The Lockdown Diary – Day 14

Geneva, Sunday 29 March 2020


A young friend on the other side of the world is an avid Asterix fan. Let’s give him a roman name: Maximus Rex. Lockdown has caused him to re-read many of his favourites. Look what he found! This is from “Asterix and the Chariot Race” published in 2017. 

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From: “Asterix and the Chariot Race” written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad. This is the 37th book in the Asterix series originally created by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny. Publishers include: Dargaud / Hachette / Orion

Maximus clearly has an eye for the pertinent image. We gather Coronavirus is the name of the champion charioteer. His chariot is pure predator. His sidekick is a dumb brute called Bacillus. (Bacillus is a bacteria and therefore susceptible to antibiotics; not so, the all-conquering Coronavirus!) The four horses are all black – filched from a high-speed hearse? Do the saddle blankets indicate that the favourite team is sponsored by the People’s Republic of Red Flags? And what’s the symbol on those blankets? Omega! The last letter of the Greek alphabet indicating…. the end. Eek! Did Messrs Ferri and Conrad know something in 2017 that we didn’t? However, the design of Coronavirus’s smiling mask has clearly not been influenced by those now-all-too-familiar scaremongering false images of his namesake. Contrast this with the mask of a policeman enforcing lockdown two days ago on an Indian street. Baffling and bizarre!

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Copyright: Getty Images

We cycled up to the Swiss – French border today. There were lots of joggers and dog-walkers out and about. A border-crossing point that we have never seen attended was diligently controlled by frontier guards on both sides. Every vehicle was stopped. Papers were checked. Like seeing a long queue at our supermarket or empty buses and streets on a weekday, this was a fundamentally disturbing sight. It brought home the sobering reality of what we are living through.

Wishing to distract myself from all things coronavirus at some point in my day, I’ve been working on a small abstract painting. I finished it this afternoon and can report that I am not entirely unhappy with it. I thought I’d give it the title “Latent grapefruit autoproxy 27 (linear).” Cool, eh?

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This Blogger, LGA27(L) Neocolor 35cm x 35cm 2020

My lovely wife was working on her laptop. “What do you think of my painting, darling?” I asked, confident of admiration. She looked up, squinted at it and replied “Looks like a coronavirus to me!” A low blow! I’ve renamed it “COVID-20 (exponential).” Dark, I know.

Ah!….. The putting competition. Well, there’s a tradition – still alive and well in St Andrews, Scotland – that one doesn’t play golf on Sunday. A cold north wind blew over our balcony today. We decided to respect the tradition. The abandoned match of yesterday will be addressed tomorrow.

The Lockdown Diary – Day 13

Geneva, Saturday 28 March 2020


I can’t help wondering what my father would have made of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he practiced medicine in a different era, I’m sure he would have had wise words for the thousands of health-care workers who are doing their level best under the most trying of circumstances. 

My father was 27 years old when he moved with his wife and son (my older brother, Garth) to rural Norfolk in 1953. His single-handed general practice was based at home where he had a consulting room and a dispensary. His practice was, to a large extent, self contained. He was permanantly on-call for his patients. He made up to twelve home visits per day. Emergencies were rarely sent to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital an hour’s drive away. It was the early days of free health care under the then new National Health Service. Patients had few expectations beyond the care and attention of their doctor and that he “did his best.” Doing his best was often repaid with a chicken or a box of apples. 

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He had this poster from the early 19th century in this consulting room. I think it was to remind him and his patients just how much medicine had moved on. It also served as a warning about quacks selling potions. As a former trauma surgeon, I can’t help being amused by the claim that Dr Sibly’s solar tincture was a “speedy and certain cure for stabs and gunshot wounds.” But the problem is, people have always believed in magic potions. They still do and are exploited as a result.

In the mid 1950s, my father was the first doctor in the area to give the new oral penicillin outside a hospital setting. He told me on one winter morning in 1956, he had a message from a man who barely made a living by cutting reeds for thatch far out on the marshes. One of this fellow’s young twins had a high fever and ear ache. My father knew the family. Both parents were illiterate. 

To reach their house, he had to take his old motorbike along the edge of the railway line that connects Norwich to Great Yarmouth. It was snowing. He was welcomed in by the concerned mother to the most basic of homes. There was little warmth. The two twins, a boy and a girl, about seven years old were huddled together on a filthy sofa. The girl was sweating and clearly out of sorts. On looking in her ear, the obvious diagnosis was otitis media, a very common childhood condition at the time that could have serious consequences including brain abscess and permananent deafness. 

My father explained his findings and that he had brought with him a new wonder medicine called penicillin that was most effective against precisely this kind of infection. He explained that the syrup had to be taken four times a day and the child might have difficulty swallowing it because of its unpleasant taste. Convinced the mother understood, he said he would return in 48 hours.

Following his tracks in the snow from his previous visit, my father returned to the house two days later. The girl twin had no fever and seemed to have made a miraculous recovery. He asked if it had been difficult to swallow the new medicine. The mother replied that her daughter had no difficulty at all taking the medicine because she, the mother, had given it to the boy. She claimed any time the girl was sick, the boy happily took the medicine and this always made the girl better!

Today, in the face of the greatest global health emergency ever, my father would have warned us of those who take advantage of the poor and the uneducated by blurring the distinction between magic and medicine. Modern medical practice is steeped in ethics as it should be. It protects patients even if they believe in magic. I spent some years working as a surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross in conflict zones and under-developed countries. The most valuable thing I learnt about big health emergencies is that the greater the crisis, the more susceptible people are to exploitation by the Dr Sibly’s of the world and the more important it is for health-care workers to adhere rigidly to the tenets of medical ethics. It’s all about the patient being sure he or she can trust the doctor or the nurse to act in their best interests.

My father had one most demanding patient; a well-to-do but unhappy lady in her sixties. Her only source of joy was her little dog that she deemed so handsome that she wanted to enter him into a show. She asked my father if he had advice about lightening the dark line down the little chap’s back; a feature she was sure would lose points. My father suggested seeing Mr Jones, the village chemist; he’d certainly have a suitable product. Now Mr Jones was a good old Norfolk boy and it so happened that, a day or two later, my father was chatting to him when he saw the lady in question about to come into the chemist’s shop. My father hid behind a shelf of cough remedies. He heard the lady ask Mr Jones if he had something to lighten the colour of dark brown hair. He produced a bottle for her inspection. “Now, Mr Jones” she asked in an ernest tone “Do you think this will be OK on my chihuahua?” Mr Jones scratched his head and said “I reckon so, Madam. But I’d advise you not to ride a bicycle for a few days!”

Today’s putting competition got delayed through house work and phone calls. We started late. Wait for this…. We had to abandon the game on the second play-off hole because of poor light. And neither of us had missed one of our twenty putts!! 

The Lockdown Diary – Day 12

Geneva, Friday 27 March 2020


Last night’s “clapping for carers” at 21:00 here in Geneva was longer and louder than ever. I clapped until my hands were sore. I clapped for my 100 hour weeks all those years ago in the British NHS. I clapped for all those fabulous nurses who ran the hospitals of the International Committee of the Red Cross for war-wounded in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Cambodia, Sudan and more. I clapped for the whole notion of tireless and ethical health care with tears in my eyes.

As before, our ingenious non-Scottish neighbour contributed to the cacophony with his home-made bagpipes. (Not sure what the tune was but it really was a tune…. of sorts!) This morning I got a snap of him and his creation.

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Big news today. The number of cases on a global basis continues to mount exponentially. The USA has now recorded more cases of COVID-19 than China and has, after western Europe, become the third “epicentre” of the pandemic. Just wait for Africa to kick in! This is really serious, world changing stuff.

Looking at the science – or lack of – behind images of the coronavirus for yesterday’s post, got me thinking. All it took was just one little coronavirus virus to undergo a mutation in its RNA strand to allow its many offspring to spread from human to human and infect people in numbers in 194 countries within about four months. In another context, you might call this a wonder of nature. But for us humans, it has revealed our inherent susceptibility to this kind of disease that comes with cities of millions and unfettered international air travel. Only a few weeks ago, we still believed that the only tune we had to dance to was our own. 

There are knowns and unknowns to ponder. We know that this emergency has united communities, given opportunity for creativeness and kindness, boosted respect for healthcare professionals and proved the immeasurable value of the internet, the web and social media. We know that this pandemic will pass; we don’t know when. We know that people will die; we don’t know how many nor how many of those deaths could have been prevented. We know that preventive measures will be necessary after the curve has peaked; we don’t know for how long after. We know that there will be a heavy impact on the world economy; we don’t know how big nor whether there will be a bounce back.

I have just seen a heartbreaking video of hundreds of Indian factory workers, unemployed as of yesterday, queueing in the street and in close proximity to each other waiting for their midday meal. What a choice: eat or risk infection! As I write, I hear that the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and his Health Secretary Matt Hancock have both tested positive. One thing we know now and absolutely for sure is that every human on the planet is in this together.

I presume that every world leader has had to undergo a crash course in the epidemiology of infectious diseases. They will have learnt that the bedrock principle of the whole exercise – that allows us to draw these epidemic curves with which we are all becoming familiar and which have to be flattened – is: if you want to manage it, measure it. Got that one, Mr Trump?

On a different scale of thinking and not really wishing to get back onto the toilet roll issue…. Here at home, we did our own little measurement exercise that will help us to manage our supplies. When the empty roll is discarded, we mark the date (usually forgotten) on which we put the new roll on the holder ready for action.

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I’ve never given much thought to how quickly we go through this commodity but I can reveal now that this roll’s predecessor delivered effective and selfless service for seven whole days of lockdown. I could, as a result, tell you how many weeks’ stock we have but I won’t having derided all those who were (also!) buying in bulk.

The putting competition stands at 7 to 4. I won again today, 2 and 1. Stress! We putt at 2.2 metres from the hole. The Swiss government recommendation for social distancing is “at least two metres.” There is absolutely no connection at all here other than that sinking putts at 2.2 metres distance with regularity means that your game is in satisfyingly good order.

Sleep well, humans. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. 

The Lockdown Diary – Day 11

Geneva, Thursday 26 March 2020


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Copyright: BBC

This is a still from the computer generated video that serves as the backdrop to the BBC’s “special report” on the COVID-19 pandemic. I guess it’s meant to lend credibility to the report. What are the other subliminal messages passed by hundreds of spinning-spikey red coronaviruses behind the presenter and experts? Maybe an asteroid-alien life form from somewhere out there that could collide with earth and attack the whole human population? Or how about viruses drifting menacingly through our body fluids? I am, for once, being serious. Sublims are very powerful and are specifically built into such images. Ask anyone in advertising. 

We are visually bombarded by a variety of images of this little pest that are, in reality, false. Is this important? Does propagating these images help or hinder our response to this monumental global emergency? Whatever, our decisions and actions now are major determinants of how our lives will eventually unfold; they should be driven by rational thought rather than fear. This means believing in the science. Scary subliminal messages apart, do we need false images amplifying the non-truths and barmy theories circulating about (and with!) this virus? Having a little time on my hands, I’ve dug into the provenance of these microbiological fakeries.

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Copyright: CDC Public Health Information Library/Dr. Fred Murphy

This is an image of four coronaviruses generated by transmission electron microscopy (TEM.) It shows the viral case (the virion) and the viral spikes (the peplomers) that form the crown or halo (the corona.) This is the only possible scientific image of the coronavirus. Thanks, Dr Fred! Note that TEM cannot generate 3D images. There is no colour. Here’s some techy stuff. Transmitted electron energy has a wavelength of one nanometre. The coronavirus has a diameter of about 120 nanometres. Visual light has a wavelength of 400 to 700 nanometers depending on its colour. These figures explain why the virus cannot be detected by visual light and therefore cannot have colour. So there!

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Copyright: New Scientist (no mention of Dr Fred!)

The New Scientist….. A coloured-in version of Dr Fred’s viruses! Can you believe it? I fear a bring-the-kids-to-work day resulted in a sub-editor’s little Meghan taking felt-tip pens to some paper plucked from the recycling bin. “Look, Daddy!” Meghan cries. “Ooh! That’s lovely, Darling! Well done!” he gushes. “Actually, that’s pretty cool. Give it to Daddy. He’s just going to nip out and show it to his best friend.” 

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Copyright: The Royal College of Pathologists

It looks like a similar incident happened at the Royal College of Pathologists although the colouring-in is a tad more sophisticated.

But where do the 3D images come from?

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Copyright on model: CDC Public Health Information Library / Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins

Ms Eckert and Mr Higgins built this model for educational purposes. It extrapolates from the TEM 2D image of the virus with its corona to its likely morphology including spikey peplomers covering the entire surface of the virion. Eckert and Higgins have, independent of little Meghan, unwittingly spawned a number of monsters that have been hand-reared by the fertile imagination of graphic designers. Let’s take a look at some of these monsters and the subliminal messages that might be lurking within. 

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Copyright unknown (although we’ve tried to find it.) If the graphic designer responsible would like to contact us we can remove this image or make a donation to his or her favourite charity.)

What about this Star Trek inspired scene in which the viruses float over the surface of a distant world? But… that could be human skin about to be attacked. O. M. G.!

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Copyright: Getty Images

I’m fascinated by this gloopy bug floating in the void. The pemploners are now protruding suction pads ready to clamp onto us and suck away our life blood. Oh! Yuch! That’s disgusting!

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Copyright: Réformes.ch

The green hues and the double helix DNA together give the notion that this virus is a natural phenomenon. Fair enough! But the coronavirus is a single strand RNA virus; it does not contain DNA. Mistake? No, that is our DNA. Note viruses sitting on it. Eek! The virus targets the very core of our being! Call an ambulance! 

If we’re going to bash the scientific drum, let’s do so in all aspects of communication about the coronavirus. I’d really like to know if I’m the only person bothered by these misleading images.

Putting competition: Robin wins 2 and 1. That makes it 6 to 4 for the ten days in lockdown.

Coronavirus husband comes home late, drunk and amorous yet again. “Yup! You’d better believe it, Babes, I am the lowest form of life!”

The Lockdown Diary – Day 10

Geneva, Wednesday 25 March 2020


My wife works in the domain of quality assurance in something to do with software development. Heady stuff. Having my very own IT consultant is just fine and dandy; having her at home all day is finer and dandier. 

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“Have a nice day! Cycle carefully!” I quip. We start the day with a smile. She’s going nowhere. After more than a week of lockdown she’s concluded that this period of enforced teleworking has many advantages. They include:

– going to work with bed hair and without make-up (must be a girl thing;)
– not arriving at office with bike helmet hair;
– morning commute is walk from kitchen to dining table;
– spending all day in slippers;
– husband making lunch;
– lunch on balcony followed by putting competition (and winning sometimes) followed by pilates;
– being brought cup of tea and digestive biscuits during a conference call;
– taking catnap (if required) during coffee break;
– evening commute is walk from dining table to sofa recently vacated by husband who has gone to cook dinner.

“OK” I ask from the sofa where I am writing this blog. “What don’t you like about it?” She pauses a moment “Not much…. except looking at you sprawled out on the sofa in your pyjamas.”

For me it’s fascinating to hear her interact with colleagues. Her professional voice is largely unfamiliar to me. It has a no-nonsene tone. It is friendly and firm but polite. At home, she uses this voice only for two questions. “Did you save it?” and “Have you tried switching it off and back on again?”

Of the different books that provide a platform for her laptop, I recommend “The Lost Art of Putting” by Gary Nichol and Karl Morris. The authors cast light into the dark corners of putting’s mental game. It is entirely down to this book that I have today edged ahead in our daily competition; 5 to 4. A stunning victory; 3 and 1. Stats: me 17/17 (100%), her 14/17 (82%.)

These are times to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. French joke… Question: What do you call a meal without wine? Answer: Breakfast.