Tuesday 12 May 2020
Five years ago, a polling organisation called YouGov, undertook a survey of the self-image of various nations. A selection of adults in eight countries was polled and asked if they considered themselves friendly, intelligent, confident, funny, attractive and disciplined. Brits were bottom of the pile when it came to thinking they were attractive but third, and ahead of Germany, when asked if they were disciplined.
The YouGov result has puzzled me, especially when I have seen my fellow countrymen in lockdown, as all around me are folk attempting to cheat. Say one thing and a Brit will do another. It is perhaps why British military discipline is known to be some of the best in the world. The only way of keeping a soldier in order is to have the tightest rules and regulations. Once that control is released, Brits explode like a cork from a bottle of fine, but shaken champagne.
I was not surprised this morning, when I went for my stagger-stumble, to find London’s Hyde Park almost empty. It was the first time in many weeks I had seen that and for a while I wondered why. Then I realised. The government has announced that we can begin to slacken lockdown tomorrow. To a Brit this means today. The government has also said we can now go outdoors as much as we wish. To a Brit that means it is time to stay inside. Far from being the disciplined nation the YouGov poll suggested, my fellow countrymen appear to regard disobeying official instructions as a form of national sport.
The advantage to an ageing stagger-stumbler was that no longer did I have to dive to one side to avoid a jogger. Passing cyclists were few and unleashed dogs had nearly vapourised. The government has also said that tomorrow, if you cannot work from home, you can go to the office. The result? Around Hyde Park the streets were busy, and traffic was building up. My country was back on the move. British disobedience was on display as the public pretended life was as it had been. Some hope.
My worry about this headlong rush to return to some form of normality is not only that the virus may prevent it. It is also the environment, which has benefited from mankind’s absence. The figures are unmistakable. Scheduled flights have decreased by up to 95%, and particulate emissions have been slashed, with a dramatic improvement in air quality. Plenty of economies enjoy bluer skies and views that their populations have not seen for ages, if ever at all. Beijing, Nairobi, Los Angeles, are cleaner places, while satellites show swathes of clean air across Europe, North America and Asia. When Wuhan was in lockdown and China had come to a halt, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service observed a decrease of fine particulate matter in February 2020 compared with the previous three years. This reduction was 20-30%.
The effect on carbon dioxide has also been astonishing. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) data, quantities of the gas have declined by a huge amount and are at roughly 2008 levels. However, sadly the overall trend remains upwards. Even with much of the world in lockdown, March 2020 was the second warmest March on the IEA’s 141-year record. Carbon dioxide levels can only stabilise when a net zero state has been reached, but even with Covid-19 taking its toll, the world is a long way from that point. Net zero, as they call it, is when sources of carbon dioxide are emitting the gas at a slower rate than carbon sinks, such as oceans and vegetation, are able to remove it. Carbon dioxide lingers for centuries, while most other pollutants can be washed away by the rain and are more transient. The world plays a long ball with carbon dioxide. Changes we make now, we are making for our children’s children.
At least cleaner air was how it used to be, but I am already worrying about the future. In the last week, PM2.5 has gone up by 46%, PM10 by 44% and NO2 by 31%. These figures concern me, as air pollution causes all manner of nasty things, including an increased risk of death from Covid-19.
There are other environmental dramas, too, that the pandemic has created. Waste problems have emerged as many areas have suspended their recyclable collections, while food retailers have resumed using plastic bagsfor deliveries and check-outs. There has been a surge in household rubbish as a consequence, on top of the stay-at-home requirement. Medical waste has also risen. In the pre-Covid era, UK healthcare produced 170,300 tonnes of waste each year, including 121,000 tonnes of food waste. Only 7% of healthcare waste was recycled. During the Covid era, healthcare waste has risen exponentially. You think the virus is out of control? I suggest you look at rubbish. Hospitals in Wuhan would normally produce 50 tons of waste daily. During the peak of their infection, this number rose fourfold, to 200 tons each day.
Despite being a strong advocate of preventative medicine, the NHS produces 5.4% of the UK’s greenhouse gases. That is the equivalent of 11 coal-fired power stations. Covid -19 will not have made that any less. Lockdown requirements globally have left some delicate natural ecosystems unguarded, not helped by the stoppage of ecotourism activities. Rising unemployment, thanks to tanking economies, may also force nations to harvest their resources unsustainably. Consequently, it is possible that the benefits gained by this relatively short period of clean air during the pandemic, may be neutralised by the damage created elsewhere, and certainly during the recovery.
The UK economy may have been quick to shut down, but it is going to take longer to get going again. At least I sense that is how the government is thinking, as today the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme by four months. This is a scheme where the government continues to pay 80% of people’s wages and has now covered 7.5 million jobs. The problem with this generosity is that people are becoming addicted to the schemeand have to be weaned off it. Who would want to do anything different, if the government was paying 80% of the bill?
Russia is not doing too well at the moment and now has the second highest number of confirmed infections after the USA. I have not worked out how it has managed to have fewer deaths than UK. We are presently sitting fourth on the list for the number of confirmed infections but second on the list of deaths. Mind you, Russian deaths are not all directly related to the pandemic. For example, I understand that five Covid-19 hospitalised patients were sadly killed in St Petersburg thanks to an electrical short circuit involving a ventilator. I would not like to be the manufacturer of that device.
Meanwhile, three Russian doctors have fallen from hospital windows in the last fortnight. One was an Alexander Shulepov, an emergency physician in the southwestern Voronezh region, who fell from the second floor of his hospital, where he was being treated for Covid-19 infection himself. His fall was a week after he complained on social media that he had been forced to keep working, even after he had tested positive for Covid-19. Another doctor, Natalia Lebedeva, also fell from a hospital window while she was being treated for the virus, in the town of Star City. Bad luck tends to run in threes, because a third Russian doctor, Elena Nepomnyashchaya, also died this way. She worked in the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk and had spoken out about the regional government’s plan to treat Covid-19 patients in her hospital. She cited lack of PPE and proper training and surprisingly fell from a fifth-floor window after a meeting with regional health officials. Russia is clearly a dangerous place to practise medicine and is presently snowed under with patients.
Back in UK, care home deaths are declining slightly. The official figures rely on a death certificate being properly completed, so death can only be ascribed to Covid-19 if it is mentioned on the death certificate. This did not happen for every death in the early days of the disease, so care home fatalities have long been an underestimate. Despite their daily number slowly declining, the total number of care home deaths is presently 9700. That is an astonishing, horrific number and twice as high as might normally be expected at this time of year.
I will wager the actual figure is much higher.