Saturday, 28 March 2020

On the value of reading during a global pandemic

On the value of reading during a global pandemic

Though it save no life
passes time
that could be wasted
with Money Heist
or Tiger King
on Netflix; or fear

or breaking the law
with walking twice
the same day. To read
is to return
to somewhere never gone
or only in memory;

it is a home abroad,
a power without pain.
Libraries are banks
that never drain away
their fiscal strength;
a book is a mile

of miles at a single length.
You may start Sir Browne
and die before the Urne;
no holiday ends
too late; life is brevity,
reading infinite. We skim

the stone of ourselves
upon the surface of time
like a meteor burning
as it skips the skin of space.
We hold a place
to return again. But even

entering the waves once
permits the wetting sea
to begin.  Death is omnipresent,
gasping at medics
like a vicious shark; they lean
in to serve, are swallowed

themselves by dark.
Though lovers break orders
to couple danger in the park.
Open any volume, intake
the giving breath of a moment
whose endless living

is language’s flowing monument.
No consolation consoles
enough to kill contagion;
philosophy knows without force;
still in the textual course
we stand and receive words

to surpass life or death
in omnipotence plenitude
bestows on merely
temporary things that bare
swords or teeth at war
or love or both or all.

26 March, 2020

17,000 CASES

It gives me no pleasure, in my weekly weekend update on the Covid-19 pandemic, to say that what I predicted last Sunday - that we would see 15,000 cases by 29 March, and at least 700 deaths - is to be the tragic case. Readers of this blog will know that I also stated that if we saw such a steep increase we could assume the curve was rising, precipitously. It raises the question, why did the government not put us into lockdown a week earlier?

Unfortunately, the number of UK deaths currently stands, on the 28th of March, at 1,019, and there are 17,089 recorded cases.

A new study suggests that the worst of this nightmare will be over on April 5th, Palm Sunday, with the peak declining thereafter, due to the social distancing having taken effect by then.

I hope this is so, though this optimistic new study suggests less than 6,000 deaths will occur in the UK, a hopeful outcome that is belied by the Birmingham airport being repurposed as a mass morgue. If the UK needs ten new 'Nightingale' mass field hospitals to house 40,000 seriously ill persons, then a death rate of 6,000 or less would seem in the cruel context almost miraculous.

Meanwhile, an eyebrow raising twist worthy of a sci-fi thriller occurred yesterday, when it was announced the British PM, his Health Minister, and the chief medical officer, ALL had come down with the coronavirus and were being isolated, raising the uncomfortable spectre of Michael Gove appearing at the daily briefing, looking like an owlish newly-scrubbed school debater eager to win.

On Thursday, all Britain came out to clap for the NHS carers, on our doorsteps and balconies, in what was stirring and authentic. We all look forward to the next one.

My own family is of course locked down; we have not been able to buy eggs or bread for a week. We have food, though, and are eating a lot of rice, and pasta. We've been listening to music, watching TV, going over old photos, speaking to loved ones, and sorting and reading books. It is like being snowed in, but the days have been oddly clear, sometimes as sunny as the future once was meant to be. We celebrate two birthdays in the next two weeks, and never have Amazon packages arrived with such fear and urgent disposal of the box, and washing of hands.

It seems impossible to imagine we will ever forget this world trauma; it will have changed us all. One can hope that health care investment and provisions will become priority number one; every country's stockpile of ventilators and masks should become as vital as nuclear stockpiles once were.

On current numbers, there will be about 65,000 or more reported cases in the UK by next Sunday, with there having been 3250 deaths.

If that is the peak, very good. If the week after sees 250,000 reported cases, we will know we have not flattened the curve enough. Less than that, and there may be hope of an early calming of the storm, before a possible second wave. We might be out of lockdown by May.

This will, we can only hope, be the strangest and most bleak and anxious Easter spring anyone in Britain will ever have. I for one never expected reality to utterly outstrip fiction, so that to be alive now has the vivid tang of hyper-reality, and each moment is ripe and potent and rich, if tinged with sadness and mourning. I personally veer between exhaltation at the goodness and bravery of many in our society - who ever knew that those who deliver goods or make flour were heroes?! - and despair at the so-called covidiots who ignore the laws, and kill others with their infection.

(Keep a thought for those in parts of the world the pandemic has yet to truly hit, and those in America, Italy, Spain, Iran and China, among other lands, still facing the challenges.)

Onwards. Be safe and wash your hands.

Neo-romantic poem

I am exploring a neo-romantic style of poem, simpler and more expressive, of late, partially inspired by recent German writers, and the events that have changed the world as much or more than the French revolution. Here is a new poem in this style.

I saw my first flower today
not only of this spring
but ever
as this time my eye

saw at once
what might never be
seen later if I might die
the next day

as the time is fast
coming of a blight
so the red rippling
flew out at me

like a wild thing
so enraged with living
it seemed no cage
could keep such a tiger in.

26 March, 2020

Thursday, 26 March 2020


what happens when the leader is a charismatic charlatan?

I have been watching the dawning, infuriatingly slow wake-up call Covid-19 has been for many Americans these past few weeks... as the Washington Post editorial LINKED HERE goes, this pandemic will strip the United States of any pretence to normalcy or capability. Trump is one man, but he represents something the land of the free has indulged for decades now - a willingness to ignore science, fact, and reality, for pure partisan ideology and bias.

This emotive, irrational and blind behaviour, aided and abetted by the right-wing, often religious TV and radio media and latterly, the amoral nihilistic Silicon valley companies, literally recreated a biblical-level-event Babel. Since America is ludicrously rich and powerful, it has had much capital to spend, even waste.

But it has been too intellectually and morally profligate, and now has a gutted and aberrant leadership, unable to form coherent, rational plans, and project determined, sane orders outwards, to change and ameliorate the real world. Genuine power is defined by the ability to change facts on the ground to one's advantage. America now is a blinded, stupid giant, flailing, and the peasants at its feet are dying. This is rhetoric, but the reality is, the President is the worst possible person to be marshalling the forces required to save American lives.

Covid-19 kills 1-5% of citizens in a small European quasi-socialist nation like Italy. In a vast country unable to control quarantines and mandate universal treatment and care for all, that number could soar to 5-10%. It is not fanciful to predict that between 3 and 30 million Americans could die from this pandemic, before a vaccine is found.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020


The laws announced in a dramatic speech last night at 8.30 pm live on BBC television by PM Boris Johnson are the most astonishing ever, in a UK context. The history of Britain, since Magna Carta at least, has never witnessed such draconian measures; indeed, not even the most fevered of ancient kings would have imagined ordering EVERYONE to stay indoor for 3 weeks, under penalty of sanction.

That these laws do not go far enough, in this blog's opinion, is a measure of just how serious the current global pandemic is. Indeed, it is of grave concern, now that cases are arriving in Africa, that death rates have been so high in Italy - a country with superb health care. The concern for all humane persons must be what such a deadly virus could do on a continent with far fewer hospital beds or ventilators per capita than Europe, which is itself stressed to breaking point, with many healthcare workers themselves dying from Covid-19.

Those who deny or diminish the dangers of this novel virus are endangering millions of lives; no one is immune, and the young and old can both die from this cruel and relentless parasite, that thrives on social contact.

We need to see our borders closed; internal travel curtailed for non-essential workers; and the underground and busses blocked to all but NHS staff, the police, and other emergency workers. Scenes of crowds sporting in the sun are insulting to human intelligence, and anti-social; packed train carriages suggest the government needs to support the zero-hours and self-employed workers faster and better; and crackdown on rogue bosses demanding people work when they should be staying inside for at least three weeks.

Now, at least, the government is getting its balance right - towards greater and more serious measures; we expect to see increasingly serious orders imposed in the coming 6-8 weeks, when the pandemic here will truly explode.

On March 8, when I first started writing about the pandemic, there were 100,000 cases. I predicted 1.5 million by April 8th. There are now 300,000, and apparently that number is doubling every 4 days, so we shall see. I hope not.

In other ways, I was conservative in my predictions, though jeered at by some as a fearmonger. I wrote on March 8:

'By Mid-May … Everyone who can will work from home, and food will be delivered by soldiers. Theatres, cinemas, music concerts, all will be firmly shut. It will feel like a movie, and not a happy one.'

The shutdown has begun, and soldiers are being discussed, now, as potential deliverers of food to the most in need. The army is on the streets today as reported in the news, so, by April, Great Britain's laws, streets, and general lifestyle will not be recognisable. In fact, they're alien to anything that has come before. Let's hope the laws work.

Sunday, 22 March 2020


This is my weekly summary of the pandemic, from a London perspective. My poem in the previous post expresses a sense of the emotions and images of the time.

Here I just want to add that, unfortunately, what I wrote last Sunday is mostly accurate:

If we have 5,000 cases in a week, and 500 deaths, we will know we are on a very bad path, and closer to the 'Italy scenario' than thought.

Today, there are just over 5,000 reported cases in the United Kingdom; and over 230 deaths. The good news, such as it is, if one can use such empty phrases, is that the death rate is not as high as Italy's, though it is being recorded as 4.6%, a naïve number. There are probably at least 50,000 unreported infections now in the community, so the death rate is likely closer to .5% - still no comfort for the one in 200 people who will die this year because of the virus. If 80% are infected, that will be over 2 million of us in the UK.

By March 29, on current form, there will, sadly, be over 15,000 reported cases, and around 700 deaths. If the numbers in a week are higher than that, then we will know the escalation has started, and the 'sombrero has not been flattened'.

The numbers explain the unprecedented laws, bailouts, draconian acts - none big or far enough yet, by the way, but getting there. The nation is not metaphorically on a war footing. IT IS ON A WAR FOOTING. In New York today, the Mayor said this was the worst time in America since The Great Depression; over here, we'd likely say the Blitz. Either way, thank god for the sun shining. I'll take that small miracle, with some soap and water.

Be safe. Practice social distancing, please. Stay indoors if you can.

poem on mothering sunday


Something about duty, about going into the sun

As if it was rare; something about not enough

Of basic things, too much information;

A recollection of locks, distance, and crowds

In parks as if they were safer. A sense the young

Were careless, indifferent, as they always are;

The old preparing for what they knew happens;

A time of waiting, as if the air raid sirens

Had just begun, but the shelters hadn’t yet

Flung open. Something else, connected to being

Apart, a decision we made to come together,

A grander union, after division bells, local anger;

Seriousness at a level you could hear in a stadium,

But they were shut. The image of someone holding

A pint glass, laughing at the figures on the telly;

Stocking up on boxed sets, brown rice, macaroni;

Wondering if the straps of your mask were right;

That clutching in the chest like holding on

To your last belongings; a gust of fight or flight.

More dying than had to, but that’s politics,

A retired nurse leaning over with exhausted fear,

Back for a final act of compromised immunity;

The blue ventilator wheezing, or was that her?

Funerals without mourners, that enclosing year.

22 March, 2020, London

Sunday, 15 March 2020


A week ago, last Sunday, I wrote the following prediction of a worst case for the UK:

'Viruses peak, so we may expect a rapid acceleration of cases - maybe 1000 by Mothering Sunday in a fortnight in Britain; and 34 deaths. Any higher number so soon would be worse case bad.'

A fortnight is two weeks, but here we are, 7 days later, with 1,372 cases and 35 deaths. If we have 5,000 cases in a week, and 500 deaths, we will know we are on a very bad path, and closer to the 'Italy scenario' than thought.

It is obvious there is a scientific debate of unusual urgency and impact unfolding, here in Britain, as the PM's chief scientific advisors opt for less agressive containment measures than their counterparts on the continent have gone for - Germany, Italy, Denmark, and France, are in various stages of lockdown - the thought of all cafes and restaurants in France closed is strikingly poignant - not even the Nazi invasion managed that.

This is now humanity's World War 3 - a once only sci-fi vision of nations at a standstill, as thousands die daily, and economies crumble, facing an obligate parasite with only one design - to infect hosts and replicate.

This blog believes that stronger Wuhan-style containment would be advised at this point - self-appointed social distancing is never as persuasive (or fair for businesses looking for insurance support) as emergency law. The more draconian the better.

Behavioural psychologists worried there is not enough carrot and too much stick in isolation need to recognise the fear factor will surely rise very soon... Spain saw 200 deaths in 24 hours - the sort of death rate news a nation usually only receives in wartime. For example, the usual death rate for Viet Nam, for American soldiers, was 100 casualties or less most days. 

One thing is sure - this is only the beginning. Be safe, and wash your hands often.

Friday, 13 March 2020


I first published this 15 years ago on this blog (in 2005)… eerily prescient...

The Shape of Things to Come

Resembles a triumphant trump of doom;
Is like a hollow room; a horn of plenty;
A ballerina’s shoe; a house in Hooville,
Like a devil’s mouse; a bang-
Drum, a pirate drunk on deadman’s

Rum; like a broken broom used to brush
Away the webs from day-dreaming boys
In a math exam; like a rack of lamb;
A donut convention; a depleted pension;
Like the sort of position churchmen don’t

Like to mention; is shaped like a poem,
Mute and dumb; like a big bronze bell
Held by a handlebar-moustachioed strongman
Working for Barnum; like a circus tent;
Like the hole rent in just such an umbrella;

Like a sausage and some French mustard;
Seems to be hoist on its own petard; looks
Like rain; is infinite, so will and won’t come again.
Is shaped like love; is shaped like a question
Mark and also an exclamation mark and also

A period. The shape of the terrible future
Is a sonnet and a no, looks like a Chinese box and
A door without locks, a hairless fox,
A vortex, a matrix, a nexus, a government rope.
Dystopia up around that there bend

Appears to be green soap abandoned
Under an infernal never-ending tap. The future,
According to the latest discovery, is a bit
Like a U-boat captain, or a tortoise neck.
The bad things ahead look like a two-mile wreck.


When a brilliant scientist like John Ashton says the government's Covid-19 strategy is wrong, you should sit up and listen. See his bio below (note he is not the author of this editorial).

Today, the top scientist in Boris's circle of boffins, 'Sir Patrick', said he was comfortable with 60% of the UK population getting the disease - because we need 'herd immunity' and that it will 'return annually' and that 'it can't be stopped'. All of these comments should get him replaced immediately. Consider if your top general announced the enemy could not be defeated?

You'd fire him. More seriously, this almost inhumanely-cold approach (reminiscent of notorious mid-century experiments on large populations) takes for granted that 1% of the population will (must) die for this 'herding' to work... that's giving up on upwards of half a million people in the most threatened categories in the UK alone...

This extraordinary idea - to let the virus pandemic proceed among the populace, is dangerous and flawed-thinking because 1) we known China managed to STOP THE SPREAD in a country of more than a billion people; and 2) WE ONLY NEED TO DELAY THE SPREAD UNTIL A VACCINE IS FOUND in 2021; and 3) It is not even clear IMMUNITY IS POSSIBLE with this obligate parasite; some coronaviruses - like the common cold - do not generate herd immunity.

Sir Patrick's eccentric focus on future years misses the point - most every other country - from South Korea, to Italy, to Ireland, is locking down now, for the next few months, to SAVE ITS PEOPLE FROM DYING.

If there was no hope of a vaccine, the UK's indifference would make sense - but their seeming-ultra-negligence has been monocle-popping, and is probably guided by a top-level interest in evolutionary biology - this is social Darwinism masking as verifiable science. It isn't.

The UK has not closed borders; does not test visitors; refuses to shut schools, or large events. It has not closed theatres, cinemas, shops, bars, pubs, or sports terraces. Why?


The UK government policy appears to be to cull the population - let the weak, old and infirm to die - so that the strong can be 'immunised'.

Maybe in Sparta or Prussia this would be sensible.

In the 21st century, as Professor Ashton and other scientists are saying, it is swaggering inhumanity dressed up as expertise - this is Brexit in all but name, all over again - Britain against the world and its science. As the New York Times observed the other day - this government is more concerned with protecting the economy than its citizens's lives. Is the reluctance to shut down really about saving a way of life, or to fend off more market collapse?

We are not a herd - as Jung once observed, scientists see humans (at our peril) as a whole, not as individuals. We must humanise this discussion. No one's mother, grandfather, or disabled child MUST DIE.


Professor John Ashton CBE (born 27 May 1947 in Liverpool) is a former lecturer and professor of public health at Southampton/London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine /and the University of Liverpool Medical School. He was Regional Director of Public Health/Regional Medical Officer for the North West of England for 13 years and Director of Public Health/County Medical Officer for 6 years.

at the Socialist Health Association conference on the 25th anniversary of the Black Report
He was one of the initiators of the World Health Organisation's Healthy Cities Project from 1986 to 1988 during which time it went from being a European project to a global movement[1] and a pioneer of three public health initiatives.[2]

Sunday, 8 March 2020


A nervous blogger

Readers of this blog will know that, over the years, we have made a few predictions of war, or collapse, or doom, and they have not always panned out - though we did predict that Trump would win in 2016, and we suspect (sadly) he may beat Biden or Bernie later in 2020. But nothing in our experience since this blog began 15 or so years ago - a time that has seen exponential scientific, cultural and political change with the digital explosion, global warming crisis, and rise of populism - is as serious as the current imminent pandemic, Covid-19.

Many Brits adopt a stiff-upper-lip attitude, and Trump downplays the danger, but Covid-19 is not 'just a bad flu'; indeed, it is more like the more ruthless and effective brother of SARS. In today's Daily Telegraph (often a denier of scientific scare-mongering) one of the world's leading experts, a scientist in charge of developing the British vaccine push, says it scares him more than Ebola (which is hardly a friendly disease), and reminds him of the Spanish Flu of 1918. That influenza pandemic killed 50 million people - over 220,000 in the UK alone.

It is perhaps slightly comforting that the current viral mutation we are facing does not have the mortality rate of MERS - over 50%; it could have, though, and this reminds us that our global civilisation currently is basically 2-3 months away from collapse any time a deadly novel virus appears; this is because vaccines take no less than a year to develop - and in the case of the Cold virus, are never found, due to endless canny evolution.

Viruses are obligate parasites, which mean they do not prosper and spread unless their RNA or DNA can infiltrate human or animal vectors' cells, and cause coughs, sneezes and other aerosol eruptions, to allow the multiplying microbes to communicate, and take hold. They tend to like it when they kill fewer of their hosts - the common Cold is the smartest virus around, because it rarely kills; a host that dies cannot spread effectively.

This may mean that some day, Covid-19 gets milder. For now, only a fool would be nonchalant about a disease that kills between 1-5% of every adult human who gets it. Most experts claim the death rate is closer to 1% - but in people over 60 that shoots up to 3% - and older people face a one in six chance of dying. That's now. Once a million or more UK citizens are infected at once, with 300,000 requiring oxygen-beds and respirators, the death rate will skyrocket. The UK has only 15 emergency beds for the very sick affected by acute respiratory failure syndromes; so thousands will be left to die.

This is the calm before the storm, so there's still a lot of sarcasm, and doubt, among the UK population, but the general sentiment is now one of barely-controlled panic; this is not overreaction. The head of the WHO said this week this is 'not a drill' and even the PM has stated that British society is likely to be changed for 'several months'. Let us consider what has already happened, briefly, before discussing what will probably happen.

We have seen the James Bond movie postponed; we have seen 16 million Italians quarantined; Mecca closed to foreigners; the London and Paris book fairs cancelled; the Pope deliver his Mass on TV only; football matches played in empty stadia; ships unable to dock; hand gel and toilet paper sell out (in the UK there is now a 3-month wait for hand gel); surgeon's masks are impossible to buy; and schools are closed around the world. Stock markets have plunged; economies teeter on recession; and factories are closed. Over 100,000 humans have been infected since the outbreak began basically ten weeks ago. In a month, we would expect 1.5 million or so cases worldwide, and 54,000 deaths.

If a vaccine is discovered, tested, and manufactured, we may see one - with a miracle - rolled out by new year's day 2021 - but it could be as late as summer 2021 before we have a vaccine; IF. It is by no means sure we will find one.

Meanwhile, the contagion will spread - it is basically unstoppable so long as humans meet in public or private, and breathe near each other. Masks and hand-washing help, but only total isolation of entire communities can keep the epidemic numbers down - and even then, that is only a stop-gap measure. The evil choice is between accepting mass deaths, or accepting socioeconomic paralysis, decline, then collapse.

Children die barely so far, a small mercy. The young get off lightly, except they stand to be orphaned. People who are sociopaths may not mind their parents and grandparents dying, but the rest of us will suffer terrible bereavement this year. 2020 is to be seared on our memories, like few other years have been since the 1940s.

This is because the current estimate is that between 20 and 80 percent of the world population will catch Covid-19 this year. That's between 1.5 and 6 billion people. Of those, at least 1 percent will die (but that's with Western hospitals fully-stocked, before all the doctors are ill or dying). If the death rate is closer to 3.4%, we could see 100 millions deaths this year alone.

Now, in all of WW2, 70-85 million died, over many years. That was 3% of the world population. We are basically facing the same number of deaths packed into one year. A lot of these numbers seem impossible, but epidemiology is a science of trackable numbers. Viral rates don't tend to fluctuate that much. Those who say we have come far since 1918 forget, this is not a mere flu, and we still have no cure for when a body's own immune system goes haywire and starts eating itself up - which is what Covid-19 does, to 5-15% of its victims. This can mean mass organ failure.

Ebola was feared because it caused you to vomit blood and liquified organs; and its death rate is horrific; but it spread poorly. Covid-19 also antagonises the inner organs, but it is cunning and kills slowly. It does two very cruel things - it starts mild so it can be spread asymptomatically, and it takes weeks to kill the bed-ridden. This means it maximises contagion, over weeks; and it also takes up a lot of human energy to cope with each struggling, lingering human case.

This blog would like to imagine that the UK will be spared terrible things - like the collapse of Italian society, and that dystopian nightmare scenarios of food shortages, mass panic, soldiers in the streets, looting, riots, and collapse of law and order, with graves everywhere, will not, this time, happen. But it already has begun. The train has left the station, and it is difficult to be Panglossian. We'd balance calm cool optimism with a healthy dose of fortifying terror. We have a dreadful new enemy of humanity.

How could this play out in the UK? The British government has a calibrated action plan - Contain, Delay, Mitigate - with Research running as the fourth horseman of the fightback alongside. [The UK government predicts in their worst case scenario that 100,000-350,000 will die, suggesting they think between 10 and 35 million people will become infected; this is based on the assumption many cases are going undiagnosed, and that the death rate is lower than 3.4% and closer to 1%; our assumption here is that the death rate is higher than 1%.]

Bill Gates and many others are pouring money in, fast - unlike the AIDs epidemic, scientific and government recognition of the disease was blessedly present, pronto. Viruses peak, so we may expect a rapid acceleration of cases - maybe 1000 by Mothering Sunday in a fortnight in Britain; and 34 deaths. Any higher number so soon would be worse case bad.

By Mid-April, Easter Sunday, we may see 10,000 or so cases across the UK, and some cities or towns or regions isolated or quarantined. By Mid-May, we could have 140,000 cases, the NHS will be buckling, and over 4,500 people in the UK will have died. Everyone who can will work from home, and food will be delivered by soldiers. Theatres, cinemas, music concerts, all will be firmly shut. It will feel like a movie, and not a happy one.

Mid-June is where things get nightmarish. Two million cases, and over 70,000 dead. Society at breaking point, but bravely holding on. The peak hits in mid-July. 35 million infected.  One million dead, or more. The UK will take years to get over this. Suddenly, cases begin to fall, because there are fewer people left alive to spread it, and 20% or so, including most children, have recovered easily or won't be infected.

By September, it is in steep decline - a handful of cases. 40 or more million people have had the disease in the UK, and about 1.5 million have died in the UK alone. Is this the black swan tipping point, the start of the end of modern life? Preppers think so. If not now, when? Let's hope for the best, and prepare for far, far worse.

On the value of reading during a global pandemic

On the value of reading during a global pandemic Though it save no life passes time that could be wasted w ith Money Heist or Tiger Ki...