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.


 

‘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.