Monday 23rd March 2020

Daily Diary: Clipped Wings and Scary Masks – How Lockdown Begins For Me.

It’s a milestone day and there is a heavy feel about it. Checking through my emails I see one from the Southern Hang Gliding Club declaring that their flying sites are closed, initially until June 21st. I must do the same for the Dover and Folkestone Hang Gliding Club. That has to be my priority for the day. I get a rapid response from the club committee, including an hour-long conversation with Nigel Gilbert, who’s the club treasurer and membership secretary. It is the socially responsible thing to do, and to be honest, it’s better to act before we’re instructed to.

This is the message I send out via email, WhatsApp and on the club’s Facebook page. It’s with a heavy heart, but it’s for the best:

Dear Member,

Following recent and developing Government announcements concerning Covid-19, your committee has come to the decision that it would be inappropriate to continue to fly from our sites at this time.

The committee believes that flying while the hospitals are under this degree of stress would be both cavalier, and perceived very poorly by the public in general, landowners in particular. You don’t need to have an accident to promote such a negative public perception of our much-loved sport. Other outdoor activities have already been the focus of criticism on mainstream media for being selfish and inconsiderate in recent days. It would be foolish and wrong to think that we would be an exception to this.

Furthermore, while flying is in itself an acceptably ‘socially distanced’ activity, driving to a site, rigging, chatting, retrieving etc, are not.

Consequently, to protect our access to and future enjoyment of free flying we hereby now close all Dover and Folkestone Hang Gliding Club sites for all aviation purposes until further notice.

DO NOT FLY at ANY of our sites until explicit notice is given by email, WhatsApp and our club Facebook page. Ground handling at any of our sites is also not to take place.

Two thirds of you have already paid your membership for 2020/21. In the light of these circumstances this will be extended until the renewal date in 2022.

These decisions will be reviewed frequently, and will be amended accordingly. For most of us our perception and consideration of the seriousness and far reaching implications of all the issues concerning Covid-19 has evolved with each passing day. That will continue into the foreseeable future.

We would remind pilots that flaunting this closure could easily cause us to lose sites. It would be selfish, inconsiderate and it’s in the face of wider public-spiritedness to act in such a way.

We are not alone in reaching this decision. The Southern Club has sent out the same message this morning.

Our activity binds us together by the freedom the skies bring to our lives and it is with great regret that such an announcement has to be made. We know and regret that everyone in the club will be deeply disappointed on a personal level. It was not an easy decision to make but it is an essential one.

With thoughts and best wishes for the many ways in which this Covid-19 pandemic is affecting everyone’s lives.


The Dover and Folkestone Club Committee

It’s with a degree of trepidation that I click on the ‘send’ button. Regardless of the good sense and pragmatic necessity of the message, and the fact that when all is said and done I’m little more than the messenger it’s still hard to be the one who poops the party. To paraglide is to experience an ultimate freedom that’s hard to articulate to most whose boots have not left the ground and to remove that cuts deep. I know everyone receiving the message shares that same feeling, some I think more than I do, so it’s with relief that generosity of spirit comes in the many responses I get.

There is such a thing as the common good and I see that today.

It’s not universal. I hear Shelagh Fogerty starting her programme on LBC with a damning condemnation of a group of middle-aged bikers. It’s seen as being selfish and childish. It’s carrying on until mum and dad tell you not to, as she puts it.

I send a pair of masks to Emily and Tom. I bought a small number online. They look a bit Darth Vaderish and in time we’ll all move on to masks that won’t frighten the living daylights out of children and small animals (not that we’re likely to come across either at the moment). But for now they will protect ourselves and others and we’re all committed to wear them.

I waste over an hour in a futile attempt to place an order with Morrison’s. I chose this supermarket because they have a ‘collect from store’ option. I build up my list only to then find there are no delivery slots. I contact the store about collection, but for some reason that option has dried up. I ring customer services for Morrison’s as a whole. All there is a pre-recorded message which amounts to, “Sorry, but you don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell.” Then the website crashes altogether.

Vicky and I did into our food reserves. We never expected it to be this soon.

Boris Johnson gives his long-awaited address to the nation. I don’t know what to make of either the man or the words that come out of his mouth. We’re in a grave situation and I have trouble believing his sincerity. So much we have witnessed about Johnson has been based on a performance. An act.

Boy who cried wolf.

Man who cried Covid.

Lockdown begins.

The Bigger Picture: It’s Changing The Ways We Live Our Lives

Hanami. The Japanese festival of cherry blossom, symbolising the beauty, fragility and transience of life. For over a thousand years people have celebrated Hanami, having picnics and parties beneath canopies of countless petals in delicate, subtle pink hues. So it was, with a heavy heart that Governor Yuriko Koike implored the good people of Tokyo not to continue the tradition this year. She said that it was like “taking hugs away from Italians.”

Coronavirus is changing the way we are living our lives.

In many ways.

Also in Japan, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announces the 2020 Olympics will not be held and are likely to be delayed to 2021 at an estimated cost of $2.7 billion.

While Unity Hospital in Rochester, New York a pulmonologist messages his team:

“Talk to your kids now, because you won’t be seeing them for a stretch. Pack your bags. You will be sleeping at the hospital.”

There are only three Covid-19 patients in the hospital now but he expects that number will shoot up exponentially.

He’s right to do so.

Elsewhere, armies are mobilising against the coronavirus. Soldiers patrolling the streets, running hospitals, maintaining order and structure in society.

As, in the face of the British death toll from the disease jumping by 54 to 335, the second highest daily increase since the virus hit the country, PM Boris Johnson orders a ‘national emergency’ lockdown to order people to stay at home. It mirrors the stricter government measures we’ve seen in neighbouring Europe, such as the barring of public gatherings of more than two people, except for families in Germany. Johnsonism is a peculiar political creature somewhat akin to benign despotism. While the emergency Coronavirus Bill is passing its way through Parliament as a final act before an early break-up for Easter, is draconian in many respects, including forcibly quarantining Covid-19 patients, Johnson himself baulks at being personally responsible for draconian behaviour. So everything goes off delayed, half-cock or in a right muddle and he stands accused of mixed messaging.

But locking down is the only option. The government has all but abandoned developing testing in the wider community – it seems as though it would have been a struggle, and struggling was not something a government born from the spirit of can-do and chutzpah, even if it was about something completely different, was prepared to be seen doing. However, developing and deploying a test for the coronavirus is crucial. Without it no one knows what’s going on.

So in desperation, knowing the bad press the horror show of overwhelmed NHS ICU facilities would generate, lockdown’s all that’s left. It should prevent the spread of the virus, but that still doesn’t stop it from being a complicated solution and it’s not clear it will solve everything and it certainly brings fears and anxieties. Labour slammed the government for failing to include a full ban on evictions for renters. John Healey said the bill, “just gives them some extra time to pack their bag.”

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), who represent the self-employed and workers in the gig economy began legal action against the government over its failure to protect their members during the Covid-19 crisis. The IWGB argue that the current arrangements are “not only discriminatory and risk driving millions of workers into deeper poverty, but are also a major threat to public health,” since many ‘gig economy’ and self-employed workers will be forced to continue working while sick.

Britain’s rail network was effectively renationalised when transport secretary Grant Shapps suspended franchise agreements due to a collapse in passenger numbers and revenues during the outbreak.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab says Brits overseas should “return home now” to the UK while commercial flights are still an option.

And health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that 7,563 medical staff – doctors, nurses, midwives and others – have now responded to his call to return to our NHS to tackle the virus crisis.

In 2018 Boris Johnson declared his admiration for Donald Trump during a dinner party. It was all about what is understood by leadership, not just by Johnson himself, but how that vision of a leader was to be shared with those he would seek to elect him to high office. It was not about the serious job of taking responsibility and worrying through decisions for the betterment of all, as had in her own flawed but sincere way his predecessor Theresa May. It was about being the leader. Playing the part, in the style of classical heroes and Roman emperors, as Winston Churchill had done, and he perceived Donald J. Trump doing.

So, in the year of the pandemic, Trump does precisely that, presenting himself as a ‘Wartime President’ – a take-charge leader the country can’t afford to lose. It’s showmanship in the greatest gig on Earth and it might just about get him re-elected as ringmaster-in-chief.

First, he plays down the threat. Great leaders calm their subjects at times of great challenge. Denial in the face of the hard evidence of fellow Americans dying in a distinctly unpleasant way has a short shelf-life. Playing down doesn’t work with all but the most committed followers.

Part of the playing down involves shying away from federal action. The notorious deep state being seen to get involved, obstructing the great leader, so when Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York appealed on Sunday for the federal government to take over the distribution of critical goods, he declines. He will not commandeer private industry to rise to the challenge. That’s big state. Maybe even deep state and he counts instead on a market-driven response, which simply isn’t enough.

Next, he plays the part of ‘this is your captain speaking.’ President Trump is now holding daily news conferences, projecting leadership. This will be the defining issue of his presidency. There are eight months to November’s presidential election.

It starts to work. The polls show that a majority of Americans now approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis, up 12 points from the week before.

“Our goal is to get relief to Americans as quickly as possible, so that families can get by and small businesses can keep workers on the payroll,” Trump told reporters on Sunday, reading from prepared remarks.

It comes across as business-like. As leadership.

But the showman cannot help himself as he resorts to hyperbole and goes off-script, predicting a swift economic turnaround. A ‘pent-up demand’ will spur economic growth.

“This will help our economy,” he said of the rescue package, “and you will see this economy skyrocket once this is over.”

The major banks, however, are bracing themselves for some serious hard times. Exact calculations of the hit to GDP in the second quarter vary from 10 per cent from UBS to 24 per cent with Goldman Sachs. Bank of America and Deutsche Bank agree around 12 per cent. The word ‘collapse’ is being bandied around by economists. “Jobs will be lost, wealth will be destroyed and confidence depressed,” Bank of America’s US economist, Michelle Meyer, wrote in a note. Goldman Sachs put a figure to the surge in unemployment at 9 per cent.

“Global recession in 2020 is now our base case,” came a warning from Morgan Stanley, also predicting that global economic growth would slow to 0.9 per cent – the lowest seen since the 2008 crisis.

Deutsche Bank went further, both in gravity and time, with in their words, the coronavirus-driven declines set to “substantially exceed anything previously recorded going back to at least World War II,

But most of the economists at the big banks still predict the economy will rebound later in 2020, or by 2021 at the latest. Perhaps it is economic myopia that means there’s a shred of optimism there. Perhaps it is because the recession is triggered by a catastrophe, rather than a gear wheel that’s come off its bearings in the World economic order and wrecked the works, as happened in 2008. Perhaps in dark times there is a need for some optimism somewhere. And it’s needed with stocks on Wall Street dropping again as Washington remained deadlocked over a two trillion-dollar stimulus package to shore up the economy. The Fed declared its plans to buy as much government-backed debt as needed and start aggressive programmes to shore up businesses large and small but despite assurances from the Federal Reserve, stocks continued to fall today.

Meanwhile, Richard Branson appears to relent and dips deep to save ‘incredible employees’ with $250 million joint package.

And some are even hiring in these dark times. There’s a 2,736 per cent increase for ‘warehouse handler’ and Walmart adds 150,000 jobs.

Most, however, will be stuck at home. With time, probably kids and in need of a safety valve.

So what to do?

Some start tidying.

Some start exercising, encouraged by enthusiastic instructors on TV and You Tube. Learn from yoga trainer Barbara Currie that you are as young as your spine is flexible or the prisoner squat from Luke Worthington. Age is no excuse – so get to it!  

Some start making little occasions special, such as a “family date night” and getting the kids involved in gardening, the shed and other at-home activities.

Some get socialising with apps such as Zoom and Houseparty. Having virtual happy hours and games such as charades with friends

Some go travelling remotely – even opening up their own neighbourhoods as virtual travel destinations for others.

Some start developing dodgy obsessions:

“Working from home has made me obsessed with my colleagues’ living rooms. The coronavirus outbreak is suddenly giving people an unexpected chance to look inside the homes of their workmates.”

Some, like 42-year-old Amy, find they have to abandon theirs:

“Coronavirus made me end my affair – the sneaking around is far too risky. Social distancing due to the coronavirus outbreak has made it almost impossible to see my lover.”

In Liverpool early lockdown reveals ‘Scouse spirit’ by volunteers coming forward to sign up. Nearly 1,500 people in the city have signed up to help vulnerable people during the coronavirus outbreak.

The sense of community is like an echo from a simpler and less self-centred past. It even comes through is an email from my local Co-op:

“Dear Co-op Members and customers. Firstly, I hope you and your families are keeping well. The virus has quickly and unexpectedly taken its toll on all of us. My colleagues right across the business are doing an incredible job, working exceptionally hard through the day and night. In truth, none of us ever navigated our way through a challenge of this magnitude. What’s motivating and energising all of us right now is our passion for community and co-operation. So here’s how we’re putting that into action: Fundraising, Connecting Communities and Food Banks.”

It’s community and that sense of seeing each other through that’s come to matter.

Donald McNeil, an experienced reporter of epidemics, of the New York Times writes, “If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make [everyone] freeze in place for fourteen days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would splutter to a halt.”

There’s no denying that the near-total co-operation from the public matters, as has happened in countries like China and South Korea. It wasn’t just the authoritarian behaviour of their governments, but also the innate understanding from each and every member of society as a whole about the part they play.

Mistakes have been made. In China, by the time officials locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million and this coronavirus had all the characteristics necessary to spread rapidly, it was too late. It had already played stowaway with countless air travellers and seeded itself around the world.

In the west both scientists and politicians should have learned from SARS, not swine flu. But maybe flu was an illness we could identify with, and SARS was just this bug from a far, faraway land in South East Asia.

Maybe we all need to learn that citizen, official or leader we need to have a lot more humility that we’re all capable of making a mistake.

And do something about it.

Cruise ships have long been known to have had outbreaks of infectious diseases. Air-transmitted viruses like influenza, measles, chickenpox, legionella, along with others like norovirus and E-coli. They have many people in close confinement for days on end, followed by people getting off the ship, mixing with people, getting back on board and a couple of days later doing the same again. I guess for the most part those diseases didn’t kill too many people, so little wonder then that the Diamond Princess and others became local epicentres.

Now, researchers are using the data from the people on board to learn more about the virus. It’ll be useful when you consider how much human activity happens for extended times in crowded, confined indoor spaces, where up until now few considered the spread of disease as being a critical factor. In forty years in schools, much in management, I must admit I didn’t think much about it.

Things like multiple New York prison inmates testing positive for coronavirus.

There is no preparation for the wildfire spread of a disease in a prison.

Because no one expected it.

So for all the furious pace research, for all the dedication of supercomputers – twelve in all, and all the hopes a vaccine will be found, maybe the biggest challenge is our own behaviour and the relationship between that and the political systems we have in place to meet Covid-19’s challenge head-on.