Trusting during Covid-19

While life does seem to be returning to some sort of stability—I dislike the term ‘new normal’—many aspects of our lives that we have formerly taken for granted may not return for many months yet, if ever?

As experts have warned, this particular coronavirus will be with us for many years, decades even, as it becomes a firmly established endemic. Already new societal behaviours are taking hold, such as regular hand washing, appropriate social distancing, and the wearing of face masks, although as someone in the ‘at risk’ demographic, I wish that more individuals would take these simple but effective measures more seriously. Today it is mandatory to wear a face mask when entering shops, banks, and other establishments, unless you have a ‘dispensation’ or are under 11 years old.

Just this morning I walked into town (about ¾ of a mile), through the town center (another ¾), and then home (the same again). Until arriving at the town center, I did not pass a single person, and so did not wear my mask. But at that point, I donned my mask and wore it continuously as I navigated the High Street and beyond. Once I was in the ‘safety zone’ beyond the town center, I took my mask off, and didn’t pass another soul before arriving home. This is my normal pattern of mask use. I was surprised, miffed even, at how few people were wearing a mask continuously in the town center, maybe fewer than 10%. Some were carrying masks, and putting them on and taking them off just to enter shops. It seemed to me that at least 50% of the people I passed had no indication of a mask whatsoever. Unbelievable!

Anyway, enough of my ‘old fart’ grumbling. Let’s look at some recent positives.


Once lockdown came into effect in March, I continued my daily exercise every day, walking for at least 45 minutes, and between 2 and 2½ miles. I reckon I’ve walked around 300 miles since then. My walk rate has fallen off in recent weeks, however. The July weather has been rather variable, cool, and wet; and in preparation for our anticipated house move, Steph and I have spent a considerable amount of time sorting through almost 50 years of accumulated married life ‘stuff’. Fortunately, we’ve been able to upcycle an impressive number of items (which I wrote about in this post), and sending only those items to landfill or recycling (pieces of wood, cardboard, or scrap metal) that no-one was likely to have a use for.


As regular followers of my blog will know, we are enthusiastic members of both the National Trust and English Heritage. During the first three months of the pandemic, both closed their doors to all visitors. However, around the beginning of June, a number of National Trust properties were re-opened to visitors, but only their gardens and parklands. In recent days, several have also opened the houses to a strictly regulated number of admissions. I’m not sure what arrangements English Heritage has put in place.

To visit any of the NT properties that are now open, it is necessary to book tickets online for a timed entry slot. Initially, demand for tickets was high and it took some patience (not one of my virtues) to log into the ticket website. Tickets are released each Friday for the following week. After several attempts, we finally secured tickets for Hanbury Hall on 15 June, being just a hop and a skip (about 7 miles) from our home in Worcestershire. We have visited Hanbury Hall more than any other NT property, often dropping by whenever the fancy took us for a stroll around its splendid parterre (one of the finest in the whole NT portfolio, in my opinion), or a leisurely walk around the park. We missed that during lockdown.

The southwest facade of Hanbury Hall and the parterre in mid-June 2020.

I wrote about our recent June visit here. It was such a joy to be able to explore this delightful landscape once again. Here is a link to a more extensive album of photos from that visit.

Nine days later, we revisited Dudmaston Hall in Shropshire, just south of Bridgnorth. Dudmaston has been in the same family for more than 800 years.

This was our third visit to Dudmaston, having made our first in August 2013. On this latest visit, it was a beautiful, and rather hot day. Since I wear my hair very short, and my hairline has been receding for many years, my NT-purchased straw hat came into its own! We enjoyed a 2½ mile walk around the lake and gardens. Opposite the house, there are some splendid views across the lake towards the house.

Here is the link to more photos that I took on that day.

Then, on 10 July, we headed to the Brockhampton Estate near Bromyard in Herefordshire, just under 30 miles southwest from home. This was our third (maybe fourth?) visit to Brockhampton, having first been there in September 2012. We had actually planned to visit Brockhampton on the 9th, but as the weather deteriorated I was able to cancel our tickets, and rebook for the next day, which turned out fine.

The estate encompasses a working farm, at the heart of which is a medieval manor house surrounded by a moat. This was, of course, closed to all visitors. When we visited for a second time a couple of years back or so, more rooms in the manor house had been opened since our first visit.

After enjoying a picnic lunch, and walking around the moat, we headed back to the main car park (about 1½ miles from the manor house) and began a 3 mile walk through the ancient woods that cover a significant portion of the estate.

Then, just a couple of days ago, we secured tickets to Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, the home of the Lucy family since the 13th century, although the present house dates from the 16th century.

We had a timed slot for 10:30-11:00, and we arrived just after 10:45, the 28 mile trip southeast from home taking just over 30 minutes down the M40 motorway.

We immediately set off on our walk, taking in Hill Park and Front Park first, and then crossing over into West Park, for a total of about four miles. Place’s Meadow where we had walked on an earlier visit was closed to visitors on this occasion.

Charlecote is home to ancient herds of Jacob’s sheep and fallow deer. There were signs warning visitors to keep to paths, and not approach the deer. After lockdown, the deer were taking time to become accustomed to humans again. In Hill Park we had a great view of a small herd of fallow deer bucks, and hinds in West Park.

This was the first time we had explored West Park, eventually reaching what must have once been the ‘West Gate’, and then returning to the house (which stands on the banks of the River Avon—yes, Shakespeare’s Avon) along one of the most magnificent lime tree walks I’ve seen. Very impressive! It must be nearly half a mile long.

Back at the car, we enjoyed a leisurely picnic lunch, while watching the light aircraft coming into land at Wellesbourne Mountford Airfield just outside Charlecote Park (map). This is where I had a flying lesson in about 2006.

Here’s the link to a photo album of last Wednesday’s visit to Charlecote.


Hopefully our house sale will go through quite soon. We know the prospective purchasers want to be here before 1 September because their daughter is already enrolled in one of the local schools. But everyone in the chain is waiting for mortgages to be confirmed and contracts exchanged. Once that happens, it will be all hands to the pump and I expect we won’t have too many more opportunities for NT visits locally. Those will have to wait until we move north. So many more properties to explore.


 

 

 

 

I don’t need a ‘world-beater’ system

My take on and with credit to the creator, ‘Radcliffe’, of a WW2 poster, probably post-1940.

Nor do I need weasel words.

Frankly, I’m sick to death of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic not taking leadership seriously.

This Covid-19 pandemic seems to have brought out the worst in Boris Johnson and his sycophantic cohorts. And what can I say about the biggest liar in politics today, POTUS 45, Donald J. Trump? I certainly don’t want to hear his dangerous ‘advice’.

And that’s before I turn my attention to the latest Westminster comings and goings. No apologies for the ‘deliberate’ pun.

What has got my particular goat this time? Well, during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons last Wednesday (20 May), Boris Johnson was asked about the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis by the Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer. Johnson replied that a ‘world-beating test, track and trace system’ would be in place by 1 June. That’s now less than a week away, and there’s little evidence that delivery of this system is on track at the same pace as Johnson’s hyperbole.

World-beating system? For expletive deleted’s sake! What a typical fatuous answer to a reasonable question to a government that has, so far, made a real hash of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, including (but by no means limited to) lack of testing, shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and, until forced into a memorable U-turn last week, insistence that foreign workers in the National Health Service (NHS) would still be required to pay a surcharge for the very service they help to keep running.

Anyway, returning to Johnson’s ‘world-beating’ system. Just think about those meaningless words. What do they bring to mind? What, in reality, do they mean, and under the present circumstances what relevance do they have to anything that is taking place as we struggle to bring this pandemic under control. It’s a typical politician response (like ‘ramping up the efforts’, or ‘working around the clock’) to make it appear that things are moving faster and better than they really are.

I don’t need to be world beating [1]. I need to believe that the measures the government has or is putting in place are fit for purpose. I’ve blogged about this ‘fit for purpose’ fixation of mine before.

It’s interesting to note that until recently the government was keen on trumpeting (in its daily press conferences) about how well the UK was doing compared to other countries in terms of the number of deaths reported. Until, that is, the UK move to the top of the league table. Suddenly that statistic was no longer welcome.

From the outset, the government’s message seemed to be clear. We had to work together to defeat the virus by staying at home. This was the message, repeated almost ad nauseam at every opportunity . . .

Being over 70, my wife and I have self isolated since mid-March, taking just one permitted short period of exercise outside each day and, in my case, doing a weekly shop at our nearest supermarket. I would have preferred home deliveries to protect myself from the risk of infection while shopping. We could never get a delivery slot.

It seems that the government’s focus at the beginning of the pandemic was to protect the National Health Service (NHS) so that it was not overwhelmed. However, care homes have been hit hard during the pandemic, with a disproportionately high number of Covid-19 related deaths among residents.

Anyway, ‘stay at home’ was the message being pushed by the government.

Until it no longer was. Then we were asked to stay alert and control the virus. Whatever that ambiguous message meant . . .

Until this change in emphasis in government message, the guidelines were clear: break the rules and everyone would suffer the consequences.

Unless, of course, your name happens to be Dominic Cummings (below), Senior Adviser to Boris Johnson in No 10 Downing St.

On Friday evening last, the news broke that Cummings had, at the beginning of lockdown in March (and before the government’s message changed), driven more than 250 miles north of London to ‘self isolate’ at a property in Durham owned by his parents, taking his wife (who had Covid-19 symptoms) and his four year old son. Furthermore, and this point is disputed (‘palpably false’, according to Johnson), is that Cummings was seen at Barnard Castle, about 30 miles from Durham, during his self-professed isolation.

One rule for them, and one for us? Just when the government has begun to plot a course to bring the country out of lockdown, while still encouraging everyone to obey the ‘stay at home’ rules if showing Covid-19 symptoms, the actions taken by his Senior Adviser have, according to public opinion, undermined the very policy that Cummings himself (it is believed) helped to put together.

And, in response to the inevitable backlash from a tired public that had faithfully stuck to the guidelines under circumstances far more challenging than those that prompted Cummings to up sticks and head north, several senior politicians (Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak) tweeted support (now deleted it seems) of Cummings, at the behest it is reported of government whips, and promptly had their faces covered in egg . . .

Yet more weasel words, only added to by Johnson himself at a car crash of a press conference yesterday, Sunday evening, claiming that Cummings had acted responsibly, legally and with integrity, adding disingenuously that he followed the instincts of every father and every parent, and I do not mark him down for that.

Even as Johnson was responding to questions from journalists, Twitter was alive with condemnation, including some choice comments from me . . .

Almost immediately I tweeted this . . .

Followed shortly after by . . .

I thought I’d contact my local Bromsgrove MP, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, who famously resigned on 13 February this year . . .

It’s remarkable how quickly the condemnation of both Johnson and Cummings spread on social media, including from some Conservative MPs. And an anonymous civil servant who, having access to the Civil Service’s official Twitter account, posted this . . .

The tweet was quickly deleted after ten minutes, but not before it had been seen and retweeted more than 32,000 times, and even broadcast on the BBC’s afternoon Covid-19 news special.

Undoubtedly it will be career end for this (so far) anonymous civil servant, whose action was widely praised, even leading Harry Potter author JK Rowling to tweet . . .

Today (25 May) the newspapers are full of the Cummings debacle. Almost. Tory-supporting The Sun decided to focus on the back-to-school policy that the government is pushing, and which was re-emphasised shortly after Johnson’s disastrous press conference.

While two other right wing rags, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express published headlines supporting Johnson, surprisingly the Daily Mail (that is so far right it meets itself coming the other way) came out against the Prime Minister’s stance. Click on the image below to enlarge.

After three days, Cummmings has become the story. I suspect he’ll be gone by the end of the week. Johnson also, perhaps? One can hope. While our system of government depends on collective cabinet responsibility, being at the helm the buck stops with Johnson. I wonder when collective responsibility will begin to fracture?

At the onset of the pandemic, Johnson had just won his Brexit vote in Parliament, and the UK formally left the European Union on 31 January. His long-awaited Brexit agenda was about to be fulfilled, even though we are in a transition arrangement until the end of the year. Unless there’s an extension. I have the strong opinion that, obsessed by Brexit, Johnson simply took his eye off the pandemic ball.

He is reportedly not a details person. A characteristic, along with constant bad hair days, he has in common with Donald Trump.

Covid-19 could be the nemesis for both despicable individuals. This Cummings affair could see the demise of Johnson sooner rather than later, but with so many mediocre politicians surrounding him, I worry about who might replace him.

Hopefully the US electorate will vote overwhelmingly blue come the November election, and oust DJT, only the third president to be impeached, and also to have won an election by losing the popular poll by more than 3 million votes.

We demand better leadership to beat this insidious virus. That’s not something that Johnson and Trump are interested in, it seems, or even understand.  Time to say bye-bye.


But to finish on a lighter note . . .

Last Friday, as the Cummings story broke, this Song for Dominic Cummings video was released by Dillie Keane, a member of the trio Fascinating Aïda. Enjoy, but watch out for some ‘serious’ language (especially in any other of their videos that might follow on).


[1] Since I wrote this piece a few days ago (it’s now Saturday 30 May), the so-called ‘world beating system’ was launched last Thursday. From all accounts the launch has been a shambles, and indeed there are calls for lockdown to remain in place much longer.

This appeared in today’s The Guardian from one of the ‘tracers’ about the launch of the track and trace system. Damning!


 

How much of a game-changer will Covid-19 be?

Let me take you back more than a decade, to the mid-2000s if memory serves me correctly. The world was facing a threat from the H5N1 strain of avian flu. Although the disease did not materialize as a global pandemic, not having the high level of human-to-human transmission that was initially feared, avian flu has not gone away. Its appearance, however, spurred many governments and organizations to plan for a world under lockdown. Did we learn any lessons? It seems not.

I was working in the Philippines at the time, as Director for Program Planning and Communications at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in Los Baños, about 65 km south of Manila. One of my briefs was risk management, and so leading the institute’s response to the H5N1 threat fell to me. I formed a task force that proposed a series of measures to protect staff and their families, and developed health and safety guidelines (with input from local health officials in Los Baños) for self isolation or quarantine, or if access to food and services became limited. These included for example recommendations as simple as keeping an appropriate amount of cash in the home should ATMs cease to function.

The institute also acquired a significant stock of the antiviral medication oseltamivir (sold as Tamiflu), and offered seasonal flu vaccinations to all staff and their closest family members (at a cost in excess of US$200,000). Should anyone vaccinated show flu symptoms then they might well be a candidate for avian flu. Anyway we had contingency plans for a significant period of disruption to everyday life.

How naïve we were!

I have been surprised—shocked even—how quickly life has changed for everyone under the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutdown of economic activity and everyday life has been far more rapid and extensive than anything IRRI’s avian flu task force envisaged.

The question surely on everyone’s lips is when will society return to normal. And perhaps more importantly, what will that ‘new normal’ (a term I dislike) look like?

There’s been much in the press and social media about not wanting to return to how things were. This pandemic has given society an opportunity—if we choose to take it—to reassess our values, and decide which aspects should return to pre-Covid levels, or even at all. And how we should work, for example, with working from home probably here to stay for some businesses (as Twitter has recently announced).

Economic activity has been hit so hard in such a short time that pundits are forecasting an economic downturn far more severe than the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933. The Bank of England has even warned that this could be the worst economic decline for 300 years. That’s some decline!


One of the industries hardest hit is aviation. I don’t think we have ever seen images like this one.

When was the last time you looked up into the sky and saw a contrail? Over the past couple of days I’ve seen more, but in general, they are almost a novelty right now. Nevertheless, airlines are clearly itching to take to the skies once again. But will they and how many?

I think it’s pretty certain that some airlines will not return to their pre-Covid-19 configuration, and some may not return at all or may be absorbed through mergers or acquisitions into airlines that better weather the Covid-19 storm. Some airlines were already on the ropes before the pandemic.

Will the public have the same pre-Covid-19 appetite for air travel, since the virus is not going away soon, and given the social distancing and on-arrival quarantine measures that are being contemplated? This pandemic is already catalyzing a rethink about our love affair with aviation and seeing this as an opportunity to redress the balance in terms of global warming. Only time will tell if we change our aviation habits.


Last night, thinking about how Covid-19 was affecting everybody’s lives, I began wondering when Steph and I might be able to travel again to the USA to visit our elder daughter Hannah and her family (husband Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë) in Minnesota. We stepped off our last flight in October 2019, from Minneapolis-St Paul (MSP) to Birmingham, UK (BHX) via Amsterdam (AMS) on Delta Airlines and KLM.

When the time finally comes to travel again, which airline might fly us to Minnesota? Airlines (and their lovely insignia, branding – see below) that do not survive the Covid-19 lockdown will be consigned to the annals of aviation history. As so many have, I realised, over the 54 years since I took my first flight in the summer of 1966 (from Glasgow to Benbecula, a small island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). How many unnecessary air miles have I travelled over these past five and half decades? Too many to count, I guess.

Covid-19 will become the final nail in the coffin for some airlines. Several are already looking to reconfigure their fleets, decommissioning large and inefficient aircraft, in the hope that will keep them solvent and able to return to full operations when permitted. Even before the lockdown most airlines had already disposed of their Boeing 747 aircraft. It had a great run nevertheless since it first took to the air on 9 February 1969, and entering into service with its launch airline, Pan Am, on 22 January 1970 from New York to London. I wonder how many of Emirates’ huge fleet of superjumbo A380 aircraft will fare in a post-Covid world?

Pan Am was an airline I knew well. When I was working in Central America during the second half of the 1970s I used to fly the airline frequently (on its Boeing 707 aircraft) through its hub in Guatemala City. Sadly, Pan Am is no more, collapsing in December 1991. There again, quite a number of the airlines I have travelled with are also no more. These airline insignia images were sourced through Wikipedia.

Here’s a list, with an asterisk indicating which are no longer operating (or at least no longer operating under that particular brand), and the date on which they ceased operations.

North America
Aeroméxico
American
Braniff International Airways* 1982
Canadian Pacific Air Lines* 1987
Delta Air Lines
Eastern Air Lines* 1991
Mexicana de Aviación* 2010
National Airlines* 1980
Northwest Airlines* 2010
Pan American* 1991
Southwest Airlines
Trans World Airlines (TWA)* 2001
United Airlines

Central and South America
AeroPerú* 1999
Air Jamaica* 2015
Avianca
Aviateca* 1989
British West Indies Airways* 2006
Copa Airlines
Cruzeiro* 1993
Faucett Perú* 1997
LACSA* 2013
LAN Airlines* 2012
LIAT
SAHSA* 1994
TACA* 2013
Varig* 2006

Africa and Middle East
Air Ivoire* 2011
Air Madagascar
Emirates
Ethiopian Airways
Kenya Airways
LAM Mozambique Airlines
South African Airways
Turkish Airlines

Asia and Oceania
Air China
Cathay Pacific
China Eastern Airlines
China Southern Airlines
Dragonair 2006
Garuda Indonesia
Korean Air
Lao Airlines
Malaysia Airlines
Philippine Airlines
Qantas
Silk Airlines
Singapore Airlines
Thai Airways
Vietnam Airlines

Europe
Air France
Alitalia
Austrian Airlines
BOAC* 1974
British Airways
British Caledonian* 1988
British European Airways* 1974
Brussels Airlines
easyJet
Flybe* 2020
Iberia
KLM
Laker Airways* 1982
LOT Polish Airlines
Lufthansa
Paramount Airways* 1989
Sabena* 2001
Swissair* 2002
TAP Air Portugal

These are the airlines I remember.

They have fared less well in North and Central America, where mergers have brought different airlines together. A good example is the dominant role today in Central America of Avianca (from Colombia) and its Central American subsidiaries, the successors to the national airlines of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

I’m sure the effects of Covid-19 will see further consolidation in the North American market. But until intercontinental travel is fully restored, airlines like Emirates that have built their business model on hub distribution to multiple destinations using large aircraft (like the A380 and the Boeing 777) are likely to come out of lockdown (recession even) more slowly than smaller and perhaps more nimble airlines that can focus on their domestic markets.


 

Nothing to fear but fear itself . . . (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933)

Maybe. Unless the threat causing fear of danger, pain, or harm is tangible.

Fear is a powerful emotion. We all surely experience fear at some point in our lives. Some of that fear we are able to rationalise because we understand the threat (or at least the risk). I guess it rarely gets to the level where we feel paralysed, but as our anxiety levels rise, then our ability to respond decreases.

While we may be aware of a potential threat, when or where it impacts cannot often be predicted with certainty. Whatever it may be, we can all recall experiences that were unpleasant, dangerous even, causing our anxiety level to rise. And there is so many things in our surroundings beyond our control that do precisely this.


Let’s begin with war or civil conflict. Thankfully, I have not personally experienced war or civil conflict first hand. I have not dreaded being attacked, or cowered in fear of being bombed like refugees today in the Yemen or Syria, for instance. And regrettably in so many continuing conflicts around the world.

But I have experienced the fear of the threat of war. Take October 1962, for example. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the world came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war between the USA and USSR. The behavior of some political leaders today (no names no packdrill) does not inspire confidence that careless words and actions won’t lead us down a similar road to conflict. In fact, one particular head of state seems hell bent on confronting friends and foes alike.

I was in high school back in October 1962, almost 14 years old. I remember quite clearly the approaching 3 pm GMT deadline on that fateful October day (the 25th?), and wondering whether any of us would be alive beyond the end of the day. I was certainly anxious.


In terms of geological threats, I lived on the slopes of two volcanoes, both dormant (or at least thought to be dormant).

In Costa Rica, the Turrialba Volcano towers more than 3300 m over the town of Turrialba where I lived for almost five years from April 1976 until November 1980. I even once went to the summit of the volcano. There were no signs of life, just perhaps a little steam emitted on one side of the crater. In the last decade however, it has become explosively active, threatening surrounding towns.

In quieter times, the Turrialba Volcano from my garden at CATIE in Turrialba.

In the Philippines, IRRI Staff Housing was built on the lower slopes of Mt Makiling. Although considered dormant, there is geothermal activity locally, and just 20km or so due west lies the dangerous Taal Volcano, which became active earlier this year; it has since subsided.

Mt Makiling overlooks the experimental fields at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

However, I’ve never been threatened directly by volcanoes, although on a couple of occasions serious volcanic eruptions almost disrupted my travel plans.

Just before I was due to join IRRI on 1 July 1991, Mt Pinatubo blew its stack in mid-June, closing Manila airport some 54 miles southeast of the volcano. By the beginning of July, the volcano’s activity had subsided sufficiently for the airport to be reopened, and life began to return to normal for most Filipinos. But not those close to the volcano who had seen their livelihoods destroyed. This eruption was totally unexpected. Pinatubo was covered in dense forests, heavily eroded, showing no signs of having erupted for centuries if not millennia. This was one of the most powerful eruptions in the 20th century.

In April 2010, a couple of weeks before I was due to retire from IRRI, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland, and its ash cloud shut down air travel over Europe for almost a week. My concern was whether Steph and I would be able to return to the UK.

Now earthquakes are a different matter. In a country like Peru, where Steph and I lived from July 1973 until April 1976, there can be no doubt that earthquakes happen frequently, many quite minor but, on occasion, some major ones as well. It’s one thing to appreciate that Peru is tectonically active, it’s quite another to know when earthquakes might hit. It’s the unpredictability, the uncertainty that increases one’s anxiety.

And when a major quake does hit, such as we experienced in October 1974 (over 8 on the Richter Scale, and lasting over two minutes) I can only describe my reaction as fear! There were few deaths. Most people, in Lima at least, were at work, in buildings that had been constructed to withstand such movements. Unlike the May 1970 disaster in central Peru when more than 70,000 people died, as the result of a massive landslide caused by the earthquake.

Fear, yes. Fear about aftershocks and how bad they will be. We lived on the 12th floor of an apartment building then. And there were some pretty serious aftershocks. I found myself in a continuous state of anxious anticipation. Even today I’m highly sensitive to any movement that even hints of an earth tremor. My hair started to turn grey around that time as well.


What about weather events? Here in the UK we’ve had some pretty nasty winter storms over the past two winters. I hate the sound of the wind howling around the rafters, sudden gusts that sound (and feel) as if they are going to rip the roof off. But these UK storms are nothing in comparison to the tornadoes that break out across parts of the USA, causing devastation as they touch down. I’ve only ever seen minor twisters, and hope never to find myself in the path of a full bloodied tornado. Or a hurricane for that matter, although we came close to Hurricane Dorian last September on the coast of New Jersey as we travelled around the eastern seaboard of the USA.

In the Philippines, however, I have lived through many typhoons, some mega-typhoons, that came right over the top of Los Baños, south of Manila, where we lived at IRRI. Like Typhoon Xangsane (or Milenyo as it was named in the Philippines) in September 2006. Yes, it’s really frightening to hear and feel winds of 200kph batter your house, meanwhile seemingly dump bathfuls of water every second on the roof. It caused considerable damage at IRRI Staff Housing. And as with many typhoons, it’s often not the damage caused by the high winds that are the main problem (serious as they are), but the impressive and damaging amounts of rain that a typhoon can dump on an area, especially if it’s a slow-moving system.

But hurricanes and typhoons are predictable in one sense. They can be tracked before they make landfall, and precautions set in train beforehand to evacuate vulnerable communities if necessary (and possible). Although, as I have seen too often I’m afraid, this time advantage is not always exploited.


And so it goes with the current Covid-19 pandemic. Our government here in the UK, and perhaps even more so in the USA, culpably failed to take heed of what was happening elsewhere in the world. They lost valuable time, weeks even, in preparing for the worst that this nasty little virus could throw at us.

Yes, this pandemic makes me fearful. While my wife and I have not been affected physically, life has changed. For the time-being at least. It looks like lockdown will be here for at least another three weeks, if not longer. And I cannot see how we can return to a ‘new normal’ until a Covid-19 vaccine affords the necessary protection that we just don’t have right now.

My anxiety levels on some days have been sky high. I’ve had days of quite deep depression. We know the virus is there. We can’t see it. We don’t know if any persons standing next to us, albeit at a social distance of at least 2m, has the virus but is not showing any symptoms. We are fearful because we have seen just how infectious the pathogen is, and how sick people can become, with a very high mortality rate among the old (especially if they have underlying health issues). Steph and I are both in our seventies.

But the fear is not just about health. It’s also fear of financial loss, of lives blighted for a generation. Not just us. We have fewer years remaining to us. But our daughters and their families.

This Covid-19 pandemic is the first experienced by most people worldwide. Perhaps there hasn’t been a threat like this since the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918. That’s not to downplay the SARS, MERS, and ebola epidemics of recent years. Or the ongoing fight against tuberculosis, the resurgence of measles because of the actions of anti-vaxxers, and many other health problems confronting us today. It’s just that Covid-19 is caused by a novel pathogen, for humans at least. That’s the frightening aspect, and until we have that protection, many of us will continue to experience mental health problems even if we do not contract the virus as such.

Keep safe everyone.


 

Coping with Covid-19 . . .

Two weeks in lockdown . . . and counting!

One thing I’ve already discovered is that to keep me sane, I must limit my news intake. Why?

First, much of the news about this global pandemic is just too depressing, despite the tales of heroism about those on the frontline: the doctors and nurses, those keeping us supplied with food, or maintaining vital services when almost everything else is closed down.

Second, I just can’t listen to all the cant that spews from the mouths of politicians who I never trusted in the first place. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues spouting their fancy Brexit-like slogans that say nothing, making commitments they will probably be unable to meet, and the Prime Minister displaying his usual bluster and lack of command of detail (until he went down with the virus himself). He and his government appear to have no clear strategy to combat the epidemic in this country (well, England at least).

And when I look across the Atlantic to see what is going on in the USA under the leadership of Donald Trump, it’s appalling. I use the term ‘leadership’ very lightly indeed. It is disgraceful how he has behaved and continues to do so.

I think that when the crisis has passed, there will be a political reckoning, and I hope and expect these incompetent individuals will be consigned to the cesspit of history.


I’m sure for many families working from home, the lockdown is a real challenge, especially if there are children in the house, and young ones at that who often find it harder to keep themselves amused.

I guess, in one respect, Steph and I have an advantage. We’ve been retired now for a few weeks short of ten years. So we’ve already had to find things to keep us amused and occupied.

For Steph, it means spending time each day on her beading projects. She’s been doing this for a couple of decades, and first started when we lived in the Philippines. One of the downsides of the lockdown for her is being unable to make her bi-weekly trip to the shops. She has sourced many of her beads from charity shops, purchasing pieces of jewelry (bracelets, necklaces and the like) at knockdown prices, then deconstructing them into new pieces that she has designed.

She also has the garden to keep her busy. I only mow the lawns. We had started the year thinking we’d be moving to Newcastle upon Tyne by mid-summer or thereabouts, and hadn’t expected to spend too much time working in the garden (apart from the usual tidying up). It looks like the garden will need much more attention for many months to come. Our house move is on hold—almost indefinitely—until the housing market reopens and it’s safe to even contemplate reviving viewings and the like.

As for myself, I have this blog to keep me busy.

If you read my blog on a regular basis you will appreciate that it allows me to bring together two of my main hobbies: writing and photography. As well as the pleasure of designing each blog post, deciding what topics to focus on, what extra resources I might need (Wikipedia is a great source), and choosing the photos I want to include. And I have thousands of images to choose from.

So, with fewer opportunities to get out and about, I’m finding more time to work through stories that I had put to one side. Certainly it has been an opportunity to catch up on my posts about the many National Trust and English Heritage properties we have visited since 2011 (and some from even before then, when we joined both organizations).

I guess we are more fortunate than many countries. Provided we keep the recommended 2m physical/social distancing, we are permitted one period of exercise outside every day.

Since I retired in April 2010 I have tried to get out most days, in any case. I regularly walked three or four miles or more. But since I broke my leg in January 2016, I find that more than three miles is not very comfortable, and my leg swells up, aching for the rest of the day. So I limit myself to around two miles, about 45 minutes, and I have a regular set of routes that I follow. This has been useful since I’m able to navigate those that are reasonably quiet, as you can see from the images below. I mainly encounter folks walking their dogs. Steph has joined me on occasion.


However, shopping for food is quite the most stressful thing I have to do right now. Apart from the infection risk of having to mix with others (even though reasonably strict physical distancing is in place), but also because I’m a member of the over-70 ‘vulnerable’ demographic, we always wonder just what will be available on the shelves. At the start of the lockdown, many unreasonable (and irresponsible) people did panic buy, and stripped the shelves of many of the essentials.

The Morrisons supermarket we frequent is over a mile away, so we have to drive there. Since last week, the supermarket permits just one family member inside at a time (one per trolley), so the shopping trip has fallen to me alone, rather than together which has been the norm until now. I had to queue the first time to get inside; yesterday at 8:30 am there was no queue at all, and I was able to source almost everything that was on Steph’s list. Just a few minutes ago, our next door neighbor (who is a theater sister in the NHS, and who has special hours access to the supermarket) has just brought round the one item we needed but I couldn’t buy yesterday: plain flour! Simple pleasures.

So as far as food is concerned, we are managing fine for the time-being. I can feel my anxiety levels decreasing once I have left the supermarket with a full trolley. There really is no shortage of food – yet.


I also have music playing throughout the day. That’s a great comfort. It has to be Radio Paradise in the morning and early afternoon. Followed by Classic FM late afternoon and over dinner.

We’ve been catching up on the first four series of the excellent BBC crime drama Line of Duty (we hadn’t seen the first three series when they were first broadcast). Last night we watched the first episode of Series 5.

I find myself often going to bed earlier than normal, and enjoying an hour or so of Radio 4 before listening to the news headlines at 10 pm, and then settling to sleep.

Both Steph and I are avid readers. Her genre is crime fiction (I hope she doesn’t have anything planned). I read what takes my fancy, usually less fiction, even though I did read mostly fiction during 2018 and 2019.

My Kindle is great; I wouldn’t be without it. I’m currently well into Howard Goodall’s The Story of Music published in 2013. It’s an excellent read, but certainly technically difficult in places for someone like me with zero background in music theory or composition. Nevertheless it’s fascinating, and I look forward to viewing the BBC TV series of the same name that someone has kindly uploaded to YouTube. Here’s Episode 2.

We’ll manage . . . And life is still good.

 

‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.


It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.


At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.


I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.


Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.


 

It’s hard to be an optimist right now

I am an optimist by nature. But perhaps not to the same extent as these Monty Python characters from the 1979 film Life of Brian.

Mostly, my glass is half full. But, in recent months, and particularly over the past four weeks, my natural optimism has been severely challenged.

It has been a perfect storm, if you’ll excuse the pun, of bad news and events.

My faith in human nature took a serious dent on 12 December last year when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives (or Tories) won a thumping parliamentary majority, taking seats (mainly in the north of England) from Labour in constituencies that had either never voted Tory, or hadn’t for a generation or more. That was the signal for the Tory Brexiteers to push through the legislation on the EU Withdrawal Act and take us out of the EU on 31 January. Get Brexit Done! was the slogan. But we are just at the end of the beginning. And, it seems, Johnson has drawn so many hard red lines prior to new free trade negotiations that a No Deal Brexit at the end of this year seems evermore likely.

So what’s causing a drop in my spirits, apart from the obvious Brexit catastrophe?

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson

First of all, we now have a seemingly amoral Prime Minister in No 10 Downing Street in the shape of Boris Johnson—someone for whom I have utter contempt, as you will realise if you refer back to an earlier Brexit-related post I published in June last year.

But what tipped me over the edge from optimism to pessimism yesterday (1 March, the first day of meteorological Spring, when we should be thinking more positively) was the adulation in the Tory-supporting press over the news that Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds (presumably his former mistress since he is/was still married to his second wife of 27 years) were expecting a baby later this year. Can you imagine, The Mail on Sunday published an ‘exclusive’ six page special? Could this really be more important news than anything else that’s going on right now? [1]

For weeks now, since the General Election, Johnson has been our ‘invisible Prime Minister’. And that at a time when the world faces a serious public health challenge in the form of Covid-19, which marches on inexorably it seems. Indeed, I just read an item in today’s The Guardian online reporting that a senior health official here in the UK has now stated that we must expect widespread infection with the coronavirus fairly soon. And yet, Johnson decided only a few days ago to call a meeting—today—of the COBRA committee to coordinate the government’s response to this threat.

Already there has been a calamitous impact on the financial markets, which plunged worldwide last week by 10-13%, marking the end of a sustained bull market, and threatening all our pension prospects.

Then, in the UK, we’ve had four consecutive weekends of storms, three of them named: Ciara, Dennis, and Jorge (the last named by the Spanish meteorological service). These storms come after significant amounts of rain at the end of 2019. February was the wettest month on record. On record! And many parts of the country have suffered catastrophic flooding. Just a few miles to the south and west of where I live in Worcestershire, the River Severn rose to unprecedented levels.

Where was Boris Johnson? Nowhere to be seen or heard. Nor letting any of his ministers appear on one of the BBC’s flagship newscasts, Radio 4’s Today to answer any questions. Outrageous! It’s also been reported today that No. 10 has forbidden Department of Health officials from attending an EU-coordination meeting to address the potential Covid-19 pandemic. So much for taking back control. “We’re doomed, doomed I tell ye“, as Private Frazer from Dad’s Army would have commented.

He’s presiding over a dysfunctional government, even though it was elected under three months ago. Just a fortnight ago, the Chancellor the Exchequer and MP for my local Bromsgrove constituency, Sajid Javid, resigned after being presented with reappointment terms he could not accept. Over this past weekend, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office (Interior ministry), Sir Philip Rutnam resigned after accusing the Secretary of State, Priti Patel (#PritiAwful, #PritiPathetic) of appalling behaviour.

At the heart of government is the unelected Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, the sinister Dominic Cummings (who made his name as an architect of the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum). Unelected and unaccountable it seems!

On top of all these things, we have the climate change deniers. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a case in point. Not to mention POTUS45, Donald Trump. I said not to mention him!

And what depresses me more about that moron, each and every day, are not just the lies that he spews and the inanities that issue forth from his mouth, and his politicization of the coronavirus crisis, but the fact that he may well be re-elected for a further four-year term come the election in November. What has the US electorate brought on itself, and the rest of us for that matter?

I haven’t even got round to commenting on the escalating humanitarian crisis on the Turkey-Syria border, the conflict in Idlib Province in Syria, or what is happening currently on the border between Turkey and Greece.

No wonder my optimism levels are low. Having got these concerns off my chest, do I feel better? Not really.

Better go wash my hands . . . and you too.


[1] This point of view appeared in The Guardian (online) today (3 March 2020) and is completely in line with what I wrote in this blog post a day earlier.