The COVID Chronicles – 13

Geneva, 25 January, 2021

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Source: United Nations

The two main sources of the current news agenda – the COVID-19 pandemic and the shockwaves emanating from Washington – exclude other world changing events from our attention. On 22 January, a United Nations treaty prohibiting the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons entered into force.

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Source: ICAN

Yes, nuclear weapons are now banned under international law. Obviously, the states who possess nuclear weapons and their closest allies have not (yet) signed up to this treaty but their diplo-kinder-doublespeak will now sound increasingly hollow. This new prohibition with 52 member states heightens the imperative of eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals: something that all nations have committed themselves to through being party to the Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Most Brit ex-pats like me probably look to the same website for their international news. I couldn’t help noticing just how opportunistic even the BBC can be. This standard-bearer for global media reported two days ago that the UK variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus “may be more deadly.” What….? Oh No! We’re all gonna die!!! The scientists responsible for this “news” had reported that, up to now, of 1000 people over 60 years of age with COVID-19, ten would be expected to die. There were indications that this figure might rise to thirteen in cases caused by the UK variant. Yesterday, the scientists concerned wanted to cast a more realistic light on these “not particularly strong” findings and pointed out that the Prime Minister and the BBC had blown it out of proportion. The BBC then headlined with “Covid: ‘More deadly’ UK variant claim played down by scientists.”  Brilliant! Two front page news items about nothing newsworthy.

Staying with the BBC for just a bit… And I try not to put my political colours on show in these Chronicles, but…. Yesterday, another upfront but underwhelming news item reported that Boris Johnson had a telephone conversation with President Joe Biden. Wowzers! However, the informative tail-piece assures me that incisive journalism is not a thing of the past. It appears that Mr Biden once referred to Mr Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone of Mr Trump.” I have to say, this Biden chappie seems to made of the right stuff.

Eight weeks back, we welcomed the news that COVID-19 vaccines had been developed and approved for use. We believed that they would bring about a rapid end to this pandemic and that our lives could get back to “normal” in a matter of months and certainly by the end of 2021. It turns out that our optimism was short-sighted and short-lived. The situation evolves rapidly as the virus is proving to be a cunning and agile adversary. The emerging picture is one of a desperate race to vaccinate whole populations as case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths rise in many countries despite a variety of stringent social distancing measures. Whilst there are, apparently, hundreds of recognised variants of the virus, the three causing most concern because of their transmissibility are those thought to originate in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. 

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There is currently no doubt about the safety and efficacy of the approved COVID-19 vaccines in terms of limiting severity of outcome of infection. However, the big unknown is the extent to which immunity prevents transmission. Even if a person is immune – either from vaccination or having had COVID-19 – he or she may still carry and transmit the virus. It is not, in infectious disease terms, a “sterile immunity.” This means that the glittering prize of “herd immunity” may not be achievable. The most likely long term scenario is that COVID-19 will become just another common and mild flu-like illness that seriously affects only those who have not been vaccinated. Vaccines may have to accommodate variants and so vaccination programmes may have to be repeated. The over-arching and achievable objective of our public health authorities is not to eliminate transmission but to reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections so limiting associated deaths and, at the same time, protecting our health services.

A title for a painting is important as it can change how a viewer might look at the piece and what he or she perceives. The above is a recent snowed-in lockdown painting. I cannot shake off my fascination for African masks and I remain gripped by the daily political developments in the US. So I’m struggling to find an appropriate title here. “The Blues”? “BlackLivesMatter”? “Intercontinental”? Does anyone have a suggestion? Perhaps I should simply dedicate it to the extraordinary young Amanda Gorman who read one of her extraordinary poems at Joe Biden’s Presidential inauguration last week.

I am sure that if I had the privilege of talking to Ms Gorman and started a sentence with “Well, in my day…”, she would be quick to point out that it was no longer my day. It was hers. And Greta Thunberg‘s. And my nephew’s. The nephew who, now in his twenties and fired up by global issues, asked me “Didn’t you guys know you were frying the planet? And you still eat beef! I mean, wasn’t it obvious that booming city populations and international air travel was an infectious disease catastrophe waiting to happen?” He was on a roll. “Didn’t you know that we are inheriting your debts together with a global financial system that’s a house of cards?” Exasperated, he finished with “Didn’t your generation think about the world you were passing on to us?” I couldn’t help thinking the youngster had a point. I replied “Well, in my day…… We didn’t have the internet. We weren’t so well informed. Our main global concern was nuclear weapons.” 

The COVID Chronicles – 11

Geneva, 9 January, 2021

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It would have been difficult to imagine when I posted the tenth, pre-christmas Chronicles, that the pandemic news could get worse. Well, it has. I always try to remain upbeat writing here but it’s difficult in the face of surges of COVID-19 cases in many countries, new lockdowns, new variants of the coronavirus and, most worrisome, the possibility that one such variant might ultimately generate “vaccine escape” meaning that the current vaccines may be less effective. 

Snow on the ground prevents wintery golf and so, in search of something to give my flagging spirits a boost, I called in at Galerie Cimaise last week. I was confronted by some truly arresting images that somehow capture the times perfectly.

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“About Flying” is a collection of mesmerising, intriguing and exquisite photographs by one of Geneva’s high profile and most creative photographers, Aline Kundig. It is about the aftermath of beautiful things inevitably falling to pieces. It is a statement that anything delicate and ephemeral carries a potential for dislocation together with an innate resilience. As one critic noted, Aline’s butterflys are magnificent in their grotesque dismemberment(!) 

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Aline harbours a fascination for the interface of beauty and death. She insists that beauty can, and does, continue to live long after the soul has taken flight. With these images of shattered butterflies scattered on an entomologist’s light-board, she has somehow stolen the exotic butterfly show from the dusty drawers of the collectors and the classifiers of dead insects. I am sure that if, after the last shutter-click, Aline had blown her butterfly bits off the light-board she would have seen them remain airborne and even reassemble in butterflight. 

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The backstory is telling. Aline has had a year full of grief. Determined to come face-to-face with her woes, she ordered dead butterflies on-line from specialist butterfly farms all over the world. They arrived carefully packed and completely in tact. She then tore them apart and crushed them letting the pieces fall on the light board. “This was a wonderful thing to do!” she told me. “It was therapeutic!” 

Since speaking to Aline, a right-wing mob has taken over the Capitol in Washington DC. Guns were drawn. Shots were fired. Five people died. Congressmen and congresswomen hid under their seats. Offices were looted. The National Guard was called out. The blame is laid at the President’s feet.

Aline did not give titles to her broken butterfly images. For the three above, I might suggest “Democracy,” “Truth” and “Respect.”