from David Vincent from Shrewsbury, UK: The Community Reassurance Team Hotline

July 8.  Late yesterday afternoon, as the rain clouds were beginning to obscure the Welsh hills, the phone rang.  It was Catherine from Shropshire Council, calling me because I was on the NHS list of those shielding from the coronavirus.  She had three questions.

The first related to the announcement that from the end of the month, the shielded were no longer to receive their weekly food boxes.  Could I cope with this?  I told her that I would not go hungry.  I had stopped the delivery of the boxes some weeks ago and was being supplied by supermarket home delivery.  Nonetheless, I was impressed by her concern.  When last did the government take a decision that might cause you harm, say a reduced service or an increased tax, and then ring you up and ask if you minded about it?  This is a good precedent.

The second was whether my house was fitted with a smoke alarm.  I was puzzled by the question, but then wondered if the lengthening list of coronavirus symptoms now includes spontaneous combustion.  You will recall that this was the misfortune that befell the alcoholic rag and bone merchant Mr. Krook in Bleak House.  Dickens insisted that he had documentary evidence that such a death could occur, and there has been debate about it ever since.  I assured Catherine that we had two alarms and she seemed pleased with the answer.

The third was whether I would like the number of the newly established ‘Community Reassurance Team Hotline.’  I was entranced by the prospect.

‘Hotline’ perhaps not so much.  Since the term was introduced to the English lexicon, referring to the dedicated line American and Russian Presidents use to try to prevent a nuclear war breaking out, as in Dr Strangelove, the word has lost much of its urgency.  Every over-stretched public or commercial body offers such a service in order to keep clients and customers at bay.  A ‘coldline’ is a number which you ring, is never answered, but it doesn’t matter.  A ‘hotline’ is a number which is never answered, but it does matter.

‘Community’ is more promising.  Although, like hotline, it has lost much of its meaning in recent years, it is enjoying a renaissance in the pandemic.  The local Parish News has just resumed its monthly delivery.  It has a centre spread of all the services being performed across a distributed rural population of some 800 people.  Twelve separate activities are mentioned, too many to list here, but they range from ‘those who kept in contact with people living alone and/or self-isolating’ to ‘everyone who shopped and collected medical supplies for those unable to go out’ [which includes our neighbours collecting our prescriptions] to ‘the Groves who have made the Montford pond area a delightful wild life oasis and a resting spot for walkers and riders’.  This is real.

‘Team’ is good.  If the helpful Catherine is relocated to the parking fines division, it is comforting to know that a multi-skilled group of officers stands ready to continue the service.

But ‘Reassurance’ is the prize.  No official body has ever offered me this.

I need reassurance that my children will keep their health and their jobs, and that I will recognise my grandchildren when next I see them.  I need reassurance that the shops, restaurants, theatres, cinemas that I once enjoyed will still be there when I go out.  I need reassurance that when I do mix in company, it will not immediately constitute a lethal threat to my health (see ‘shielded’ above). I need reassurance that the apparent incompetence of every level of English government above the local is a mirage that will dissolve in the summer sun.

And now all I have to do is pick up the phone to get it.  But only in Shropshire.  I’m sorry for the rest of you.

from Louis in Johannesburg: life under lockdown …

June 29. Life under lockdown in South Africa has settled into a routine. These routines have been stripped of the jarring interruptions from another way of life where the clock and the time it keeps rules. Electric lights still extend the day beyond what is a healthy cycle. I prefer this rhythm. The rooster’s crow as the sun rises is one signal of dawn breaking. The playful bark of our small dogs starts their announcement of a new day. No better, non-violent alarm system, self-adjusting to solar time. Going into Southern Hemisphere winter in May, nights are lengthening and days shorter. Our little natural system is geared to track this shift. I am the beneficiary of that shift for now. Time to feed the dogs, and the chickens and also to collect any eggs for breakfast. Enjoying an egg this fresh tends to make one judgemental about the so-called fresh eggs from the local supermarket

Then into my workspace to continue working on the writing and other matters of developing an income in this time of lock-down. I am committed to converting a thesis to a readable piece of writing for practitioners interested in rebuilding towns and cities as the next phase of my so-called career. This diary has recently taken second place to my plan to leverage my modest process-consulting business of scenario-based strategy and executive education (aka capacity-building) during and after this lock-down. I appreciate the privilege we enjoy working from a home office. Commuting to the office is a one minute stroll down the corridor gets me into my “office.” From there Zoom and Google meeting connects me to a scenario session in New Hampshire and a family friend’s funeral in Dublin in the same day.

Since 1990 when I left the corporate world, I have enjoyed the benefit of knowledge work. Long may it continue. In the early 2000s an Irish Life assurance company engaged us to develop scenarios for a viral attack and its consequences. That’s where I learnt that a viral attack similar to the 1918 so-called Spanish Flu was inevitable. The timing was unknowable. Since the Spanish Flu we have seen a succession of viral attacks on the human species. A number of other “inevitable surprises” spurred me to consider what a sustainable, robust plan for our home in Midrand would look like.

We live in a community of 450 families. Together we have pooled our resources to ensure that criminal elements cannot enter to make or lives a misery. Our security manager, an ex-cop with sound relationships with the South African Police Services (SAPS), understands that criminals are not deterred by the consequences of their actions but by being tracked around and within our community. In these days of extended lock-down our community support grows by the day. Sean from Homestead Meats delivers bacon, sausage and steaks later today. His meat processing is down the road from our home. Sara brought in eggs by the dozen a couple of days ago. She is down the road as well. We support both these home-based entrepreneurs in their efforts to sustain their families in these times. Back to creating a sustainable home, we installed solar water-heating and grid tied, generator-assisted electricity, which hedges us against our faltering national electricity supplier and its predatory pricing. We have been off the water grid for years but receive regular “accounts” from Joburg water. The so-called accounts seem to be based on some poor soul extending last month’s reading and rendering an account based on that estimate.

Our organic garden delivers, spinach, pumpkins, gem squashes, basil, rosemary and other herbs for kitchen cooking. “Flattening the curve” between growing your own veggies and the demand in the kitchen takes on a whole new meaning. Suddenly the importance of curried beans, frozen veggies and surplus pesto to absorb an overproduction of basil highlights the complexity of farming where supply and demand must be matched to avoid wastage.  We are constantly and painfully aware of our privileged life and remain engaged in assisting in the broader community at an interpersonal and project levels.

A local car guard, from the DRC whom we have befriended, receives a monthly stipend to sustain his six children and spouse. Another person, a Malawian, receives food parcels and monthly payment regularly as he stays in isolation. During the hurricane/typhoon last year in Mozambique, Marie moved 32 tons of clothing and food into Mozambique via the Charitas faith-based network to help the needy there. Currently she is again coordinating the Charitas efforts to assist people in need as result of the Covid19 pandemic. 

Over the past four years, I have coordinated a blanket-fund as part of a men’s group. We raised funds, acquired and distributed more than 4,000 blankets to the poorest of the poor. My engagement in various poorer communities has indelibly changed my perspective on township life in our province and how to support the needy. For instance, balancing the quality of blankets purchased and distributed, with the context of the recipients is critical. Too high quality and they are sold to buy food. Too low quality and they are discarded on the refuse dump where I understood they are harvested by other people lower down the needs chain. Zero wastage in poorer communities. This, besides raising money for numerous other donations to orphans in distress in an underfunded orphanage and a mission station for abused women and their families to name a few. In these ways we ensure that as a family we maintain an ethical balance between our relative comfort and those in need in this country fraught by the greatest inequality anywhere. Dwelling on how corrupt politicians blatantly steal food parcels destined for the poor or use their power over the starving to extort votes for food seems “just how it is here” for now.

My hope is that as the Covid19 exposes the political opportunists and fracture lines in the SA society opportunities for policy improvement will open up. The imminent entry by the IMF to fund the national deficit will eliminate short-sighted ideology-based decisions and encourage pragmatism in terms of evidence-based economic policy. According to the Institute of Race Relations’ surveys, the average South African simply wants government to create jobs, reduce criminality, provide education for their children and medical care for the sick. Expropriation of property without compensation is ranked last in a list of ten top priorities. The ideological blinkers worn by the socialist/Marxist national political leadership of the ANC prevent them from seeing the priorities of the average person in the street. Never were Prime Minster Thatcher’s words more prescient; socialists are politicians that run out of other people’s money.  Every Rand paid by the taxpayer devotes 58 cents to servicing foreign debt. Many of the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are technically insolvent. Eskom now owes R500 Bn which is state guaranteed. Ministers are trying to recover South African Airways (SAA) which is also technically insolvent. This in a climate where airlines in general are struggling to survive.

For the first time in memory, government is turning to the much maligned private sector vilified as “white monopoly capital” (WMC) as a potential source of further borrowings. LOL. Attention is gradually shifting towards unlocking the economy and restarting organisations which have been dormant during lockdown. The extent to which society has adapted to social distancing, and other behaviour required to keep safe, is astounding. Many now prefer this mode. School children in high school now prefer what they call home-schooling via computer link. Teachers have made the investment in digitally delivered provision. The adjustment may be permanent, with typically the higher grades preferring this mode while the lower grades, which need careful supervision by parents at home prefer a back to school choice.

Many of the private schools have been accused of racism amidst the global wave of Black Lives Matter (BLM). In South Africa its history predisposes this society to ingrained racist practice which is often invisible to itself. Transformation usually begins with non-racial policy and due process to deal with behaviour that violates policy and agreements between parents, pupils and schools. However, behaviour of pupils is shaped by the attitudes and values formed in the family context. Prejudice and stereotyping persists in families long after the need for societal transformation is seen to be essential. Schools as institutions are also being called out for individual racist behaviour under the current our cry for BLM.    

From John in Brighton: My Brave New World

26 May

The World will never be the same again after corona. We must all have hopes for potential benefits that could result from this dreadful pandemic – community spirit, working from home, less pollution …. On a personal level I may emerge a bit more wired – currently in both senses but hopefully just the techno will persist. In a Q&A a few weeks back actor Michael Frayn described the iPhone as “surely one of the greatest peaks of human achievement”. Praise indeed! I’ve never owned one so I cannot confirm or refute his view. Indeed I’ve always had a slight resistance to technology compounded when I read of its addictive potential, cyber crime, concern over data privacy (maybe the denouement of Brexit would have been different if Smartphones didn’t exist) and reports that counter-intuitively the World of the techno age is in some ways more disconnected than ever. And my let-out clause was age, technology is a young person’s game – but Frayn is 86. In fact above all I think I still hanker for the halcyon days of writing a letter, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Instamatic cameras and the trusty old red phone box or if it’s urgent sending a telegram. What do you get from the Queen nowadays when you clock up your century? An e-mail maybe, yuck!
Last week when out on a cycle I read a bit of graffiti  –  “Open Your Mind” and someone had added “But Not So Far That Your Brain Falls Out”. The vision, reminiscent of Monty Python,  amused me which is perhaps a bit of a worry but I’ll put it down to the current circumstances and pressures. Anyway my mind is ajar and my techno pendulum is swinging.  I marvel at how technology is increasingly entering the medical world. AI is beginning to read MRI brain scans and Moorfields Eye Hospital is using it to detect some retinal conditions. Mind-blowing. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a real worry and a  Harvard team have recently used AI to create a new antibiotic named Halicin which is effective against some highly resistant E coli bacteria. Apparently AI is currently pursuing anti-Covid drugs and perhaps they could turn their attention to a corona vaccine if the Oxford prototype is unsuccessful. I’m sure there will be an abundance of further developments. A little over 200 years ago the Luddites’ concern was that machines would threaten jobs so perhaps that’s my new counter argument – dole queues of highly trained docs. But Kenan Malik has blown that one making the case that machines will never (can you ever say never?) offer the ethical and humane aspect of care when their key skill is pattern recognition.
But returning to what is commonly called general-purpose technology and a more personal level last Friday there were a couple of baby steps on my road to Damascus. An hour and a half on Zoom connected to siblings as far afield as Brisbane and with crystal clear images and audio – thro’ gritted teeth I have to acknowledge that as extraordinary, unthinkable even a decade ago. Then in the afternoon online bridge – and as good as if we were physically in the same room. ….which we all but could be I am advised by the fellow players. All I need to do is buy a Smartphone and load WhatsApp – what’s not to like? And there’s my problem – it’s getting easier to maintain lock-down especially with BJ’s relaxation and Dominic Cumming’s amendments than it is to live without a Smartphone. I lack DC’s ability to create fairy tales and fibs and so……
I haven’t quite crossed the Rubicon yet but as I metaphorically trudge across Gaul I’ve got Italy in my sights. If I were a gambling man I’d anticipate being a fully fledged techno proselyte before we emerge from the black clouds of corona. Maybe even the darkest nimbostratus has a silver lining or will I be doubling down on my hankering? …

From John in Brighton: Two Baby-steps for Man

20 May. After seven weeks of “shielding” (a euphemism for imprisonment for the uninitiated) this last weekend represented a couple of baby-steps back towards normality for me. I’d better own up that I have dumped my shield numerous times – but only to cycle  ten miles along the seafront as I deemed the benefits to mental and physical health justified the miniscule risk. There was a positive feel – football was reappearing albeit German and with cardboard cutouts, Eurovision was all but cancelled (seriously good news) and the weather was set reasonably fair. But it was bumbling Boris’ baby-steps and a case of needs must that really did it for me.
First off meeting a couple of friends for coffee. Confession number two it was in the back garden not a public place but we’re not stupid and pursued social distancing so I feel not an inkling of guilt or worry. No hugging, not even a handshake. If it’s any consolation to BJ the nip in the air ensured that we stayed alert. After years of NHS guidelines and policies I conclude that those that work best are clear and concise with no grey zones and brief enough to be manageable, no one reads a series of fifty page documents. Two-thirds of the public find the government’s new rules unclear apparently. The lack of logic and confused messages from bulldog-spirited BJ and his cabinet of spaniels makes me think that we should use our common sense as our Pole Star rather than any parliamentary edict. Returning briefly to football I am reminded of a well known chant albeit less heard since VAR took the ultimate control “Yer don’t know what yer doin'”. Anyway bearing in mind that one difference between humans and primates is our better-developed language it was really good to have an hour and a half of conversation in vivo, a bit of culture to add to my already lengthy reading list and to share the machine-gun trill of a rather vocal wren. And in case you’re worried the boys in blue (is that a bit Sergeant Dixon era, should it be persons in blue?) were obviously too busy patrolling the beach to worry about any geriatric misbehaviour. 


Sunday’s baby-step was a case of needs must as the DIY click and collect system was unavailable. Not Wickes or B&Q but the arrangement whereby I click a list, daughter shops for it and we meet and I collect. Works a treat if you haven’t tried it and all for the price of a bar of chocolate and a few satsumas. But she was busy, so armed with my new-found liberation I opted for the elderly and vulnerable slot at Waitrose. A real life allegory unfolded in lieu of the deficiency of church sermons at present. Being my first visit in lock-down and because the queue bent invisibly round a corner I spent ten minutes oblivious to the formalities whilst hanging around the door. Come opening a woman bellowed at me that there was a queue – instead of just watching me couldn’t she have told me that before?

By this point it was half way across the car park, heart-sink…..But a kind lady with whom I used to natter  back in normal times agrees to let me in, the lady behind seconds the motion  and like a game of snakes and ladders I’ve shot up from 26th to 5th in the blink of an eye. My goal is to get round and out as fast as possible and the only potential hindrance is that “she who is aggrieved of queuing” is visibly surprised and put out to confront me – “how did you get in?” she asks clearly concerned that a grave injustice has come to pass.

What is the matter with some people? Doesn’t she realise she could be on a ventilator or using a food bank? But maybe she is stressed for some other reason and so I opt to stonewall rather than engage in messy discussion. Get to the checkout by 9.50 for a ten minute wait but I’m still only second in the queue. First is a young oriental lady and she turns and asks if I’d like to go first, almost insistent – presumably because I look suitably geriatric and vulnerable. Inculcated with the proprieties of queueing and so taken aback that anyone should make such a kind offer (unprecedented as per the current demotic) I decline despite her repeated offers. I’m out by ten past ten, no one sneezed or coughed on me and so hopefully all will be well. But the experience was valuable on two counts – got a few bits for sustenance and more importantly The Observer which was the primary purpose of the mission.  But an unanticipated spin-off was to experience the stark contrast of human nature between the angry and rude as opposed to the kind and considerate. It reminded me that the latter is the camp I need to be in. We’ve seen outpourings of community spirit during the loc-kdown and long may that live and on a small scale I hope to emerge a kinder person and for more than the seventy two hours or so that we reduce our driving speed after passing an accident.


It’s over fifty years since Neil Armstrong took his “small step for man” but with my two baby-steps I’m over the moon. I still have reservation that there could be a second wave of virus and will be very selective in any external activities but the tips are reopening in Brighton and the lure of clearing several crates of garden waste may be my next baby-step . Need to ensure that I stop it becoming a baby-toddle at this stage but if hairdressers get the kiss of life then the temptation may be too much.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the bad news and the good news…

May 19. Last week two differing visions of the post-covid19 world were published.

The first was by the distinguished political philosopher John Gray in his ‘Unherd’ blog (thanks to my friend John Naughton for this).

https://unherd.com/author/john-gray/

He answered the question in his title, ‘How Apocalyptic is Now?’ with a resounding affirmative.  The pandemic fitted into an established pattern.

‘history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.’

After dwelling at length on the millions of lives lost after the Russian Revolution, ranging from civil war to state-induced famine, he reached the modern day full of pessimism:

‘Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable … More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways. Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The impact on the “knowledge classes” will be far-reaching. Higher education operates on a model of student living that social distancing has rendered defunct. Museums, journalism, publishing and the arts all face similar shocks. Automation and artificial intelligence will wipe out swathes of middle class employment. Accelerating a trend that has been underway for decades, the remains of bourgeois life will be swept away.

By contrast, the American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote a long op ed piece in the Guardian. 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/14/mutual-aid-coronavirus-pandemic-rebecca-solnit

She listed multiple examples of how the crisis had been met by community action in different parts of the world, including Britain, and looked forward to a transformed society:  ‘I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organisations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.’ 

As with Gray, she viewed the crisis as a turning-point in history, but with a quite different outcome:

The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is under way. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.

Take your pick.  What may be said is that such speculation, though understandable, is premature.  The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is said to have replied ‘too soon to tell’ when Richard Nixon asked him whether he thought the French Revolution was good thing.*  So also with our present drama in this third week in May 2020.

What may also be said is that Gray’s determinism seems out of place.  Post-modernism has taught us to mistrust cyclical views of history, the notion that liberalism, imperialism, capitalism, the proletariat, Corbyn’s Labour Party, must eventually prevail, irrespective of individual intention.  Gray’s negative version of this trope, that all plans for progress will regularly be overthrown by versions of the apocalypse, belongs to that tradition.  If a more benign vision is to transpire, it will be the outcome of conscious, determined action in the aftermath.   The coronavirus by itself will not guarantee progress.

*In their tedious instinct to overthrow a good story, historians have now suggested that the exchange was a translation error.  Zhou Enlai, speaking in 1972, may have thought the question was about the French Days of May of 1968.  More likely, less fun.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: it’s the environment, stupid …

Adelaide: from the hills to the sea

May 18. What has been noticeable in our community over the last 2 months is the emphasis people place on our environment – on the pleasure of walking and the freedom to get outside without restriction. In South Australia we have been allowed to walk: walk with a partner, walk the dog, throughout our severest lockdown, even when, at first, no one quite knew what was in store for us. On social media these activities featured prominently. People commented on the things they noticed and photographed: the sunsets; the animals and plants; the teddy bears they found perched in trees, hanging on front gates or looking out of windows.

People went to the beach, maintained social distancing, and spoke about how special it was to go there. Suddenly, the normal became appreciated. Did we miss going shopping? Not really. Did we miss travelling? Maybe – but what we missed was family more than the act of seeing new places.

Walking, or getting out of our houses, the freedom to move around became the number one thing we wanted to do – we took pictures, posted on Instagram and told others about it. Walking is therapeutic, no question. At 3 in the morning you can feel anxious about the way forward … but once you walk out into the forest, the bush, the park, those thoughts are blunted. This effect is not rocket science.

What we should now realise is that we must preserve our parks and wilder places in our cities and our urban fringe. Whenever I flew into Los Angeles, our Air New Zealand flight circling to land, I was amazed by how little green space there was visible in the city. Where were the great parks? The city appeared to be a crosshatching of buildings under a mist of pollution. Contrast Los Angeles with my Adelaide. (Not fair really: 18 million residents in greater LA compared to 1 million in Adelaide.)

downtown Los Angeles from Griffiths Observatory
Harbor12 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Adelaide is a small city, a young city in European terms. It was planned with great foresight by Colonel William Light in 1837. The main city grid is based on a Roman ‘castrum’ with a central public open space, 4 smaller ones in each quarter sector and the whole square surrounded by a 500-metre wide band of parkland. Town Planners love it, study it. This city works and the plan has stood the test of time. The encircling public parkland is a joy to residents and fiercely defended when various state governments have tried to invade it with what they regard as essential, ‘progressive’ development.

1839. Plan of the City of Adelaide, Australia by Colonel William Light

Add to our environment a slow meandering river, the River Torrens, which runs west out of our Hills, right through the city to the sea. It is flanked by a 30 km ribbon of parks and bike ways. The Torrens is a thin, seasonal river lined with ancient River Red Gums. And when you reach the sea, there is a 70km coastal park path along the seafront from North Haven to Sellicks Beach. Indeed, this is a city that is a happy place for bike riders.

People are wondering how Covid-19 will change our societies. Could we perhaps build a better world? Or is that pie in the sky? It is apparent that, for some time, there won’t be funds in our government’s budget to be generous with such plans. But on a small scale we could start thinking of things to do.

Could there be a change of emphasis driven by the community, a community now more aware of the precious nature of our public spaces?

New Zealand, led by their PM, Jacinda Ardern, plans to do things differently with a ‘Well Being Budget’. This is like a breath of fresh air.

“Finance Minister Grant Robertson outlined the plan to the country’s parliament – with billions released for mental health services, child poverty and measures to tackle family violence.

“Success is about making New Zealand both a great place to make a living, and a great place to make a life,” he said.

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/new-zealand-is-publishing-its-first-well-being-budget/

Could we not lobby our councils to: offer maps for walking and bike riding; provide a listing of street trees; grant conservation protection for older stands of trees; proactively advise residents on trees to plant; halt building plans that cover the full block? Our council already offers cheap sessions of yoga and exercise for older people. They could also offer supervised walks by environmentalists to educate about the bushland that we have within the council area. Get inventive.

Schoolkids could get involved in planting trees along waterways and cleaning them regularly – perhaps to ‘own’ a section of the river. We could lobby to reduce the speed levels on urban roads and add more dedicated bike path ways. More people will be working from home. Make the home area more community friendly.

We don’t have enough community gardens. In Seattle people seldom have front fences and use their sidewalks as planting space for herbs and vegetables. We don’t do that in Adelaide and our tree filled urban back yards are disappearing under the onslaught of huge double homes on old single blocks.

What other ideas are out there?

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: snitching …

May 7. On of the major questions of the crisis is the substance of the apparent strengthening of ‘community spirit’.  My local television news spends its allocated half hour briefly reporting the daily death toll in the region, then running a series of heart-warming stories about informal and organised efforts to support those suffering in some way from the lockdown.  What will not be clear until the crisis is over is how permanent this shift in behaviour is, and how far it conceals much less commendable behaviour.  Statistics on rising domestic abuse are already giving pause to more optimistic accounts.

On the debit side of the balance sheet was a recent story in the Guardian:‘Police say they have received 194,000 calls “snitching” on people alleged to have broken the coronavirus lockdown.’ (30 April 2020). Neighbours were reporting neighbours, expecting that fines or other punitive action would follow. The Chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation complained that ‘the force has been dealing with a rise in domestic abuse reports at a time when people are living in close quarters without much chance to leave the house, and that there had been a rise in calls from people reporting others for potential flouting of regulations.’ (Wakefield Express 17 April 2020).  Further south it was reported that ‘The avalanche of complaints about twice-a-day jogs or overly frequent trips to the supermarket has been such that the Thames Valley Police Commissioner Anthony Stansfield felt obliged to go on the BBC and urge citizens to stop tattling on one another.’ (Politico, 7 April 2020).  Elsewhere in Europe, more draconian regulations have been matched by more active tale-telling.  The mayor of Rome has set up a website for people denouncing those who breach the quarantine regulations.  In Spain it is said that ‘snitchers’ are not only reporting infractions but taking direct action against rule-breakers.

There is in fact nothing new in this behaviour.  Nearly three decades ago I wrote a history of poverty and the state in the twentieth century.  The Great Depression was the nearest modern equivalent to the current collapse of the economy.  Large sections of the working population were forced to rely on state benefits to survive.  From 1931 they had to complete a rule-bound Means Test to get support.  I wrote in my book:

“The Means Test placed a monetary penalty on a whole range of domestic behaviour.  Questions which had always formed the substance of rumour and gossip, such as who had an illicit source of income or a hidden cache of savings, who had bought what luxury or sold what necessity, now had a larger resonance.  The greatest source of information on alleged transgressions of the new regulations was not the inspecting officers, whose public enquiries were generally met with silence, but private and frequently anonymous depositions from those who lived and worked alongside the claimant.  As Orwell discovered, ‘there is much spying and tale-bearing.’ (Poor Citizens, 1991, p. 86).”

The modern ‘snitching’ could just be seen as evidence of widespread support for government regulation and a collective anxiety to reduce the threat of infection.  There is, however, a long and less benign tradition of reporting misbehaviour to the authorities.  Such behaviour is a consequence of two conditions.  Firstly a stressed citizenry, facing threats they cannot individually manage.  Secondly a suddenly enhanced state, possessing, at least in the short term, immense powers over income and behaviour.  Historical studies of the totalitarian regimes in twentieth-century Europe, particularly German fascism and East European communism, have long established how far the police authorities relied on networks of informers.  The Stasi in East Germany raised reporting by neighbours and family members to a bureaucratic art-form. 

There is, with reason, much concern about whether computer apps will cause an invasion of privacy.  Less attention is being paid to more basic forms of surveillance, which will flourish for as long as this crisis lasts. 

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: lockdown to ease on Monday

poppies appearing in the streets

May 2. Melina Mercouri once said, ‘Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. In South America they throw flowers at you. In Greece they throw themselves.’
It’s true.
Lockdown begins to ease on Monday. I even have made a hairdressers appointment. We can only go in one at a time and all must be masked and gloved. I’m prepared. I’ve bought my mask and gloves supplies, Just hope everybody else has.
Pre-Covid, Neighbours would stop me for a chat and pull me into their homes or onto their balconies for a coffee. People stopped me on the street to enquire after father, mother, cousins, children. Greece is a crowded place. We have a small population of around 11 million but we also have a small country. Greece holds three spots in the List of top ten most concentrated areas of population in Europe. (with those statistics in mind it is truly phenomenal what Greece has achieved).
Streets are narrow, our pavements and narrow, most shops are small, fabulous – but small. We get close.
On my last outing two days ago the weather was magnificent and more people were out as restrictions ease. I stopped walking to take a video call from my son in Australia. My little grandson was blowing me kisses. A neighbor spotted me, rushed over, put her arm around me and wanted to share my joy. She blew kisses back to him and gave the cautionary spits to shoo away the devil. She ftou-ftoued all over me. Two months ago we would have linked arms and strolled to the nearest cafe to keep talking, the olive seller could wait. Instead I froze, clamped my mouth shut and fretted if I’d inhaled any of those mine-shaped polemic bacteria.
Overcoming paranoia might be my biggest problem. I silently scolded myself for not wearing a mask. Around 50% of people are wearing a mask. Government directives are as of Monday we will all be wearing masks until further notice.
But, the poppies have appeared. They are brightening up dreary urban landscapes. I must remember to pick some to collect seeds and scatter them through the garden at the Olympus house. I’m aware nothing will happen but hopefully some of them will lock into the earth and next spring sprout between weeds offering spots of colour like the flushed cheeks of blushing maidens. Ah, Olympus. I can go there as of next week.

from Susan S. in Washington, DC: dreams and birthdays …

“ This is one birthday I’m not likely to forget.”

I woke this morning after the first fitful night of sleep since the C-19 pandemic began affecting my community.  Normally I don’t remember dreams, but last night was one awful pandemic-related dream after another.  I was in impossible and dangerous situations I couldn’t escape from.  Different people and different circumstances in each dream, but all with the same theme.   I read an article in the Washington Post recently about people experiencing frightening dreams.  I’m no expert, but this seems perfectly understandable.  We are all coping as best we can, and then at night the demons of our fears grab us in a way that our normal defenses protect us from during the day – most of the time.   One more consequential cost of what we are all experiencing worldwide.  

Last week my mother turned 97.  She lives in a retirement community that has different levels of care. Thank goodness she is still able to live independently in her own comfortable apartment.  Two residents in the assisted living unit recently died and several members of staff tested positive.  As a result, all residents in independent living have been quarantined in their apartments.   Today is day 27 of that quarantine.   We were able to get permission from the staff at her community to let a few members of the family who live nearby sing happy birthday to her – us standing in the open courtyard and Mom on the 2nd floor balcony of her apartment.   Here’s a photo.  Her comment after we’d sung and congratulated her – “ This is one birthday I’m not likely to forget.”

a neighbor’s statement of the times

My neighbor decided to make a statement about C-19.  Please see the photo of the large boxwoods for which he fashioned wire glasses and masks.  It’s drawn a lot of attention from people in the neighborhood who have been out in the good weather. 

Meanwhile at the national level, President Trump is exploiting the C-19 crisis to accomplish his right-wing political agenda so he can tout his accomplishments to his base support in the presidential election process.   He has relaxed regulation of mercury in the air and water; he is appropriating private land by imminent domain along the southern border to build a wall; he has banned immigration for 60 days, and the list goes on and on.  Former VP Biden’s fundraising is $187 million below Trump’s and Biden’s staff is not in place – he has 25% of the number of people Trump has running social media end of his operation.   Still, there are more of us than there are of them, and with the recent unity in the Democratic party, I remain hopeful.  

Keep well  and remain resilient.  

from Megan in Brisbane, Australia: Oh Moody Blue!

April 18. The day got off to an interesting start . I packed my Holly bag for our daily walk – treats, waste bags, water for both of us, paper towel for residual mess: the list does go on (I’ll stop here, I think) and prepared to put on her harness. She edged away from me in horror. 

I’m not going.

Yes you are, Holly. 

I’m not.

She did this to me yesterday. So I left her behind. I thought that when I got to the gate she would run after me and say,

 Wait for me!

I walked the length of the fence, still expecting her to say,

Come back and get me. I was only joking.

But no. She sat and watched me go, with a look I’m sure was glee, and a paw I am convinced she was using to wave me goodbye.

Peace at last, she was thinking. Don’t come back in a hurry.

Well, sorry Holly. Not two days in a row. With a lot of grappling, lunging and the inevitable treats, she got strapped in and off we went. 

As we walked, I was reminded of my childhood in the fifties, growing up in Johannesburg. Low or no walls, open gates or no gates at all, children kicking the ball in the garden, and some children playing in the streets. They can. Very few cars about.

How fortunate the people are here. Such open space, beautiful vegetation, wide streets, blue skies. No fences.

Holly is very clever. When she saw people coming towards us, she stopped (as I do) and waited for them to pass. If she can practise social distancing, then we all can surely! Interesting observation is that people are not greeting one another, or remembering their manners. A simple, thank you would do no harm. 

There was no breeze, everything was still. Birds chattering. Out of one house came the sound of someone practicing the piano. Lovely. I stopped to listen. It was Jingle Bells. 

The next thing, a man’s voice boomed out,

Will you stop with that racket!

I moved on.

You will not believe that down the next street, a teenage sounding daughter was giving her mother a load of words, and the mother was definitely responding in kind.

The next thing, a neighbour called out in not so very fifties fashion, Oh, shuddup, will ya!

Somehow these two episodes made me feel part of the real world again. With all the inspirational quotes and guidelines for a meaningful life (#Greater Purpose), which are often really hard to live out, these human moments that made me think of how difficult it must be for families during this time and how they must loathe the platitudes. There are only two of us in the house, so it’s not hard to have a routine, to do the garden when you feel like it, to read or sleep or bake, or whatever your design for the day is. The luxury of it. In some houses, they might be wondering at what point would they be able to access financial help for domestic abuse. 

And it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning.