Day Fifty Three: Thursday 7th May 2020

Nothing Grows Forever

Way back in the 1970s I read the Club of Rome report. I still have it on my bookshelf, yellowed and well-thumbed. It stated the obvious – that indefinite growth could not occur in a finite world. I was biology trained, with a particular interest in ecology, and I became a biology teacher. I think that ever since I was bought a cheap Japanese microscope for my tenth birthday I’ve been a biologist at heart, and that means understanding the basic shapes and patterns that accompany all living processes.

One of these key underlying patterns is the sigmoid, or s-shaped, graph. Lots of processes in biology follow the sigmoid curve, not least of all, growth. We, for example, do not grow indefinitely, and it’s not much of an insight to realise that most other things don’t either.

So it was rational to suppose that human population growth could not be indefinite, so long as we didn’t populate other worlds, and that was a long way off. Not only that, but our intermediary with ecology, economics, wouldn’t endure meaningful indefinite growth either. Sure, there would be bubbles, but they were momentary and would ultimately burst. When it came to meaningful growth, stuff would stop it – there’s be too many of us, we’d overconsume resources or get poisoned by our collective waste, in the same way yeast does in a fermentation jar.

But there we were as a species, behaving as if continued growth was inevitable. Capitalism needs an ever-increasing GDP. Fail to grow that GDP of yours and you’re in trouble.

Nothing can grow forever.

So the paradigm of an ever-growing GDP is fundamentally flawed.

In the 1970s, and for decades after that, we didn’t want to know how the sigmoid would flatten, and as a result policymakers haven’t really planned for it. It’s a bit like planning for your own death – dealing with the inconceivable. We just went on, making money with various degrees of success, some of the more successful getting richer and richer. In the 1980s greed became a virtue, because it generated wealth …… generated GDP. No one was going to give up on that one easily.

We needed to look at our own history to realise that those who were accumulating surpluses in the very uneven sharing out of resources were not going to give up their surplus acquisitions unless they had to. Like when it’s legislated that they must, or when life becomes intolerable, like it does in revolutions, when they don’t.

So we carried on. Economically sleepwalking towards disaster. People in the know knew about the ultimate inevitability of a pandemic, but policymakers did not register. We were in denial.

But the sigmoid was going to flatten.

It had to.

That’s natural law.

We thought that something more related to climate change would flatten it. Maybe when you could only get around Manhattan by canoe or had to wear waders to take part in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras we’d kinda do something then, and well, the market would sort that out, wouldn’t it?

Rather like 9/11, we were caught off-guard. Blindsided. Woken up from our somnambulations.

And it’s a shame, because we think we’re smart. We think we can stop the worst from happening.

However, the sad fact is, like most of our fellow living creatures on God’s Earth, we learn from trial and error.

And that’s how a paradigm shift has happened when a simple virus entered the human population.

Above, soft cumulus clouds float in the bluest of skies. I stop for a moment to read them. They’ve stopped growing. They’ve reached that mid-afternoon equilibrium where growth and decay are in balance. Decay will win. By evening they will have dissipated. I know this. I’ve been watching clouds for years.

I miss flying!

Rather a Light in Darkness, Than a Light in Fog

The novel coronavirus spread swiftly around the world from late 2019, and like a cuckoo in the nest has crowded out non-covid healthcare and drug development, redirecting research away from many labs in a crisis that has left some scientists scrambling to save their work, and left others grieving the loss of experiments they had dedicated months or even years to carrying out. Many are grappling with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about how they’ll continue with their work.

By contrast, demand for knowledge about the virus has resulted in scientific research being released in a torrent, much of it unreviewed, as pre-publications, such is the rush.

The UK has been hit particularly hard. It began with a complacent and swaggering PM, eager to message about British exceptionalism with the boosterism that has become his trademark. His speech in the Royal Naval College in Greenwich on February 3rd was the first time he had mentioned the coronavirus in public:

“Global growth is itself anaemic and the decline in global poverty is beginning to slow. When barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government, somewhere, that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange.”

Not surrendering to the virus became central to Britain Unchained and an undercurrent to the many troublingly irrational decisions the PM would make throughout the duration of Covid-19’s UK presence. But that’s another story.

Or to be precise, many other stories.

With borders open, an all-pervasive lack of urgency, sporting events taking place with crowds in the thousands, Britain had that air of 1939 of eerie calm while storm clouds billowed on the horizon. It would not be long before they broke in all their fury, leaving the UK with the highest death toll from Covid-19 in Europe, with 30,076 people recorded dying from the disease. The actual total figure of direct and indirect deaths could be as high as 54,000, according to a former ONS statistician.

It was plain to see what had happened in Italy. For one of the world’s greatest air transport hubs, still with open borders, it was rational to see it was coming our way. But Johnson is still in denial. So when Sir David Spiegelhalter, a leading statistician, wrote in the Guardian a caveat about the variation of methodologies in gathering covid stats in different countries, Johnson uses that in a Trumpian twist to say that international comparisons should not be made at all.

Asked by Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer why the UK’s growing death figures, which today passed 30,000, were so grim compared to other countries, the PM said:

“In answer to his question, I would echo what we have heard from Professor David Spiegelhalter and others: at this stage I do not think that the international comparisons and the data are yet there to draw the conclusions that we want.”

It was a sleight of hand, a deflection away from the neglect the Government had shown to observe what had happened elsewhere and amend plans accordingly.

Sir David Spiegelhalter saw it as such, that Johnson had misinterpreted his article and asked But tonight, Sir David said the PM had misinterpreted his article, and asked him and his colleagues to stop.

He wrote on Twitter :

“Polite request to PM and others: please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparisons yet. I refer only to detailed league tables-of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high.”

Where Brexit meets Covid-19 a Lewis Carroll reality emerges, syllogism rules and confusion results.

So a promise by the PM to reach a testing target of 200,000 by the end of May becomes clarified by his spokesman as referring to ‘capacity,’ not actual test, and Johnson adds to the confusion by saying it had been easier to build up testing capacity “on the way out” than it was as the epidemic took off. There had been “particular difficulties” at the time, he added, without exactly specifying what they were.

The Tory MP, Brandon Lewis adds to the Looking Glass world by telling us that the Government was right not to enforce airport screening, without exactly specifying why.

A shipment of 400,000 protective gowns from Turkey, procured at great expense to the taxpayer, are deemed unusable.

While a Labour MP has claimed she was sacked from her job as a temporary carer amid the pandemic after speaking out about PPE shortages. Nadia Whittome, the UK’s youngest MP, returned to her former role at Lark Hill retirement village, which is run by ExtraCare, to help relieve the strain on the care services.

And Neil Ferguson, the lead author of the study that prompted the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown has resigned from SAGE, the Government’s top science advisory team after breaking lockdown rules at least twice to meet a lover, and risking undermining the ‘stay at home’ message.

The only thing that keeps the lapsed professor out of the Looking Glass analogy is I don’t think Lewis Carroll wrote any adult stuff.

But he did have characters whose line of reasoning shot off at a tangent to pastures new.

We, of course, have Boris Johnson musing about the post-pandemic world.

“This should be a golden age for cycling,” he enthuses as he floats an alternative to mass transit commuting.

But there are moments when I think that the Looking Glass world that I find myself in, along with millions, if not billions of others, is an inevitability. It’s like being lost in the fog – the first thing that happens is disorientation, that in itself can lead to muddled thinking and poor decision-making. No one knows exactly how the pandemic will run its course. This is not the lost world of the Spanish Flu, where viruses were barely known about, even in the medical community, and air travel constituted a noisy hop from Croydon to Paris in a cold, canvas-covered flying machine for the intrepid few who could afford it. This is a very different world indeed, with different dynamics, and there is no spoiler alert for what the final chapter holds.

News filters through. From Pfizer and Moderna in the States, and AstraZeneca in the UK. A vaccine is on its way. It’s hope, but unlike a light in the darkness it’s more like a light in the fog. Some like Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Centre for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, are worried people aren’t preparing for the possibility of an autumn wave of infections, which some experts fear will be bigger than what we’ve seen so far, simply because they expect a vaccine will be at hand. Mounting promises on Covid-19 vaccines are fuelling false expectations.

Osterholm went on to warn that the public will need clearer communications about realistic time lines to Covid-19 vaccine access. When vaccines do start to become available, demand will be enormous and supply will be minimal.

“It’s going to be like filling Lake Superior with a garden hose at first,” he added. “Let’s just be honest, whichever country gets the vaccine first … is going to both be in the driver’s seat and a very difficult spot.”

“Eight billion people are going to want this vaccine overnight when it becomes available.”

In the meantime, without a vaccine or other preventive medication, all that can be done is to mitigate the worst outcomes.

The pharmaceutical company, Gilead announces steps to widen global access to remdesivir, particularly addressing immediate needs in India. The world watches. Gilead has a history of price-gouging drugs, for example bringing out a hepatitis C drug that cost $1,000 a pill, and has found itself in a protracted and messy legal battle with the U.S. government over patents, and priced HIV drugs so high it gave rise to an international social movement of AIDS activists, for whom Gilead has represented a corporate villain like no other.

The famous playwright and AIDS activist, Larry Kramer, now 84 but still unreconciled. In an email to the American health news website, STAT, he said, “Gilead has always been selfish, greedy, tricky pigs. I have always hated them.”

Little wonder, then, that a Washington Gilead lobbyist said that with remdesivir, Gilead has “a perfect opportunity to show our value — and not come across like greedy bastards.”

Arguably, the best Covid-19 treatment to date and the world at its feet, does Gilead want to be seen as being as wealthy as Croesus, or the saviour of humanity? The world watches, mindful of the Midas touch.

It will be a recurring theme for a number of big pharma companies as the pandemic runs its course.

Less high profile, but equally important treatments continue to widen the gap between infection and deaths. Giving blood thinners to severely ill Covid-19 patients is gaining ground while trials begin for convalescent plasma, a treatment used a hundred years ago in the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Big Tobacco gets criticised for ‘coronavirus publicity stunt’ after donating ventilators. Philip Morris International, the world’s largest multinational tobacco company, has been accused of a “shameful publicity stunt” by a leading campaigner after it donated ventilators to the Greek government as coronavirus infections mount in the country.

Perhaps it’s an act of conscience, as evidence suggests that smokers are more likely to suffer a severe form of the disease than non-smokers?

Then again, perhaps not.

Public debt has shot up all over the world, like a collective immune reaction. Exactly what this means in terms of economic growth is unclear, but rather like any patient kicking up an immune response it’s not going to feel good. The Bank of England has warned of an economic hit close to thirty per cent by the summer, as it left interest rates at a historic low of 0.1 per cent after recent emergency action. The Bank said it expects GDP to fall by around three per cent in the first three months of 2020 and then plunge by a further 25 per cent in the second quarter, but like all other reactions to the pandemic there’s a lot of uncertainty. The twenty seven countries of the European Union have a collective budget, along with recovery plans to ensure a safe and healthy future for all. Billions of euros of public monies will be invested to restart Europe’s economy as countries emerge from the pandemic.

So much for the richer nations, but in the developing world things are much more precarious. Development in these countries depends to a large degree on microfinance lenders and Covid-19 has become an existential threat, even though in a post-pandemic world, the poor will need them more than ever.

And China, eager to be the first out of the pandemic, has its airlines flying again. It’s a competitive world and there’s the fear that they could threaten the world’s sickly legacy carriers on international routes.

China too has the first cohort of children returning to school in Wuhan, where the first case of Covid-19 was reported late last year. Students in grade 12 and 9 in schools in Hubei province were allowed to return to class on Wednesday to study for upcoming exams in the summer.

Like the resurgent airlines this is a sign of bullish confidence and ascendency in contrast to an uncertain and fragile West. In Britain the teacher’s union, NASUWT, warns that teachers are being “put at risk unnecessarily” as schools prepare for reopening. The anxiety is the same in France as plans to reopen schools are rebuked as being “untenable and unrealistic.” Some French schools will reopen from May 11th in a decision that many mayors in the Paris region have criticised.

In America there’s yet another blow to university enrolment and income, as the Trump administration looks to impose new restrictions on overseas students who want to work in the US after graduation. One in five students is reconsidering plans over concerns of the pandemic.

While across the EU graduates struggle. On the cusp of entering the world of work, uncertainty is hanging over young people’s employment opportunities. Prospects for getting a good traineeship or a short-term contract – the starting point for the majority of graduates – are slim. Before the pandemic hit, the outlook was already gloomy. The average rate for youth unemployment stood at 15 per cent. Now it can only get gloomier.

Without regenerating a well-educated, highly productive workforce entire economies will enter a ‘long covid’ for years to come.

So getting out of lockdown is critically important for national prosperity. The WHO warn that the risk of sliding back into Covid-19 lockdown is ‘very real’ without a careful, staged lift approach.

PM Boris Johnson says measures to ease lockdown will begin next Monday, following updating  the public on Sunday, because the measures would begin the next day. The “stay at home” message expected to be ditched.

So have the five tests for lifting lockdown been met? Here’s a reminder:

  1. The NHS is able to cope and can provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK.
  2. There’s a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate from coronavirus – we have moved beyond the peak.
  3. There’s reliable data from SAGE showing the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels.
  4. The Government is confident that the range of operational challenges including testing capacity and PPE are in hand with supply able to meet future demand.
  5. And confident also that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelm the NHS.

It is true that deaths are past their peak and declining daily but they’re still high, averaging 549 daily over the last week. Cases are hardly declining – at about five thousand daily – but the level of testing is still inadequate for a virus that is becoming endemic, and as for not risking a second spike of infections, in the short term it might be so. It’s a gamble that PM Johnson is making on the basis of early signs.

As an aside, a Scottish survey reported in iNews comes up with novel ways of returning to normal life, from 10 mph speed limits to legalising cannabis. Other suggestions included reopening McDonald’s restaurants to improve the nation’s mental health.

Chancellor Merkel is more cautious, saying Germany’s reopening will have an “emergency brake” in case covid spikes. As an early sign the Bundesliga is cleared to return this month. Measures announced by chancellor Angela Merkel will allow top level football to return behind closed doors in the second half of May.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern says her country is “halfway down Everest,” as she plans big easing of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Rome’s transport network comes back to life. Facemasks, temperature checks, socially distanced seating and a little less busy than in pre-pandemic days. But the hum of activity and tinny announcements over station speakers give the comforting illusion of a returning normality.

But it’s not for all. Over-70s and vulnerable groups will still need to self-isolate when the UK rules ease. Without a vaccine, shielding is really the only effective tool we have to protect vulnerable groups during this uncertain time.

For them the ‘New Reality’ continues, with all its shifts from what seems like a comfortable world, in the way we look at the Edwardian era that was blown away in August 1914.

Here are some stories from this New Reality:

  • A nurse in Maryland, US, describes how doctors have been instructed not to enter patients’ rooms unless they must as a way to minimize their exposure to the virus that causes Covid-19 while nurses go from one room to the next, medicating, bathing, turning, and comforting their patients without changing their uncomfortable personal protective equipment, since supplies are limited. This work can take hours. It is not uncommon for nurses to go all day without drinking water or eating because that would mean removing our protective gear.
  • Similarly, the comedian Rhod Gilbert, whose series about attempting other people’s ‘real jobs,’ as he puts it, Work Experience, shows that caring is a serious business. It’s perhaps the best half-hour programme he’s ever made, while UK charities urge the Government to better protect under pressure carers. More than 100 organisations, unions and think tanks have published an open letter, urging politicians across the UK to act.
  • Many, however, can escape the high risks of the frontline and the pandemic has not only sped up a revolution in home working, leaving offices around the world empty, but also brought people to question the necessity of the Monday to Friday nine to five in the office. It’s one of the covid paradigm shifts.
  • And that refocusing on the home has caused indoor air pollution to soar as Britons take to their kitchens in lockdown. The average person is exposed to nineteen per cent more particulate pollution now households spend an extra hour a day cooking.
  • Would you really trust Mark Zuckerberg to be your new babysitter? Maybe not in the flesh, but by proxy, it seems so. When Facebook Messenger Kids first came out, it was thought of as controversial for a big tech platform to target a children’s audience. Now, Messenger Kids is helping children stay in touch during quarantine.
  • iNews reporter Rosie Hopegood finds herself caught out mid-move from London to New York and finds herself stuck in an Airbnb. It’s been a revelation. “I’ve spent the whole of lockdown in an Airbnb,” she writes. “It’s made me realise I don’t need so much stuff and that neighbours matter.”
  • Some caught out in transit are not fortunate enough to philosophise about their plight, not least the EU nationals left homeless and hungry in London’s lockdown. “They are living hand to mouth because they were fired straightaway and were not put on unpaid leave or furloughed.
  • Others take advantage of the situation for malign ends. There is ‘clear evidence’ that cyber-criminals are targeting healthcare organisations tackling Covid-19. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that hostile states and criminal gangs are exploiting the coronavirus crisis for fraud and espionage.
  • It’s not just for monetary gain either. A 53 year-old Colorado man planning armed protest against his state’s coronavirus restrictions was arrested by federal agents for allegedly possessing four pipe bombs. The man, Bradley Bunn, repeatedly popped up on law enforcement radar after ‘angry and aggressive’ social media posts.

While worldwide:

  • China declares the whole country ‘at low risk’ after its Covid-19 outbreak.
  • Women demand a voice in Italy, where the virus response has been dominated by men.
  • In America, Trump says the White House’s Covid-19 Task Force will wind down. His son in law, Jared Kushner tried to address a looming supply shortage with volunteers from the private sector. More than 1,000 people have died each day for over a month. Meat is growing more scarce. And for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments via telephone and allowing live streaming of its audio. In another sign of change, Judge Clarence Thomas asked a question for the first time since March 2019 on Monday.
  • Tanzania’s president has suspended its head of national health laboratory amid a growing row that it is suppressing the number of deaths from Covid-19. John Magufuli claimed tests have been sabotaged after having a goat test positive at the lab. Opposition leaders have accused him of a cover-up.
  • Three Russian doctors working to treat Covid-19 patients have mysteriously fallen out of windows in recent weeks, underscoring the country’s struggling healthcare system and leading to suspicions of foul play. On April 24th, Natalya Lebedeva, the chief of emergency medical services at a training base for Russian cosmonauts, fell out of a window at the hospital where she was being treated for a Covid-19 infection and died. Yelena Nepomnyaschya, the top doctor at a hospital in Siberia, fell out of a window during a conference call at her hospital and died on May 1st after a week in intensive care. The next day Alexander Shulopov fell from a second floor window at the hospital where he worked and had been receiving treatment for Covid-19. He remains in a serious condition with a fractured skull.
  • Patients have been turned away from dozens of hospitals, even though Japan, with fewer than 15,000 cases, has relatively few Covid-19 patients. It also has more hospital beds per head of population than any other country in the world: twice as many as France and almost five times as many as the United States. Japan has drawn close to the limit of its health capacity in recent weeks, forcing it to declare a state of emergency. The Covid-19 outbreak has exposed long-standing structural problems caused by bureaucratic inflexibility and a plethora of small hospitals. “We have a lot of beds, but a limited number equipped for critical care,” said Shigeru Omi, one of the doctors leading Japan’s fight against Covid-19 in a recent interview with the Financial Times. Japan has approximately 6,000 intensive care beds, about the same number per head as the UK, but only a quarter of the US.

More locally I receive two public service notices:

The first is from PCSO Kirsty Brown, Glyndon Ward. We often see her walking the rounds which includes our common. It addresses locally one of the more widespread lockdown concerns:

If you suffer from domestic abuse it may have become harder to cope with during lockdown. Don’t suffer in silence – you are not alone. These are the numbers, if you need to use them. Stay safe.

The second is from the UK Government:

Local recycling centres are starting to open again. But they will be very busy to start with. So don’t go straightaway unless you need to. Keep rubbish at home, if it is safe to do so, or find other ways to get rid of it responsibly. Whatever you do, don’t dump it – you could be fined or prosecuted.

I’m sure there’s an excuse to visit the local recycling centre, just down the hill from here. I know – sad but true!

Finally, the background to the currently much vaunted mobile phone based track and trace systems is a shady one, with issues centred on refugees, who are dehumanised all too often on their long journey to a hopefully better life. Monitoring that’s being pitched to fight Covid-19 was tested on refugees. The pandemic has given a boost to controversial data-driven initiative to track population movements.

To date, in Italy, social media monitoring companies have been scouring Instagram to see who’s breaking the nationwide lockdown. In Israel, the government has made plans to “sift through geolocation data” collected by the Shin Bet intelligence agency and text people who have been in contact with an infected person. And in the UK, the government has asked mobile operators to share phone users’ aggregate location data to “help to predict broadly how the virus might move”.

This is just the most visible tip of a rapidly evolving industry combining the exploitation of data from the internet and mobile phones and the increasing number of sensors embedded on Earth and in space. Data scientists are intrigued by the new possibilities for behavioural prediction that such data offers.

The refugee crisis of 2015 was a stimulus for tech companies and research consortiums to develop projects using new data sources to predict movements of migrants into Europe. These ranged from broad efforts to extract intelligence from public social media profiles by hand, to more complex automated manipulation of big data sets through image recognition and machine learning.

The European Asylum Support Office (EASO), had fallen foul of the European data protection watchdog, the EDPS, for searching social media content from would-be migrants. The EASO had been using the data to flag “shifts in asylum and migration routes, smuggling offers and the discourse among social media community users on key issues – flights, human trafficking and asylum systems/processes”. The search covered a broad range of languages.

In shutting down the EASO’s social media monitoring project, the watchdog cited numerous concerns about process, the impact on fundamental rights and the lack of a legal basis for the work.

“This processing operation concerns a vast number of social media users,” the EDPS pointed out. Because EASO’s reports are read by border security forces, there was a significant risk that data shared by asylum seekers to help others travel safely to Europe could instead be unfairly used against them without their knowledge.

Social media monitoring “poses high risks to individuals’ rights and freedoms,” the regulator concluded in an assessment it delivered last November. “It involves the use of personal data in a way that goes beyond their initial purpose, their initial context of publication and in ways that individuals could not reasonably anticipate. This may have a chilling effect on people’s ability and willingness to express themselves and form relationships freely.”

But the genie was out of the bottle, and the arrival of Covid-19 meant that people-tracking could in principle be applied to tracking the spread of the virus. All that was needed was identifying whether people were infectious or not. It was tempting to those in government, especially technophiles like the UK government’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, already well-versed in the opportunities presented by big data from the 2016 Brexit campaign.

Human rights advocates worry about the longer term effects of such efforts, however. “Right now, we’re seeing states around the world roll out powerful new surveillance measures and strike up hasty partnerships with tech companies,” Anna Bacciarelli, a technology researcher at Amnesty International, told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “While states must act to protect people in this pandemic, it is vital that we ensure that invasive surveillance measures do not become normalised and permanent, beyond their emergency status.”

Tracking covid opened the door for repressive states to tighten their grip. In Moscow use of the tracking app was made mandatory during the lockdowns last month when most Muscovites were required to stay indoors. Vladimir Putin signed laws introducing criminal penalties, including up to seven years imprisonment, for quarantine violations that led to others being infected. Moscow also implemented government issued QR codes that were made mandatory. It was not disclosed what information the codes contain but they must be shown to police when requested. The dubious behavioral interpretations recorded by the social monitoring tracking application led to the mistaken fining of hundreds of people in Moscow.

A number of European countries have gone for a decentralised system, in conjunction with Apple and Google, relying on Bluetooth between phones in close proximity, with much greater privacy protection, but this too ran into difficulties with false positives and false negatives. Bluetooth can even connect phones through walls, through which, of course viruses can’t travel – enough said.

Personally, I’ve always thought that the allure of high tech gadgetry clouded clear thinking on the matter and, as many others are warning, more creative methods of surveillance and prediction are not necessarily answering the right question.

“The single largest determinant of Covid-19 mortality is healthcare system capacity,” said Sean McDonald, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, who studied the use of phone data in the west African Ebola outbreak of 2014-5. “But governments are focusing on the pandemic as a problem of people management rather than a problem of building response capacity. More broadly, there is nowhere near enough proof that the science or math underlying the technologies being deployed meaningfully contribute to controlling the virus at all.”

The cost of a not especially successful test, track and isolate system in the UK will turn out costing £37 billion in the fullness of time, about a third of the cost of the entire NHS. Corruption and pocket-lining by the chumocracy might account for a lot of this scandalously enormous amount of money, but muddled thinking will have played a significant part.

But all of that is yet to come.

Sources: Associated Press, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Business Insider, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, France 24, Gilead News, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, LBC News, Mirror, New Statesman, New York Times, netdoctor, Nextdoor, Ozy, PA Media, ResearchLive,  Reuters, Sky News, STAT, Wikipedia.   

Day Fifty Two: Wednesday 6th May 2020

Daily Diary: We’ll Fly Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When.

In a horticultural disaster, the local grey squirrel semi-affectionately known as Sid Snot digs up the two avocado stones, leaving them to roll about the patio slabs rather than grow in the good earth. We have a love-hate relationship with this pesky beastie. We love him because we’re all supposed to love God’s creatures, with the particular instruction from above that if they are furry, all the more so. And he is a pretty handsome, dapper fellow. We hate him because he’s a destructive arsewipe of a mammal who undoes all botanical aspirations we’ve put love and time into, in acts that appear to be nothing more than wanton vandalism.

But enough of furry Sid! Last night’s Zoom meeting actually worked, and I felt much more comfortable. Where I felt a little self-conscious was made up for by others much more in the know, and although I didn’t go into the meeting with no agenda other than to figure out how a group of seven people would work together online we did come up with ideas for a club meeting. Gary was going on about the VE Day celebration this Friday, showing how adept he was with Zoom by having Vera Lynn in the background was met by Martin – a German – reminding us about Brits and The War.

“You did well,” I reassured him, resurrecting an old Monty Python joke. “You were runners up, after all.”

Personally, I think it’s about time we buried it in the depths of history, but hey, banter is banter. I told Gary it was all getting a bit Dad’s Army – which was set on the south coast of England, which also happens to be where much of our paragliding takes place.

But it worked, and we’re going for a meeting on Friday the 15th. This time, I’m sure, people will be less forgiving and I’ll have to be much more structured.

The most prominent question is when will we open our flying sites again? I’ll have that in the meeting. The British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) left it very much to individual clubs to close sites, but I fear that there will be an uncontrollable chain reaction once sites start opening again. I think we’ll have to wait until other outdoor activities become allowed. Matt Pepper has flown in Austria. They’ve taken the step of putting the decision to local jurisdictions, and Austria – or at least the part that Matt’s in – has been open to paragliding for a couple of days. France, Steve U posts, is about to lift flying restrictions. I think when that happens the pressure will be on here in the UK. Andy McNichol said that there had been instances of people taking crafty flights, but it’s not with approval from clubs or even the police. But it’s something as current chairman I have to be conscious of. Hospital admissions for Covid-19 are still too high, in my opinion. I think when the daily number of deaths is a matter of tens rather than hundreds it will become safer. I’ve got to think, “What if…..?”, even if others don’t. But there will equally be – and it is beginning to happen – a pressure for some sort of normality to occur, and in our leisure lives that means how we fill our time. In a sport where there are clear risks it’s something that needs thinking through.

Judith rang today. She’s my younger sister by three years. It was partly in response to sending out the picture of our dad looking pretty cool, posing on the back of a Chevrolet truck carrying a portee anti-tank gun. We have a great long chat. Mike, her husband, has had major surgery to deal with cancer of the throat. He’s now unable to swallow and has got to be safeguarded from the virus. An infection could be deadly. But he’s keeping well and the lovely weather in their beautiful enclosed garden has kept up his spirits, but it much be hard for both of them. Their son, my nephew, Jonathan is a cardiac technician, so he’s been in the thick of it up at Jimmy’s (St James’ Hospital) in Leeds. There are worries if your ‘child’ is frontline. Jonathan lives in the attached granny-flat annex they built for Mikes mum, a lovely lady, now sadly passed. So they’re nextdoor neighbours but have to keep well apart. Three of Jonathan’s colleagues have recently tested positive, so Judith is understandably fearful for him. She describes a mixture of pride and anxiety, and I think of the countless mums and dads across the country who must be sharing very similar, deeply conflicted emotions.

The virus, in turn, separates him from his partner, Georgia, and the conversation about whether she should come around “for just a night” between son and mother has taken place on a few occasions, with Judith strongly discouraging him. All it takes is a chink in our behaviour, a moment’s weakness, for Covid-19 to wreak its chaos. If a government scientific adviser on SAGE, Niall Ferguson, allegedly the architect of lockdown, can fall foul for an evening with someone he loves, then anyone can.

Georgia, in turn, is housebound because her son, Enan, told his school he was feeling unwell. The moment he got home it was a miracle! Enan mysteriously made a lightning recovery! But his mum was committed to stay at home to care for him when she could have been at work.

“Oh what tangled webs we’ve seen,

When people have to quarantine.”

Judith and I come up with the idea of a family Zoom, Can it be done?

I’ll ask my big sis Corrie.

It could be a whole lot of fun!

The Bigger Picture: Doing It Right, Doing It Wrong!

If I’ve learned anything from this pandemic it’s not to be overly optimistic about those powerful people running nations getting it right. That somehow better natures easily prevail when the fate of billions of people hangs in the balance. It’s something I find hard to come to terms with. I’m left feeling that even if we were invaded by aliens, some world leaders would take the aliens’ side, however ghastly they looked and acted, just to get one over on their neighbours.

And in a sense something very similar to that has happened with Covid-19. So we have the WHO saying the US hasn’t given it evidence to support its ‘speculative’ claim that Covid-19 originated in a Wuhan laboratory.

The pandemic was an opportunity for global collaboration.

Giving peace a chance.

And nobody took it.

On March 23rd, the same day that lockdown began in the UK, and it was becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 was securing a grip on the whole world, Antόnio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, issued a call for a global ceasefire.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he declared.

It was a call echoed by Pope Francis and others to secure a respite for those countries and regions so weakened by violence and conflict that they would be especially vulnerable to the pandemic.

In response, by early April, fighters in 12 countries, including Colombia, the Philippines and Colombia had answered Mr Guterres’s call and downed weapons, at least temporarily, and for the moment hope prevailed. Could the coronavirus cloud have a silver lining?

All it needed was a swift and decisive resolution was needed to back the secretary-general’s words. instead there has been silence.

And a window of opportunity closed.

The reason could have come straight from the pen of Jonathan Swift. In drafting a ceasefire resolution, a process marshalled by France, wording was agreed relatively quickly on some robust clauses demanding a full 90-day pause in hostilities in conflict-ridden countries.

But the Trump administration, accusing the WHO of mishandling the crisis, and in particular of colluding with the government in Beijing to cover up China’s role in spreading the virus in the first place, do not want the WHO even mentioned in the preamble to the resolution. The Chinese insist that the organisation must be named.

So like Doctor Seuss’s North and South-going Zaxes, the world’s two greatest superpowers faced each other off.

“Never budge! That’s my rule.

Never budge in the least!

Not an inch to the west!

Not an inch to the east!

I’ll stay here, not budging!

I can and I will

If it makes you and me

and the whole world stand still!”

But the world doesn’t stand still, and in the vacuum conflicts resumed as the world’s most powerful bickered.

Many of the conflict-ridden countries that could benefit most have some of the weakest health-care systems in the world and so are the least prepared to combat the coronavirus.

For now, tragically, an opportunity has been squandered.

So it goes.

The deficit of humanity from those in power doesn’t just exist in conflicts, or between squabbling nation states. It also pervades the fabric within those states themselves, as CNN reports:

“Advocates for independent news media used Sunday’s World Press Freedom Day to call attention to what’s called “coronavirus crackdown.” Journalists in numerous countries have been harassed, threatened and arrested while trying to cover the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International, which track down such incidents. “From the earliest days of the pandemic – when Chinese authorities censored media reports and punished whistleblowers, journalists around the world have been risking their lives, freedom and jobs to share potentially lifesaving information with the public.” Amnesty’s director of law and policy, Ashfaq Khalifa said. Another advocacy group, the International Press Institute said it had registered “162 press freedom violations related to Covid-19 coverage over the past two and a half months.”

Antόnio Guterres also added that the world’s one billion people living with disabilities are among the hardest hit by the pandemic and called for them to have equal access to the prevention and treatment of Covid-19.

It’s a wish, a hope, a fine principle, and there would be few who would disagree. But with a UN based on good will and a desire for altruism, no doubt many will simply be denied such a fundamental right.

In the context of the UN, with all the power of my local ramblers association, the question persists: How can we prevent a pandemic like Covid-19 from happening again?

For sure, vaccination programmes, strong health systems and international collaboration are crucial to reducing the rise of epidemics. But also is the immediate and effective action by our leaders and policymakers.

Timo Ehrig and Nicolai J. Foss write in Quillette:

Former World Bank president Jim Yong Kim argued that “no one in the field of infectious diseases or public health can say they are surprised about a pandemic.” And yet, the Covid-19 outbreak did take most policymakers very much by surprise. From their perspective, the situation was one still characterised by the kind of radical uncertainty highlighted by economists such as Frank Knight and George Shackle: Policymakers were simply unable to assess the possible consequences of action and inaction, and this has made cost-benefit analyses of alternative (probabilistically assessed) outcomes impossible. One thing was, however, clear: The consequences of a runaway pandemic could be disastrous. In such a situation, the precautionary principle tends to apply. As a prominent member of the Danish parliament told us in mid-March, “This is a natural disaster in slow motion. We basically know nothing. The only rational thing is to shut down entirely.”

For those like Bill and Melinda Gates, who have been warning about the imminence of a global pandemic (there was even a Netflix documentary series on that very topic released by these guys in the autumn of 2019) it was increasingly like the boy who cried wolf.

And pandemics had been wargamed by the British and American governments, but the lessons were shelved and forgotten about.

“They were about flu,” we were told.

That’s a bit like saying it was a different species of tree leaf on the tracks, or the wrong kind of snow that’s paralysed the railways.

The heuristics of dealing with an emerging known unknown situations with the capacity to cause great suffering and harm are not that hard to figure, but they have to be in place in advance of the event.

  1. Observe the advancing threat: Covid-19 had appeared in China at the end of 2019. By February 2020 it had broken out in northern Italy. It was self-evident that in countries like Britain and the US with transport hubs and open borders, it was simply a matter of time, and the amount of time was going to be short.
  2. Take drastic short term measures: Such as closing borders and locking down. From the get-go this should be anticipatory, precautionary and limited to a short period, say two weeks and must go hand in hand with a fully committed effort to adjust policy responses as more and better data become available, and countries move from situations of radical uncertainty to situations of informed risk.
  3. Ask the right questions in the right way: Communicate a preliminary set of questions that need to be answered. Be cautious not to create common emotions of panic with inflammatory or alarmist comparisons, and in the UK, with its sensationalist tabloid press, have a communications strategy to avoid a predictable torrent of hyperbole. If news is an information diet, then there are elements of the press prone to gross overindulgence.
  4. Manage the transition from an emergency mode of policymaking to committed contingency planning: In particular, the emergency mode should be discontinued once remaining uncertainties are comparable to other sources of uncertainty. Of course, Covid-19 could mutate and/or create unknown harmful effects. But similar uncertainties apply, for instance, to new technologies, especially in this case in the biomedical field.
  5. Build a holistic picture of the wider situation: Balance the long-term measures designed to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 with the need to address other related sources of hardship and suffering that these measures may unintentionally exacerbate, for example deaths as consequences of loneliness, untreated other illnesses, unemployment and so on.

New Zealand got it right and pretty much followed this playbook.

The UK didn’t.

Its covid death toll above 32,000 is now the highest in Europe and it’s shameful that one of the wealthiest countries in the world has been brought to its knees by an incompetent response to a national crisis. An under-resourced NHS managed to pull off a miracle of treatment while the common sense of British citizens prevailed. They not only abided by lockdown rules but initiated themselves voluntarily while their government prevaricated. 

Along with this shocking statistic, the pandemic has exposed the level of health inequality in the UK, with double the rate of deaths in poor areas compared to wealthy ones.

In terms of the first four steps, such was the concern about the outbreak in Lombardy that on 31st January 2020, the Italian Council of Ministers appointed Angelo Borrelli, head of the Civil Protection, as Special Commissioner for the COVID-19 emergency. PM Boris Johnson has already skipped two Cobra meetings, and will skip three more before he attends his first on 2nd March. And drastic short term measures were not put in place until the start of lockdown three weeks later on March 23rd.

By that time at least 20,000 people infected with Covid-19 had arrived in UK before lockdown, amid a lack of restrictions. Today, James Brokenshire, minister for security. has just defended the decision not to close UK borders in a bid to stop the virus spreading across the country, saying that the move would be kept “under review,” He was probed on the decision after the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance said most of the Covid-19 strains being spread across the UK in March came from people returning from France and Italy.

Boris Johnson started engaging with the crisis of a country under threat from a deadly virus at the start of March. It was unclear whether the government had asked any questions at all, and for all the noise, bluster and boosterism from Johnson none had been communicated to the wider public.

And as for asking the right questions in the right way, Johnson reassured the British public on prime time TV by telling them he had met a number of Covid-19 patients and had shaken hands with every one of them.

As for the next step, contingency planning depended on test, track and trace within the community, that the government abandoned on March 12th, Minister for security, James Brokenshire, speaking for the Government, said there was a “shift in expert advice,” without qualifying what exactly that meant. And asked about the falling numbers in tests undertaken, with the Government failing to hit its 100,000 daily target for the third day in a row on Monday, he said that capacity is there but demand will vary.

It was if the Government had stumbled at every hurdle.

This was more than incompetence borne by ignorance. It was incompetence arising from an agenda. The same agenda that brought the Johnson government into power with an eighty seat majority – the unstoppable juggernaut of Brexit, with a momentum all of its own.

From the start, the UK government’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been clouded by the ideology of Brexit and isolationism. They’ve refused to take part in the EU ventilator scheme, and they’ve ignored international advice on testing and lockdown. At the moment, Boris Johnson’s plan is not to extend the Brexit transition period beyond 31st December this year. This would be a disaster – walking away from Europe, with barely any time to negotiate a deal, just when we need to be working together. It would also mean losing access to vital European medical schemes.

But Brexit was hard-wired into thinking at the heart of government, with Michael Gove telling a Lords committee that the UK is prepared to accept potentially huge extra costs for businesses exporting to the EU as a price worth paying for taking full control of laws from Brussels.

There are reports of talk within Tory circles is that any cost from Brexit will be irrelevant compared to the upheaval caused by coronavirus. No one will notice which bit of the hardship was caused by leaving the single market, and Johnson will be tempted at least to smuggle the economic pain of Brexit inside the bigger pain of Covid-19.

Dealing with a scourge as rapid and ruthless as Covid-19 needed one hundred per cent focus on the problem, where every day was critical. But Johnson’s notoriety throughout his entire career in both journalism and politics for late deadlines and last-minute responses aside, there simply wasn’t the motivation to give the problem that level of focus as it could well be a cloud with a silver lining.

A man’s character is his destiny, claimed the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites.

It is nigh-on certain that Boris Johnson, with his Classics degree from Oxford, and a well-documented sense of his own place in history, knows the saying well, but can’t stop himself from indulging his weaknesses.

About such ironies were Greek tragedies written.

Boris Johnson knows that too.

If an adherence to the Brexit agenda proved to be the Achilles’ heel in the British Covid-19 response then the extremes of political partisanship, widened considerably under the Trump administration is proving to be America’s. Dealing with the pandemic has demanded big government, an anathema to Republicans. Despite the rising tide of Covid-19 there are still fourteen states, including Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, who have not expanded Medicaid, leaving the less well-off having to choose between healthcare and putting food on the table.   

Senate lawmakers are returning to Washington to begin work on the next round of stimulus legislation and the issue of corporate liability is suddenly front and centre, as businesses weigh the risks of opening, including Covid-19 lawsuits from customers and employees, against the cost of remaining closed. Nancy Pelosi pushes pandemic aid package as Republicans exercise caution.

Former New Jersey governor, Republican Chris Christie, is the latest politician who says Americans should go back to work, despite high Covid-19 deaths, contrasting with a poll finding that Americans are deeply wary of reopening.

Trump takes sides with the Republicans and the White House is already talking about ending its Covid-19 Task Force, set up on January 29th to monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread” of the virus. That talk caused alarm to the director of BARDA, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, as a result of which he filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging that the Trump administration ignored his early warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic and objecting to treatments advocated by administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services prioritised contracts based on political favouritism, nepotism and cronyism.

For the thin-skinned president, who recently complained that he was being treated worse than Lincoln, the criticism was too much and Bright was removed from his post and effectively demoted to a more junior position in the National Institute of Health.

Trump personifies the polarisation in American society, and the voices on both sides are becoming ever more harsh and shrill as Covid-19 spreads from sea to shining sea and God Bless America becomes Devil Take Her.

During the 1984 election campaign for his second term in office, Ronald Reagan declared it was “Morning in America,” with a political ad depicting Americans across the country heading to work as the sun rose over the picket-fenced suburbs and farms – a positive, prosperous nation under President Reagan’s wise governance. By contrast, yesterday, the Lincoln Project, a political action group supported by Republicans who are critical of Mr Trump, released a new ad, “Morning in America,” that depicts a broken country with shuttered factories, abandoned homes and tens of thousands of deaths from the Covid-19 outbreak. A sombre narrative ticks off the economic and public health devastation of the coronavirus – “a deadly virus Trump ignored.”

The virus doesn’t only aggravate divisions – it also creates new ones, as its pervasive presence invades everyday lives.

In Alabama, a woman called the police on a group teenagers, doing what teens do – messing about outside a bowling alley. In Utah, officials closed tattoo parlours and salons after fielding more than 500 complaints. And in Wisconsin, a doctor was suspended from work after attending a packed rally without a mask. Call it virus-snitching: a growing number of frustrated Americans are calling the authorities on people they believe are flouting social distancing guidelines.

Back in Britain one of the key areas Brexit distractions that had an impact was test and trace, where the optics were playing a much larger part than problem-solving. If you’re having difficulties solving a problem, putting energy into keeping up appearances that you really are making progress and burying the reality as best you can becomes more important than the consequences of being open about it. And if the problem is that once you have neglected to address the problem of an invading pandemic at the outset, then catching it once it had become to all intents and purposes endemic in the population is impossible.

The UK Government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance says that the UK failed to ramp up Covid-19 testing quickly enough and extra testing at the start of the outbreak would have been beneficial. Referring to a more successful testing regime in Singapore, the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer calls for 50,000 Covid-19 tracers, and much as though the high tech appeal of the NHS app might be, it will not be able to do the heavy lifting for tracking the spread of the virus.

In the absence of a catch-all treatment – all treatments so far have alleviated symptoms of severe Covid-19, rather than stopping the virus from getting a hold – or a vaccine, and with the frustrations and economic consequences of lockdowns, reaching out for test and trace is like clutching at straws, and the straws in Britain are elusive and evasive.

Each new test coming on to the market raises hope.

And when scientists announce that a new CRISPR test for Covid-19 could be a simple and cheap at-home diagnostic, it reassures us all a little during these times of darkness, even if we don’t understand what CRISPR means.

However, many antibody tests, used to determine whether people have been exposed to Covid-19, have yielded unreliable results. In America, in response, the FDA said on Monday it was giving companies that sell the tests 10 days to prove their products work or pull them off the market.

Abbott Labs has been among the most reliable of test manufacturers and announced its success in shipping Covid-19 tests around the US.

They’ve shipped 1.4 million tests.

The US population is around 330 million.

It gives some idea of the scale of the challenge.

The race for a Covid-19 has definitely begun. Today there are two announcements.

Scientists at Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Italy, in collaboration with the biotech firms Takis and Rottapharm, have claimed they have a vaccine candidate that can neutralise coronavirus within human cells.

Meanwhile the US pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, along with German company BioNTech, has launched its first US human trial of multiple Covid-19 vaccine candidates.

Pfizer will catch the imagination and the market in the months ahead. People won’t be talking about Takis, but it will be there, with a number of other Biotech firms, developing vaccines on a slow burn.

But catching the imagination are human challenge trials, and hundreds of young, healthy volunteers from a number of countries have come forward. These are people who are prepared to be infected with the virus alongside being vaccinated. Human challenge trials speed up the development of a vaccine, but the ethics behind having ‘human guinea pigs’ are challenging.

Most of us are passengers, carried by the tide of a disease spreading through the population, withdrawing and self-isolating to stay out of harm’s way. But there are some who want to play their part in conquering the disease, and without being medics or scientists this is something they can do. It’s an opportunity for service, purpose and even self-sacrifice. Perhaps, as many sociological studies have indicated, there is something about being human that seeks and highly values having purpose and meaning in life, rising above financial and other material rewards, besides costs and expenses.

That hundreds of volunteers have come forward is one of the quieter revelations of the pandemic, and it’s one of hope.

A less quiet revelation is about black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, acronym BAME and effectively describing the non-white element of the population.

The statistics are both inescapable and alarming. Taking excess deaths as an indicator they are:

  • 1.5 times higher than expected for the Indian population,
  • 2.8 times higher for the Pakistani population,
  • 3 times higher in Bangladeshis.
  • 4.3 times higher for the Black African population,
  • 2.5 times for the Black Caribbean population,
  • 7.3 times higher for Black Other Background individuals.
  • 1.6 times higher for the Mixed Any Other Background population.

Covid-19 has exposed a level of inequality in Britain so stark as to create this gross disparity in mortality. There are five main reasons why BAME communities are disproportionately affected:

The first is that BAME communities are disproportionately urban, Specifically, they tend to live in Britain’s larger cities, such as London, Birmingham and Manchester – often within populous urban wards. Contagion rates are high in these areas, in part because it’s easier for a contagion to spread in a big city than in the country’s more sparsely populated and predominantly white countryside.

Second: BAME groups in the UK tend to have more aggravating health conditions, known as comorbidities, e.g. type 2 diabetes and hypertension/circulatory problems.

Third: Immigrant populations are more likely to contain more than two generations under one roof.

Fourth: Getting public health information to citizens is much more challenging in the case of first generation BAME who have limited English abilities.

Fifth: BAME workers make up a disproportionate share of NHS medical staff. A fifth of nurses and midwives are from BAME backgrounds. The same is true when it comes to social care, transport and many other jobs which involve being in close proximity with the wider public.

Some recognition comes with the first rehabilitation hospital for Covid-19 patients, in Surrey, being named after Mary Seacole, as a result of the petition plus media interest and the alarming rate of Covid-19 among BAME staff for working for the NHS.

And as if to confirm that social disadvantage is a major factor in Covid-19 outcomes, traveller communities are also buckling from the pandemic’s impact.

An end to social disadvantage now appears further away than ever, as the pandemic eats away at countries’ economic well-being. The problem’s worldwide, with global remittances are projected to decline sharply by about 20 per cent in 2020 due to the economic crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown. The projected fall, which would be the sharpest decline in recent history, is largely due to a fall in wages and employment of migrant workers, who tend to be more vulnerable to loss of employment and wages during an economic crisis in a host country. Remittances to low and middle income countries (LMICs) are projected to fall by 19.7 per cent to $445 billion, representing a loss of a crucial financing lifeline for many vulnerable households.

The increased personal difficulties are exacerbated by charities losing millions because of Covid-19. International development organisations like Oxfam are in desperate need of help as their work tackling poverty around the world has come under threat. In Britain there is some emergency funding released by chancellor Rishi Sunak, but a number of MPs warn that it goes nowhere near helping charities on the brink of collapse. Charities that support domestic abuse and slavery victims in lockdown receive £76 million. The housing minister said the funds will go to charities that are supporting vulnerable people ‘trapped in a nightmare’ during the pandemic.

Rishi Sunak is no exception to financial intervention. It runs against his monetarist instincts – having launched a furlough scheme he plans to wind it down in July – but the reality is that politicians across America and Europe are scrambling to help firms, some more successfully than others. In America, the US Treasury will borrow a record $3 trillion this quarter, as stimulus spending soars.

Whole industries are on their knees. Virgin Atlantic announced plans to cut 3,150 jobs and its operation of Gatwick, while Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary slams Lufthansa and Air France as “state aid junkies,” angry about the uncompetitive practices when it comes to Germany and France’s national carriers.

It’s been a bad year for cruise ships, the hotspots of several Covid-19 outbreaks as well. Norwegian Cruise Line stock recently dropped 20 per cent.

Covid-19 is also having a devastating effect on the film business as box offices worldwide face losing billions and stoppages have left thousands in mostly a freelance industry without work. Big budget films, like the latest Bond movie, or Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, have been pushed back, throwing the release schedule, a fundamental tool that serves the film industry, into total disarray. Many films intended for the big screen end up being streamed for smaller screens by Netflix and Amazon Prime.

In American supermarkets the consequences of outbreaks in meat processing plants results in meat rationing. Costco, for example, has limited sales of fresh meat in response to potential meat shortages stemming from virus outbreaks among slaughterhouse workers. Each customer can buy only three fresh beef, pork or poultry products. Kroger, the country’s biggest supermarket chain, has also limited meat purchases in some states.

But there are green shoots. International coffee chain, Starbucks, announced on Tuesday that 85 per cent of its US stores will be open by the end of the week, with ‘responsible’ tactics that focus on take-out.

And Britain’s billion dollar Babylon Health app set to launch for millions of New Yorkers.

On the British political front, the Government seriously considers a ‘traffic light’ approach to managing the Covid-19 risk as the way to ease lockdown, while SAGE – The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – has published details of the documents it uses to produce its advice. Professor Niall Ferguson has to quit after a lockdown break linked to an extramarital affair, Boris Johnson struggles his through a Commons select committee grilling and Nadine Dorries, the first MP to fall ill with Covid-19,  is promoted to minister of state in the department of health.

On the wider world stage, Covid-19 puts an end to the ‘golden decade’ of relations with Beijing that PM David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne hoped for only a few years ago. For a while the Conservative government, in power since 2010, didn’t find it too difficult to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and China, but the deaths of more than 20,000 British citizens and the crippling damage inflicted on our economy make it harder to overlook China’s behaviour now.

Covid-19 has been like a flash of lightning at night. The Chinese government’s mishandling of the outbreak has unveiled its authoritarian nature, just as the subsequent ‘wolf-warrior’ offensive by Chinese diplomats has uncovered its malicious character. That dream that China would become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the global economy and the broader international order has evaporated. Maybe it was delusional, but the world seems like a more insecure place.

The international trade secretary, Liz Truss, will open up much-hyped trade talks with the US today via video link. She’s expressed her hope that a new deal would help the economy bounce back from the Covid-19 crisis, but the Government’s objectives for the deal point to the modest economic gain of 0.16 per cent of GDP over 15 years. Small returns compared to the severing of many trade ties with the EU.

In all, the country and indeed the world feel less hopeful.

  • EU leaders host a summit on Wednesday with their six Balkan counterparts whose praise for Chinese and Russian support during the coronavirus crisis has ruffled feathers in the bloc. The EU says it has not been given enough credit for the 3.3 billion euros (£2.9 billion) it is providing, which officials said outweigh medical supplies. Beijing and Moscow sent to Serbia sent to Serbia and Bosnia in the early phase of the pandemic.
  • In Italy hairdressers get angry as they remain under lockdown.
  • In Portugal 600 union activists gather for May Day in Lisbon. Hundreds rallied for workers’ rights while respecting social distancing limits applied to them.
  • While in Mexico, as cases of coronavirus grow, cases of Corona beer suffer too. Mexico’s beloved brand shares its name now with a pandemic, and it’s hurting business.
  • Newly-confines cases of Covid-19 appear to be accelerating in Russia. Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, thinks health authorities are underestimating the overall number of those hit by the disease. Medical equipment is severely lacking in hospitals, especially those outside big cities. Some facilities have fewer than five respirators.
  • France’s political leaders have praised the work of caregivers – saying without them many more lives would have been lost. Some health services say the recognition comes after weeks of battling shortages of PPE and uncertain working conditions.
  • And a painfully poignant story from Spain, as the virus recently killed the couple Alfonso Ariza and Cesarea Andres almost simultaneously, after 56 years of living together. They were among the thousands who have died of the disease in retirement homes across Europe. Their daughter, Almadena and her sisters say they had spent days trying to get news of their ailing parents. Finally, they got a communication from the nursing home that both would be sedated. The couple died alone, without their family by their sides.

I don’t know how many tragic tales like that of Alfonso Ariza and Cesarea Andres, but we know that the only other attendant human beings will be healthcare workers. In our collective psyche they personify the pandemic. The military expression “on the frontline” has taken a grip, although they are saving lives, not taking them, but the parallel of being so much in harm’s way holds strong. It captures our imagination, our hearts, and when we wish to contribute to dealing with the pandemic, it’s healthcare workers that first come to mind.

So Nike is donating Nike is donating more than 32,000 pairs of shoes to healthcare workers, specifically designed for long shifts that are hard on the feet.

And Queen and Adam Lambert do ‘their bit’ for healthcare workers by singing, “You are the Champions,” teaming up to release a new version of the 1970s hit to honour those on the frontline. Proceeds will go to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund.

For most of us, our reality shift is more banal. Cooking at home has for some become meditative and stress-relieving, with mundane activities such as folding eggs and sifting flour can bringing light relief. There’s even advice about how to still enjoy cooking and eating when the virus has robbed you of your sense of smell and taste, forgetting of course that a drastic loss of appetite is also a symptom!

But time on hand has led to many reconsidering their diet. The popularity of alternative meat has skyrocketed, with sales about doubling for top brands since lockdown began. A desire for sustainable and healthy food has been compounded by meat facility closures and supply chain disruption. Those who have shifted their grocery habits from visiting supermarkets to at-home deliveries are finding themselves thinking and planning more, finding the benefit of not experiencing those impulsive moments of weakness as the trolley tours the aisles.

Our behaviour is changing,

This is the psychopandemic running alongside the medical one.

It’s for real and we’re still trying to make sense of it.

Some of it is surprising: Many politicians, especially libertarians such as Johnson and Trump had convinced themselves and tried to convince others that there would be widespread resistance to lockdowns, but it turns out that even in those countries subscribing to individualism that the vast majority of people are happy to stick to social distancing. One behavioural scientist suggests that it’s because people are ‘freezing’ in response to Covid-19. Whatever the truth in that conclusion happens to be, the fact is that the pandemic is up-ending our understanding of behavioural psychology, especially in relation to public health.

Some of it is revealing:  Of the challenges healthcare workers are facing, as crisis counsellors find themselves as the “paramedics of mental health,” waging a wrenching battle on the Covid-19 front lines.

Some of it is alarming: As American behavioural scientists research why people bring guns to Covid-19 protests they find that it hinges on one thing – fear.

Finally I receive an e-mail from the Toyota garage in Kent, where I take my car for servicing:

We hope you are keeping safe. We know you are due a service/MOT soon, but with Covid-19 restrictions there will be a delay before we can see you. We would like to reassure you that late servicing due to the covid restrictions will not affect your warranty. In addition, the Government has granted a six month extension to their MOT because of the pandemic. Don’t worry – once we’re able to look after your car we’ll contact you. Thank you for your patience and we look forward to seeing you again soon.

I’m hardly driving at all these days.

Nevertheless, I’m reminded of a keynote speech I once attended, by the film director David Puttnam, where he revealed that Toyota tested every single component of their cars to destruction six thousand times.

So reassuring. That’s why Toyotas are so reliable – good news at the moment if the garage aren’t around to fix things.

But David Puttnam then asked us:

“How many times is a development in education tested?”

That wasn’t reassuring at all!


Another Europe, Associated Press, Beadles Toyota, British Medical Journal, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (Oxford University),, CNN Business, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, Future Majority, Global Citizen, Guardian, Huffington Post, Independent, iNews, New Statesman, New York Times, newscabal, Open Democracy, PA Media, Quillette, Reuters, STAT, Telegraph, The Zax by Dr Seuss, Times, Washington Post, World Bank

Day Fifty One: Tuesday 5th May 2020

Daily Diary: Three Mysteries.

Everyone’s talking about the blue skies. It’s as if Gaia is trying to tell us something and for once , because we’ve stopped our hurrying, scurrying lives, we’ve paused long enough to listen.

Well, some of us anyway.

There seems to be a big divide between key workers and the rest of us. There are, of course, homeworkers, and we’ve all learned a lot more about networking online. But the key workers are run off their feet, as if they’re trying to make up for everyone else, who are a lot more sedentary.

Phil came round to collect the birthday surprises for his wife, Heather, who’s turning forty. They had to cancel a special weekend break in York, and as a result Phil, between hectic shifts, is preparing surprises for the big day.

The presents are put in the small lobby by the front door – the airlock, we call it – for Phil to collect, but nevertheless we open the front door and have a chat, with Phil, well ventilated in the sunny breeze and Vicky and I behind the front door. Phil’s dressed in a yellow cycling kit and certainly looks fit in it, as if he’s just won an étage in the Tour de France. He cycles to and from work, whether it’s the ambulance station some days, or the call centre at Waterloo at others. Today has been a Waterloo day. He reports that people are already drifting back to their old ways, with the roads in and out of town almost as busy as they were before lockdown. There’s no doubt that the great mass-quarantine has worked, but there’s no doubt also that among some a restlessness is appearing. Politicians on the right are going on about ‘freedom,’ a meme caught from America.

It’s a strange kind of freedom that puts at risk the freedom of others, by the confinement of disease, death – traditionally the ultimate loss of freedom – or the longer term disabilities covid has visited upon many who knocked at death’s door, then thanks to all the medics who keep the ICUs working, have recovered in part.

Perhaps it is that we humans are restless creatures, sharing in common with practically all our primate cousins the need, it seems, to fidget and disrupt. Perhaps it is that edginess that’s got us this far in evolution and without doubt it will be a major factor in what happens next.

I guess we chat across the airlock for twenty minutes or so. We update each other with what we know so far. Phil from direct personal experience, me from my daily research, and Vicky, who has watched more news than I have. We talk about the origins of the virus. It’s pretty much a given that it originated in China, but exactly how, where and when remains a mystery, Many governments have made mistakes, including our own, and China is no exception. It’s becoming increasingly clear that China’s secretiveness, whether because it’s a totalitarian state, or whether, as some suggest, it wanted to make sure it got first dibs on what was needed to contain the outbreak, or was utterly paranoid about frightening its huge population, or maybe a mix of all three, remains to be established, remains to be established, but China’s secrecy doesn’t help. Quite the opposite, as, championed by Donald Trump, it simply feeds conspiracy theories, an entire crop of which currently abound.

But along with that comes the second mystery. When exactly did it escape from China? There’s a news report that Covid-19 might have appeared in France as early as December 27th 2019, four days before the Chinese authorities reported the outbreak to the WHO. Then Vicky mentioned Kath, her stepmother, who was rushed to hospital with very Covid-19 like symptoms at the end of January. Phil mentioned that his boss had gone down with a mysterious coronavirus-like disease around the same time.

With so many silent carriers and with an asymptomatic early stage to the disease it is feasible that it travelled, especially with the absurd laxness at airports like Heathrow. A study in Germany showed that the number of infections were ten times what was originally thought, a quarter with no symptoms whatsoever. It is possible.

We say bye to Phil, who then sets off home to Eltham with another, more benign mystery in his backpack, on his final leg of the Tour de Greenwich.

And there’s another mystery. Little by little, the portee anti-tank gun on its snub-nosed CMP Chevrolet is taking shape. There are plans for the chassis, which I had to stretch and cab, but none for the portee back of the truck. My only source is a collection of World War II photos. As I dig my way through, trying to make sense of all the details I come across a photo of a convoy of three portee guns parked in a North African street – it could be Tripoli, Benghazi or even Tobruk. I look at the nearest truck. There, wearing an overcoat, woolly hat and driving goggles perched on his forehead is someone I’ve seen in other, unrelated old photos.

Someone I have seen in RL……

It’s my dad!

The Bigger Picture: The Blind Firefighters

Today is both Hand Hygiene Day and International Day of the Midwife. Both have a relevance to Covid-19 as it becomes one of the biggest killers of 2020. So far this year its global toll exceeds that of breast cancer or malaria.

It’s the dominant global event, even overshadowing, for the time being at least, the greater existential threat to humanity of climate change. Global leaders and international donors gathered today in an online planning conference led by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The initial plan was to raise at least 7.5 billion euros in order to accelerate and scale up the development of a Covid-19 vaccine and guarantee equal distribution of the treatment. The initiative, called the Coronavirus Global Response has so far collected 7.4 billion euros. Each euro, or dollar, will be channelled through global health organisations such as CEPI, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the Global Fund and Unitaid.

The pandemic is a global crisis.

Global for some, that is. The British Government still remains wrapped up in its insular Brexit project. There are many calling for a two year Brexit transition extension due to the coronavirus crisis, including the Scottish Nationalist Party. The EU would accept the delay, and it would give more time for planning, with issues like the Northern Ireland Protocol and logistics at all the UK’s borders, the commonsense request falls on tin ears. Instead, talks are to commence on what we’re being told is an ‘ambitious’ post-Brexit trade deal, that will ultimately prove to be a Quixotic quest.

While Nigel Farage, xenophobe agitator, and the Prophet Isaiah of Brexit, is visited by police over ‘breaking lockdown,’ by travelling to Dover to report on migrants.

Brexit’s tunnel vision meant a failure to plan for other contingencies, driven to the margins as ‘getting Brexit done’ was the mantra designed to capture the voting public’s imagination. As a result, poor planning left the UK without enough PPE, leading to procurement problems and contradictory guidance and leaving frontline staff fearful and suspicious.

But Brexit is too easy an excuse for an underlying complacency. America too found itself on the back foot, caught out by events. As states run short of masks and other PPE, tests, ventilators and drugs, they have been largely sourcing their much-needed resources on their own. This free-for-all has prompted unnecessary stockpiling and the uneven distribution of resources based on purchasing power instead of patient need. In tandem, the federal government has been amassing its own supply.

While the public jitters about Covid-19 results in the availability of masks in French supermarkets sparking suspicions about a shortage. Had they, people wondered, been stockpiling for this event?

Back in Britain other frontline workers are feeling that all the public’s attention is being monopolised by those in health and, to a lesser extent, social care. An ad-hoc pecking order appears. Perhaps supermarket staff come next, along with bus and train drivers. So some start to feel that they are overlooked, and at a time when shortages are still an issue and the virus a genuine and frightening concern, there are those who see themselves at the bottom of the list, not least Royal Mail staff having to continue their duties without PPE for Covid-19, and I sign an online petition in support of their cause.

It’s becoming clear that to a lesser or greater extent, PPE is going to play a part in all of our lives, if only getting into the habit of wearing facemasks.

Public use of face masks is “inevitable,” Labour leader, Keir Starmer endorses that view.

One of the pandemic’s mysteries is why information was in Government ministers’ hands, along with those of other senior politicians in the West, for so long. It’s reasonable to suppose that it was possible for ministers to be “fully aware” that China had covered up the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak, according to intelligence sources.

A senior, former M16 official said the intelligence agencies knew what was “really happening” in China and passed that on to Government ministers, while an intelligence dossier, seen by an Australian newspaper, was shared among the Five Eyes security alliance – US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and accused China of covering up the severity of the outbreak from early December 2019.

It is understandable, even if it cannot be condoned, that a totalitarian state that has authoritarian control over its population, will try to save face and buy time when faced with a potential epidemic. They did as much in the SARS outbreak of 2002. Early in the epidemic, the Chinese government discouraged its press from reporting on SARS, delayed reporting to WHO, and initially did not provide information to Chinese outside Guangdong province, where the disease is believed to have originated. A WHO team that travelled to Beijing was not allowed to visit Guangdong province for several weeks, resulting in international criticism.

According to a new report by the Department of Homeland Security, seen by the Associated Press, on this occasion China covered up the severity of Covid-19 and delayed telling the WHO in order to input more medical supplies to respond to it.

What’s less easy to understand with hindsight is why western governments buried what they knew at the time.

It is likely that Covid-19 reached Western Europe, possibly even the US, before China told the WHO about “a cluster of pneumonia cases” in Wuhan on December 31st. For example a French hospital which had retested old samples from pneumonia patients discovered it had treated a man as early as December 27th. This date is significant, as it is nearly a month before the French government confined its first cases.

But of course it would have been possible not to have understood that the cause of the male patient’s pneumonia was a novel coronavirus, because from the hospital’s point of view it was an as yet unknown disease, even among respiratory medics.

The only reasonable conclusion is that any reports from the intelligence community, particularly the five eyes, were not treated sufficiently seriously. To all intents and purposes SARS and MERS gained such small toeholds in the West, so along with China’s underplaying of the Covid-19 outbreak, the senior politicians and their officials had downplayed the threat.

Now the cat was out of the bag it had led to bitter exchanges during a time of growing geopolitical tensions. The US ramps up its criticism of China, with US President, Donald Trump, alleging Beijing might have deliberately chosen not to stop Covid-19, while his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has claimed that there is a “significant amount of evidence” to prove that the novel coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan. The WHO, however, says it has no proof of such ‘speculative’ claims.

But the damage has been done, and it will, for now at least mean that the origin of the virus – wild animal or laboratory, benign biomedical virology or malicious agent – and patient zero will remain unknown.

In some respects you could say that twenty first humanity has failed at first base.

So now it spreads – an invisible conflagration across humankind.

Russia hits new daily Covid-19 record, as hospitals struggle to cope. Russia registered a record increase in Covid-19 cases on Sunday. But some say official data is still underestimating.

In the US, the Trump administration is privately projecting 3,000 Covid-19 – nearly double by June 1st. even as it presses states to open.

While the North West overtakes London for numbers of Covid-19 cases.

Deutsche Welle reports, a new study out of Germany has suggested that the Covid-19 infection rate could be much higher than initially thought. Some 1.8 million people could be infected nationwide, a quarter of them without symptoms. The number of Covid-19 infections in Germany could be ten times higher than currently thought, researchers from the University of Bonn have concluded in the final edition of the much-discussed Heinsberg Report, which took a closer look at the effects of Covid-19 on a small community in Germany.

What strikes me about this stage of the pandemic is its complexity, its many facets and the limited way we understand it. It challenges those notions that we really are in charge and have a handle on things. Most of the time we humans find ourselves muddling our way through, learning as we go along and figuring out how we’re going to deal with it.

We’re still installing the instruments in the control panel.

Rising in importance as an important reference, certainly in the UK and Western Europe is the R-Number, or R-value, which indicates  the rate of the spread of Covid-19, using the reproduction number. The number indicates how many people one person with the virus can infect. For instance, if the rate is equal to 1, it means that one person is infecting, on average, one other person.

And as such references are used in TV briefings and the media a previously bypassed statistical indicator becomes common parlance as it enters mass consciousness.

We’re still learning about the ecology of the virus and its relationship with ourselves as our niches overlap. That air pollution can make Covid-19 more deadly is “entirely plausible,” according to England’s CMO, or that the virus is able to live in water for a few days, potentially even a few weeks, with a reassuring caveat that just because a virus can survive in water doesn’t mean it’s present in large enough concentrations to infect us.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 hammers our capacity to manage all the other threats to human health. It has become the all-demanding cuckoo in the nest. In the US, routine cancer screenings have plummeted during the pandemic. Appointments for screening for cancers of the cervix, colon and breast were down between 86 and 94 per cent in March, compared to average values for the three years before the first US Covid-19 case was confirmed.

The picture elsewhere is no different. I receive a desperate plea for crowdfunding in my e-mail in-tray:

Covid-19 blocked seven year old Danny’s plans for life-saving cancer treatment. Please help.

Like so many others, I will come to lose a relative to cancer before the pandemic ends, left wondering whether it played a part, knowing it would be too insensitive to ask.

If not taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously early enough and if, as seems the case, China’s late declaration that it had an outbreak that could lead to an epidemic and possibly a pandemic, then it is possible that in a highly interconnected world the virus could have already escaped undetected before the end of 2019. A combination of virulence, asymptomatic transmission and the absence of a testing system as gatekeeper could have resulted in the seeds of possible future outbreaks already been sown. I now know of three anecdotal cases from people I’ve spoken to, dating back to the end of January 2020, of covid-like cases with severe breathing difficulties leading to hospitalisation and intensive care.

They could have been severe cases of seasonal flu, but the fact of the matter is we don’t know.

At first, it looked like the UK Government knew what it was doing, even though by the end of January the PM had skipped two Cobra meetings to deal with an emerging problem. When Britons arrived back home from Hubei Province in China on January 31st 2020 they were tested and quarantined.  It was a good look, even though in the background anyone entering Great Britain from anywhere else came in unchecked, and the first domestic cases, a York University student and a relative, were recorded on the same day. They had come from Wuhan.

However cases were also reported in Thailand, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, Germany, US, France, Vietnam, UAE, Canada, Italy, Russia, Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain and Sweden, and if these, as the German research suggested, were the tip of the iceberg the problem could be ten times larger than what the reported cases indicated.

Without a vaccine or effective cure all that was left was an effective systematic testing regime, so that people who had been infected could be isolated and those they had come into contact with could be traced. However, on 12th March 2020, the Government abandons mass testing and contact tracing, a practice that was achieving a level of success in other countries such as Germany and South Korea.

By the time the Government resume mass testing of those with symptoms at the end of April, the virus has been able to spread through the population for weeks unseen, and until lockdown occurs on March 23rd, unchecked and uncontrolled.

If the pandemic can be compared to a forest fire, then the firefighters have been trying to contain it blindfolded. The British public are fearful of the virus and have a lack of confidence in the Government’s ability to deal with it. People are still dying in their hundreds daily – 674 in the last 24 hours.

To regain the confidence of the anxious public, the Government set itself a target of 100,000 tests per day that would be achieved by the end of last week.  On Friday, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the Government had exceeded its target with 122,000 daily tests. However, it soon became clear that more than 40,000 tests had not been processed. A test somewhere in the Royal Mail counted as a test done, and the practice of counting those swabs simply posted out, but not returned, was questioned by some.

But in the main, many media figures touted these figures without criticism. We were being gaslighted yet again by a cynical government more predisposed to controlling the narrative, regardless of the reality. The numbers game was set to create a perception that things were being done, while there are still serious shortcomings, like getting protective equipment to all frontline workers and making sure that those in care homes are safe, and that at this point, at over thirty thousand and still rising, the UK has the most deaths of any country in Europe.

Deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van Tam added that, “there is another lab opening next week,” which suggests another 20,000 a day capacity on top. That would give the UK a capacity to conduct nearly a million tests a week. Getting that testing rate up is obviously crucial to Hancock’s ‘test, track, trace’ policy – known to some insiders as TTT. The other key planks of the strategy are the NHS smartphone app, due to go live on the Isle of Wight on Tuesday, as well as the 18,000 human contact tracers needed to roll out the scheme nationwide.

The app holds a certain appeal, that perhaps the modern ubiquitous smartphone can come to the rescue. What’s more, a number of other countries, such as Austria, Australia, Greece, Israel already have systems in place. Even Cyprus has an app called COVTRACER, which allows people who test positive with the novel coronavirus to share this information with the public health authorities. It is then possible to trace anyone who may have been in close proximity to the infection. So far, use of the app is entirely voluntary.

There are conversations within the EU, which spurs Britain to have her own app. It’s a symptom of Brexitmania that still stalks the corridors of power. Developed by NHSX, the digital wing of the national health service, it has been trumpeted as being the way the Government is using the very latest in technology, without recourse to other countries’  developments.

And it will be a centralised system, dovetailing into the country’s digital health service. There are a number of people and organisations, who have concerns about such a centralised system, including Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, who has said the Government should look at decentralised app models, where contact tracing stays on the user’s device. The organisation’s concerns are that “the Government might be planning to route private data through a central database, opening the door to pervasive state surveillance and privacy infringement, with potentially discriminating effects,” was put to the health secretary.

Mr Hancock responded, “That’s completely wrong.”

In the eponymous words of Mandy Rice Davis, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But in testing itself progress is being made as Pharmaceutical giant Roche receives an Emergency Use Authorisation from the FDA for its new Covid-19 antibody tests and in Costa Rica automation to massively expands the country’s testing capabilities, making it lead the field in Central America and dogs are being trained by the emergency services in Corsica to try to detect people who may be infected. Firefighters in Ajaccio are using sweat samples from Covid-19 patients who have agreed to be part of the trial.

With each small development the relationship between people and the pandemic shifts subtly. It will be this, as well as the traditional responses to a plague that will ultimately end the pandemic. It will fade like a threatening spectre, in part through pure attrition. In part by being drowned out by other stories, especially with the shadow of climate change already growing stronger, like the coming winter in George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ eventually becoming a subplot in an epic saga.

Among those developments are drugs whose actions can be explained by science. There are two in particular, remdesivir which acts as a substitute for Adenine and creates flawed RNA in replication and actemra, which blocks the cellular receptors for a cytokine called interleukin-6. Step by step, the worst effects of Covid-19 are being mitigated, and although Google and the aerospace industry are partnering together to produce more ventilators, it’s the growth of medication rather than mechanical intervention that’s increasingly saving lives.

Gilead Sciences announced that it would be donating its entire stockpile of potential Covid-19 treatment, remdesivir to the US government.

And science-based treatments do not end there, as Melbourne-based biotech company, Mesoblast, announced earlier this week that it’s begun enrolling 300 patients for a randomised, controlled study of its stem cell therapy, remestemcel-L in the treatment of Covid-19 patients experiencing acute respiratory distress syndrome. Over 20 hospitals will participate in the study, which is expected to last 3-4 months.

While progress with vaccines continues.

The US government is getting its vaccine supplies ready in anticipation of a working cure. Two separate orders signed off on 1st May 2020, total $110 million and specified needles and syringes ‘for a Covid-19 mass vaccination campaign.’ One $27.5 million order went to Colorado-based Marathon Medical, the other $83.7 million to Texan business Retractable Technologies. The orders were placed by the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The orders came as a raft of different vaccines are under development and testing. The US government has backed a handful, including a $450 million deal with Johnson & Johnson arm Janssen Pharmaceutical for its Covid-19 cure. The vaccine could be ready by early 2021.

But the pandemic is not just the greatest medical event in living memory. It is also the largest single social and economic event since the end of World War 2 seventy five years ago. 

Here are some stories about the current economic state of play:

  • In Britain, the government gets something right. Chancellor Rishi Sunak revealed that UK businesses have applied for 6.3 million workers to be furloughed since the start of lockdown, making more than half (53 per cent) of all adults are now paid by the state.
  • Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte has apologised to thousands of furloughed Italian workers who are yet to receive state aid as compensation for economic paralysis. The government had promised to pay over two million workers their wages, after imposing a national lockdown on 9th March. But the payment scheme appears to have overloaded Italy’s bureaucratic mechanisms.
  • In France, workers in Lyon are unhappy. “We feel used,” they say. With few supplies and fewer customers, many businesses have been moving in slow motion for the past seven weeks. Firms have had to reduce staff to comply with social distancing measures, forcing the remaining employees to work longer and increase their exposure to the virus.
  • Millions of Chinese students brace themselves for joblessness. As it surveys an economy ravaged by disease, the leadership’s biggest worry is unemployment. In February, the jobless rate jumped to 6.2 per cent, the highest ever. In March it fell slightly to 5.9 per cent a businesses reopened. But official figures mask the scale of the problem. Urban unemployment could reach 10 per cent this year, reckons the Economist Intelligence Unit. And that does not include the millions of migrants who sat out the epidemic in their ancestral villages. Many of them have no jobs to return to in the cities.
  • Remote working is encouraging a culture of so-called E-Presenteeism, according to a new survey, leading employers to feel overworked and overwhelmed. Four in five HR managers think working from home has encouraged E-Presenteeism, meaning employees feel they should be online and present as much as possible.
  • In America, the virus threatens a meat industry that is too concentrated. Healthy animals are being killed and buried for want of slaughterhouse workers.
  • The impact of Covid-19 on the movie industry is far-reaching at the production end, with gathering large teams together in a variety of locations virtually impossible, closed cinemas and cancelled film festivals. Films once destined for the cinema are now being released on the small screen through online distributors like Netflix and Amazon.
  • Air travel poses a ‘big challenge,’ says health secretary Matt Hancock. A euphemism, if ever there was one.
  • Most of us would like a summer holiday this year. But for some countries it’s more than a wish. A dearth of holidaymakers could be ruinous. Tourism accounts for about 25 per cent of GDP in Greece, where the economy is only just beginning to recover from a devastating financial crisis. And about half of Croatia’s 20 million annual visitors arrive in July and August, with tourism there responsible for at least a fifth of its economic output.
  • In York a one way system on the city’s most famous street is hoped will save tourism after lockdown. There are calls now to make twenty other narrow medieval alleyways one way.
  • Covid economic weirding: On the US stockmarket it’s been a strange economic slump. The bear seems to have been an unusually short-lived member of its species. Although economic data have continued to deteriorate, share prices have staged a remarkable recovery. April was Standard and Poor 500’s best month since January 1987. Having bottomed at 2,237 on March 23rd, it rallied by 27 per cent by May 1st. Technically, that has put shares back into the bull market, even though they have yet to regain their pre-pandemic losses.
  • The most notable winner is new billionaire Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna, which was the first company to begin human trials of a Covid-19 vaccine on March 16th in Seattle. When the WHO declared a pandemic, Bancel’s net worth was some $720 million. Since then, Moderna’s stock has rallied more than 103 per cent, lifting his fortune to an estimated $1.5 billion.
  • While today’s American loser is clothing retailer J. Crew, filing for bankruptcy due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, assurances are made that stores will reopen after lockdown.

“After Lockdown” is beginning to sound more and more like “When This Bloody War is Over,” and I’m surprised there isn’t a fine Methodist tune and two or three verses to go along with it.

“When this lousy lockdown’s over,

No more hideaway for me.

No more worry about covid.

Oh how happy I will be……”

Or something like that!

Tentatively – with baby-steps – it’s beginning to happen. Healthy over-70s are set to be released from strict Covid-19 measures. Health secretary Matt Hancock says he’s “absolutely open” about Premier League football returning next month, while a group of 36 Tory MPs urge bishops to allow funerals in churches.

England’s CMO suggests that the UK may have passed two of the five tests to exit lockdown. He said the risk of a second wave was under close review and new cases need to fall further before the UK enters the second phase.

Not everyone in the UK is at ease with lockdown easing plans “that could put workers at risk,” as the Government prepares to reveal its plans to reopen the economy. News leaks suggest workers facing staggered start times, more homeworking and ‘health passports.’

PM Johnson said today, still cautious from his own experience said, “The worst thing we could do now is ease up too soon.”

It’s a caution that will fade over the coming months.

Further afield:

The booziest part of Australia is planning to reopen pubs this month. Businesses have been asked to prepare Covid-19 safety plans beginning today, ahead of several types of venues reopening in the Northern Territory on May 15th, including the pubs, restaurants and cafés.

America increasingly shows a divided attitude to lockdown and its lifting. Why the difference? Some of it is only natural. Conservatives tend to be less densely populated and conservatives are often uncomfortable with government directives. But the growing partisan divide also reflects a fundamentally different view of the virus between the leaders of the two parties. Republicans are focused on the economic damage of a prolonged shutdown. Many Democrats, on the other hand, continue to see the virus as a dire threat. They believe that opening up now – without the availability of tests that President Trump has long been promising – will needlessly cost lives. The bottom line is that the country is about to enter a new phase of the virus, with a near-national lockdown giving way to more regional variation.

While the South African consensus is that it seems risky to be lifting lockdown on the numbers they have.

In the meantime it’s lockdown that determines everyday reality:

  • Consumer and disability rights groups have called on the government urgently improve the coordination of food deliveries for vulnerable people, warning that thousands are not getting the help they need during the pandemic.
  • Covid Care in London looks like any other budget hotel, with a bland corporate frontage and rows of small square windows. But its 80 rooms have been transformed by an NHS homeless outreach team and Médecins Sans Frontières, who provide ten nurses, into the UK’s only treatment centre for rough sleepers with coronavirus. So far nearly 40 homeless people have been treated, with more expected in the coming weeks as the facility starts to take homeless patients with Covid-19 directly from A&E departments in London. There are an estimated 11,000 rough sleepers in England. More than 5,400 rough sleepers known to councils have been offered accommodation since March but there are still more than 35,000 homeless people living in hostels across the UK. Forthcoming UCL modelling indicates that more than one-third of the hostel and street homeless population could get Covid-19 without intensive infection controls. This could lead to 4,000 hospital admissions and 364 deaths by August.
  • As part of a worldwide concern about the safety of travelling, Hong Kong International Airport is conducting a trial of procedures and facilities to eliminate viruses and bacteria on individuals and airport surfaces.

Although children are far less likely to suffer from the extreme effects of Covid-19 (a 70 year-old is over 3,000 times the risk of dying from the virus as a 12 year old), they are particularly vulnerable in other ways, the loss of schooling, the damage to mental health, and now an increase in online grooming, as parents in the UK are urged by the police to be vigilant as nearly 100 children are targeted.

Even more vulnerable – perhaps the most vulnerable – are unaccompanied refugee children, and across the whole of Europe their plight becomes even worse during the pandemic. Already there has been a constant risk of abuse as they get drawn into undocumented labour and even sexual services, and the fragility of the whole unauthorised migration ecosystem as a result of Covid-19 has simply served to make matters worse.

Yet on the bright side, there are many examples of children helping others in lockdown. From charity to cheer, the national outpouring of altruistic acts from youngsters has been heartening. Kids have been sewing face masks, 3D printing face visors for the NHS, setting up crowdfunding for PPE, raising spirits through streaming exercise videos and so much more.

There is hope.

Forbes magazine tells the story of Dr Afok-Manin:

“Decades ago, Dr Afok-Manin watched her mom, a single mother and immigrant from Ghana, transform their Los Angeles home into a makeshift care and learning centre. Her mother has since passed away from cervical cancer – one of the reasons why Afok-Manin wanted to be a doctor in the first place. But her mother’s spirit lives on in her daughter, who’s playing her own part to give back to the community during the pandemic by creating myCovidMD, a free testing and telehealth services platform. That platform prioritises residents in underserved communities who are affected by the pandemic. A much-needed service, considering Covid-19 has been disproportionately affecting black and brown communities across the US, in part because of lack of healthcare services.”

While I could not resist the headline in my “The i” newsfeed.

“Until Covid-19 lockdown I never knew my sister was a doomsday prepper.”

I was expecting bunkers and Armageddon. Instead I read an article about the practicalities of being prepared.

It reminds me, as I work my way through each day’s newsfeeds to dig a little deeper than headlines.

I think, in this era of three word slogans, it’s good advice for us all.


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