Friday 8 May 2020
As I stagger-stumbled around the streets of London this morning, I realised once more what a unique situation this is. My capital city is largely empty, the streets are clean, the shops are shut and in the early morning just about everything is closed. Yet I hear around me stories, not of how life is now, but what most likely lies ahead. How much of what I see will still be there if I return in six months’ time?
Cash is already in short supply and fewer foreigners are likely to visit London. Who wishes to come to the epicentre of European Covid-19? The instant, self-imposed crash, where our economy and normal life fell off a cliff, will no doubt be followed by a longer, unpredictable recovery. How many of the household names that I see lining central London’s shopping streets, will last very long in the future? Somehow, I sense the trouble has only just begun. Talk of easing lockdown is just talk, and businesses are steadily going under.
Only yesterday a well-known restaurant asked if I would care to buy a voucher, as advance payment for any visits I might pay in the future. I suspect I will buy a voucher, to support a restaurant that has always done me proud, but the request to put money up front says plenty. The restaurant, widely regarded as one of the best in the area, must be in danger of going under. What will be left of what I see around me?
The optimistic chat from the media in recent days, with its statements that lockdown will soon be lifted, are being adjusted by various government spokesmen. My initial excitement that I would soon be able to wander the streets more freely and even go shopping for something other than food, has vanished. The public is being told to wait for the Prime Minister’s words on Sunday, but by the sound of things, Boris Johnson is being amazingly cautious. It would be an understatement to say there were presently mixed messages and I am trying hard to keep my emotions in control.
While the mixed messaging continues, there are still those who have not worked out what lockdown means, and covidiocy still persists. Usually young men, but not always so, I see them walking side by side, laughing and joking, with barely a centimetre between them. Meanwhile elderly males, I am one, walk alone, and do their best to give covidiots a wide berth.
Air travel is still going on, and I saw an A380 coming into land at London Heathrow only this morning. Yet volumes have dropped precipitously. For the USA, cargo is continuing but business and passenger travel have declined to roughly 25% of their pre-Covid levels. The situation appears worse in the UK as the number of flights has dropped by 90% and some airports are at risk of closing. However, in recent days, there has been a very slight increase in air travel, but numbers are still tiny. To tide things over, or so we are told, Heathrow has closed two of its four terminals and Gatwick has closed one.
There is also a sense of competition between the countries.
“If Germany is doing so well,” I hear journalists ask, “why is UK doing so badly?”
“How about Sweden?” asks another. “Can’t we do the same?”
It is easy to be caught up in the excitement and follow someone else’s lead. However, these days countries have withdrawn into themselves and borders have become more important, which seems strange for a global virus. Researchers and scientists are working together, but I am unsure about politicians. Just around the corner, Europe can anticipate the deepest recession in its history with an economy that is predicted to shrink by 7.4% this year. That figure is an average. Compare that with the shrinkage, in 2009, of only 4.5% after the financial crisis. Three months ago, the European economy was predicted to grow by 1.2% this year. Times have changed so radically.
The BBC has clearly decided to give a rosier view of life, at least this morning, as I listened to their bulletins. The CEO of Iceland Foods was very positive, which put a spring to my step and the country’s. He, as well as the CEOs of Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop are calling for a green recovery and feeling happy about the future. They are right, of course. Not necessarily about the recovery but certainly about the environment. Before Covid-19 tore through the world, there was much discontent about our ecosystem and the harm we persist in creating. If governments will allow themselves to embrace a green recovery, plenty of good can come out of this Covid Crisis. I wager the UK population would be on side.
Eighteen CEOs have written an open letter to the Prime Minister, saying in part:
“It is now clearer than ever before that the health of humanity is inextricably bound to the health of our planet. Your government has the opportunity to show global leadership, forging a path out of this crisis by putting a resilient economy, healthy communities, and a thriving natural world at the heart of the relief and recovery effort.”
Well said, those 18 CEOs.
Although home working has taken off, videoconferencing has as well. For reasons that escape me, home workers “go” to meetings, when actually all they do is move from refrigerator to desk, switch on the screen and get going. Yet even videoconferences can be tiring. The same words might be spoken as would appear at a meeting in the flesh, but the non-verbal cues are harder to read, and it is more difficult to involve an audience. Zoom gloom and Zoom fatigue are now recognised conditions, with multi-person screens magnifying the problem. It is easier than ever to lose focus during a video call and I frequently take the opportunity of catching up on other tasks on screen while a conference is in progress.
Chairmen of video meetings also have total control over the questions delivered to a speaker. Late yesterday I was held riveted by a fellow medic in the north of England who gave a brilliant description of having Covid-19. He was a visitor from overseas, had come to the UK for training, and the next thing he knew was that he was in lockdown. He went into his hospital to help and in no time the virus had bagged him. What impressed me most was the speed with which it all happened. He went to bed one night feeling as right as rain. He awoke in the early morning thinking a sledgehammer had struck him. He was out of action for a week and even needed oxygen. The medic came through the disease in one piece, although his description has ensured that I will bend everything to avoid ever catching the virus. However, because he acquired the disease in a hospital, I put this question to him:
“If you had to guess, and I realise it can only be a guess, from where do you think you acquired the disease? Is there any chance you acquired it in hospital and, if so, how much of a problem do you feel hospital-acquired infection is with Covid-19?”
My own thoughts are clear. I believe hospitals to be a huge problem. At this Zoom meeting, the Chairman vetoed the question. Perhaps the answer would have been too painful.