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A painful analysis

Since losing a younger friend to the virus I’ve been preoccupied by lives being put at risk. The net is so wide that anyone could have been caught commuting to, or at work, at a mass gathering, whether a music festival, or a football match, or shopping.

Waiting for Iceland to open, 19 March 2020

Pondering other insidious and invidious contaminants, a parallel struck me: radio-active fall-out from a nuclear accident. Remembering reports of a radio-active cloud wending its way to these isles from Chernobyl, in May 1986, I recalled the twitchiness of friends in the Midlands, whereas, in London, Steven and Nina Lukes told me they’d stopped buying dairy products.

In her most recent blogpost, Ursula Huws identifies various workers at risk; she doubts that they’ll be protected against contagion. [1] Unorganised workers may not be aware of health and safety protection. For workers who are “employees”, there’s the right not to be punished for taking action in response to “circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent” [2] Until recently, this was seen as guarding against visibly unsafe systems of work, such as building sites. This certainly changed when the British Medical Association sounded the alarm, as doctors and nurses began to die.

Only now, have I realised that my own fear of contamination stems from the threat, omnipresent during my childhood, of nuclear war. As I mentioned in my 7th blogpost, my parents told me early on that we all faced an apocalyptic end. In my early teens, after I’d consumed Orwell, my father told me that Orwell had believed 1984 would come to pass. Then on my return from austere Münster, where I’d spent three weeks reading Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, he told me that in the event of WWIII the government would convene in Regional Seats of Government (RSGs).

On my last visit to Hamburg, after Abendbrot (tea of rolls and cheese) my physicist host put the small personal Geiger Counter and app he’d invented on the kitchen table. He showed me how German physicists and school-students will be able to measure radio-activity in labs. Geiger counters are of course deployed to measure the exposure in radio-active zones. Thus, the risk of further contamination can be contained.  

Like my Hamburg host, another German scientist was a forerunner.  When it came to the virus, Olfert Landt put Germany at the forefront of diagnostic testing. In early January, he “recognised the similarity to SARS and realised a test kit would be needed… As well as having an effective test in mass production, Germany signed up politically to mass testing from the beginning…”[5]

As have many political leaders, Angela Merkel has got flak for holding back on tough measures, in order to protect their national economy. Germany, however, is fortunate in having a scientist as Chancellor. Thanks to political will, technical expertise and robust health systems, it seems that the answer to the question posed on the Coronavirus special edition of Der Spiegel, “Are we prepared?” the answer is a tentative “Yes”: in the first few days of April, the number of new cases decreased.[6] Against a backdrop of critique that forbidding visits to homes is unconstitutional, there’s even hope that after Easter some lock-down restrictions might be relaxed.

The Department Store – a usually buzzing Brixton cafe-bar

As Der Spiegel emphasised, however, the virus will be fought by logic and mathematics; [7] though the number of infected people is misleading – more revealing is the number of deaths. [8] So, while raw figures indicate the virus has infected more German than British people, the below statistics confirm that the death rate in Germany is much lower than in other Western European countries.

CountryConfirmed casesDeathsMortality Rate %
Taiwan        373          5 1.34
Germany100,186  1,590 1.58
Spain135,03213,055 9.66
United Kingdom  48,451  4,93410.18
Italy128,94815,88712.32
South Korea10,284 186  1.81
U.S.A 337,971Recorded by stateNo national figure
Data taken from Centre for Systems Science and Engineering John Hopkins University
on 6 April 2020(9)

Had there been more widespread testing in England, the mortality rate would be lower. In his Morning Call, Stephen Bush signalled last week that the UK lags far behind other developed nations in testing for the virus. [10]  The recent announcement of increased testing would, incidentally, reduce the statistical death rate. 

To focus on the stats is to displace the pain. Since I began drafting this blog-post, I have lost a “loved one”. An elderly aunt, one of six sisters, she who, had to share a bed with them in a Bankside Peabody flat, was quarantined in a fever hospital, was later evacuated the day before war was declared – only to be admitted to hospital with a broken wrist 6 weeks ago. Laughing and chatting to the end, the virus struck her down. Somehow, thrashing in the waves of grief, I wonder how on earth, in the absence of testing and contact tracing, she got the virus in hospital – and who else had caught it before she was diagnosed.

Lessons will be learned, most likely from Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan, which is being hailed as an exemplar. With a population of 23m, and having a store of knowledge from SARS, its government, led by President Tsai Ing-Wen, and drawing on the expertise of a prominent epidemiologist, put in place rigorous measures – as Taiwanese people were cautioned against the dangers of hoarding. Her list of official engagements included inspection of the Army Chemical Corps’ epidemic prevention preparedness, at the end of February.

Empty rice and pasta shelves, Waitrose Barbican, London

Aside from difference in approach in handling between a political culture[11]of seeking certainty and a scientific one grounded in uncertainty, another cultural rift is surfacing – between rights and responsibilities.

In view of statistics on recent car journeys in the UK, I wonder how mandatory masks might be enforced in the UK[12]. Perhaps, in addition to the Englishman’s home being his castle, there’s a presumption of the right of every car-owning ‘free-born’ Englishman or woman to drive at will – free from interference by state agents. From casual observation of the streets and parks of London, new rules on maintaining social distance are being flouted. Would wearing a face-mask be seen as a similar encroachment on liberty? Contrast push-back on isolation measures in the West with South East Asia where, post-SARS, wearing a face-mask is seen as fulfilling one’s social duty [13]  

In a further sub-set of the competing rights, inter-generational difference is surfacing. Although the EU has in the past decade highlighted potential tensions, it’s taken this pandemic to bring to the fore deeply conflicting, fundamental, interests. Reports of young people in particular chafing at lock-down restrictions might be an expression of resentment towards ‘Boomers’. [14] Now that the virus is killing children, folk who believe their fitness will protect them might at last take note. 

When I wanted to work in Hamburg, I resented the intrusiveness of testing bodily samples, and the use of personal data: before I could live and work in Hamburg, I had to give blood and stool samples. Yet I understood the purpose of such, and of the over-arching public health bureaucracy, was to reduce communicable diseases.

In the current climate, it seems that Germans are abandoning their support for Alternative für Deutschland, and for the Social Democratic Party and the Greens (the latter of which had surged). Perhaps they are seeking the safety of ‘a safe pair of hands’ such as Frau Merkel’s [15]. To the south-east of Germany, Viktor Orban’s concentration of power in his hands indicates how the ‘far right’ is making use of this crisis [16 ]. This pandemic is showing how the right to access the very means to sustain life might be contested.

Last bag of carrots, 10 pence each, Brixton Market

In England, as WWII and the Dunkirk Spirit were invoked, the only parallel I drew was of fear – induced by the threat of invasion: hoarding; crowds outside shops; and the impulse to the flee “the Big Germ”.  Only those few with the means to bulk buy, or to sit it out in a ‘funk hole’ are sitting tight atop their piles.

Meanwhile, orderly queueing has returned to the streets of Brixton. Let’s hope that in a sign of a yet more divided nation, good prevails over bad, and this crisis engenders other more congenial and co-operative ways of being.  


[1] The dialectics of self-isolation, Ursula Huws https://ursulahuws.wordpress.com

[2]See: section 1(d) 44 Employment Rights Act 1996, which gives an “employee” this statutory right.

[3]Der Spiegel “Heimliche Pandemie” “Furtive Pandemic” 15.02.20  

[4]  Ebola co-discoverer Peter Piot on how to respond to the coronavirus, FT 28.02.20

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/02/coronavirus-testing-how-some-countries-germany-south-korea-got-ahead-of-the-rest?CMP=share_btn_link Peter Beaumont,The Guardian, who points out that the UK passed over the test; lessons are being learned from German mass testing; see https://www.ft.com/content/49f3b95a-167e-4784-b099-614486f0ff53;
https://www.ft.com/content/cc1f650a-91c0-4e1f-b990-ee8ceb5339ea

[6] Der Spiegel, Corona Spezial,14.03.20 

[7] Ibid, Editorial – Die Logik des Virus

[8]https://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/medizin/corona-pandemie-was-uns-die-zahl-der-toten-verraet-a-ca5dc909-716c-44ac-806f-530a109161212/4/20

[9]https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

These rates are in flux: as at 1 April, on my calculations, Germany had a 3% mortality rate, whereas the UK’s was 8.5%.

[10] https://time.com/5805629/coronavirus-taiwan/ “ …Of course it is not out of the woods yet, but so far it has led the way, deploying a combination of big data, transparency and central command.

[11] See Stephen Bush Morning Call, New Statesman

[12] See last FT graph showing comparison in car journeys https://www.ft.com/content/84d96dee-45f9-4870-88b5-d39f929c06be

[13] https://www.ft.com/content/d7057a2e-739d-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca Gillian Tett, FT

[14] See e.g. comparison of rates in Lombardy and Veneto
FT https://www.ft.com/content/9c75d47f-49ee-4613-add1-a692b97d95d3

[15] In her grasp of evidence and marshalling of argument, Angela Merkel impressed me when I saw Anne Will,  interview her on German television –  after the Kanzlerin took a stand and adopted a humane approach to the refugee crisis of August 2015.

[16]https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/07/how-the-right-is-responding-to-the-coronavirus-denial-realism-or-dangerous-contrarianism Jason Wilson

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  1. Thanks Michele – a good read, stimulating as ever. I’m sorry to hear of your loss, it’s very tough. I hope you and Jude are managing to keep safe ok in these trying times. Xx

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