Like millions of others around the world, Gulf News Foreign Correspondent Mick O’Reilly is currently under Covid-19 lockdown. This is what life is like in social isolation in Ireland, where there are strict rules about who is allowed out, where, and under limited circumstances.
DAY 43: Monday May 11, 9am
IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE?
‘STAY ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES’
At 7pm on Sunday night, just a millions of Britons were doing the dishes after their supper, most television channels in the UK switched to a taped recording of Prime Minister Boris Johnson laying out the roadmap for getting the nation back up and running.
As I loaded up the dishwasher, Britons were told that golf, tennis and angling involving members of the same household, unlimited individual exercise and sunbathing in parks and on beaches will be allowed in England from Wednesday.
On this Monday morning, millions were encouraged to return to work if they could, driving, only using public transport as a last resort. Those who cannot work from home, including workers in construction and manufacturing, are being “actively encouraged” to go back to work this week.
Johnson said that the UK, which has lost more lives to coronavirus than any other country other than the United States, had to balance the need to suppress the Covid-19 virus with the damage caused by the lockdown.
“We must continue to control the virus and save lives,” Johnson said, sitting at a desk in what appeared to be a large sitting room of the Prime Minister’s official residence. It’s a far different bolt hole for lockdown than most Britons have endured for the past two months. “We must also recognise that this campaign against the virus has come at colossal cost to our way of life,” he said.
MIXED MESSAGES FROM THE REST OF THE UK
But the first ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all parts of the UK with devolved powers and separate regional parliaments, said before Johnson’s address that they were not ready to start lifting the lockdown. Significantly, they also rejected his new slogan: “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”. Instead, the message from them would be the same as it has been over the past eight weeks: “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”.
The PM outlines a phased lifting of restrictions, which would see primary schools and non-essential shops reopening on June 1, was conditional on the UK’s efforts in suppressing the virus. Open-air cafes and restaurants with outside seating could reopen in July, along with places of worship and possibly cinemas.
But the measures also include one that sets the UK at odds with the rest of the European Union except for Ireland. He served notice that from the end of this month, people arriving into Britain from overseas will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. And there will be heavy fines if they do not comply.
He also outlined a new five-stage alert system, similar to the one that exists for terror threats.
For me, the requirement to quarantine after travelling is simply too little too late, like closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
As to the rest of it, there were no big surprises. But the UK – as with many places – has a long road to go now. But with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales seemingly not on board, that road ahead seems a lot bumpier now.
ADDING UP THE TOLL OF COVID-19 DEATHS
I feel a little sheepish when I write that it seems as if I am becoming a little numb to the overall death rates from Covid-19. It seems now that after more than two months of daily updates, I am failing to process it as I should.
I think it was Josef Stalin, the former Soviet leader who said “one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic” – a quote that seems apt for how I’m feeling. We can relate better to a single person we know who has died – it is real. But the higher the death toll climbs, the more unreal it becomes even though every death is a tragedy for that victim’s family. It is the enormity of the situation that is hard to grasp, and I fear that I am becoming desensitised to it.
I clicked though to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre on Sunday afternoon to see how the grim tally stood. It read 279,609 dead and 4,044,498 confirmed cases. And there, should anyone wish to explore further, the figures can be broken down by area, age, region, country – most parameters are covered off in frightening detail.
I was struck then by the comments made last week in the UK House of Commons that international comparisons are not helpful at this time of pandemic, and it got me to thinking when is a Covid-19 death counted as a Covid-19 death? The answer, it appears, is not as straightforward as one might think, because different countries have different methods for determining a Covid-19 case or declaring Covid-19 as a deceased person’s cause of death.
DIFFERENT NATIONS, DIFFERENT COUNTS
Some countries, like Spain, carry out post-mortem Covid-19 tests, while in others like Germany, the UK, or Turkey it not a common practice. Belgium, for example, counts all coronavirus deaths outside hospitals in its daily statistics: This means the country includes people suspected of having died of coronavirus, without a confirmed positive test result, whereas countries like Italy only count deaths in hospitals. Spain only recently started to count non-hospitalised, coronavirus-related deaths from some regions.
So, does that mean the overall toll could be much higher? And that’s something that at some stage when we are through the worse of this, that experts are going to have to assess.
Then there’s also the reality too that people who have other serious underlying conditions are reluctant to go to hospital, fearing that they may contract the coronavirus there. Or do not want to over-burden a stretched medical system. And then there’s the issue of Covid-19 exacerbating underlying health conditions, so would it be long-term cancer or a heart condition – or Covid-19 that actually killed someone?
AND WHAT ABOUT ECONOMIC VICTIMS OF COVID-19?
We will also need to figure out how many died as a result of the economic fallout from Covid-19. Should they be included into any final and tally?
A decade ago, following the global financial meltdown – nowhere near as bad as this current crisis – experts from Oxford University and Imperial College in London estimated that crash and the rise in unemployment that accompanied it, was associated with more than 260,000 excess cancer-related deaths — many considered treatable — in middle- and high-income countries alone.
Unemployment rates are soaring. So too excess alcohol consumption, much higher stress rates, fatigue and increased smoking and rising suicide rates. How long before we get around to calculating these deaths – not directly from contracting coronavirus itself but certainly attributable to the pandemic – in that overall toll?
It will take years to settle on a final number, if ever.
Yes, one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic. And that is truly frightful.
AT LEAST THE EUROVISION IS CANCELLED
I was flicking through television channels the other night, trying to find something worthwhile to watch. I found it on National Geographic. But then I also had a thought – yes, it happens once in a while – that this is the time of the year when the Eurovision Song contest normally takes place.
Thankfully it won’t happen this year – it has mercifully fallen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
And it is good news to all who are under lockdown across Europe and who might be inflicted with melodies from medieval Munich mouth-organists, Serbian folk rappers, Greek electro-funk or some other simply awful tune put together with a piece of string and a scrubbing brush.
The annual songfest is probably the worst piece of trash television that ever hits the airwaves but somehow managed to attracted multimillions of viewers every May.
Thanks to Covid-19, not this year. There is a silver lining in this pandemic after all!
BRITONS WILL BE TAKING TO THEIR BIKES
I’m no fan of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It’s a sentiment I hold since the days when he was the buffoonish mayor of London. And one of his goofs then was introducing a new series of iconic red double-decker buses – “Boris buses” – that were plagued with service and engineering issues.
So, when the commuters of London now finally are able to return to their workplaces – be it on staggered hours and under very strict conditions, they’ll have a lot of time to ponder his buses that will be passing them by with only 10 per cent occupancy.
Yes, most buses and trains in Britain will only be able to safely accommodate a little more than that. And that means more huffing and puffing to and from work on their bicycles.
Transport Minister Grant Shapps is urging Britons to continue to work from home where possible, but said those who did have to commute to work should consider cycling or walking rather than using their cars.
The requirement for buses, trains and underground rail services to maintain social distancing rules means they will only be able to carry vastly reduced passenger numbers. But an increase in private car use to commute to work is likely to lead to roads and motorways becoming choked with traffic.
‘A TENTH OF THE OLD CAPACITY’
BRITONS WILL BE TAKING TO THEIR BIKES
“Even with public transport reverting to a full service, once you take into account the two-metre social distancing rule, there would only be effective capacity for one in 10 passengers in many parts of our network, just a tenth of the old capacity,” said Shapps.
He noted that in some parts of Britain there had been a 70 per cent rise in the number of people using bikes during the pandemic.
“Whilst it’s crucial that we stay at home, when the country does get back to work we need to ask those people to carry on walking and cycling and for them to be joined by many others as well,” he said.
Shapps said local councils will be required to reallocate road space for significantly-increased numbers of cyclists and pedestrians.
He said pop-up bike lanes with protected space for cycling, wider pavements, safer junctions, and cycle and bus-only corridors will be created within weeks, while E-scooter trials will be brought forward, with the potential for rental vehicles on UK roads as early as June.
IT’S A PANDEMIC, NOT A PLANDEMIC!
So, into my seventh week of lockdown and the conspiracy theorists are still out there peddling their kooky thinking on Covid-19. And the way then bleat on ignorantly about coronavirus, they’d want you to believe that this is a plandemic – planned and unleashed deliberately – rather than a pandemic that has spread around the world from a natural source.
Some kooks go so far as to say that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is behind the whole thing, that he wants to cull the human population back to 5 billion – hey, pick a number, any number, you don’t need proof but just keep saying it so that people will believe you.
Others would have you believe that it’s a plandemic to keep us all locked indoors while the 5G network is rolled out – and that justifies burning down telecommunication masts that emit dangerous levels of some new form of radiation. Boy, that’s one to get to making a tin foil hat for sure!
And there’s even more who say that if we all gargled with a bit of salt and vinegar, the world would be soon put to rights. Or, if we all did the downward dog and some yoga and medicated on Covid-19, it would vanish as quickly as it started. Oh, if it were only so easy!
PEOPLE WANT TO BELIEVE IN ANOTHER NARRATIVE
I’ve been a journalist for almost four decades now and the last time there was such an outbreak of conspiracy theories was in the months and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They would have you believe that the CIA or the ‘deep state’ was somehow to blame for those events. I remember writing a 10-part series looking back on 9/11 after 10 years for Gulf News. The biggest readership for that series was for a piece I wrote on the conspiracy theories behind 9/11. It was kooky stuff – but also the most shared, as if seeing it in print gave them reason to believe it was true.
I also wrote here a few weeks ago about apophenia, defined in the dictionary as the tendency to perceive connections between unrelated things. That’s how they can reason a mutated virus the occurs naturally is actually linked to 5G. I know, it boggles the mind.
The trouble is that the more you try and stamp out these theories, the more they seem to spread. And the more people – even reasonable people who would find it difficult to shape a tin foil hat if they had to – seem to believe it.
SLICK VIDEOS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
According to Sky News, a new slickly produced video has been circulating on social media in recent days, proposing scientifically impossible claims about the coronavirus and how to treat it.
The 26-minute conspiracy theory video is shot in the style of a documentary, but with false information about the Covid-19 pandemic – including an allegation that death figures are being fabricated in order to control the population. (Poor old Bill Gates, I suspect, is getting the blame!)
And the conspiracy theory that refuses to go away is that deployment of 5G radio antennas is somehow linked to the outbreak.
Professor Karen Douglas, from the University of Kent, has spent years studying the psychology of conspiracy theories to explain why some of the most outlandish claims appeal to some people more than the truth.
She says people turn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not met.
“The first of these needs can be classified as epistemic – related to the need people have to be knowledgeable and accurate,” Professor Douglas told the channel.
‘PEOPLE NEED TO FEEL SAFE AND SECURE’
Professor Douglas said that the second reason is existential - related to the need to feel safe and secure in the world. For example, research shows that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they feel powerless or are anxious.
"The third type of motives are social – related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups we belong to,” she explains, adding that narcissistic people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately, her research shows that while these beliefs are appealing to people whose psychological needs are not met in some way, they generally fail to fulfill these needs.
“Rather than providing people with a sense of certainty, conspiracy theories seem more likely to take it away and make people feel more uncertain,” she says.
RADICAL POLITICAL SUBCULTURES
Dr Marc Tuters, who researches radical political subcultures online at the University of Amsterdam, told Sky News his team has seen a large number of conspiracy theories connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
These include “the idea that it is a bioweapon, either made by the US or the Chinese; that it’s a secret plot by the pharmaceutical industry, and that it’s a conspiracy by the ‘deep state’ against ‘the general will of the people’,” he says.
Crucially, “all of these theories predate the actual pandemic, and have communities of acolytes and true believers who tend to congregate on various fringe parts of the web,” Dr Tuters adds.
“Most conspiracy theories share a core feature that something is being covered up, so the conspiracy theories are not as different as they would appear,” Professor Douglas says.
They involve intense mistrust of governments or outside groups.
"The actors and details differ, but both would appear to satisfy the general idea that authorities and outside groups cannot be trusted and are hiding the truth from the people,” she says.
MEME OF THE DAY
There’s another gem shared with me on Facebook by my second cousin, Sharon McHale, who lives in the Birmingham area of England. Yes, I’m going to wait until the barbers open…
HOW I’M PRETENDING TO GROW £10,000 IN PLAY MONEY
After last week’s shortened trading week, my net worth stood at £11,299.38. A reminder that this is all pretend, I started back on March 30 with £10,000 – about Dh45,000 – in play money, seeing how much I could grow it while under lockdown. I don’t pay for trades, there’s no minimum on the number of stocks I can buy, and I can only buy stocks when the markets are closed.
At the end of last week, I held 100 shares in drinks distiller Diageo, 100 shares in Ocado, a company that delivers groceries across the UK, 1,200 shares in PowerHouse, a green energy provider, and 50 shares in British Telecom.
Last week, both Ocado and Diageo both held up reasonably well. So, I’m going to hold them for a few more days.
I bought PowerHouse at 87p each and they’re at the 115p mark – so again holding those too.
But BT took a battering, largely because of a planned merger of two of its biggest rivals. I’m liquidating those, worth £5247.50 and I still have £29.88 cash in hand to play with.
So, what’s next?
Last month, I avoided oil, aviation and anything to do with tourism because of uncertainty. But the UK is about to open up, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson laying out a roadmap for getting things back to a new normal.
What I find interesting is that the UK has not needed to rely on its coal-powered plants for electricity generation for weeks now. And I think renewable energy will play a huge part in any recover. That’s why I’m buying into Drax, a green-energy generator that uses biomass technology. It’s available at 202.4p a share right now and is generally moving up. I’m going to buy 2,600.
Here’s how my portfolio looks heading into Monday trading
Net worth: £11,299.38
Diageo, 100 shares: £2778.00
Ocado, 100 shares: £1864.00
Drax, 2,600 shares: £5262.40
PowerHouse 1,200 shares: £1,380
Cash in hand: £14.98
£ loss on last trading day: £372.00
% Gain overall: 11.3 per cent
£ Gain overall: £1,299.38
COVIDIOTS, YOBS AND GOONS
Here’s my daily collection of covidiots, serving as a reminder that not everyone made it all of the classes in kindergarten.
COVIDIOTS BREED IN WARM WEATHER
I don’t know if scientists are researching how covidiocy spreads, but warm weather is certainly a factor in the UK.
There, over the VE Europe bank holiday weekend, both the police and coastguard have criticised a large number of covidiots who failed to observe the UK guidelines on social distancing.
HM Coastguard said it had the highest number of call-outs since the lockdown began on Friday, with 97 incidents –a 54 per cent increase compared with April’s daily average.
A Hackney Police statement, posted on its official Twitter page alongside an image believed to be of London Fields, said: “Sadly we’re fighting a losing battle in the parks today. Literally hundreds of people sitting having pizza, beers, wines. As always a big thank you to those that are observing the guidelines.”
The weekend of fine weather has fuelled fears that the British government’s stay-at-home advice will not be followed, with Britons flocking to parks and beaches for days out.
“People are ignoring the measures put into place by the government,” HM Coastguard commander Matt Leat said. “I completely understand that the weather and the bank holiday coupled with the fact that we’ve been in this lockdown situation for just over six weeks has tempted people out to our beautiful coasts. However, as the government said only yesterday, it’s really vital that we all continue to observe the guidance. Every time we get a 999 or distress call, we will always respond but the minute we send in a rescue response, we’re putting our frontline responders at risk as well as putting the NHS under avoidable pressure.”
‘KEEP GOING FOR EVERYONE’S SAKE’
The prime minister’s Twitter account is urging the public to “keep going for everyone’s sake” – stressing that their sacrifice is making a difference.
Scotland’s top police officer has also warned that policing will be more challenging if England and Scotland take different paths on lockdown.
Cautioning against any divergence, Police Scotland Chief Constable Iain Livingstone told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it would make the consistency of public messaging harder, people would be hearing different things when they listen to different forms of media. It would be harder than it’s been but I’m confident that the police would be able to respond to any differentials that the politicians decide upon.”
He also said policing the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic will be more challenging generally.
“Any easement or any change around that that has a level of distinction, whether that’s by locality, whether that’s by sector, whether that’s by criteria, age or occupation, inevitably adds a level of complexity,” Livingstone said.
And there’s one thing we know by now, covidiots love confusion!
TRAVELLING THE LENGTH OF ENGLAND TO BUY A PUPPY
What part of stay close to home don’t covidiots get?
Cumbria in northeast England is an idyllic part of the world ≠ a popular choice for day trippers and staycationers when the weather's warm. And for covidiots.
Officers from Cumbria’s roads policing unit have shared several examples of motorists who have been caught making non-essential journeys in the county.
The force has issued dozens of fines since the lockdown began, and some of the reasons for breaking the rules have been especially egregious.
On Saturday alone, one driver was stopped as he attempted to drive from Manchester to Dundee in order to purchase a puppy.
Another motorist had set off from London to Manchester to buy an Audi – and then decided to travel to Carlisle so he could treat himself to some speakers he had seen on eBay.
ESCORTED AWAY BY POLICE
A family from Wigan were given a ticket after being caught heading out for a drive in Windermere. Officers escorted them from the area.
Police fined one group who made a 400-kilometre journey from the capital to Ambleside, telling them: “Unfortunately, London is not a reasonable distance to have travelled from.”
Minutes later, “succinct words of advice” were given to a family who had travelled to the Lakes from Southend-on-Sea – a one-way journey that’s 500 kilometres.
These breaches have been happening regularly. On Friday, three men had travelled from Stockport to Cumbria “to feed the ducks”.
They were escorted back to the motorway,. Yes, covidots are “quackers”.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I’m not an expert, but I might be able to help you make a bit of sense of this. And we can all get through it together. Isn’t this what this is all about.
Send your questions for me to Readers@gulfnews.com.
That’s it for now. Let’s check in with each other tomorrow. I have used files from Reuters, AP, SkyNews, Twitter and other European and North American media outlets in today’s blog. And remember to stay safe.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe