Maybe if we were to take down all the road signs, the virus would find it harder to get about? (John Crace’s Twitter response to the government’s change of approach, 10 May 2020)
‘STAY at Home’ is now replaced in England by the vague ‘Stay Alert’, providing much amusement to humourists on Twitter. The red on the advice poster has become green, and the NHS no longer features. Various newspapers headlined our forthcoming freedom last Thursday, not apparently seeing the danger of doing this just before a weekend with a hot sunny forecast or a Bank Holiday dedicated to ‘our’ victory (‘over Europe’ according to one publication) 75 years ago. Some people just could not resist having a street party. Exceptionalism is on display again, as is herd behaviour. The more cars on the road, the more permission we all have to take our own out. The fewer the attempts to physically distance, the more human nature will convince us all we don’t really have to bother. Some suspect herd immunity is also back in vogue.
And yet we do know the danger of a second wave; so what next?
I have a lot of sympathy with the caller on Friday’s ‘Any Questions’ who was worried about the mental health of his children. We now know he has at least three weeks to wait. There are multiple reasons for getting back to school, but evidence is uncertain about the effect of the virus on the young; and what chance has physical distancing? What about the adults – teachers, other school staff, parents … ?
I am told I shall be working from home for the foreseeable future. The instruction in England is now ‘work from home if you can, go to work if you can’t’, but don’t go by public transport. Theoretically, employers might be expecting workers back immediately. What about workers who chose their employment around school hours, or who rely on buses and trains? What assurance is there that employers will follow the Covid-secure standards? The major trades unions are requiring a ‘nationwide health and safety revolution’ before they will advise their three million members to return to work.
We can now exercise as much as we want, even sit on a park bench, maintaining social distance. Cycling and walking are to be encouraged (fingers crossed) by pop-up cycle lanes and wider pavements. The cleaner air and reduced traffic noise have enhanced our lives, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air estimating the prevention of 1 700 premature deaths in the UK during lockdown. This is the perfect opportunity to rethink how we move about.
It remains to be seen how the public will interpret ‘Stay Alert’. Fear, TV reports of sparsely-attended funerals, or the location of a beloved relative in a care home may continue to confine the majority, while others expand their activities leaving the police to decide who deserves a fine. I particularly don’t envy them their job on the borders between the country’s four nations.
LAST Thursday First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that Scotland would remain in lockdown for a further three weeks. She says she’d like nothing more than to give her mum and dad a hug, but this is a sacrifice she must make to protect the NHS. Hats off once again to Nicola, who strives to set an example and maintains her clear, realistic approach to communication while admitting that she, just like us, is finding the lockdown hard. Meanwhile Boris Johnson continues to deliver a confused message (now ‘stay alert’ not ‘stay at home’) rather than more vital PPE or testing, having just returned from the lavish comfort of his second home.
The main reason for Nicola’s decision to extend lockdown is that the current Covid-19 reproduction number (or R-value, which indicates the average number of people an individual would be expected to infect) in Scotland is still higher than in the rest of the UK due to Scotland being slightly behind the curve. Scotland also has two large, high-density cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in which most inhabitants live in tenement flats where the rate of infection is particularly high.
I am more than happy to continue to stay at home to be honest. Why, when the UK’s death count has surpassed Italy and Spain (who maintained stricter lockdown measures for longer than the UK), would Boris decide to relax lockdown? His choice of the economy (and appeasing his billionaire pals) over the health of British citizens is crystal clear.
In the UK public support for lockdown is still overwhelmingly strong. As Owen Jones points out in a Novara Media interview with Michael Walker on Friday evening this is because ‘British citizens have drawn a rational conclusion’ regarding the serious importance of lockdown. There was no need for Wednesday’s newspaper headlines, which were overly dramatic and ‘not helpful for anyone’ as Nicola said in her press conference on Friday. ‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’ said the Daily Mail, only to retract this sentiment on Friday.
In a similar note on use of language, Boris’s use of wartime rhetoric during the pandemic has really been bothering me. Boris thinks he’s some kind of Churchill for 2020. I can’t help but think that when Nicola stated on VE Day that ‘we are not fighting a war’ it was a pointed dig at the PM’s persistent bombast.
This is a pivotal time for Scotland to be marching to the beat of their own drum (pun intended), to provide more support for the SNP’s ongoing desire for independence. This week, trade minister
Ivan McKee revealed details of an agreement to provide more than half of NHS Scotland’s current weekly requirement for non-sterile gowns, all to be produced in Scotland. Testing capacity increases are on target, having risen by more than 2 000 in the past week. Nicola moves onwards and upwards continuing to support Scotland Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis Scotland and pump more money into schemes to help small businesses, while Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak makes plans to scrap furlough because we are becoming ‘addicted’ to lockdown (quite frankly, a grossly distasteful comment). Nicola remains focused on what is important, the wellbeing of the Scottish people and I’m right behind her.
SO, 11 May is the start of the end of the lockdown here in France. Over the past week the President and Prime Minister have spelled out what this means, guidance has been given and things have become clearer. It has taken a full week of explanations and clarifications – people have raised objections and opinions have been sought and adjustments made. Time has been spent getting it clear for people.
In our part of France we are coded green because infections are under control and, more importantly, there is the hospital infrastructure in place now to cope should infections rise. From 11 May, shops in our area can reopen and we can move around up to a distance of 100km without having to have our ‘permission to move’ form filled in on our phones. We are no longer restricted in what we can do – we can go to the shops without justifying it as essential, we can drive to nice places to walk the dogs, we are even allowed to have friends round for a meal (so long as we don’t have more than ten).
The joke in our household is that on 11 May, I was 64. On 12 May, I am 65 and enter the age band of those who are considered at risk, so should take greater care. Just one day of freedom to play fast and loose and enjoy myself(!) then go back into voluntary lockdown to protect myself, having suddenly become more vulnerable.
However, bizarrely, moving into un-lockdown I do feel more at risk and uneasy. Lockdown felt very uncomfortable at first, a loss of liberty, of freedom to do as we please. But the threat of death, the numbers of all those people who have died, focuses the mind on survival and lockdown has been the means of doing this. The virus is still out there and removing lockdown may remove some of the protection I/we have experienced.
Or not. Who knows how it is all going to pan out. The science isn’t perfect and is, in the end, advisory for the politicians who will make the decisions. The models of what will happen are as open to manipulation as the stock market or any other statistical game. There may be another peak, there may not. Facemasks may work, or they may not.
Moving into un-lockdown is moving out of an area of some certainty into more areas of greater uncertainty. This is not comfortable – and who would ever have thought I might have hankered after the old days of lockdown!
DAY 46 under South Africa’s lockdown and number eleven at the slightly more liberal level 4 – or 4.75 as some witty commentator described it. Some concessions have been made in the areas of commerce and exercise; but transport has been further curtailed, a night-time curfew imposed, and much online buying banned. Smokers and drinkers still have to resort to the black market and are doing so with gusto to the detriment of the public fiscus. As ever, these measures appear as commands, not as reasoned decisions. Antagonism grows.
It’s obvious that the most effective antidote to contagion is social – lowered human density. In other words, we must become asocial. But it is equally plain that much of South Africa has never been locked down; either because of people’s unavoidable living conditions or refusal to change habits and customs. So the country has been living under pretence and then claiming that a low death toll – now just over 200 – is a result of farsighted decisiveness. The connection is unproven.
Indeed, level 4 (plus a decimal point depending on your perspective), which includes the (now postponed) re-opening of schools, comes just as all indicators are steadily climbing and winter and the flu season closing in. Why was level 5 ever necessary? The nation’s most prominent epidemiologist was clear from the beginning: it was to buy time ahead of the inevitable epidemic. But did virtually the entire economy have to be crippled to set up field hospitals and quarantine facilities? What exactly was time gained for and was the model upon which it was based plausible; or just an excuse for the ANC to show how muscular it could be?
An epidemic should be tackled by medical, public health and social measures. But the impetus has shifted decisively away to the economic and the political. Why are so many people who live cheek by jowl in poor conditions being deprived of their livelihoods? The recyclers locked out of our neighbourhood landfill are victims of human rights abuse, not participants in a public health exercise. Why was the wine industry not permitted to export for so long? Why can supermarkets not sell hot food?
This last restriction has led to a new catch phrase – the Cooked Chicken Gestapo – and it is they who are setting the regulatory agenda from structures that look remarkably similar to the hated National Security Management System at the end of the apartheid era. There are command centres and war rooms everywhere that have no connection with the Constitution or to democratic process. A key term in a police presentation to parliament was ‘stamping the authority of the state’. What is the political agenda here and its ultimate purpose? Much-respected former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel has questioned the constitutionality and rationality of the government’s directives.
We can but speculate. Maybe it’s the old story of ANC factionalism. But a number of level-headed observers believe there is something more to the reckless destruction of a limping economy – more nails in a coffin for which a grave had already been dug. The command and control, boots and guns may be preparation for the revolution that never happened in the 1990s. There are powerful elements in the ANC and government that have a belief in a ground zero approach in which a new society and economy are supposedly built from ashes.
Experience at the merged University of KwaZulu-Natal taught me that as decisions became less and less rational, so explanations had to be found in a parallel universe. Maybe, sooner or later, the keyword is not going to be Covid-19 – but expropriation. And the ANC and its fellow travellers won’t only be referring to land.
Contributions from Sheffield by Penny Merrett, Glasgow by Caitlin Merrett King, Sallèles d’Aude by Jonathan Merrett and Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett.