The pandemic update from Britain, political edition: Boris’s brain breaks Boris’s rules

Back in March, Boris Johnson’s brain–that’s his advisor, who has a name of his very own, Dominic Cummings–was infected with Covid-19. Keep him in mind, because he’s the heart of the story, but as usual we need some background.

Britain had gone into lockdown by then, and had widely publicized guidelines on what that meant. Leaving home (defined as “the place you live,” because a lot of us weren’t clear about that) “to stay at another home is not allowed.”

The guidelines didn’t define that other home, the one you don’t live in and weren’t to go to. Presumably it was a place someone else lived, although it could also have been a second home–a place no one lived. 

That’s enough possibilities. If I go on, it’ll only get worse.

Unnecessary travel was banned. Unnecessary wasn’t defined, but let’s take a shot at it ourselves: If you were being chased by a bear, it probably would be okay to run down the street or take other evasive action. No bear? You stay in the home where you live.

Completely irrelevant photo: an azalea.

People who had the virus were told to self-isolate. That collision of words, self impaled on isolate, was created by a computer that hadn’t been fully briefed on the spoken language, but most of us accepted it. We were thinking about a deadly virus. 

And it wasn’t just people who had the virus who were supposed to self-isolate: So was anyone they had contact with. Because we had to stop the virus. And the whole thing was serious enough that the police could fine people who broke the rules.

The rules, admittedly, were still hazy. In the most extreme case I know of, the police scolded people for buying (or was it a store for selling?) chocolate Easter eggs, which unlike Red Bull aren’t strictly necessary. 

After a wobble or two, though, the line between necessary and unnecessary became clearer. What really mattered was the We Were Taking This Seriously. So seriously that Boris Johnson made a public appeal to our better natures, asking us not to go see Mom on Mother’s Day. 

And most people listened. They didn’t visit their mothers. They didn’t visit their elderly relatives in nursing homes. They didn’t say their goodbye to dying family members. Because this was the way to beat the virus and we were all in it together.

Except for Boris’s brain, who by that time knew he was ill and drove 260 miles, leaving a trail of virii behind him. And with him went his wife (who was also sick) and their kid. 

Why’d they do that? To get to his parents’s home (sorry: estate), because, hell, they needed help with childcare. What else were they to do?

Well, gee, what would anybody else do? Manage, probably. Not expose their parents, possibly, not to mention whoever they had contact with between the home where they lived and the where home they didn’t live. Turn to somebody local if they could–a relative, an organization that could help. See if a relative wouldn’t come to them, which wouldn’t be within the guidelines but would have been a hell of a lot safer.

I don’t minimize how hard the disease can hit people–a friend of ours died of it–but these are two people who were well enough to drive 260 miles but weren’t well enough to deal with their kid.

I admit, I don’t know their particular kid. 

We’ll skip the which-day-did-what-happen details. Someone local called the cops, who talked with someone at the home where they did not live.

“Oh, no, they didn’t,” 10 Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, we did,” the police say. 

Cummings was seen 30 miles away from his parent’s estate, out in public, not self-isolating.

Cummings went back to London and returned to work at 10 Downing Street. 

A few days later, he was seen 30 miles from his parents’ estate again. 

“Oh, no, he wasn’t,” Downing Street says.

“Oh, yes, he was,” the witness says, “and I have the browser history to prove that I checked his license plate number at the time to make sure it was  him.” Except you don’t call it a license plate in Britain, but let’s not stop for that, we’re busy doing something else here.

The witness has filed a complaint with the police.

What does Boris’s brain have to say? That he did the right thing by driving to his parents’ estate.

What did Boris’s body have to say? “I believe that in every respect he has acted responsibly, and legally and with integrity and with the overwhelming aim of stopping the spread of this virus and saving lives.”

Other politicians and one scientific advisor who’ve been caught messing around with the lockdown rules have stepped down. 

Will Cummings? Like hell he will.

The steps under his feet aren’t looking overly solid, though. After Johnson’s press conference, Stephen Reicher, a scientific advisor to the government, tweeted, “In a few short minutes tonight, Boris Johnson has trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control COVID-19.,” and “It is very hard to provide scientific advice to a government which doesn’t want to listen to science.”

Not to mention, “Be open and honest, we said. Trashed.

“Respect the public, we said. Trashed

“Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed.

“Be consistent we said. Trashed.

“Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”

Someone got onto the Civil Service twitter account and called Johnson “an arrogant truth-twister.” Nine minutes later, the tweet was taken down but it had been shared 25,000 times. No one knows who done it at the moment, but J.K. Rowling offered to pay them a year’s salary if their name became public.

A group called Led by Donkeys parked a van outside Cummings’ house with a huge screen on the back. It plays a clip of Boris Johnson telling people to stay home and  interviews with people who’ve struggled to care for their kids while they were sick. Over and over again.

The Financial Times writes that “The prime minister’s efforts to save his aide appeared to have failed. Support for Mr Cummings appeared to be spread thinly across the government and Conservative party. Following a barrage of supportive messages from cabinet ministers on Saturday, a notable silence on Sunday suggested that backing for the adviser was evaporating. One member of the government said the prime minister’s press conference had made the situation worse.”

One more quote, then I’ll stop: Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said the government was spending “enormous political capital…saving someone who has boasted of making decisions beyond his competence and clearly broke at the very least the guidance which kept mums and dads at home.”

Life’s going to be interesting around here for the next week or two. Watch this space. Or any other. 

The pandemic update from Britain (and elsewhere): arms, archeology, and apps

Rest easy, people. Someone is addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The Academie Francaise has announced that we’re dealing with la Covid, not le Covid. In other words, the virus is grammatically female.

The French language divides its nouns into male and female, and which gender a noun belongs to has nothing to do with any intrinsic quality of the thing itself. Nobody knows whether a sandwich considers itself more female than male, and nobody except the sandwich cares. A linguist could explain it all to you (and I’m looking forward to whatever comments you leave, my friends), but in the meantime, as far as I can see, you deduce the word’s femininity or masculinity out of a sixty-forty mix of thin air and history, which you whip until the resulting froth looks inevitable. 

In this case, the Academie decided that the root of the word Covid is maladie–illness–which is already feminine, so Covid is also feminine. And since this is all about getting the language right, I apologize for missing the accent mark in Academie: I’m writing this first thing in the morning and my accent marks are asleep.  

Irrelevant photos: Hydrangeas.

In the absence of the Academie’s decision, though, people started calling it le Covid, making it masculine. Will they change? No idea. On the one hand, French speakers seem to take the Academie seriously. On the other hand, language is a slippery beast and it can slither out of even the most powerful hands. 

Spanish is (I think–let me know if I’m wrong) closer to English in not recognizing anyone’s final authority over the language, but the Real Academia de la Lengua Española has just decided that Covid is feminine. To date, it’s been predominantly masculine, or at least people have written and spoken it as if it is. What’ll happen next? You’re on the edge of your chair, aren’t you? We’ll just have to wait and see–if we can remember to check back.

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So what’s the news on coronavirus immunity? Not much. No one knows yet if having had the virus gives you immunity. I mention that because so many people are sure they know what the scientists don’t.

Arne Akbar of the British Society of Immunology said that an antibody test “does not tell us if these antibodies will stop you getting sick from Covid-19 in the future or how long any protection generated might last.” And just to complicate the picture, he also said, “The immune system is extremely complex and there are lots of ways that it can generate immunity, antibodies being only one.”

So what good does antibody testing do? It can help experts figure out how many people have had Covid-19 and what its spread is. 

Some 10% of Londoners may (emphasis on may) have been infected with it, and maybe 4% of the rest of the country. At this stage, so much isn’t known (and so many people talk as if it was) that you’d be wise to stock up on wishy-washy words: suggests, probably, may, might, and could, possibly are all available from my Etsy shop. I’ll give you 20% off if you let me know that I referred you to me.

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And while we’re talking about bargains, the British government spent almost £20 million buying up drugs that Donald Trump claimed would cure Covid-19. I can’t say for sure that the two things are linked, only that they both happened.

What did it get for its money? Chloroquinine phosphate, choloroquinine, hydroxycholoroquinine (those are normally used for malaria and other diseases), and lopinavir/ritonavir (normally used for HIV). 

What’s my problem with that? As yet, there’s no scientific evidence that they’re any use against Covid-19. They might be. They also might not be. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that one trial of lopinaetc. showed no “observable benefit.” 

But that’s a minor objection. The real one is that they’re horrible words to type. You have no idea why I have to go through here. On top of which, lupus patients use hydroxyetc. and are worried about a drug they depend on being snapped up on the theory that something just might pan out.

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Want more bargains? Who wouldn’t. Britain’s given £1 billion worth of contracts to companies without any competitive bidding process. Because we’re in a crisis.  

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Enough about Britain. Let’s talk about Texas, which has always been a little crazy. I’m originally from New York, but I can claim half a right to say that because my partner is a Texan born and raised. If I get in trouble on this, I’m calling her as my witness.

The state recently eased its coronavirus restrictions, allowing restaurants, malls, and some other businesses to open, but it didn’t include bars, tattoo parlors, and other essential services, outraging some half a dozen business owners, who called in heavily and visibly armed civilians to stand around looking heavily armed and threatening. Then they opened up for business. 

I don’t know where it’s all headed. Not anyplace good.

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But I shouldn’t single out Texas. In Turkey, as elsewhere, teachers have encouraged kids to draw rainbows and put them in their windows during the lockdown. Then some of the local education boards told them to stop. Rainbows are part of a plot to turn the kids gay. 

Oh, sure, you can laugh if you want, but I’m gay–okay, lesbian; that’s close enough–and I saw rainbows as a kid. And not just one rainbow but lots of them, both the kind in the sky and the kind on paper. That happened repeatedly. And look where it led.

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In Spain, informal groups of parents are stepping in to help families whose kids are going hungry during the lockdown. And neighborhood associations and other local groups are supplying food, medicine, cleaning products, and (in one case) a tablet so a teenager could keep up with her school work. Social services are overwhelmed and haven’t been able to keep up with the need.  

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Back to Britain: With people in lockdown getting bored enough to name their socks and teach them to leap through dog collars, a landscape archeologist from Exeter University, Chris Smart, has harnessed their skills and their boredom. He has them looking at aerial surveys of the Devon-Cornwall border for signs of ancient settlements. 

So far, they’ve found thirty settlements that date back to sometime between 300 BCE and 300 CE, along with twenty miles of road that linked Roman forts. 

“It will be hundreds [of settlements] by the time the volunteers are finished,” Smart said. “We’re seeing a much greater density of population than we thought.”

They’ve also found twenty prehistoric burial mounds, plus hundreds of medieval farms, field systems, and quarries. And so far, they’ve only worked on a tenth of the area.

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In the village where I live, all our socks are named and yesterday morning my neighbor and I got excited about the possibility that the dump had reopened. Or as everyone but me calls it, the tip. If it has, we could all load up our green waste and take it for a drive.

I don’t actually have any green waste to take up there, but I was excited about Jane going.

Admit it: You understand. You know you do.

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Every Thursday, Britain goes through the ritual of clapping for NHS and other frontline workers. They’re risking their lives for us. We love them all indiscriminately. Cynics see the cynicism of it–the government encourages us to clap but can’t manage to get them the protective gear or the equipment they need–but we do it anyway. Because we mean it. Because it feels right. Because a moment of solidarity with your neighbors just feels good.

Now a leaked document tells us the government’s considering a three-year freeze on public sector workers’ pay, including the pay of those heroic folks they encourage us to go out and clap for. Because someone has to be sacrificed to make up for the deficit we’re running and if it’s not going to be the people who can afford it most easily (and it’s not), then it’ll have to be the people who aren’t in a position to fight it effectively.

And I think I’m cynical.

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A professor of infectious diseases, Paul Garner, caught Covid-19 and has been blogging about its effects. More than seven weeks later, he’s still sick.

The disease stays with some people like that. They call it the long tail of the virus. Garner says it kept coming up with new, disturbing symptoms. He had a muggy head, tinnitus, an upset stomach, pins and needles, breathlessness, dizziness, arthritic symptoms–. The list goes on.

And it would seem to get better and then come back. 

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To learn more about the disease outside of hospital settings, King’s College, London, has introduced a tracker app where people can log their symptoms. 

There’s good clinical data for people in the hospital but not in the community, Professor Tim Spector said, but “there is a whole other side of the virus which has not had attention because of the idea that ‘if you are not dead you are fine.’ “

Rather than the cough, fever, and loss of the sense of smell that we’re told to watch for, some people get muscle aches, a sore throat, a headache. And Professor Lynne Turner-Stokes, also of King’s College, said Covid is capable of attacking any organ, including the lungs, brain, skin, kidneys, and nervous system. It can cause blood clots or confusion, delirium, and coma. 

“I’ve studied 100 diseases,” Spector said. “Covid is the strangest one I have seen in my medical career.”

The pandemic update from Britain: sniffer dogs and the return to work

England has approved a coronavirus antibody test that’s 100% accurate and highly specific. If England goes ahead and adopts it, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will probably do the same.

Being highly specific? That means it’s able to detect even a fairly weak antibody response. Being 100% accurate? That means it’s right. It’s a technical concept that sciency people like to use, but we can all get our heads around it if we pay attention.

The problem with the test is that it depends on a blood sample, so it has to be done by a medical person with a big, scary needle, and then processed in a lab. 

Why, other than the big, scary needle, is that a problem? Because you can’t just toss a bunch of tests in the mail for people to do at home and go home for a beer. You’ll have to organize testing. Preferably competently, and that’s where we hit a snag.

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

In the UK, the best way to do that would, almost inevitably, be through the National Health Service and, most heavily, local GPs, although they might need some extra (is anybody paying attention here?) money and staff. 

The government will probably centralize it, though, and hand the contract to huge private companies who’ve proved their competence by screwing up the testing program that’s in use now, which isn’t for antibodies but for current infections. Believing that private companies are more efficient than governments is a religious cult. 

And when the evidence shows that the opposite is true? You just draw the circle tighter and pray harder.

It’s an contradictory situation, though. Here’s a government demonstrating governmental incompetence through incompetent privatization and people who argue that government would be more competent criticizing the government for incompetence.

Did you follow that?

You might think that both sides of the disagreement should be equally unhappy, but you’d be wrong. Money’s being made. Someone’s happy.

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Just so’s we all understand this: It’s still not clear whether having antibodies to Covid-19 means you’re immune to it. Widespread use of the antibody test should give us some information about that.

What immediate good does the test do, then? Almost everything I read on the subject talks about people who’ve been exposed going back to work, happy in the knowledge that they won’t get the bug again, although we don’t exactly know that and neither do they. They might be immune. We hope they’re immune.

And, since I’m splashing cold water on things, the test having been approved isn’t the same and the test having been bought. Or produced in large enough numbers. The government and the test’s developer, Roche, are talking. You know, price, quantities, delivery dates, can we get it in blue? 

No? We really like blue.

The government’s also talking to the developers of other tests. Hang in there. We’ll know something eventually.

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Last weekend, lockdown restrictions were eased here in England and people who couldn’t work from home were urged to go back to work if they could do it safely, so Grant Shapps, Britain’s transport secretary, was flung to the press so he could reassure the nation. 

How’d he do that? He told us that the government doesn’t “know how the virus will respond” to lockdown’s semi-end. 

I feel deeply reassured, and I hope you do as well. 

Why was the transport secretary the one to get thrown to the press? Partly because people–having been told to avoid public transportation if they could–are using public transportation because how else are they supposed to get to work? Most people don’t have private planes. 

Also because he drew the slip of paper with the big red X on it.

He was especially reassuring about public transportation in London. 

“We have got the British Transport Police out there and we are even bringing in volunteers to remind people that we don’t want to see platforms crowded.”

Anyone who sees a crowded platform will then understand that they’re surplus to requirements and disappear in a cloud of blue smoke.

Would Shapps himself get on a crowded bus or train? an interviewer asked. Well, no, he said. And no one else should either. Please see cloud of blue smoke, above. 

In a different interview, he said, “Even with all the trains and buses back to running when they are, there will not be enough space. One in 10 people will be able to travel without overcrowding.” 

The news is full of pictures of packed tubes, trains, and buses in London. He’s an asset to the nation, Shapps is.

I’m still trying to figure out what “back to running when they are” means. 

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I suppose this is where I have to write about a railway ticket office worker, Belly Mujinga, who was told she had to work out on the concourse instead of behind the ticket office’s barrier, although she had respiratory problems. 

“We begged not to go out,” a colleague said. “We said, ‘Our lives are in danger.’ We were told that we are not even allowed to put on masks.”

A passenger spat at her and a co-worker and said he had the virus. Both women came down sick and Mujinga has died of the virus, leaving a widower and an eleven-year-old daughter.

A GoFundMe campaign has raised over £27,000 for the family. Which is heartening, but she’s still dead.

Mujinga’s employer, Govia Thameslink, has only just given CCTV footage of the spitting incident to police, after weeks of being asked for it. The spitter was described by a witness as male, white, fiftyish, and well dressed. The women he spat at asked their managers to call the police. That was on March 22. The police say they only got a report on Monday. 

Rail unions are threatening to strike if drivers and passengers aren’t protected from overcrowding. Let’s hope they include other workers as well, in memory of Mujinga if nothing else.

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So what are you supposed to do if your boss pressures you to go back to work but you don’t feel it’s safe–if, say, you’ve got a medical condition, or a family member who does, or an eight-year-old with no school to go to, or the workplace is too crowded, or your boss says you have to work out on the concourse? You probably have some protection under the law, but you’ll have to be pretty damn brave to claim it, because it could mean taking your case to an employment tribunal. It may mean risking your job.

How much money did you say do you have to fall back on?

Yup. That’s what most people say.  

In an interview, an employment lawyer said government guidance “seems to be suggesting that everyone who is not attending work but is unable to work from home should return to work, but they haven’t given much guidance to employers and employees about what exactly is expected if they have these difficulties turning up.”

She also said, “For example, if you’re a single parent with childcare obligations, we’ve seen some really unfortunate stories of mothers who are the sole parent and they’re stuck with children and they’ve been issued unfair ultimatums by their employer, wanting them to attend work on short notice when it’s just not possible.”

In the meantime, the business secretary, Alok Sharma, said workers don’t have an automatic right to walk out if they feel their workplaces are unsafe. 

“If somebody feels their workplace is not safe, they have to take that up with their employer,” he said. “If they don’t feel they are getting any traction they absolutely should get in touch with the Health and Safety Executive or the local authority.”

If I can translate that, if your workplace isn’t safe, you should follow the steps outlined above, keep on working, and hope you don’t die. 

Jason Moyer-Lee of the Independent Workers of Great Britain, which represents gig workers, said, “The return to work instruction is predicated on workplaces being safe because they follow new Government guidelines. The guidance is not law and is not mandatory.” In other words, he doesn’t think there’s much way to enforce it.

Just I think I’m too cynical–.

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Teachers’ unions are saying the proposals to reopen schools in England on June 1 are unworkable. They’ve urged teachers not to “engage with” preparations.

No, I’m not sure what “engage with” means either. Teachers will, though. They teach things. Whatever needs to be known, they know it. 

Schools have been told that they don’t need protective gear, that they don’t need to keep the recommended six feet of distance between people, and that smaller classes and hand washing (sorry–stringent hygiene; maybe we’re talking about deodorant) will keep them safe.

They have not been told to sing “Happy Birthday” while stringently hygienizing themselves.

None of the teachers’ unions were contacted about the reopening before it was announced last Sunday.

Stay tuned. It should be interesting. 

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A group of scientists who set up an alternative to the government’s official science advisory group have warned that the current strategy will bring more outbreaks of the virus and rolling lockdowns. It called for a campaign to test and trace, and to isolate infected people–and to scrap centralized testing and rely on GPs and local health teams, who can respond quickly to local outbreaks.

The current testing system doesn’t bother to send the results to GPs. And (anecdotal evidence warning here) doesn’t necessarily send the results to the people who’ve been tested either. Because what’re they going to do with them anyway? They’re all ignorant savages and it’ll only frighten them.

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Oh, hell, let’s take a break for a little good news. The furlough scheme, which pays up to 80% of furloughed workers’ wages while they’re off work in the pandemic, will be continued until the end of October, although the small and medium-size print is changing. As of August, furloughed workers can go back to work part time. And at some point–and no one knows where the point is right now–companies will have to start picking up part of the bill. 

How much does it cost? About £12 billion per month.

How much did the 2008 bank bailout cost? About £850 billion.

There is support for the self-employed, but everything I read about it leaves me more confused than I was before. A program exists. It leaves some people out. It seems to have just started registering claims and what self-employed people were doing for money until now is anyone’s guess. But it’s better than no support at all.

Sorry, this was supposed to be our good news break, wasn’t it? Okay, how about this: 

Sniffer dogs are being trained to detect the virus. Dogs can already be used to spot cancer, Parkinson’s, and malaria. It’s still in the trial stages, but if it works they should be able to spot people with no symptoms. Our dogs know when we’re carrying treats, even when we think we show no symptoms, so yes, I do believe this could work.

My thanks to Catladymac for pointing me at this story. I’d have missed it.

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And from the Department of Silver Linings comes this bit of news: The coronavirus lockdown could break the chain of transmission for HIV. The problem with HIV–other, of course, than that it kills people quite horribly–is that there’s a period of up to a month between the time a person’s exposed and the time current tests can detect it. And people can pass it on during that time. 

People who are on the current treatments can’t pass on the infection, and a drug that people can take both before and after sex reduces the risk of getting it, so the number of new cases in Britain is dropping anyway. But if no one has sex with new partners, it just might be possible to find everyone incubating the disease before they pass it on, treat them, and stop the spread of the infection. 

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When I started doing more frequent virus updates, I thought they’d be short. What’s happened, though, is that the more attention I pay to this, the more I find to include. I’m oddly apologetic about that, although I didn’t invent the virus. Or the idea of an update. Hell, if you don’t want to read them, you won’t.

Take care, everyone. Listen to doctors and scientists and your own good sense. Stay well.

The pandemic update from Britain: testing, protective gear, and condom sales

Britain’s still in lockdown, but the government–after a good bit of pushing–has announced that it’s preparing an exit strategy.

That’s not pushing from people who want the freedom to infect their neighbors and loved ones but from people who accept that lockdown’s necessary but want to end it in some way that doesn’t undo the progress. Along, predictably, with pushing from business people who get to sleep at night by counting money disappearing over the fence instead of sheep.  

Stay tuned. We’re told we’ve passed the peak of the epidemic. Stay tuned on that too. I hope it’s true.

Testing & Protective Gear

Britain’s been frantically trying to test more people because the government set an arbitrary goal for itself and doesn’t want to look like the kind of government that can’t meet its own arbitrary goals. Also (and I can’t help thinking it’s their secondary concern, but then I’m getting more cynical by the minute) because testing’s necessary if we’re ever going to get the virus under control. 

Irrelevant photo: begonia

The government is managing to perform more tests. It may even meet its goal. But the testing’s a shambles. To get a test, people are having to drive all over hell and gone and wait in a long line of cars only for some of them to be told that the tests have run out and then (by the computer) that they can’t rebook because they were just tested. (Yes, that seems to have happened to at least one someone.)

A statement from NHS Providers, the organization of National Health Service hospitals, says, “NHS trust leaders…feel they are on the end of a series of frequent tactical announcements extending the testing criteria to new groups with no visibility on any longer term strategy, and are being expected at the drop of a hat to accommodate these changes with no advance notice of planning.”

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Britain had a chance to buy 50,000 home testing kits from a company in the U.S. but wrote back to say, “Ho, hum, boring boring boring. Not interested.”

The test is less invasive than and at least as accurate as what it’s using now, and it allows people to test themselves at home instead of booking an appointment, driving, waiting, being told they’ve run out of test kits, and all the rest of that joy. And all that sounds good, but the home testing kits didn’t come with a side of fries, so why bother?

And as long as the right number of tests get performed–or at least logged–it’s all good.

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British coroners have been told not to look at systemic failures to provide protective gear when they consider deaths among NHS workers. They can consider human failure, though. So basically, they can blame the individual but not the system. 

And they wonder why people break windows.

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Britain isn’t the only country struggling to get protective gear to frontline staff. German doctors have posed naked to draw attention to how vulnerable the lack of protective equipment has left them.  

But Britain is probably the only country that, in order to boost the amount of protective equipment it can boast about providing, counts each glove separately instead of counting them in pairs. It also counted body bags, paper towels, and cleaning equipment as protective gear.

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A British textile factory belonging to the department store chain John Lewis has at long last been contracted to make 8,000 clinical gowns, but other textile firms say they’re desperate to help and can’t get the government to respond.

See breaking windows, above.

Other Triumphs in the Supply Chain

A batch of 250 ventilators that were bought from China on April 4 have turned out to be unusable and possibly dangerous. They supplied a variable level of oxygen and the oxygen connection base was marked “non-EU.” Technical staff spent days trying to make them work and couldn’t.

They also had a fabric case that made them hard to clean and were designed for ambulances, not hospitals.

Other than that, they were great, though.

They cost somewhere between £1,000 and £2,500 each. I’m not sure why there’s a range of prices but if you’re in the market for a few hundred, you’ll want to hold out for the lower price.

Light Relief and Good News

Three London roommates missed their commute so much that they recreated it in their shower and posted it on TikTok. 

Yeah, go on, follow the link. 

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Captain Tom Moore, the 99-year-old (now 100-year-old) who raised £33 million for the NHS by walking laps around his garden, supported by his walker, received 125,000 birthday cards. By now it’s probably more. The post office was overwhelmed and his grandson’s school offered to open and display them. 

They found £60,000 inside the cards.

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This probably won’t surprise you, but condom sales are down since the lockdown started. 

‘Nuff said. 

Drug Dealing

Not long ago (time’s adrift in lockdown, or at least I am, so let’s keep it vague) I wrote that a test of remdesivir had been abandoned because it wasn’t helping and the side effects (liver and kidney problems) were too damaging. But the preliminary results of a different test show more promise: It cut recovery time from 15 days to 11 and the death rate in the group on remdesivir was 8% compared with 11.6% in the control group.

The full data from the trial hasn’t been released and it’s not a knockout blow in any case, so I wouldn’t set off any fireworks yet, but the drug hasn’t been ruled out.

More Light Relief and Good News

A 7-year-old, dressed as a tricertops, has been riding his toy tractor to deliver food to neighbors. Who could fail to be nourished?

I’d love to give you a link for that but you’ll just have to take my word and say “Awww,” because he looked very cute. It was on the evening news and all Lord Google wanted to talk about when I looked for a picture of the kid was a 65-million-year-old triceratops skull that was found somewhere or other and isn’t going to deliver lunch to anyone. 

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A couple of companies have come together to refurbish bikes that have been abandoned at train stations so they can be donated to key workers. 

No, I don’t know why anyone would abandon a bike at a train station, but some 20 are left behind every month. And they’re lonely. So this is good news for everyone. 

Religion and the Coronavirus

Germany’s government and religious groups are trying to work out safety guidelines for religious services as the lockdown there eases, and one sticking point is how to handle singing, which is not only an important part of many services but a great way to spread the virus. You know all that business about projecting your voice? When you do it, you also project tiny droplets of spit, and riding on them, if you happen to be harboring the virus, are even tinier little viral warriors, looking for new humans to assault, all of them yelling some viral version of “Yee ha!” but they’re so small that you can’t hear them.

I don’t think any controlled studies of this have been done yet, but I can offer you an impressive bit of anecdotal evidence from one Protestant cathedral in Berlin: 59 out of 78 choir members became infected.

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Many evangelical churches in the U.S. have pushed their members to keep on showing up to services, and they’re logging–this may not surprise you–a high incidence of coronavirus. And hinting that there might be some sort of cosmic justice, that includes their ministers. 

The All-Important R Number

Germany, having slowed the spread of the virus, is warning about the danger of a second wave in the summer or fall. It all has to do with the R number.

You know: the R number. 

Okay, I didn’t know the R number either. It sounds like one of those things from algebra class that helped make high school such a misery, but it’s not. Or if it is, I’m damned if I’ll admit it.

The R number measures how many people an infected person passes the bug on to–in other words, the reproduction rate of the virus. Without controls, an infected person passes it on to two or three people. The German R number is now below one. That means it’s spreading, but slowly. 

If it stays below one, the theory goes, the virus will eventually fizzle out. Anything above one and it will grow exponentially: I give it to, let’s say, one and a quarter people (c’mon–we’re dealing with averages here), they all give it to one and quarter people, and those people all and so forth, and before you know what’s hit you, a lot of people are sick.

German researchers recommend using this time while the spread has been slowed down to massively expand testing capacities and contact tracing.

A German coronavirus expert writes that “to achieve herd immunity we need 60-70% of the population to carry antibodies to the virus. The results of antibody tests suggest that in Europe and the U.S. in general, we are in the low single digits, but the tests are not reliable.” 

A second wave of infections, he says, can’t be contained only by humans handling the contact tracing. Electronic contract tracing will be needed.

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The British R number right about now is estimated to be somewhere between 0.6 and 0.9. Keep your eye on that word estimated.

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A study from Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori will follow 100,000 people to see if transmission rates are low enough to come out of lockdown safely. The participants will be given home test kits to see if they’re currently infected, then tested again in four to six weeks, or when it loooks like lockdown restrictions are ready to be relaxed. 

The International Grab Bag

As of April 28, Hong Kong had had just four Covid-19 deaths and 811 recoveries.

Worldwide, there had been 220,000 known deaths and 957,000 recoveries. When you look at those numbers, though, remember that not all coronavirus deaths are officially attributed to the virus. In Britain, for example people who died of Covid-19 in care homes are only now being added to the list of pandemic deaths. It’s a small victory for sanity and reliable statistics, although I’m not sure how much practical difference it makes. I’ve been trying to find out if deaths in the community are being counted and I’m still not sure. 

That still leaves the problem of deciding who’s a coronavirus death when testing isn’t available. To a large extent, it’s up the doctor who signs the death certificate, which could easily lead to undercounting.

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In the U.S., the number of known coronavirus deaths is now larger than the total number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. If you feel the need for a statistic, 58,220 died in the war

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Brazil’s response to the virus has been in a category of its own. It’s had 50,000 deaths. When reporters asked its president, Jair Bolsonaro, about the death rate having reached 474 in a day, he said, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do about it? I’m a Messiah, but I don’t do a miracle

Only he said it in Portuguese, so you’ll find varying translations.

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Meanwhile, China is trying to contain a new outbreak in a northeastern province, Heilongjiang. 

Money and the Virus

The British government, in its wisdom, has rejected a call to bar companies that use offshore tax havens from receiving bailouts and support packages resulting from the pandemic. 

It was a silly idea anyway. I mean, just because they avoid taxes, why should that keep them from getting taxpayer support?

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I’ve gone on longer than I meant to, even after booting out a lot of news. I’m going to try posting shorter updates more often and see how that works. In the meantime, stay well. It’s crazy out there. 

The pandemic news from Britain: no guns and no protests, but not much protective gear

Britain’s pandemic lockdown has been extended, and no one’s out waving guns and flags and demanding the right to exchange germs on the open market. Instead, the lockdown’s widely supported, although I’ve seen reports that a few people, mostly young and assuming themselves to be immune, have used coughing and spitting as a way to attack  health workers, police, and random civilians. Or pretend to attack them, since I believe their claims that they’re infected as much as I believe their claim to have brains.

My best guess is that this isn’t widespread, but it has a huge resonance. It’s now illegal, but only if you catch them.

Why is the lockdown accepted better here than in the U.S.? For one thing, although British politics are crazy, they’re not as crazy as American politics, and it’s a different breed of craziness. The underlying assumption that the pandemic has brought out is that we’re all connected and everyone is in it together. 

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that some people are in it a whole lot deeper, but that’s not–yet–the dominant note of the national conversation. It’s mostly just cranks like me pointing it out.

It helps that there have been some efforts to support people who are out of work. People who’ve been furloughed from their jobs are promised 80 percent of their pay up to £2,500 per month. None of that money–as I understand it–has reached people yet, but it is in the works.

Some people will fall through the cracks, though: They were hired too late; they weren’t furloughed from their jobs but canned. The system’s chaotic and patchy, but it’s better than leaving everyone to rob stores or understand why they should’ve been donating to food banks back when they could’ve afforded to.

If you’re self-isolating because of the virus, you’re eligible for sick pay.

For the self-employed, everything’s messier, and self-employment is something any number of people were pushed into rather than chose. Delivery companies in particular are known for using the mythically self-employed, although the conditions they work under don’t read like a description of self-employment–or of a decent job.

A mortgage holiday’s been announced. Renters, though–. 

Yeah. Renters don’t get a break. One group of tenants wrote their landlord to ask for reduced rent and were told that they were saving so much on the lunches they weren’t buying and the holidays there weren’t going on that they didn’t need a break. They hadn’t lost a penny.

Which came as a surprise to the tenants, who had a whole ‘nothing impression of their financial situation, but what do they know?

Some tax breaks have been announced.

Businesses have been promised loans, although they’re being channeled through banks and only a small percentage of them have been approved. And, of course, they’re loans. They’ll have to be paid back. 

Richard Branson, the UK’s seventh richest person (£4.7 billion at last call), has promised to mortgage his private island to help get his Virgin Group through the pandemic. He’s also, incidentally, trying to get a £500 million government loan.

Denmark and Poland have refused  to bail out companies registered in offshore tax havens. They’re not in Britain, I know, but it strikes me as worth mentioning anyway. And while we’re crossing borders–or things that soon will be borders–the European Union has banned executive bonuses, dividends, and share buybacks for any company that gets state aid to get through this mess. 

I’d love to do a decent roundup of what support’s promised to who, what’s actually been received, who’s been left out, and how well or badly it’s working, but I haven’t been able to find my way through the maze. What I do know is that some people are getting help and some people aren’t. And most of the ones who aren’t getting help don’t have £4.7 billion under the mattress. Or a private island to mortgage.

Almost a quarter of all British families have taken a financial hit. More than a fifth are struggling to pay their bills. Prices on basic food, toilet paper, and sanitary goods are up 4.4 percent. Or more. Or possibly less. The picture’s changing too fast for the numbers to be accurate for more than three minutes at a time. And I’d love to give you a link for that but the article’s behind a paywall. 

Some of the homeless have been housed, but if you’re both homeless and a migrant, and if the migrant category you fall into doesn’t allow you to have recourse to public funds, you’re shit out of luck: No one’s going to pay the local government to house you, and so local governments aren’t going to house you. 

Some thirty homeless people–both native-born and refugees–are sleeping in Heathrow Airport. One said the airport staff have been kind to them. 

The government’s announced a program to get laptops or tablets to some of the most disadvantaged students while schools are closed, along with broadband, so they don’t fall behind in school. I don’t know when that’s supposed to happen, but I know two kids who don’t have them. 

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Lots of official programs are bringing together volunteers and people who need help, and so are a lot of unofficial ones. All of them remind us that without each other we’re all lost.

I’m the reluctant recipient of some of that help. I’m 73. Ida–my partner–is 80. It’s a mystery how we got that old. We didn’t start out that way. We stay out of supermarkets–it’s just too hard to control the exposure–although the smaller local stores are manageable. Younger neighbors have picked things up for us when they shop. It wasn’t easy to accept at first, and then somehow it was. 

I’m grateful–and I really, really want to do my own shopping. 

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Crime’s down in several predictable categories. With so many people stuck at home, houses aren’t getting broken into much. With so few people out in public, muggings are down, along with all the other crimes that concentrate in busy public spaces. 

Football hooliganism? That’s out, since there’s no football. 

What’s football hooliganism? As far as I can figure out, it’s a particularly British thing involving disorderly and sometimes violent behavior at football matches. For some people, getting into a fight seems to be the point of the game.

I wanted to include categories of crime that have gone up, but the Department of Silver Linings vetoed it. Sorry. Everything’s great. Don’t worry.

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Worldwide, a quarter of a billion people face starvation unless the world gets its act together and sends food. 

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In Launceston, Cornwall, a fabric shop set a table outside the door, with a sign telling people to help themselves if they’re making protective equipment.

See? I told you everything was okay.

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Medical people and social workers still can’t get protective gear, and the government’s still saying it’s on the way. The government’s only been in touch with 1,000 out of the 8,000 relevant manufacturers in the country and is working with just 159. Many say they’ve offered to provide certified equipment quickly and have been ignored. It’s being sold abroad. What else are they supposed to do with it?

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Half of all care workers make less than the living wage. I haven’t found any statistics on what all the delivery drivers and food and farm and store workers are paid. They used to be called low-skilled. Now suddenly they’re being described as essential. 

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Something in the neighborhood of 700 fake sites are sucking in people who want to set up subscriptions to Netflix and Disney Plus.

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Folding@home is using donated time on home computers to figure out the workings of the Covid-19 virus and identify drugs that could attack it. Combined, the computers are six times more powerful than the fastest supercomputer. They can perform 1 followed by 18 zeros operations per second. That’s called an exaflop–a quintillion floating operations per second.

Don’t say you didn’t learn anything here. And don’t ask me what a floating operation is. 

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A flower farm in Somerset is donating its flowers for funerals, key workers, a nearby hospital, and a nursing home. The flowers “keep on growing,” the farm’s managing director said. They don’t know “we’re in lockdown.” 

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Parliament will meet semi-virtually: 120 MPs will use a video link and no more than 50 will be physically present.

No more than 50 are physically present most of the time anyway. A fair number of debates take place in a nearly empty chamber, with MPs rushing in to vote when bells ring. They’re like Pavlov’s dogs, looking for food to appear in their troughs. But the new system will keep them out of the hallways and lobbies as well as the chamber.

That chamber business makes it sound like you wandered into a movie you won’t want to tell your friends about, doesn’t it?

The problem with the videolink is that MPs who are low on the food chain used to count on buttonholing more important people in the lobbies and corridors. That’ll be hard to recreate. And the time-honored bizarrity of bobbing–alternately standing up and sitting down to get the Speaker’s attention–won’t be possible. Neither will the noisy heckling that MPs indulge in. 

That could only be an improvement.

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In Muthill, in Perth and Kinross, two women have turned a retired red phone box into a food bank, inviting people to take what they need. The stock ranges from canned goods to chocolate, from fresh fruit and vegetables to jigsaw puzzles–which I admit aren’t edible but can keep you sane in crazy times.

It’s on a give what you can, take what you need basis. 

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A couple in Westhoughton, in Greater Manchester, have taken to running through town in what the British call fancy dress–in other words, in costume–to keep people amused. Click the link to see them dressed as a dinosaur and a cavewoman. 

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In New Zealand (which is not in Britain but don’t worry about it), rats are enjoying the lockdown. Pest control was categorized as non-essential–a particularly problematic decision in a country whose ecosystem didn’t evolve in the presence of rats. They threaten any number of native species. 

If there’s a positive side to the story, it’s that people who’d normally be out hunting deer are now hunting local rats. 

The deer have asked me to pass on their thanks.

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New Zealand went into lockdown earlier than most countries and has had only 13 deaths and not many more than 1,000 confirmed cases. Its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, took a 20% pay cut in solidarity with the country’s workforce.  

So when comic Laura Daniel was in a TV competition and had to make an iconic New Zealand cake, she baked a tribute to Ardern by creating her face in cake. It was so bad that it went viral and Ardern took the time to send her a couple of emojis. I’m not sure what emo- the -jis are supposed to represent, but hey, who cares? The prime minister she admires texted her.

What did Daniel learn from the experience? “Don’t bake your heroes.” 

I’d add that, if you’re going to lose a competition, lose spectacularly. She’d never have gotten as much publicity if she’d won.

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A British citizen repatriated from New Zealand last week reported landing in Heathrow and finding no health checks and no Covid-19 testing. 

“All arrivals in New Zealand are quarantined in hotels for 14 days at the government’s expense,” he wrote.

Which might be vaguely related to how few cases the country has.

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The Taneytown, MD, the police department posted the following on Facebook: “Please remember to put pants on before leaving the house to check your mailbox. You know who you are. This is your final warning.”

 

And just so speakers of British and British-influenced English are clear on this: In American, pants are trousers, not underwear.

My thanks to cat9984 for letting me know about this important story. 

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Back in Britain, people may be buying–or trying to buy–more flour, yeast, and toilet paper than usual (not, we hope, all for the same recipe), but they’re buying less makeup.

Is anyone surprised?

They’re also buying more alcohol but less toothpaste and fewer toothbrushes. The kindest explanation for that business with the toothbrushes and toothpaste is that people stockpiled earlier. The other possibility is that everyone’s keeping six feet away anyhow.

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At least 100 health and care workers in Britain have died of coronavirus.

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The Medical Defense Union has called for emergency legislation to protect medical practitioners and the National Health Service against negligence claims during the pandemic. Many doctors are being asked to work outside of their areas of expertise. Others have been called out of retirement. Medical students have been thrown in at the deep end of the pool slightly before they finished their training. 

If they don’t get immunity to lawsuits, the NHS could be liable for any claims against them, because the government has promised to cover any lawsuits. 

Some US states have emergency legislation protecting them from civil liability for “any acts or omissions undertaken in good faith.”

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Horrifyingly, in the US, federal agencies have been seizing shipments of protective gear ordered and paid for by states and health organizations in what is effectively a blockade–the kind of thing a country might mount against an enemy state. The Intelligencer writes, “We don’t know where these supplies are going. We don’t know on what grounds they are being seized, or threatened with seizure.”

The Intelligencer isn’t a publication I know, but its article relies heavily on reporting from the New England Journal of Medicine, and you don’t much more respectable than that.  

Again, from the Intelligencer

This is not just the federal government telling states they are on their own, as it has done repeatedly over the last few weeks . . . [which is] itself a moral outrage . . . because, in many cases, states are legally barred from deficit spending, which means in times of crisis . . . they are functionally unable to respond at all. In such situations, the federal government is designed to serve as a backstop, but over and over again throughout this crisis, the White House has said states will get little to no help — that they are entirely on their own. (The federal medical stockpile isn’t meant for the states, as Jared Kushner has said, as though the country is anything more than its states.)”

The federal government is also bidding against the states, driving the prices up, sometimes until they’re ten times higher.

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And because we need some good news after that, the Minneapolis StarTribune ran some fine photos of chalk art in the Twin Cities area. I don’t know if they’re from before the recent snowstorm or after it, but I lived there long enough to testify that it wasn’t during it. It’s worth a look.

Sorry this has been so long. The hardest part is deciding what to leave out.

Pandemic news from Britain: the good, the bad, and the bizarre

At the end of March, someone named Sarah Buck tweeted, “Just had a knock on the door and sat on the doorstep was 2 bottles of milk and a loaf of bread. The man who put them there was stood back on the footpath and told me that the items were gifts from Banbury Mosque! They went to every house on our street delivering these!!”

There are many stories like this, all over the country–people stepping in to help as best they can where they’re needed. We’ll let this one stand in for them all.

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Someone put together an impressive dalek costume and rolled through Robin Hood Bay, near Whitby, announcing, “By order of the Daleks, all humans must stay indoors, all humans must self-isolate.” 

And if you don’t know what a dalek is, you’re making better use of your time than I am. It’s a bad guy from Dr. Who. With a toilet plunger for a nose.  Or maybe it’s an antenna, not a nose. It’s definitely a toilet plunger, though.

You can find the video here.

(That was important enough that it got two links. I hope you’re impressed.) 

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Startlingly relevant photo, but you’ll need to read to the end to understand why

The prime minister is now in intensive care with Covid-19. Ever since he came down sick, his government has been reciting a soothing drone that consisted mostly of the phrase mild case

Then he went into the hospital. For–we were assured–routine tests. On a Sunday night. But he was still running the country.

How dumb do they think we are?

Very.

Now he’s in intensive care and not running the country. So who’s is? Dominic Raab. [Update: True, but it turns out he has no power. He can’t make decisions without the cabinet’s okay.] But Larry the Cat has been edged out. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. 

Government ministers, by the way, have taken to blaming top civil servants for the mess they–that’s the government, not the civil service–have made in responding to the crisis. 

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In the interest of fixing this mess, the government has bought 17.5 million home testing kits (or possibly an option on them–I’ve seen it explained both ways) that would allow people to find out whether they’ve had Covid-19. This would allow people who already had it and are immune to go back out into the world.

Unfortunately, they don’t work well enough to be much use. The milder a person’s symptoms were, the less likely the tests are to detect antibodies. On top of that, no one knows for sure if people who’ve had it actually are immune and if so how long their immunity lasts.

Other than that, they’re great and we’re well on our way to solving our little problem.

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Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, warned the public not to go anywhere unless it was essential. It put people’s lives at risk. So listen up, people, we can’t fool around with this.

Then she went to her second home. Twice. And got caught. 

And resigned.

It’s funny how much more essential a trip looks when it’s yours.

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In response to the local humans going into hiding, goats have wandered into Llandudno, in Wales, and are looking very picturesque, thank you. These are Kashmiri goats, originally from India, and they’ve been in the area since the nineteenth century–long enough to acquire the local accent. In normal times, they only come into town in bad weather. Or when they’ve saved up enough money for ice cream.

The photos are worth a click.

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I was going to report on what NHS staff are having to use to protect themselves from infection in the absence of genuine protective equipment, but it’ll either make you depressed or homicidal. Ditto the reports of them being warned not to speak out about the lack of equipment and how it’s putting their lives at risk. Both are happening. Read the real news, not just the stuff I post. I can’t make this stuff funny and if I could it’d be immoral. 

After a decade of underfunding the National Health Service, chopping it to pieces, disorganizing it, privatizing it, re-disorganizing it, understaffing it, and blaming the problems on the people who work for it and the previous government, suddenly the Conservatives love the NHS and everyone who works for it. Without proper protective equipment. 

And when this is all over, they’ll privatize more of it. In the name of making it more resilient. You heard it here first.

Me? I lean more heavily toward the homicidal. 

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Let’s cheer ourselves up. Something called Brewgooder has worked out a way for people to buy four-packs of beer for NHS staff. 

“It’s not much,” it said, “but with beer nationally recognised as a currency of gratitude, it’s a small gesture to show your appreciation to a tireless NHS worked that you don’t know and may never meet.”

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Postman Jon Matson, in South Tyneside, is doing his bit to lift people’s spirits. He’s delivered mail dressed as Cleopatra, Little Po Beep, a cheerleader, and a soldier. 

Did I mention that he’s got a full beard? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Little Bo Peep with a beard.

The response was good enough that he’s promised to dress up as someone new every day. And yeah, that’s worth a click as well.

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In Stockport, someone goes out for an hour a day dressed as Spiderman to cheer up kids. Parents can request a visit to their street as long as the kids promise to stay in and wave from the window. 

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And finally–and irrelevantly–I put a note on my village Facebook page that I’d lost one of my favorite earrings and if anyone found it I’d love to have it back. I didn’t think I stood a chance of seeing it again, but I had to try. The earring’s small and kind of pavement colored, but in less than an hour a neighbor was at my door with it in his palm.

About thirty seconds before that happened, another neighbor offered a box of chocolates to anyone who found it. She’s now in debt to the tune of one box of chocolates.

Thank you, Paul.

Birds, bills, booze, and the virus: It’s the (old) news from Britain

In early March, with northern Italy beset by the corona virus, a winery in Castelvetro had a problem with one of its valves and ended up sending lambrusco into the kitchen sinks and showers (and, presumably, bathtubs) of twenty neighboring houses. The leak lasted three hours–long enough for the neighbors to bottle a fair bit of wine. 

No one’s demonstrated that it cured the virus, but it did keep twenty families occupied and happy for a while.

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The British papers reported a rush in the U.S. to buy guns and ammunition in the face of the corona virus. “Why?” people here asked, since American gun culture’s a foreign language to them. “You can’t shoot the bug.”

As the interpreter of all things American, I had to explain: “It’s to protect their toilet paper.”

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses. They’re not afraid of the corona virus.

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I knew the Covid-19 epidemic was serious when I heard that EastEnders–that essential BBC soap opera–had suspended filming. I’d have thought the world was ending, but they making box sets of dramas available to get people through their isolation. They’re also using local radio stations to coordinate volunteers offering to help the elderly–and I hope other vulnerable people, but that’s not what the new story I read said.

Two notes before I move on: 1) The definition of elderly is “older than me,” even though they seem to have mistakenly asked me to stay out of everyone’s way so I don’t get sick. 2) I am not now watching nor have I ever watched EastEnders.

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This next story starts with a man getting a bill from a utility company he doesn’t have an account with, Scottish Power. He figures it’s a scam and ignores it. 

He gets calls from the same company. He complains to them about it. He gets referred to the complaints line. 

The complaints line tells him they can’t help because he doesn’t have an account with the company.

He writes the chief exec and gets a letter back assuring him they’ll restore his account to a dual-fuel tariff and thanking him for accepting a phone call he’d never gotten.

He continues to get calls from the company. 

He makes a complaint to the Energy Ombudsman, who (or maybe that’s which) tells him they (or possibly he or she) can’t help because he hasn’t exhausted Scottish Power’s complaints process. 

He gets a newspaper’s consumer column involved, but they can’t manage to get through to the company’s press office. The phone numbers they call aren’t answered, the email addresses are dead ends, and the contact people aren’t contacts. Or, quite possibly, people. In the past, when the paper’s gotten other complaints about the company, the best it’s been able to do is roll the stories together and make them public, hoping to embarrass the company. 

The man blocks the company’s number while he’s at work so at least he can get some work done. 

Last I heard, nothing’s been resolved.

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Meanwhile, a driver paid an Irish toll electronically. Then she or he–let’s call him or her them for the sake of my sanity–got a letter from Euro Parking Collection saying the payment was overdue. 

The driver sent a screenshot of their bank statement to prove it was paid.

They got a letter asking for more details and sent them.

Silence.

They looked at the website to make sure it had been resolved and ended up resubmitting everything they’d already sent and got a letter back saying the payment couldn’t be traced.

They called and got an automated message that convinced them the company doesn’t respond to calls. They called some more and got someone who said the company would look into it.

Silence.

They called again. It would be looked into.

They got a letter from a debt collection agency. The toll had now gone from £5.52 to £88.43. 

They contacted the company that administers the toll system and got an email asking for the information they’d already sent twice. When they sent a reply, they were told the sender’s mailbox was full.

When the same newspaper column got in touch, the information still couldn’t be located but the company did at least cancel the payment. 

The columnist had almost as hard a time getting through as the civilian.

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While we’re on the subject of driving, new British cars are cranking out 7% more carbon dioxide than older ones, even though they meet the new emissions standards and have all the cleaner-air bells and whistles. 

How come? They’re bigger and they’re heavier. 

And yes, that includes hybrids. 

Excuse me for a minute while I go slit my wrists.

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Judith Niemi, from Minnesota, sent me this: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior reports that “house sparrows [still generally by non-birders called ‘English sparrows’] have even learned to open automatic doors to grocery stores, cafes, and other sources of food by hovering in front of the electric eye sensors.” 

Judith adds, “The book does not explicitly say that none of the new world sparrows have caught on to this trick; I’m pretty sure it’s just those scrappy, street-smart birds whose lineage has been perfecting various dodges in London streets for centuries. Distracting people with their lechery, perhaps, while their chums picked pockets? Incidentally, since being imported to these shores the species has evolved to be more variable, and often bigger. Just as aggressive. There’s a metaphor in there.”

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Somehow or other, this story follows from that, although I can’t explain why: In Yorkshire, a pig set fire to its pen. How? Well, first it swallowed a pedometer that another pig was wearing. Then it digested it and–with apologies to those of tender sensibilities–it shit it out, as both humans and pigs will do with the things they swallow. Copper from the battery “reacted with” dry hay and started a blaze. 

Why was the other pig wearing a pedometer? To prove that it was–or presumably they were–free range. 

How did the battery start a fire? It was a lithium-ion battery–the same kind that’s been known to spontaneously combust in cell phones and such.

Why did the pig eat the pedometer? That’s harder to answer. My best guess is jealousy. You know how it is. Why didn’t I get the pedometer?

Was anyone hurt? No. Four pig pens burned but the pigs were fine and headline writers had a wonderful time, writing about pigs pooping pedometer, firefighters saving the bacon, and calories being burned. 

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The fashion house Hugo Boss has a history of taking smaller businesses and charities to court for using the name Boss, so a comedian formerly known as Joe Lycett went to court to change his name to Hugo Boss. In a tweet, he explained the background and wrote, “All future statements from me are not from Joe Lycett but Hugo Boss. Enjoy.”

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A newly published British Medical Journal survey from 2016 reports the MPs–that’s Members of Parliament–are more likely to binge drink than the general public is. Binge drinking is defined at six or more units of alcohol at a session.

MP Dan Poulter commented, “It is extraordinary that there are so many bars in parliament where alcohol is available at almost every hour of the day.

“This is not the case in other parliaments elsewhere in the world and is certainly not the case in other workplaces, where drinking alcohol is not acceptable during working hours.”

To illustrate the impact, the Guardian told a tale from 1983, when a junior employment minister, Alan Clark, gave a speech while drunk enough to throw entire pages without reading them. Why not? As far as he could figure out, they made no sense anyway. An opposition MP “asked me what the last paragraph meant,” he wrote. “How the hell did I know?” 

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And bringing together the tales of the pig and the MP, a plane headed for Iceland made an emergency landing in Edinburgh when a man got drunk enough that he tried to eat his phone. Or at least, he chewed on it hard enough to damage the battery, which fell out and started smouldering on the seat. A flight attendant threw water on it and put it out. 

The passenger was also abusive to other passengers, flight attendants, and the police who came to arrest him when they landed. 

He may be free-ranging again by now. He may even have an ankle bracelet to prove it. But that’s speculation.

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In the late Victorian era, before mass car ownership, London traffic moved at about 12 miles an hour. In 2018, in Westminster and the City (two parts of London), it moved at 8 miles an hour.

I call that progress.

The pandemic news from Britain

So you think you’re bored? An astrophysicist in Australia dealt with coronavirus isolation by trying to build a gizmo that would warn people when they started to touch their faces. He used four powerful neodymium magnets–and no, I never heard of them either but you can buy them online for any price between £4 and £2,000. I’m not sure what range his fell into.

I know: Australia isn’t in Britain. It’s too good a story to pass up. And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke. 

He wasn’t working in his area of expertise, but he figured that if he wore magnets on his wrists and made a necklace out of something else, it would buzz when the two got too close.

Nice try. It buzzed until the two got close together, basically nagging until you were driven to touch your face. So he gave up on that, but he still had those magnets.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

What he’d done was clip one inside and one outside each nostril, and all was well until he took the outside ones off and the two inside clipped themselves together. When he went to get them off, they would fit past the ridge at the bottom of his nose. So he turned to Lord Google, who told him that an eleven-year-old had had the same problem and that the solution was to use more magnets, from the outside, to counteract the pull of the ones inside.

Do not believe everything Lord Google tells you. Even if you’re an astrophysicist. Lord G. does not have your best interests at heart. The magnets did indeed pull and he lost his grip on them and now had four magnets up his nose instead of two. So he tried to use a pliers, but “every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet. It was a little bit painful at this point.”

He ended up in the hospital where his partner works and they sprayed an anesthetic into his nose and pulled out three magnets, at which point the fourth one dropped down his throat. He was lucky enough to cough it out. If he’d swallowed it, apparently, he’d have been in real trouble.

He’s sworn never to play with magnets again.

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In the meantime, how’s the UK coping with the virus? Well, it turns out that in 2018 it published a biological security strategy addressing the threat of pandemics. And then ignored it. As a former science advisor to the government, Ian Boyd, put it, “Getting sufficient resource just to write a decent biosecurity strategy was tough. Getting resource to properly underpin implementation of what it said was impossible.” 

Which is one reason that when the government heard a pandemic was coming, it put magnets up its nose. 

To be entirely fair, it’s been putting metaphorical magnets up its nose for years now, cutting money from the National Health Service on every week that started with Monday (or Sunday, depending on your calendar) until the service was barely handling ordinary problems.

The government tested the NHS a while back to see if it was ready to handle an epidemic. It wasn’t. So what did they do? Buried the findings. 

And three years ago the Department of Health got medical advice saying it should stock up on protective equipment for NHS and social care staff to prepare for a flu epidemic. But an economic assessment showed that it would cost actual money, so they didn’t do it.

Doctors and nurses are being asked to come out of retirement during the current crisis, and younger doctors are being asked to increase their hours or work on the front lines, but a doctors organization says many are hesitant because they would not be eligible for death-in-service benefits, “leaving their families in financial difficulty” if they died as a result. 

As I write this, our prime minister, health secretary, and chief medical officer all have Covid-19. So does the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings. But Larry the Cat, who lives and works at Number 10 Downing Street, is immune and he’s prepared to step in as soon as everyone admits that he’s needed. 

He was originally brought into government to take charge of pest control, but you know what cats are like: They study everything everyone does. 

People, he’s ready for this. 

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A lot of ink has been spilled over why Britain didn’t go in with the European Union on a bulk buying deal for ventilators and other medical equipment to help deal with the epidemic. First we were told it was because Britain isn’t part of the EU. Then it turned out that Britain was eligible. So last week we were told it was because the government missed the deadline by accident–it didn’t get the email. But Britain had representatives at four or more meetings where the plan was discussed, and there were phone calls about it.

The cabinet hasn’t commented yet but watch this space. They’re going to blame Larry.

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Farm organizations and farm labor recruitment agencies say that between Brexit and the virus, Britain is short something like 80,000 agricultural workers. They’re calling for a land army to help with the harvest. It’s too early to say how well it’ll work.

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Who’s at the highest risk of exposure to the virus? Low-paid women. They cluster in social care, nursing, and pharmacy jobs–jobs with high exposure to lots of people. They make up 2.5 million of the 3.2 million highest risk workers. So we’re all in it together, but some of us are in it a lot deeper than others, and with a lot less protection.

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People whose health puts them most at risk from the virus have been contact by the government and advised to stay in for twelve weeks. And food parcels are being delivered to at least some of them–something I know not just from the papers but because friends received one and were also put in touch with a neighbor who’s able to shop for them. It’s impressive, but there are still huge gaps. People who have to depend on supermarket deliveries haven’t been able to set them up–there just aren’t enough slots. And sorting out who needs them and who wants them but doesn’t completely need badly? That’s not going well.

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Emergency legislation had given the police the power to

Um. Do something about slowing the spread of Covid-19, but no one’s sure what, and police forces across the country interpreted their new powers in new and interesting ways. 

One force dyed a lagoon black to keep visitors away. Another insisted people could only have an hour’s exercise a day, and a third issued a summons to a family for shopping for non-essential items. A fourth used a drone to film dog walkers and a fifth told a shop to stop selling Easter eggs.

Part of the problem is that there’s a gap between what the legislation says and comments from our notoriously loose-lipped prime minister, who said (before he got sick himself) that people should only exercise once a day. Another part of the problem is that the legislation was rushed through, without much time for thought. 

Senior police commanders are trying to bring some kind of sense to this mayhem. Expect the Easter egg ban to be lifted any day now. I glanced at a summary of the legislation. Easter eggs aren’t mentioned. 

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The government has announced a program to get the homeless–called rough sleepers here–off the streets and into hotel rooms, which aren’t being used anyway, or into empty apartment buildings. As long as they’re on the streets, they can’t self-isolate, and until you address that you can’t control the virus. 

It’s funny how an insoluble problem becomes soluble once the solvers have an interest in doing something about it.

I admit, I was impressed. But the problem is money. Homelessness groups say cities aren’t getting enough of it to implement the program. And they need to provide not just a place with a roof but also food, medical care, and support people if it’s going to work.

At one estimate, 4,200 homeless people were found shelter in a couple of weeks, but thousands are still on the streets and food is hard to come by. Among them are people whose immigration status doesn’t allow them any recourse to public funds because of a Home Office policy that also keeps them from working. No one wants to find them shelter because there’s no money for it.

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To do a decent job reporting on this, I should include the plans to keep people paid, at least partially, and not evicted from their homes, but they’re complicated enough that I sank. The self-employed are in one category. The employed-employed are in another. The self-employed who haven’t been self-employed long enough aren’t in either category. Renters are in a different category from homeowners. 

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And now a non-pandemic bonus to reward you for having gotten this far with precious little to laugh at: Researchers are working on a program that can read brain activity and turn it into speech. 

It works by learning what happens in the brain as people speak, and to build it they had a group of people read the same set of sentences over and over. It started by spitting out nonsense and compared that to what it should have read, and gradually it got so good that it turned “those musicians harmonize marvelously” into “the spinach was a famous singer.”

I love this program. It’s going to write my next post for me. 

Protective gear and flaming vicars: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

What’s happening with the coronavirus in Britain? Funny you should ask, because I was just about to answer that.

Let’s start with the Church of England, which had a hiccup when it went over to virtual services: A vicar set his arm on fire when he leaned forward at the end of his service and brushed against a candle flame. He had enough of a sense of humor to post the evidence online. It includes him saying, “Oh, dear, I’ve just caught fire.”

Which isn’t what I’d say if I’d just caught fire, but that’s the least of many reasons I’m not a minister.

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Semi-relevant photo: What could be cheerier than a bare, windblown tree in the midst of a pandemic? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Cornwall, where I live, is trying to stop the flow of people from (presumably) London, coming down here on the theory that it’s safer. Or nicer. Or something-er. Or that pandemic is another word for holiday (or vacation, if you speak American). Some of them, inevitably, have brought the virus with them. One Londoner–or so a reasonably reliable rumor has it–was told to self-isolate and decided to do it in his lovely second home, in Cornwall. He proceeded to self-isolate in an assortment of local cafes, spreading the bug all over the town he loved so well.

Thanks, guy. Rest assured that we love you almost as toxically. 

But that’s not the only problem people bring when they come down here to ride this out. Cornwall’s infrastructure is already overstretched during a normal summer, when reasonably healthy visitors pour in. Hell, it’s overstretched during the winter, when they’re nowhere around. Years of tightening the national budget in order to shrink the government have starved local services, which are dependent on central government. That’s a long story and we’ll skip over it. The point is that a tide of people, some percentage of whom about to get seriously sick, is more than it can cope with. 

The county council, Public Health Cornwall, and the tourist board have urged people to stay away. That’s the tourist board telling people to say away.

I doubt anyone’s listening, but they can say they tried.

The manager of a shop in Penzance is worried about incomers buying out her stock. She’s put some toilet paper in the back to sell to local people. If the lack of health services doesn’t scare the tourists off, the lack of toilet paper might.

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A man who’d just arrived on the Isle of Man–yes, I do know how that sounds; I didn’t name the place–was arrested because the island had just imposed a two-week self-isolation period on new arrivals, whether or not they showed symptoms of the virus, and he hadn’t self-isolated. 

It turned out he was homeless and–well, yes, this is part of the definition–had no place to self-isolate. Or sleep. He faced a £10,000 fine and a three-month jail sentence. 

In a startling moment of sanity, the government decided not to prosecute. He’s been found some sort of accommodation, although I have no idea what sort.

Britain’s considering legislation that would let immigration officials put new arrivals in “appropriate isolation facilities.” 

Horse, guys. Barn door. 

But just to prove that the country’s taking this seriously, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace has been canceled. It doesn’t get any more serious than that.

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Undertakers are so short on protective gear that they’re being told to make masks out of plastic trash bags, towels, and incontinence pads when they deal with suspected coronavirus cases. 

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A couple of musicians spent some time playing outside people’s homes in London to cheer them up while they’re stuck there. You’ll find a video here.

You can also find a video of people using a basket and rope to shop from their balcony.

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Self-isolation, by the way, is a ridiculous phrase. I apologize for using it, but these things are as contagious as the damn virus that spawned it.

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The U.K. chancellor–he’s the guy with the budget–has promised employees who can’t work because of the pandemic 80% of their wages, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, although I don’t think anyone’s seen any money from it yet. But the self-employed and the mythically self-employed–the gig workers and people on zero-hours contracts–were offered only a fast track to £94.25 a week in what’s called universal credit. Let’s not go into why it’s called that. What you need to know is that it’s a whole shitload less money.

You needed me to point that out, right?

The Independent Workers Union is mounting a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination. I’m rooting for them.

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In the U.S., two senators, Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, attended a briefing about how serious covid-19 was. This was in January–the same day that Trump tweeted, “It will all work out well,” with the it being the virus.

What did they do? Sound the alarm on how unprepared the country was? They’re Republicans. If they’d spoken up it would have had some power. Well, no, they didn’t. In fact, Burr wrote on FoxNews.com that the country was well prepared. 

What they did was sell a whole lot of stocks before their prices crashed. 

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As for me, the virus has driven to the extreme measure of acknowledging that I am an actual human being, with a life outside this blog. So here’s a personal note, which I wouldn’t usually include: Ida and I are fine. 

Our next-door-neighbor has what they’re pretty sure is just his usual winter flu, but they’re staying in for two weeks (with two small kids; I call that heroic) just to be on the safe side. We’ve done the same, since Ida has something involving a bad cough. No fever on either side of the fence, but we’re all being cautious. It feels a little crazy, but we’re gambling with other people’s lives and that has a way of focusing your attention. 

Or it should, anyway.

All the same, I’m finding it hard, since we’re trying to avoid things we can’t see, hear, or smell, not to either descend into paranoia (ack! I just touched a solid object! I’m gonna die!) or else decide they’re not real anyway and start licking doorknobs. 

As we all would in normal times.

I’m finding it easier to protect other people from whatever the hell Ida has (which for reasons I can’t explain, I don’t seem to have) than I did to protect us from what people around us might have. Maybe protecting other people is more finite. Maybe I’m just more used to it. 

A few days ago, Ida put in an online request for prescription cough syrup and that must’ve sent up a red flag at the doctors’ office, because someone called to ask why she needed it and how she was. The woman who called advised us to stay out of people’s way for two weeks, which we’d already begun to do. The government’s bungled this in more ways that I can count (mind you, it doesn’t take much to go outside of my mathematical range), but the people on the front lines are being amazing. 

Our village has been good about rallying around. It helps to be someplace where the scale is small and so many of us know each other. One of the essential services that threatened to fall apart was the group of volunteers who make sure people are able to pick up their prescriptions. That would normally be handled by a village store, but ours closed some time ago. All the volunteers except one were either over 70 or vulnerable in some other way or else had a partner who was. We put a notice up on the village Facebook site and younger volunteers have come forward, in spite of jobs and kids and all the commitments that go with not being retired. 

We’ve had several offers from friends and neighbors who are going grocery shopping to pick up whatever we need–assuming they can find it. Already, friends have brought groceries–fresh fruit, milk, onions, broccoli, stuff. Apples are hard to find, although a friend left us some yesterday. 

Why apples? 

Why not apples. Sometimes, I’m told, one store will have been emptied out and another will be fairly well stocked. It all leaves me with a sense of limits. Will the stores run out of cat food? Did I get enough peanut butter? Why didn’t I buy more frozen vegetables and potatoes before it all got serious, since we could see it coming? 

Because I didn’t want to hoard, that’s why. But I did want to stock up. Where’s the balancing point between hoarding and stocking up? (Answer: You hoard; I stock up.) 

How often can I cut the spinach I planted last spring, which is still growing, before it decides that I’ve asked too much of it? 

Am I using too much water?

Water isn’t one of the things we’re running short of, but for me, at least, an awareness of limits breeds an awareness of limits. We’re entering a new era here and I suspect I’m feeling its first vibrations. I hope life will go back to normal at some point, but I’m not convinced it will.

But enough about me. Wishing you and yours all the best. Be careful, be lucky, help others, and stay well.