from Nike in Katerini, Greece: the daily count

Katerini, Greece

Our daily case count is rising. Greece was doing so well, we even had one day where we had no new cases and we mostly had very low single digit figure days of two, three, four. We are having spikes now, we had 52 last week and we’ve had 20 the last three days. They mostly come from overseas, either Greek Nationals returning home or visitors, plus we’ve had some outbreaks in two cities, Xanthi and Larissa.

Xanthi’s was in its sizeable Greek speaking Muslim population present since the Ottoman occupation. In Larissa the outbreak was in the Roma gypsy encampment. The Greek government has announced it won’t induce another nation wide lockdown but it will induce mini lockdowns in affected areas. Plus they are relying on the testing of all incoming visitors and a quarantine period before they can commence mixing with the population. I just hope it works.

easing of restrictions ….

Just before the nationwide lockdown was introduced I’d ordered a new bed. I remember my bed arriving much later than the promised arrival time because the furniture maker, Dionysus, had been inundated with new orders for the tourist season. I could not stop thinking about him during quarantine. When those orders were placed he would have ordered materials, booked staff etc to create the inventory. I popped in to see him to say hello and tell him I’m very pleased with my new bed and to ask how he went during quarantine. Indeed it was as I feared. Those hotels still haven’t opened and the few that have so far are showing minimal bookings and many have cancelled those orders which he has piled up to his ceiling in his warehouse. Just one example of the economic impact of Covid 19. His mother came out to say hello to me as well and she said, “don’t tell me you believe all this virus stuff, it’s all a conspiracy by the government to close down our churches and force us to become atheists.”
I did not laugh or roll my eyes but remained calm as I said, “I do believe this virus stuff in fact my own son got it and suffered quite a lot.” She snapped back at me, “your son is young, he probably didn’t have it at all, he probably just had a cold.” and with that she turned on her heels and waddled back to her big leather desk chair at the back of the showroom where a gaggle of her friends were sitting all clucking their agreement.
Dionysus shrugged as he said to me, “I know the virus is real but what do you do. People believe what they want to believe

On Monday, 15 June, our borders officially open to many countries. Let’s see how we go.

In the meantime I went out for a stroll last night.

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 Steph in London, UK: a shrinking world …

April 24 I haven’t worn a watch since we went into splendid isolation. I’m not sure why I decided not to wear one but I suppose as I don’t have to be anywhere it doesn’t really matter what time it is.

I am reminded of a book – Station 11 by Emily St John Mendel. A fictional account of a world pandemic – will re-read it to see if it’s still as good and what with Bill Gates Ted talk in 2015, we may have an insight into our future …

 Everybody’s world is shrinking so much and that’s the thing that is so frustrating. So the irritation stakes are getting higher … immediately the thought of home schooling my boys whilst holding down a job kicks me out of it. I’m reminded of when I was doing an MA. I worked full time, had 3 teenagers and was a single mother. Assignment time was a nightmare and often I’d work til 4 or 5 in the morning trying to get it all done.

I must remind son number 2 of his comments then—- “Mum, you’re a lousy role model working all night to get your essays done” wonder what he thinks now as he juggles his job and 2 teenagers , who would be quite happy being glued to their devices til the end of lockdown…

Rumours abound about the over 70 being kept in lockdown for the foreseeable future– that’s the end of the House of Lords then- in one swoop …the House of Commons being left for the boys (and too few girls)

Getting exercised about being locked down, semi-locked down or isolated for the foreseeable future. Does it come from an underlying cynicism about the government’s ability to sensibly sort this out, get testing both before and after the norm or just being news weary?

 The complexities of getting the economy up and running must have a quid pro quo element – will Boris be his usual gung-ho self or be more circumspect when deciding what to do when? Will the economists and scientists be able to reach a compromise?

In our new reality world, we took delivery of 3 tons of top soil for the garden, which caused so much excitement … I’d better go and put it into the raised beds.

And my daughter-in-law hits 50 this week. A House Party instead of a real party and real celebrations when we can. We sent a video of us washing our hands to Happy Birthday to you!

from John F. in Tadcaster, UK: the pandemic economy in Madrid.

The pandemic economy. Gigi was a surprising name for an Iberian ham cutter –a nattily suited Romanian, and definitely a man – who was renting out my garage parking spot. But then his Oklahoman colleague at the ham cutting business was surprising too. Glen had moved from a marketing role at a blue-chip American bank to being the office manager for Emilio García Ortigosa, a colourful Spanish personality show with an appropriate acronym, EGO, which he used as his company name. Glen saw no contradiction in being a practising Jew and the purveyor of cured Iberian ham, professionally cut, served and presented, with considerable ceremony and explanations, by trained ham cutters. Happily, this was an irony we could joke about together, the first of many.

The company provided a package deal, so to speak, for restaurants and high-end hotels around Madrid and beyond. Gigi was the star cutter and trained the junior ham cutters. This is a business model that would be difficult to explain succinctly outside Spain, where ham-cutting is a respected trade, combining artistry, performance, understanding of a high-quality artisan product and long hours putting up with the public. Pretty much the gastronomic equivalent of bull-fighting.  EGO’s ham cutting business was doing perfectly well, until eating out, a staple of Spanish life, became one of Covid 19’s first casualties. All restaurants were required to close under the State of Alarm imposed in the middle of March.

A little more than a month before, Gigi, Glen and I had been out together to celebrate our new rental arrangement. A bout of flu somewhere in China in no way impinged on the important business at hand: we were virtual strangers, united by the flimsiest of bonds, but this was more than enough for three adoptive residents to enjoy Madrid, a true party city. We had a splendid evening at a smart hotel bar, gobbling down EGO’s excellent ham as it was sliced, with actorly flourish, by one of Gigi’s protégés.

With the closure of Madrid’s night life, EGO’s business went into hibernation with no forecast as to when the revenue stream would start up again. What to do with the master cutter’s snazzy motor? Leaving it on the street in Madrid’s Latin quarter was not a sensible option. The neighbourhood is popular with anarchists, and the nearby square still houses the headquarters of the obstreperous CNT trade union, still remembered from the Civil War and the focal point for anti-fascist rallies on key political anniversaries. That is not to say that Gigi’s large black BMW would be any safer elsewhere, but he was a proud and protective owner. This was our dilemma; the owner of the BMW had no cash, but the owner of the parking space needed to make a return on her investment, too.

Some currencies, however, can acquire liquidity. Which is how I ended up lurking on the third and lowest floor of an underground carpark waiting for a Romanian ham cutter. 30 vacuum-packed envelopes of Iberian ham changed hands, and the rent for this month was sorted. Next month might be a good one for sheep’s cheese.

Guest blogger: Henrietta in Madrid

from John in Brighton, UK: the debate of health v the economy

April16. As the debate of health v economy gathers pace I do support the current policy of maintaining the lockdown pro tem.  Maybe that reflects my background in health as opposed to business and economy which seems like a foreign land when people explain the intricacies of the economy. My level is that I have a certain income each month, certain outgoings and try to save a bit for the rainy day. Speaking of which, and I wouldn’t have said this a month ago when Covid first crossed The Channel, but perhaps our clap for carers could double as a rain dance for the weekend. But in the immediate notwithstanding my bias health would trump economy – every life saved spares families of the unthinkable grief, so well illustrated by some of the interviews we see on the news and we can always try and restore the economy to health in the months or years to come.

Nevertheless pent up in my South coast version of Wormwood Scrubs the recent warm afternoons have allowed my mind to drift into the sunlit uplands and reflect on whether we’ll be entering a different era. Above all will the pendulum that Margaret Thatcher swung away from the ethos of community and society swing back? It’s as if a genie has been let out of a bottle in the last few weeks and up and down the land people have grabbed the opportunity to do their bit – the Thursday clap, the NHS volunteers, communities looking after the old and vulnerable or the fundraising to name but four. Has there ever been a more extraordinary enterprise than 99 year old Captain Tom strolling in his garden aiming to raise a grand and this morning he crosses the twelve million mark and rising – all for the NHS?  It’s out of this World so with apologies to David Bowie perhaps I could plagiarise a few of his lines:

This is Captain Tom to Boris J

I’m stepping through the door

And I think my Zimmer knows what I must do

Tell the NHS I love it very much…

But here’s the crunch – is this a transient silver lining to a very black cloud or could it just be the beginning of a brave new world?  Will the moral compass swing along with Thatcher’s pendulum? Money will cease to be the benchmark of success and misguided lodestar towards bliss. Poverty brings misery but wealth won’t make you happy as my father taught me from a very young age. Instead we will focus on each other and the good of society now and the planet for the generations to come. Distinctly lacking in my view to date has been the role of politicians to lead by example – be it the dubious expense claims or the pay rises from which all other public servants are excluded there has been a degree of self interest and protection. So as primus inter pares we can look to Boris the bellwether – and perhaps his recent sojourn in intensive care might make him realise that the public services are a pillar of that society and deserve far more support than the Tories have offered to date. I don’t tend to gamble but I’ll stake a quid that he’ll be seen on the steps of Chequers this evening clapping away but more importantly will the tangible follow despite the enormous financial hit we are taking?  I’d love to be proved wrong but my glass is a little less than half full at present.

from Rajan in Mumbai, India: Slum Dharavi in Mumbai

Health Minister, Government of Maharashtra Mr Rajesh Tope in Dharavi

April 14. Dharavi is is in Mumbai, India. It is the biggest slum in Asia. It is has been founded in 1884 by during British rule. Approximately 300 thousand people stay here. It has an area of around 2 square kilometres. The number increased  by way of migration in search of jobs mostly from rural areas. Surprisingly it is astonishing to say that it has an active informal economy. Many of the household enterprises employ many slum residents. It is estimated that there are around 4,000 businesses and more than 12,000 single room factories. The products made here such as leather bags, purses, jewellery, accessories, textile etc has a market in US, Europe and Middle East. Annual turn over estimated at over US$ 1 billion.

It has not escaped from many epidemics. Plague in 1886 killed half of the population at that time. After 100 years they suffered from Cholera and now when the first case of novel Covid 19 was found, Panic button was pressed in the minds of Prime Minister to Chief Minister to Health Minister to Policy makers to general people in the country because of the type virus and the spread it may cause. How will they follow social distancing. In every small house measuring approximately 150-250 square foot on an average 7-8 people live. They are using common washrooms and many other problems. How do we quarantine them? It is the most difficult task. In addition there are 2-3 more such pockets but smaller in size in Mumbai where also the infection has entered. 

However I must appreciate the Health Minister of Maharashtra, Municipal Officials, Doctors, support staff have gone there personally to asses the situation and led the operation from front. The Chief Minister extended full support to the team. They are agressively following the strategy of CTRR (Contain,Test, Relief and Release). They all are brave people. They need a great congratulations. Young people came forward to volunteer their services.

God bless all those who are working to save them as well as the residents…

from Eileen in Murcia, Spain: the Economic Consequences

April 9. Thoughts on Economic consequences of Covid-19 on this region.

South Eastern Spain’s economy is very reliant on tourism and agriculture. Therefore, this corona crisis is devastating for a lot for local people. As of the 13th of March when the lockdown was enforced 1000’s of people were immediately dismissed without any financial assistance. To make things worse, the employment laws make it very difficult to dismiss a permanent member of staff therefore most workers in the hospitality, tourism etc are on short term contracts giving them very few rights. In addition, many contacts state they are to work much fewer hours than is expected.

My friend Jose had a contract working in a restaurant which stated 3 hours a day. In reality, he was expected to work 12 hours. In normal times he would be paid for the time worked, though I know of others getting paid only the hours stated in the contract. Today Jose’s employer came to pay him the wages he owed to him before the lockdown. He gave Jose the money equivalent to the 3 hours a day stated in the contract and ignored his normal 12-hour shift. Jose had to accept what he is given and feels helpless to be able to rectify the situation!

There are many like Jose here and I think this area will be very hurt economically by this lockdown.

Agriculture on the other hand is roaring. The fields have been blessed with the wettest spring in years. Couple with the mild weather you can literally see the salad and vegetables growing. Daily men, mainly Moroccan immigrants, are working in the fields morning, noon and night. Most of these fields are leased by large English farming companies supplying British supermarkets. The produce is picked, packaged and labelled on the fields.

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Collateral Economic Damage

April 6. Collateral economic damage is focusing on the small, micro and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs). They are mostly in start-up mode and developing. They do not yet have the reserves to sustain themselves over the coming contraction if the economy post-Covid19. Many of them have let some or all of their employees go, and many have continued paying full or part wages. The electrician, Greg in our suburb, who services electrical installations and more recently our security lights is in this category. He has a team of three semiskilled assistants. He has put them on leave with full pay until the crisis passes. The suffering of these now unemployed workers as a result of a decline in work may lead to negative social dynamics.

The first movers in providing support to this sector was Nicky and Jonathan Oppenheimer and Johann Rupert of Remgro both providing R1bn contributions to the SMME sector. Since the fearless Minister of Small Business Development tried, unsuccessfully, to impose racial criteria for benefitting from these funds, donors have quietly gone about moving their contributions out of reach. Patrick Motsepe of African Rainbow Minerals has since provided his R1bn, and Naspers has provided R1.5 bn. Mary Oppenhiemer and her four daughters have also provided R1bn. The R500mn support offered by the government from tax monies pales into insignificance in the face of these generous private sector donors.

In a country where much-maligned White Monopoly Capital (WMC)  is being scape-goated for societal inequality, the usual chorus of voices is now silent. The highest noise is made by the so-called Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This political party has a growing support base from unemployed youth and other economically illiterate folks. Their preferred models for economic development are Zimbabwe, Venezuela and other failing or failed states. The EFF neither understands economic freedom, nor has it taken the responsibility to run a town or metro where its lack of economic literacy would become apparent. It does understand fighting and has used this tactic effectively to put pressure on Past President Zuma.

Young Julius Malema is the so-called leader calling himself the “Commander in Chief” of the EFF. Fanciful. He has threatened genocide on whites in SA to draw attention to his populist ideas. His opportunism is wearing thin with the population. His constituency is the unemployed youth who could yet be exploited and turned towards a fascism bent post Covid19 where the economy tanks. Surveys indicate that race relations are intact but fraying at the edges. Most of the populist voices and factions are silent in the face of clear leadership from the President. Heaven forbid this should change.