From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Baroness Barran and the Epidemic of Loneliness

January 8. The Guardian runs a piece on loneliness over Christmas:

“A volunteer phone call service for older and vulnerable social housing residents and a homemade Christmas food delivery service are among a number of initiatives being singled out for praise as the government announces a £7.5m fund to tackle the epidemic of loneliness in England.”*

It’s the kind of story that makes you want to give up as a writer altogether.

Last Spring I published a book whose penultimate chapter sought to outlaw forever the phrase “epidemic of loneliness” which was then in widespread use and fuelling what Fay Bound Alberti described as a “moral panic”. I reiterated my arguments in sundry interviews and blogs.

At the time it seemed as if history was on my side. The casual use of a medical term as a metaphor for a social condition surely could not survive the arrival of a real epidemic. In reality, severe loneliness was nowhere near as prevalent as was claimed, and it was in no sense an infectious disease. There could be no vaccine against it (though there are continuing reports of attempts to find a pill to reduce loneliness).

But here, eight months on, with Covid running rampant, the phrase leads a story in a reputable newspaper with no attempt at authorial distancing. Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, never the brightest candle on the parliamentary Christmas cake, is elsewhere quoted as saying that the covid pandemic has “created a silent epidemic of loneliness”,** forgetting that such an “epidemic” originally preceded the pandemic. As has been the case throughout, the Office for National Statistics scores for ‘often/always’ lonely have barely moved. The latest figure, released today, covering the Christmas period of 22 December to 3 January, is unchanged at 6%.***

In part it is just lazy journalism by the Guardian, copying across the language of press releases. More broadly it is a legacy of the Government’s initial loneliness strategy published in 2018,**** and the concomitant appointment of the world’s first “loneliness minister”, now Baroness Diana Barran, who is lodged in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport [Who she? Good works on domestic abuse, but perhaps most notable for her father, no less than Count Cosmo Diodono de Bosdari – straight out of The Leopard] Then as now, there is a vast mis-match between ambition and investment. In 2018, £20m was to be spread round various projects to achieve a reconnection of British society. In the new initiative, pocket money is to be spent “bringing society and communities together” in the midst of a crisis where the standard currency for state intervention is counted in billions.

The founding strategy was reviewed in January 2020.***** The Department was still working on measuring the problem, stated to be “somewhere between 6% and 18% of the population” (p. 3), a gap of about eight million lonely people. It reported on various small-scale ventures designed to “celebrate and better support organisations who work tirelessly to help people build stronger connections and develop their sense of belonging.” Looking forward, just as coronavirus reached our shores, the review promised that “The Minister for Civil Society will continue to lead this work and to chair the cross-government Ministerial Group on Tackling Loneliness, ensuring government commitments are delivered and built on so that far fewer people feel alone and disconnected over the next decade.”

There is a certain charm in the survival of this kind of misty goodwill at a time when everything is more desperate and much, much more expensive.

It is also simply a distraction. The main causes of searing loneliness are systemic failures in mental health care, inadequate access to GPs and hospitals especially by those with disabilities, declining community services, both professional and voluntary, and material deprivation including housing. The only short-term counter to these pressures during the pandemic has been greater neighbourhood engagement with the lives of those separated from each other by lockdown and shielding, and increasingly sophisticated use of the connecting technologies of communication.

In the short term, the balance sheet has yet to be drawn up. Beyond the pandemic, the solutions will only be found in large-scale structural reforms.

* https://www.theguardian.com/global/commentisfree/2020/dec/20/pandemic-behavior-coronavirus-plague-defoe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

**https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/05/poll-reveals-scale-of-home-alone-christmas-in-the-uk-this-year?

CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other***https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritain/8january2021.

****HM Government, A connected society A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change (London: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (October 2018).

*****https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/loneliness-annual-report-the-first-year

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: One flag or two?

January 7.  In Zoomworld, we have all become conscious of the backgrounds behind our heads as we talk. 

Bookcases are the default for those whose business is words, but then which spines should be in view (not my Elmore Leonard collection, safely out of sight in a bedroom), and for regular dialogists, should there be occasional changes on the shelves to indicate that they are more than wallpaper?

You may be certain that serious thought has been given to the sets in front of which we are addressed by our political masters.

Boris Johnson’s handlers long ago determined that a rather dull, bookless room in Number 10 should be enlivened by two union jacks, identically furled so that the bright red of the cross of St. George is prominent.  Apart from the panelling in the room and a slogan tacked to the podium, there is nothing else to inform the eye. The clearly brand-new flags convey the principal message.  Never mind that Johnson and his Government, through Brexit and the clumsy handling of Covid negotiations with the nations have done what may be irreparable damage to the Union.  Shame was surgically removed from Johnson’s psyche long before he became a public figure. 

Thus on Monday the third lockdown is announced from Downing Street with the two flags just to the left of his podium as the Prime Minister looks at the camera.  At a subsequent news conference they are placed on either side.

We live in a democracy.  Johnson’s broadcast is followed a day later by a response from the Leader of the Opposition.  Here again the set has been carefully designed.  Behind Keir Starmer’s head and shoulders is a dark screen to minimise any distraction.  The only other object on view is, again, a union jack, also on his left side.  It looks exactly like Johnson’s, freestanding on its pole, once more furled to foreground the cross of St. George.  It is clearly unused, very definitely not a banner that a trade union once marched behind, or that had been waved on a barricade, shot through with bullets by the forces of reaction.

So what does Starmer’s flag mean?

Most obviously that the Party is desperate to escape the label of unpatriotic that was hung around Corbyn’s neck, most notoriously when he failed to blame the Russians for the Salisbury novichok poisoning.

More generally that Starmer sees his role in the midst of the pandemic as a loyal echo of the official message.  In a five-minute address he makes only the most generalised criticism of the Conservatives.  “There are serious questions for the Government to answer”, he says, furrowing his brow, mentioning the wasted 22 billion on testing, and the recurrent delays in announcing actions.  But, he concludes, “whatever our quarrels with the government and the prime minister, the country now needs us to come together”.  Most of the speech repeats Johnson’s vaguely uplifting call for a national endeavour.  It ends by appropriating the Queen: “We will recover.  We’ll rebuild. We’ll see each other again.”

There is a recognisable short-term strategy at work, and without question the country needs a collective effort, as Johnson and/or Starmer puts it, to win the race between the vaccine and the virus.

But it will not do.  If we are to end this crisis with any sense of forward propulsion, Starmer has to ride two horses, wave two flags.  The delays reflect the incompetence of a government recruited from Brexit loyalists and led by a serial liar.  The maladministration, from PPE shortages to testing scandals, to the likely failure of the vaccination timetable, is a product of a semi-corrupt faith in the private sector and the hollowing out of local democracy.  The immense variations in every aspect of the pandemic experience, from infection and death rates to coping with school closures, are a consequence of decades of  growing inequality which have urgently to be reversed.  If the union jack is waved, there must be some sense of how the loyalty of the Scots in particular can be regained by a party whose representation north of the border has been all but wiped out. 

In the midst of the Second World War, Churchill viewed any attempt to plan for peacetime as a distraction from the fight with Hitler.  But in 1942, when victory was far from certain, Beveridge wrote his plan and Labour won the 1945 landslide because the Tories were, rightly, not trusted to implement it. 

We need to come out of this national struggle with a vision for the future already conceived and articulated.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Time Divides

Boris Johnson in his days as Mayor of London

January 5, 2021. At first it was a calculation of infection scores. My son and his wife and four-month-old baby had found a loophole in the Tier 4 regulations and driven up to spend Christmas with us. As the year ended, it seemed prudent to delay the return to London.

In Shropshire, in common with other counties on the western fringe of England, the infection rate is still relatively low. In the last week of 2020 it stood at 150 per hundred thousand, half the national average. In Waltham Forest, my son’s borough in East London, the rate was six times higher at 913. Safer to stay here, with the clean winds blowing in from the Welsh hills.

Then two further developments. A neighbour rings. A couple in a house at the bottom of our lane are in hospital with Covid. Both are in the middle years of life, but are seriously unwell, one is receiving oxygen. On the other side of the lane, a woman whose land abuts our garden is also stricken, though still at home. That’s three cases in twenty nearby villagers, the equivalent of 15,000 per 100,000. So much for aggregate statistics.

Later in the day, Boris Johnson is back on our television. There is to be a complete lockdown in England and the vulnerable must once more shield themselves. No one should travel except for limited and necessary purposes. No end date is given. My granddaughter and her parents who came for a fortnight will be here until Spring.

Thus time divides. At one level, it crawls to a standstill. It has always been difficult to detect the diurnal pulse in January and February, and now there will be nothing to separate one day from the next, one week from another. In sympathy with the state’s prohibitions, even the weather is at a halt, the thermometer travelling between minus and plus two from a late dawn to an early dusk. In my post-employment life I have no deadlines to structure my labours; even zoom-world seems asleep. There is no timetable to manage or anticipate. My wife and I are in the fourth category of vaccination. To reach us by mid-February according to Johnson’s vague ‘given a fair wind’ strategy, 13.2 million procedures will have to be carried out at a rate of two million a week. History, it has to be said, offers no comfort.

At another level time is changing almost minute by minute. When she finally goes home, our granddaughter will have spent around half her life with us. We visited and were visited by our other London-based grandchildren and took immense interest and pleasure in their company, but such encounters amounted to little more than snapshots of their growth. Not since our own children were born have we had a ringside view of the minute but fundamental developments that continually take place. And on this occasion we don’t have to deal with nappies or lose acres of unrecoverable sleep.

So for instance I watch her hands, waving about almost uncontrollably when she arrived, now increasingly precise instruments for manipulating objects. Toys, which on Christmas day were beyond her reach and comprehension, are now being incorporated into her daily activities.

Keep her safe, keep us all safe, and the next months are going to be nothing but a drama.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Last Writes

The Severn in Flood this morning

Last Writes

December 20.  In my final Covid-20 post, I want to return to the topic that has occupied most of my working hours over the last three years, culminating in the publication of a book in the midst of the crisis. 

Solitude and its shadow, loneliness, have remained central matters of concern as unprecedented controls are imposed and re-imposed on who we may associate with.   I noted in earlier entries how, in spite of the continuing drama of rising, falling and once more rising infection and death rates, the indices of emotional wellbeing have remained remarkably stable.  As Christmas looms, I have looked again at the most reliable measurement, the ‘social impacts’ data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Solitude is not counted.  Now, as in the past, the experience is too diffuse to be readily reduced to numbers, and there is no political imperative to generate tables that will justify or measure the consequences of government intervention.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is constantly quantified.  The core category is ‘often / always’ lonely.  This is where the serious psychological or physiological suffering takes place, creating an urgent need for formal or informal support.  The score at the beginning of the pandemic was 6%, much the same as it was in the quieter waters of 2019.  The latest score, for December 10-13, is just a point higher at 7%.  For those over seventy it is 5.*

ONS also publishes a time series for the larger group of ‘often, always, or some of the time’ lonely.  There are 35 observation points between 20-23 March and 10-13 December. In the first, 24% of the population fall into this category.  In the last, again just a point higher at 25%.  In between there are minor fluctuations between a high of 27, and a low, in late July, of 20.**

This stasis, which contrasts so sharply with the switchback ride of government regulation, generates conclusions which may hold more broadly for the pandemic.

The first is that managing solitude and loneliness has a long history (my book is available in all good outlets and can shortly be read in South Korean, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and Spanish).  Modern societies have developed a raft of techniques for exploiting the benefits of living alone and avoiding the worst of the pitfalls.  In this regard as in so many others, Covid-19 struck a population full of resources built up amidst the consumer and communications revolutions in the modern era.

The second is that faced with a crisis for which no country was adequately prepared, individuals and social groups have proved far more adaptable than the arthritic structures of government.  Community groups have come into being focusing on the needs of those suffering from the absence of company.  Neighbours have looked out for neighbours with increased vigilance.  And those most vulnerable have acquired new skills.  As with so many of my generation I have gained a new mastery of Zoom and its rivals, without which my isolation from children and grandchildren would have been far more profound.

The third is that we live in time.  Any experience, negative or otherwise, is conditioned by its duration.  ‘One definition of loneliness’ I wrote in my book, ‘is that it is solitude that has continued for longer than was intended or desired.’***  If there is no ending that we can see or control, then it becomes unbearable.  With yesterday’s emergency Tier 4 lockdown, Christmas is going to be a trial for many separated families, despite the special dispensation to form a support bubble with others if ‘you are the only adult in your household’.  But we do know that the vaccine is coming.

And tenth and lastly.  A fortunate few can manage the experience and find in it some meaning if they have the chance to reflect and write.  So my best thanks to Brenda and Anne for creating this opportunity and to those who have read and commented on the posts.  We must keep talking to each other.

*Office for National Statistics, ‘Coronavirus and the social impacts on Great Britain: 18 December 2020,  Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (COVID-19 module)’, 10 to 13 December, Table 13.

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritaindata

**Ibid, Table 1, Trends on Headline Indicators.

***A History of Solitude, p. 241.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: A Covid Encyclical

December 1.  A literary question:  Who is the author of this concluding passage of a book published today?

“By making the integration of the poor and the care for our environment central to society’s goals, we can generate work while humanizing our surroundings.  By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way.  By adopting more intensive permaculture methods for growing food, we can regenerate the natural world, create work and biodiversity, and live better…. By making the restoration of our people’s dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions.  To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.” (132-3)

You might search amongst the leading ideologues on the left in Britain and the US, but the answer is Argentina via Rome.  They are the words of Francis, 266th pope of the Catholic Church, in Let Us Dream.  The Path to a Better Future.

I would not expect to find myself reading such a text amidst the widespread commentary on the pandemic. I was raised a methodist and have no sympathy for religious hierarchies and rituals.

More broadly, organised Christianity has been notably quiet in this crisis.  There are accounts of individual clergy playing active roles in the plenitude of community support groups that have sprung up around the country.  However as institutions, the churches have been marginalised.  Their guidance is not sought, their views are rarely cited.  The drama of illness and death, of caring and curing, has been largely secular.  There have been polite protests by bishops at the controls placed on church services, and occasional acts of publicity-seeking disobedience by evangelical congregations, but little contribution to the main public discourse or programmes of action.  It is a disjuncture that separates this plague from all that preceded it.

In England, the Catholic Church has been further distracted by the continuing fall-out of sexual abuse scandals.  Most shockingly, the leading Catholic boarding school, Ampleforth, where Cardinal Basil Hume was a pupil and teacher, has just been forbidden by the Department for Education to admit any new pupils following a series of damning reports on its performance and management by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.  The school is appealing the decision but is fortunate that an over-full news agenda has not given the event more publicity. 

The pope admits in his book to a collective responsibility: “As I will not tire of saying with sorrow and shame, these abuses were also committed by some members of the Church.” (25)  Further he is aware of his many conservative critics who by arguing that “there is too much ‘confusion’ in the Church, and that only this or that group of purists or traditionalists can be trusted, sow division in the Body.” (71)  Nonetheless he is determined to use the pandemic to reassert his long-matured views on social and economic reform. 

The engagement with the detail of Covid-19 is slight.  There are no statistics of infection or  investigations of particular experiences.  Rather it is viewed as a revelation of the true fraternity of mankind and “a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.” (6)  Sundry biblical texts are cited in support of his case but so also, for instance, are the views of the economist Mariana Mazzucato in her recent The Value of Everything

Let us Dream belongs on one side of the divide between those who believe the pandemic will be followed by a return to normal, with all its minor comforts and major inequalities, and those who see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the agenda for radical change.  “Today” it argues, “we have to avoid falling back into the individual and institutional patterns that have led to Covid and the various crises that surround it: the hyperinflation of the individual combined with weak institutions and the despotic control of the economy by a very few.” (45-6)

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Panels

Consider these panels.

I have just painted them. Together with more than fifty other panels in several rooms in my house.

They stand for virtue postponed. It is a decade or so since last I carried out interior decoration on any scale. After the beginning of the first lockdown their neglect has been a continuing reproach. The pandemic, if ever, is the time to set about such a task. But the months have passed without activity, only partly excused by the need to attend to the garden as spring gave way to summer and what has been a long-flowering autumn. Finally, as Christmas approaches, I have run out of excuses not to clear the rooms, buy supplies of sail white emulsion and assemble my collection of brushes and rollers.

They stand for absorbed attention. All of us locked in our houses have been seeking occupations that will take our minds away from looming dangers and postponed pleasures. Hobbies and handicrafts have been embraced not so much for the outcome as for the distraction of their practice. One of the consequences of living in one end of a cruck-framed medieval house is that routine maintenance demands serious concentration. Over time, the oak moves fractionally one way with variations in heat and moisture, and the plaster in another. Minor cracks open up which have to be meticulously repaired (hence the pollyfilla delivery in my last entry) and then the edges of each panel have to be slowly painted, keeping clean the surrounding oak beams. There is no particular skill, just great care and patience as the brush is drawn down the edge of the plaster. The hours pass, amounting to almost a week for our bedroom alone and its thirty-odd rectangles. Radio 4 reminds me how often its programmes are repeated.

They stand for the domestic climate-heating disaster. The exterior panels consist of a single layer of brick, plastered on either side. Heat passes readily through them. Only some new panels in the gable wall are filled with a modern take on an ancient practice – chopped French hemp, a light, warm equivalent of wattle and daub. Most of the current housing stock is of course better constructed, but almost none of it has been designed to be carbon neutral any more than it was in the fifteenth century. Johnson’s new green strategy will fall at this hurdle. It is just too late and too expensive seriously to reduce the energy footprint of every residence from the latest Barratt estate box to the remnants of much older domestic accommodation.

And they stand for hope deferred. I set out on the task in order somehow to increase the prospect of a family Christmas. What, after all, is the point of such an effort if it is only to be enjoyed by the two of us? But as I put back the furniture and tidy away my paints, the lockdown rules for the festive season are announced. It would be possible for my children and grandchildren to join the Gadarene rush out of London two days before Christmas and back three days later, but the balance of risk is against travel, whatever the regulations. Rates of infection and death show scant sign of declining. School ends too late, the parents cannot fully self-isolate. Our age-group is just as vulnerable as it was, and with the vaccines coming in the New Year, there seems no case for letting our guard drop.

All that can be said is that on Christmas Day we shall have clean walls looking down on our quiet pleasures.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Shopping

Herodotus

November 19

I am reading Herodotus at nights in the new translation by Tom Holland.  In section 94 of Book One, The Histories describe the practices of the Lydians:

“Their habit of sending their daughters out to work as prostitutes excepted, the Lydians live their lives in a way not dissimilar to the Greeks.  So far as we know, they were the first people ever to strike gold and silver coins, and to use them: the result was the invention of shopping.”

Future historians may come to see the Covid pandemic as the beginning of the end of this practice.

Consider this.  With the second lockdown, I have bowed to the inevitable and embarked on a major redecoration of my house.  This is partly for want of a better occupation, partly to undertake long overdue improvements, and partly as a pact with the Gods. If I make all the rooms as smart as possible, perhaps after all they will be occupied by my children and their families at Christmas.

Just before the lockdown began, I bought the necessary materials, but as was bound to happen, close encounters with neglected walls and woodwork caused me to run out of some essentials.  I was left with the choice of living with decommissioned rooms until the lockdown ended, or going online.

Thus it was that yesterday a van drove through the narrow lanes to my village, up the unadopted lane that leads to my house, and the driver walked along my drive carrying a package containing a pot of Polyfilla.

This is an insane way to run a consumer economy. There is a real danger that after Covid-19 we will build back worse, incorporating habits that were only justified by the extreme circumstances of the lockdown. 

I am not unduly sentimental about B and Q where I would otherwise have shopped.  Over the last decade it has systemically put out of business every other DIY warehouse in the area, as well as all but two of the neighbourhood ironmongers in Shrewsbury, including Birch’s opposite the river, where an elderly lady of irreproachable gentility in her manners and clothes, would emerge from her little office in the back of the shop and sell you a tin of polish or a dozen screws in a brown paper bag. 

Nonetheless there is an economy of scale in making one trip to the shops every so often to acquire a range of essential and non-essential items.  With all due respect to Herodotus, shopping as we now know it was the invention of the nineteenth century, when rising living standards intersected with innovations in the manufacture and distribution of all kinds of products.  In this world, personal delivery was widely practised.  Servants from middle- and upper-class households would leave orders at shops which would later be brought to the door by toiling delivery boys.  Horses and carts passed by selling or delivering fresh food and larger goods.  During the twentieth century the bustling streets gradually emptied, and consumers became accustomed to travelling to the centres of towns and cities to make purchases.

Now the temporary closure of shops may become permanent as they fail to win back business from the online retailers.  The robot-driven Amazon barns will multiply van journeys at just the moment when the necessity of reducing road transport is becoming apparent to all but a fringe of climate-change deniers.  The solution to this problem is far from obvious, other than taxing online retailers to make good the loss of urban business rates, and legislating to prevent the on-line sale of any single item below, let us say, £100.  The exception would be food, where supermarkets should be encouraged to maintain or reintroduce minimum orders. 

This morning, Royal Mail delivered a parcel from John Lewis containing three small picture frames to go on a redecorated wall.  All were smashed, the box full of shards of glass.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Vaccines and anti-vaxers

November 11.  The problem with patrician mavericks like Lord Sumption is that they give intellectual cover for much less fastidious figures.

A week after his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice crawled out of the decaying wreckage of the Brexit Party and announced the creation of ‘Reform UK’ dedicated to the libertarian rejection of the Government’s lockdown policy. 

They wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “It’s time to end the political consensus that there is no alternative to shutting people up in their homes.  The institutions and polices that require change are formidable, and once gain we will have to take on powerful vested interests… We are showing the courage needed to take on consensus thinking and vested interests.”*

As with Sumption and the Great Barrington Declaration that they support, there is a wholesale rejection of the authority of political and medical elites.

In terms of the lockdown, this may no longer be important.  With this week’s announcement of an effective vaccine, the focus of the argument is shifting to the issue of take-up.  Already the anti-vaxxers are attacking the alleged consensus thinking – that the medical establishment is united in regarding the Pfizer results as a major breakthrough even though regulatory approval has not yet been given – and the ‘vested interests’ behind it – particularly big pharma and Bill Gates.**

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11).  Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health.***  Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate.  It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided.  Traffic on social media was growing.  Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube.****  A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.*****

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter.  Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make.  Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery.  The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance.  It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour.  There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them.  That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows.  For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority.  The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose. 

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

*https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/01/relaunching-brexit-party-fight-cruel-unnecessary-lockdown/

**https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/10/coronavirus-anti-vaxxers-seek-to-discredit-pfizers-vaccine?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

***https://www.politico.eu/article/how-populists-spread-vaccine-fear/

****https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30227-2/fulltext

*****https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/11/totnes-covid-concerns-reflect-uk-wide-rise-in-conspiracy-theories?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Waggons, Carts and Lear Jets

Lear Jet

November 4

It is the historian’s business to show that everything changes.  “The past is a foreign country; ”wrote L. P. Hartley, “they do things differently there.”

Mostly.

In some cases the only change is the technology.   Take, for instance, the wealthy fleeing a pandemic lockdown whilst the rest of the population remain trapped in their neighbourhoods.

Early in his Journal of the Plague Year Defoe reported on the flight out of London by those who could afford the transport:

“… and the richer sort of People, especially the Nobility and Gentry, from the West-part of the City throng’d out of Town, with their Families and Servants in an unusual Manner; and this was more particularly seen in White-Chapel; that is to say, the Broad-street where I liv’d: Indeed nothing was to be seen but Waggons and Carts, with Goods, Women, Servants, Children &c. Coaches fill’d with People of the better Sort, and Horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.”*

Now it’s Lear Jets.  There was a rise in bookings before the first lockdown in March.  Companies were marketing “evacuation flights” out of countries hit by the virus. Whilst commercial airlines have almost ceased operating, private planes, which avoid crowded terminals and aircraft cabins, have continued to do good business. 

Travelling to a second home, or for a holiday, is specifically banned under the second lockdown restrictions which come into force in England tomorrow.  There are, however, ways around the prohibition.  It is reported this week that there is a renewed growth in business for alternative means of escape:

According to the Guardian: “Wealthy people in England are booking private jets to escape the lockdown set to be introduced on Thursday, according to jet brokers. Air Partner, one of the biggest aircraft charter firms, said there had been a ‘sharp rise’ in private jet bookings out of the country before Thursday. The company, which supplies planes to Premier League footballers, celebrities, the royal family and six of the eight governments in the G8, said it had been overwhelmed with inquiries.”**

If you are tempted to follow suit, you may wish to know that the cost of a private jet to Tenerife for five people is about £24,000, one way.  Buying a Lear Jet yourself will cost about $20m for the long haul version.  Who knows when it might be useful.

Should you worry about this?  There is the moral issue.  Also the ecological.  Private jets apparently emit about 20 times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than commercial flights.  

* Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; London: Penguin, 2003), p. 9.

** https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/nov/03/private-jet-bookings-soar-as-wealthy-flee-second-england-lockdown?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: OpenLearn

November 3

Following my previous post about the varying topography of the responses to Covid-19, here is a sudden ascent.  As the first lockdown began at the end of March, traffic on the Open University’s OpenLearn site jumped fivefold, reaching a peak in the final week of April. 

OpenLearn was established in 2006 as the University began to move its commitment to be ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’ into the digital age. 

From its foundation, the OU had deployed the leading communications technology of the time to reach an audience far beyond its student body.  Programmes supporting its courses were broadcast on the BBC late at night, attracting an audience not just of paid-up undergraduates, but large numbers of insomniac self-improvers.  It has continued to maintain a relationship with the BBC, sponsoring a wide range of television and radio programmes.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, it was becoming evident that there were new channels for reaching an audience for higher education.  The OU was awarded $10m by the Hewlett Foundation to develop a platform that would make freely available its quality-assured learning materials to a global audience.  Structured extracts from a wide range of programmes were posted online.

The object was both outward facing, in that it would allow anyone in the world to engage with university-level learning materials, and inward facing in that it would be a means of attracting students to the OU who could make a preliminary trial of particular subjects to establish whether they wanted to commit themselves to a full-length course (one in eight of University’s students now enter the institution by this route).

 According to its newly-published Annual Report,* OpenLearn had an audience of 13.5 million visitors over the last twelve months..  Just over half the users were from the UK, the rest from around the world.   Set against the followers of digital influencers, this may be small change [Kim Kardashian, I note with bemusement, has 189 million followers on Instagram and 30 million on Facebook].  But in the context of the deeply constricted higher education system, the numbers are astronomical.

A typical Russell Group University will employ world-class researchers to teach classes of perhaps fifteen or twenty students at a time (or devolve the task to post-docs).  Oxford and Cambridge were still offering one-to-one teaching in parts of their curriculum before the crisis. Faced with the lockdown, these institutions are struggling to film their lectures and seminars for viewing in their rooms by students who are paying over £9,000 a year plus accommodation costs for the privilege.

OpenLearn was ready and waiting for the sudden upsurge in demand for digital learning.  It responded to those with time on their hands who wished to explore new fields of knowledge.  It rapidly devised units to enable people to acquire recreational skills, and to provide support for those experiencing mental-health difficulties.  It provided materials for sixth-form students whose teaching and exams had been disrupted.  Its pedagogic capacities were made available to the many educational institutions which were having to pivot towards online learning at great speed.  Those whose occupations had suddenly ceased to exist were set on the road to re-training.

OpenLearn was devised for less stressful times. But this is its moment.

*https://openuniv.sharepoint.com/sites/intranet-learner-discovery-services/Shared%20Documents/OpenLearn%202019-20%20Annual%20Report.pdf