Day Forty: Friday 24th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Phony Gardener

We didn’t have much of a conversation yesterday when Emily came round with our weekly supplies. Someone had brought a big truck into the neighbourhood and took up her parking space along with a couple of others. It’s pretty rare, but it does happen from time to time. Never for long, as the drivers invariably know the by-laws, but it’s a nuisance. So dear Em has to park on the street corner and can’t do so for very long. It’s a sharp corner at the top of a hill, so cars come round far too fast and there’s always a risk of being winged and dinged by someone who hasn’t figured out how to use a steering wheel. It’s a shame, because part of the joy of Em Deliveries has been the bit of street banter thrown in for good measure.

I have a chat with my old friend Steve U over the phone. I must admit I’m more than a little intimidated by holding a meeting via Zoom and his advice is really helpful. Steve U is a TV engineer who has worked on all sorts of programmes, from Tony Hart’s art show, where Morph (and Aardman) entered the public consciousness, to ‘Later’ with Jools Holland. I don’t know of anyone else who’s more technically literate and all he has to say is welcome. I confess to not being a tech-natural. I’ve used computers in education since the mid-1970s, but I only know the stuff I routinely do and I struggle with new waves of tech. Unlike Em and Tom, or for that matter a number of my friends who have held social events online I don’t naturally gravitate towards it.

I bank upon decades of knowledge, but with such a fast-moving tech it’s still easy to get left behind. The long and the short of it is that if I want to hold a club meeting via Zoom I’ve got a steep learning curve …. And the deadline is only two weeks from today. Don’t panic!

I don’t manage to keep up with all the news today. It’s a veritable tsunami, this coronavirus story. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the headlines but there’s always an awareness about how deep you can go. I have to come to terms with my barnacle analogy, that sitting here on my laptop I’m not going to catch everything and I’m thinking about how I’m going to structure my diary once I commit to writing.

It’s also been a horticultural day. The cuttings have now graduated out of the propagator and the space now goes to the geranium seeds to germinate. The sweet peas still need a bit of training. They still look like very fragile shoots ….. here’s hoping, and I potted a basil plant from Sainsbury’s, courtesy Em Deliveries. I also have three Marks and Spencer ‘Little Garden’ seedling kits – beetroot, cress and forget-me-not. They’re for kids and we were going to pass them on to Vicky’s god-daughter, Summer. But we’re unlikely to catch up with her, her dad Paul or grandma Kath for a long time, so I plant them. There’s a touch of stealing sweeties about all of this, but I think I can deal with it. I also need to deal with feeling a bit of a fraud, as Vicky is normally the gardener of the house, but I’m getting a lot of satisfaction with watching plants grow, the sense of hope that comes with it, and Vicky’s going along with it.

Under lockdown there’s plenty of time to watch plants grow!

The Bigger Picture: The Power of The Great Unknown

As long as the gods are not known on a personal level, the high priests have power. With great authority they speak of what pleases and irks the gods (and themselves) as the supreme interlocutors of the Great Unknown.

Cut out these middle-men and you could be in deep trouble for heresy.

Religious extremists aside, most of us have little time for high priests – nowadays we have political leaders instead. They do have access to Great Unknowns, such as issues of national security and increasingly anything that might destroy our faith in them, lest we decline to give them our next vote at the polls.

Covid-19 has entered that domain, on both scores, and there’s no doubt there’s enough about the virus for it to qualify as a great unknown. In many cases when it first appeared within a population is hard to establish, with asymptomatic transmission and deaths being attributed to other cause, such as pneumonia. It’s for that reason that there has been a tendency to undercount the extent of the disease. China’s early Covid-19 cases may have been four times higher than the official tally, a new study suggests.

It may be down to Covid-19 being a Great Unknown. Or it may be down to China’s politicians in high priest mode being the interlocutors and deciding what the rest of us should know.

Nevertheless, the spread of the disease is now feared by many to be a top international threat, along with terrorism, nuclear weapons and cyber-attacks.

Traditionally, where such fears existed the priests calmed our souls.

These days we expect our leaders to, and where there is doubt there is heresy.

So when Rick Bright, the doctor who had been leading the federal effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine asks whether President Trump putting politics and cronyism ahead of science as he openly disagrees with the president about hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment his heresy leads to his removal from the Department of Health and Human Services and reassignment to a narrower role in the National Institutes of Health.

The Johnson government has created its own priesthood it calls SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. It is a group made up of scientists, but nobody knows who those scientists are. Its list of members is secret; its meetings are closed; its recommendations are private; and the minutes of its deliberations are published much later, if at all.

Yet Johnson and his ministers invoke SAGE’s name, along with the repeated mantra that they are “guided by the science.”

“Is the science being followed by the government on coronavirus?” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the Blair government. “I don’t know because I don’t know what the advice is, and there isn’t the freedom for the scientists to tell the public what their advice is.”

Like the gods of ancient times, as long as the scientists are not known, Boris Johnson has power. With great authority he can speak of what conclusions they have come to as the Supreme Interlocutor of the Great Unknown.

So the Supreme Interlocutor can reassure us that the Covid-19 risk was “moderate,” even though its high level of transmission was already known from China and elsewhere. He can reassure us from the underestimates his secret advisers when it came to speed of transmission and degree of hospitalisation. He can recommend less stringent social distancing measures on March 9th when France and Ireland were banning large events and ordering lockdowns, and there was ample evidence from Italy of the epidemic’s rapid and lethal spread.

Referring to Boris Johnson, his ministers and other officials, Professor Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University said, “It has become a shield for them. If things go off, you can always say, ‘Well, it was the experts who told us.’ ”

The lack of transparency, the foil that he is always following the science, without any critical examination of what that really means – it’s far from a given that scientists always agree, the personal authority he places behind those “scientific” decisions becomes a hallmark of the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic. As the Supreme Interlocutor of the Great Unknown  he announces misstep after misstep until the United Kingdom has one of the worst per capita death rates in the world and it’s only when the vaccine programme gets underway that he will have a break from the consequences of his own decision-making.

 As the gap widens between the Government’s claims and its performance so too is the wider malaise of trust and confidence. There are brutal results for journalists in the recent You Gov polling for Sky News. Asked how much people trusted journalists when it comes to Covid-19 only 17 per cent of respondents said they did, next to 72 per cent who didn’t. The same applied, to a lesser degree to TV journalists, who are reputed to ensure impartiality: 24 per cent trusted them, compared to 64 per cent who did not.

While the Great Unknown crosses the line from faith to superstition. Twitter bans fifty conspiracy theorists from sharing harmful misinformation. It turns out there is a massive overlap between coronavirus denial and climate denial.

It’s anti-science – using the technology that’s evolved from three centuries of scientific rational thought to take us back to a new dark age.

That way madness lies.

In the engagement with much more established ‘Great Unknown,’ Ramadan under lockdown begins. It has been central to Islam for the last millennium and a half, and like the Christian custom of Lent, to which it is historically related, is about self-discipline being a cornerstone of an orderly and civilised society. Unlike most western Christians’ experience of Lent (forty days – where the word ‘quarantine,’ so widely used these days comes from) Ramadan has strong community ties, so the after-sunset meal, iftar, is traditionally a social event, especially within families but also more widely as well.

Muslims adapt to lockdown. There are no news stories about protests or loud objections. They fall back on social media, especially Zoom, and iftar, along with worship goes virtual. Perhaps it is because restraint and self-discipline are central to Ramadan itself. Islam is by no means the only religion which nurtures these personal qualities so that humans transcend their more basic instincts and rise above the beasts, nor is it the only one that never fully achieves these worthy goals – welcome to humanity – but the calm and quiet acceptance of life’s harsher restraints of both fasting and locking down and the absence of news commentary to the opposite effect are worthy of both recognition and respect.

Covid’s Great Unknown does not reveal itself easily to science, that is caught in the cleft stick of having to be good and fast at the same time. It’s not always possible. With every plague, whether cholera, Spanish flu or AIDS, have come intriguing hypotheses, loosely framed theories and snake oil therapies. Covid-19 is no different and in our collective quest to make sense of it all, people come up with a seemingly endless list of correlations linking all sorts of factors with the ongoing pandemic: age, use of face masks by the public, MMR vaccine, influenza vaccine, malaria endemicity, warm weather, ABO blood group, air pollution, smoking, vaping, 5G network towers, ibuprofen, vitamin D, and more besides.

It’s not just the scientists, but anyone can now explore the territory online. Even publicise their own ideas about what’s going on, whether they understand the basic point that correlation does not necessarily mean causality, or not. Or for that matter if there are biases confounding conclusions, or that the data is the flawed product of poor surveillance and testing capability. Even scientific papers are coming out as pre-prints – there isn’t the time for peer review such is the speed at which the pandemic is evolving.

The pandemic is still at a stage where it is hard to find an international standard for defining both cases and deaths, with misclassification, political tampering and under-reporting being thrown into the mix. And because different countries are at different stages of the pandemic comparisons become additionally difficult.

So while the pandemic evolves at breakneck speed, rigorous science struggles to keep up, politicians find themselves making decisions based on low-quality correlation evidence, often because it has attracted media attention though it fails to meet widely accepted standards of causal inference.

Ignorance is always dangerous.

It also is an inescapable part of any Great Unknown.

Something very similar is also happening with the response to the pandemic. Instead of collaborating and seeding innovation some groups are effectively duplicating each other’s work or competing for limited resources, which hinders progress. As one researcher who led technology efforts for Ebola response programmes in West Africa said, “While these efforts are well-meaning, they do lower all boats in a way.”

Covid-19 might not reveal itself easily to science, but it starts to reveal other things about ourselves. Not least the unfairness of human societies, and as it casts a light on the disproportionate way it metes out harm to individuals from minority backgrounds, questions start to be asked about the structural racism within many societies. In the US it seems that African Americans may be bearing the brunt of Covid-19, but at the moment access to data is limited.

The Great Unspoken is that when it comes to enduring a pandemic, some lives appear to matter more than others. It’s a nagging doubt. An underlying concern and it will feed a growing sense of wrongness. The explosive mixture is there, just waiting for a catalyst.

Although it doesn’t seem like it at the moment the virus will pass, but it will, and the question is how will any change to a new post-covid world happen? The pandemic will leave the rich world deep in debt and force some hard choices. Who takes the pain, and can there be gain?

Economic records are being broken in lots of places today – and not in a good way. France’s business activity plunged to the lowest level on record. The IHS Markit flash purchasing managers’ index for services tumbled to 10.4 in April from 27.4 in March. In Germany it was a similar picture as the same measure fell to 15.9 this month from 31.9 in March. Overall the euro area composite PMI dropped to 13.5 in April from 29.7 the previous month.

More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment this week. Investors hope we are over the peak, while, having been called out larger public companies are rushing to repay Paycheck Protection Program loans after government warnings about abusing emergency financing for small businesses.

EU leaders meet by video amid fears the coronavirus could destroy European unity. There’s been a fair bit of squabbling over who should bear the budgetary cost and at first glance it’s not a good look for the EU. But they are tackling what is a thorny issue and its an acknowledgement that the sooner economies address the fiscal burden incurred by the recession, the sooner that post-covid normality can be resumed, and that a combination of taxpayers, consumers and bondholders will have to foot the bill in the end.

In the meantime in America, states struggle with the cost of the pandemic. There is considerable pressure to ease restrictions, even though a majority want public health to be prioritised over reopening the economy.

Republican-led states like Georgia and Tennessee, are pushing to reopen earlier than Democratic governors, like Michigan, Virginia and New York, maintain more restrictive stay-at-home orders. There is a North-South divide, with the irony that the South is likely to have America’s highest death rate for Covid-19. It has unusually unhealthy residents and few ICU beds. Polling is starting to reflect that schism: Two in five Republicans nationwide now say that restrictions are causing more harm than good, an increase from last month. The reality is that pandemics are pernicious. Germs don’t care about state lines, particularly in a country where people can travel far.

So what results is an already divided country adopting a half-in, half-out approach to lockdowns. Those who want to exercise restraint versus those who find themselves going stir-crazy, those who are cautious about the virus versus those prepared to take a chance – life is one big gamble after all –  those who see the need for everyone to act for a greater common good versus those arguing that any restrictions limit individual freedoms and harm the economy.

And it polarises along the lines of Republicans versus Democrats.

Protestors in the streets of Pittsburgh in the US state of Pennsylvania voice their opposition to Covid-19 confinement measures. The demonstrators, some carrying firearms, others covering their faces – called upon the authorities to reopen businesses.

Pennsylvania has a Democrat administration. You could place a bet that the protestors were Republicans.

There are to be more protests in Philadelphia in the months ahead and the city remains a turbulent expression of how divided America is for the rest of President Trump’s time in office.

There’s a similar, but less fierce divide about health versus the economy in Britain. There is considerable pressure on the government from MPs on the right of the Tory party pushing government to reveal how and when it will end lockdown, wanting to see a phased release by early May. The Welsh government announces it hopes to ease lockdown measures from next month as the first stage of a gradual exit from the Covid-19 gridlock and the Scottish government published a plan for a way out of lockdown, both stealing a march on Westminster.

New York is launching the largest ever contact tracing initiative, costing more than $10 million and using resources from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Yesterday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said preliminary activity tests suggested that about 14 per cent of people surveyed in New York tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies, suggesting they had already had the disease – a whopping ten times higher than the state’s presumed infection rate, although still far from what would be considered to be herd immunity, or when over 60 per cent of the population is immune to a disease. The maxim “Test-trace-isolate” describes the vital strategy needed to try to contain the virus so that social distancing measures can be relaxed.

In Britain Covid-19 tests are now open to all key workers, who will be able to book a Covid-19 test online in a bid to increase testing. Matt Hancock announces a plan to make testing easier and more available in an effort to reach the Government’s ambitious target. But it all becomes farcical as home testing kits run out in two minutes.

There were only 5,000 available.

But amid it all, step by painful step we inch our way towards dealing with the nightmare. There is a vision, as Bill Gates predicts breakthroughs in vaccinology, diagnostics and antiviral drugs as outcomes of the pandemic. There are promising green shoots as vaccine trials begin in the UK and get the green light in Germany.

There is an international commitment, as in a virtual event, co-hosted by the WHO and the President of France, heads of state and global health leaders today made an unprecedented commitment to work together to accelerate the development and production of new vaccines, tests and treatments for COVID-19 and assure equitable access worldwide. Neither the president of the United States nor a representative from his administration were present.

There are setbacks too, as leaked study data shows finds no benefit of Remdesivir on Covid-19 patients, sending Gilead stock tumbling, but the company puts a brave face on it and declares it still sees reasons for hope.

In Britain, hospitals and frontline staff have been forced to turn to homemade PPE as Boris Johnson’s government struggles to secure supplies. New advice recommends reusable gowns or long-sleeved laboratory coats in the absence of fluid-repellent full length gowns. The BMA is deeply critical, while a cottage PPE industry sprouts up on sewing machines, 3D printers and living rooms across the country.

And while the press feeds us on a diet of our desperate need PPE, ventilators and, increasingly, oxygen there are other shortages that don’t make the news – lung catheters to suck the never-ending mucosal gunk out of intubated covid lungs, ICU feeding pumps, arterial blood gas syringes, or for that matter even sanitising wipes. The arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus is far more extensive than first meets the eye.

Meanwhile, the all consuming nature of this fiendish virus drives other patients away. The disease is a clinical cuckoo, emptying the nest of other human medical interventions. A survey of nine major US hospitals showed that the number of major heart attacks being treated has dropped nearly 40 per cent. The number of childhood immunisations has also fallen sharply during the pandemic, putting millions at risk for measles, whooping cough and other life-threatening illnesses.

Elsewhere, Greece has made a better start with the pandemic than many expected. The country closed down its economy early on, imposing lockdown on March 23rd when its death toll stood at 17. Only 121 people have so far lost their lives to Covid-19 in Greece and the country has kept the infection rate very low. By contrast, the official UK death toll currently stands at 19,506, although there are estimates of over 43,000.

In Romania, strong measures to restrict movement and limit the spread of the coronavirus appear to have had an impact, with the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, announcing that authorities would look at starting to ease restrictions from 15th May. Romanians will be allowed to move more freely, without needing to present documentation, he said, with other aspects like the reopening of schools to follow, step by step.

France does not look so positive. In Paris there have been multiple nights of violence between police and residents in some of the poorest Parisian banlieues. Residents say the enforcement of a national lockdown is the latest example of heavy-handed policing. But the Paris prefecture disputes this, and these latest clashes seem to be opening old wounds that have arisen from deep social inequalities.

If there is one thing Covid-19 exposes with an unavoidable ruthlessness it’s the deep unfairnesses in society. Perhaps the cruellest exposure is that of refugees, where the pandemic has made the struggle of getting to a better place all the more treacherous. The creeping pandemic results in a significant deterioration in sanitation and medical support and is putting refugees seeking safety at huge risk.

While in America:

Only 18 per cent of couples in quarantine are satisfied with their communication during the pandemic. Married and engaged couples in quarantine are fighting more; the most common is when to have sex, according to an April survey conducted on 1,200 married and engaged couples who are co-quarantining – by publication ‘The Knot’ and the app ‘Lasting.’

United Airlines have just ordered flight attendants to wear masks. Passengers may well follow suit.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been cancelled this year, but a sister and brother who are former participants are planning a bee of their own.

Finally, you can be forgiven for thinking that in some zero sum game what’s harming humanity is helping the environment. As people stay at home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner. In the US, Washington has its clearest spring air in 25 years, and the projected worldwide fall in carbon dioxide emissions is five and a half per cent.

High above India a NASA satellite reveals a huge drop in air pollution over parts of India during lockdown, and if to confirm that we are heading for a greener, better world a mass influx of flamingos turn Navi Mumbai into a pink playground as, following lockdown measures, there is a huge increase, between 25 and 30 per cent. The whole area has become a pink carpet. “The air is much cleaner,” environmentalist Shruti Agarwal said. “There is no pollution, there is no human activity going on, there is no construction activity to see around the place, so there are more birds coming to this place and definitely I think, after the closure, we have to work on the same things, to see that these places are not disturbed.”

Now pinch yourself…..

327 square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon basin was deforested in March, the highest level since 2008, as the illegal loggers take advantage of reduced law enforcement.

It is an even bigger existential challenge than Covid-19.

And once all of this is over – even beforehand – we still have a long way to go.

Day Thirty Nine: Thursday 23rd April 2020

Daily Diary: A Giving Tree In A Changing World

Outside the front of our house on the common there is a stump that is used by many people in many different ways. Kids sit on it when out with their parents taking the air. Exercisers use it as a prop – then sit on it when out of breath. I’ve even seen it take centre-stage in a photo-shoot between (I hope) housemates. It was an elm until not so long ago, until it succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. It became necrotic and we feared it would die and fall our way. We were particularly concerned for Midge next door, whose house would most likely take the brunt, but cars in the street were vulnerable too. More troubling still was the risk to life and limb. We have a large secondary school a couple of hundred metres away and the thought of a tree crashing down on a child didn’t bear entertaining. So I sent an email to the council, politely stating the risk and gently letting them know that they would be sued in the event of any damage – and we really didn’t want that ugly little scenario, did we?

 Public safety is one thing. The jitters in a council legal department is quite another. All credit to them, the tree came down within three days of sending. I was pretty sad about the whole matter. Instigating the felling of a tree, even a sick one, is not a pleasant thing to do. Not quite in the same league as taking your pet on a one way journey to the vet’s, but it’s down the same road.

The long and the short of it all is there is a stump, that is still giving. It reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s bittersweet children’s story, ‘The Giving Tree.’ If you haven’t read it (or seen the You Tube clip), do.

Transformations are fascinating. How one reality morphs into another, sometimes suddenly, at other times almost imperceptibly.

That’s what’s happening with lockdown.

This morning I had black coffee. The leaking milk container a week ago has meant we have run out. So black it is and I quite enjoyed it. Washing, drying and putting away the crockery and cutlery has become part of the day. First the glassware, then the mugs, then the plates, followed by the cutlery, pots and pans. Each phase has something in the sink and something draining dry. I combine it with the research and writing that goes into this journal, so when I want to clear my head I move the wash one step along the production line. I don’t need to do much drying, as everything drains and evaporation does most of the work. It’s part of a system. Part of a routine, and I keep telling myself that the loss of a dishwasher is no big deal.

Even though in my heart of hearts I know it is, but allow me a little blend of OCD and denial – it’s good for lockdown morale.

But in that process, life has changed. Getting groceries has changed, purchasing goods exclusively online has changed, even the rhythm of the day has changed, even though Vicky and I are both retired, along with all its accompanying rituals and disciplines.

Things have transformed. There’s even tacit social messaging that they should do. Leaving me an intrigued witness to it all.

I’m treating the mail in a new way today. I’m using Ultraviolet (UV) irradiation. It stops the sogginess that comes with bleach, along with the municipal bath smell afterwards. I’m using a portable UV lamp and a box. I tell myself that for larger items a small cupboard or understairs toilet will suffice (even though I never get round to it). However, UV is dangerous – that’s why we can sterilise with it – so I always use gloves, wear sunnies and avoid looking directly at the light, pretty though it is. The UV also produces ozone which acts as a disinfectant, so best if it’s confined. Ten minutes each side – it’s a bit like grilling.

A couple of months ago I’d never have dreamt of doing this!

The Bigger Picture: The Emperor’s New Clues

I’m sure that the 23rd April 2020 will long be remembered for President Trump’s very public and truly bizarre foray into the medical treatment of Covid-19. It had all the madness of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’

Only yesterday Rick Bright left his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), allegedly for disagreeing and therefore being disloyal to the president. Which could explain why the medical experts at the televised Covid-19 briefing session were so uneasily silent. Dr Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator was visibly uneasy, to the point of squirming as her boss spouted nonsense about injecting household disinfectant and “hitting the body with ultraviolet or very strong light.”

These insane ramblings had no effect on the level of support from his base, but did on medical emergency callouts.

An NIH expert panel has recommended against using the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to treat the coronavirus outside clinical trials, undercutting early claims that the drug was a promising treatment. New guidelines for the federal agency led by Dr Anthony Fauci said there is no proven drug for treating Covid-19 patients. For weeks Dr Fauci has emphasised the lack of scientific evidence to support any potential treatment.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 is spreading to America’s South with unnerving speed. In spite of that Southern governors are beginning to reopen their states. For most, it is too early, but despite that there is pressure as an informal coalition of conservative groups has been working to nurture protests and apply legal and political pressure to overturn stay-at-home orders.

There is evidence that that kind of denial is dangerous. News emerges today that two weeks after Republicans in Wisconsin State legislature forced the state to hold in-person  election, Milwaukee health officials have announced the first cases of voters testing positive for Covid-19.

In some world views life comes cheap.

In a desperate quest to have supplies available of sedatives and paralytics to treat the most severe covid patients a group of doctors write an open letter to correctional facilities in those twenty five states that still have the death penalty. Public records indicate that Florida, Nevada and Tennessee have at least enough medicine to treat 137 patients. Some states declare nothing, knowing pharmaceutical companies stance on the use of their products – rightly so – and keeping their cards close to their chests. Other states refuse to hand their stockpiles over.

While these drugs may only alleviate a small fraction of the total anticipated deaths, the letter argues, attempting to save each life is a central ethical directive. The letter concludes:

“At this crucial moment for our country we must prioritise the needs and lives of patients above ending the lives of prisoners.”

By contrast, in the months ahead, the president will authorise thirteen federal executions before he leaves office, the most any president has done in at least a century. If there aren’t enough drugs to facilitate execution by lethal injection the US Justice Department revises permissible methods to include hanging, electrocution, poison gas and even death by firing squad.

When Trump leaves office the death toll from Covid-19 will surpass four hundred thousand souls.

In some world views life comes cheap.

The xenophobia card is still there to play as President Trump declared yesterday that he would temporarily halt issuing green cards. It’s a card which has worked well in securing his base ever since he ran for office way back in 2016, starting with managing the southern border.

Step by step that xenophobia has now come to include China, now America’s greatest rival, as an ill-chosen war of words escalates into growing and dangerous tensions. Trump’s “China virus” and “kung-flu” inflame, rather than moderate and diplomacy. China, now expansive and aggressive, is by no means an innocent party. Intelligence agencies report the spreading of disinformation, China’s propaganda machine has highlighted other countries’ mistakes during this pandemic, while suppressing domestic problems, fuelling anger towards foreigners and domestic critics as well. While American warships have sailed into disputed waters in the South China Sea and a war of words between the US and China over the pandemic intensifies.

There are now two highly contrasting views in an increasingly existential struggle for the mind and soul of humankind.

It is one of a number of major paradigm shifts catalysed by the pandemic, telling us that life afterwards will never be the same.

The president has other distractions too, as the Trump International Hotel in Washington seeks a break on the terms of the its lease from the landlord, which happens to be his own administration.

But that has little to do with Covid-19.

Covid-19 is a disease with three stages – an airborne viral infection, a violent immune system overreaction known as a cytokine storm, and the slow to emerge, and even slower to understand, long covid. Dealing with the first two stages is problematic. Damp down the immune system too soon and the body’s defenceless against the virus or any other opportunistic infection. Do nothing and the body’s own immune system goes into auto-destruct mode, shutting down the lungs and other vital organs.

It’s not a one size fits all. Elderly patients are more likely to enter the second stage because the ACE2 receptors found in lung lining cells become more numerous with age, giving more viruses a chance to get a hold, and in turn stimulating a more extreme immune overreaction. But some relatively younger sufferers draw the short straw, simply through the perverse lottery of genetic variation. The fittest can still be at death’s door in some cruel game of chance.

The father of a middle aged marathon runner described the virus as “a combination of ‘Alien,’ ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still,’ ‘The Andromeda Strain’ and ’Apocalypse Now.’”

I would add ‘Life,’ and I might be guilty of scribbling corona critters, but I won’t give the virus a name like Calvin.

If you haven’t seen the movie, check it out.

The runner’s cytokine storm was arrested with the anti-inflammatory drug, Actemra, repurposed from treating  rheumatoid arthritis, another disease where the immune system goes into overdrive, following a process of induction by the physician and some encouraging results from China. There are other promising drugs, such as sarilumab, also known as Kezvara, in Italy, doing much the same thing.

It was yet another drug repurposed from treating rheumatoid arthritis, tocilizumab, along with sarilumab that were used to treat British PM, Boris Johnson. Jenny McGee, one of the two nurses dedicated to his treatment said he “absolutely needed” intensive care treatment after his symptoms worsened.

Repurposing a number of drugs, not just for treating rheumatoid arthritis, but also for dealing with other viral pathogens such as Ebola and HIV, is beginning to yield positive outcomes, shortening the length of the most critical second stage of the disease, but also improving survival rates. But in the process it becomes evident that beating future pandemics will require more medical laboratory professionals. People are dying from Covid-19 because we’re not fast enough at clinical research and research into other diseases such as cancer and Alzheimers has been overtaken in the drive to beat the virus.

It’s one of many ways in which Covid-19 is stealing the show when it comes to healthcare. Other critical functions falter. Transplants plummet as overwhelmed hospitals focus on the coronavirus.

But step by step we’re getting there as , not just in terms of how the disease works, but also in the way it spreads through the population.

Tens of thousands of households in England are being asked to take part in a new study to track the spread of Covid-19 infection and how many people have developed antibodies to the virus. The first part of the study will involve 20,000 households in England, chosen to be representative of the UK population in age and geography.

Mutations might be one of our biggest concerns about the virus, but thanks to genomics it helps in tracking the virus and understanding how it travels through a population. So the genetic sequence of the coronavirus that was detected in Seattle-area man who was initially believed to be the country’s first confirmed infection has become a crucial clue in understanding how the pathogen gained a foothold in the US. The fact that other preceding cases since emerged shows that the virus had not been seeded by a single point of entry. That broader ‘leakiness’ has been one of the major factors in countries like the US and UK where air travel and border fluidity have made the virus almost impossible to keep under any kind of control.

The spread of the virus is also counter-intuitive, or more to the point it cannot be figured out by a simple line of reasoning. For example frontline healthcare workers are found to be at no greater risk of catching Covid-19 than other NHS workers, according to research published in the Lancet. The study compared infection rates in Newcastle hospitals between doctors and nurses who deal directly with Covid-19 patients and the other hospital and administrative staff found that out of the 1,029 staff tested, the rate of infection among patient-facing staff was 15.4 per cent while for non-clinical workers it was 16.3 per cent. For non-clinical staff, such as finance or IT workers, the risk of being infected was higher, at 18.4 per cent.

We also find that zoonosis is a two way street. Two cats in separate areas of New York have tested positive for Covid-19 after showing symptoms of a mild respiratory illness. As time passes the transit of the virus to not only cats, but other animals too such as mink, happens to be more commonplace than was originally thought.

The virus and how it hitches a ride on the human population is not fully understood. There are fears, as the American CDC director warns that that second Covid-19 wave will be “even more difficult,” while the only hope of a way out for many – a working vaccine – is met with caution by the scientific and pharma communities, despite tens of millions of pounds being spent on trials that are now starting. Professor Chris Whitty, England’s CMO, poured cold water on the hope that an impending vaccine could be the way out of lockdown, while the CEO of Roche described a coronavirus vaccine in 12 to 18 months as “ambitious.”

Part of the reason why there are black holes in our knowledge of the pandemic is that it is a horrendously complex phenomenon, that becomes increasingly so as it spreads through the world’s population. But part of the reason is the wilful lack of transparency by governments, not finding the moral courage to admit that those in power, like everyone else, make errors of judgement.

China is very much in the spotlight on this score. In its bid for global hegemony its leadership cannot be allowed to be seen as in any way flawed. The country’s leaders have been accused of a cover-up, of simply not reporting the true scale of deaths in a country of over a billion people. “It can’t be right,” a Wuhan resident told Radio Free Asia on Friday. “The incinerators have been working around the clock, so how is it so few people have died?”

A Chinese journalist who went missing for nearly two months after streaming videos from Wuhan has reappeared, and claims he was detained and forcibly quarantined by police. Li Zehua was one of the Chinese journalists reporting from Wuhan’s front lines during the Covid-19 epidemic who mysteriously disappeared. A former employee of state broadcaster CCTV, the 25 year old was last seen on February 26th in a video he posted online. The hours-long live stream ended when agents entered his apartment – and he hasn’t been seen since.

But it’s not unique to China. In some parts of Europe people have accused their governments of not being transparent in the figures they are publishing. In Germany, Italy and Spain and elsewhere, daily death tolls are hospitals-only fatalities, which don’t include care homes and the community. Worryingly, according to a Financial Times analysis published today, in the UK 41,000 people may have already died, which is more than double the official figure of 17,337. There is also a BBC-leaked memo of recording Covid-19 deaths as pneumonia etc.

Number 10 becomes truly Orwellian as it coerces Simon McDonald, senior civil servant at the FCO, into retracting his words to contradict what he had reported to a Parliamentary Select Committee – that a ‘distancing’ from the EU was at least part responsible for the current PPE supply problems. While Matt Hancock’s department of Health and Social Care had ‘warned Number 10’ not to publicise PPE shipments.

You might not approve, but you can understand how soldiers can be expected to surrender their lives in support of a political narrative. But health and care workers?

It’s dark, but for now, by kicking the can of an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, the Government escapes scrutiny.

Belgium appears to be an exception. It is a small country of 11 million people, which, at the time of writing, has over 6,200 recorded coronavirus-related deaths. But, unlike elsewhere, more than half of these deaths were recorded in retirement homes. And of the total deaths that occurred in those homes, four per cent were cases confirmed by a Covid-19 test and 96 per cent were suspected ones. The prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, said that the government “made the choice of full transparency when communicating deaths” linked to the virus, even if it resulted in “numbers that were sometimes overestimated.”

Some other countries use Belgium’s poor per-capita death toll as a means of pointing out their own figures, borne largely from less transparency, are not so bad.

So it goes.

Little over a month ago 50,000 fans watched Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid at Anfield, Lewis Capaldi sang to 12,000 fans (although fair, but slightly misguided, play to him, he advised them to bring hand sanitiser), the Government had all but abandoned test and trace in the community, announcing it was moving out of the “contain” phase into the “delay” phase, terms that were lost as they confused the pre-lockdown populace. The spike of infections was to be flattened over time, so the most serious cases could be managed over a longer period of time until herd immunity was to be reached.

Orwell’s pigs planning the fate of the sheep.

The rationale was something like this:

“The social distancing for the coronavirus is destroying the economy. Wouldn’t it make more sense to isolate the elderly and vulnerable and expose all the young and healthy people to the virus, thereby stopping the spread as they recover?”

But the Government went back on the plan when it occurred to them that not only would this result in a catastrophic death toll among the elderly, but the level of hospitalisations and intensive care far exceeded the healthcare resources that could be mustered.

There was talk that doctors would have to choose whom of those hospitalised to treat, and then the disease would start to kill those who should have survived, including the young and healthy. Italy reached the brink, and unofficial reports from Iran suggest they’d passed it. As a health crisis it would be calamitous.

But from a government perspective, as a political crisis it would be catastrophic, as, still focused on Brexit they had failed to protect us all.

Ask a politician in the Government now about their original discussions about herd immunity, look at your watch and count the seconds. It will be less than ten seconds before they change the subject, and in a year’s time they’ll be demanding your gratitude for the vaccine.

So it goes.

There is a set of metaphysical scales. At a glance they could be easily be mistaken for the scales of justice. But not so this time. The scales have the economy in one pan and human lives, like pennyweights in the other.

Senior Tory MP, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls on the Government to give businesses “hope” as to when some sort of normality might resume. Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey said it plans to resume work on its construction sites on May 14th. Aston Martin, worried that after a difficult 2019, reopen their factory in South Wales.

But for most, returning to normality is some way off. By 4 pm yesterday, the Government’s furlough scheme has received 387,000 applications, covering 2.8 million employees. The help is not getting everywhere: a Government-backed start-up faces bankruptcy after being refused a Covid-19 loan. A street food vendor who launched his dream business with a startup loan scheme is now facing bankruptcy. In fact there are three and a half million the scheme does not reach.

If you are among that three and a half million there are captive animals doing better than you. Zoos and aquariums are to get emergency help to avert financial disaster. Animals still have to be fed and looked after, but no money is coming through the turnstiles. There were understandable fears that many animals in zoos might be destroyed, and one zoo in Germany had effectively set up an in-house food-chain, with its prized polar bear as the top exhibit, much to the public’s horror when the contingency plans leaked out.

As public borrowing surges to its highest March level since 2016.

In the US, the Senate on Tuesday passed the next phase of Covid-19 relief, a $484 billion piece of legislation that will replenish the small business loan programme established last month, as well as allocating funds for hospitals and virus testing.

All we have to do is to live from one day to the next and watch the old reality morph into the new like a Tik-Tok sequence in slow motion:

  • The Government announces that  social distancing restrictions are to stay until the end of the year, with schools set to remain closed until at least June 1st. It places much more of a burden on women, who are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to both looking after children and seeing that they are educated, in many cases while holding down a job online. There are many men who share the load, but the level of parity is disappointing, according to a number of preliminary studies. Covid-19, in the stark way in which it reveals weaknesses in society, demonstrates how far we still are from gender equity, let alone equality.
  • Coupled with that trend, domestic violence has increased during lockdowns. In America cities reports rose after shutdowns, while other crimes fell, but it’s not just America – it turns out to be a worldwide trend.
  • We spend more time watching TV and movies at home. Netflix adds 15.8 million subscribers in the first quarter.
  • For those who read the pandemic becomes its own obsession. Penguin sees a surge in sales of books about viruses. Plague books are popular too.
  • We get the first virtual Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. There were technical problems and MPs being like so many of the rest of us in being fazed, while traditionalists like Jacob Rees Mogg worried about something that was totally post-Victorian getting derailed. But it happened, and it worked, with a hybrid working model of a few MPs in the chamber and the rest appearing on-screen. With prime minister Boris Johnson still recovering it was Dominic Raab who stands at the Dispatch Box.  Keir Starmer grills Dominic Raab over the low levels of testing for Covid-19 in the UK. The new Labour leader used his first PMQs to grill Dominic Raab, and said that the UK is “way behind the curve” in terms of testing. It’s a massive challenge that the Government will continue to struggle with over the months ahead, but without it there is no way a lockdown can be ended safely.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic is causing hotels to raise the hygiene bar. Marriott International, the world’s third largest hotel chain, is rolling out hospital-grade disinfectants.
  • Andorra, the landlocked nation between France and Spain, has adopted a unique way of easing lockdown restrictions. Those who live in even-numbered homes are allowed to go out on even dates, while those who reside in odd-numbered homes follow suit on all other days.
  • David Attenborough hopes that working from home becomes permanent after the pandemic.

The new reality amongst medics on the frontline is now dominated by the shortage of PPE and the fear of both being infected and infecting others. Putting on a brave face becomes central to the political narrative. Deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, who believes she has had Covid-19, although in the early days if you didn’t go to hospital it was unlikely you’d be tested, has said the issue of whether members of the public should wear face masks is “difficult.”

It’s not that difficult, but it’s a reply that captures the moment. Human coronaviruses are mostly respiratory, and although other modes of infection, such as oral and faecal, are by no means unknown, the primary route is airborne. So the precautionary principle should apply and everyone ought to place additional barriers between themselves and others, and even if there is still much to be learned about Covid-19. That should have been the default position.

But in a government that’s gone from delay to crisis and is now enduring the chaotic consequences. The issue of masks is one of panicking over supply and demand whereas a little imagination would have come up with any face covering being better than no face covering at all. If we all went round like Jesse James on a bank job it would be better than not putting two barriers between two neighbouring people. Better still – and it’s beginning already – a cottage industry emerges to produce non-surgical masks.

Meanwhile, nearly three quarters of anaesthetists fear for their health due to inadequate supplies of protective equipment. A survey of the Royal College of Anaesthetists members finds that more than a quarter of the 2,100 respondents felt pressured to treat coronavirus patients without adequate PPE, It was also found that 17 per cent were unable to access the PPE they needed.

At least three London paramedics have been lost to Covid-19. They are inadequately protected and have to go into confined, often poorly ventilated and sometimes unsanitary places. In time there will be a number more.

What always stick in my mind are the personal lockdown stories. Here are four of today’s:

  • “I’ve moved back in with my parents to pay off my debt. It’s not what I expected in 2020.
  • “I’ve been looking for gluten-free self-raising flour now for the past two to three weeks. I’m in isolation on the shielding list. I’m terminal, along with many other issues, if you look at my main page, but we have found nothing as it is always sold out. Could anyone please help us? Obviously not after freebies, so will be fully reimbursed. Thanks so much x”
  • A teacher gave birth in her car outside a supermarket after a passing ambulance crew mistook her husband’s attempt to flag them down as cheers of gratitude towards the NHS. Hannah Howells, 33, and her husband, Andy, from Hamble in Hampshire, were driving to Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton on April 19th when she realised she wasn’t going to arrive in time.
  • The older generation in Russia are finding lockdown a struggle. One 80 year old is refusing to conform. “Old people have got to stay between four walls most of the time anyway, so not letting us go out is a torture.”

Globally, the outlook is bleak. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, CEO of the World Health Organisation warns that many countries are still in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the head of the UN, Antonio Guterres sent a video message warning that there is discrimination in the delivery of public service, and there are “structural inequalities that impede access to them.” He said the pandemic has also seen “disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risk of heavy handed security responses undoing the health response.

There is a concern that poor countries might easily be forgotten in the Covid-19 battle.

And not just from Covid-19.

The world also faces a famine of “biblical” proportions, in which the number suffering from extreme hunger could increase from 135 million to more than 250 million, David Beasley, the Director of the World Food programme has warned the UN. The risk is particularly acute in ten countries – Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Nigeria and Haiti – but has the risk of spreading further afield if swift action is not taken.

I have followed the work of Dr Jane Goodall ever since I was in the sixth form way back in the late sixties. In my pantheon of people to admire she’s up there with David Attenborough. So when she says that warnings of a pandemic were ignored and humanity has “disrespected the natural world” I listen. The renowned primatologist, 86, said she was not surprised at the current global health crisis, listing the trading of wildlife and the encroachment on habitats as contributing factors.

Some news from countries around the world:

  • European leaders continue to wrangle over the covid recovery package. Spain’s foreign minister, Arancha González Laya, has said that “the bloc itself is at risk. In this crisis, either we all sink or we all float. Spain wants everyone to float, for sure.” EU leaders have already agreed to a 500 billion euro package, but Madrid wants more long term aid, and is calling for a 1.5 trillion euro recovery package, to be financed by perpetual debt. They are not alone.
  • The Netherlands, likely to carry a greater financial burden in the rescue package, are not at all happy about the arrangement. They find themselves in a position reminiscent of pre-Brexit Britain, isolated in a recent European Union council of ministers, with attitudes described by other European leaders past and present as “repugnant”.
  • The French government wants all retail outlets other than restaurants and bars to reopen once the national lockdown is lifted on May 11th, finance minister Bruno Le Maire said on Thursday.
  • There are virus warnings for Ramadan as Pakistan keeps its mosques open.
  • The Peronist president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández has dealt well with the pandemic, but the virus arrived in a country already deep in recession and the country’s finances rather than the disease that will make or break it. Countries need stimulus packages as part of their overall recovery. Creating one when deep debt is already a problem will be a major challenge.
  • Cyril Ramaphosa has unveiled a stimulus package worth ten per cent of South African GDP – $25 billion – and will seek loans and support from the IMF and World Bank in a bid to prevent the lockdown triggering a severe depression.
  • Justin Trudeau is facing calls to increase the share available to people living in urban areas or living outside of reservations of a $350 million fund to help Canada’s indigenous population. Just $15 million is available, despite the fact that half of Canada’s indigenous population live off reservation.

Finally, I was intrigued by a set of predictions made today in iNews and, briefly, how they turned out twelve months later

Ten ways in which Covid-19 will change life in the UK:

Health: long term boosts for the NHS.

The NHS England budget is shown to fall from £148bn in 2020/21 to £139bn in 2021/22. In 2020/21 NHS England got £18 bn in extra funding for its Covid-19 response, in 2021/22 it will get just £3 bn in extra funding, although the cost of the Covid-19 response is unlikely to have fallen so sharply.

Economy: struggles for jobs and higher tax bills for those in work.

Low Covid infection rates and vaccinations lead to a surge in consumer spending. The unemployment rate is also lower than expected. The recovery is looking V-shaped, but what that means for the average person remains to be seen. There are concerns about inflation.

Politics: Brexit is delayed, the state grows and an inquiry awaits.

Boris Johnson secures the thinnest of free trade deals with the EU, with destructive consequences for exports, Northern Ireland and, most ironically, fishing. The state does grow and become increasingly autocratic, while the Covid-19 inquiry is kicked down the road, seemingly when its findings emerge after the next election, which the Tories are confident about winning.

Retail: high streets suffer but independents benefit.

This happens, with some major outlets like Debenhams folding up after 200 years on the high street.

Social care: funding issue is finally confronted.

This doesn’t happen. Social care is barely mentioned in the Queen’s Speech on May 11th 2021.

Education: inequalities grow at school as hard-up universities turn to remote learning.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 15% of teachers from deprived schools reported that more than a third of pupils would not have electronic access to school work compared to 2% at more affluent state schools. The government scheme to ensure digital access for all pupils falls short, leaving many poorer households limited in how much children’s education is supported. There is a strong backlash from university students who find remote learning inadequate and certainly not value for money for the high fees they are paying.

Technology: consumer tech market falls, as surveillance grows.

The consumer tech market grows significantly with video-conferencing becoming a new norm, online purchasing growing considerably, telehealth, robotics, 3-D printing and more. Consumer desire for 5G outpaces hesitancy over surveillance, despite numerous conspiracy theories.

Environment: big climate-change challenges, but greener lifestyles.

There were almost immediate positive environmental effects, particularly for air quality and wildlife as people travelled less, and with this has come a growing and more widespread environmental awareness among people that change was possible. However, as lockdown was lifted people quickly returned to their pre-pandemic patterns of behaviour. Certain environmental issues, such as water quality have had more mixed outcomes and there has been no impact on use of plastic. When it comes to greener lifestyles there’s still some way to go.

Justice: more video witnesses with police needing to restore trust.

Confused messaging to the police by politicians along with home secretary Priti Patel’s draconian policing bill that exploited protest events during the pandemic leave the police with an uphill battle if they are to restore public trust.

Entertainment: more repeats as BBC bounces back.

The BBC and other entertainment channels become remarkably creative and adaptable. Initially there were more repeats but fresh material grew as the year progressed. Online and hybrid audiences in many shows became the norm. More viewers turned to Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services.

What we saw then and what we know now: It all goes to show how hard predicting the future is.

All we can do is try our best to anticipate it as best we can.

Day Thirty Eight: Wednesday 22nd April 2020

Daily Diary: The Postman Rings Twice

Another blue sky day, not as windy as yesterday but I’ve seen very little of it. It’s been a strange, disrupted day where nothing goes quite to plan and everything runs late.

The postman arrives and rings twice. He has two packages, along with a Private Eye magazine and a letter from BUPA. We do the usual gesturing through the glass pane of the front door and I retreat to put on a pair of gloves before I get to the front door. They’re in the conservatory at the back. Just as I reach them the doorbell rings again. I rush back, donning my yellow Marigolds as I go along.

“Your post! It’s down here!” the postman calls out.

“I know! I was getting my gloves,” I reply.

“Your what?”

“My gloves!” I wave my Marigolds. Jazz hands shouldn’t look like this.

“Ah! I was worried they’d get nicked,” he said.

“That’s okay. Thanks again.”

And he went on his way. It’s now totally permissible to be eccentrically OCD. OCD is good. OCD is wise. OCD prevents you from winning a Darwin Award.

I take the post, including the third item – a green package the postie had put on the ground next to the front door – and put it on the table in the conservatory, spraying it with a mist of bleach and leave to dry, connecting double door to the rest of the house, conservatory windows open, so the whole place doesn’t whiff of an Olympic swimming pool.

 It’s obvious what’s in the green package. It’s my resupply of socks from M&S. For some reason I seem to be wearing my way through socks like they’re about to go out of fashion. Vicky says it’s because I don’t wear slippers. I’m old enough now to wear slippers and a cardigan without ridicule, but I don’t, so I guess the socks take a hammering.

Item four, on the other hand, is a box. And a mystery. I’ve ordered quite a few things that could come in a box this size. It could be the rooting powder, or a supply of seeds, or the LED lightbulbs for the conservatory lights. It turns out to be none of the above. Among the expanded polystyrene sausage shapes that look like anaemic Wotsits (they’re probably not cheesy either) there are three tubes of Beroccas.

I believe in the efficacy of the Vitamin B group, since so many of the substances contained within it are coenzymes, and some are coenzymes that facilitate respiratory pathways in cells. It’s like keeping your mobile phone fully charged to know that your cytochrome chain is going to be fully functional. But don’t let me distract you with all of this – it’s probably my very own personal unresearched belief in the magic of Vitamin B, and it’s probably just as quirky and oddball as other people’s weird health beliefs. Each to their own myths and fables, I say. If the heir to the throne can believe in homeopathy, I can believe in the potency of Vitamin B. At least I can argue the scientific basis for my delusions!

Then there’s the email I have to send to the flying club about fears that some enthusiasts making the rest of us look like complete irresponsible twats during lockdown. It’s preaching to the largely converted about the crass inadvisability of taking out your giant paraglider wing and floating it over your head with varying degrees of success in wide open spaces, advertising your foolishness to the world at large. I hope it works.

Also under lockdown I haven’t caught up with many of the members about their personal best medals. So how to get them out to them without costing the club an arm and a leg? I finally decide to print the post-paid labels online. It’s important. They represent some real achievements. At the top end there’s a medal going out for a 200km flight from Wiltshire to the Wash and several hours’ duration. No motor – just understanding the air, working it well and having the endurance of an Olympic athlete. Something like that shouldn’t be sitting in a box in my room.

Finally, the plan to hold the next club meeting on Zoom, something about which I have more than a little trepidation. At this stage I am very much a novice and it all seems so big and daunting. I’ll have a committee meeting first and we can test it out among a small group used to being mutually supportive. Here’s hoping!

All of this, plus Keir Starmer’s first PMQs in a semi-virtual parliament have set me back and I’ve still got the day’s news reports to do. Not only that, but Vicky’s taken a shine to the conservatory for her writing, so today I have to get this done elsewhere.

I suppose it is fair to share. Bags it tomorrow!

Oh, there’s the shopping list as well.

Busy times!

The Bigger Picture: What An Unholy, Haphazard, Disorganised Mess!

As the tyres on the undercarriage of the first of three heavy military transports with a desperately awaited cargo of medical gowns – shortly to be found to be useless – hit the asphalt with an ear-piercing screech Boris Johnson prepares to return to work with phone calls to President Trump and the Queen. We don’t know who he rang first.

The saga of the Turkish gowns has been running for a few days now, fed oxygen by the hype from government minister Robert Jenrick. It’s reported that they will constitute enough to be a three day supply for the NHS. But it’s dramatic, with side stories about customs issues and Anglo-Turkish diplomacy, and it’s a distraction from the haphazard and disorganised mess the Government finds itself in, as Dominic Raab, deputising for Boris Johnson is facing questions over the slow response to the Covid-19 outbreak that’s got the UK to this sorry point.

Ex-prime minister Tony Blair says he sympathises with Boris Johnson but adds there can’t be a void in decision making and suggests that the whole of the Government needs to be reordered in order to tackle the crisis, and said that mass testing is of vital importance.

Testing has to be reliable too.

In much the same way you’d need a parachute to be.

Some NHS workers have received letters asking them to be retested for Covid-19 following concerns that previous tests were faulty. Health minister Helen Whately told Sky News that early tests were evaluated and found to be “not effective enough.” Following that euphemism Ms Whately reveals that a total of 61 NHS staff are known to have died after becoming infected with the virus. In other words some of the staff could have returned to work while infected.

Helen Whately defended the Government’s efforts to acquire PPE for health and care workers. She said the Government had been contacted by more than 8,000 potential suppliers and that ministers are concentrating on those with established supply chains. It sounds as though the Government is spoilt for choice, but a year later it will emerge Government used an exclusive WhatsApp group, creating a VIP ‘fast track’ for Tory donors and cronies of those in power.

The defence became that it was a moment of crisis and following ‘needs-must’ the Government was doing “whatever it takes.”

The problem is that it doesn’t add up. Ministers were forced to defend the disclosure that millions of pieces of equipment, including respirators and masks had been shipped from British warehouses to Spain, Italy and Germany. It looks like half a million boxes of visors ready for the NHS could be exported.

It’s an Unholy, Haphazard, Disorganised Mess. The sort of muddle and mayhem that comic operettas and music hall acts mocked the government of the day in the nineteenth century, but the daily death toll makes it all unfunny. The Government misses out on 16 million face masks for the NHS in four weeks. Local government minister Simon Clarke said that the current “guidance does not support wearing face masks in public” and that supplies to NHS workers were the current priority. NHS chiefs have expressed concerns that supplies to frontline staff could be jeopardised if people are advised to wear masks.

The muddle and mayhem is even used as an excuse as health minister Helen Whately also reiterates the Government’s line that its failure to join a Brussels-led PPE procurement scheme was not politically motivated, as had been claimed by Simon Stevens the top civil servant at the Foreign Office.

“It’s very frustrating,” she says. “It appears that there was a communications error, an email that went astray and that meant we didn’t participate in a scheme that’s running.”

Brussels immediately contradicts the Government line insisting that Britain had “ample opportunity” to take part in EU joint procurement exercises for protective gear and medical equipment to tackle coronavirus.

Meanwhile social care groups are struggling to secure enough PPE on the open market. Plans to allow them to access the NHS supply chain had left them in a dire situation, with all PPE due to run out within days.

And predatory Brexiteer-run hedge funds are betting against firms that make vital PPE for doctors and nurses, despite pleas for them to stop.

Writer Philip Pullman says that ministers should face charges if PPE supplies were delayed ‘for political reasons.’

Unlike the sinister Magisterium in ‘His Dark Materials’ this Government lacks any depth of order.

But like the Magisterium they are untouchable.

America discovers it has been hosting the virus for over three weeks longer than had first been thought. Santa Clara County, California, officials said two people had died at home on February 6th and 17th. Previously, the first reported American death from the virus was on February 29th in Kirkland, Washington. That the virus could have been stealthily spreading through the population is unsettling.

The idea that it was imported from elsewhere to a country where many enjoy its isolationism breeds xenophobia and Americans take an even more negative view of China, especially if they are older and vote Republican. This is reflected in the US state of Missouri suing the Chinese government over its handling of Covid-19 as Beijing calls for solidarity and less “finger pointing” during the pandemic.

President Trump taps into that isolationism and says he’ll sign an executive order to temporarily halt immigration to the US as the covid outbreak continues to spread.

Referring to the coronavirus, or “the Invisible Enemy”, as well as “the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens”, Trump tweeted that he will “be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

He whips up outrage, especially from Democrats and immigration lawyers, slamming him for ‘xenophobic scapegoating,’ but it’s the politics of division he feeds off and thrives on.

But Trump is right in one respect. Covid-19 is “the Invisible Enemy,” made even more so by the  shortage of tests. Contact tracing of any kind is impossible to carry out on a large enough scale. A comprehensive contact-tracing programme would mean performing 2.5 million tests a day, according to one estimate, but national daily testing capacity has plateaued at about 145,000. The bottom line is that any testing strategy has to be part of a much broader and coordinated public health effort, and public health in the US has its fractures. State governors have said a shortage of tests was among the a barrier to lifting restrictions, in some cases rejecting the Trump administration’s claim that the supply was adequate.

Meanwhile governors are finding covid costly. States are already draining their unemployment funds, meaning they might need a future federal bailout. Georgia is taking aggressive steps to reopen the economy and some businesses could be open as early as Friday.

In six months’ time Georgia will have the sixth highest number of Covid-19 cases and the tenth highest death rate in the United States.

You can’t get rid of covid with magical thinking.

That’s supernatural.

A virus is natural.

Unlike Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, the Bank of England chief Andrew Bailey understands that there is no ‘either the economy or the virus’ and he warns against early easing of lockdown. Pandemic economics is hard to understand. We know that the pandemic has hit countries hard, we know that huge debts are being created by governments to steer the citizens through the storm. But the indexes, alarming as they are, are not as disastrous as many feared. The ONS report that rate of the Consumer Price Index inflation decreased by 0.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent in March.

Hedge funds have performed well amid the world’s economic uncertainty.

Cynics say that’s because they have the option to bet against losers.

Some lose because of corporate weakness, especially among airlines, as they find themselves with too little to secure funds before they succumb to the coronavirus. The collapse of Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd after the briefest of fights, for example.

And while we’re with Virgin, some lose because no one easily forgets acts of meanness. Richard Branson sued the NHS when Virgin Healthcare lost out on an £82 million contract. When Nigel Lawson once said the NHS was the closest thing the English had to a religion, he might have said it with disdain and despair, but never a truer word has been said. You might as pickpocket the Pope in St Peter’s, or spray-can a caricature of the Prophet on a wall in Riyadh as disrespect the NHS in Blighty. We might not subscribe to the “not the done thing” mentality  any more – except when it comes to our National Health Service, that is.

I personally felt that it was mean-spirited at the time, and now, seeking a government bailout for his ailing airline, Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard is having his comeuppance.

Some lose temporarily. Online fashion retailer Boohoo suffered a marked fall in March sales as the coronavirus crisis deepened. But, being an online retailer, it recovered as customers got over the shock of markedly changed circumstances. In two months’ time Boohoo’s share price would reach an all-time high.

Sadly, for many high street retail stores losing becomes permanent as the shift to online speeds up.

In fact, there seems to be no end of losers as stocks plunge and oil prices continue to drop.

And those insuring such ventures lose too. Hiscox faces up to £142 million payments over covid claims.

In the pain of loss many businesses recoil, like rock pool sea anemones touched. A reflex action of withdrawal as finance leaders with scary balance sheets for costs to cut, are considering reducing the need for office space by permanently shifting to a position of employees to working remotely.

There will, in time, be some return to the office, but much will never be quite the same again for the world of work as well as the property market.

But it’s when ordinary people become losers that the pandemic is particularly cruel in ways that stretch far beyond its immediate effect. Time and again it reveals human unfairnesses. Big airlines and travel firms are denying refunds, despite the fact that it is illegal to do so. Working on a business model that one punter’s booking was actually funding someone else’s holiday, that the travel industry was eternally in debt to the future, when bookings dried up there was no one to pay up when holidays could not be provided.

In other walks of life you could go to prison for paying returns that were actually the ‘believed investments’ of others. But here it was, going on in plain sight, and at the very least the public were providing interest-free loans.

Then there are those who fall between the cracks of Covid-19 rescue plans. “I’m terrified of what the future holds. I have no income.” This is the story of the three million workers who can’t access Government support. “My dreams are shattered. All the Government needs to do is change the scheme to allow me and all the others affected to access it.”

For the most part they don’t.

Deaths in England have hit a 20 year high. The UK ONS reported 18,500 deaths in the week up to 10th April, about 8,000 more than usual for this time of year. New analysis also reveals that as many as 41,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, not 17,337, as the Government reports. From now on the official figure will be those who died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, and that 24,000 death discrepancy, including home deaths early in the pandemic, will always be there.

Structural under-reporting, if you like. We are, after all, according to Dr Pangloss, in the best of all possible worlds. So certain politicians would have us believe.

In France, scientists warn that the current level of infection won’t be enough to prevent a second wave. It’s true for Britain and most other countries too.

Where people are in close confinement the virus spreads particularly aggressively. Thirty three more members of an Italian registered cruise ship, the Costa Atlantica, docked in southern Japan have tested positive, a day after the first case on the ship was reported. There were no passengers on board and a crew of over 600. While prisons worldwide risk becoming incubators of Covid-19. Governments have few ideas about how to stop it. Even freeing inmates carries big risks.

Where a country does reach the recovery stage, there’s a sinister long reach as China finds many of its early patients are unable to shed Covid-19.

Back in Britain we’re nowhere near that, although lingering after effects are already being noticed.

Where Britain is at is like the height of the Blitz.

There are gestures of national spirit. Stephen Hawking’s ventilator has been donated to the NHS to help treat Covid-19 patients at a hospital in Cambridge.

“It’s like building Spitfires,” an enthusiastic journalist describes the work of Formula 1 engineers scratch-building ventilators and helping to battle Covid-19. VentilatorChallengeUK is a consortium of fifteen engineering and medical companies collaborating to scale up the production of two existing ventilators, the Penlon ESO 2 Emergency Ventilator device and the Smiths paraPAC Plus™.

It’s a much publicised venture and produces over thirteen thousand ventilators for the NHS, before the project is folded up and the engineers return to their core business seven weeks from now.

It was an achievement in collaboration, logistics and production. By September Britain will have a stockpile of 30,000 ventilators. 2,150 were used by the NHS.

More than the laudable work by highly skilled professionals, it has to be said that it also was an achievement of public relations. When VentilatorChallengeUK did end Michael Gove exaggerated the number of ventilators made. By a thousand.

The reality is that simultaneous with wartime assembly triumphs new analysis is coming out in medical journals revealing the need for less reliance on ventilators to treat Covid-19 patients. Invasive ventilation involving intubation carries its own risks and there is a growing recognition that some Covid-19 patients, even those with severe disease as shown by the extent of lung infection, can be safely treated with simple nose prongs or face masks. What really matters is access to oxygen.

Treatment drugs still remain a problem. Much of it involves repurposing existing medicines. Not always with success. In a small, randomised control study, researchers in China find that the HIV drug Kaletra and influenza drug Arbidol have no effect on patients with mild to moderately severe Covid-19 infections.

The ongoing debate about hydroxychloroquine continues.

In a retrospective study which has not been peer-reviewed, doctors examined patient outcomes for US military veterans with Covid-19 who were given hydroxychloroquine and compared them to patients who did not receive that treatment; the researchers concluded that there was no overall benefit – and there were more deaths when treated with hydroxychloroquine alone.

It’s his rejection of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for Covid-19 that results in Rick Bright, Director of BARDA, the US agency for vaccine development leaving his role suddenly. It’s read as disloyalty to the president. Trump has repeatedly promoted hydroxychloroquine as a therapeutic treatment for coronavirus, touting its possible effects at White House briefings as recently as April 13th.

Asked to weigh in on Bright’s departure at today’s press briefing, the president went into denial worthy of Saint Peter when Jesus was in a rough spot.

“I’ve never heard of him. When did this happen?” Trump asked, then added, “I never heard of him. Guy says he was pushed out of a job, maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t.”

Worse than that, Trump’s enthusiasm for hydroxychloroquine lands a number of his followers in a very bad place. It’s an ingredient of a number of domestic products and the US CDC finds there has been a rise in accidental poisonings with cleaners and disinfectants linked to the pandemic.

The only real ray of light – and it’s a faint glimmer at the moment is that day by day we are beginning to hear news about vaccine development. The leader of a team of British scientists seeking to develop a Covid-19 vaccine has said he is “very confident” one will be found. Professor Robin Shattock from Imperial College’s Department of Infectious Diseases, said Covid-19 is a less difficult target than diseases like HIV and influenza. Furthermore, Covid-19 vaccine testing is to start this week in the UK.

It’s exciting. A real achievement, and even though we should be cautious in our optimism there are early signs there might be a way out of the mess we find ourselves in.

News of our new reality:

Is cruel to care home residents: At least 70 residents of a nursing home in New Jersey have died from Covid-19, among more than 7,000 deaths at nursing homes across the country.

One of the most shocking aspects of France’s coronavirus crisis has been the number of deaths in retirement homes. Anelise Borges visited the Hector Mandel nursing home on the outskirts of Paris – a part of a collective of sites that houses 1,150 people. It took weeks for them to get protective masks and they are still short of protective gowns and oxygen concentrators – a device that removes nitrogen from the air and produces oxygen-enriched gas for patients to inhale.

Is dismissive of the departed: Not even the funeral business is finding the pandemic profitable. Funerals are now almost entirely no-frills.

Is doubly harsh on the vulnerable: “It made me realise he needs help.” Living with addicted loved ones in lockdown. Supporting a loved one with an addiction is difficult at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.

Is skewing our world view: More than 50 per cent of US political ads on TV are about the coronavirus, the first time that a majority of ads were focused on the outbreak, according to Advertising Analytics.

Is encouraging our reading habits: The worldwide lockdowns mean e-book sales have increased. But many book lovers say reading a tablet doesn’t compare to feeling the turning of the pages of an actual book. And now readers in Rome can breathe a sigh of relief as bookstores across Italy are open for business once more.

Brings out the best in some celebrities: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, George Stephanopoulos: covid-recovered celebrities donating plasma for a cure. The One World: Together at Home online concert raised over £100 million in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Creates new rituals of respect: Hospital staff lined the streets to pay their respects to ‘devoted’ orthopaedic surgeon who died after testing positive for Covid-19. Sadiq Elhewsh, 58, a father of four who had worked for St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospital NHS Trust in Merseyside for 17 years, died at Whiston Hospital, a spokesman for the health trust said.

But sadly, respect is not universal. The pandemic breeds a whole new clutch of crimes:

  • A 21 year old man who claimed to have Covid-19, spat at police while being arrested for a domestic assault after assaulting a woman in her home and damaging the property has been jailed.
  • Adverts promoting intravenous drips that claimed to boost immunity to Covid-19 have been banned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority.
  • A recruitment firm tricked a number of nurses, then sent them to the pandemic front lines.
  • The British National Cyber Security Centre announced on Monday that it had taken down more than 2,000 scams in a single month. The swindles included: 471 stores selling fraudulent coronavirus related items, 555 websites trying to launch malware on visitors, 200 phishing sites seeking personal information such as passwords or credit card details, and 832 “advance-fee frauds” where victims are duped into handing over a “set-up” payment in the belief they’ll get a large sum in return.
  • The American Food and Drug Administration has warned that some businesses are making false claims about their products, resulting in deeply flawed tests.

In more vulnerable parts of the world calamities are colliding. The United Nations warns that the world is on the brink of a ‘hunger pandemic.’

The UN children’s agency has called for an extra £73 million to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic in the Middle East and North Africa region. UNICEF says conflicts and wars have led to the highest number of children in need of assistance in the world. The agency estimates nearly 25 million children are suffering, many of whom are refugees or are internally displaced.

Around the world:

  • Lockdown eased as Netherlands and France plan to reopen primary schools.
  • China has no new deaths from Covid-19 but registered 30 new cases, 23 brought from abroad.
  • Ecuador prepares to reactivate its economy after Covid-19 quarantine.
  • With most of the continent on lockdown it’s still business as usual in Belarus. President Lukashenko has advised drinking more vodka, while the country’s top flight football league is the only one still playing in Europe. Testing, however, remains limited and the approach being adopted in Minsk has created divisions.
  • The Pope, on the eve of a summit, urges a fractured EU to find unity over Covid-19.

It will be a different world after the pandemic. Already, some are making their predictions about how our lives will change. This is from Forbes:

  • Healthcare for all will become more universally accepted.
  • Supply chains will become more local than global.
  • Unemployment benefit won’t be seen as ‘just for the lazy.’
  • We will shop, work and play more online.
  • The bias towards home will increase dramatically.
  • The digital divide will become a chasm.
  • Loss of trust will take some time to recover.
  • Insurance will become more centre stage.

Finally, I’m encouraged to take part in the Million Claps appeal to support our NHS in my newsfeed. It simply tells me:

Texting ‘CLAP’ to 70507 will result in a £5 donation to NHS charities.

So I do.

Day Thirty Seven: Tuesday 21st April 2020

Daily Diary: That Dark Demon, Time

Today is our dear friend and neighbour Peggy’s funeral. It’s a little over a month since she died, after three weeks in hospital. She was in her nineties and in deteriorating health. She much Have been bed-bound for at least a decade, in her front room, just a wall away from ours. That was her life, almost totally immobile with the television her main companion. Her infirmity created a physical distance between us and we knew her carers better than we knew her at the end – two women, one black, the other Asian in her hajib, both lovely people, always cheerful and good-spirited. They are more than carers – they are gifts from an outside world. Occasionally we would be invited in to steal a moment or two in their tight schedule to say hello, and there would be Peggy, more portly from being bedbound, but still the same sweet, good-natured soul.

It’s hard to believe that when we first moved in twenty eight years ago she was younger than we are now. Time is merciless. If you look closely at some of the more traditional Buddhist mandalas you will see a fearsome-looking demonic creature. We bought three mandalas in Kathmandu from the college of art and meditation, tucked away in the maze of the old city. All the mandalas we saw were exquisitely beautiful, painted in egg tempera from ground Himalayan minerals. But we stayed away from the creature mandalas – the traditional design – where you can’t escape the demonic creature.

“Who is this creature?” I asked one of the art students.

“It is Time,” the Nepalese student replied.

“It’s a frightening image,” Vicky observed.

“We are all frightened by Time,” said the student.

In those days Peggy was vital and full of energy. She was slim and we’d see and chat with her over the wooden garden fence. We had three cats then and she would spoil them all, so they became her cats as they were ours ……. Or, to be more precise she became their human as much as we were. We knew whenever we went away for a few days our cats would be looked after well, and they were.

Peggy, when she was young, was a biker. I don’t mean a biker’s chick, as the slang went way back then. I mean a real biker, with a beast of a Triumph motorbike, the leathers and all the gear. Who’d-a-thought it, this petite, sweet-natured, gentle and kindly cat-lover …….. but that’s life …… we morph from one form to another through time. We need to remind ourselves daily to do whatever we promise ourselves to do now, while we can, because some day, for one reason or another it will no longer be possible.

Peggy’s funeral is where almost all of us round these parts will end up – at Eltham Crematorium. Her daughter, Claire and her partner, John, are attending. There’s a massive discouragement for others to be there. There’s no doubt at all that in non-corona times Vicky and I, dressed smartly as a final expression of our love and respect for a recently passed soul, who left this world before cruel Covid-19 could reach her. Is there a mercy in that?

The sky meanwhile, remains blue and clear, but a strong wind blows.

And the weakest geranium is budding leaves in an affirmation of the potency of life.

The Bigger Picture: Deep Causes, Deep Consequences

I was told by a friend who had been a forensic scientist that wherever we go we pick up a little of where we are and leave behind a little of ourselves. That process can be subtle, but that’s not to say it’s of no consequence. There’s a trail of highly toxic PFA (polyfluoroalkyl) chemicals leading all the way up Mount Everest, courtesy the weatherproof coating shed from the clothing of thousands of climbers seeking their special moment to be on top of the world. There are strands of nucleic acid that seep from the natural to the human world. We call them viruses.

It’s about half a million years, as far as we know, that our ancestors built shelters in open ground. It’s at least ten thousand years since they built settlements. Ever since then the emergence of modern humans has involved engineering ways of separating ourselves from the vicissitudes of the natural world, with a large level of success. Like so much else in human experience it’s a two-edged sword. A product of that success has been a mindset that separation from nature is a desirable outcome of all our collective endeavours.

 We pay lip-service, by strolling in the great outdoors, some of us perhaps as far as Everest, make charitable donations to the protection of wildlife and support campaigns over issues like the metastasis of oil palm plantations across regions more accustomed to tropical forests, but almost all of us then retreat to the safe comfort that current technology affords us.

But the process of the two-way infiltration between the natural and artificial worlds is subtle. Nature is not simply something without, but at a molecular level it’s also something within, and that mindset of separation from nature has for a long time blinded us to that realisation.

Beyond being infectious agents, little was known about viruses until the late nineteenth century when the Russian scientist, Dmitri Ivanovsky, and the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck found that tobacco plants could become infected with tobacco mosaic disease, even when the source of the infection had been filtered of all bacteria. There had, therefore, to be infectious agents that were smaller than bacteria. It was not until the 1930s, with the advent of the electron microscope, that images of viruses could be seen, and not until 1955, thanks to the x-ray crystallography work of Rosalind Franklin, better known for DNA, that the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus was understood.

The evolution of our knowledge of nucleic acids – DNA and RNA – follows a similar timeline, It’s all recent history. So much so that there’s still a lot that we don’t understand about viruses, especially the part they play in both the environment and the evolution of life, including ourselves. It’s estimated that there are a hundred million times more viruses than there are bacteria, making them the commonest carriers of genetic material on the planet by far.

However much we try to distance ourselves from nature we cannot escape and human activity encroaches on the last twenty per cent of the natural environment, that seepage of nucleic acid that’s simply adapting to its changing world, driven by the laws of mathematics and blindly indifferent to our existence beyond a source of opportunities will continue. It’s a reality we have to accept if we are to prevent the chaos of a highly likely future pandemic.

And chaos it is, as it infects the ‘metabolic workings’ of the world we have spent millennia creating to escape the capricious, elemental, natural world.

This is where ecology and economics meet and at the moment in the west the virus has triggered a sense of deep pessimism. Some have likened the state of the US economy as being in an ICU unit, with fears of it falling off a cliff. America is far from being alone in that respect. Around 22 per cent of businesses in Scotland, encompassing 900,000 jobs, have been closed, John Lewis shares plunge as online growth fails to offset shop closures, with people buying more scrabble sets but fewer sofas. Primark cancels its interim share dividend.

The strapline of the moment is, “Whatever it takes,” as the Government pours in billions from the public purse to keep the patient alive. Rishi Sunak reveals just how many firms have applied for Government funding to pay 80 per cent of the wages of staff ‘furloughed’ during the crisis. In just 8 hours 140,000 firms had applied – 67,000 had applied in the first thirty minutes that the scheme went live. That’s a million workers who would have been otherwise laid off.

An example of such support for the economy comes via a public service notice on Nextdoor, from Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London:

“A new way to support business in your community. Today we are launching #PayItForwardLondon – in partnership with Crowdfunder – to help small businesses stay afloat during Covid-19. Through this platform small businesses can pre-sell goods and services for customers to redeem once businesses reopen, to help them manage cash flow during this challenging time. Find out how you can become involved today.”

The White House and congressional Democrats are reaching an agreement 0n a $450 billion relief package to replenish an emergency fund for small businesses and expand testing. A year ago such governmental funding was unthinkable. So would be the number of freeloaders, a sad fact of humanity not unique to America, but in the US a lot of money from the country’s paycheck protection programme meant to help struggling small businesses hit by Covid-19 went to those with the best relationships with power, not the neediest or the most deserving.

And covid-economics is weird too. The price of oil has dipped below zero for the first time in history. Oil producers are paying buyers to take the commodity off their hands over fears that storage capacity will run out in May. It briefly reached a low of minus $38, as storage facilities became overwhelmed, forcing US oil producers to pay to have it taken off their hands. The price, which has since rebounded, though its $1 price is still a record low by any standard.

It even finds a Singapore oil baron Lim Oon Kuin filing for bankruptcy, as the barrels of oil he was using as collateral for loans became worthless.

While the west struggles with the consequences of libertarian governments’ paradoxical delegitimisation of governance itself, a process started arguably by President Reagan, who once famously announced, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” East Asian societies have held to the principle for societies to succeed they need, as Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen described, “the invisible hand of free markets and the visible hand of good governance.”

It’s a principle that transcends the region’s political systems – the trust in the husbandry of governments and the understanding that that is part of the social contract. But what it has achieved is a greater ability to control the pandemic and return to economic strength.

While the west suffers in the ICU the east sees a moment of opportunity. Of ascendency to hegemony. That a greater sense of order will outweigh the benefits of personal freedom alongside the risk of chaos as a consequence.

Note well my friend, a virus did this.

Many in Britain believe that business is now too weak for a second wave of Brexit dogma. But the country is being served it nonetheless. The interplay between Brexit and Covid-19 is a strange one. Boris Johnson, possibly spurred on by his senior adviser, is hell-bent on seeing the project through come what may. There might be a fear that any delay would derail the project completely in Number 10, and although the country has already left the EU there’s an unwillingness to make any compromise over matters like extending the transition period, during which Britain effectively remains in the single market and customs union. That Buddhist demon Time blunts most things, including being seen to ‘get Brexit done.”

That particular focus has led to a failure to concentrate on the most pressing priority. It was the masquerade that distracted Prince Prospero’s courtiers from the plague in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death.’ It was the obsessive focus, along with more earthy distractions that caught the prime minister’s attention. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg reported that ‘senior figures’ in Government now admitted that they were a ‘fortnight behind’ in getting enough testing and protective equipment to cope with the virus. It was more than a fortnight, but the concession tells all. In a crisis, what else were they doing at the time?

The abiding principle when faced with any plague is to keep it out in the first place. Australia closed all its ports of entry during the Spanish Flu pandemic at the end of World War 1 and remained free from infection. New Zealand has effectively done much the same a hundred years later. Once within a population dealing with an epidemic becomes more difficult by several orders of magnitude. The first stage of the Black Death in Europe began with the Mongol army aerially launching plague-infected corpses by trebuchet over the walls of Caffa in 1346. Outside the walls, as in Prospero’s castle, the plague could do nothing. Vile and destructive it might be. Magical it isn’t. Inside it quickly wrought chaos.

That’s how pandemics work. 

Covid-19 was aerially launched into Britain by machines that landed at Heathrow, Gatwick and other tarmacked ports of entry by the thousand.


So now covid’s among us, seeded deep within our population and ready to wreak chaos.

There are headless chickens in government, realising that what could be managed with difficulty had just become a hundred times trickier. Ministers talk of adjusting measures due to fears of a second peak and the need to avoid it, without a full grasp of what ‘it’ is. Downing Street has banned the phrase ‘exit strategy’ from internal and external communications and is preparing to tell the country that restrictions will stay in place throughout 2020.

In the midst of miscomprehension there is a hope that something else they don’t fully grasp could come to the rescue.


The Government could use apps and text messages to help lift the Covid-19 lockdown. It has a certain appeal to it. It’s snappy, on trend and up to date. Most people now own smartphones. But it will lead to a mire of technological incompetence, and an even deeper mire of civil liberties and fears of a surveillance state and covid-safe ID cards.

While across the country empty Covid-19 testing centres are eerily silent, despite vow to hit 100,000 tests a day.

Responding to the latest ONS figures, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis calls the Government’s Covid-19 handling a “shambles,” saying, “This doubling in deaths is shocking evidence of the handling of the covid crisis. Staff working in care homes and those looking after other people in the community have been massively let down. The ongoing lack of protective kit has ,left many terrified they’ll spread this deadly virus or become infected themselves.

While UK hospitality chief executive, Kate Nicholls told MPs the moratorium on evictions must be extended to give a breathing space of “six to nine months.” She said, “If you rely on landlords and lessees to sort it out individually themselves, it would be a bloodbath come June, when we have the next quarter rent that becomes due. If we don’t get that invitation on rent, if we are forced to remain closed until Christmas, then I think you could put a third of that sector at risk.

It’s come to light that Americans at the World Health Organisation told the Trump administration about Covid-19 ‘late last year.’ Whether that refers to China’s belated admission that they had a coronavirus problem, not wanting to be caught out by leaks that had reached the west via Taiwan through the biomedical community, some of whom were arrested for their act of betraying the Chinese state, or whether officials at the WHO knew beforehand remains unclear.

The fact of the matter is that it is inconceivable that Trump knew nothing at the very start of January 2021. But, like Johnson in Britain, he has allowed a problem to develop and now Trump’s job rating slides as US satisfaction tumbles as Americans become increasingly concerned about the spread of the pandemic and fearful of Covid-19 restrictions being lifted too soon. Nearly 60 per cent are wary that lifting stay-at-home orders will quickly fuel the pandemic. Most state governors, closer to the realities of the pandemic than the White house are aware of such concerns, and in response most Americans like how their governor is handling the coronavirus outbreak.

But America, nurtured by four years of Trumpian rhetoric is deeply polarised. In a bizarre but predictable move Donald Trump, Head of Government, leans into anti-government messaging. With his poll numbers fading after a rally-round-the -leader bump, the president is stoking protests against stay at home orders.

The madness of misinformation has seized the reasoning of Trump’s supporters. Some of whom are protesting for the freedom to catch the coronavirus, disregarding completely other people’s freedom not to be infected by a potentially lethal disease.

“Mr President, are you telling New York City to drop dead?” mayor Bill de Blasio asks as he  calls for billions in federal assistance as funding for city services are redirected to fight covid. New York remains an epicentre of the world pandemic.

The New York Times describes the pandemic in the newspaper’s home city in eleven numbers. Here they are:

Without a single demographic or medical statistic they describe the scourge of Covid-19.

There’s a long way to go. Only a tiny proportion of the global population. As few as two to three per cent appear to have antibodies in the blood showing they have been infected with Covid-19, according to the World Health Organisation, a finding that bodes ill for hopes that herd immunity will ease the next exit from lockdown.

While England and Wales experienced the highest weekly death toll in twenty years as deaths involving Covid-19 were 41 per cent higher than previously recorded by the ONS, with the number of UK Covid-19 deaths rising by 449 to 16,509. There’s been a four-fold increase in care home fatalities. But there is a glimmer of hope that the lockdown is beginning to have an effect as the number of people inside hospital with the virus appears to be flattening, with London seeing its seventh day running of falling cases.

I get a message from Cancer Research UK that they are redirecting their energies towards Covid-19:

“In order to get back to the business of beating cancer we must first beat Covid-19.”

The virus is sucking the capacity of science to cope with all our other health needs, and there will be many whose delayed cancer treatments will lead to metastasis and death.

It is also capable of misdirecting and sending research on wild goose chases like Novartis stepping up to study hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19.

It’s not the only wild goose chase. There’s a mad scramble for PPE as globally the demand for gear against Covid-19 can’t be met to deal with the ever-spreading virus. Many countries try to side-step or unblock their bottlenecks.

The UK, in its Brexit-conscious spirit of having to go it alone, its original reserves inadequate to the point of negligence, is mucking in the scramble like its PM once did during an Eton wall game. An RAF aircraft left the UK for Turkey to pick up a delayed delivery of protective kit amid a row over a shortage in the NHS. It aims to collect 400,000 gowns. In fact the UK only finally asked Turkey for a PPE shipment help on Sunday – after telling Britons it was on its way.

It is the beginning of one small, sorry saga, nested within the wider epic as all 400,000 end up not meeting minimum safety standards.

Meanwhile, the development and production of PPE by countless manufacturers, from sewing machines in lockdown front rooms to teenagers with 3D printers, has begun across the country, at various levels of scale and sophistication. The London Hospital Trust opens a 3D printing firm to make visors for NHS staff during the lockdown.

These are the pots, pans and railings of the pandemic ‘Blitz.’

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that the country’s lockdown will end this week. New Zealand, which locked down with just 120 cases, is one of the few countries still able to pursue a strategy of total elimination of the virus due to its early lockdown and lack of a land border.

Other countries are taking the first tentative steps to ending their lockdowns, albeit from not as strong a position as New Zealand:

The shifted reality as a result of the pandemic and the pessimism that comes with not being out of the woods yet still continues. Britain builds an extra thirty thousand mortuary places in preparation for the worst possible Covid-19 outcome. We are minded too that there have been schools that have stayed open and teachers who have worked over Easter to look after key workers’ and vulnerable children. Things are still raw.

And our behaviour seems to have changed:

Some glimpses of today’s pandemic across the world:

  • The months of magical thinking. As the coronavirus swept over China some experts were in denial.
  • Lebanon reports no new cases. Under Lebanon’s lockdown since mid-March, people can only leave their homes to buy food or medicine. A curfew also bans going outside between 8 pm and 5 am, with security forces enforcing curbs.
  • New deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus in Spain are slightly up again on Tuesday, with 430 fatalities that bring the total to 21,282 from a week ,low of 399 deaths on Monday.
  • In Germany, Oktoberfest is cancelled, as has Spain’s famous annual San Fermin bull-running festival.
  • The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is almost deserted on Saturday’s Christian Orthodox Easter service.
  • Singapore will extend a partial lockdown until June 1st to curb a sharp rise in Covid-19 infections in the city-state, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday.
  • There’s parliamentary disagreement in Canada. The ruling Liberals have reached an agreement with the left wing NDP and Greens about how parliament should operate in an era of social distancing, but the Conservatives, the largest opposition party, have condemned the plans as inadequate, leaving the future arrangements for parliamentary procedure in doubt.
  • India savours a rare upside to Covid-19: clean air.
  • And on a dark and troubling note: Africa has five ICU beds per million people.

Finally, female world leaders are hailed as voices of reason amid the covid chaos:

  • New Zealand – Jacinda Ardern
  • Norway – Erna Solberg
  • Iceland – Katrín Jakobsdóttir
  • Germany – Angela Merkel
  • Taiwan – Tsai Ing-Wen
  • Sint Maarten – Silveria Jacobs

In the months that follow few conduct any serious investigation why, even though it may include valuable insights into the future stewardship of all humanity.

The unspokenness in itself is a matter of concern.

Day Thirty Six: Monday 20th April 2020

Daily Diary: Music, Bicycle, Paraglider

I was going to wax lyrical about Global Citizen’s “One World: Together at Home” concert, pulled together by Lady Gaga and presented on BBC1. It was enjoyable. It was good to see Lady Gaga without the glitz and glamour singing a touching rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s signature song, “Smile,” with only a simple keyboard as an accompaniment. The Stones were in their disparate living rooms singing, “You Don’t Always Get What You Want” well, although we were all left wondering whether Charlie Watts’ drumkit was invisible, electronic, or simply imagined. The old boy seemed to be enjoying himself nonetheless. I always feel that there is something awkward about tributes and homilies, and Paul McCartney was certainly in homiletic form. But all in all I enjoyed the show, and there were a number of good performances, with Elton John as much on form as he always has been, allowing for old age stealing his upper register – it still worked. Of course there was the nagging question – how did he get that baby grand piano out into his garden without breaking lockdown rules? Who knows, and I’m treating the mystery as an enigma, along with Charlie Watts’ drums.

There was a story on Nextdoor that really struck a chord with me, and many others it seems. Galileo Aragona, an NHS nurse, completed a 13 hour shift to find his bike got stolen inside the hospital premises.

“If anyone can give any information or help me track down my bike. I would be very grateful – it’s my only means of transport to and from work. It’s been a stressful time at work, and now this. Thanks to anyone who can help.”

My first reaction was to the appalling, mean-spirited nature of the crime.. It reminded me of those stories of looters during the Blitz, a reminder that even during our ‘finest hours’ there were still those who were low enough to behave as if they have just slithered out of the gutter.

Then came the response on Nextdoor. People in the community doing what they could to help. Some of us reposted Galileo’s plight on Twitter and Facebook, that in going viral it stood a much better chance of creating leads and improving the chances of Galileo being reunited with his vitally necessary property. Others offered to contribute to Galileo purchasing a replacement bike. Others set up a fundraising group. David Cracknell, a local bicycle mechanic had a spare bike available and gave it to Galileo. All of which restored my faith in human nature. It’s not exactly all’s well that ends well, but it shows how an online community can pull itself together and come to each other’s support.

I got a phone call from Nigel. Had I seen the club chat on WhatsApp about ground handling? I told Nigel I was giving the whole free-flying thing a wide berth for the time being. Best not to think about it. But perhaps I’m wrong – I should still keep half an eye. Ground handling is an important part of paragliding. It improves how pilots manage their giant canopies while on the ground. It’s important during take-off especially, but also when landing. In many ways a paraglider is a very large and powerful kite.

As such ground handling can still be dangerous. Pilots can still be dragged by canopies. Sometimes into other things, or even people. There is a risk of injury – and that means taking precious NHS staff away from other duties at this critical time. It’s clear that cabin fever is getting to some, but going out ground handling, whatever its merits for the sport, is not the solution. I’ll need to tell club members soon, along with various other notices, so I’ve started thinking about a wider message which will include this.

I thought it wise to double-check with the Kent Police, so I do so via live chat. I chat to a helpful officer called Sharon, who clarifies that if you want to go somewhere simply to ground handle then according to the guidelines this is not an essential activity, and something as exotic as paraglider ground handling would not be considered to be an approved activity for exercise. I’m not surprised, and a little relieved that I can pin this one on the boys and girls in blue.

Blue sky, strong wind and all the plants are still growing.

Life under lockdown continues…..

The Bigger Picture: The Aftermath of a Not-Accident

Two things come to mind today about accidents. The first is that in the grand scheme of things almost all accidents are not accidents at all, but incidents, the consequences of our own decisions and behaviour. The second is that for a short but seemingly endless amount of time in our memories after such incidents happen we’re in a state of shock. Often we don’t even know whether we’ve suffered significant injuries.

Then there is a cold light of day period when reality dawns and we now know there’s a need to adjust.

So it’s been with this pandemic.

For five and a half weeks Britain sleepwalked into disaster. Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus, calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears. Like the kid who leaves doing his homework until late in the eleventh hour and then finds it’s a damn sight more difficult he had reckoned on the government finds itself facing much greater difficulties than it needed to had it acted in a more timely fashion. With the death toll exceeding 16,000 and rising there’s anger at PPE delays as Covid-19 death toll exceeds 16,000 and hospital managers express exasperation as they at the government over failed PPE deliveries.

In the depths of the crisis Johnson appoints a close associate from 2012, London Olympics chief, Lord Deighton, to lead the PPE manufacturing drive, who will work to ‘unleash the potential’ of British firms in making PPE for NHS staff.

In the shock of being struck when the pandemic came to and exploded across Britain, simply counting the dead remains a challenge. In the confusion Covid-19 deaths in care homes are far higher than the official figures. Without a grasp on actual numbers the government cannot yet effectively manage this crisis.

Locking down becomes the only resort. Tried and tested for millennia, plagues can be stopped if people can be persuaded or made to stay away from each other. But as societies have become ever more complex that has become increasingly difficult. It’s not just economies, but whole social structures that rely on a whole raft of interpersonal transactions. When those can no longer make the world go round in the way we have been accustomed we become insecure and ill at ease, and much as that has been mitigated by advances in online technology they don’t go far enough to ease the anxiety. Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University said that the government lockdown was likely to do more damage than the pandemic itself, and a senior police officer warns that Britain must prepare for a “volatile and agitated society” after lockdown is lifted.

Those anxieties, along with a general sense of unease within British society are reflected in this public online notice on Nextdoor from the Metropolitan Police:

“No excuses – just exercise. We have been out patrolling our open spaces over the past few shifts and due to warmer weather returning we are having to remind people that yes, they can use the parks and open spaces, but please do it responsibly. The main focus of these spots is to exercise, either alone or with people from your own household. Please do not abuse the open spaces by meeting up with your friends or sunbathing – these are not valid reasons to be out. We understand how difficult it can be but please do not be tempted to use gym equipment, playgrounds or ballcourts. Greenwich Council have locked these up and taped them off for a reason. Stay safe and enjoy green spaces responsibly.”

This is both local and worldwide. Rioting breaks out on French housing estates as lockdown tensions mount and fears rise that stirrings of unrest around the world could portend turmoil as economies collapse.

In the US, where the Covid-19 death toll is more than 40,000 lockdown is more problematic. Locking down itself has become a bipartisan political flare-up, the flames being fanned by none other than the president himself who openly announces that some governors – Democrats – have “gone too far” with Covid-19 restrictions.

As a result there are demonstrations across the country violated social distancing orders to call for the reopening of states and the American economy. The rallies, like the one outside the state capitol in Austin, Texas, rode a wave of similar protests this past week. Saturday alone, people gathered in Indianapolis, Indiana, Carson City, Nevada, Annapolis, Maryland, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Brookfield, Wisconsin. President Trump on Friday openly encouraged right wing protests in states with stay-at-home orders, even after officially and publicly conceding that reopening was up to governors.

It’s a dangerous game Trump’s playing, setting in train a behaviour pattern among his supporters that will reach a crescendo with the storming of the US Capitol nine months from now.

Lift lockdowns slowly and carefully, the World Health Organisation warns everyone. They need to end haltingly with a clear plan of action and putting safety first. It won’t be easy and might not keep Covid-19 at bay indefinitely. It needs criteria, such as reopening only after covid cases declined for 14 days, 90 per cent of contacts of infected people could be traced, infections of health care workers were eradicated, recuperation sites existed for mild cases, along with many other hard to reach goals.

Boris Johnson, still recovering from the virus, is said to be cautious about relaxing the existing lockdown restrictions due to fears that such a move could unleash a second wave of the pandemic. During his convalescence a ‘quad’ of senior ministers –  Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock – are to consider ‘traffic light’ plan to reopen the economy. Effectively an inner cabinet.

The British pub has become the symbol of freedom beyond lockdown. There have been suggestions that pubs won’t open until Christmas, but culture secretary Oliver Dowden downplays them.

Meanwhile, zoos are facing their own crisis during the lockdown. With daily running costs running into thousands there are nightmare visions of animals facing mass euthanasia if zoos collapse. Like so many other enterprises they scrape by.

In mainland Europe the first steps to lift lockdown have begun in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg, among others. Germans returned to the shops on Monday, craving retail therapy after a month of lockdown, but Chancellor Angela Merkel, frustrated by ‘discussion orgies’ among fellow politicians worries and urges citizens to remain disciplined to avoid a relapse in the fight against the coronavirus.

Yet there are signs of better things beyond as Australia’s success in controlling the virus leads to Sydney’s beaches being opened.

And the possibility that a country might survive the pandemic without locking down at all, as other countries observe Sweden whose government is working from the belief that citizens will choose to be sensible.

It’s an act of faith and like all faiths it intrigues non-believers.

Life for so many of the rest of us is in a state of arrested development. We are in economic hibernation.

We call it furlough.

It will stop many (but not all) businesses from dying, and the horrendous consequences of a full blown economic depression when we get to the ‘other side.’

The furlough pay scheme for employees who are kept on the payroll despite not working due to Covid-19 opens for applications today. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme pays workers 80 per cent of their usual earnings, capped at £2,500 per person, meaning they will not be laid off from their place of work as businesses try to cope with the fallout from the pandemic. The head of HMRC is confident that the system running job retention scheme will work.

However, three million people are being left behind in the government’s coronavirus aid schemes and support packages:

For them, many months of hardship, even penury, lie ahead.

But in many cases it helps as a bailout to the rich. The hot story today is Victoria Beckham applying for furlough for her 25 staff at her VB fashion label. Assuming each would get the maximum of £2,500 per month, the total monthly cost would be £62,500, Victoria Beckham’s current net worth is reported to be £450 million.

It follows the Beckhams introducing Elton John on the Covid-19 global charity fundraiser, in which she said:

“Our thanks to all of the healthcare workers all around the world who are working so, so hard, leaving their families to go to work to protect us and our children. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

TV presenter Piers Morgan hit back hard with a tweet:

‘Sorry, but this makes me puke. If you care this much about the NHS, @victoriabeckham – then why are you taking taxpayer money the NHS desperately needs – and you DON’T need – to furlough your staff & prop up your failing business?’

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden declined to comment.

Meanwhile, on a VB Fashion on steroids bid, Sir Richard Branson has warned the government that his Virgin Atlantic airline will collapse and thousands of jobs will be lost unless it receives taxpayer support. He’s seeking a loan, believed to be up to £500 million, putting up Necker Island as collateral. A £600m loan has already been granted to easyJet. It’s got under many people’s skins in the UK. For a start, Branson, a resident of the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, has a long history of tax evasion and is now asking to borrow from the public purse. Then, with a personal wealth of £3.5 billion, there are strong feelings that the super-rich should be making a greater personal contribution during such hard times (most actually became wealthier during the pandemic). Finally, Virgin Atlantic was 49% owned by Delta Airlines, an American company.

 Virgin Atlantic’s initial bid has been rejected and Sir Richard had been told to explore other ways to raise cash before seeking a state bailout.

It would be unfair to present businesses solely as takers of taxpayers’ money during the pandemic. Many have made an active contribution. The AA are providing a free breakdown service to AA’s breakdown rescue of more than 1,500 essential NHS staff free of charge, getting them to work; and a focus on putting more ambulances on the road. Burberry have switched production from fashion to protective wear. The campaign is now serving nearly 10,000 meals per day to NHS frontline staff. It was a concept inspired by former Formula One boss Ron Dennis’s daughter, who is an NHS doctor, and has relied on Tesco and the delivery service Yodel. 

But it’s a mixed bag as some businesses have worked with genuine altruism, whereas others it has been as much to do with ‘brand purpose’ and good PR and in these more sceptical times it’s often hard to tell.

So in this post-shock period there’s a stock-taking of where we’re at. Options on treatment, particularly those suffering the most severe symptoms, beyond ventilating and ‘riding the storm’ are limited. Drugs like remdesivir alleviate, but neither prevent nor cure. The UK is preparing to collect the blood from Covid-19 survivors to investigate if convalescent plasma transfusions could improve a Covid-19 patient’s speed of recovery and chances of survival. It’s an approach to treatment that’s over a century old. However, the scale of the pandemic might simply result in convalescent plasma not keeping pace. In time, the concept of dosing patients with antibodies will arrive as monoclonal antibody treatment, but it will be prohibitively expensive and not for widespread use.

But all is not lost as there are celebrations as the first Covid-19 patients are discharged from London’s Nightingale hospital. The custom of ‘clapping a survivor out’ becomes one of the pandemic’s visual memes.

Cautious hopes are placed in the development of a vaccine. There is the realisation that the virus could become a ‘constant threat’ if the vaccine doesn’t work. The whole world holds its breath as it awaits news of a vaccine, understanding there is no guarantee that one will be developed. It’s also not clear whether recovery from the virus and antibodies confer immunity. If they do, or are believed to, societies will end up, at least for a while, split into two classes: those protected (or thought to be) and those still vulnerable, adding an extra layer of complication in returning people to their pre-pandemic freedoms they once so readily took for granted and now expect as their rights.

Senior science adviser to the government, Sir Patrick Vallance, tells British citizens they need to temper their expectations.

But all is not lost as a group of Oxford University researchers will begin clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine next week.

For the population as a whole that only leaves test, trace and isolating. It’s highly uncertain when a vaccine programme will roll out at this stage and the belief at the moment is that treatments are likely to arise before a vaccine. At the moment the understanding in this post-shock dawning of the reality we’re in is that the virus can be kept in check, but  only with expanded resources like widespread testing, but for the most part countries are falling way behind the level of testing needed.

But all is not lost as Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, and Iceland show that the coronavirus can be stopped through a well-managed and timely test, trace and isolate programme.

As we enter the post-shock reality the following appears in the news:

Nature continues to celebrate humanity locking down:

While further afield:

  • Venice considers a new tourism model after Covid-19 lockdown. On the upside, Venetians are actually meeting other Venetians!
  • Tblisi city hall cleaning teams took to the streets of the Georgian capital yesterday alongside firefighters to carry out overnight disinfection works as strict new measures to curb Covid-19 come into force.
  • Covid-19 hits the Afghanistan Presidential Palace.
  • Migrant workers are the source of Singapore’s Covid-19 spike.

Finally, a tribute to Dr June Almeida who discovered the coronavirus decades ago, in 1964. An electron microscope, then a leading technology, and her keen eye saw circular shapes surrounded by spokes, looking like a crown in two dimensions, from which the name coronavirus was coined. The coronavirus was that of the common cold. She went on to demonstrate visually how antibodies attacked the virus, revealed many more viruses and established a means by which viral diseases could be diagnosed. Like Michael Faraday, she started out as a technician and went on to make a massive contribution to science. Unlike Faraday, she did not get the recognition she deserved.

Remember her.

Day Thirty Five: Sunday 19th April 2020

Daily Diary: The Apocryphal Critter in a Pan of Water

It’s a bright and breezy Sunday. The sky is blue without a cloud in sight. People are out and about on the common, mostly in ones and twos. Exercising or walking back from the Co-op. I’m sure there are some who are using exercising as an opportunity to meet up against the rules and get away with it. There is an almost-benign all-seeing eye from the police, but their presence, to be fair, is pretty discreet. There are more cars than I’d have expected, going from A to B – one wonders exactly where. It’s human nature to resent being told, to be controlled. We see the rebel as our champion, so long, that is, that the rebel knows his or her place and continues to rebel, rather than becomes an alternative force for control.

In politics at the moment that’s the current tension. Lockdown is by its very nature a government micro-managing its population. Taking control. In America there are protests in several cities against the lockdown limiting their God-given freedom. But it’s freedom that the virus also enjoys. That is if an unconscious Dawkinsian entity can enjoy anything. Perhaps benefit is a more appropriate word. Freedom allows the explosion of millions of moments of human weakness, but some of us would rather that than be exposed to the weaknesses of a select few controlling us, and with it their power and greed.

With that comes a pernicious denial to others and inevitable a cruelty of one sort or another follows.

The other weird thing about being in lockdown and being able to witness it from afar through your TV screen, your laptop or smartphone is how we adjust to a wider horror. In the past twenty four hours there have been an additional 5850 cases (on admission to hospital) and an additional 596 deaths. I’ve checked back to my first diary entry on the 15th March. It reads:

“The death rate rises from 21 to 35 overnight. It was 10 the previous day.” 

But irrationally, I switch mode and find myself pleased, after a fashion, that the deaths have only increased by 3.9%, the lowest increment so far, and see the still-horrifying numbers as an improvement, as progress, as somehow something is working.

Like the apocryphal critter in a pan of warming water.

In front of me as I write are three geranium cuttings, now in potting compost. It looks as though they are taking. Even the weakest is sprouting the beginnings of an adventitious bud. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that life is winning and it’s a metaphor for the bigger picture.

The Bigger Picture: In The Thicket. In The Thick of It.

In many fairy tales there is a point when wandering into the deep dark woods ends up with becoming lost. At this point, whichever way you turn there’s an unclear outcome. We’re there. In the thicket. In the thick of it.

Boris Johnson is ‘recovering well’ and is in ‘cheerful spirits, according to Michael Gove. He said the PM spoke to Dominic Raab on Friday. But how the PM has got us this deep into the woods this quickly remains an issue that just won’t go away as shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth demands ‘clear answers’ from the government about why Boris Johnson is reported to have skipped five Cobra meetings about the Covid-19 crisis and lost the country precious time. The response from Gove was a staunch defence of Boris Johnson’s management of the Covid-19 crisis. He also insisted the government “should not be thinking of lifting” lockdown restrictions yet as calls mount for Covid-19 lockdown exit strategy amid a backlash over the pandemic response.

Wellcome Trust director and infectious disease expert, Sir Jeremy Farrar said he hopes some lockdown measures could begin to be lifted within around three to four weeks’ time – on the proviso that the number of infections and hospital patients drops ‘dramatically.’ In fact it will be many more weeks before such numbers will drop significantly enough. But there is an underlying pressure that a populist government will ultimately appease prematurely.

America is even more uneasy about  locking down, and those most uneasy are the president’s own base. Protests are spreading across the country and Trump foments them with anti-lockdown tweets.

Trump began with a tweet to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” quickly followed with “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

All three states are currently headed by Democratic governors, and Michigan is considered crucial to his re-election bid in November.

These are early beginnings in an incited train of behaviour that led to the storming of the Capitol in a few months’ time. A message that Trump expected his supporters to go beyond protest and into insurrection if it suited the president’s purposes.

Back in Westminster the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer tells the government,: “When we get through this crisis we cannot return to business as usual.” He refers in particular to social care. “For too long social care has been neglected. Our care workers left underpaid and undervalued. Our relatives denied the dignity that they deserve at the end of their life.”

This comes as The National Care Forum, which represents not-for-profit care providers, has estimated that more than 4,000 people may have died after contracting Covid-19 across all residential and nursing homes before April 13th.

Other government actions today are:

Ministers also find themselves under pressure to review Britain’s China relationship after the pandemic. Conservative politicians accuse Beijing of underplaying the original outbreak and say it can no longer be ‘business as usual.’ Britain is not alone in its criticism. There are African voices saying China must pay reparations to Africa for its Covid-19 failures.

President Trump’s attitude was more perplexing. After all his recriminatory rhetoric about “the China virus,” some of it pretty vitriolic, when asked if there should be consequences for China if they were responsible for all the virus spread, he said, “Sure, unless it was a mistake.”

The virus is becoming less enigmatic. It was easy enough to read its genome, which contains instructions for making just 28 different proteins, in contrast to the millions of proteins that are coded for in human DNA. But to compare the two is to compare poetry to a novel. Both can capture the human condition but poetry does it with an exquisite economy of language. So it is with Covid-19. It does not need the mind-boggling orders of hierarchy to make more of itself, as we do. All it needs is us.

There’s a dark ‘intelligence’ in how natural selection works. I’ve never fallen into the trap of mistaking ‘the fittest’ in survival of the fittest, with our normal understanding of fitness, that you could be forgiven for associating with morning sessions of Joe Wickes’ exercise classes, even though such a notion is not a million miles away. Rather it is goodness of fit, like how your hand fits into a well-made glove. The better the fit to its particular niche, the more likely it will replicate itself, the cycle repeating itself with all the subtle variants of its offspring.

If you’re too proud to associate that with intelligence just consider how much you’ve learned by trial and error, or for that matter how second-rate so many humans are at learning from observing the mistakes of others.

There’s a saying I picked up from paragliding:

“Smart people learn from the mistakes of others.

Most of us have to learn from our own.

Eejits make the same mistake over and over again.”

And most of us have been eejits from time to time. It’s a tough one, isn’t it, to come off our high horses when it comes to intelligence?

In the case of the Covid-19 coronavirus the dark intelligence somewhere down the line has found one of our more serious physiological Achilles’ Heels – the angiotensin controlling enzyme – better known as ACE2, which exists on cell membranes in many parts of the body, including the lungs.

Angiotensin binds to many receptors in the body to affect several systems. It can increase blood pressure by constricting the blood vessels. It can also trigger thirst or the desire for salt. Angiotensin is responsible for the release of the pituitary gland’s anti-diuretic hormone which in turn regulates water loss. If the system that includes angiotensin goes on the blink then you can have consequences every bit as serious as a better known system involving blood glucose and insulin going wrong.

So ACE2 on cell membranes keeps blood pressure and ion balance on an even keel. That’s what the spikes on the outside of the coronavirus latch on to with an unprecedented efficiency, and because the lung lining is exposed to the outside world the cells are particularly vulnerable.

If you try to block off the ACE2 receptors to the virus you can’t control angiotensin and the whole system it’s part of (like insulin is with glucose metabolism) goes awry, with serious lung and circulatory consequences. The same happens if the ACE2 receptors get latched on to by the virus, so managing an infection becomes horrendously complicated.

Blood pressure regulation becomes more of an issue as people get older, and the body adapts by creating more ACE2 receptors, creating more opportunities for the virus to latch on and infect.

The virus has another nasty trick up its sleeve. Some parts of the Covid-19 spike protein can ‘tweak’ ACE2 for a better fit, behaving like prion proteins in mad cow disease, and it’s that ability that gives it a cutting edge over predecessors like SARS and MERS, which although are three and ten times more fatal respectively, are much less infectious. With a mortality rate of 3.4% Covid-19 is still deadly enough to ultimately kill millions worldwide.

Once the virus has latched on to the cell membrane the cell takes it in by a process known as endocytosis, the RNA genome enters the cell and the mass duplication begins.

That’s what we’re all up against and it’s seriously scary!

Our tools for dealing with the pandemic are limited. We stay apart from each other. We lock down until a means of dealing with it can be found. Some, like Germany, are seeking a path out of lockdown through broad, random tests for antibodies, Germany seeks a (scientific) path out of lockdown.

Others are backing the development of vaccines. Sarah Gilbert, Professor of Vaccinology at Oxford University, said the prospect of finding one are “very good,” and her team hopes to begin clinical trials towards the end of next week. She cannot yet be certain she tells Andrew Marr on BBC, until the trials are complete.

It’s a kind of compensation that there are positive environmental paybacks. Air quality has improved during lockdown, although some point out that delivery trucks are more polluting than cars. And more stories of wildlife benefiting appear. In Florida loggerhead turtles are thriving, now that people are stuck indoors, jackals have been spotted in a Tel Aviv park as people stay away amid the covid confinement and some believe that Covid-19 could be a blessing for the much-trafficked pangolin.

For all of us new day to day realities occupy our lives.

  • é, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and Elton John took part in the concert.

Those day to day realities are made up of so many personal stories. For some of achievement:

For others, of personal ordeals, vulnerability and the risk of tragedy:

Europe:  the virus tolls tops ten thousand, with Belgium a particular hotspot. The Belgian government claims it is because they are using their statistics more thoroughly than other EU countries, but it doesn’t account for the whole picture. The EU is facing a ‘moment of truth,’ Emmanuel Macron says as he calls for greater financial burden sharing.

California: resists plans to lift limits on nurse-practitioners during the Covid-19 pandemic, as demand for medical services begins to look like will exceed supply. A number of other US states have eased the degree to which nurse-practitioners require physicians’ oversight, but in the Golden State it has become a political issue.

Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the US and Canada have agreed to keep their border closed to non-essential travel for another 30 days.

Pakistan: is to keep mosques open during Ramadan.

Iran: has allowed some businesses and the capital and nearby towns to reopen on Saturday after weeks of lockdown aimed at controlling the Covid-19 outbreak in the Middle East.

Australia: A German cruise ship has left Western Australia State after a three week stay, during which three people on board died of Covid-19. The Artania began its journey from Fremantle to Europe, keeping its scheduled early afternoon departure time on Saturday. A total of 79 crew and passengers from the Artania tested positive for Covid-19 in Western Australia. They included a 42 year old crewman from the Philippines, who died in Perth Hospital on Thursday, raising the state’s total to seven.

China:  on Saturday reported 27 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, as it tries to stem an upsurge in infections in the north eastern province bordering Russia. The border with Russia has been closed.

Japan: on Saturday reported 556 new cases of the coronavirus, surpassing a total of 10,000 about three months after the first case was detected in the country. Nearly one third of domestic cases come from Tokyo, where the daily surge has overcrowded hospitals, triggering fears that the medical system will collapse.

Africa: will be the next Covid-19 epicentre, says WHO. Africa now has more than 1,000 deaths from Covid-19, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 52 of the continent’s 54 countries have reported the virus, with overall cases numbering more than 19,800 as of Saturday morning. The World Health Organisation has noted a 51 per cent increase in cases in Africa and a 60 per cent jump in deaths. Bur the WHO chief has warned that because of a shortage of testing “it’s likely that the real numbers are higher than reported.” The Africa CDC has said more than a million test kits will be rolled out, starting next week.

South Korea: has reported 18 new cases of the coronavirus, its lowest daily jump since February 20th, continuing a downward trend as officials discuss more sustainable forms of social distancing that allows for some commercial and economic activity. Figures released by South Korea’s CDC on Saturday brought national totals to 10,653 cases and 232 virus-related deaths.

Russia: suffers a record Covid-19 rise in cases as Moscow mayor says he has enough beds for two weeks but cannot make promises beyond this, despite a giant new hospital.

India: There’s a critical risk of debt bondage for India’s informal workers amid the Covid-19 lockdown. Meanwhile, the main train station in the north Indian city of Varanasi is a sprawling building that has witnessed its share of delays in more than a century of rail travel. Sometimes the waits are long, and sometimes they are pleasantly short. But it has never seen anything like this. Inside a high-ceilinged room, a group of 50 travellers from all walks of life and across India has waited in vain for a train that never came.

Finally, closer to home life is more prosaic as I read the following message on Nextdoor:

“Does anyone know if any of the local supermarkets in Welling or the surrounding areas have any compost or bark chippings in stock? I may go out tomorrow for a weekly shop and I would like to pick some up.”

I ordered my compost online.

Day Thirty Four: Saturday 18th April 2020

Daily Diary: About Sweet Peas, Plastic Artillery and Moral Injury

I transferred the geranium cuttings to the potting nursery in the recently acquired propagator. I was disappointed that the cuttings hadn’t grown root systems in the bottle and I started to be concerned that if I left them any longer the water would start to be contaminated by bacteria. So let’s see how they go.

I’ve trained the sweet peas using very loose loops of paraglider line and they look more disciplined now. I’m also admiring the apple blossom and tempted to trim the branches back. The leaves actually look much healthier. Last year the old leaves got pretty diseased so maybe there is something that can be done to restore health and vigour this season. Some minor fence repairs too, which I might have a go at this weekend.

Along with keeping up with the diary it’s important to do other things. I still keep up with my Twitter account, but in view of all the other information I’m processing I stick to responding to notifications. There are only so many hours in a day.

I’ve also been working on a plastic model. I’m trying to recreate my father’s portee anti-tank gun. There is no kit for it, but I have a Japanese manufactured model of a British military two pounder assembled. It was the fiddliest model I’ve ever constructed. Some pieces were actually the size of a pinhead and much of the constructing had to be done under a magnifying lens. There were over a hundred pieces and I’m awestruck by the level of detail and quality of moulding. The truck part of the portee is a modified 15 cwt Chevrolet, manufactured in Canada. It’s less fiddly but it also presents its own challenges.

The secret is to take your time. Don’t rush anything. Things always ‘go wrong,’ so have the strategy of dealing with it when they do. Having the right tools helps a lot. I enjoy having to solve problems, even if they are of little consequence. There was a tiny part missing and I built a facsimile from sprue and a leftover from a previous project. All put into place and I can’t tell the difference, and certainly won’t when the model is painted. The gun platform on the back of the truck will need scratch building from polystyrene card and rod. In the Western Desert the RHA did the same, improvising their way around mounting a light artillery piece on a chassis, so my scratch building has got to mirror that improvisation. I have pulled together quite a good archive of photos, including a painting by David Shepherd of Lieutenant Ward Gunn holding the line against all odds at the battle of Sidi Rezegh. My dad was in the next vehicle.

“Wow!” I said to my dad. “You saw someone getting the Victoria Cross.”

“Bloody fool!” my dad had replied. “Playing a Boys’ Own Paper hero, when he should have been more concerned about the safety of his men.”

Lieutenant Ward Gunn was awarded the VC posthumously. I was a bit stung by my dad’s reply, but as I’ve got older I’ve begun to understand what lay behind it. My dad had been decorated himself for bravery in the field with the Military Medal and was a sergeant at the time. He had a character fully capable of acts of dash and bravery, but for him the carnage of battle meant much so more. ‘J’ Battery, 3rd Royal Horse Artillery, now known as ‘Sidi Rezegh’ battery, was decimated from its original fighting strength of 120 men to only fourteen survivors. Half of them went with another lieutenant and surrendered to the advancing panzers. The other half went with the battery sergeant – my father – and got back to allied lines.

After the war there was an annual reunion of J Battery’s  fourteen survivors, a number that dwindled over the years. My father always went, but I remember from a conversation with my mother over the breakfast table, it was through a deep sense of regimental duty and he went with a heavy heart.

Whatever happened on the battlefield between the sergeant and the junior officer when they went their separate ways remains unknown, but a tension between them existed for the rest of their days.

It taught me about moral injury – the emotional fallout that can appear from extreme, dangerous and challenging events – and I see and read about cases of moral injury suffered by medics as they face the coronavirus in long shifts day after day after day.

Simply knowing that is humbling.

The Bigger Picture: When Giant Egos Meet Huge Uncertainties

There are many enigmas about the Great Covid Pandemic of 2020. They are enigmas not so much because they take our scientific explorations to the very edge of what we understand. With science that’s always so. But it is about ourselves and how we enabled certain individuals to be able to make decisions, when with a moment’s thought we would have realised that they weren’t the full shilling when it came to decision-making. Especially when the consequences of their decisions involved the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

For example, most Americans say Trump was too slow in the initial response to the Covid-19 threat and there are now widespread concerns that the states will lift restrictions too quickly. But in spite of that there were no protests, Fox News was behind him all of the way, it was said of CNN commentators “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Or something very similar.

If anyone looked at Donald Trump’s comments on the outbreak they would have seen that they didn’t quite meet the observed growing horror show in the world around them. Wouldn’t they?

But many didn’t.

Here are some announcements from the American President over a couple of months:

January 22nd:”We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

February 19th: “I think it’s going to work out fine. I think when we get into April and the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that.”

February 26th: “We only have 15 people, and they’re getting better and hopefully they’re all better soon.”

February 28: “Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. And this is their new hoax.”

March 15th: “It’s a very contagious virus. It’s incredible, but it’s something that we have tremendous control over.”

March 16th:”I was talking about what we’re doing is under control, but I’m not talking about the virus.”

March 17th: “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they are going to be.

March 24th: “I would love to have it open by Easter. Wouldn’t it be great to have all the churches full?”

March 29th: “If we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number — maybe even less. But to 100,000. We all together have done a very good job.”

Even the utterances describe a narrative and you don’t need much imagination to see how a deadly virus is not only invading the United States of America but also making it the epicentre of a global pandemic. So much so that people across the world start talking about the demise of the world’s greatest superpower, albeit prematurely.

Simply trying to understand where Donald Trump was coming from only gets you halfway there. What matters is, as Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of “The Art of The Deal,” observes, is the resonance his world view has with our darkest instincts.

He reflects a view held by those who believe that the world is a dangerous place, and that staying safe requires being vigilant, aggressive, and full of certainty. It’s a set of instincts that no doubt served our prehistoric ancestors well and one that registers on some level with all of us. But it’s crude, lacks nuance and doesn’t match the complexities of modern life., let alone the consequences of a viral pandemic.

His skill, I believe more intuitive than calculated, is to tap into those feelings of fear, insecurity and inadequacy, and present himself as confident and certain, free from the volatility and unpredictability of a wider world. And there’s a feel-good factor that someone can manage that and the binary reality he offers has an illusion of comfort and security.

Some, history teaches us, will follow someone to Hell and back for that illusion.

Many are following Trump on that score.

As Tony Schwartz put it:

“If I wasn’t a hundred per cent right, I was a hundred percent wrong. If I wasn’t all good, I was all bad. It was win or lose, and there wasn’t much in between.”

The evidence doesn’t matter. That steals a moment or two to think about and consider and the emotion evaporates in the process. What does matter is the confidence and radiating it becomes an addiction that not only Trump, but populists elsewhere, such as Johnson and Bolsonaro fall prey to as well.

So it’s in that vein that Trump encouraged resistance against three Democrat governors’ lockdowns, echoing right wing protestors’ call to ‘liberate’ these states. In a series of all-caps tweets Mr Trump declared, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” AND “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” – two states where Democrat governors have imposed social distancing restrictions that have shut down businesses and closed schools and forced people to stay at home. He also tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and “Save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

And riding that wave the right wing media come in right behind their president. “Time to get your freedom back.” Fox News media personalities Laura Ingraham. Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson are supporting protestors demonstrating against stay-at-home orders across the country, even as governors maintain that restrictions are slowing the spread of the virus.

It’s also in that vein that stimulus cheques are delayed because Trump wants his name printed on them.

And that the first seeds of Trump’s downfall are sown as, in the light of the pandemic,  consideration is given to encouraging voting by mail in November’s election. He fears, quite rightly, that mail voters are more likely to vote Democrat. Republicans have form in suppressing votes from neighbourhoods more likely to vote Democrat, and doing whatever they can to hinder postal voting rises up the political agenda. They believe they have a nuclear option – voter fraud – and have every intention of using it.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, is due to be released from federal prison, having taken the bullet for his client. It was a bitter episode, made more so by Cohen’s deal for a tell-all book due to come out in the autumn, which triggers a string of angry tweets from the president, rubbishing Cohen. The irony is that when he first sought a book deal it was going to flatter the president.

“A love letter to Trump,” the president called it.

Hell hath no fury like a lover spurned.

It’s part of a much bigger picture about how Trump treats people and we all know about having to be careful how you treat people on the way up, because they’ll still be waiting for you on the way down.

And it’s another seed sown.

It’s both easy and lazy to declare that Boris Johnson is ‘Britain’s Trump.’ But they do have some things in common. Both have giant egos. Both place a higher premium on telling people what they want to hear than what they need to know. The former wins approval, even when the latter makes more sense. The former can be achieved by winging it, the latter requires attention to detail, a lot of worrying through and frankly, hard work.

Live from one moment to the next. Please people from one moment to the next, and if the consequences of one moment turn sour they can be buried in the here and now of a future moment. For a long time Brexit was perfect for such game-play. Four and a half years of promises that could not be tested against reality. Say what you like. Even drive a JCB digger through a polystyrene wall. Goof about. Entertain people.

Like in  that movie when gumshoe detective Eddie Valiant asks sultry femme-fatale Jessica about her surreally screwy husband, Roger Rabbit, “Seriously, what do you see in that guy?”

She replies, “He makes me laugh.”

It’s funny because we can all see in that reply a deeper truth.

Seriously, why did some people vote for Johnson? Enough to put him in a position of great power. Everyone knows of his skulduggery and shenanigans, but in being a clown he stands out from a dour crowd, most of whom we also don’t trust.

Stopping pandemics is serious stuff. It requires attention to detail. His predecessor, Theresa May,  was serious and showed attention to detail. It wasn’t appreciated. She went unloved because of it. Most were glad to see her humourless presence leave centre-stage.

Boris makes us laugh. He promises us the wonderful payback from an as yet untested Brexit – his vehicle to power. His complacency was that of a man with savoir-faire. If we believe, like believing in fairies to revive Tinkerbelle in a pre-pandemic panto, all will be well. And the “Oh no it won’t!” will be drowned out by all the cries of “Oh yes it will,” with the tousled haired panto clown conducting the audience like the London Philharmonic.

If we could believe enough, then we wouldn’t feel so down about critical shortages of ventilators, PPE and testing. Or be deeply disturbed by the possible need for triage into intensive care units or that his closest adviser had latched on to the dark possibilities of herd immunity.

Meanwhile Britain was heading for one of the highest death rates per million of any European country.

“I’m following the science,” became Johnson’s mantra, echoed by those around him

It sounded good. It made him look more of the genuine article than President Trump, but what it really meant was following whatever utterances by scientists fitted in with his agenda at the time. He was no more following the science than Richard the Lionheart was following the teachings of Christ on his crusades to the Holy Land.

“The Science” is presented as some Great Recipe concocted by the Wise Ones.

The reality looks somewhat different when one adviser, Professor Neil Ferguson accuses ministers of failing to carry out enough work on the exit strategy.

Getting the exit strategy right is not just about people’s health. The pandemic is ravaging local finances as English councils are set for a one billion pound bailout.

We understand the economic impact of the pandemic less than we understand its epidemiology. The UNHCR warns that the social and economic consequences of the pandemic could be worse than the health impact, including a depression resulting from Covid-19 having the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of children a year.

That’s because, unlike the biology of viruses, no one can agree about how economic systems work.

So in America airlines are being bailed out again. The asked for $50 billion and got $25 billion and no one’s sure if it’s good money after bad. German carmakers are going to have to open up their factories and car dealerships soon – otherwise they could face a widespread collapse. That would be disastrous for the German economy. And a British food producer, despite the pandemic, has chartered a flight to bring 150 Romanians into the UK to help pick fruit and vegetables. Farmers across both the UK and the whole of Europe have complained of having to either throw away their harvests or leave them to rot in the field. The sources of both clients and seasonal workers have been thrown into disarray.

A crisis with default online loans is likely. Lost income for some due to the pandemic and ease of borrowing do not run in sync. What this will turn into nobody knows.

Yet even here the darkest of clouds has a silver lining as the economic downturn is expected to expose a decade’s worth of swindling and aggressive accounting. Downturns are the corporate fraudsters’ worst enemy.

Understanding Covid-19’s epidemiology, however, is far from straightforward. It’s as imprecise as weather forecasting for much the same reason – it’s trying to make sense out of a chaotic system. Some governments tried to mirror what had happened elsewhere, only to find that differences in the nature of government, the Covid-19 control rules in a particular country and the culture and behaviour of its citizens all contributed to how the virus spread through the population. Two countries did not have to be that different for significant differences in the spread of the disease. The butterfly effect.

Some tried to create ‘agent-based models,’ working along similar lines to Sim City. This had already been done with previous seasonal flu outbreaks with some success. But so much about Covid-19 was significantly different from seasonal flu, and the consequences of models being out of sync with reality less critical.

As a result of issues relating to the models and the different ways they worked, the projections differed enormously. This hasn’t been communicated well to the general public, leading to mixed messaging and a loss of confidence in science in general. Politicians picked and chose the projections that suited their purposes adding to the confusion. 

In the absence of adequate testing asymptomatic transmission is an alarming characteristic of Covid-19. An antibody study suggests that the virus is much more widespread than previously thought. At the time of the study, Santa Clara county in California had 1,094 confirmed cases, resulting in 50 deaths. But based on the number of people who have antibodies, it is likely that between 48,000 and 81,000 people had been infected.

That’s underestimating the number of cases by 50 to 80 times.

So how can you model when you don’t know?

Then there are Chinese and South Korean coronavirus survivors who retest positive, raising questions about whether second time positive patients are actually infected again or are victims of erroneous tests. There is no evidence to support that people who have recovered from Covid-19 have immunity, WHO has said.

So we’re caught out time and time again by shocking new horrors.

Like more than 7,500 care home residents are feared to have died from the coronavirus. Twenty die in one Scottish home alone, including four people in a day. A new European study reveals that it’s care homes where over half of Europe’s Covid-19 deaths occur.

Or that a number meat processing plants in particular across the world have turned out to be epicentres for local outbreaks. Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, owned by a Chinese billionaire, has become the largest Covid-19 hotbed in the United States, with about 735 associated cases. The state governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, has yet to issue a stay-at-home order.

Or that border controls could play such a catastrophic role in widening the spread of the virus across a whole geographical region, as Guatemala declares that migrants deported from US are infected  amid fears of contagion spread from ICE facilities.

In our ignorance we create chaos.

Also chaos theory.

Imagine this. If a third of the weather balloons that were sent up returned data that was simply wrong weather forecasting would be totally up the creek. Positive covid test results happen to be almost always true positives, but of every hundred people who give negative test results thirty are actually infected. This is particularly true for rapid, lateral flow, tests that give a result in less than 30 minutes, but it’s also true for self-administered tests, because with even the snazziest of nasal swabs, and a new polyester swab has just been given the green light by the FDA in the US, the fact is that it’s down to human error rather than molecular technology.  

So ease of access in the sense that I can easily buy lateral flow tests online and in a few months’ time I’ll be able to get them free, courtesy of the UK government, misleads. It’s me, the eejit who hates gagging and having it tickle my nasal cavity, who will let the side down.

Some medics are suggesting the use of CT scans as an alternative. Covid-19  but not only is their use likely to be too cumbersome for the scale and speed of response, but they too can miss Covid-19 cases. Just forty per cent of the passengers of the cruise ship Diamond Princess who tested positive with a swab PCR test had the covid characteristic lung opacities on their CT scans.

All of that is just the first step in a strategy for dealing with covid. Isolation, tracing and quarantining all who have come into contact with an infected person are also essential elements for controlling the disease. When an outbreak first reaches a population these actions are possible. Once deep-rooted and embedded the possibility vanishes.

Whatever model is being used.

The only practical solution is to socially distance. Isolate if possible. The virus might seem to have the better of us, but it is in no way magical.

Those who can’t must be protected, so it is really worrying that some British hospitals face running out of PPE this weekend amid growing concerns about supplies. Some medical staff were asked to reuse equipment. The British Medical Association responds that doctors and nurses should not be asked to ‘put their lives on the line’ to save others.

Babies are given tiny face shields in a bid to stop the spreads of Covid-19. Experts believe that children are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers and could be inadvertently spreading the virus.

The quest for a way out continues. In the US the NIH partners with 16 drug companies in hopes of accelerating Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. The drug of the moment is remdesivir and its manufacturer’s stock jumps eight per cent. Originally a treatment for other viral diseases, including hepatitis C, Ebola and Marburg fever it’s a repurposed medication. Its major effect, demonstrable statistically, is to accelerate recoveries. Whether it increases the proportion of covid patients who do recover is harder to show. It isn’t preventative and won’t influence transmission, but in these dark times any step forward is met with much excitement by the media. Like successes in manufacturing ventilators these are morsels of news that give us hope.

At the moment hope is important.

Hope is also created by news about a vaccine. In Britain, researchers at Oxford University expect to inject the first volunteer in a major clinical trial of the vaccine in a week or so. Business Secretary Alok Sharma announces £14 million funding into the programme, saying that any potential vaccine will be made available to the public as quickly as possible. The Vaccination Taskforce is set up by the government to co-ordinate rapid vaccine development and production providing industry and researchers with the resources and support material.

It turns out to be the smartest move the Johnson administration has made since it came to power in 2019. Some would argue the only smart move.

Despite all the caveats a number of governments are starting to ease restrictions. Gradually, cautiously and with only a hazy idea about what works. Scientists work with data and modelling. Politicians, however, continue to work more from their gut instincts. And by that I mean their gut instincts about our gut instincts.

In other words, taking two steps back from reality and of course expecting it all to work just fine and dandy.

In Germany many are growing impatient with the hesitant pace of efforts by the government to loosen the lockdown imposed to bring down the number of Covid-19 infections under control. But there’s little agreement on whether the measures are appropriate. Scientists fear they go too far and business leaders say they do little to change anything. The Leopoldina National Academy, Germany’s academy of sciences, recommends that schools be opened soon, businesses and public authorities are also expected to be reopened gradually and travel should also be permitted under certain conditions.

The British government outlines its five tests to end lockdown:

  • Can the NHS function?
  • Have we have moved beyond the peak, seeing a consistent daily fall in the death rate?
  • Is the rate of infection is decreasing? How many further cases does each Covid-19 patient lead to? This becomes known as the R Number and will be central to government both making and being accountable for decisions.
  • Do we have enough testing and PPE supplies to meet demand?
  • Are we certain we won’t simply end up with a second peak – that is to say we don’t exit lockdown only to trigger a fresh spike in cases?

They’re worthy questions. They sound scientific and rational. Whether they’ll hold to them or bow to public pressure remains to be seen.

Trump too, tries to appear rational, outlining phases for reopening states once coronavirus cases begin to decline. The same caveat applies.

Meanwhile, it seems like the whole world is locked down, and much of it is.

It impacts on the whole human life cycle: From either putting a complete stop to, or severely restricting IVF treatment, through the many challenges of giving birth, the far reaching effect on childhood and in one way or another every phase of adult life. Not even death remains untouched, as funerals become pared down and no frills.

It changes many of our pastimes, hobbies and interests: Dozens of free online courses appear, from Joe Wickes’ workouts to history of art courses, yoga classes, language courses and business and career development. There are even invitations to become a citizen-scientist on monitoring projects like DETECT, Covid Near You and Flu Near Me. I’m even sent the recipe for a new dish this week – rhubarb crumble – if, like many I’ve been bitten by culinary bug.

Mistakes are made: A programme to free prisoners early to help jails cope with Covid-19 has been paused after six inmates were released by mistake.

Hearts are touched: As a little terrier pup is finding a new family after its owners died from Covid-19, a US animal shelter has revealed.

Experiences are shared: The Personal experiences of doctors and nurses become compulsive viewing for many on both mainstream and online media. Their level of intimacy and sharing of intense emotions are unprecedented. Mental well-being of medics is becoming a big issue. A senior clinician at the country’s maiden Nightingale Hospital has called for military expertise to deal with the mental health of the staff and volunteers at the facility.

We distract ourselves with entertainment: A sitcom called, “The Quarantine Diaries ,” poking fun at life under lockdown becomes a hit in Spain. And Global Citizen premieres on BBC1 and TV channels across the world, “One World Together At Home.”

We remember: Plans are under way for a Spitfire flypast to mark the 100th birthday of Captain John Moore, who has raised more than £21 million so far for NHS Charities Together.

We do not forget: As Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe is ‘waiting for news’ about whether she will be returning to prison.

We respect and appreciate: UK firefighters deliver medicines to the elderly and vulnerable.

The truly weird happens:

  • I read the following on my local Nextdoor: My hair is enormous! My unqualified wife wants to go cut it so badly, but I’m refusing to let her anywhere near it! If I get 100 Twitter likes she can do what she likes with it ….. beard too! Dunno how this works!
  • A man who bought a ghost town with a sinister past has been forced to quarantine there after a snowstorm left him trapped. Brent Underwood had to resort to melting snow for water after his week-long stay in Cerro Gordo, California, was unexpectedly prolonged by the lockdown.
  • A zoo in Northern Germany has said that, since their income has decreased during the pandemic they will sacrifice some of the animals in their care by feeding them to others, if they have to. They’ve even decided in advance which animals would live and die, promising their 12 foot tall polar bear would be the top of the food chain.

Not everyone is behaving themselves:

  • Clashes between police and orthodox Jewish worshippers shake Jerusalem neighbourhood.
  • 150 people break Covid-19 rules to attend a funeral on Sheppey Way in North Kent. Two men were arrested and another injured in a motorbike collision after around 150 people flouted covid social distancing rules.

Finally, on the score of naughtiness there is an online warning from the local police:

“You may have seen a letter that has been circulating on social media sites with a Met Police logo stating the ‘Code Red’ lockdown is being activated. The message also mentions that on the 15th April at 9 pm that London will be sprayed with disinfectant. Please be reassured that this letter and others like it are fake and we will continue to work with partners to tackle misinformation with Covid-19.”

There’s only one question I want to ask myself…..


Day Thirty Three: Friday 17th April 2020

Daily Diary: Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

‘Em Deliveries’ arriving at our doorstep has become a weekly highlight. Always around five thirty in the afternoon, and along with the topping up of supplies comes the weekly banter. There’s something about a face to face chat that goes beyond seeing each other on a screen. They are like two forms of reality. I remember talking with my students about comparing the real experience of free-flying with a computer game. It’s not simply about not being able to press reset in the real world where it is so easy in a virtual one, it’s that real experience has a totality about it. We are so immersed in it. We cannot escape from it. So Emily, the other side of our front garden wall, wearing her mask, along with a pair of Marigold gloves is still somehow more real than talking close face on a WhatsApp video call.

So here’s the scene. Vicky’s sitting on the outside sill to our living room window. Emily is in the street next to our family car. In the background, the other side of a narrow, fairly sleepy street (by London standards) is the common with people moving to and fro, singly or in pairs. Occasionally, a small family group. Every time there’s a passer-by Emily takes a step back. Some say sorry, others thank you. Vicky calls out to passer-by, “Hi there! How are you doing?” And passers-by would respond somewhere on the spectrum between open friendliness with strangers and awkward embarrassment, but all give a reply. I smile and nod.

Emily’s had a busy day. An early start with Tom being run to Tunbridge Wells Station to take the train ‘up-town,’ where a whole load of stuff faces him about the crisis. We don’t ask him, partly out of respect, partly because it would be totally inappropriate to do so, and partly because we represent a different room in his reality, and we all need to move to our different rooms from time to time. Then she goes to her local Sainsbury’s. She has consolidated the three shopping lists – for herself and Tom, for Mitzi, and for us – into a mega-list to make the task so much more efficient. There’s a half-hour wait outside the store as shoppers are marshalled in one at a time.

Emily reassures us that the trip around the shop is not onerous. The shelves are mostly stocked, maybe not with the exact product, but it is invariably something close.

“I’m used to it,” Emily tells us. “I call it Montserrat-Plus, because, although a little limited here and there, it’s so much easier than shopping for groceries in Montserrat. So I count my blessings.”

Metzi still can’t get her exact tipple of choice – a dry Vermouth, which seems to have left the shelves. Whisky, on the other hand, has been less of a challenge and she has been consistently successful in supplying us with Famous Grouse.

The checkout has its own procedure too. A masked member of staff at the till, protected by a Perspex screen. The customer has to feed the conveyor from one end, then collect it from the other, with a lot more stretch for the card reader.

Vicky and I have been spared all this and are grateful. There is still, however, the feeling of being dependent – those boomers yet again being fed like cuckoos by younger generations in an upside-down metaphor. It is a growing theme I’m reading about – how will the old pay the young back when all of this is over? There are right wingers in the States who are saying the old should do ‘their bit’ by being allowed to be the sacrifice so that the young can work. Gerontocide ….. or is it geriacide? But perhaps it goes beyond that – have we reached the point as a human society that we have to question the virtue of work at all, bearing in mind that millions of us will be replaced by AI in the decades ahead. Perhaps this is the chance we have to make a paradigm shift that is both inevitable and inescapable.

Our chat over the garden wall continues. For Em and Tom Friday night has become Zoom Night, where their social network, built up through Montserrat and Moscow and now scattered to the four corners of the globe get together. Vicky and I are intrigued. It may be something we can look into. Maybe I could hold a virtual club meeting in the months ahead this way. They play Zoom charades and it all sounds like a lot of fun.

Last weekend Em and Tom decided to have a night out indoors. They set up a bar in the attic-room, Soca Cabana style, after the beach bar near Brades on Montserrat. They sprinkled sea shells on the floor and consumed rum punches before moving on to the restaurant. Since Tom had been the barman, so Em became the waiter – she even fashioned a moustache for the part – alternating between waiter and customer by donning and removing the tache. A restaurant clip on You Tube generates the ambient chatter of the venue.

Needless to say, both Vicky and I are envious of all this creativity, but being the old farts we are we end up binge-watching Netflix.

Outside it is raining heavily. The droplets are making the sweet peas dance.

I’m sure they are.


The Bigger Picture: Let’s Resist Like It’s 1776 – And Forget About Collective Selective Memory

It‘s an extreme irony that those who declare their First Amendment right to hold and spread antivax views that the particular brand of Democracy that has made it possible would not have come into being were it not for George Washington’s success against his first great adversary – a virus. At Valley Forge in the winter of 1776 smallpox infection rates raged at 20 per cent. Across the colonies authorities had banned the practice of variolation, the predecessor of vaccination, in which people were intentionally infected with a mild case of smallpox to protect against a more serious and deadly form of the disease.   

Smallpox ran through the population unchecked until following Washington’s order the lawmakers of the Continental Congress repealed those bans. Infection rates dropped to just one per cent. It was the first piece of American public health legislation, and having won the war against smallpox it was then possible to win against Britain and establish itself as a new nation, with its own constitution and much cherished freedoms and rights.

Now a new epidemic paradoxically is bringing Americans together, but in doing so begins to polarise them into two camps.

Sometimes, the bringing together creates a sense of common purpose in, if not defeating the virus, then certainly keeping it at bay. Face masks have become the ‘new normal’ for New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania on governors’ orders and Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths in New York drop for the third day in a row.

At other times, the bringing together becomes more about the First Amendment itself and the fear of its loss, however irrational:

“Resist like it’s 1776,” has an irony that rings as loudly as the Liberty Bell itself.

If only they knew!

President Trump, disrupter-in-chief, has far from helped matters when he’s told governors that states could begin allowing public activities before May 1st.

“You’re going to call your own shots,” he tells them, knowing that the pro and anti-lockdown supporters are split down party lines.

It is a very brave Republican governor who’s going to enforce controls, and securing votes has rarely anything to do with bravery.

Some professing patriotism are prepared to limit Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to the under-70s. Texas Lieutenant Governor Don Patrick voices it loud and clear when he says, “America’s elderly should be more willing to put their lives on the line to keep the economy going for the young.”


That’s more irony ringing louder than Sweet Liberty herself.

“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

I don’t see anything to do about an upper age limit in the small print.

The $2 trillion relief package that Congress passed at the end of March was the largest in American history. Turns out it also wasn’t enough. More than 5.2 million US workers filed for unemployment last week, pushing the four week total to a staggering 22 million.

Meanwhile, Netflix shares hit a record high as its valuation overtakes Disney.

The vulnerability that comes with balancing freedom of speech and the eternal potential for anarchy that comes with it against the systems and controls needed to control a pandemic is for all to see and it brings to the fore what kind of regimes people should be living under. Strongmen leaders see the need for control as an opportunity to consolidate power. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro  Jair Bolsonaro fires his popular health minister who was calling for stricter Covid-19 precautions. He will go on to fir two more in the coming twelve months.

Although the WHO does have a problem with China, the fact of the matter, as Josh Rogin of the Washington Post points out, the WHO has a dictator problem, and in a Trumpian world autocrats have become emboldened.

Control the country and you control the narrative. Emmanuel Macron is right to question China’s handling of the Covid-19. Things have happened in China we don’t know about. China adds nearly 1,300 deaths to official Wuhan toll, blaming reporting delays. China only admitted there was a problem in the first place when the powers that be in Beijing came to learn the news of a Covid-19 outbreak had leaked through the biomedical community to Taiwan, and from there, via New York, to the rest of the world.

Freedom of speech, the authorities project, kills people. It creates disorder. So accept that China might have had a problem, but in a well-managed society, the best of all possible Panglossian worlds, it is resolved so much more easily than in the overindulged West.

It matters, because these are two alternative ways of how people should be living in the near future and they are as immiscible as oil and water. And the scene of the pandemic is the battlefield upon which this contest will be played.

So China is selective in its messaging. It plays hardball with its rival the US, using export restrictions reportedly delaying medical shipments, while at the same time driving a propaganda campaign, as it hands out medical equipment to other countries, making sure the cameras see it.

And the rivalry is both deadly and for real.

It matters existentially on an island nation off the North West coast of Europe as the UK is forecast to become one of the three countries with the worst covid death toll in the coming days. It’s a pandemic that’s getting the better of us and there are still the following questions to be asked:

At the moment it’s still early days. We don’t even have a handle on the most basic statistic – how many have died from Covid-19 as official Covid-19 death tolls still undercount the true number of fatalities.

We’re still very much in the dark.

Getting some understanding of the scale of the pandemic at least would help, but the UK, with the capacity for 35,000 tests a day is carrying out barely half. It’s a symptom of a much bigger muddle. Another is that the UK paid two Chinese companies $20 million for two million new covid tests that didn’t work. An overpriced, unproven, cash up front, take it or leave it, collect it yourself deal. British taxpayers were as much mugged off as Andre Poisson was when he was scammed into buying the Eiffel Tower in 1920. In less than a year’s time the Brits would be congratulating themselves over another gamble that paid off  – the vaccine programme. We’d be wise to remember that there were a number that didn’t in a climate where we had a gambler for a PM, were in dire straits and the desperation British officials felt as public pressure has mounted over the slow response to the virus.

It’s part of a bigger picture which includes fraudsters taking advantage of the pandemic to scam authorities. It’s an international problem, Interpol have warned.

By contrast, plans are afoot for self-testing kits to be delivered in the UK by Amazon.

Things don’t seem to quite join up, it seems.

In the meantime it’s lockdown.

Britain should brace for a year of lockdown restrictions, because a vaccine could be the only way to end social distancing, experts warn. At the very least it will be extended for three weeks in the UK. Social distancing, working from home, business closures and isolation  will continue into May, Dominic Raab announces.

There is now a Police lockdown checklist of valid excuses, issued by the National Police Chief’s Council and College of Policing (NPCC). It comes after more than 3,200 fines were handed out to people considered to be flouting the rules in England between March 27th and April 13th.

It itemises what citizens can and cannot do. To be fair, it is meant to help and bring clarity – challenging people about whether they are breaking lockdown rules has been a catalogue of muddy episodes. However, Brits have not experienced restrictions like this since the Second World War and there are those across the political spectrum, whether from a libertarian or civil liberties position, who are deeply perturbed by this development.

So here is the list of dos and don’ts:

Shopping – what you can do:

  • Buy several days’ worth of food, including luxury items and alcohol.
  • Buy a small amount of a staple item or necessity, e.g. a newspaper, pet food, loaf of bread, pint of milk.
  • Collect surplus basic food items for a friend
  • Buy tools and supplies to repair a fence panel damaged by bad weather.

Shopping – what you can’t do:

Police say it is not reasonable to pop out for DIY supplies so you can do up your kitchen, for example.

Exercise – what is allowed:

  • Going for a run or a cycle, practising yoga, walking in the countryside, or in cities attending an allotment.
  • Driving to the countryside and walking (where more time is spent walking than driving).
  • Stopping to rest or eat lunch on a long walk.
  • In some circumstances, exercising more than once a day.

Exercise – what isn’t allowed:

Police say exercise must involve some movement.

Work – what you can do:

  • Key workers, or other essential workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.
  • Some non-key workers or non-essential key workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.
  • Deliver food packages to vulnerable people.

Key workers, or other essential workers can travel to work where it is not reasonably possible to work from home.

The government has clarified who counts as a key worker and is allowed to travel to work ofr bring their children to school during the day.

However, some non-key workers have been allowed to travel if they are unable to work from home or if their employer requires them to come in.

The guidelines also state that you cannot work from local gardens or parks while working from home.

Other reasons to leave home – what you can do:

  • Go to the vet for essential treatment
  • Move to a friend’s address for several days to allow a “cooling off” following arguments at home.
  • Provide support to vulnerable people.

What you cannot do:

  • Visit a vet’s surgery in person to renew a prescription, where this can be done over the phone.
  • Visiting a friend at their address or meeting in person to socialise.

The rules only set markers for the emerging New Reality, that’s morphing in so many ways:

  • There is a growing awareness that those who we have been praising and clapping as heroes are among our most poorly paid and there’s a call for those on minimum wages should be given a pay rise after the pandemic. But the folk tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin comes to mind, and with folk tales often come hard truths about ourselves.
  • Many people won’t want to hear the messy stories of healthcare workers when it all calms down. People tend to want stories that fit into a particular narrative, so they can move on. Healthcare workers will just have to carry their memories isolated in the truth, suffering the moral injury with varying degrees of quietness.
  • There is a genuine plight among sex workers. Lockdown measures prevent human contact and leave a marginalised part of our society that feels uneasy and lacks the honesty of coming to terms with it particularly vulnerable. Despite the fact that sex workers are adversely affected by the pandemic, they are excluded from government relief and protection programmes as well as health services. About a third carry on face to face meetings regardless, taking enormous risks for themselves and others. Homelessness, destitution and even suicide attempts are not unknown.
  • Some are coming to believe that civil aviation will never be the same again. Major airlines have already taken steps to axe their fleets of giant carriers – the A-380s and 747s. The growth of and refinement of videoconferencing as a result of the pandemic may well reduce the need for business class passengers, and security measures, already in place since 9/11 will now include biosecurity. How we travel is changing.
  • Along with that comes a growing awareness of the part our leisure activities play in incubating and exporting coronavirus, as the newsworthy events include ski resorts and cruise ships as superspreaders.
  • Free audiobooks for children, from Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, are booming during lockdown,.
  • “100 staff are fostering pets:” How animal shelters are coping with Covid-19. As rescue centres struggle to rehome pets under social distancing measures, they’re faced with new challenges.
  • A Survey shows that only 9 per cent of Britons want life to return to ‘normal’ once lockdown is over.
  • And lockdown has created a return to love in anticipation and a revisiting of the old-fashioned love letter in a modern context. Tinder has become so pre-covid!

With those anecdotes also come very personal stories:

  • Patient One: The first person diagnosed with Covid-19 in Italy was a healthy 38 year old who arrived in his local emergency room in Cordogno, south of Milan on February 20th with flu-like symptoms. He spent weeks on a ventilator before he could breathe again and was released from hospital on March 22nd. While he was still in hospital his father died of Covid-19, and his wife, nearly 8 months pregnant tested positive as well, although she eventually recovered. He turned out to be a ‘super-spreader’ who infected scores of others, including people in his amateur soccer league and at the hospital where he was diagnosed. He is a continuing tale of asymptomatic contagion and the unpreparedness of hospitals. Officials believe Patient Zero is likely to have been a German who travelled to Northern Italy around January 25th.
  • 43 year old Purna Ghale, a hospital cleaner travels 4,500 miles from Nepal to London. Having worked at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow for 16 years, he was anxious to get back to the UK to “do his bit.” Having known many Nepalese people I’m in no way surprised.
  • “My wife hates it when I work from home,” Banksy says as he unveils his new work – a toilet and basin overrun with naughty mural-rats.
  • War veteran Captain Tom Moore, 99, says he’d be ‘amazed’ to meet the Queen amid petitions for a knighthood. The Duke of Cambridge thanks Captain Tom Moore for NHS fund-raising – and donates to the campaign.
  • A 90 year old woman, inspired by the brave captain, is climbing the equivalent of a Highland mountain on her staircase and has exceeded her target to raise £10,000 for the NHS and a hospice. Margaret Payne plans to climb the height of Suilven – 2,398 feet – by making 282 trips upstairs.
  • Megan Markle and Prince Harry are pictured for the first time in Los Angeles delivering food for charity in masks and gloves after the duchess wanted her husband to see the city “through the eyes of philanthropy.”
  • Princess Beatrice’s wedding is ‘officially cancelled.’

My final bulletins today come from Europe:

  • Ursula von der Leyen extended a ‘heartfelt apology’ to Italy on behalf of Europe, admitting that it had not been by its side since the beginning of the crisis.
  • The Swedish government is granted special powers to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Stranded or shunned, Europe’s migrant workers are caught in no-man’s land.
  • Malaria drug: The French president Emmanuel Macron has called for a controversial dual therapy based on hydroxychloroquine, to be tested as soon as possible, and described the infectious diseases specialist, Professor Didier Raoult, as a “great scientist.” Critics have lambasted Raoult’s methodology and have claimed that the results of his two studies are purely observational. 
  • Feeling the pinch: The Ukrainian government, like most across Europe, has closed many shops and is encouraging people to stay at home. Yet, Ukraine’s social security system is not as strong as many wealthier European countries, meaning people are mostly left on their own when they become unemployed. How people are coping with an at-times drastic loss of income.
  • How deep will the economic downturns in rich countries be? Those in central and southern Europe seem the most vulnerable.

Thursday 16th April 2020

Daily Diary: Today I’m Feeling Like Jesse

Today, I feel like Jesse from ‘The Fast Show.’           

Today, I planted out the sweet pea plants that Emily bought from Sainsbury’s last week. I didn’t have any canes or even sticks, so I made my own from some scrap tongue and groove I had left over from doing the porch ceiling. One of the best tools I have ever bought was a Bosch jigsaw and there’s something very satisfying about cutting wood with it.

I learned how to do it off a couple of You Tube videos, then I built my ‘wigwams’ out of my cut sticks, tying the top with old paraglider line, which I have learned is the best string on the planet. It knots easily – too easily sometimes, especially out on the hill – and is ridiculously superpower-strong. You can even pick a favourite colour. Mine was an old stabilo line, yellow and a bit faded.

(A stabilo line manages the wingtips of a paraglider, especially when launching, so the canopy inflates without tucking in at the tips. You need your canopy to be as tidy and stable as possible before you launch.)

I had just enough Levington John Innes Number One potting compost.

There’s a warm front coming through, resulting in a dull leaden sky that threatens to rain, but in the end does little more than spit, so I get the job done.

I’m a bit behind myself, so today’s entry is brief.

The Bigger Picture: Global Problems

Everyone born after the end of the Second World War has been part of an increasingly globalised  world. A world in which first goods and then people could move freely. For those in the rich world it was an era of consumer dreams, where a morning coffee came from Colombia, an evening wine came from New Zealand and the strawberries for dessert were grown in Kenya. It was all too good to be true.

Then it turned out that a deadly virus, behaving in ways we didn’t fully understand, could also travel as freely as goods and people, and the whole world recoiled. Some say the pandemic has sounded the death knell for liberal globalisation. Some hail the rebirth of the nation state as the first step in a new era. It’s certainly the case that leaders are enjoying a short-term boost during the Covid-19 crisis.

Whether that short-term boost will last or not will depend on the count of their country’s body bags in the months ahead.

Some leaders realised that harsh fact of life (and death) early on, then set about controlling the virus, closing borders and taking measures to eliminate its spread. Examples are Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Shinzo Abe of Japan, Tsai Ing Wen of Taiwan and Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland. They will have the best paybacks.

Others, believing the problem of having to close borders then set about eliminating the virus from the population to be too great, set about doing the alternative – politicising and posturing, hoping they can ride the tiger before the next election. Examples are Donald Trump of America, Jair Bolsnaro of Brazil, Andres Manuel Lopez of Mexico and, until he met a virus on the ‘Road to Damascus,’ Boris Johnson of the UK. They are in the process of creating outcomes that will come back to haunt them.

Trump withdrawing funding from the World Health Organisation, as a punitive measure for being insufficiently hard on China, falls into that category. It is an act of ‘America First’ extreme nationalism and appeals to those instincts to rebuff globalisation and recreate the United States as a nation state.

But during a global pandemic it makes no sense. Even the head of America’s CDC distances himself from Trump’s WHO criticism, saying the agencies “continue to have a strong relationship.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says about Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw funding:

“Covid-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies. Neither do we. This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat. A dangerous enemy. When we’re divided the virus exploits the cracks between us.”

Withdrawing funding does not only hinder dealing with the pandemic, but all the other diseases the WHO tries to control, even eradicate across the world. Already, Covid-19 is eroding the global fight against many other diseases. And in doing so the WHO, along with a number of NGOs, such as UNICEF, Water Aid and Action Against Poverty seek to keep people informed and safe, prevent the spread of Covid-19 (one in ten people globally don’t have anywhere to wash their hands) and try to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on livelihoods.

It’s a dangerous combination of denial and showmanship. Trump had started by saying the coronavirus crisis was a politicised hoax perpetrated by Democrats. But the virus could not be simply talked away. Now it’s gone on to deflecting the blame, first on China, then on the WHO for not being tough enough on them. He already declared at the end of February that like a miracle the pandemic will disappear and hectored that, with respect to the cost of the measures needed to deal with the pandemic, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the disease itself.”

There are similarities to climate change, about which Donald Trump has long been in denial, only the pandemic is moving what seems like a hundred times faster. In the Trumpian playbook it’s a hoax created by scientists, the Chinese are again responsible, it’ll change itself back again and that it amounts to a very expensive form of tax. Spot the parallels?

The climate activist and author Bill McKibben said you can’t negotiate with physics and chemistry, you can’t compromise with them or spin them away, and Covid-19 is teaching us precisely this lesson about biology as well.

“Reality is real and sometimes it bites pretty hard.”

The Republican pollster Neil Newhouse put it more bluntly:

“Denial is not likely to be a successful strategy for survival.”

The human activities that lead to climate change are also part of the problem. Deforestation continuously forces wildlife and humans to come forever closer, and with it, zoonosis, the means by which pathogens jump host species. It’s easy to think of it as being a tropical and subtropical problem, but it isn’t. As the planet warms, and there are now heatwaves in the Arctic circle, the permafrost is starting to thaw, and with it the possibility of zombie viruses and pathogens that have been on ice. Could the next pandemic come from there?

Burning fossil fuels not only exacerbates the damage Covid-19 can do, but the dirty air it makes leads to a host of deadly human diseases and disorders in its own right. Here are the major ones and they affect not just the lungs, but every body system. Here are the major diseases caused by air pollution:

Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodevelopmental disorders, coronary artery disease, heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung cancer, chronic kidney disease, obesity, diabetes, diminished fertility, premature births, low birth weight and poor infant health.

Clean air is not just a beautiful thing. It is necessary for our health.

In China 1.8 million died from air pollution in 2019, India 1.7 million and the United States over 60,000. In the UK that year, toxic air led to the premature deaths of at least 40,000 – 9,000 in London – and it has left hundreds of thousands more suffering serious long-term health problems.

The blue skies of lockdown have shown this is a choice of national lifestyle and the Committee on Climate Change are to push UK government to deliver a climate-resilient Covid-19 recovery.

What will actually happen remains to be seen.

The question is whether economies can recover at the same time as moving away from carbon energy. To date over half the world has asked the IMF for emergency funding.

In the United States Goldman Sachs predicts 37 million jobs will be lost by the end of May, while US retail sales have suffered the biggest plunge on record in March, dropping 8.7%, as the pandemic shuts stores and wallets.

However, Covid-19 social distancing saves the US $5 trillion, according to a Wyoming study. The economic benefits of lives saved substantially outweigh the value of the projected losses to the US economy.

And social distancing proves all the more important as research published in the medical journal Nature Medicine suggests people with Covid-19 were at their most infectious right when symptoms began, or even a few days before, presenting yet another hurdle for controlling the spread.

That makes Covid-19 such a frightening disease. Frightening enough that it has led to a sharp rise in the number of seriously ill people dying at home because they are reluctant to call for an ambulance. Dozens more people than usual are dying each day at home of cardiac arrest, some related to coronavirus, before ambulance crews can reach them.

Stories about ventilators still get a lot of news coverage, but the narrative is starting to change. Epic tales of automotive production lines and light engineering companies such as Dyson repurposing to manufacturing these life-saving machines, but the fact of the matter is that although it looks as though something is being done, in actuality it’s only part of a much bigger picture. In many cases it’s not access to ventilators that’s the issue, but everything else that goes with it, such as the availability of oxygen, along with in the US half of the medicines needed for Covid-19 patients who are placed on ventilators are being filled and shipped to hospital. Everyone going on to a ventilator needs a regime of sedatives, anaesthetics, painkillers, and muscle relaxants, which are now in short supply.

And the regime matters every bit as much as the machines themselves. It’s not like knocking out an aeroplane a day from a Northampton shoe factory for the war effort in the nineteen forties. The reality at the hard end of a pandemic is much more complex and involved than that. That’s bad for news stories.

Vaccinating is still some way off. It will be the cornerstone in finally ending the pandemic. Optum’s CEO Sir Andrew Witty, a heavyweight in the business, takes leave to assist the World Health Organization in developing a vaccine for COVID-19. But it’s early days. We don’t even know at this stage that a vaccine will work.

Something has to dominate the narrative and that’s now testing, tracing and isolating. 

It’s the only possible way at the moment, as Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Georgia, and Iceland have all shown that the coronavirus can be stopped. But many countries, including the US and UK are getting in on the act too late. Early testing, tracing and isolating is effective. Later on, the virus has embedded itself within the population and with asymptomatic transmission it’s all but impossible to control its spread by this method alone.

It has become obvious that scant testing is a barrier to reopening. Business leaders urge Trump to scale up Covid-19 testing.

NHS leaders warn that they will hold MPs to account over ‘false test promises.’ Just 11,700 people were tested in the last 24 hour period, but ministers say the UK is on track to meet an ambitious target by the end of April.

The UK has failed pretty badly on testing people for the virus so far. Time is running out to hit the government’s target, with ministers woefully off-course for delivering on pledges. A lot of faith is being placed in smartphone contact tracing apps. Part of it is a kind of naïve fascination with widgets and gadgets. I takes time for people to become healthily sceptical of pretty much any technology. That it won’t be perfect. That there may be unforeseen consequences to its use. I’m sure it dawned on the first citizen to inadvertently step in some horse poo in an ancient Sumerian street that there was a down side to equine transport.

So there’s a lot of excitement about all the imagined benefits and stories about how it has been central to South Korea’s success in controlling the virus, and there is a temptation to allow it to deflect away from the bigger system of testing, tracing and isolating. The one which has been established for years, that was used to track STDs and particularly HIV/AIDS. The grunt one, with boots on the ground and people putting in the hours. The one that the NHS and local authorities did so well for so long, but the government put out to private tender at great expense.

As it was, the significantly more compliant South Korean population, ninety per cent of whom have smartphones, readily accepted the obligation, surrendered their privacy and allowed themselves to be pestered up to a dozen times a day with text alerts, something even they are now finding wearisome. Even becoming a nuisance.

But somehow or other the idea is that somehow or other such app-based approaches will translate into more individualistic western cultures. But in collectivistic societies like India, China and South Korea, the desire for greater privacy is a lower threshold than what we have in Western countries, especially when there is an argument for greater public good.

“If I got the virus, I would provide my details to the government without hesitating,” a South Korean university student admitted.

“I don’t know if what South Korea did was right. It’s something I wouldn’t like,” an American professor declared, adding, “But then again, I am an American.”

How well the apps will work in the West remains to be seen.

On the biomedical science front things are looking increasingly promising as Abbott Labs rolling out Covid-19 antibody tests, fifty thousand a day. The first Covid-19 saliva testing site opens in US after emergency FDA authorisation. For the time being it’s still those horrid nose swabs as the cornerstone of testing, but it’s a promising development.

Increased testing starts the debate about immunity passports, but it’s still early days, with only testing providing evidence that travellers are ‘safe.’ The general consensus at the moment is that it is too soon, but it’s a debate that won’t go away, but it will take the arrival of vaccines to take it to the next level.

Finally, one of the key weaknesses of testing and tracing emerges as, fearing deportation, many immigrants are at a higher risk of Covid-19, are afraid to seek testing or care.

Nowhere are the weaknesses in testing, tracing and isolating more evident than in social care. Without it in any systematic sense the most vulnerable members of society and their carers are not protected. Caring is the Cinderella of our society and it’s as clear as daylight that no one in government particularly cares for it, despite it being one of PM Johnson’s earliest pledges. It was broken, but in fairness he has had a habit of breaking pledges.

Helen Whately, Care Minister admits, “We don’t have a figure” for care home worker deaths in a heated clash with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. “We know that also, some workers have died who work in social care, and I’ll be straight with you, we don’t have a figure for that.”

It’s not as if this is something new.

“Day after day we are losing people to this virus,” a care worker describes her situation. “Each shift is getting worse.”

There is also pressure to allow Care workers’ visas are extended, free of charge for one year, in line with the NHS. In a fortnight’s time the government will concede to do this.

In the meantime families get the right to say goodbye to loved ones in care homes and hospitals, subject to strict conditions. More testing was also announced for care home residents and employees.

But still, according to the British Medical Association, there are alarming reports from members across the UK about a lack of PPE in their workplaces. There are others in what has now become known as the front line in an even worse predicament when it comes to the risk of infection. Bus drivers ‘running out of patience’ with the lack of Covid-19 protection.

“I have personal sanitiser,” says one bus driver, “ but I am concerned for my wife, who is high risk because she is in remission from cancer.”

The coronavirus death toll among London’s bus drivers will turn out to be three times the national average.

The new reality is a very mixed bag:

  • Surprising: A humble virtual pub quiz for the locals at the Greenfield pub in a small town in Lancashire, closed because of lockdown, created a global community. By the day of the quiz, the Facebook event set up by 38-year-old Jay Flynn had more than half a million people ‘interested’, and more than 200,000 actually took part.
  • Creative: As culinary habits evolve from batch Bolognese to sag aloo pie and countless Brits are set to become much better cooks as a result of lockdown.
  • Exploitative: As price-gouging becomes part of our way of life. These are the spivs of the covid crisis.
  • Unifying: As over 100 more artists have been added to Global Citizen’s ‘One World Together at Home’ performathon lineup.
  • Educational: Schools outside London and Birmingham could reopen next month in lockdown easing, but as schools reopen in Denmark, concerned parents push back.
  • Inspirational: 99 year old Captain Tom Moore completes his final fundraising lap for the NHS as donations soar past £12 million. A petition appears to build a statue of Captain John Moore outside the Nightingale.
  • Disappointing: Despite the disproportionate number of medics and carers on the front line being from minority groups, and despite their paying a disproportionate price during the pandemic Mary Seacole is not being recognised in any of the Covid-19 hospitals in England and Wales. It contrasts with the many ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ appearing all over the country. Eventually this issue id=s addressed, but at present the omission is stark.
  • Memorable: A professional singer who claims to have contracted the coronavirus and survived, held an Easter concert for her neighbours in the courtyard of her apartment building in Paris. Adèle Belmont, who performs regularly at the Opéra National de Paris, said she wanted to thank her neighbours for all their support as she struggled with the illness.
  • Tragic: Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, who worked at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital for five years, died on Sunday after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Her baby was delivered successfully via an emergency caesarean operation.
  • Unforgiveable: A sixty year old key worker in Glasgow, delivering groceries, is threatened at knifepoint and robbed. All for some alcoholic drinks he had in the van.

Then there are those who simply aren’t taking the lockdown seriously. I read on my local Nextdoor.

“Walking each day I come across a party of about 30 people congregating at the area of Winn’s Common hidden by the wooded area near Bleak Hill Lane. Their cars were parked along Bleak Hill Lane. “Definitely not socially isolating.”

It’s hard to tell where this complacency has come from. It’s easy to blame the UK government, who allegedly at this moment have no exit plan for the lockdown. But such casual behaviour is not unique to Britain.

Issues facing the government at the moment include resuming the Brexit talks next week, pressure from the disability community who are fighting deadly discrimination, fears of homelessness as rents and mortgage payments go into arrears for many, and the call for a new digital Parliament will allow all MPs to give robust scrutiny of the government during this crisis.

As it is, the government is enjoying the free rein it has from being held to account. Along with an 80 seat majority and the Coronavirus Act in the pipeline this is the nearest the UK has come to autocratic rule in people’s lifetimes.

In Europe:

  • Power grabs are not unique to the United Kingdom. They appear in Europe too. First Hungary, now Poland.
  • With only 101 deaths in a country of around 11 million Greece has a much lower toll for Covid-19 than its fellow southern European nations, Italy and Spain, but also far fewer fatalities than Germany or Denmark. Britain’s death toll today stands at 13,729. Per capita it’s over twenty times greater.
  • Germany set to ease some lockdown measures, while German retailers say partial relaxation of Covid-19 rules confusing.
  • Belgium, a country that exports 90 per cent of its potatoes, finds itself with a 750,000 tonne surplus of spuds. The Belgian potato chief (yes, there is one!) appeals for the government to chip in. The politicians act true to form and encourage all Belgians to eat chips twice a week.

In America:

  • The sporadic and unpredictable Trump melodrama continue threatens to adjourn both chambers of Congress.
  • Medical intelligence warned of an impending pandemic in US in February.
  • Governors from both parties said that, while they were a long way from telling Americans to return to their normal lives, it was not too early to make plans.
  • Across the US shelters are closing their doors to stop the spread of Covid-19, leaving many runaway youths (from stressed homes during lockdown) nowhere to go.
  • US Navy says it may reinstate fired Captain Crozier to command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

And further afield:

  • China’s busy reopening its factories.
  • The Guangzhou McDonald’s has apologised after putting up a sign saying that African customers were no longer welcome. It comes as African visitors to the city, a major hub of Sino-African trade, have faced forced evictions and homelessness as rumours spread online that African travellers were spreading Covid-19.
  • Japan’s prime minister issues a state of emergency for the nation.
  • Latin America’s health systems brace for a battering. Despite recent improvement, the region’s health care is not ready.
  • In Australia all Ruby Princess crew are to be tested for Covid-19 within 48 hours.
  • New Zealand’s government announces its ministers, including the PM, Jacinda Ardern, will take a 20 per cent pay cut in solidarity with those facing financial pressures during lockdown.
  • Malawi: Dozens of hospital workers, including doctors, nurses and lab technicians have staged a sit-in at the QEH hospital capital Blantyre in protest at inadequate personal protection equipment.
  • Covid-19 is spreading rapidly to developing countries, such as Sierra Leone, where 54 per cent of the population live in poverty and health systems are weak. Or Uganda, where the government has introduced lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the disease, but in its overcrowded refugee camps people are running out of food and social distancing is near impossible.

Today’s ‘Bigger Picture’ ends with something that is local, national and global. It’s actually a notice on my local Nextdoor networking site, but sadly and worryingly it is as universal as the pandemic itself. I won’t elaborate ……

“Information and support on domestic abuse. If you’re at risk of domestic abuse, free and confidential support is available. Call the GDVA helpline on 020-8317-8273 (Mon-Fri 9,30 am to 8 pm). There’s also a free 24 hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808-2000-247. In an emergency always call 999.”

It’s not just the virus that’s sickening minds and harming bodies.

Wednesday 15th April 2020

Daily Diary: What An Oddly Mundane Catastrophe!

It was a cold, clear night last night. Looking north from our bedroom at the top of the house, across Galleons Reach that just catches the buildings and streetlights from East London and reflects them in lines of white, yellow and amber, I can see out to the Essex hills. The lights are so noticeably clear, like bright stars, free from haze that would fuzz them. Each house, each streetlight a bright point. The once never ending hum from the city is quieter, so quiet in fact that I can hear our central heating gas boiler’s exhaust. Normally there’s a 24/7 hum, from subsonic to mid-range, reassuring me that all is well with the engine of human activity.

This morning, waking up at half past seven, I make a point of revisiting the view. There is a little inversion haze, but it is white, untainted by the purple-brown of motor vehicle exhaust pollution. Up here on the common the air is pretty good for London, but now it is even cleaner. Purer.

The cuttings are making mixed progress. One is rooting for sure. It was always the strongest. The weakest is not progressing and I’m worried that the threads on the base of the cut stem are actually filamentous bacteria. Emily brought us a tray of sweet peas to plant out but I need to find sticks for them to climb up. Maybe tomorrow.

A month has passed and the corona story is bigger than I’d ever imagined. It’s still growing, with all its ramifications and it is becoming a several hours a day effort keeping up with it. I try to include at least one other activity each day so I don’t get too obsessed, too wrapped up, but I fear that that’s going to be a losing battle.

The postman arrives with a collection of letters and packages. It’s decontamination time. I have a diluted bleach solution in a plant sprayer, and everything gets sprayed, plastic as well as paper. What comes into the house has to be treated as potentially contaminated. The conservatory smells like the municipal baths and all ventilation options are set to GO!

Then the young woman from the pharmacy arrives. We have a small lobby at the front of the house that acts as an ‘air lock.’ She drops off the bag of medicines in the lobby and picks up the envelope with the money in it. I then pick up the pharmacy bag once she’s outside again, so there is no proximity and always a door between us. The pharmacy bag is sprayed with methylated spirit because it evaporates faster than bleach.

We have a long chat with Emily, who’s chosen not to continue with the special school. She was assigned to an autistic girl called Amelie, but Amelie is now at home, so going in is optional. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Tom would have begun his Berlin posting this week, but that’s on hold as his skills have been harnessed in Whitehall. If there are any money issues arising from the decision, we’re not spending anything on holidays this year, so we can help out if necessary. Families are the cornerstone of society. Families see each other right.

Back in the seventies, when I was in my early twenties, I bought a book called ‘The Limits to Growth.’ Written by an international team of scientists, economists and politicians. The premise was that human civilisation couldn’t continue growing in number and prosperity. Resources would increasingly be consumed. Waste would increasingly be produced. It’s a key principle known to every biologist. It’s called the sigmoid curve If all goes well, like a child growing into an adult, the curve is a graceful S-shape, but it need not be. Sometimes it levels. Sometimes, like yeast cells poisoned by its own waste product – ethanol – it crashes. We simply don’t know what the human population growth curve will do, or when it levels, how exactly that comes about.

It’s certainly true that the same principles apply to economic growth. The world simply can’t carry on getting richer forever. Something has to check it. The rich are far too greedy to give up the system that feeds their wealth, so something has to give. It’s become increasingly clear that things weren’t going to evolve in some benign and decent way – there are far too many Trumpoids out there believing there is a virtue in selfishness and humanity has been in this bind since records began. The coronavirus pandemic is as much a consequence of how our civilisation functions as it is about anything else.

So will the change going to take the form of a René Thom catastrophe? Will the old world order be tipped over by events rather than respond to human wisdom?

Would it happen suddenly?

Perhaps it already has.

And it was so mundane we barely noticed it.

The Bigger Picture: When Knowledge Is An Option

It’s hard to hide the truth while searching for it at the same time. If science had progressed that way, the Age of Enlightenment would never have happened, and we’d still be performing alchemy, necromancy and attributing magical powers to mathematics. It’s only by pure coincidence that the truth and the most desired narrative ever come into alignment.

Politicians know that in the same way that engineers know about gravity. If truth and the narrative don’t align there are three choices – come clean and take a pin to the delicate bubbles of people’s confidence, allow a false narrative to roll on, repeating and emphasising it along the way, or say nothing?

China chose the third option. For six days after senior Chinese officials had secretly come to the conclusion that they were facing a pandemic from a novel coronavirus they said nothing to warn the public. So it was that the city of Wuhan at the epicentre of the disease hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people and millions began travelling home for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Saving face was more important than saving lives.

It’s likely that the culture of secrecy has also made it very difficult and maybe impossible to identify patient zero, the first person to have been diagnosed with Covid-19. Effectively it means that a choice has been made that knowledge is an option rather than a necessity when it comes to uncomfortable and unpalatable truths.

So we don’t know how Covid-19 started. We don’t know where it came from. We don’t know if it jumped species in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan or whether it came via stray dogs eating bat meat. Indeed, nearly 30 per cent of Americans, encouraged by their president, believe that the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, despite a complete lack of evidence. Rumours, conspiracies and theories abound, and that suits an authoritarian regime just fine, as it can’t be pinned down. It’s the same government that backs unproven treatments for Covid-19. Traditional medicine is not just a placebo, it claims.

It’s easy to China-bash in the circumstances. The UK government, preoccupied with celebrating Brexit, its casual leader taking holidays and ignoring scientific counsel rather than preparing the nation’s defences preparing the nation’s defences against the inexorably approaching pandemic in January and February, when those in the know were well aware of the dangers, chose not to know, or at least advertise the fact that they might.

America too.

It was known to those who wished to know. On January 21st the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today confirmed the first case of in Washington state and that the patient concerned had travelled from Wuhan on January 15th. The first alert had gone out from the CDC to physicians on January 8th, about a week after details about Covid-19 had been declared by the Chinese authorities (a day after it had leaked out of China online).

On January 28th Dr Carter Mecher, a senior medical adviser at the Department of Veteran Affairs, emailed a group of public health experts scattered around government and universities, “Any way you cut this, it is going to be bad. The projected size of the outbreak already seems hard to believe.”

There was no way Trump couldn’t have known, and he admitted as much on tape in an interview with veteran reporter of Watergate fame, Bob Woodward.

But knowledge, at least widespread knowledge, was an option to be declined. The president focussed instead on controlling the message, protecting gains in the economy and batting away warnings from senior officials. It was a problem, he chose to tell the nation, that had come out of nowhere and couldn’t have been foreseen.

But it could. There was a Pandemic Playbook. The CDC did have a pandemic plan. And Crimson Contagion – a joint exercise conducted from January to August 2019, in which numerous national, state and local, private and public organizations in the US participated, in order to test the capacity of the federal government and twelve states to respond to a severe pandemic of influenza originating in China.

It wasn’t just knowledge of the fact, but knowledge of the extent of the fact. In the absence of systematic test and trace, in many places no one is quite sure about how far the disease has spread. It’s like we’re flying through fog with a faulty altimeter. So attributing deaths to Covid-19 is hit and miss, particularly in the case of the stricken who never made it to hospital. Pneumonia is pneumonia and it has carried the elderly off so much so it has long travelled as ‘the old person’s friend.’

New York City death toll soars past 10,000 in a revised virus count, adding more than 3,700 additional people who were presumed to have died from the virus but had never tested positive.

In England too, Covid deaths could be 15 per cent higher than government estimates. The head of the charity Age UK warned that elderly people in nursing homes have been ‘airbrushed out’ of the official Covid-19 figures, and carers are being overlooked in the fight against the disease. There are fears of a virus running wild in adult social care and ministers have promised to ramp up testing for care home residents and staff, as fears grow that the virus is ‘running wild.’

The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said the welcomed the promise but said that the country’s testing capacity is “far from where it needs to be.”

President Trump says some states could reopen by May 1st. Dr Fauci doesn’t agree, saying that the US is “not there yet,” and floating the concept of a “floating re-entry” under which areas with fewer cases that are easier to track and quarantine will be able to resume normal life sooner. “It is not going to be a light switch,” he said on CNN’s State of The Union. “It is going to be depending on where you are in the country, the nature of the outbreak you’ve already experienced, and the threat of an outbreak you have not yet experienced. New York is going to be very different from Arkansas.”

The United States is now the global epicentre of the virus with more than 557,000 confirmed cases and more than 220,000 deaths.

There is friction between the president and a number of governors who are more cautious about lifting restrictions. Trump tries to be bullish and attempts to assert ‘total’ authority to overrule them. But the authority to make such decisions lies with individual states, not the president, and some governors, such as Andrew Cuomo of New York, say they’re prepared to resist such orders.

There’s also friction between Trump and the rest of the world. His move cut WHO funding at the height of a pandemic is criticised worldwide. Many Russians say it’s selfish. Bill Gates says it’s dangerous. Diplomats use the word “regrettable,” but it’s a very mild representation of the anger felt and expressed in dozens of other countries large and small.

Eliot Engel, Chair of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee summed up the frustration at such an ill-considered move.

“With each passing day of this worsening crisis, the president is showing us his political playbook: Blame the WHO, blame China, blame his political opponents, blame his predecessors – do whatever it takes to deflect from the fact that his administration mismanaged this crisis and it‘s now costing thousands of American lives,”

Trump’s response is to play a campaign-style video defending his Covid-19 response at a press briefing.

The virus is also disrupting the workings of the country. The Census Bureau announces a delay in the 2020 count, saying it would extend the deadlines for collecting census data, and would ask Congress for a delay in providing final counts used for congressional restructuring.

And in a closing chapter of the outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a sailor who had the virus died two weeks after Captain Crozier fateful request for help.

Since the 1960s there has been a growing idea that economics would somehow be constrained by the limitations of the global environment, The economist Kenneth Boulding coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth.’ It would take over five decades for that concept to enter a wider grasp of how economics worked. Where humanity collided with their environment, such as in environmental damage or zoonosis – diseases jumping species – economics would suffer.

The consequences of climate change, notably in forest fires and the consequence of more frequent storm events, were beginning to have serious impacts, but set against the scale of the whole planet it was hard to build up a global picture at any one point in time. Economic damage was largely localised, in line with environmental damage. It’s taken the pandemic to cause widespread economic damage.

When people become sick on any large scale, so do economies.

In Britain the impact of Covid-19 is said by some, including the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to be the biggest economic shock since 1709. Two million people could lose their jobs through the virus, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak warns “more tough times” lay ahead and declares health to be the top priority. GDP could fall by 35 per cent in the second quarter according to the OBR, although they add it could bounce back quickly, and banks have more resilience than they had in 2009.

There are winners and losers too.

On the winning side Amazon hired 100,000 people last month. Now it’s hiring another 75,000. The emerging demand in PPE, where demand far outstrips supply, creates an army of disaster profiteers and price-gougers.

While the Trump administration tries to assist some of the losers when they reach an agreement in principle with major US airlines over a $25 billion bailout to prop up the struggling industry.

Treating Covid-19 at present can be best described as climbing a steep learning curve:

  • At the moment it’s largely immediate problem solving. Such as who gets the last available ventilator?  What are the criteria? How can it be fair, if in practice it’s an unthinkable choice. But it’s real in both European and American hospitals.
  • We receive a letter from Cancer Research UK telling supporters it’s turning its efforts temporarily to Covid-19.
  • Plasma therapy, the transfer of blood plasma from those recovering to those suffering. It’s a method going back to the nineteenth century, but it’s being seriously considered to help treat Covid-19 patients.
  • The development of vaccines has been going on since January, well before most political leaders grasped what was going on. Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline collaborate to speed up vaccine development as the EU eyes mass investment through its next long term budget to restart growth.

Elsewhere, different countries had different stories to tell:

  • France is to stay in strict lockdown for another month. Emmanuel Macron admits failings and tells the nation that the end to the crisis is not yet in sight. A year after the blaze, Notre Dame restoration is halted by the virus. And the Tour de France postponed as Macron extends a ban on public gatherings until July.
  • In Italy, coronavirus books rush to publication.
  • Italy and Spain ease lockdown restrictions. Others watch out for the repercussions.
  • In Austria some shops are reopening after a month of restrictions. Austria has seen a relatively low death toll, the latest being 384.
  • Portugal has not been hit as hard by Covid-19 as neighbouring Spain. Only 535 against 18,000. Two key factors seem to apply. The first is that Portugal was about 3 weeks behind Italy and a week and half behind Spain. This gave the country  time to get hospitals ready and increase capacity in intensive care units. The second reason being given is that Portuguese citizens are in general prone to be more compliant and obedient of the authorities, particularly in the light of Spain’s recent unsettled politics.
  • Putin makes a rare and bleak Covid-19 admission. “We don’t have much to brag about.” Russia’s president acknowledged that his country risks being overwhelmed by Covid-19.
  • To me it struck a chord – a primary mover of the virus has been relative wealth and mobility, along with a lack of respect for the age-old way of dealing with a plague – social distancing.

About social distancing:

  • A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that some social distancing may be needed into 2022 to keep Covid-19 in check.
  • There is a lack of clarity about whether we should be wearing face masks. Different countries have different takes on this. Even within countries there are deep divisions. So much so that it breeds mask tribalism for the whole duration of the pandemic. In America mask-defiance for the extreme right becomes a political statement, which seems bizarre, bearing in mind all it does is filter virus-containing particles and droplets out of the air we breathe. I have worn a mask since early March. It’s prophylactic. It’s the precautionary principle, no different for why I always paraglide with a reserve parachute. It’s nothing to do with fear. It’s simply common sense. The British Government responds with predictable fudging – a review on whether face masks should be recommended for more widespread use is ongoing.
  • There is also a lack of clarity about how far apart we should be from each other. Some say two metres, some say one and a half and others say one is fine. No one has fully explained how far air can carry coronaviruses or even the difference between indoors and outdoors, or well ventilated and less well ventilated spaces.
  • Prisons, with all the confinement and close proximity issues present significant social distancing problems. Decarceration can reduce Covid-19 spread and in a number of US states prison governors start to ‘quietly’ release hundreds of prisoners convicted of non-violent, non-sexual crimes.

It’s all part of a new reality. A reality we often take to describing with the language of war. It might not be correct to do so, but there are many parallels. Nested in this ‘world on tilt’ come the following day’s stories describing a locked down world.

  • Thousands of rough sleepers are still not safely housed, charities say.
  • Greedy cats are the big losers for the Covid-19 community WhatsApp groups. New neighbours are now connecting and cat owners are learning that their pets are cheating on them.
  • People adapting to online dating during lockdown. The pros and cons, but Tinder has increased take-up considerably.
  • More people are considering switching to electric vehicles thanks to improved air conditions during the pandemic.
  • Drinking alcohol doesn’t kill Covid-19, but it does increase the risk of lockdown violence, says WHO. “Fear and misinformation have created a dangerous myth that consuming high-strength alcohol can kill of the Covid-19 virus. It does not.”
  • Designers in Vietnam are creating hand-embroidered and stylish face masks, hoping to convince people to don protective gear in the fight against coronavirus.
  • Theatre costumiers turn their hand to PPE. Costumes from the TV series ‘Chernobyl’ are donated to the Covid-19 fight.
  • England women footballers donate to #PlayersTogether to help the NHS during the coronavirus crisis.
  • Two are arrested over false Covid-19 tests.

Finally there are the personal stories:

A devoted husband using a ‘cherrypicker’ to pay his wife of 61 years a visit after the couple were separated for more than a month due to the pandemic. A daughter who having lost her nurse mother vows to buy more PPE for the hospital. And a doctor describing the anguish of the front line:

“The hardest part of treating coronavirus patients is letting them die without their loved ones. My job as a doctor includes giving people a comfortable, dignified and peaceful death. Covid-19 has made this harder than ever.”

Let us never forget.