The Lockdown Diary – Day 51

Geneva, Tuesday 5 May 2020


A cold, damp but beautifully fresh morning. I went for a jog around the park. There are more cars on the road. Work on nearby construction sites is clearly audible. Hairdressers and cafes that double as bakeries are open and doing brisk business.

I was listening to a techy-geeky pundit on the radio. I am sure he is correct in saying that the way we have accommodated the pandemic lockdown will advance our great digital transformation. Teleworking, e-shopping, e-socialising, public health apps and even IT vulnerabilities have developed irreversibly; we will never return to “normal.” In the same way, with dramatic reductions in travel and consumption, we have all had an advance taste of living in a decarbonising world. Will we return to “normal” on that front? Of course, these reflections are only pertinent if you have, in the first place, the means to be connected and to consume. There’s that world of haves and have-nots again.

Image of the day: Traditional dancing in Thailand. Extraordinary!

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Copyright: Getty Images

Under the circumstances, speeches in 2005 by George W Bush and in 2014 by Barack Obama about the need for pandemic preparedness are remarkable. How can the public health authorities in the USA have been so unprepared? Well… we know really.

In my time with the International Committee of the Red Cross, I worked on the scientific aspects of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention. I dug deep into the archives to understand better the institution’s history in this domain. I came across the ICRC’s solemn appeal of 8th February 1918 condemning the use of poisonous gases in World War I. It stated “Today we wish to raise our voices against a barbarous innovation which science is in the course of perfecting, that is, making it more murderous and more refined in its cruelty. We are speaking of asphyxiant and poisonous gases, the use of which, it seems, is growing to a scale hitherto unsuspected.” This appeal was followed by representations to the League of Nations and led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol (Full title: The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.) Fast forward to 1952: China made allegations that the USA had used biological weapons in the Korean War. The USA responded by proposing that the ICRC, as a neutral, impartial and independent body, carry out an investigation as to the veracity of these allegations. The ICRC, together with the WHO, concluded there was no evidence to back the claims. China counter-claimed that these two institutions were pro-American. An independent International Scientific Commission led by the English scholar of Chinese science, Joseph Needham, found that the Chinese allegations were true. There followed more claims and counter-claims of lies and hoaxes. All to say, the USA versus China on dangerous bugs has history.

Given this, the source of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 may or may not be something upon which you’d want to exercise your beliefs and emotions. My friend Filippa Lentzos, being an internationally recognised expert in this domain, has written a great piece on the matter in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She concludes that any investigation credible enough to deliver the truth will require “a neutral stance, a ton of diplomacy, the best of science, the coolest of heads, and time.” 

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My wife’s sourdough starter, Boris, has been subject to a disciplined regime that follows on-line advice of a bread-making expert to the letter. The process is complex, time consuming, oath-making and demands technique. It yields passable bread. I question whether it’s worth the effort. Wishing to explore a more relaxed approach with my starter, Donald, I have let him off the leash somewhat. He has been gorging on quantities of flour and is fizzing away like there’s no tomorrow. He now stinks of rotten fruit – as he should – and is particularly sticky and slimy. Although he has delivered several toothsome pancake mixes, my attempts at the holy grail of loaves have been little short of pitiful. But today, with just the tiniest bit of cheating on my part, he has occasioned a truly delicious loaf. How? You may well ask! Mix together two ladlefuls of Donald (taken as he was on the rise after his morning feed,) one cup of flour, a heaped teaspoon of salt and, shame on me, half a sachet of dried yeast. Knead him for a bit just to let him know who’s boss. Leave him to rise for an hour and then seal the deal with a standard bake in a Dutch oven. Needless to say, my wife and I are now both claiming victory in our hotly contested dough-off. 

It is 18.30. As I write, a thunderstorm is brewing. Continuation of our other hot contest (putting) looks unlikely this evening. 

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