The COVID Chronicles – 18

Geneva, 27 June, 2021

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New Zealand, the brightest beacon of covid-correctness, is sitting smugly in its own unique elysian isolation. The Land of the Long White Cloud is, according to friends there, going through a process of rediscovery. Those happy-go-lucky kiwis are finding places and community as they were before being swamped by hoards of inconsiderate overseas tourists (like me.) Life, it seems, is just a box of fluffy ducks. And there is good news elsewhere. Despite disruption of their formal education, children are reading more books as a result of the lockdowns. The property market is booming in many countries as those who can tele-work re-assess the necessity of living close to urban centres. Outdoor pursuits such as cycling see an unprecedented hike in popularity. E-meeting systems – through their quality and people’s increasing familiarity with them – are becoming accepted as the norm. I met a cosmetic surgeon who claims to be in the pink thanks to the pandemic. He says people are so horrified by confronting their own image on zoom all day and every day that they want just a little teeny-weeny botox injection.

And how time flies! It is nearly eighteen months since the disappearance of jet streams from the skies over Geneva and the appearance of supermarket trolleys piled high with toilet paper. Little by little we have become accustomed to life in the era of COVID-19. And what’s more, it is now clear that this is something that is with us for good.  We just have to work out how best to live with interim measures involving masks, hand sanitisers, social distancing (there’s a phrase we hadn’t heard before March 2020!) and travel restrictions. Meantime, we await the ultimate means to control the virus’s impact; that is, a sufficient proportion of the human population being immune to serious COVID-19 infections through vaccination.

But then, as has become apparent, it’s not so simple. A year ago, we believed the roll out of an effective vaccination programme would simply clear up the aftermath of the pandemic (or first) wave and prevent a second wave. Last December, we had the welcome news that an effective vaccine would be available in 2021. This news coincided with the reality that a second wave was already under way in many countries. Little did we know that the virus would show its true colours and keep many steps ahead of us by generating even more transmissible versions of itself that show no respect for national boundaries. The foreseen roll out of vaccination campaigns has turned into a desperate race to keep up with the new variants; the big fear being one such will pop up that is vaccine resistant. On a global scale, inequitable access to vaccines, testing protocols and global travel restrictions including mandatory quarantine have become, predictably, major political issues.

A conversation after a round of golf. Me: “Have you had your vaccinations yet?” Golfer1 (articulate, educated, businessperson): “No, I don’t trust them.” Me: “Who don’t you trust?” Golfer1 “The World Health Organisation.” Me: “Why don’t you trust the WHO?” Golfer1 “They changed their definition of a flu pandemic in 2009. And their vaccines are dangerous.” Me: “Urrm… OK … but it’s your government that is running the vaccination programme… and all evidence points to the vaccines being safe.” Golfer1 considers this for a moment and lights up another cigarette. I wonder if I have at hand a copy of “Health for Dummies.” Golfer2 (health-care professional) joins the conversation: “I’m not going to get vaccinated. I’m waiting to see what happens.” Me: “What is it that might happen that you’re waiting to see?” Golfer2: “Oh, you know, side-effects. Case numbers. Things like that.” My mind boggled. My jaw-dropped. “Brace! Brace! Brace!” screamed a voice in my head.

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Source: Johns Hopkins

As I write, news comes in of booming case numbers and overloaded health facilities in St Petersburg, Russia. This coincides with – and may be linked to – that city hosting several of the European (Football) Championship matches. Sydney, Australia, is in lockdown again as a result of a spike in cases of the delta variant. And the Olympic Games in Japan are just weeks away. Current case numbers there are higher than the peak of the first wave. This does not look good.

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Source: Johns Hopkins

Concerns about the global economic impact of the pandemic seem to be bubbling away on a back burner; at least for the time being. I haven’t come across any credible predictions about how this is going to play out in the months and years ahead. Having said that, there is evidence of strong undercurrents in the great money ocean. Perceptions of the Swiss Franc as a financial safe-haven in global hard times have forced Swiss banks to bring in negative interest rates. Yes, negative interest!! This is to deter people simply loading up their Swiss accounts. My bank announced a couple of weeks ago that savings would be charged 0.75% per annum. Conversely, if I were to take out a mortgage with them, I would benefit from a negative interest rate meaning that I would ultimately pay back less than I borrowed. The world of high finance slips even further from my comprehension. 

I’ve had my two vaccinations. Case numbers here in Switzerland are dropping dramatically. This will be the last of these chronicles….. unless, for whatever reason, we go back into full lockdown.

Bunkers, fist bumps and woodpeckers: the 17th Chronicle of “these times”

Geneva, 1 May, 2021

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How I miss our annual golfing holiday in Scotland! We took a cold, wet Sunday stroll on the Old Course at Saint Andrew’s a couple of years back. That’s me on the edge of the appropriately named “Hell Bunker” on the 14th “Long” hole. Most non-golfers will know that to find your ball in a bunker is never good news. And there’s a saying: “If you think your ball might be in the bunker, it probably is.” This observation is simply based on the laws of physics. Gravity dictates that the ball will settle at the lowest possible point. (If bunkers were mounds of sand, the ball would be much less likely to settle on one!) 

You may ask what this has to do with “these times;” by that I mean the current global crisis that is absorbing all our thoughts and energies. Well, one year ago we were all about washing hands, buying packs of pasta and, inexplicably, hoarding toilet paper. We started to bump fists or tap elbows instead of shaking hands. (Fist bumps seem to have won the day.) Keeping our distance from others, staying at home, teleworking and face coverings soon kicked in. The case numbers fell quite rapidly; surprising in retrospect. It was in about June last year that I first heard an expert say that the only way out of this crisis ultimately was the v-injection. Look at us now! There is talk of third and even fourth waves in a number of countries despite all the measures taken. The v-injection roll-out in different countries and the Asian origins of the little tinker (from now on in these chronicles known as the “LT”) are highly and dangerously politicised. Despite the uncontested efficacy of the current v-injections we are, quite simply, caught in a race between, on one hand, the human ability to innovate, communicate and organise, and on the other, the LT’s extraordinary ability – despite our best efforts – to continue to leap from person to person with increasing ease by clever spontaneous variations in its genetic code. The full implications of those genetic variations are unknown and most experts are preparing us for the long haul. One thing is sure: relaxing those awful measures that we have come to hate is likely to boost case numbers again. More case numbers mean a higher likelihood of variations; getting on flights makes the spread of these variations likely. And so on. I can’t help thinking this dangerous scenario is dictated by some as yet unrecognised law of biology. In brief, I’m worried about where the ball is going. And if you think the ball may be in the bunker, it probably is! I hope I am wrong and wish I could be less pessimistic. And, yes. I lose sleep over it.

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Great Spotted Woodpecker. Photo by: Andrej Chudý (on Flickr)

One surprising source of joy in “these times” is that we have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) busily preparing a nesting site in a dead tree right in front of our balcony. On-line sources say that the male does most of the pecking away at the hole of the nest-to-be and that the female comes along and pecks around the hole, goes into it as if to inspect it and then flies away. What I’ve not found reference to is that these guys seem to be working on three holes at the same time. Anyway, we are excited beyond reason by the thought that we may, in the weeks to come, see some young Woodies coming out of their nest-hole. The first Red Kites have arrived from African skies and circle overhead emitting their sad shrieks. And of course, the Pigeons are paring up and doing their Pigeon stuff… just as they did last year at this time.

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Pigeon Love 35cm x 35cm Neocolour and watercolour mix

I have my first v-injection next week. Watch this space!

The C*VID Chronicles – 16

Geneva, 13 March, 2021

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Source: AFP / Getty

I saw a news item about how the p*ndemic has run unchecked in a hot and sandy country that I had the mixed fortune to visit quite some years ago. At the time, I was working as a field surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross. One of the organisation’s neutral and impartial visiting cards was to host a surgical seminar about treating war wounds. We knew that this could open the door for “humanitarian” access in particularly difficult contexts. So, instead of heading to a field hospital – and long before we knew about powerpoint – a long and dusty drive took me to BBDland with a travel pack of videos and photographic slides (remember them?) I was to facilitate an exchange of ideas and experiences with BBDland’s military surgeons. The seminar had been given the go-ahead by the Big Bad Dictator himself. 

We already knew that BBDland’s political elite and army were the only people who had access to the country’s health care system. Before leaving Geneva, I was advised against raising this issue. As a preliminary to the seminar, I met my surgical counterparts at the rather plush Central Military Hospital. I feared a me-against-them atmosphere for the days to come. This fear proved groundless; they were all charming and welcoming. Many had trained in Europe and North America and were now starved of contact with international colleagues. I am sure I could have discussed the inequity of BBDland’s health care with them. The only time a shadow passed over their faces was when any allusion to BBD was made.

The seminar itself was to be held in a modern, but barely used, conference centre. On arrival, I was surprised to see TV cameras at the door and realised that the ministry of information was going to squeeze as much positive PR for BBD out of this. The cameras rolled as I walked through the main door. Cheers went up. The Red Cross doctor had just walked over a massive and intricate floor mosaic that depicted the smiling face of the President of the USA with blood dribbling from his teeth. “Bush is a killer” the caption read. I hadn’t seen that one coming. One of my colleagues plucked up courage to say very quietly “We’re sorry!” I hoped there would no further political interference in our modest collegiate event. Like, yeah!

In the auditorium, I positioned the slide projector in the middle of the floor, carefully placed my slides in the carousel (reversed and upside down!) and clankity-clicked through them all in a quick trial run. Ready to go! The place started to fill. Not only were the surgeons present but also two hundred or so other doctors and nurses all in full uniform. Suddenly, the chatter stopped. Everyone took a seat and kept their eyes on the floor. The fear was palpable. I was told that the brother of BBD, the Minister of the Interior (a man known to have much blood on his hands) was about to arrive. He had decided to open the seminar. Could this ruin the whole event?

The doors crashed open. Fifty men charged in with AK47s at the ready. Immaculate uniforms and distinctive red berets signified an elite guard; they were checking the security of the place before the arrival of B-BBD. One of them clearly didn’t like the look of the slide projector with its long lens pointing up towards the podium. He unplugged it, picked the whole thing up and marched off. I watched in horror as my slides fell out on to the carpet one by one. I moved to pick them up. Unwise. In a language I didn’t know I was told to sit still; the command was quite understandable in tone and kalashni-gesture. 

B-BBD swept in surrounded by flunkies. He neither smiled nor asked to meet me. He made a one-minute speech and then left. The red berets eventually left too; the last of them walked out backwards AKs still at the ready. After some minutes there were audible sighs but the chatter was subdued. Nobody wanted to tell me what B-BBD had said.

I followed the trail of slides that led to the discarded projector. Later than expected, we kicked off the seminar that happily proved to be congenial and informative for both sides. I later heard that the whole exercise did eventually open some doors for ICRC colleagues to visit prisoners and gain access to some displaced people. And so the “humanitarian” world turns.

BBD, B-BBD and the whole regime have long gone leaving only a poor, chaotic and dangerous country with no public health infrastructure. I often wonder what became of my surgical friends there. It is difficult to see how, in 2021, such a country will gather the necessary c*vid-19 data and the resources needed for a structured vaccination programme. It is also difficult to see how such a country being behind the vaccination curve will avoid a “natural” evolution of the p*ndemic with high case numbers and associated mortality. Such a country is also likely to become a source of further variants of the virus. I really hope I am wrong on this. Whatever, there is little doubt that this p*ndemic has on a global basis brought into stark relief the difference between the haves and the have-nots.

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Source: NASA

Another desert landscape! Isn’t the Perseverance landing on Mars just great? Isn’t this news so welcome when all we currently hear about is the vaccine – variant race against time and how this will determine the relaxation of social distancing measures? (And the postponed 2020 Olympic games in Japan will go ahead this year but without spectators.)

One of the great paradoxes of our time must be that the same country that has harnessed the power of science to put a vehicle on another planet elected and nearly re-elected a President who, during the c*vid-19 p*ndemic, refused to grasp even the most fundamental tenets of public health science. The same President whose Twitter and Facebook accounts were closed. 

So, you may be wondering by now what links the p*ndemic, the daily news, propaganda, science and technology (largely American), the US President and why I have written “c*vid” and  “p*ndemic.” It’s all about those algorithms that support the social media giants allowing them to promote or suppress posts that contain certain words. I have it on authority from someone who knows about these things that it’s quite possible some sneaky algorithm is suppressing the reach of posts and messages that contain the words “c*vid” and “p*ndemic” the idea being to foil the conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaxxers. Inevitably, I believe this is the reason why, up to now, these C*VID Chronicles have not gone viral. Ha!

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Source: Channel 4

On a lighter note, we are now beginning to see TV series that were produced in the time of c*vid-19. Social distancing rules dictated that for some series, all involved had to live in an isolation “bubble.” And so I recommend Channel 4’s Great Pottery Throwdown. During the making of this series the contestants, presenters and experts alike became great friends. I’ve never had a burning interest in pottery but this eclectic bunch produce a wide variety of truly beautiful stuff. There is something genuine and human about this series. What grips me through the enthusiasm, laughter and tears is how the different pottery challenges bring the potters’ lives to the fore and reveal such close bonds within the group. 

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Source: Channel 4

The sun is shining. Spring is in the air. My wife and I are heading out to play golf. In our traditional and deadly serious competition that runs throughout the season, the score is 6 games each! 

Go well. Be wise.