Daily Diary: Street Talk.
The weather forecast says this beautiful warm spell ends today. I take the opportunity to tidy the front garden and trim the hedge. It takes a couple of hours all in, and that includes a conversation with Harry, our Nepalese neighbour three doors to the west and Cathy, who’s next but one the other way. With Harry, it’s about the progress of the virus and our country’s inability to have got a grip on the situation. He’s well up on the story. He had been to Kathmandu in January and said that Covid-19 was virtually nonexistent there. Most countries appear to be more ahead of the game than we are. Most seemed to have been able to lock down, shut everything down. In Britain we pfaffed around, prevaricated and didn’t have a grip at all.
With Cathy it was more about yesterday’s celebration. The street round the corner had a street party. It all started sensibly enough, with people staying in their front gardens, raising a glass and cheering VE Day, but then it sank into rampant disorder. I heard it while I was writing. It was far too loud to have been one or even two families. Children shrieking, men shouting, dogs barking to Glenn Miller and his forties contemporaries. It was a bit loud, but live and let live – far be it for me to become one in a growing army of coronasnitchers. Cathy, on the other hand, did go and take a look.
“It started alright,” said Cathy. “Folks drinking in their front gardens. But as they got pissed all of that just broke down. Out there in the middle street they were clowning around, hugging – even group hugging. There were even two blokes who were play-wrestling.”
There were people on TV news reports dancing the conga.
“You just wait,” Cathy said. “There’ll be a spike a couple of weeks from now.”
Looking out at the common and seeing a group of teenagers – seven in all – hanging about and flirting. No masks. Cathy could well be right.
One thing’s for sure. With our atrocious death-from-covid figures and our devil-may-care attitude – at least from some – it’s hard to be proud to be British.
The Bigger Picture: Addicted To A Bloody Good Story
We’re a species addicted to stories, of storytellers and addicted listeners. Without a story each of our days becomes a punctuated nihilistic experience. We need a narrative. Perhaps moreso than truth itself, because truth needs analysis and understanding. Narratives on the other hand are pre-digested.
Junk food for the mind.
Easy to digest.
And as we become increasingly polished in our capacity to communicate it’s not just that stories become universally disseminated but they also become more believable, particularly to those who believe, rightly so, that the machinery of government is more on the side of the wealthy and powerful, who have much greater ease of access to decision-makers and lawmakers, than it is on theirs.
That makes the government a dark villain and in a culture that often tries to actualise comic strip fantasy worlds such as the Marvel Universe and blends fantasy with reality in Facebook’s metaverse, dark villains do what dark villains do – dark villainy. Think of something bad and you can expect your dark villain to be doing it.
That’s not to say that governments don’t behave darkly at times. History’s pretty unequivocal in letting us know they do. But there’s nuance that’s lost when narratives create dark villains, simply to make the story better.
What we can so easily fail to realise is that in the jungle of our internet-driven twenty first century culture, stories compete with each other, memes in a process of natural selection. The truest don’t necessarily survive any more than a male bird of paradise’s tail demonstrates its fitness to fly.
So a lie, a beautiful lie, a fantastic lie can prevail over a less exotic, less interesting truth.
The pandemic’s rich tapestry of complex bioscience and even more complex human psychology in the face of mortal fear has the capacity to draw all sorts of narratives, the most notable recent story going viral across the internet being ‘Plandemic.’
‘Plandemic’ creates an alternative world view of the wicked and powerful conspiring to control others through their fears, promoting misinformation about vaccines, the laboratory origins of the virus, hospital profits, hydroxychloroquine, and face masks.
Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and a shrewd observer of human nature, wrote over three hundred years ago:
“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”
We might fool ourselves into thinking we are more sophisticated nowadays by rebranding it as social psychology but at its core human nature hardly changes over time.
Mark Twain is credited with rephrasing the view:
“A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on.”
In the era of the internet and instant mass communication, the truth can barely manage to put on a sock.
The truth is that the pandemic brings with it extremes of anxiety and uncertainty. That includes scientists, doctors, national leaders and others we ordinarily look to for answers. There are unknowns, even the unknown unknowns, as former US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, once said. Uncertainty is uncomfortable. People want answers. Conspiracy theories can be comforting, and if they are shaped into a professional and persuasively crafted narrative using those conventions people already associate with factual documentaries, they can reassure.
But false narratives colliding with real events creates a fog.
And fog disorientates.
Which President Trump exploits as he gambles on reopening America.
“You can’t ask a virus for a truce,” tweeted Jeremy Konyndyk in response, a key player in the US response to Ebola in 2014, wrote on Twitter. Trump, he added, was “surrendering to the virus rather than fighting it”.
Nevertheless, with the divine wisdom that only comes to those appointed by the gods to lead the rest of us, mere mortals that we are, Trump announces that Covid-19 will disappear without a vaccine, despite his more earthly and scientifically grounded adviser Anthony Fauci saying the opposite.
Do not contradict those with wisdom handed down by the gods. They can be vengeful.
As Rick Bright, immunologist, vaccine researcher, and public health official found out, when he was removed from a key advisory post in retaliation for whistleblowing its handling of the pandemic so far, not least the obsession with the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. The Office of Special Counsel believes the White House whistleblower, Rick Bright, was likely retaliated against by the Trump administration, his lawyers said in a statement on Friday, and the agency recommended that Bright be allowed to resume his previous job duties while his whistleblower complaint is investigated.
And do not question their ability to rise above the viral terror consuming lesser beings.
Asked why President Trump didn’t wear a mask while honouring World War II veterans in their 90s – just a day after one of his aides tested positive for Covid-19 – press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “They made the choice to come here.”
There seems to be a connection between leaders who believe they have a special destiny gifted by the gods and their failure to engage with the stark ultra-reality Covid-19 brings. It’s easy to imagine British PM Boris Johnson having such a view of his destiny, a combination of once telling his sister he wanted to be “World King” and a grounding in classical literature – one of his party pieces is to recite passages from the Iliad in ancient Greek.
Perhaps those who believe that their dream of destiny led to their success are the rare exception in the same way that lottery winners believe that they were fated to win a fortune. Delusions confirmed by the reality of the world they stumbled into. For the rest of us such delusions fade in the mismatch.
Sometimes I think that Boris Johnson does have a destiny, but in the way that so many Greek myths and legends have it’s a destiny with a twist. That he reaches the pinnacle of his worldly ambitions, only to discover that he is utterly unsuitable for the role. Like Midas turning his beloved daughter to gold.
And that unsuitability reveals itself (this time) with the world reacting to Britain’s ‘incomprehensible’ response to Covid-19, its botched testing and care home crisis. As Britain this week recorded the highest death rate in Europe – and the second highest in the world after the US – an incredulous foreign press described the situation using colourful invective: it is a ‘shambles,’ a ‘nightmare,’ reflecting ‘negligence,’ ‘complacency’ and ‘stupidity.’
In Greece the left wing daily Ethnos described the Prime Minister as “more deadly than the coronavirus,” and warned of the perils that “incompetent leaders,” such as Mr Johnson bring when “at the helm at a time of such emergency.”
While in Australia The Sydney Morning Herald, the country’s oldest newspaper, ran a feature headed, “Biggest failure in a generation: Where did Britain go wrong?” that described the UK response as a “series of deadly mistakes and miscalculations.”
And even in America, arguablythe only country that is seen to have blundered more than Britain, but that’s not stopped its critics, with CNN asking, “Where did it go wrong for the UK with coronavirus.”
It’s not as if there wasn’t prior warning that we were unprepared for a pandemic. The analysis, codenamed Cygnus, was based on a 2016 simulation of a flu pandemic involving all levels of national, regional and local government, police and other organisations.
One of Boris Johnson’s major offers to the country was to replace a regional purpose as a member state of the European Union with ‘Global Britain’ following Brexit. What’s actually happened is that the Brexit journey has stirred up the rise of isolationism in the Conservative party he leads. Britain is starting to look like a very lonely little country. The British are about to discover that ‘splendid isolation’ the Victorians once celebrated is less glorious when the solitude is not chosen as an instrument of power, but is imposed by the world’s indifference.
But even isolation can’t be managed as the country’s borders remain open to an encroaching pandemic. Shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandi, accuses the Government of mixed messages over arrivals and the border staff union demands clarity on quarantine plans.
The country’s a covid-sieve!
With some passing thanks to Edward Lear:
And everyone said, who saw them go.
“Oh won’t they soon be upset, you know!
For the sky is dark and the voyage long,
And happen what may, it’s extremely wrong
In a sieve to sail so fast!”
Far and few, few and far,
Are the lands where the Jumbled Brits live;
With vaguest hope and without half a clue,
They were all at sea in a sieve.
Part of the solution is identifying who’s infected with Covid-19, and it is a process that demands more rigour than the UK government is either willing or able to muster. First of all it needs to worry through a number of questions.
Dr. Angela Caliendo, Secretary for the IDSA Board of Directors and Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University, told CNN about antibody tests:
“We don’t have enough information about the performance of these antibody tests to know ideally how to use them. We need to understand if the test is accurate and you have antibodies what does that mean? Does it mean you’re protected from future infection? We don’t know that. We don’t know if this means you are no longer infectious.”
The porn industry has a lot to teach us about safety in the Covid-19 era. Lessons have been learned from surviving HIV, along with the experience of coping with STDs. “You’ll have to keep testing, maybe every ten days. We need simpler tests that people can just do at home,” said epidemiologist Elizabeth Halloran, who envisions a low-cost ’10 pack’ of tests for home use. “We can’t just sit around for 18 months waiting for a vaccine. We have to find a way out without pharmaceuticals and that’s repeat testing, taking people out of circulation, and then contact-tracing, so it’s an interesting analogy.”
Testing has got to be central to the long haul, along with social distancing measures. Vaccination programmes are many months ahead, even with the speed of their development, and only when vaccinations became worldwide. It took decades for the world to eradicate smallpox, and it wasn’t just a matter of supply, logistics and overcoming vaccine hesitancy, world unity mattered just as much.
As if to add to the challenge, in the U.S. routine vaccination against childhood diseases has appeared to have declined dramatically in March and April.
Meanwhile, the backlog
What’s next? Crunch time for labs. People who have been able to manage their non-covid medical problems over the past few months will eventually come back to the hospital, for the elective surgeries they may have to be postponed. When they do, that will strain hospital labs.
“The clinical labs are going to get really busy again,” Doctor Caliendo said. “And they won’t have as many resources to devote to Covid-19 when surgery opens up and we get back to what we call our previous normal.”
Some other medical stories about the pandemic:
- Covid-19 takes a disproportionate toll on Sweden’s immigrant community, with five per cent of cases, yet only one per cent of the population.
- Covid in your eyes: the risk is higher due to the strength of the strain. Researchers based in Hong Kong say that Covid-19 infection via the eyes is a greater risk than before because it is a stronger strain.
- While Gilead Sciences, manufacturer of remdesivir, is targeted by hackers linked to Iran.
In the meantime, covid creates havoc in the world economic system. It’s estimated the pandemic could cost UK banks £25 billion, while in the US the unemployment rate hit 14.7 per cent and over twenty million jobs were lost in April. Devastation not seen since the Great Depression.
Worldwide, it spells the beginning of deglobalisation. Covid-19 exposes the weaknesses of what has been a growing dependency on international supply chains for decades. In a pandemic even the most basic – especially the most basic – of medical supplies is an existential need and Western nations have found themselves being too reliant on other distant countries, especially China, with whom distrust and friction has been growing. Production security is growing more important than efficiency.
Yet some global traders are doing well. Amazon has received a $13 million order from the US government. It’s probably the biggest Amazon haul of all time as Uncle Sam snaps up a bumper order of thermometers, ready for lockdown to end.
There are even benefits the new reality brings to the little guy, like you or me. “Book now, decide later,” is the next big trend in travel. Thanks to new flexible cancellation policies, there’s never been a better time to bag a holiday bargain on the beach.
If you’re willing to chance it.
Foremost in our minds is a desire for lockdown to end. Not just so that we can bag that holiday on the beach, but also that there are looming challenges in the post-covid world. How the pandemic will end remains unclear. We are sure that vaccines will play a critical part, but developments are still in their infancy. Will it simply go, once everyone is vaccinated? Will herd immunity be achieved? Will it simply just go away and leave us alone?
Who knows, but what is for sure is that war, terrorism, poverty, inequality, flooding, heatwaves and epic conflagrations lie in our future. The pandemic might seem to be all-consuming, but it isn’t everything, and the decisions we make in the coming weeks and months are critical.
So far, the world’s food system has so far weathered the challenge of Covid-19. But things could still go awry.
We don’t know the path we’ll walk down, or even the reasons why we’ll choose it. Or if selfishness will prevail over wisdom, good sense and survival.
Climate advisers in UK must invest in the green economy post- pandemic. We cannot go back to the way things were. Once the pandemic passes, the money earmarked for economic recovery must help to lower emissions too.
When it comes to beyond the watershed, the green shoots are already appearing.
World cities are becoming bike-first. First Paris, then Milan, and now London. Temporary bike routes are springing up in record time to meet demand as Europeans return to work. It’s good news that city leaders want to make them permanent.
The next phase of lockdown is becoming clearer. The British Government has indicated it will reopen garden centres, encourage communities to use bikes and potentially quarantine foreign visitors for 14 days. Plans to reopen schools on June 1st are less likely in England and not happening at all in Wales, as unions challenge their safety and demand key tests.
Worldwide,China is happy to fill the leadership vacuum left by the US. In the global jostling amid the coronavirus crisis, Beijing is extending its influence while US President Trump continues to squander America’s leadership role. The pandemic could start the beginning of a new Chinese era.
It is a conflict of hegemonies between China and America.
With the World Health Organisation caught in the middle, barely up to the challenge, not so much due to its own shortcomings, but its powerlessness to intervene in the clash of the behemoths. It is the most important authority in the global battle against the coronavirus. But doubts about the WHO’s leadership are growing, and many wonder if Director Tedros up to the task?
Across the world the stories continue:
- Countries across Europe are marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi regime’s surrender as best they can, while most of the Old Continent remains under lockdown.
- Bill Gates donated more than Australia, Norway and Spain. When it comes to funding vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. If the Gates Foundation were a country it would be rated 7th, putting a lot of nations to shame.
- Melinda Gates slams the Trump administration response to Covid-19. “It’s chaos,” Melinda Gates said, the “50 home-grown solutions” that have been cropping up across the nation’s states “just shouldn’t be.” Giving an example of what she believes to be an effective approach in fighting the virus, she attended Giving an example of what she believes to be an effective approach in fighting the virus, she alluded to Chancellor Merkel’s leadership in Germany, noting that a strong national approach, and one based in science, is allowing the country to slowly start to reopen now. “That’s the leadership we should expect as citizens in this country, and we’re not getting,” she said.
- The pandemic is the chance to revamp India’s pharmaceutical industry. Companies could switch from primarily making generics to producing higher margin licensed drugs.
- Ireland raised $3 million for Native Americans hit by Covid-19. In 1847, various Native Americans, including the Choctaw people, donated $190 (equivalent to $5,000 today) to Ireland as the country was suffering from the Great Famine or Hunger, during which one million died. Now thousands of Irish are repaying the favour as Covid-19 hits the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
- “We are invisible,” say Greek artists as they struggle for state aid amid the pandemic.
- Brazil is deploying troops to protect the Amazon during the pandemic. Deforestation surged by 51 per cent in Brazil between January and March as environmental regulations have been loosened and forest fires have spread.
- A 97 year old Russian World War II veteran is hoping to replicate the fundraising prowess achieved in the UK by Captain Tom Moore and assist in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in her country. Zinaida Korneva said she was spurred into action after watching a video of Tom Moore who raised nearly £33 million for charity last month by walking 100 laps around his garden in the lead-up to his 100th birthday. Instead of walking, Korneva has launched a You Tube channel with videos in which she recaps her trials as a Red Army soldier in the Stalingrad region.
Finally, Forbes reports eight under-18 young trailblazers who have stepped up during the pandemic.
- Oscar Koivisto: building a grocery delivery robot.
- Eric Kim: making masks for the hearing impaired.
- Lionel Billingsley: innovating ventilator design with robotics know-how.
- Andrew Wong: 3-D printing face shields.
- Rafael Velasquez: coaching basketball virtually.
- Erin and Aidan Finn: tutoring students pro-bono.
- Quinn Callander: making masks more comfortable.
- Tieekay Kowalewski: building phone mounts for hands-free telehealth.
It’s a message that the post-pandemic world will belong to the young, who are as innovative and energetic as the young always have been. It is their minds in particular that are being shaped by the maelstrom of current events and it is from their world view that the paradigm shifts taking us all into a new and different future will take place.
It is easy to view this through rose-tinted glasses. There are many in the old guard – the likes of Trump, Xi, Putin, Johnson and many more who will do all they can to preserve an old order formed before the first SARS-CoV-2 took on a human immune system.
Associated Press, Der Spiegel, Economist, Euronews, Evening Standard, Forbes, France 24, Global Citizen, Guardian, Huffington Post, iNews, New York Times, Reuters, STAT, Washington Post, Wikipedia, Yahoo Finance.