpool University, added, “Covid is as dangerous as Ebola, because it’s highly transmissible and it’s associated with a very high crude case fatality rate for those who go to hospital.”

This is where we’re at. Mysterious, frightening and far-reaching.

To my mind Oxford University partnering with Astra Zeneca to distribute the covid vaccine marks out today as a milestone in the history of the pandemic. What has been happening in a research laboratory is now being industrialised, and it’s the first sign that mass-vaccination in the coming year is a strong possibility. There were many steps along the way, as University of Bristol Professor, Adam Finn, chairman of the European Technical Advisory Group of Experts, advising WHO Europe, warned the media, but that column of dust breaking the horizon is the cavalry.

There is also some optimism in Gilead’s antiviral drug remdesivir, and the stockmarket has a good day as a result, but it is also known that it is not going to be a ‘magic bullet,’ a treatment that is guaranteed to stop covid deaths or severe symptoms. Nor is there any other drug in the pipeline that’s likely to be either.

So all we have is the response civilisations have used since ancient times – identify who has the disease and keep them well away from everyone else until the disease has run its course. Quarantine comes from the French ‘quarant,’ meaning forty – the Christian observance of Lent, with its emphasis on self-restraint, added weight where religion was so much more central in western culture. Sure, we’ve got a lot more adept at diagnosing diseases, but equally, Covid-19 challenges that with a substantial number of infected individuals being asymptomatic – a host of Typhoid Marys (and Martins) out there. Or should I say Covid Marys and Martins. 

“Test, trace, isolate” has become the slogan, but with its open borders and a largely privatised tracing system it’s all a mess.

Health secretary, Matt Hancock looks like he’s unlikely to reach his 100,000 daily Covid-19 antigen tests by the end of April. The latest figure, 52,429 tests carried out in England, Scotland and Wales on Tuesday, is from an overall capacity of just over 73,000 a day.

When asked about the Government’s missing its much-hyped 100,000 a day testing target, justice secretary, Robert Buckland replied that the public should recognise ministers for “being brave.”

A bizarre response in the face of incompetence.

And the politics of numbers gets criticised as they distract from a shaky strategy, that would, for example, include testing in care homes.

In America, the federal government launches a $500 million ‘Shark Tank’ style challenge (we’d say ‘Dragons Den’ in the UK) to speed the development of better coronavirus tests and much-blighted New York hires a thousand healthcare workers to begin contact tracing.

So at this stage of the pandemic, testing has become all-important, because there is so little to report about those other elements of controlling, let alone ending this plague.

And developments are big news: A coronavirus test that delivers results in 75 minutes is being trialled in London hospitals – and could be available for Londoners to buy and use at home in weeks. Its inventor, Professor Chris Tammazou of Imperial College, London, plans to rapidly expand production to 300,000 tests a month by July to establish a “Deliveroo-style” delivery service to homes and businesses. This will enable companies to test staff in order that they can safely return to work.

It will be superseded by a test that gives a result in less than 30 minutes, but the arrow is pointing in the right direction.

The combination of coronavirus and Brexit is driving Britain towards double austerity, but the blow to the economy won’t be even. Cash-laden firms do best, and it helps not to be owned by a hedge fund. With more people at home and online big tech does well, with Google’s parent company, Alphabet beating its first quarter revenue and hitting $41.2 billion. Others are not so lucrative. Helen Dickenson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, told the parliamentary business select committee that 69 per cent of non-food retailers have been ‘significantly’ impacted by the virus.

Transportation companies are also struggling. Uber is reportedly laying off 20 per cent of its workforce, some 5,400 employees. Last month business was down as much as 70 per cent in major cities. In America, Lyft and Boeing are the latest companies to cut workers amid the pandemic.

Banks are locked in last-minute talks with regulators to secure a pledge that they will not come under attack in future years over Rishi Sunak’s so-called “Bounce Back Loans” for the smallest businesses affected by covid. Under pressure from small firms unable to qualify for his main Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, the chancellor this week announced new micro loans only requiring a one page application form.

The human food chain becomes a critical industry. Pret a Manger is to open a further 20 stores in London for takeaway and delivery.

But for supermarkets Covid-19 also adds to the overheads.

Sainsbury’s today warned the cost of making its stores safe and a plummet in non-food sales will dent profits by £500 million. The grocer has seen food sales boom in recent weeks as shoppers first stockpiled in March and later switched their usual food spending from restaurants to supermarkets. Sainsbury’s expects profits to be hurt by “significant costs” due to protecting staff and customers; weakened demand for fuel, clothing and general merchandise; and lower profits in its bank.

On the darker side of business, shameless sellers are cashing in on Covid-19 by hiking up the price of essential products, such as cleaning products and baby formula. This obvious display of price gouging is a kick in the teeth for what’s already a difficult time for most of us. Sellers are exploiting us to make an unjustifiable profit. The consumer organisation Which sets up a petition, demanding that the Government introduce emergency legislation to stop sellers charging unjustifiable prices for essential items during times of an emergency.

And Russia’s newest black market is in ventilators. The hunt for ventilators to keep alive people severely stricken by Covid-19 has taken a violent turn. Russian law enforcement officers exchanged gunfire with a gang suspected of trafficking the devices during a raid near Moscow, a Russian news outlet with close ties to the security services reported on Wednesday.

If you had submitted a script a year ago for a TV drama involving a shootout over medical equipment it would probably have been turned down for being too far-fetched.

But this is where we’re at. Mysterious, frightening and far-reaching.

And people’s behaviour is already beginning to fray.

Some of us fall prey to misinformation. The Italian Health Ministry debunks alcohol as a way to ‘boost the immune system,’ adding, “Breathing hot air from a hairdryer does not prevent you from getting infected. The hot air from the hairdryer cannot reach the temperatures at which the virus dies. There would only be irritation of the mucous membranes and the risk of burns.”

Some of us become conflicted by our own good intentions. On the one hand, based on their enthusiasm from the public on previous weeks Londoners were told today not to gather on Westminster Bridge to take part in tonight’s ‘Clap for Carers,’ as the Met warned it was “not acceptable” to put safety at risk by flouting lockdown rules.

‘Clap for Carers’ was an idea that started in Europe and was adopted in the UK by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch woman living in London, who promoted a campaign which took place every Thursday evening from 26 March. It started out as a genuine gesture of deep respect, appreciation along with togetherness and belonging.”

But then the Government muscled in on the act, not least the PM himself, his narcissistic presence catching as much, if not more media attention than the carers and their appreciators.

On Monday the BBC aired its current affairs programme, Panorama. The programme focussed on the lack of Government support with PPE, while at the same time the PM and ministers were actively encouraging the ‘Thursday Clap.’

Many people found the level of hypocrisy they were witnessing difficult to stomach.

“No, I won’t be clapping for our carers tonight,” journalist Ravinder Randhawa wrote in the Huffington Post, “And you shouldn’t be either.”

Some of us become confused by mixed messaging. Public Health England official Yvonne Doyle warned the public against travelling by car, as new figures showed that the highest motor traffic since lockdown began on March 23rd. Fears of the virus spreading on public transport have certainly been a contributing factor. Meanwhile, the open road of early lockdown was too much of a temptation for a few, as police record an eight-fold increase in speeding.

Some of us end up at the receiving end of ‘creative’ ideas by the authorities. The university town of Lund in Sweden is to dump a tonne of chicken manure in its central park in a bid to deter up to 30,000 residents from gathering there for traditional celebrations to mark Walpurgis Night on Thursday.

“Lund could very well become an epicentre for the spread of the coronavirus on the last night in April – I think it was a good initiative,” the chairman of the local council’s environment committee, Gustav Lundblad, told a Swedish newspaper.

Walpurgis Night, celebrated on 30 April, is widely marked across central and northern Europe with parties and bonfires. The festivities are classed as “spontaneous” so cannot be banned by authorities, but to avoid the risk of spreading the coronavirus many towns and cities in Sweden have asked citizens to give the tradition a miss this year.

Lund is home to one of Sweden’s biggest universities and many of the municipality’s 125,000-odd inhabitants are students who habitually gather in the park in the afternoon and evening for picnics before the Walpurgis party proper gets underway.

Philip Sandberg, the leader of council, told the paper it would “not be a pleasant experience … to sit in a park that stinks of chicken manure. But it will be good for the lawns, as chicken manure contains a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen, so we’ll get a really nice park for the summer.”

Sweden has opted for a light touch approach to containing Covid-19, in contrast to the strict lockdowns imposed by its Nordic neighbours and much of the rest of Europe and favouring personal responsibility over draconian enforcement. The government has banned planned gatherings of more than 50, but asked – rather than ordered – people to observe physical distancing, avoid non-essential travel, work from home and stay indoors if they are elderly or ill. Shops, restaurants and gyms have remained open.

Even in Sweden, it seems there are limits to how much the authorities trust the personal responsibility they espouse.

Even so……

Some of us blatantly won’t do as we’re told. Soon after a revered Hasidic rabbi died from the coronavirus in Brooklyn on Tuesday, his fellow congregants informed the police department they would hold a public funeral, despite the virus restrictions in place. However, 2,500 crowded the streets.

Some encourage that. As Elon Musk condemns lockdown as “fascist.”

Getting out of lockdown starts to preoccupy every western country hit by the pandemic. It’s looking increasingly that it’s harder to come out of lockdown than it was going into it. There are fears that many could be catapulted off a financial cliff-edge. There are fears that the London Underground could be ‘rapidly overwhelmed’ when lockdown lifts in London.

And restaurateurs fear reopening under social distancing rules could destroy profits. Chefs and business owners say that while it’s necessary, social distancing could mean that reopening is practically impossible. Nevertheless, cut-price pub chain Wetherspoons plans to reopen its bars and hotels “in or around June,” despite warnings from ministers that the sector was likely to be the last allowed out of lockdown restrictions.

More and more, it’s clear that governments have to take a lead and have clear plans in place. Spain, for example, plans to lift its lockdown in phases:

Phase Zero: The preparation phase of the transition to lifting lockdown. It’s greeted by citizens with a sigh of relief as adults are allowed outside by May 2nd. Children have been permitted to go outside for an hour of exercise every day since Sunday.

Phase One: Small businesses will be allowed to reopen, while specific shopping hours will be set for those over 65 years of age. Larger shopping centres will remain closed. Hotels and other tourist accommodation will also reopen; however, common areas will not be accessible. Face masks are ‘highly recommended’ on public transport.

Phase Two: Restaurant interiors will be permitted to carry out table service, while educational centres will also be able to reopen, with exceptions. Cultural events with less than 50 people in enclosed areas and 400 in outside spaces will be allowed.

Phase Three: This is an advanced phase in which restrictions will be ‘limited.’

Meanwhile we continue to witness what life under lockdown looks like:

There were three individual people’s stories of the day that particularly came to light

The first is that locals came out to applaud a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flypast as it passes over the home of Captain Tom Moore as he celebrates his 100th birthday. His NHS fundraising campaign hits £30 million as birthday wishes flood in. He has also been made an honorary colonel.

The second is the rollercoaster of a pregnancy Boris Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds has had, from election to Covid-19. On top of that, it is a pregnancy that she has had to experience in the public eye.

But it’s the third story that stood out most of all. Unlike the first two it’s not about someone in the public eye. It’s a story that frankly leaves me with a sense of deep outrage, of injustice and the harsh treatment of minorities in the cruel shadow of Covid-19. A young woman from South Dakota who gave birth while on a ventilator died in federal custody on Tuesday after contracting the virus. Andrea Circle Bear, 30, of Eagle Butte, South Dakota, appears to be the first female federal inmate in the United States to die in custody after contracting the virus, according to data from the Bureau of Prisons, She had recently begun serving a 26 month sentence for maintaining a drug-involved residence on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, the agency said in a news release. It begins with a harsh sentence for a relatively minor drug-related offence and ends with her dying while in the custodial care of the state.

I’m left wondering about whether this story will quietly die, while those of Tom Moore and Carrie Symonds will live on, simply because Andrea Circle Bear was never in the public gaze for longer than a day. It seems that it will and that in turn seems wrong. 

Across America coronavirus cases pass the million mark. It’s a third of all cases globally, and in hot spots the death toll rises with it. A Massachusetts nursing home has had 68 deaths. Sometimes there are signs of reprieve, but at this stage of a pandemic they are illusory. For the first time in more than a month, New Orleans reported no new Covid-19 deaths on Monday – but it only lasted a day. It was the first time the Big Easy reported no fatalities from the virus since March 22nd.

Other news from the US:

  • The US economy shrunk at 4.8 per cent annual rate in the first quarter, its biggest contraction since the recession in 2008. Worse is to come.
  • Trump says that the federal government will not extend its social distancing guidelines.
  • He also declares that meat plants are ‘critical infrastructure’ and signs an executive order to keep them open.
  • We need the real CDC back, and we need it now.
  • Celebrity doctor and doctor to celebrities, cancer specialist David Agus has been swept up into the White House as it confronts the Covid-19 pandemic . Agus’s work is neither glitzy nor overtly controversial, but he’s found himself in the spotlight, having promoted hydroxychloroquine in March. Exactly what Agus’s role is in Trump’s White House remains unclear.
  • VP Mike Pence finds himself defending his maskless visit to the Mayo Clinic, some former patients also criticise the institution.
  • In an election year it’s becoming clear that voting online may well be more important. There are many, especially Republicans, who believe that despite the pandemic, voting online is not the way to hold an election, claiming It is still too vulnerable to cyber-attacks and other security breaches. These are the quiet beginnings to a story in the coming months that will shake not only American democracy, but the very principles of democracy to its core.
  • Across America, private companies step in to source protective gear. Citizens mobilise to fill America’s need for anti-covid PPE. It’s a valiant attempt to compensate for the federal government’s failure.
  • The acting secretary of state for the Navy on Wednesday ordered a wider investigation into the events aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, apparently shelving for now a recommendation by the Navy’s top admiral to restore Captain Brett Crozier to command the virus-stricken warship.
  • In fading steel towns, chronically ill patients hope video visits stay after the pandemic goes.

Across the planet:

  • Angela Merkel sends out a warning call not to forget climate finance to the world’s poor. As rich countries spend billions bailing out industries hit by the Covid-19 slump, the German chancellor urged them not to forget their climate commitments.
  • There are still 33 countries and territories across the world which have not yet reported a single case of the novel coronavirus. Many are small, hard to reach island nations in the Pacific, such as Nauru, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. Others include Comoros, Lesotho, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Several of these nations are the least populated parts of the world.
  • Infectious disease expert: Scientists need to collaborate across borders to fight the pandemic.
  • Overtaxed health systems, closed facilities and disrupted supply chains will curtail access to reproductive care for women and girls, particularly in low-income nations, according to UNFPA. Assuming six months of lockdown, 47 million women in 114 low to middle income countries will likely lose access to contraception because of the pandemic, leading to 7 million unintended pregnancies, the report says.
  • In France faith in central government fractures over the government’s Covid-19 response.
  • Hungarian schools are to remain closed until the end of May.
  • Brazil’s justice minister storms out of Bolsonaro’s government, calling the president a scofflaw, while as coronavirus deaths spike, Brazil’s leader says, “So what?”
  • Putin lengthens lockdown as Russia’s Covid-19 cases now surpass China.

This is where we’re at. A disease that remains mysterious, frightening and far-reaching.

But there are always positive souls to line our dark clouds with silvery sunlight.

On my local Nextdoor:

“Bonjour. In the current situation of lockdown, with free time at your disposal, why not try something new. When the schools have limited opportunities for pupils to practice and keep a good level for the future, let’s plan revisions  and boost their confidence with a fun approach. Maybe you want to learn or improve your French you studied at school a few years ago and wanted to reconnect with. 8 pounds an hour.”

Eight pounds an hour for personal French tuition?

Sounds like a good deal.