1. It’s no longer the time to be saying Let’s Not Worry Too Much

    Posted March 20, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

    A few days ago, Imelda Flattery’s tweet made me curious.

    I wanted to find this original report, possibly with the hope that finding it would give me a brief nostalgia rush, taking me back in time to what now, authentically, feels like a different era from the one we now inhabit.

    After locating and defeating Twitter’s “Advanced Search” interface – not to mention a lot of vertical scrolling – I found what might be one of the earliest pieces of BBC reporting on the coronavirus.

    Here’s the first tweet I could find from Stephen McDonell that explicitly references it. It’s part of a thread and I’ve included the first three here. You can read more on Twitter.

    Obviously it feels strange now to read the “let’s not worry too much” sections in this very early reporting, but it’s really unfair to be critical of it. Bear in mind the niche nature of the story as it was back then. If somebody in mid-January had published an accurate prediction of what the virus would do to the world, it would have come across as deranged, its author banished to the internet’s hinterlands.

    As the virus unfolded in China and began to spread to other countries, though, we did accumulate enough data and information to make more accurate predictions about its impact. Some of that data can be understood by looking at these excellent charts from the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch:

    You can see from the second chart in particular that the UK had more deaths than Italy did at a similar stage in its infection curve. So this gives us an indication of the likely severity.

    Despite this, there is still a bit of a “let’s not worry too much” theme here in the UK. Even as recently as a week ago prominent media figures were reacting with shock and disgust whenever an institution acted more cautiously than government guidance required:

    What I find interesting about the above tweet is that the Wellcome Trust’s decision was being framed through the kaleidoscope of UK party politics – that it was somehow “anti-Tory” to take the decision that they took.

    But it’s far from being the only example of this. Across the board, the UK’s political culture made it difficult to advise caution and take decisive steps without it being seen as an anti-government stance to take. It led to awkward contradictory messages such as the below:


















    People in the future who look back on this time might underestimate the degree to which ideology influenced the country’s virus response – they’d be unwise to do so, I think. There’s a lot to learn about how political factionalism can warp perceptions of reality and affect a society’s ability to make decisions in a rational way. Sometimes you do need to look clearly at other countries and learn from their mistakes.

    The damage from this initial framing is still being felt. A lot of people read these opinion pieces when they were coming out and took the decision that they wouldn’t change their routines, that they’d keep socialising and working as usual, whether to “own the libs” or – perhaps more bizarrely – to “own the virus”, by denying it a moral victory.

    (“I’m hardly changing at all, because if you do that then you give into it…”)

    Normally, two months doesn’t seem like a long time. Stephen McDonell’s first BBC report on coronavirus didn’t come out all that long ago. But we’ve learnt so much about the coronavirus in that time, and it’s fair to say the world has changed profoundly. There’s no reason why we should still be hearing people say, “let’s not worry too much”.

  2. Asda on the Edge of Apocalypse

    Posted March 15, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  2 Comments so far

    We’re at a phase in the coronavirus situation.

    When I said “a phase” just then, I intentionally didn’t insert any adjectives like “serious” or “weird” because while this weekend might seem like a weird phase today, it might not seem weird at all by next weekend. Next weekend we might be looking back at today and thinking about how normal it felt, that it was anything but weird. Next weekend might present us with a new understanding of what counts as “weird”.

    So all I can say, really, is that we’re at a phase in all this. It’s different from how it was last weekend and it’s different from how it will be next weekend. It’s a phase.

    During this phase shops are still open and it’s not against the law to leave your house. My children’s usual activities like swimming, parkour and ballet class all happened. Public transport was running. Does all of this normal, banal stuff sound weird to you, if you’re reading this one week or one month from now?

    We went to Asda in Walthamstow. It was different from yesterday, when we went to Waitrose in Westfield. Waitrose had sold all its toilet roll and kitchen towel – which would have seemed very weird two weeks ago, come to think of it – but otherwise Waitrose seemed normal, if a little quiet. I got a much stronger sense of impending social collapse in Asda today.

    Several sections of the shelves were completely bare. There was no toilet roll, no dried pasta, no painkillers. The image of the empty painkiller shelves stuck with me. It wasn’t a big surprise to see that but really, that would have seemed very weird two weeks ago.

    People didn’t really seem scared or panicked in Asda but I don’t think the phrase “mildly spooked” would be overstating it too much. Maybe a lot of them were feeling the same thing as me, the weirdness of seeing these empty shelves, of seeing up close these early indications of the strain being applied to the unseen systems that supply us. Maybe if I’d been there earlier, when the shop still had toilet paper and pasta and painkillers and people were trying to buy all of it, maybe there would have been more fear and panic in the air then.

    After visiting Asda we walked through the main shopping mall and I looked at the shopfronts and adverts. These posters and displays still wanted people to buy things like clothes, or perfume, or mobile phone contracts. A little bit optimistic on their part, I thought. People only care about toilet roll and pain relief now. For a moment I remembered the scene in Threads where survivors of the nuclear holocaust barter over bags of dead rats against a backdrop of a faded Standard Life advert.

    Picture of nuclear holocaust survivors in front of 1980s advert

    Post-armageddon advertising

    In Superdrug, there was an explicit policy that no customer would be allowed to buy more than two items of any painkiller product. Again, the signs saying this would have been very surreal to even contemplate a month ago, but when I saw them I just thought it was a sensible thing to do. We were able to buy some Calpol. And also, in Superdrug, there were still a lot of people, mainly younger women, who were interested in things that weren’t toilet paper or pasta or painkillers or bags of dead rats – instead, they were intently studying makeup and hairspray and other items in the cosmetics section, as if it was just another day. Will they still be doing that next weekend, though? Or will that have become weird too?