If I were designing a science fiction virus in a laboratory I’d want it to be a little bit like chickenpox, something that can lie dormant in a host body before re-emerging at some point in the future. Chickenpox can emerge in adulthood as shingles, which can be a lot more unpleasant than the childhood disease.
I’d want my virus to be mostly mild, but then absolutely devastating when it re-emerges down the line. That way, society could be lulled into a false sense of security and completely unprepared for Phase 2.
So I find it fascinating that so many people are asymptomatic with Covid-19. According to this, nearly half of the spread of the disease can be traced back to people without any symptoms. The ‘extraordinary spread’ of effects, from nothing to death is unprecedented.
That’s not at all similar to any virus or pathogen we’ve experienced that has killing potential in the past. What we have here is an extraordinary spectrum, including this quiet, stealth mode of infecting somebody.
I keep coming back to the idea that if you wanted to wreak havoc with a lab-designed virus, you’d want it to spread far and wide, which wouldn’t necessarily happen if people were getting ill quickly and showing lots of symptoms. Far better, if you were a mad scientist, to infect people with something they barely notice, if at all, and programme it to throw a switch for a devastating secondary infection somewhere down the line. In this scenario, the people who show symptoms are the outliers. And the enormous range of symptoms on offer, from head to toe, is an indication that this virus has surprises in store.
The perfect virus would infect you asymptomatically but also make you horny as hell.
At the moment, a tiny proportion of the population is thought to have had Covid-19 (6.78%). With asymptomatic spreading, it could penetrate far more deeply, with the vast majority of people feeling absolutely fine.
Then the mad scientist who created it could appear on TV, waving a vial of vaccine around and cackling.
So what will we do then? I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to join a travelling troupe of actors and musicians, performing Shakespeare for the people of the post-apocalypse.
It’s also, I hope you know, a chance to build a low-carbon future. We can manage this, apparently, says an article published 3 months into lockdown – even though lockdown is already being lifted and nobody has done anything about the low carbon future.
It’s a chance to plug the gaping holes in social care. I’m thinking mainly because all the dead in care homes are lightening the load. On top of this, I’m sure the system of Universal Credit is already fixed, because that article was published back in April. Remember April? Me neither.
Luckily, however, Coronavirus also offers a chance to create a fairer food supply chain. Published 18 May, and I’m sure they’re making a start on that… any… minute… now.
Talking of food, those beacons of capitalism, restaurants, (adding value to food is pure capitalism) are never going to be the same, apparently.
Away from food, and transport, and education, and social care, Coronavirus is also a chance to rationalise Cricket’s crazy calendar.
On a more personal level, in between reforming capitalism and social care and education and transport and the food industry, and filling column millimetres, of course we’ve all been using this interlude to redesign our lives, setting goals, moving our bodies, tidying up, getting organised, and creating schedules. What with all that, and looking after our own kids, or working from home, we’ve all also had loads of time to learn new skills and grow and develop as people in a way we never have before.
But for all of this, I’m sure you agree that the biggest opportunity given by coronavirus was the chance to generate opinions for money.
I sat for several minutes looking at the blank space at the end of the title. I don’t know what to call this. It’s not really a lockdown. My wife just went out for a bike ride. I went for a walk in the wind yesterday. Some of my colleagues have been to work. But neither does it feel like a pandemic.
While giving the side-eye all the attention-seeking from the (?) extroverts (?) who like to make a drama out of a crisis, I’m almost completely fine with this. Like about 40% of the population, this is more or less how I’d like to live all the time. The only caveat is that if I’m to spend my days walking, cycling, sitting in the garden, typing, cooking, and reading, I’d rather be in France.
I don’t greet my neighbours when I go for a walk. I know there’s a sickening level of positivity out there in the wider world, but I will remain forever angry at the people round here for being sharp-elbowed, selfish, middle-class fuckers who voted Tory.
I didn’t even know the applaud-the-NHS nonsense was happening, but it’s definitely not something I’d have participated in. The rank hypocrisy of standing on your doorstep applauding socialism after (probably) voting against it at the last election gives me the rage (see 3).
I’ve been surprised at how inept British podcasters seem to be at the whole podcasting-from-home thing. As I remarked on my tumbleweed-strewn Twitter feed, a lot of the US podcasts I listen to have excellent sound quality and have always been made by people recording remotely, in their home office, garage, spare bedroom, whatever. While I appreciate the difficulties involved in live broadcast, I’m fairly amazed at the 1khz buzzsaw sound coming from some of the pods, especially those made by the BBC. As far as I understand the situation, the method is straightforward. First of all, you don’t try to record everybody’s feeds as they come in to some central location. That’s your fallback position. Everybody should instead record themselves as they speak, using Skype Call Recorder or Audio Hijack. Then the resulting audio files are uploaded to a Dropbox or similar, and someone then takes the separate feeds and edits them into one file, using everybody’s pristine original recording rather than one that came down a phone line. On top of this, people need to use the right kind of mic, close to the mouth, in a (small) space without any hard surfaces so as to avoid that ‘boxy’ sound. Throw a duvet over the door, pull the curtains, etc., or surround yourself with clothes racks draped in duvets. And, Jane Garvey of Radio 4, you turn off the video to reserve bandwidth for audio.
I read a thread yesterday about what it’s like to have the virus that did scare me a little. It was the bit about raging high blood pressure that gave me the wobbles, as hypertension is something I already have. Then again, I suppose I’m lucky to already have medication for it in the house. Still, we definitely don’t want to get this virus.
I was listening to The Verb, which is a Radio 3 programme about language, poetry, etc. It veers between being quite enjoyable and a load of old wank. Recommended listening for anyone sceptical about the idea that poets agonise about word choice. This week, they were talking about uncertainty, and words like perhaps and maybe, and the discussion turned, surprisingly, to Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” as a contributor tried to make sense of what Paul meant. Why maybe, etc.? *Ahem* Well, it has always struck me that the force behind this song is someone, let’s call him Macca, being challenged about moody or waspish behaviour, a grumpy demeanour, or otherwise reprehensible conduct. And in response, he, Macca, tries to come up with a reason for said conduct, and spin it so that it seems like a positive rather than a negative. You want to know why I’m so stone-faced and uncommunicative at this moment in time when the band I’ve been in for 15 years has broken up and all my friends hate me? No, it’s not that, it’s not the nastiness at Apple, and Allen Klein, and being denied access to the archives, or falling out with Ringo. It’s definitely not all that. Maybe, it’s that I can’t stop thinking about how amazing it is that you love me all the time. Hmm?
Finally, I was delighted to pay $12, inc tax, for the new live album by Hiss Golden Messenger, proceeds from which are being donated to the Durham, North Carolina, school district to feed children who are without because state schools are closed. If Germany is the best country to be in during a pandemic, then the USA might be the worst.
One of the many things I learned from the Rev. Dougie Davies’ Social Anthropology course at university is that our concept of morality is inextricably linked to our concept of the social. You don’t need a religious framework to know that anti-social behaviour is immoral. What we think of as “anti-social” evolves alongside our society so that what was once accepted behaviour becomes immoral. Some people are slow to catch up with this.
The public shaming of people not observing social distancing rules, the use of the #covidiots tag on the Twitter, are cases in point. A witches coven used to be 12, but the naughtiest new number for prohibited gatherings is 3.
Combine the social = moral idea with Kant’s Categorical Imperative and you understand why it’s not okay to take your “daily walk” in Snowdonia or the Peak District, or Skegness or Bondi Beach.
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
What this means is, it’s only moral/social to do something if it is equally moral/social for everybody to do it. When everybody rocks up at a beauty spot for a mental health walk, the situation is unsustainable. When the parks are packed with cyclists, runners, and walkers so that it’s impossible to maintain a sneeze-safe distance, you have to face the facts. If too many reach out for an extra bag of pasta or jar of passata, again, it’s not okay. For that one, we don’t even need Kant: it’s just gluttony, one of the seven cardinal sins. What does gluttony lead to? Depriving the needy.
(But let’s not pretend that similar levels of anti-social/immoral behaviour didn’t exist before this epidemic. Too many people indulge in behaviours which, if adopted universally, would kill us all far quicker than Covid-19.)
As we huddle, or not, in our homes, and wait it out, or not, it’s interesting to ponder the response of the UK government, and that of the US government, in comparison to all the others.
Europe, we’re told, is now the epicentre, with Italy the epic entry point for a disease that is both virulent and mild, deadly and harmless, widespread and concentrated. It is Schrödinger’s virus, known and unknown, wave and particle, existing always in the space between certainties. Being in the middle of it, we cannot know it. And because of the actions we take now, we will never even know, at some point in the future, just how bad it might have been.
The World Service produced a brilliant episode of The Inquiry, which asks the question, Why did the USA fail in its initial coronavirus response? Spoiler alert: Trump, but the facts are laid out so baldly and the failures and the reasons for them so dispassionately that it ought to be compulsory listening. Trump’s denial and bluster, his focus on the stock market as the sole measure of his success as a President, his tendency to improvise and lie and then deny what he said: all of that; but also the dismantling of the Federal government’s ability to respond and co-ordinate effectively so that even when the problem was known, even when there was a clear course of action required, the mechanism simply did not exist. Know this: the first case of a person who had been infected on American soil was only detected because someone broke the rules and tested samples they weren’t allowed to test. Here’s to the crazy ones…
Now, our blustering puffball of a Prime Minister has differentiated himself from Trump by speaking more coherently (a first, for him) and by lining up with experts beside him who are not facepalming. There seemed at first to be a genuine belief that the UK’s measures, supported by our NHS which is fairly unique in the world, might prove more effective in the long term. After all, if you go into total lockdown, you might slow the spread of the disease for two weeks or a month, but then it comes back, like the Spanish Flu of 1919, and you’re back where you were.
When I wrote before, I admit, I didn’t understand the importance of testing. I do now. Of course, with widespread testing, those who have had the disease, who are no longer infectious, who have the antibodies, can stop self-isolating and get on with things. Without testing, people are staying at home who probably don’t need to stay at home. So the lack of testing here and in the USA is a problem. (On the other hand, nobody knows yet whether you can get Covid-19 twice, so there’s that.)
Setting all that aside, what might be another reason the British government (and the US government) didn’t want stringent lockdown measures in place earlier? Why were people being nudged and encouraged instead of bound by law?
I think the answer lies in the way the government has “closed” the schools.
Yes, the schools are closed, except maybe they’re not. I’m a teacher. My school “closed” on Friday, but I’m getting up on Monday and going into work because, and here’s the thing, we don’t know how many kids are going to turn up.
When you look at the list of “key workers”, it’s hard to imagine many professions that aren’t covered under its rubric. Now, anyone who can should be keeping their children home. But people in many sectors have been given permission to send their kids to school. So teachers like me, for example, are considered key workers, which means if I had school age children, I could send them to school so that I, in my turn, could go to school.
As I said, nobody knows, as of now, how many will turn up on Monday. Furthermore, we’ve been told we’ll have to go on caring for these children during the Easter holiday. Huh. And now it’s seeming like the right-wing politician’s disdain for “long school holidays” is coming home to roost. One of my colleagues thinks we’ll have more kids by Wednesday or Thursday than on Monday because parents will get sick of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds show up. Fingers crossed it’s only a couple of dozen, but nobody knows.
It’s the uncertainty, you see, which of course, is far more concerning than certainty.
Why doesn’t the government properly close schools, properly close pubs, restaurants and shops, instead of just “advising” them to do so? My personal conspiracy theory is that, strategically, these neolibs know that a proper lockdown would expose the fragility of the economy, the Oz-like illusion of prosperity, and that a domino-like collapse of the precariat would lead to… socialism. Their solution? Socialism. Bailouts, benefits, mortgage holidays, and – most importantly – free state childcare, even during the Easter holidays. All in service of shoring up capitalism and the free market, which is not really free because, oh look, the government are here to bail you out. Again.
How many people driving around in unnecessarily large German cars are going to miss a PCP payment?
One final thought, which you’ll note from the image above is actually my first thought. Trump’s barefaced lying and denial in the face of facts is, as ever, deeply calculated. He knows how it plays with his supporters, who are in the front line of saying that the whole thing is a hoax. Doesn’t matter that he’s no longer calling it a hoax: they are, because they heard him call it that a month ago. He’s always gambling that the coin will fall his way. But his “it goes away” line struck me hard because it’s what William H Macy as George Parker says in the movie Pleasantville, as he tries to persuade his wife Betty (Joan Allen) to ignore all the changes that are happening: even as she sits in front of him in living colour while he’s still in black and white. She’s fully on board with the change and wants to move with the times, but he faces her, so earnestly, and says, “It goes away. It goes away.”
Today, Saturday, I woke up for the first time in 15 days without a sore throat, a feeling that there was some obstruction down there, making it difficult to swallow.
I felt rough on the first weekend, and ran through an NHS questionnaire thing. One of the questions was, Are you drooling?
And what if I am? Does one drool when one is awake? What is the force behind this question? Because, I confess, I have been drooling while I sleep, moreso than usual. Is that because of the lump in my throat? Anyway, I answered in the negative, and have been wondering ever since if that was the answer I ought to have given. I wasn’t awake drooling, you see. I wasn’t drooling right then, as I was running through the questionnaire.
I took the Monday off, feeling properly ill, aching all over. Temperature seemed normal. A cough developed, but it was not a dry cough. I would have taken Tuesday and possibly also Wednesday off, but I got a text: it was only bloody Ofsted. So I felt obligated to attend.
The rest of that week was hard, and then this week not quite so hard, but still awkward, with occasional coughing fits and streaming eyes, and a voice not working properly. My voice, as a teacher, is my superpower. Not in terms of being a shouty teacher, but in terms of reading aloud and he do the police in different voices. And my throat was sore, and it felt as if it was just not ever getting better.
All of which leads me to ponder the brutality of the particular virus I had, which seemed more virulent than the usual winter cold. Or am I just getting older and more susceptible? Say it ain’t so. And I compare this to the virus that’s in the news, the one causing Boris Johnson to appear actually statesmanlike and not really at all like Trump, for whom this has been business as usual.
The Americans I follow on Twitter all appear to be obsessed with testing. This interests me. It seems to be a politically motivated complaint, one to beat The Donald with. And god knows there are enough things to beat him with. But never forget, when he says he “takes no responsibility” and all right-thinking people are appalled, his supporters are all nodding their heads and saying, too right. I’m also detecting a little bit of racism in the comparisons with, say, South Korea, as if the number of tests per capita that inferior foreigners were able to do somehow brought shame on America, which ought to be doing better than anyone. The truth is that, as far as healthcare and welfare for working class people is concerned, the United States has always been a banana republic.
But this testing thing. Why obsess about testing? If you show viral symptoms, if you are ill, and unless your life is threatened, what difference does being tested make? To become a statistic? Is it because there are people who, if they tested negative for Covid-19, would then just go to work? Even though they have flu-like symptoms? Because you should still be staying home from work and not giving people the, you know, flu. I think underneath that is a sign of just what a terrible country the United States is. Because it’s not a place you can have a few days off sick unless you can point to a test that says you have this new panic virus, which is the only possible justification for staying at home.
I never thought I’d say this, but the British response, in all of Europe, seems (on the surface) the most rational. People are going to catch it, so we just need to control the rate at which it happens. And the thinking seems to be that, unless you are elderly or with a compromised immune system, the symptoms are mild. So there are risks, but there are also risks in shutting everything down now and re-opening, say, 30 days later, and it all kicks off again. Of course, with these particular people in charge, you can never quite trust what you’re reading and hearing, but my experience on the ground, in a school, seems to indicate that it’s not really that bad at the moment. Which is not to say that someone hasn’t made a callous calculation that, say, 400,000 deaths is acceptable. Half a percent of the population. So if you know 200 people, one of them might die? Is it possible to avoid that?
I’m still not sure, deep down, whether this thing hasn’t been circulating for ages. I had full classes for most of this week. I mean, there’s usually one or two kids off, but this week was notable for days when I had a full house, more often than not. Which was not the case just before half-term, when there was a week when whole rows of desks were empty, people going down like flies with some kind of winter virus. So were they coronavirusing back then? We’ll never know without testing, and so we just shrug our shoulders and carry on. But it seems weird that the conversation this week was all about whether they’d close the schools, with all the classes full and most people seemingly fine, when no such conversation was taking place a month ago when I was seeing classes with five or six empty desks.
Anyway, keep your chins up, and if you cough, try to cough on a Tory.
Listen, it’s not so much that I want to jump on a bandwagon, but there’s still a media studies teacher buried deep inside me, and I have this blog, see, and it’s for writing things.
I’ve been on a news diet in 2020, in recovery after the three year slow motion car crash of Brexit, so I’ve been taking a break, but the virus has brought me back. It seems like something one would like to stay informed upon. I’m never more than a few weeks away from using the channel tunnel.
I wanted to pull together a number of threads.
First of all, people are terrible. Let’s make no mistake. Brexit may have fatally divided us – because no other issue has made it so starkly obvious that people can be convinced to vote against their own interests – but people have always been terrible. The panic buying of soaps and hand cleansers, which deprives other people of soaps and hand cleansers, making the spread of viruses more likely, is one example of how terrible people are. Terrible both in the sense of being horrible and selfish, but also terrible in the sense that they are acting against their own interests in that sociopathic way that so endears the sharp-elbowed middle classes to me.
Secondly, we cannot ignore the media’s complicity, as ever, in the panic buying. Because clicks and page views are the priority, responsibile reporting – as it always does – goes out of the window. So while there are a few tappety-tap-tap commentators on the sidelines pointing out how flat earthy the news tends to be, the headlines are still click baity, utilising Big Numbers and Alarming Words in order to spread anxiety. Maps, colour coded. Diagrams, graphics. How To Stay Safe.
A glance at the BBC homepage brings forth the word “quarantines” and “16 million”, and words like “escalates” and phrases like “worst case scenario”. Over on the Guardian, we’ve got “quarter of country’s population” and “quarantine hotel collapse”. And the news keeps coming because the clicks keep happening, and we’re all kind of responsible for feeding the beast.
On a related note, as someone on Twitter pointed out, for this virus to be subject to political reporting is a huge mistake. It’s either a public health risk, or it’s not, right? If it’s not, don’t go overboard in reporting it. If it is, then don’t turn it into a political game with winners and losers. Don’t make it about Johnson and Trump and scoring points or looking statesmanlike. Pass it to your science/health team and save the political blame game until everyone is dead, or not.
I’ve seen the number of Potential Dead in a UK outbreak shrink from 500,000 to 100,000 in about four days. We can take all these numbers with a pinch, but you can see the extent of the problem.
Which brings me to thread three, the one about how all this irresponsible reporting plays into the hands of dirty politicians like Johnson and Trump, who can use it to make themselves look like the voice of reason.
Because the media does have previous when it comes to blowing things out of proportion, as many people have pointed out. Boy Who Cried Wolf Syndrome is in full flow. Sars. Bird Flu. Swine Flu. Flat. Earth. News. So if Trump stands there and blathers about how everything is going to be fine, and it’s not that bad, and people are getting better, and we’ve got it contained, and it’ll all be over by April… and he’s right?
Well you can see how it might look to his red capped supporters. And these are, let’s not forget, the very people we most want to cull.
I’ve said it before, but the greatest trick Trump ever pulled was the fake news thing. I sometimes think to myself, if you were Corbyn, or if you were Gordon Brown, or Neil Kinnock, and you’d started the fake news meme, well, what then? Trump is the biggest liar in the world and quite obviously incoherent and stupid in so many ways, but he has never really been wrong about fake news has he? He may be pointing at the actual truth and calling it fake, but the reality has always been that enough of the news is wrong, exaggerated, irresponsible and politically motivated that he’s on fairly solid ground.
And he could well get away with calling all this virus reporting fake news. I mean, it’s a gamble, but that’s what he is. And if he wins on this, he potentially wins another election in November.