I am non-binary

I am non-binary

Who would have imagined that, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I would discover that I am non-binary? We are in an extremely important phase of the pandemic at the moment; the nightmare of the first wave is subsiding and we are entering the lull before the probable second wave comes towards the end of the year. We have, perhaps, three months or so, to plan and prepare for the winter onslaught. We need to have fortunately bought a period of grace in which we might, if we work cooperatively and diligently, be able to limit the damage that the next wave of the virus will do.

It is not very likely that any vaccine or effective treatment will be available in time so we need to make other contingencies. Having our health service capacity enlarged is already well under way but this needs maintained and we need to start addressing non-coronavirus morbidity as well. Contact tracing needs developed but, vitally for this to work, we need to have low levels of infection as we go into the next phase. If our base rate of infection is too high then any track and trace system will be unable to cope and be ineffective. At the same time as all of this we need to restart our economy and society and find new ways to co-exist alongside the coronavirus, at least in the medium term. This creates a tension between the desire and need to open-up society and the economy and the worry and caution promoting prolongation of the lockdown.

This is increasingly being argued as if it were a binary choice: open or continue the lockdown – the economy or public health – money or lives !

Those wishing to relax the restrictions correctly remind us that without manufacturing there will be no consumption, without wealth there can be little health. The point out that if we continue the shut down then people will die as the death rates from poverty start to rise. They will also point out that failing to treat many conditions, for which we do have effective treatments, will cost us in avoidable deaths over the years to come. They will stress the adverse effects that a closed society will have on our mental health and the long term sequalae we might expect from this, as well as the horrific prospect of a “lost generation” of children and young people deprived of an education at the most vital time of their development. They will show us all of these numbers and tend to minimise the risks of a second wave. They will tell us we must gird our loins and forge a new way ahead out of this pandemic and advise us not to listen to those advising caution as they are just cowards afraid to take the necessary steps en route to victory.

On the other hand, those appreciating the danger of a second wave will point to all the dangers we ignore at our peril. The recent localised spikes and outbreaks when restrictions have been eased. They will correctly let us know that the likelihood of a vaccine is far from certain and extremely far from being close at hand. They will point to how poorly we have coped with following the rules and advise us that we can’t trust tour fellow citizens to take the degree of care necessary – ‘It is bad enough that they don’t take care of their own health but they also jeopardise the health of everyone else.” Correctly they will point out our great ignorance of many aspects of this disease – which groups are vulnerable? what behaviours are the most risky? What strategies reduce my risk? They will argue these are all largely unknown and, as a consequence, any opening up is cavalier and reckless.

Alas, these positions are often seen as binary opposites and people and politicians are taking their positions on either one side or the other. Debates are largely about whether one or the other approach is correct. Facts are massaged to support one case or another while other facts are generated to show the danger of the opposing view. At a time when we should be trying to understand, debate and work out an effective strategy we are treating this like a political hustings – denigrating everything the other side offers as stupid, at best, and possibly evil, at worst, while proclaiming themselves as our only saviours.

This is not a binary choice. We need to release some of the restrictions so we can build up our strength and armamentarium for the next round of the fight but we must also be vigilant and careful so as not to give away any ground or be caught of guard. If the analogy is a door, then it is indeed time to unlock it, but there is no need to leave it open. We can start to return to our work, our schools, our hospitals and our shops but not in the way we did before. We can start to consider non-essential activities to get some recuperation but these need to be different to how they were before We can’t suddenly start long-distance travel or tightly packed mass events. This is a period of respite not a victory party. This is also our time to try out new ways of living that might prove better in the long term: a time to find pleasure in smaller scale more local events; a time to review if our supply chains need to span so far across the globe or whether we could be more self-reliant; a time  to see if there are ways that the ecological benefits we have seen through reduced consumption could be made permanent.

No matter what the politicians tell us, it is not ‘A’ or ‘B’, not their way or their opponent’s way, it is a mixture of both. What we require to do now is to find out just what ratio is needed. This is difficult and we may find that our present politicians are not up to the job and that we need new voices. It will not be easy but, as they say, ‘If you can’t ride two horses at the same time you shouldn’t be in the circus

Beauty persists

It seems that, unfortunately, normal service has been resumed. We again have reports of terrorists running lethally amok in our capital city catching us unawares at rest. Three are dead and other remain critically ill in hospital. The public have decided that mass demonstrations are now safe despite what the medical experts warn. Each day reports of crowds packing our town centres show us just how transmission of a virus can be facilitated. Even the Germans have got in on the act with rioting reported in Stuttgart yesterday. Never one to follow experts, Mr Trump has decided that, like the other demonstrators, he can hold rallies without even insisting that masks are worn. It seems that surprisingly his supporters had more sense than he did and stayed away in their droves. The R number has jumped up again in Germany after initial excellent results, and we can see the increasing rates of infection in America especially in the South where it is going to play havoc with an elderly, diverse population with high levels of disadvantage. There is little to lift the spirit watching this slow-motion catastrophe unwind

This was never going to be a short game. We knew from the start that this we were in this long haul. We managed phase one but seem to be failing in the second round. We are acting as if we have won and starting to celebrate. It is a little like the scene in the movie when the psychopathic killer has been beaten after the lengthy fight. The heroes, in victory and relief, don’t watch as the dead villain’s hand creeps towards the gun. Like them we are about to discover that round two has just started. This is the round when we try and create a new way of life despite the presence of the coronavirus. It is no longer just adequate to hide away, we did that and regrouped, now is the time we need show we have learnt the lessons on social distancing and changing our behaviour. It is now we must learn how to live and work without being physically close. We have to find alternative ways of doing things. We shouldn’t be waiting for the pubs to reopen, or the package holidays in sunny climes to restart, we should be thinking what we can do instead of those activities.

There are potentially many improvements that might follow these changes; necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. There will be unexpected bonuses. It is highly likely that Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is going to lose him the election later this year. While not a foregone conclusion it is nice to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I am not sure Biden will make a great president but feel pretty confident in saying that he (and just about anyone else) is going to be better than the present incumbent. But there will be major challenges. The economic downturn that we are about to face is going to demand major political change if the years of increasing inequality and globalisation (which has benefitted capital at the expense of labour) are to be reversed. Other wise we can expect that the debt, as always, for the pandemic will fall on the shoulder of the poorest in our societies – the people who worked to pull us through this nightmare will be the one’s who have to pay to ensure that the wealth of the privileged is not threatened. When I look at the parties on the left in Europe and America, I am not sure that they are ready for this task. Unless they drop their focus on identity and individualism and regain their focus on the structural class and democratic issues, they will prove to be irrelevant. Not just irrelevant but worse – counterproductive – as they set one group of the working class against another and fail to mount an effective fightback. If they fail, then there are groups emerging on the right who will propose themselves as the saviours of the poor. The greatest risk factor for the development of fascism is economic collapse and the fear it engenders which make strong, tough talking leaders dangerously attractive.

While I get depressed, I try to take my own advice and try to find new ways to live happily. My social activities are minor and infrequent now, and I need to learn how to find pleasure in other ways. I used to enjoy concerts but these are unlikely to be a feature of my life for some time. However, we have thousands of hours of music and concerts available to us already. I have found that going back to look and listen to some old favourites obviates the need to find the new and fashionable. There is so much music I have never heard already recorded and available that I could never sate my appetite even if another new work were not created (Though I am sure that they will be).

It is a shame, but I can never describe music to someone else. The pleasure that it gives is personal and, I find, impossible to put into words. I am going to end this piece with the gift of a piece of music for you. I could use words such as sublime, beautiful, heart lifting, magnificent and they would all be correct, but they only tell you what the piece does to me. However, I trust that most of us are in essence similar and, whether you like this piece or not, that you will recognise the emotion and hope in this piece. A species that can create something as beautiful and powerful as this is surely going to knuckle down for the long battle against this virus and win.

Voces8 with Edward Nimrod (Lux Aeterna)

If I hide here then the coronavirus will never find me.

If I hide here then the coronavirus will never find me.

The first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse was the crowned rider on the white horse bringing pestilence. Now that we have our very own modern ‘crowned’ pestilence in the form of the coronavirus many feel afraid and think that we may be living in the end of days. As we spend our lives locked in our houses watching the news report the grim daily body count of the dead it is difficult not to think “How will this end? Will I get coronavirus? Will I die?”

I don’t know the answers to the first two questions but I do know the answer to the third. The answer, as it always has been, is “Yes; you will die”. I don’t know if it will be through Covid19 or in some freak blender accident but I know it will happen.

This assurance is the only true thing we know. We all know that in the end we all die. Indeed throughout our development as a species it has been the prospect of our death that has guided us. Religious beliefs have looked at this and allowed us to use death to put our lives in context. Religions have helped us live while always and everywhere we are in the presence of death. Our awareness of our death is the defining point of our life – we have to ensure we set our house in order before we shuffle off our mortal coils.

I fear that over the past few generations, in our increasingly secular society, we have lost our familiarity with death. In the UK most deaths no longer occur at home but now most people die in forms of care; hospitals or nursing homes. We now don’t have a connection with our fate. Death is something that happens to other people, something that happens to people far away in the hospice, people far away much older than me.

I noticed when watching an advert on television for life assurance just how distanced we have become. This was one of the many adverts urging the elderly to buy a policy to pay for their funeral costs to spare their family the expense. In this an older man narrates that “if the worst happens I know my family are covered”.  Why ‘if‘ rather than the correct ‘when‘? If we can’t even think of death when making an advert for funeral costs we are in a sorry state. These are life assurance policies as we are assured that death will eventually occur.

But in these times of plague this inability to consider death is causing problems. People feel that they should not die. They think if they spend enough money, eat enough healthy food, take enough exercise or pay enough taxes then they should be alright. There is a feeling that death is avoidable if we know what to do. This has lead to our rather wishful and juvenile planning regarding the lockdown.

The function of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve”, to slow the rate of infection progression so that our health care systems would not be overloaded – so that we would have unavoidable and unnecessary deaths due to lack of medical provision. It was never a lockdown to stop the virus in its tracks, it was always known that when it was eased (barring miracles) we would again have to face the virus. But hopefully, by then, we would have prepared adequately so that our health systems were ready and that we had started behaving in ways that would mitigate the virus’s spread.

It was never the plan that we would hunker down and wait for the cavalry in the form of a vaccine or treatment. Even if these occur it is not likely we will see them in the next few years and the personal and social costs of lockdown for this period of time could be even worse then the virus itself. It is inevitable that if no one is producing then a time when no one is consuming must follow. We in the developed West can’t hope that the poor abroad will continue to take the risks to attend fields and stock simply to fill our food supply chains. We should recall that, after the crowned horseman of pestilence came the next three riders- poverty, war and hell – the deaths through poverty and famine could be every bit as horrendous .

No matter how frightened we are, and I’ll admit to a fair degree of fear, we have to find ways to live alongside coronavirus, to find ways of living in the knowledge that there are things that may, at any time, kill us. It will force us to change our behaviour – saving expectantly all year to be packed into a sealed petrie dish and flown across the world (breathing the air recycled through lungs of your 200 fellow passengers) for your two week holiday may no longer seem a great way to live. Many of the long supply chains we have grown to rely upon may start to look like ever present risks. Being more self-reliant in food production, or having strong social care services, may now seem much more important priorities than lower taxes or cheaper costs when we make our political decisions.

There are many things we can do to learn how to cope with the new future. My only real fear is that is we continue with this plan of hiding until it goes away we will miss the opportunities to deal with it. My real fear is that we might ‘return to normal‘ and then we will have to restart the battle all over again.

Sign of the times

Sign of the times

There is a post box at the end of our drive and it a worrisome sign of the times. We placed it there because we are becoming more afraid about the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. As country after country introduces measures to try and contain and, after this fails, delay the spread of covid19 it has become clear that “social distancing” is one of the principle steps which needs to be considered. This is both for the safety of those vulnerable to the worse outcomes from Covid19 and also for the population as a whole, as it would tend to slow down and hamper transmission of the virus. As we are both elderly, and have some additional risk factors, we have decided to start social distancing now rather then waiting to be advised to do this by the government. The government has different priorities to ourselves; in addition to public safety they also have consider the economic impact of their advice – my consumer spending during visits to town might help keep the local economy floating but I am not sure that the risk-benefit ratio in this is truly in my favour.

It is unusual to feel worried. I am usually rather phlegmatic and not prone to anxiety. Although I recognise I have a tendency to pessimism I don’t recall being a gloomy about the immediate future as I do at present. However, this is a little like Pascal’s Wager; if my foreboding is correct I’ll be glad I took the steps I have, if I am shown to be wrong (and life returns quickly to normal) then I will have lost a little face and suffered a little embarrassment but little else. Indeed it is possible there may be some minor benefits from this changed behaviour.

We already live a life at some considerable distance socially form others. We live in a rural area and have few amenities where large groups gather. Our outside entertainment is infrequent (trips to the pub, the theatre, the cinema, etc) and even if we have to keep this up for a long time I don’t think we won’t be able to cope. Many of the things people are advised to give up (holidays, nightclubs, sporting events) are things we do not do in any event as we have livestock which keeps us homebound.

Our day-to-day contact with our neighbours and friends is something much more important and something we could not do without for a long period of time. Thankfully, about half of this socialising occurs, in any event, outdoors in the fields or the woods. Public Health England state the virus can be spread when people have ‘close sustained contact’ with people who are not infected, which typically means ‘spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person.’ So we still should be able to keep in contact with our neighbours and be ready to help each other as needed.

Our new post box was another attempt at social distancing,. Usually we keep out gates and doors open. We encourage people to enter and visit and usually this means we see people every day. Closing our gates is a way of alerting others to the changes we are trying. However, this could prove a great pain in the neck for our postman who’d have to get out of his van to open and close gates were he delivering mail. To avoid this we hung the mailbox. Each time I see it, it will remind me of what I am missing – conversations with friends. This is why I see it as a sign of the times and so depressing.

I said, like Pascal’s wager, there might be some benefits. There is one I can see already. We have changed our shopping habits. Instead of visits to the shops when we wish anything we are now only going infrequently and with definite purpose . There will be no shopping for fun. I think I’ll be better mentally for this and, if not, I’ll be better off financially.

Perhaps on a larger scale there will be the benefit that people will see the dangers of overconsumption and globalisation that these viral pandemics reveal. When the conquistadors brought influenza, diphtheria and measles to the new world they killed countess native Americans who had no natural immunity. The mass travel brought the danger. Again in 1918, with the demobbing of troops after the war, the mass travel brought a tide of death on its heels with the Spanish Flu. If you cast your mind back to the SARS epidemic I’m sure you’ll recall the men in hazmat suits at international airports trying to stop the spread of this outbreak, again mass transit proving the vector.

Our globalised world with long supply chains has allowed us to benefit from cheap goods from all around the globe. At the same time it has damaged our abilities to live in localities with any degree of self sufficiency. The food, the goods, the culture and the people that we have on our doorsteps is no longer adequate. We have become accustomed to much more and need and demand ever more. Hand in hand with this we have seen our levels of consumption spiral ever upward.

Some fear that this may be The end of the world as we know it. I don’t. If this is the end of a world which squanders resources and pollutes without care I will be happy to see it gone. I used to worry that this overconsumption and waste could be the end of the planet. It may be that I was worrying heedlessly. All this globalisation may not be the end of the planet, it may just be the end of us.