Wednesday 29 April 2020

The logic of lotteries and lockdown

Sometime in the next few weeks we are all going to have to be a little brave. We have been told repeatedly to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives, but soon that message is going to change just a bit. We are going to have to do something a touch risky, go outside, go to work, come into contact with other people.

The Government has succeeded in keeping people at home partly because many of us are genuinely scared. We have all read stories of people getting sick and dying. Naturally we don’t want the same thing to happen to us or those we love.

I have been working from home. I’m very lucky that I can. I have been going shopping once a week at the quietest possible time and apart from that I have not left the house. There has been no need for anyone to enforce the rules, because I haven’t wanted to go out. This is partly because most of what I do, reading, writing, watching old films has always involved staying in. But also, I live with my elderly mother and I don’t want to infect her. The Government’s message has been all too effective with me. I could quite happily stay this way indefinitely.

But I have been using the time to think. We are going to have to relearn how to be brave and accept that life is risky and that this risk cannot be avoided.

It helps however to understand risk, because we are very bad at doing it. Many people are scared of flying, but the actual risk of a plane crashing is very small indeed. We are scared because every time a plane does crash the media covers the story in detail and we imagine it could have been me. For the same reason people play the lottery even though their chance of winning is so small that it may as well be discounted. The lottery is a tax on stupidity. The reality is that "It won't be you."

We must get beyond lottery slogans. We must understand the level of risk we face from Covid 19. This might just help us to be both brave and realistic.

I have supported the Government’s lockdown measures, not merely because I am timid by nature, shy and not very sociable anyway, but more importantly I began to realise not so much from the science, but from the logic that what we were up against was quite possibly the worst pandemic since 1918. 

We know that Covid 19 spreads quickly. One moment it was in China, the next moment it was everywhere. We also know that it kills a lot of people and would have killed more if there had been no lockdown. We don’t know for sure what percentage of the population who catch Covid 19 will die. The reason for this is we don't know how many people have caught it and we don't know how many have died because of it. It is only possible to estimate.  We know that the over eighties are most and risk and the under forties least at risk. But certainty about the exact levels of risk will have to wait. 

If it turned out that the Covid 19 fatality rate was much the same as the Hong Kong Flu epidemic of 1968-1968 and the Asian Flu epidemic of 1957-1958 (0.1-0.5%), then nearly all the Governments in the world will have made the greatest mistake in human history. They will have grossly overreacted and the lockdown while hugely damaging the economy will have saved few if any lives. 

It’s only on the assumption that the death rate is between 0.5 and 1% or higher that the actions of Governments around the world and the scientific experts advising them make any sense at all. This is not least because the actions that these Governments have taken are only advised under the circumstances that the Covid 19 pandemic would without lockdown kill a percentage of the population between 0.5 and 1% or more. The information is freely available, you just have to search.

Therefore, it is logical to deduce that either nearly all the Governments and their scientific advisors are wrong, or we are really facing the worst pandemic since 1918. To suppose that everyone is wrong except me puts you in the I am Napoleon category, no one knows it except me. If it turns out you are right, you may be the greatest general since Alexander, but I would still advise you not to invade Russia.

So, let’s assume a 1% death rate. This would mean that Covid 19 would kill around 650,000 people in Britain. We are in First World War military deaths territory and more people in Britain would die from Covid 19 than from Spanish Flu. That is a catastrophe that any Government would take all measures to avoid. We cannot even begin to imagine what such an event would be like. The equivalent of a large British city would be wiped off the map as if it had been vaporized by a Hydrogen bomb. This is why we are inside, and the Government has acted as it has. They had no choice.

But from an individual’s point of view the odds look quite good. At present 1% of households in Aberdeenshire have Covid 19 symptoms. So, if I meet one hundred people, I might be unlucky enough to meet one of them and catch the illness from him. But even if I were infected I would still have only a 1% of dying. We are in winning the lottery territory here.

When we start to go out, we will not have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). If I am made to wear a mask I will do so with reluctance, because I will realise that viruses are rather smaller than the holes in the face mask cloth and will penetrate it quite easily and anyway can go around the sides. But so long as we continue to practice social distancing and hand-washing, the risk of our going to other shops than supermarkets or into offices will still be small.

But in order to make the odds work still more in our favour we are going to have to discriminate between those most likely to die from Covid 19 and those least likely. Children especially should be allowed to intermingle as much as they please so long as they do not come into contact with anyone over 40 and especially anyone over 80. If the under 40s intermingled as much as they wanted while practicing social distancing with everyone else, it just might be possible for the disease to spread in such a way that it wasn’t life threatening either to the under 40s or the over 40s. This could save all of us.

In 1918 nurses fought Spanish Flu with a gauze mask and a skirt. Many of them caught the disease and huge numbers died not least because Spanish Flu was most dangerous for the young and catastrophic for the pregnant. Today we have much better equipment than they did even if we don’t have enough and even if we have to make do and mend.

It is the lot of those who choose to be doctors and nurses that they are more likely than the rest of us to come into contact with infection, just as it is the lot of soldiers sometimes to have to go to war. To complain about the dangers of warfare when you chose to be a soldier is to say you misunderstood the job you chose to do or else that you were willing to do it when it was safe, but unwilling when it became dangerous. 

In an unprecedented crisis we all have to be willing to take a risk.

A thirty-year-old nurse faces a lesser risk even with less than perfect PPE than any 80-year-old in a care home. You and I also will face a smaller risk than our elderly relatives when we resume ordinary life. We are all going to have to be brave, because we will have to face odds of around one in a hundred. Meet the wrong person and you might die. But that is not nearly as brave as doctors and nurses who in the past treated yellow fever, cholera and typhoid with next to no equipment and no thought for themselves but only for their patients. Such heroism was indeed worthy of applause not merely on Thursdays.

Monday 27 April 2020

The lessons from Covid to Chernobyl

We are in the midst of one of the greatest disasters of modern times. It may be a natural disaster, or it may have been caused by human error. It is crucial that we learn from previous disasters.

It is partly for this reason that I began watching the 2019 TV series on Chernobyl. I accept that it is drama and that not everything portrayed was exactly as it happened. But the parallels with the present crisis are striking and useful.

The initial reaction of those working at the power plant and the Soviet authorities was to avoid blame, pass the buck and deny that anything serious had happened. News was suppressed and initially Communist politics got in the way of those attempting to solve the problem. The Soviet Union strove to prevent anyone in the outside world finding out even though the spread of radiation from Chernobyl affected other places because the wind knows no boundaries.

The history of Communist China is that of a country that imitated the Soviet Union. While it has diverged from Communism since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping it has continued to imitate its Soviet mentor in terms of secrecy, security and selfishness.
We may eventually discover the cause of the Covid 19 outbreak, or else we may discover that the Chinese authorities have successfully suppressed or destroyed the incriminating evidence. But we know already that we cannot trust the Chinese Government and cannot believe anything they say. It may be that the long-term Chinese failure to close markets with live animals caused an animal virus to become a human virus. Alternatively, it may be that a Chinese laboratory that was studying such viruses somehow leaked it.

It might have been possible to stop Covid 19 spreading, but the Chinese chose to deny there was a problem, repress anyone who said otherwise and quite possibly bullied the World Health Organisation into agreeing with them. The Chinese pleaded with the world to continue allowing Chinese people to fly all around the world even when they must have known that they were spreading disease just like Chernobyl had spread radiation.

Chernobyl showed humanity at its worst, but also at its best. The key was that various people who understood nuclear reactors and nuclear physics realised that they were faced with a potential disaster of an unimaginable scale. It would have been much worse, if nothing had been done. If scientists had not understood what would happen if the reactor were allowed to keep burning out of control, then large chunks of Europe might have become uninhabitable. This didn’t happen because the Soviet authorities grasped the scale of the problem and then did what was necessary.
Covid 19 has already killed many more people than Chernobyl. But it will kill far fewer than it might have done because scientists told Governments what would happen if they did nothing and Governments did what was necessary.
Doctors and nurses in Soviet hospitals treated patients with illnesses due to radiation with cloth masks and ordinary gowns and hats. The fire fighters who took on the blaze had no special equipment. The helicopter pilots, the soldiers and the miners wore ordinary uniforms and sometimes wore nothing at all because the working conditions were so hot. They understood that they were exposing themselves to deadly radiation, but they did what was needed to be done for the greater good of their own people and the wider world.
This is something that we have forgotten in Britain. In an ideal world the doctors and nurses who treated the victims of Chernobyl would have been wearing Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) that would have completely protected them from radiation. But it wasn’t available. They continued treating anyway and some of them no doubt died or had shortened lives because of this.
When we are faced with unprecedented disaster, we have to do what is necessary even if we have to risk our lives in doing so. Nurses and doctors treating the infectious diseases of the past understood this. It was their vocation.
The present debate about PPE is childish and shows how far we have moved away from previous generations. When poison gas was first released in World War One soldiers didn’t have gas masks. They improvised. Later primitive gas masks were supplied, and later still improved versions were invented, and eventually mass produced. But these soldiers still had to man their trenches even when their equipment was less than ideal. They didn’t even have helmets initially, because no one had planned for such a war, because no one had imagined it could be possible.
We are all going to have to be grown up about the risks we are going to face in the next few months and years. We are not going to be able to eliminate completely the risk of being infected. Some of us are going to have to face more risk than others. But remember it is not doctors, nurses or any of the rest of us who will face the greatest risk. Those at greatest risk are the over eighties who have no PPE at all.
We are all going to have to do what is necessary to save our country and its economy from the greatest disaster to hit it for decades. We must all do what is necessary. It will soon be necessary for us to return to work. We must do this even if there is a small risk that it kills us.

Saturday 25 April 2020

The Covidian revolution

Twenty or thirty years after the invention of the printing press most people still couldn’t read and few books were printed anyway. So too while the Internet has changed life considerably in the past decades it hasn’t really changed how most of us have worked. We still got up early in the morning and got into cars, trains or busses and travelled to our place of work. The jobs that people did in 2020 were not that different to the jobs they did in 1980. But that is going to change rapidly now, not so much because of the Internet but because the Internet enables us to avoid other people.

Change is resisted. Most of us don’t like it. For the past decades we have pretended that the physical could go on just the same even when it had been replaced by the virtual. But Covid 19 has ended that pretence.

There are some people who are required today to go out and interact with other people. This is because the nature of their job requires it and society requires that their job continues even when most of us are stuck at home. This work is essential. Everything else is inessential.

Doctors and nurses still need to turn up at hospitals and risk becoming infected themselves because their job for the most part cannot be done virtually. Doctors might be able to talk with patients with video calls, but sometimes they have to be able to see them and touch them. Treatment still involves a physical interaction between a nurse and a patient.

Supermarkets already have automatic checkouts and the present crisis will accelerate the move to automation, but there still need to be people who deliver stock and put it on the shelves.

Rubbish collection cannot be done virtually, yet without it there would be a greater public health crisis than there already is. People still need to drive around emptying bins. There are some other essential jobs. The police, the army, farmers and factory workers are needed in this crisis. The rest of us are not needed.

The fact that we are stuck at home is damaging the economy, but otherwise the world is continuing as normal. We can buy what we need from the shops. We have power in our homes. We are safe and secure. What do we do when we are at work then? What good does it do, if it is unnecessary now? We produce goods and services that we trade with other countries and with ourselves that create wealth. This will become crucial again soon enough, because it pays the costs of those jobs that are essential, but for the moment our country in its time of crisis can do without us.

The inessential people stuck at home are divided into two groups. There are those of us who can work and there are those of us who cannot. If your job involves sitting in front of a computer and interacting with it, then it is for the most part possible to continue as if nothing has happened. It might be a bit lonely at home, but universities, for example, can with little adaptation function perfectly adequately. Students can have discussions with academics. They can read books and articles online. Research that does not involve interacting with physical objects or travel can continue in many cases just as well as before. When change becomes necessary it happens quickly.

Many jobs that at present require physical interaction could in theory be done virtually. It should be possible to have virtual court rooms with lawyers and juries and defendants. But other jobs clearly require people to be able to travel and interact. Why go to a pub to buy beer and wine if you can’t sit in it and chat? It is far cheaper to buy alcohol from the supermarket.

Those people who are stuck at home, but able to continue working may find that once this crisis has passed, they will continue to do so indefinitely. If journalists can write articles at home and readers can read them online, what is the point of physical newspapers? If writers can write novels and they can be distributed to a Kindle, why have bookshops? If people can work just as effectively at home why are we all getting up early and travelling to an office. What purpose does this office have?  Deduct the cost of buying or renting office space as well as the travel costs and you have a new way of making profit.

The danger for those who cannot work at home is that the world goes on perfectly adequately without their work. If I can buy all I need online, physical shops will cease to have a purpose. Will they even reopen?

We are learning to live without buying expensive coffee at Starbucks. We can eat perfectly adequately without going to restaurants and drink all we please from cans and bottles bought at the supermarket. We can be entertained by online streaming and have no need to go to Cinemas. We are discovering lots of jobs that we can do without. 

There used to be all sorts of jobs that existed in previous centuries that barely exist at all now. When people began to drive cars, the jobs associated with horses declined. We are in the midst of a similar Covidian revolution. It was going to happen anyway, but Covid 19 and the need to live virtually is going to make it happen more quickly. Those of us who are stuck at home are inessential workers, but those of us who are both inessential and unable to work from home might as well be gas lamplighters trying to compete with Edison.

Monday 20 April 2020

Journalism is missing the mood of the country

Twitter is an interesting metaphor for infectious diseases. I write something. It might be seen be some of my followers, but it has to compete with what everyone else is writing so it might be ignored. If someone retweets, it might be seen by any of their followers, but just occasionally a tweet captures the mood and suddenly it spreads and spreads way beyond what I might have expected when I wrote it.
Recently I wrote:

Journalism is missing the mood the country. We don't want blame, we don't want argument as if this were a General Election, we want a contribution to the national effort to get us out of this crisis. We want hope optimism and faith in our country. We need less negativity.

This tweet has been liked and retweeted more than any other tweet I have written. Some people objected. It became clear from reading their responses that this was usually because they were hostile to the Government either because they voted for someone else at the last election or because they voted Remain in 2016. They too were missing the mood of the country.

What strikes me most from my online interactions is that ordinary Brits have gone beyond politics. We understand that we are not fighting a General Election. We are fighting the worst pandemic in the past one hundred years.

Morale does matter. So does national unity and a sense of common purpose. When Boris was sick, and Dominic Raab said he was a fighter, some journalists didn’t get it. They objected that it implied that those who died were weak. It didn’t. Raab was simply expressing hope. He was being positive. If Captain Tom got sick, we would all call him a fighter. We would do so no matter the outcome.

A person or a people who believe they will win in the end is much more likely to do so. This is why morale matters so much to armies. It has on numerous occasions seen a smaller force beat a larger force. Morale can cause miracles not merely in battle but in illness. Being brave, optimistic and full of faith does not guarantee that you get better, but it helps. Thinking your case is hopeless and you are bound to die sometimes guarantees that you do. This is what the country gets that journalists don’t.

I have been impressed by a few journalists in the past weeks, but not many. I think the BBC Horizon team have done an outstanding job in helping us understand the nature of the illness we face. Some economic journalists have done a good job in explaining the economic consequences of the worldwide lockdown. One or two political journalists have given us some help in understanding Government thinking. But journalists for the most part have disgraced themselves.

There are people I usually enjoy reading who frequently make interesting points about society and politics who are simply showing their lack of knowledge today. Too many journalists who think there is only one story to write about skim a few medical journals and then think they are qualified to tell the rest of us what should be done. They go from one extreme to other and pretend to have a knowledge that they don’t.

Twenty-four-hour news programmes are full of relentless negativity. They pick up on one issue such as ventilators go with that for a few days and then obsess about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Next we get comparisons between countries. This country has more deaths than that country as if it is some sort of Olympic medal table. Why can’t you get PPE? Because everyone else in the world wants it too. But shouldn’t you have prepared? Would you like to apologise for your failure?

The worst of all is the daily press briefings. We listen to some of the best minds in the country explaining to us what is being done and why only to have a series of ignorant childish questions from journalists trying to score political points and trip up a minister. No wonder most of us switch off when we get to that point.

There has never previously in the whole world been such a lockdown. The only insight from the Sunday Times was that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

The first thing you learn in history is that people make mistakes. Faced with unprecedented situations they make lots of mistakes. When I first started reading about Covid 19 back in January I read everything I could find on the subject because I was planning to make a trip to Central Asia. I told myself I’d be OK and booked my flight. I was lucky that it was cancelled, or I might be stuck there yet. I would have made a terrible mistake otherwise.

I didn’t read a single journalist in January or February who predicted that Britain would be locked down in March. I read lots of journalists who said that Covid 19 would be no worse than seasonal flu and we had nothing to worry about. I didn’t read a single journalist who in mid-January accurately predicted how the virus would spread worldwide nor one who said that we should lockdown immediately.

If we had had the modern journalist profession in 1940, we would have lost the war. They would have complained about the Governments disastrous mistakes at Narvik.  It should have known that the Maginot line wouldn’t work. Journalists would have demanded that Churchill should have been immediately sacked for the defeat at Dunkirk. They would have described our situation as hopeless and would have ridiculed our ability to fight them on the beaches and would have said it was mere arrogance to suppose that our pathetic little country could have a finest hour. After all the Germans do everything so much more efficiently than we do. They would have listed all the mistakes our country had made and called it insight. The British people however would not have listened to them then, just as we don’t read them now. Newspapers are going out of business. They deserve to. 

Saturday 18 April 2020

All men are created equal except those who catch Covid 19

Covid 19 knows nothing about equality. The people most at risk are the elderly, especially where groups of them are stuck together in care homes. The least at risk are probably children. People living in sparsely populated countries like New Zealand are less at risk because their natural state is to be socially distant. Even within Britain you are probably safer living on a croft in Wester Ross than in a big city like London or Glasgow. It also turns out that there is a far greater chance of dying if you are a man.

Shall we have jokes about Man Covid 19 now?

Feminists have been telling us for years that men and women are completely equal, but no matter how much they tell Nature, she he it or ze disagrees. Women and men do not respond equally to disease. This is one of the reasons why women on average live longer than men. Women have two X chromosomes while men have an X and a Y. It is this that makes it easier for women to fight off illness because the X Chromosome contains strands of microRNA that have an important role in battling viruses and other forms of illness including cancer.  Having two Xs is therefore advantageous.

There may well be evolutionary reasons for this. While men’s role in fathering children can take seconds, mothers need to spend 9 months incubating and giving birth and then years looking after the child. If the father died, the child still had a good chance of growing up, if the woman died, the child would most likely die too.

The feminist argument about inequality must therefore be seen not merely in terms of women being treated unfairly by society, but also in terms of men being treated unfairly by genetics. Some women may not reach the top of their profession because of sexism, but some men die much earlier from illness or other causes simply because they are men. Which would you rather be less successful or dead?

The thing that makes one person a man and another person a woman is the difference in our chromosomes. It is this that causes one to be able to be a father and the other to be able to become a mother. There may be advantages in having an X and Y, but there are also disadvantages. But anyway, we could not have humanity at all if there were not these differences.

The immunological disadvantage that affects men is not something they can choose. If a man proclaims that he is a woman, he will still have exactly the same chromosomes as he did before his proclamation. Even if he underwent surgery removing some parts of his body and adding other parts, his chromosomes would be unchanged. He would not gain the immunological advantages of a woman, for the simple reason that he could give birth to children and so the evolutionary advantage of childbearing would not be given him.

The Pre-Covidian world of gender transition and supposedly being able to choose whether one is a man or woman has been made obsolete when we live in a Post-Covidian world where what matters is infection and the immunity that is determined by the chromosomes we are born with.

To be a woman with all of the advantages and disadvantages that go with it is inexorably tied up with being a mother. Being a woman is a matter of chromosomes that cause the bodies of girls to become the bodies of potential mothers. It is no more a choice than choosing to be more or less vulnerable to infection with Covid 19.

The same biology that causes the nurse to say you have a baby girl, causes her to grow up to have children be in most respects less strong than her husband, but better able to fight off a killer virus. None of this involves a choice.

To be a man with all its advantages and disadvantages is to be someone who can father children. It is for this reason that men are more vulnerable to infection. They are more vulnerable so that there can be life.

When understood properly men and women are fundamentally different, but complimentary. We have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses. It is for this reason that we are drawn to each other in order to work better as a marital team.

Nature is right now reminding us that being a man and a woman is something objective.  It is not something you can choose, and it is not something you can change.

In a world where we rely on science to keep us safe from infection it is worth realising the claims of transgender theorists are impossible to prove scientifically. No experiment could possibly disprove my statement that men cannot become women.

The idea that someone can be biologically male while also being a woman is to suppose that it is not biology that makes someone a woman, but rather a choice. It is to suppose that chromosomes are objective, but gender identity is subjective. But where is the scientific evidence for this unlikely claim? What experiment shows that human beings alone in nature can choose to be men and women while bulls and cows have no choice at all?  

For too long Pre-Covidian Academia has led humanity along a false path first when feminism asserted that women can do everything as well as men and men can do everything as well a women. In ignoring the essential and fundamental differences between men and women feminism made both sexes unhappy because it made us fight against each other (the battle of the sexes) rather than work together.  

Worse still in the next stage of the battle transgender theorists have attempted to eradicate the distinction between men and women so that it is no longer possible objectively to state what a woman and a man is. Those feminists who complain about this forget that it is they who began the idea that men and women are not different.

The idea that a man could choose to be a woman would not have occurred to a previous age that struggled to feed and clothe itself. It came from the decadence of too much abundance, too much money and too much time to waste on making distinctions that are without difference such as the one that supposedly exists between sex and gender.

Now men and women, girls and boys are fighting a common invisible enemy and we need medicine to focus on keeping us all alive rather than trying to change us into something that we are not and can never become.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

A Hawk a Dove or an Enza

There are essentially three positions on the lockdown.

1. We should get out sooner (Hawks).

2. We should get out later (Doves).

3. There should not be a lock down at all (Enzas).

Which is correct? We don’t know. The correct decision depends on knowing how many people have been infected with Covid 19 around the world and what percentage have died. We don’t accurately know either of these things. Some people have been infected and got well without being tested or even consulting a doctor. Likewise, some people have died without anyone diagnosing them as having Covid 19, while some people who have been described as dying with or from Covid 19 would have died anyway.

But Governments have to make decisions in real time, just like generals conducting a battle. They don’t get to read all the history books, see where they went wrong and do it all over again. Generals make mistakes when they don’t have all the information, they need available right now, so too do Governments. But still in the next few weeks our Government will have to make a decision and they will probably have to make it with limited knowledge. Let’s look at the options.

I suspect most people would think the third (Enza) option was crazy, but historically this is the one our Government has taken on each of the prior occasions that there has been a major pandemic in the last hundred years or so.

In 1918-1919 Spanish Flu killed upwards of 100 million worldwide and 228,000 in Britain. It probably originated in Kansas. It had a Case Mortality Rate of 2% and is Level 5 on the Pandemic Severity Index.

In 1957-1958 Asian Flu killed between 1 and 4 million people world-wide and 14,000 in Britain. It originated in China. It had a Case Mortality Rate of between 0.1–0.5% and is at Level 2 on the Pandemic Severity Index.

In 1968-1969 Hong Kong Flu killed around 1 million people worldwide, 30,000 in Britain. It originated in Hong Kong. It had a Case Mortality Rate similar to Asian Flu and was likewise Level 2 on the Pandemic Severity Index.

In each of these previous pandemics, there was no lockdown. The illness went through the population and people were treated by doctors and hospitals as best they could. I don’t think there was even a suggestion that people would be kept at home for long periods.

The problem we have today is that we don’t know the severity of Covid 19. If it were a Level 2 pandemic it might have made sense not to have a lockdown. But what if it were a level 3, 4 or 5? It may in time become clear that the Case Mortality rate for Covid 19 is similar to Hong Kong or Asian Flu. Considerably worse than ordinary seasonal flu, but manageable and unavoidable anyway. We are all going to have to get out sometime. But Covid 19 might be worse. We just don’t know yet.

This is where we are all going to face a genuine moral dilemma. Until there is a vaccine, which may arrive quickly or may not arrive at all, the only way we can get through this and back to normal life is if enough people catch Covid 19 get over it and develop immunity. As the proportion of the population who has had Covid 19 rises it becomes less and less likely that everyone else will get it.

Meanwhile the British and indeed the world economy is going to have the worst depression in living memory. This too will have an effect on health and healthcare. Life expectancy in poor countries is lower than in wealthy countries.

Our way of life is something that we have defended in war. But our way of life is made up of the jobs we do and the standard of living that on average we have. We would not have the present British way of life if we had a massively poorer economy.  

The First World War cost Britain around 750,000 lives

The Second World War cost Britain around 400,000 lives.

How many lives would be willing to sacrifice to protect our way of life today?

This is where the whole thing becomes incredibly morally difficult. We don’t know yet how dangerous Covid 19 is. We don’t even know how many lives the Government’s lockdown strategy is saving. Someone who is kept well now by the lockdown might get sick later when it is eased. We can’t all cease working indefinitely, because the economy would completely collapse. So how do you save as many lives as possible while also realising that damaging the economy also costs lives?

As a short-term measure, I think the Governments lockdown strategy is morally correct. Many lives may be saved at the expense of some inconvenience and temporary though severe damage to the economy. If the NHS had been overwhelmed many people would have died unnecessarily. It is obvious from the experience of other countries that when a healthcare system becomes overwhelmed horrific scenes can happen.

But we are all going to have to accept that there is a balance between extending lockdown and damaging the economy and also that quite probably we’re not going to be in a position to know definitely when to begin easing the lockdown. Hopefully the experience of other countries easing restrictions will aid us. But this is as much a moral question as a scientific one. Scientists cannot tell us how to value our way of life. They cannot tell us how to weigh up the lives of people who may die now because of Covid 19 versus people who may die in the future because we cannot afford to spend as much on healthcare as we would like.

What then should we do? We should listen to the scientists and be guided by them, but we must be brave enough to realise that it is a moral and a political decision to balance the needs and the wishes of the whole population against the unknown and unknowable. 

I suggest a few more weeks and gradually carefully, step by step we should begin to open up our schools, our workplaces and our streets.

I had a little bird
its name was Enza
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

Which bird did you pick to come in your window? A Hawk a Dove or an Enza? How sure are you that your bird brings with it life or death?  For each individual an invisible coronavirus can kill the whole world leaving him with nothing but a certain hope about a next world equally unseen and about which there is no proof, but merely faith

Don’t dare to criticise those who have to make this decision for all of us. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” is a horrible responsibility for science and for morality.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Some holes in letter from Arbroath

The mistake that we most frequently make about history is that the past is like the present.  Scottish nationalists for instance think that the Declaration of Arbroath tells them something about Scotland in 2020. This is partly because too many of them are stuck in a badly understood version of medieval Scottish history where England and Scotland fought battles resembling Old Firm Derbies. More importantly it’s because they fail to even understand the context of those battles, who they were between and why various Scottish nobles decided to write to the Pope in of all places Avignon.

The most important thing to realise about the disputes and battles that took place in Britain after the Norman Conquest in 1066 is that they were fundamentally feudal disputes between Norman kings and barons. William the Conqueror conquered not merely what we today called England, but he and his fellow Normans became the dominant forces across much of the British Isles.

In 1072 Malcolm III of Scotland signed the Treaty of Abernethy where he paid homage to William the Conqueror acknowledging him as his feudal overlord. So, the Normans conquered Scotland too. Disputes continued between the successors to these kings, battles were fought, peace treaties signed. With the Treaty of Falaise in 1174 William I of Scotland accepted that Scotland would be subordinate to the English crown.  It was this context that led Edward I of England to suppose that he had a role in Scottish affairs. This was not least because the Scottish nobles invited him to arbitrate when the Scottish crown fell vacant in 1290. Edward did so on condition that he be considered Lord Paramount of Scotland taking us back to 1072 and the conquest.

This was not so much a dispute between countries, let alone nations. People in 1314 did not think in those terms not least because they rarely left the villages in which they were born. A kingdom and the concept of feudal allegiance was a very different thing to a modern nation state. This is why it is senseless to apply nationalism to a period when it didn’t exist.  

The struggle in Scotland in this period was a feudal battle for supremacy between kings and barons. The cause of the various battles so celebrated by Scottish nationalists was primarily a dispute about who should succeed to the Scottish crown. Scots fought against Scots just as much as we fought against the English and anyway the nobles and the kings were all Normans anyway.

There was wrong on all sides. Robert the Bruce was excommunicated for the murder of John Comyn in 1306. This was in time lifted, the Pope threatened to excommunicate Bruce again if he did not make peace with England in 1317 and did indeed re-excommunicate him in 1320 for his failure to make that peace. The Pope had already recognised the English crown's overlordship over Scotland in 1305. The Scottish nobles wrote to the Pope in 1320 from Arbroath both to appeal against Bruce’s excommunication and to assert that the Scottish crown was not feudally subordinate. They did so by appealing to history.

The story that they give about the Scots journeying from Scythia to Spain and then to Scotland via Ireland is a rather garbled history of the migration of the Celts. The Scottish nobles claim then that “Britons it [i.e. the Scots] first drove out, the Picts it utterly destroyed”, but who do we suppose these Britons and Picts were if not also Celts. They too followed the same journey as the Scots from somewhere in Europe or perhaps Asia. Their language at some point branched off from that of the Scots, but they were of the same family.

The whole of Great Britain had probably once been settled by people speaking a language like Welsh (Brittonic) while at some point the language in Ireland had diverged (Goidelic). But when the Scoti migrated to present day Scotland they didn’t slaughter the Ancient Britons (i.e. Picts), living there to the last man. Rather they merged, just as in England the Anglo-Saxons merged with the Ancient Britons who lived there.

But what was most ignored by the Scottish nobles is that they themselves were rather distantly related to their ancestors from “Scythia”. If we read the names of those who signed the Declaration of Arbroath, we find that a good number of them use the prefix “de” as indeed did Robert de Brus. The Scottish Nobility was no more Scottish than the English nobility was English. The Anglo-Scottish wars were not fundamentally between England and Scotland at all. They were a family dispute between various Normans who bore next to no relation to the people who had originally inhabited either England or Scotland.

It is this which makes modern depictions of English kings with posh accents fighting Scots speaking like Glaswegians so ridiculous.

The Norman Scottish Barons were not asking the Pope for independence. They write “for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English.” It is meaningless to interpret this in modern SNP terms. The Scottish Barons did not want to be feudally subordinate to the English crown. This has nothing to do with independence, because concepts of independence were not thought of at this time because we were talking of kingdoms rather than nation states. The only sovereignty was the sovereign. Only he was independent.

The whole letter is about feudalism. The barons claim that the Scots have held the land “free of all servitude ever since” they arrived, but they are talking about being feudally subordinate not about freedom or slavery. Most Scots were serfs at this time and these Barons were not about to free their slaves no matter what the Pope said. Thus, too when the barons argue that “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself” they are only talking about themselves and their king not being feudally subordinate. They simply do not mean the freedom that we all take for granted today in Scotland. 

It is bizarre then that Scottish nationalists appeal to a letter written to a Pope about a feudal dispute between Anglo-Norman barons and kings and Scoto-Norman barons and kings. No one had freedom, nor independence in the modern sense at this point in the British Isles apart from the kings and to a lesser extent the barons. The hundred who remained alive, would be fighting for someone else’s freedom and if they won would be returned to slavery.

Anyone marching virtually to Arbroath should realise he already has more freedom than almost anyone in 1320.

Why were they writing to the Pope anyway? The reason was that everyone in Britain at that time would have seen themselves as subordinate to the ruling of the Pope and the Church. But it is the distinguishing feature of British history that we rejected this in the Reformation. It is this event not a letter in 1320 that made us what we are today.

In the long run the Scoto-Norman barons who wrote the Declaration of Arbroath won their battle. The Scottish crown is not subordinate to the English crown, rather it took it over. When Elizabeth I died childless, the Scottish King James VI became the English King James I. He was the overlord.

If the Pope who replied to the Scottish nobles could have seen into the future he would have been delighted for this was exactly what he advised

Wherefore we ask … that you take into the most careful consideration the countless dangers and the losses of lives and goods which have been caused by the strife of the said king and Robert in times past and which, it is to be feared, will arise likewise from it in future unless it be bound up by union and concord; that you turn your minds to the profit of this unity and peace; and that, as far as in you lies, you do not allow the day thereto appointed (as aforesaid) to pass without it's firm establishment.

The Pope answered that England and Scotland should be united and at peace. It is hard to see therefore what Scottish nationalists have to complain about. Both the wishes of the barons and the Pope were fulfilled though we took a few centuries to achieve it. Neither Scottish kings nor people are subordinate we are all equally British citizens with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. Instead of dwelling on ancient battles about feudal supremacy it might be wiser to unite in fighting a present battle that needs all of our energy.


Thursday 9 April 2020

Chinese lies cost lives

It is clear now that Covid 19 originated in Wuhan China sometime in November or early December 2019. It might have been stopped if the Chinese Government had taken the necessary steps early enough. Instead they tried to prevent Chinese doctors from telling the truth about the illness and repeatedly lied to the rest of the world about its nature, the danger it posed and the true facts and figures which may have enabled us to protect ourselves against a deadly illness. A large number of deaths just might have been prevented and the economic damage, which will kill a lot of people too, might have been avoided.

Every country has made mistakes. We are fighting against the unknown. We don’t know the number of people worldwide who have been infected. We don’t know the true death toll. For this reason, we don’t know exactly what percentage of people who are infected will die. One of the reasons we don’t know this is that we can’t trust the Chinese data, because we can’t trust the Chinese Government to tell the truth.

There is a problem with regard to truth in China. It is in part a result of China being a one party nominally communist state. Telling the truth or believing the wrong thing can get you into trouble with the Chinese state. But this ought not to prevent the Chinese Government from telling the truth to the rest of the world. Why is it continually trying to avoid blame by inventing bizarre conspiracy theories? The answer is that more important to the Chinese Government even that communism is the need to save face rather than tell the truth.

The Western system of morality is derived from Christianity and depends on the idea that I have a conscience that tells me that I have done wrong. It doesn’t matter if I get away with an immoral act, I still feel guilt and after confessing my guilt and doing penance receive redemption. What matters is the truth of what I did. I either did it or didn’t do it. God knows my sin even if I can hide it. For Western morality what is shameful is if do wrong without confessing it. Getting away with it is the shameful thing. It is for this reason that in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov cannot live with the sin of murder, eventually confesses and achieves redemption through exile.

The Chinese system of morality is quite different it is not based on the individuality of the Christian standing before God with his sin. Rather Chinese morality is based on Miànzi [面子] which is usually translated as face. We don’t really have this concept in the West though you sometimes find something similar in medieval poetry like the Nibelungenlied.

What matters most for Christian morality is reality. Did you sin or did you not? Even if you get away with it, God will record your sins and reveal them on the day of judgement. By contrast what matters in Chinese morality is appearance. How do I appear to other people?

Good conduct in Chinese society is based not on Western individualism but rather on the group acting so that no one loses face. Rather than admit to doing wrong the tendency is for the group to hide the shame so that everyone saves face.

While people in the West are encouraged to recognise our faults and to confess them, the Chinese tendency is to hide them. This means that the Chinese have a different relationship to truth. They say what the situation demands, so that both parties retain face. For this reason, it is permitted indeed obligatory to lie if doing so preserves either one’s own or someone else’s face.

The Chinese Government and the Chinese people in general are not remotely honest about Chinese history. They do not discuss, the horrors of the Revolution, the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. It as if the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests never happened. This is why the Chinese Government is so concerned to prevent free access to the Internet. It’s because it would lose face if the people knew about these things. In turn many if not most Chinese citizens do not want to know anything shameful about their country’s past or present because that too would mean they would lose face.

Faced with a devastating new illness the Chinese Government found it shameful that once more a new threat to humanity had arisen from one of its markets. Rather than face the truth and deal with the reality, it chose to save face. But appearance cannot compete with a new illness that multiples exponentially. But by the time the Chinese Government was forced to face the truth it was already too late. Covid 19 had escaped from Wuhan, escaped from Hubei and had flown around the world with the Chinese New Year celebrations.

We need a new relationship with China that is not based on saving face, but which instead is based on honesty, truth and an end to lying, because the reality is that Chinese morality is killing people all around the world.

Monday 6 April 2020

A hypocrite or a snitch?

Last week the Scottish Sun had a scoop. It had a tape of Alex Salmond’s lawyer Gordon Jackson QC discussing the case including naming two of the prosecution witnesses who were supposed to be anonymous. This week the same paper had another scoop. It had photographs of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood failing to follow the advice that she herself had given everyone else. I made the comment that perhaps Chief Medical Officers in Scotland take the Hipocritic oath.

There is no question that both of these people behaved badly and perhaps illegally. It is unlikely that Calderwood did any harm by visiting her second home in Fife, but we cannot expect the public to follow advice if Calderwood herself is unwilling to do so. It is indeed harmless for one family to make an unnecessary journey into the countryside, but if everyone made such journeys the chance of Covid 19 spreading would be higher. One person sunbathing in a park is harmless, but if thousands go to the same park it will eventually make people ill and some of them will die.

But what worries me about these two scoops is not so much the behaviour of Calderwood and Jackson. It is the behaviour of those who made the video recording and took the photographs.

Someone sitting on a train must have recognised Jackson and must have listened to his conversation. This person must have decided to record and film it. A button was pushed on a phone or similar device for a reason. So too someone who lived near Calderwood’s second home must have recognised her and known that she was Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer and that she was acting contrary to the advice she had given. This person perhaps one of Calderwood’s neighbours decided to begin taking photographs surreptitiously.

The people who recorded the conversation and took the photographs did not take this evidence of wrongdoing to the Police. Instead they took them to the Scottish Sun. Why? We don’t know what if anything they received in return, but we do know that in the past newspapers have been generous to those who provide them with scoops. We are left to wonder whether it was the prospect of such generosity that meant these people began recording and taking photographs.

It was once commonplace in Russian for people to eavesdrop on their neighbours and to report them to the authorities. In 1945 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested because he wrote derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was sentenced to 8 years in a GULAG. There were numerous cases of snooping in those days and numerous people were imprisoned or worse because their neighbours saw or heard something, they could inform about to the authorities. I don’t want to live in a society where I can’t trust my neighbours to mind their own business and have to watch what I say in pubs and busses and trains in case someone snitches.

I spent quite a lot of time in Russia and snooping and informing is frowned upon like nothing else. This is because the only way to survive in a totalitarian society is to have a private life which is truly private. Freedom was something you had with your friends and family and perhaps with your neighbours. It was only free if others didn’t peer in and didn’t listen with a cup to the wall. You don’t snoop, you don’t inform. Those who do inhabit the innermost circle of Hell with the greatest informer of them all.

We live in a situation right now which is as close to wartime as any of us have ever experienced without there actually being a war. Just as in wartime it is vital that we follow what the authorities tell us to do. It is also vital that we don’t argue too much about what we are told to do or think that we know better. It would have been absurd if reporters had questioned the Government’s invasion strategy in June1944. Imagine if one reporter argued that we should have invaded in April in the Pas-de-Calais, while another said we should have chosen the French Mediterranean coast in July. Such arguments would at best be a distraction founded on ignorance, at worse they would have undermined the invasion itself. There will be time enough for argument when all this is finished, for now we need unity, simple messages and we need to do what we are told.

This is the greatest loss of freedom that any of us have ever experienced. It makes our society temporarily resemble somewhere without a democracy. It is tolerable only because it is temporary and necessary and because most of us choose to obey rather than be forced. It becomes intolerable if someone’s lapse is snooped on and if there are informers who tell the police that they saw someone doing what they shouldn’t.

Our joint effort to keep ourselves and society safe requires that we overlook if someone takes their dog for a walk twice rather than once in a day. If I must go to the shops once a week but forget something and go again the next day it is a misdemeanour that can be overlooked otherwise the pressure will grow in the cooker. If my journey is unnecessary, because all alone I sneak out in the middle of the night to a deserted beach, then let it be on my conscience, because our motto should be “first do no harm” and I did no harm.  No one should record my misdemeanour even if I am the Chief Medical Officer, the Prime Minister or the Queen. Let us be gentle with enforcing our rules and forgiving with our rule breakers but let us above all be disciplined with ourselves.   

Snoopers and informers will make living in Britain feel like living in a tyranny. They should not be rewarded either by the papers or by anyone else, they should be shunned as something unclean.

Sunday 5 April 2020

Lockdown fever

Quite a lot of us are going to spend considerable amounts of time at home in the next few months. Social distancing will mean that we will have almost no social life. There will be no opportunities to meet up and most of us will not have the daily routine of commuting and sitting in an office. All of these things are happening because of a physical illness, but it will affect how we think and how we feel too.

I believe that the mind has a very powerful affect on the body. People who believe they are going to get well, who remain cheerful and hopeful and full of faith have a better chance of recovery than those who don’t. But when faced with an unknown unseen danger each of us has uncertainty, fears and anxieties about what might or might not happen in the months ahead. But these fears won’t help us, and they may hinder our morale. Better by far to be optimistic, not least because it is the realistic response to this illness.

We all have both physical as well as mental health. Most of us think that mental health is to do with other people, but this is a mistake. In response to certain events each of us is capable of feeling grief, profound sadness and trauma. If you had been a soldier in the First World War you too might have suffered what was then called “shell shock”.

Some of us are better socially than others. Some of us have the good fortune to have a loving husband or wife, brothers and sisters, friends and relations. But lots of people don’t have these things. Marriages don’t work out. Friends move away. Sometimes we move to a new place where we don’t know anyone. Older people in particular frequently live alone.

Some people deal well with being on their own, others struggle, but loneliness is a huge problem and it can kill just like a virus can kill.

There is no shame in being alone and being lonely. It could happen to any one of us and probably will in the next few months. We need to think about those people in our lives who may be lonely. Why not make friends with someone who doesn’t have many friends? Make a phone call, chat on Skype. Make contact with those you know and perhaps don't know even if we all have to keep our distance. 

I believe social media can help as well as hinder mental health. Those people who shout and swear at people they don’t know should think about the damage they might be doing. On the other hand, sharing friendly messages, discussing issues in a pleasant and reasonable way can bring each of us some social contact even if we are stuck at home. We can look after each other’s mental health even when we may for a time have to keep our distance. We can't catch anything on Facebook or Twitter. 

Most mental illness is short term and in response to specific circumstances. There is little or no stigma about this. No one judges Prince Harry because the death of his mother was traumatic. Likewise, if someone’s wife dies and he suffers a period of depression most people would consider this to be normal. So too if a teacher is off work because of stress they are very unlikely to suffer any prejudice.

There are however mental health conditions which are chronic. They are sometimes called scary words, but they may also be just long-term depression for which the person has to take some pills every day to stop it coming back.  The biggest problem people with these types of conditions face is stigma. The prejudice is worse than the illness. It is for this reason that people don’t talk about their illness. They are scared of how they will be judged.

The thing is that most people with long term mental health conditions can live ordinary lives with few difficulties. One of your colleagues may have such a condition. They probably don’t talk about it, partly because medical matters are private, but also because they just want to get on with their lives.

But would you make friends with someone you knew had a long-term mental health condition? What about if it had a scary name? If you were single would you go out with such a person? Would you marry them?

This is the stigma that Prince Harry knows nothing about.

Mental illness like physical illness can be long term or short term. Someone can break a leg and get better or they can lose a leg and be permanently an amputee. But while no one would attach a stigma to someone with a broken leg there is frequently stigma about both physical and mental disability.

Each of us could face a long-term mental health disability. It can happen because of our genetics. It can happen because of trauma such as warfare. It can happen because a short-term depression turns into a long term one. When we get older, we may suffer dementia, a stroke or some other mental disability connected with ageing.

But whether long term or short term, physical or mental each illness could happen to any of us and may well. But there is good news. Just as people with physical illnesses can do amazing things, so too can people with mental illnesses. The same determination that the physically disabled show when they take part in sports, the mentally disabled can show in living completely normal lives.

If you are struggling with mental health, be positive. Reach out to others if you can. Above all be patient. It will get better. There will be smiles again. There will be laughter. There will be love. There will be blue birds. Just you wait and see. 

We all face both a mental and a physical battle in the months ahead. Be kind to those who are ill and judge not. Illness like death and disability “comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.”