Can we turn the page? Living with Covid-19

Sun on female hand. Silhouette of hand holding sun

Covid-19 is an extremely serious, fatal virus that mercilessly attacks the respiratory system and wreaks havoc on the body. It’s a vicious, relentless disease which strikes people down and even some of those that survive are left scarred and condemned to live lesser lives than they should.

It’s a horrible way to die, gasping for breath and with a collapsed immune system allowing only drug-induced relief until the end.

Nobody should underestimate the seriousness of this dreadful virus which has killed so many people worldwide during this most ghastly of years.

It is not however, the plague. It is not the black death. It does not strike down everyone in its path. There is no wholesale slaughter of men, women and children.

It has become a global pandemic because of the connectivity of the modern world and the inconsistent response from governments. The origin within China remains murky. And only the most fervent optimist would believe the truth will emerge from that tightly controlled totalitarian regime.

I have no truck with the conspiracy theorists who speculate the fabled vaccines (167 currently in development) will be some kind of chemical enslavement or drug-induced sterilisation project. I watched Channel Four’s Utopia a few years ago and saw the scrambled logic behind that notion. Worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Instead, let’s listen to Professor Chris Witty. Our Chief Medical Officer is familiar to many of us in the UK from his appearances in the daily briefings from No 10. Interestingly he was born a week after me in April 66. And we have the same hairstyle.

His lecture given online to Gresham College at the height of the epidemic was a calm, measured and highly informative presentation. Free from hysteria, extreme language and irrational thought. I have added the link to watch below. It’s 1 hour and 21 minutes. Yes, a lot I know. But less than 3 episodes of Eastenders and a single episode of Love Island.

One of the key points he made was the overwhelming majority of people who were sadly affected by Covid-19 were the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions that made them vulnerable to the infection and its worst effects.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lord (Jonathan) Sumption took up the case within parliament and also in the rarefied world of Radio 4. Having mugged up on all the published data from ours and other governments he observed that 91% of UK deaths were people with pre-existing conditions and 88% of those were over 65.

The deaths of those under 50 were so minuscule that they did not even show up of the Office of National Statistics charts. Link at the end to view those too.

And yet – we have experienced a lockdown – no, a shutdown – of our national life that has devastated the economy, decimated the education of an entire generation of children and whipped up a state of national (nay global) hysteria that has virtually closed down diversity of voices.

Yes, it was understandable as the world confronted a disease and epidemic such as has not been seen for more than a century. And the ramp up of capacity within the National Health Service to manage the potential outbreak was rightly supported across the board. There would have been outrage if we’d had trolleys in hospital car parks with no room for the dying and suffering.

That was achieved and exceeded magnificently by our emergency services.

What has followed is a prolonged, uncertain period where we have willingly suspended everything that makes our lives enjoyable and worthwhile. We have donned the masks and stood apart from each other. We’ve stayed home. We’ve been scared into seeing threats everywhere. Manipulated en masse to condemn friends and family who don’t adhere to the same propaganda programmes.

Divided into doing the dubious and dirty work of the despots ourselves. The shutdown has been extended to any kind of rational discussion too. It seems the modern shouty approach of declaring black/white, right/wrong ‘us and them’ language has taken over this, the biggest story of the century so far.

So – what’s to be done?

Protect the vulnerable. Those who are older, or at any age with conditions that make them susceptible – ring-fence and make them safe in any way we can. I’ll wear a mask, and keep my distance when out and about if the evidence tells me that protects the vulnerable ones who may also be out and about. The winter is coming with the usual flu considerations to add to the ‘second wave’ mix.

This raises the fiendishly difficult separation of those within family and social circles. What do you do when children go back to school and Nan lives with them? What do you do when the vulnerable ones are left isolated, lonely and in despair?  We need a sensible, practical discussion around these genuine risks. And a truly effective test & trace system we can have faith in would help.

Our fledgling efforts in recent years to confront the mental health crisis have been largely crushed under the stampede to sanitise the world. Mental health issues are still there and increased for many. On the flip side, we’ve inadvertently given the natural world a boost as our daily pollutant habits were curtailed.

We need to take steps to open up meaningful, purposeful and worthwhile life again. The vast majority who contract this virus may have a nasty experience and recover. It’s going to be around for a long time. Smallpox existed from the 3rd century BC and the last case was diagnosed in 1977.

The statistics speak for themselves. It is not a ubiquitous danger. We are not all going to die. We need to take care of our vulnerable and protect them with care and compassion. But we need to start living again.

And – with reference to my previous blogs on this subject – let’s make the new normal a more equitable, fair and localised success story for our communities, country and humanity.

Your servant,

MC

 

Links:

Professor Chris Witty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BdPKpWbxTg&t=165s

Lord Sumption: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86P7EEJeNKM

Office of National Statistics: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases

 

Sorry – but it does matter if you’re black or white

Race is back on the agenda. Although it never really went away. Different countries and societies are at different stages of their national conversation.

Some of the current commentary is depressingly familiar. Custodians of the white harrumphing brigade have been wheeled out to take on the equally entrenched guardians of the every-white-person’s-a-racist club. Not a smidgen of listening involved on either side, whilst they enjoy themselves enormously shouting at each other.

I’m old enough to remember Viv Anderson being the first black footballer to pull on the England shirt. And the howls of protest and abuse that followed. Gareth Southgate’s multi and mixed ethnic England squad at the 2018 World Cup was by contrast, a joy to see.

But that’s easy. We can all be more tolerant when someone’s successful, bringing good vibes and victory for our national dreams. Mo Farah and Johnnie Peacock shaking the Olympic Stadium to its foundations showed an equality of celebration for our stars. How charitably did we treat the Tube workers, street cleaners and shop staff on our way home that night, or in the following days?

In the UK, we have made progress. It’s daft to deny that. It was admittedly from a low starting point, as anyone who watched TV or read the papers during the 50s – 80s will tell you.

At my primary school, there was a girl in my class called Denise. She was the only black child in the school. To this day, I remember the ceremonial way in morning assembly that we were told that a new girl was starting – and that she was different to us. It was important that we were all very nice to her. And in our own clumsy way, we were. Which probably made her all the more self-conscious than if we’d just got on with it. Well meaning, good intentions I’m sure. It seems crass as I sit here typing it today, but I guess at least it meant nobody was left out of birthday parties.

And it did set a train of thought in my mind of fairness that persists to this day. I’ve been called an idealist many times throughout my life, usually intended as a derogatory term. I’m no angel but I wear that particular badge with pride. Idealism will always show what life could be – we’ll fall short but keeping those aims in view will encourage a few steps in the right direction.

So back to the current debate. I saw Nigel Farage and Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu interrupting, talking over and generally not listening to each other this morning. I didn’t feel we emerged from the exchange any wiser or further on. So I got to thinking about the following scenario, if they would consent to listen and reflect:

If Shola could stop for a moment and reflect on how the violence, looting and abuse looks to people who are themselves not rich or influential. All colours of the underclass, who struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table and can only dream of new cars and holidays abroad. How it looks to those people to see others helping themselves to looted goods. How it looks to those people as they see others resorting to violence when they themselves feel despair and injustice, but don’t run amok, smash things up and attack others.

Can Shola see and acknowledge how these people know damned well that they wouldn’t get away with it – so why should the loud, aggressive ones have a clear run with no consequence?

It’s about fairness. It’s not fair that the majority of ‘withouts’ who don’t riot feel the same injustices keenly – but know how to behave themselves and conduct their lives within the law.

If Nigel could for a moment stop and reflect on how he, me and most of the majority white population have absolutely no idea how it feels to belong to an unenfranchised race? That the meritocracy we’d love to believe exists in our country is still a long way off. To be born into a life that will always require you to work harder, bite your lip more often, be on your guard continually and always run harder, just to keep up?

To have your destiny mapped often meaning lower standards of education, jobs, place in society – unless you can outperform all others and expectations to get a sniff of the higher roles? To burn if your appointment or promotion is seen by others as tokenism or quota fulfilment?

Could Nigel at least admit he’ll never know how it feels to be judged at fifty paces and expected to keep your mouth shut, lest you’re labelled as another with a chip on your shoulder?

It’s about fairness. It’s not fair that the cradle-to-grave life opportunities are rationed and made to feel like treats for those of colour, who are then required to be grateful.

At the end of these reflections, Shola and Nigel would perhaps end up in the same place. Agreeing that it’s about fairness. Different perspectives, starting points and ideas. But it would be a start. And it’s that old adage that you don’t make peace by talking to your friends – you make peace by talking with your enemies. ‘Enemies’ is a strong word, but you get my drift.

I remain an optimist. My years spent living in a very cosmopolitan London enriched my life and the years spent living and working outside the UK widened my view. There is much to be hopeful for.

But we need honesty. Our society continues to have fault lines of ingrained prejudice. And these are maintained by behaviours that are learned as children – optional as adults. It’s up to all of us to show and teach better examples of behaviour – and practice them ourselves.

Our society also has ingrained lines of virtue and values – which reflect the best of us. Britain is blessed with many warm, kind and generously natured people. Which rarely grabs the headlines but is there when the shouting stops, as a benevolent base.

Whilst the temperature is high at the moment, we must take this opportunity to stop, listen and think. And encourage others to do the same. Recognise we can’t fully understand others’ struggles – but realise there is surely more we have in common than which divides us.

Your servant,

MC

Localisation – good luck with that

In the bad old days, before globalised efficiencies were introduced, a company I worked for had a few laughably simplistic processes in place. For example:

If a printer ran out of ink. I’d call Rob and he’d pop round and replace the cartridge. I could then carry on printing.

After our new masters took control of our amateurish operation, a new process was introduced. If the printer ran out of ink, I’d log on to our intranet and go to the page marked ‘premises’. There I would select the nature of my issue, type in the registration number of the printer (dammit, hang on whilst I run round and write down the 18-digit number) then add the desk number I was working from and click [Submit]. Following this, a message would be received in a central procurement office somewhere in America, who would make a note of my request and then send a message across to the UK central office for their attention to update the records and then forward my request. As a result of this, a message would eventually find its way to Rob to ask him to replace the cartridge in the printer. He’d then pop round and replace the cartridge. If I was lucky, I could do my printing the following day.

On another occasion I was asked to attend an International Women’s Conference in Brussels. I was included along with a sprinkling of other male colleagues as otherwise the conference may have appeared discriminatory (I’m not making this up).

As a seasoned traveller, I found a hotel just off the Grand Place for €59 per night for the 2-night stay. Oh no you don’t said HR, we will book you into a room in one of the approved, panel hotels. Which cost €195 per night. “I’m saving the company money, it’s closer to the venue…” – I was wasting my breath. I checked into a room in which I could have played tennis and sat gazing bemused at the admittedly spectacular view across the city, wondering what the hell was going on.

What was going on of course, was globalisation. The irreversible, incontestable, rampant shoring up of all western industrial activities. Heavy industry, manufacturing, service, blue collar, white collar – no matter. All activity was now to be controlled centrally in the name of efficiency.

If you spoke out against it, you were/are a Luddite. A stick-in-the-mud troublemaker. You just “don’t get it”. You’re an idealistic throwback to simpler times. You’re a relic from an age when such wasteful activity as talking to people in the same building and making decisions that could be swiftly and effectively implemented was the height of folly.

Get with the program. This is cutting edge industrial practice. By centralising all activities we can reduce costs and implement just-in-time highly efficient business practices.

And everyone and everything bowed down before these new mantras and tablets of wisdom. To resist was heresy. To contradict was to show your ignorance. Private firms outsourced and waited for the holy tablets of the monthly MI Reports to show their efficiency gains, reduced costs and increased profit margins. Public service organisations were shoehorned into accepting these practices as “the market” would right their horrible inefficiencies and bring bright new days.

And some good did come out of it. International standards, passporting of goods and services, some working practices rising to meet the growing connectivity of the world.

There was however a tiny flaw in the sale of this approach as organisational restructuring to produce greater efficiency and cost reduction. It was nonsense. The actual purpose was to create a series of channels for goods and services with limited entry points. Those plug points being accessible only by the largest companies at one end and the cheapest providers in the other end. Hence the corporate deals with the panel hotel chains and the multi-plug adaptor handed to China.

And this we have found to our cost all manner of issues both local and irritating (see above) to catastrophic on the biggest stages.

The debacle over Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for our front-line medical and care staff has been one of the hottest potatoes of the current Covid-19 crisis. Nobody is likely to come out of all this smelling of roses when the final enquiries are completed. But what a ridiculous situation we have in getting the supplies to the people that need them. Even the BBC seemed aghast when telling the story of local providers unable to provide.

Factories, manufacturing centres, clothes makers, home-based seamstresses that lived within walking distances of hospitals and care homes were producing the medical gowns required. They had been previously accredited and supplied the NHS. But because they were not listed as one of the approved providers, their gowns could not be used.

Constrained by the “efficiencies” of globalised, centralised process controls the authorities can’t respond nimbly to take advantage of local providers. What a ridiculous situation. Down the road we have the company that will meet our needs. But because somebody hundreds of miles away doesn’t have their details on a spreadsheet, we can’t use them. Instead, we must order them from China and Turkey.

The bloated, bureaucratic set-ups of so many corporates (not to mention political unions) and most troubling of all, public services means that responses are slow, lumbering and totally inflexible. The commodification of livestock animals and unchecked consumerism (“you can have strawberries every day of the year”) by some accounts have pitched humanity against the planet

There are many things being said about “when this is all over”. I’m not daft enough to think that the tight, corporate grip of control already established will be relinquished or even loosened. But I do hope that some cool heads will be able to recognise their reputations will be shot if they do not do something to incorporate some flexibility in their processes in the future.

More broadly: food supplies, clothing and furniture and all manner of less-than-£100 items could be produced within our borders. Brexit – whatever your thoughts on the event – does give a generational opportunity for new, entrepreneurial manufacturing opportunities alongside the sprouting service sector. And to be less plugged in to the gush of goods from China would be no bad thing.

Whether or not Localisation will become a thing is debatable. It faces huge start-up challenges, not least from the vested interests of globalised gluttons. And who is to say that the new entrepreneurs would be able to resist the inevitable buy-out offers if they strike oil in their ventures? As ever, time will tell.

Now – I would print this blog out, but unfortunately my printer needs a new cartridge. And I don’t think Rob will get the message for a wee while yet. So I’ll just post on my page for now.

Your servant

MC

Humanity 2.2 – ‘when this is all over’

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One phrase is on all our lips right now: When this is all over.

We are all nostalgic for our future. When things “get back to normal.” Problem is, normal was a big part of the problem.

We have a rare moment, when we as a species can take stock and reflect on where we are heading. And whether we want to continue on this path.

Some things worth thinking about right now:

  • Why do we spend so much money on weapons to kill other people and destroy places? How much sense does any of that make right now?
  • Why are we systematically destroying parts of nature, our landscape and countryside that actually provide us with the means to live well?
  • Why are we propping up a version of society that brings huge rewards to a small group of people that contribute very little – whilst limiting the rewards to those who actually keep us safe, well and make our day to day lives better?

These are dangerous times for the elite. For the ones who love power, money and control above all other things.

Which is why they are scrambling to take control of the narrative. ‘Relying on the science’ has been the apparently benevolent byword for the British government. Others have deliberately sought to maintain and heighten feelings of fear and dependency. There’s money to be made. Whilst the behaviour of some supermarket sweepers and stock-pilers has been reprehensible, the billionaires have – as always – sensed their opportunity to profit.

Here’s our opportunity to reconsider our values. And reappraise who and what is important. Perhaps those TV and pop stars, those footballers and movie actors – whilst they bring us great pleasure and distraction – maybe they don’t need another million in the bank. Particularly when they use convoluted accounting practices to avoid paying tax to fund the public services they are so keen to be seen supporting. Forget the warm words guys; just pay your taxes. In between posting homemade videos, change your accountant.

We had a gear change in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fun though it was to go to war with each other every so often, the western European states focused instead on the industrial revolution. Of course, part of the transformational technologies were new weapons and war strategies. But a few philanthropic ones also built the workers’ cottages and entertained the notion of paid holidays. Baby steps, but good ones.

Two shattering world wars in the 20th century brought us to the next gear change. Enough was enough. The comparatively bloodless misery of the Cold War was not visited on the majority citizens of the prosperous West, who eased themselves into the ground-level peace that followed.

The 1950s. Hailed as a golden age. Simple times, where most people had modest life expectations. Happiness was defined as having enough to eat, a nice home, a hard day’s work for a fair day’s pay, enjoying a holiday and being surrounded by family and good friends. I’m sure not everything was rosy in those gardens, and it’s easy to be cynical. But really – how good does that all sound right now?

The next gear change in the 1970s/80s can be summed up in a word – greed. It was when the United States decided that healthcare was a privilege, not a right. And that people could be made to accept it was the norm to pay through the nose.

It was the UK and others in the English-speaking world who decided that ‘trickle-down economics’ was the fairy story for the masses. Let’s increase the wealth of those at the top and everyone will benefit. The trickle-down of this new wealth – the rising tide that will lift all boats – was the dream that we were sold.

And it was lapped up. Cars, shoes, second homes, retirement on the beach at 55 – we could have it all. The new industrialists were building spreadsheets, not factories. Old industry and their workforces were to be ditched in favour of services, consumables made on the cheap and sold for huge profits to the malleable masses.

We were part of this. We willingly participated. Indeed, without our consent the rampant consumerism wouldn’t have happened.  Only the miserable lefties asked why a cotton shirt made for less than £1 could be sold for £75. Did we stop buying them when the dusty, corrugated iron lids were lifted off the sweat shops? Did we decide that a pair of shoes for sale at £1,000 was insane? Well it’s the old adage – don’t ask whether it’s worth it – just ask how much do you want it?

An Englishman’s home is his castle – and the council tenants were offered the chance to buy their own property at a discount. Hugely popular and brilliant for those that wanted to and could. The legacy – as we certainly weren’t building any more council homes – is the luckless ones left to live in the family home, or private rented accommodation with high rents and low standards.

So, when things get back to normal – what do we want normal to look like? Here’s a few things to consider:

  • Let’s limit how much profit any company or individual can take
  • Let’s limit how many houses any one person can own
  • Let’s give massive pay rises to healthcare and essential public service staff
  • Let’s invest to regenerate the farmlands and buy local
  • Let’s accept we’ll have less money in our pockets – and take fewer foreign holidays
  • Let’s accept we’ll pay higher taxes to fund public social housing for key local workers
  • Let’s accept that footballers and other sports stars may move to another country to make their millions
  • Let’s accept less choice of food, goods, clothes – and that prices will go up to give the suppliers a fair price – and the workers a fair wage

I’m guessing that list looks less attractive the further down you go. But that’s the thing about rebalancing. In order for it to work, there are winners and losers. But if you consider the current losers have been losing most of their lives, it’s mostly about fairness.

The best times in our national (and indeed global) lives have been when a sense of fairness prevails. Societies at peace with themselves. This is that rare, sweet spot when the state and private sectors are working in the right balance. When the capitalist drive is tempered by the social imperatives. Or the socialist dourness is lifted by the capitalist sparkle.

Will we go for this? Will there be a reset of humanity? Or will we revert back to the ever more rampant consumerist approach when the shackles are finally removed. “When this is all over.”

That is very much down to each and every one of us. Don’t be fooled by rich men in expensive suits trying to intimidate and scare you. We hold the power and we always have. Whether we choose to use it, time will tell.

Your servant

MC

Strange Days – Corona Mania

We seem to have collectively stumbled into a dystopian novel. Or a disaster movie. It’s like we are waiting for someone to shout ‘Cut!’ and we can go back to normal life.

I had thought it would take a new world war to reduce the global population, exhume the negative energy within our species and level out humanity’s greed. That may still be the case, but this pandemic is giving us a pretty good dress rehearsal.

There is no other story in the news. It’s wall-to-wall corona virus. And as we increasingly work from home, with the 24-hour rolling news cycle it can become all-consuming. Family conversations, online chats and posts – there really is no escape.

And as we line up to condemn the panic-buyers and hoarders, we can’t help but glance at our own fridges, freezers and cupboards and wonder if we have enough. Should we fill our cars with petrol? Should we buy those unfamiliar rice sachets, that tinned meat, the long-life milk that always tastes so awful?

Our leaders really are in a no-win situation. Whether to go draconian or try to pace the hysteria. I’m reminded of the periodic snow plough arguments. How the UK is occasionally paralysed by infrequent snowfall, which results in mass calls for better preparation. To be followed inevitably by images of idle snow ploughs on every motorway “just in case” and the ensuing chorus of what a waste of money. Sometimes you really can’t win.

We are the rarest species. Capable of great achievement and great stupidity. Incredibly moving compassion and shocking selfishness. Some gaze admiringly at the great minds of the day and others lick their lips at how they can profit from others’ genius and the masses’ deepest fears. For every selfless good Samaritan lending a hand, there is a huckster ready to line their own pockets.

This crisis will bring out the best and worst in all of us. And whilst it will be tempting to make judgements on others, the recent commentary about mental well-being should be remembered: You really have no idea what someone else is going through or dealing with – so try to be kind. You see six loaves of bread in their basket and think them excessive; they see what they can afford, as they stress about feeding a family for the next week, with very little money.

It’s useful at times like these to reflect on some other things that we may all agree on:

  • Our stretched National Health Service staff are usually doing their very best to help us (whilst taking care of their own family/friends)
  • Most of us love our Mums, family and friends – and want them to be OK
  • We have absolutely got to try and find a way to have a laugh about all this – no matter how bad it gets, if we lose our sense of humour then we really are doomed

I remember when I first moved to Watford many years ago, I lived in a pretty crummy bedsit for a number of months. I had a single oven ring to cook and had to go to the launderette every Sunday to wash my clothes. I’d wander down the road with a black sack over my shoulder and sit there watching the spin cycles as the flies buzzed in the windows and the smell of washing powder filled my nose.

Why do I mention this? It’s because to this day I still appreciate having my own washing machine in my home. And I’ve always believed that a period of going without does you good. It really makes you appreciate things so much more.

So when this is all over – and it will be over – I hope that we emerge with a renewed appreciation of those simple things. Being out and about, meeting friends, going to the movies, getting together with family, having a holiday (whether an expensive cruise, or a modest weekend by the sea).

And even more – a hug, a kiss, feeling free and confident to just enjoy those simple pleasures that we took for granted, but will be recognised as precious again.

And – if you will permit me – to say that the world really keeps turning not because of bankers, IT experts, politicians, rock stars, football players or TV personalities.

It keeps turning because of the people that get up and go out to do the jobs that really make a difference to our day-to-day lives: the shop workers, the NHS (of course), the bus/train/delivery drivers, the public service workforce, the cleaners, the teachers – and anyone else I’ve forgotten who basically make life liveable for the rest of us.

Stay safe. Be well. Look after yourselves and each other. And let’s meet again on the other side of these dark days.

Your servant,

MC