From David Maughan Brown in York: The right priorities?

The University of Cape Town

March 29th

As the implications of the abrupt cut in foreign aid I wrote about in my last entry become more starkly apparent, it is worth looking at some of those implications for development programmes in Africa, in particular, in a bit more detail. It is worth repeating that Boris Johnson, who is in the habit of pontificating about what the British public thinks and wants, claims that the public would think that in cutting overseas aid the government has its ‘priorities right’.  In his terms, the public would rather see their taxpayers’ money being spent on nuclear warheads than on people he is on record as having referred to as ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.  ‘Foreign aid’ is an abstract concept that is unlikely to hold much attraction for a public continually exposed to a xenophobic narrative from right-wing media inclined to suggest that foreign aid going to Africa is always in danger of being siphoned off into the bank balances of corrupt officialdom. How richly ironic that is when one considers the extent to which our ‘straitened circumstances’ are at least partly due to the siphoning off of our taxpayers’ money into private bank balances via the corrupt handing out of billions of pounds worth of PPE and Test and Trace contracts to our own government’s chums. 

Yesterday’s The Observer, carried a brief report titled ‘”Brutal” cuts on overseas aid put African science projects in peril’ [1] from its Science Editor, Robin McKie, which provides a bit of granularity to the ‘Foreign Aid’ catch-all, and hints at some of the shock and devastation the arbitrary decision has occasioned.   A scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Anita Etale from Rwanda, who had spent two years putting together a team of researchers to help her develop a way of purifying contaminated water using maize and sugarcane stubble, had been promised the funding to develop a prototype but has now had the funding abruptly cancelled.  She told The Observer that her reaction ‘was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal.’   Johnson, and supposedly the British public, apparently think that nuclear warheads are a better investment than clean water for African children.

Similarly, a scientist at the University of Cape Town, Chris Trisos, the outcomes of whose work on how climate change will affect different species have been published in the highly prestigious journal Nature, has had his grant abruptly terminated for a new project to study how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants.  ‘In Africa’, Trisos is reported as saying, ‘millions of people rely on picking wild fruits and berries, but we know very little about how climate change might affect this essential nutrition source.’  When Trisos heard that his grant had been axed he said ‘I felt it like a physical blow when I was told.  My group’s future now looks very uncertain.’  So not only are nuclear warheads a better investment than clean water, they are also a better investment than food sources.  Someone needs to ask Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the other xenophobes in our government what they think is going to happen to the pressures of population migration if the supply of fresh food and uncontaminated water is allowed to dry up in Africa. 

But research on water purification and research on the extent to which wild plants can survive climate change are still somewhat abstract concepts, even when one hears about the devastation that the principal investigators feel when they hear that their research funding has suddenly been terminated without warning.  The principal investigators won’t be the only people affected.   Research teams will have been built up; countless hours will have been devoted to producing and submitting research proposals; administrators will have been employed; Human Resources managers will have the painfully difficult job of making colleagues redundant.   Researchers all too often have to rely on being able to bring in successive short-term research contracts – a sophisticated kind of hand-to-mouth existence without the job security afforded by tenured university positions.   The highs of getting research grants that will keep their research teams going are very high; by the same token the lows of having livelihoods put in jeopardy by the last-minute withdrawal of promised funding are very low.   The research projects for which the grants were funded have to be to be important and extremely well motivated: competition is strong and only the best projects have any chance of being funded.  The damage done to individuals, and the damage done to research development in developing countries is incalculable.   But why would our supremely insular Tory government worry about any of that?

The Observer article reports Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary, as saying: ‘The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal.  We have seriously damaged our reputation as trusted partners in future collaborations.  The relationships that we have built up have been badly and, I fear, permanently weakened.’  No surprise there: if our proudly sovereign Brexity nation has demonstrated anything at all over the past year it is that we don’t give a damn about how badly and how permanently we trash our reputation as trusted partners and turn our sovereign backs on long-standing relationships.


From David Maughan Brown in York: Uncertainty and certainties

August 6th

For those of us fortunate enough not to have been directly affected by the sickness and death, the bereavements, and the worries about money, jobs and schooling that Covid-19 has brought with it, the main burden has probably been uncertainty.  We wonder when will we get to visit family in other countries again, and when will they be able to come to visit us; when will the elective surgery we are waiting for be possible; when will we get to hug our children and grandchildren again; when will it feel safe to do something as ‘normal’ as going to the cinema again.   

So it is kind of government ‘spokesmen’ (seemingly always ‘men’ even when they happen to be women) to provide a level constancy and certainty in our lives for us, what T.S.Eliot might have referred to as ‘the still point in a turning world’, even if it is the government they represent that is doing much of the U-turning.   The constancy lies in the certainty that, however indefensible, they will always find a way of denying that the government department they represent has ever done anything wrong.  Today’s example was comfortingly predictable.   In response to people being impertinent enough to ask about the £150 million of our money recently spent by government on buying 50 million useless face-masks for the NHS, the spokesman responsible for answering silly questions responded by categorically assuring us that: “There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all Government contracts.”  Really? I am sure we were also reassured to have another element of constancy confirmed:  “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the front line.”  Everybody in government is always working ‘tirelessly’, even Boris, and not many more than 300 NHS workers and care workers had died from Covid-19 by the end of May, who knows many of them as a direct result of a lack of adequate PPE.

It turns out that our government of all the talentless, this time via our fascistic Home Office, has been caught out in another of the ‘robust processes’ it has in place to ensure things.  In this instance they were using a ‘decision-making algorithm’ to ensure that as few Africans as possible were granted visas to darken our national doorway.    Anyone who might have been puzzled by the bewildering number of African academics who have been denied visas to come to UK conferences over recent years now has the answer.  Visa applications from Africans have, in fact, been more than twice as likely to be rejected as similar applications from anywhere else in the world.   Those of us who suspected that it was simply because there were too many racists working in the Home Office were wrong, it turns out that it was a racist computer that was at fault, not that the computer will have programmed itself.  To forestall legal action against it, the Home Office has, according to the Independent, suspended the offending ‘digital streaming tool’ pending a redesign.   If the original design involved the computer scanning the photographs on the applications to try to identify the friendly black people who should be welcome in UK – our influential Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s, ‘piccanninies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’, no doubt – the designers of the new system probably need to remember that most applicants are too old to be considered piccanninies, and that nobody is allowed to smile any kind of smile in a visa photograph.   True to form, the Home Office spokesman assured us that the withdrawal of the programme wasn’t an indication that it was flawed in any way, but rather, “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.’   So any uncertainty about the system can be dispelled: we can rest assured that the new system will keep an even higher proportion of African applicants away.

But it is manifestly unfair to single out individual departments of state.   It is our government of all the talentless as a whole that provides us with certainty in these uncertain times.  We know with absolute certainty that they won’t meet any of the targets they set and will lie about the reasons for not meeting them; their messaging will always be hopelessly confused and confusing; they will always try to centralise any action to be taken in combatting Covid-19 that should be devolved to local authorities; and by the time this pandemic is under control many more people will have died in UK than anywhere else in Europe as a direct result of their incompetence.   But the certainties to be found in public life don’t compensate for the uncertainties of private life.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Loneliness and Life Satisfaction

June 30. We are living through a time of drama.  Every week brings a new crisis, reported or anticipated.

History will record a belated response in the early days leading to thousands of avoidable fatalities, critical shortcomings in PPE, scandalous death-rates in care homes and amongst the BAME population, widespread failings in introducing test and trace procedures, the complete failure of the NHS testing app.  Today we have the return of lockdown in Leicester and later this week there is the predicted disaster of choosing a summer Saturday night to open all the pubs in England for the first time in three months.  And so it will continue in the face of a still unknowable virus and a government of still uncharted incompetence. 

And yet, if attention is paid to how people are feeling about the crisis, a very different picture emerges.  In my entry for May 27 I drew attention to the social surveys which have been launched at great speed in response to the coronavirus.  One of the larger enterprises, the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study, has now published four further weekly reports, displaying consistent data over three full months of the pandemic.*  The questions in the survey cover basic attitudes and emotions in the lockdown.  Each topic has its own trajectory since the last week of March, and its own variations by age, income, and living conditions.  But standing back from the detail, what is most striking is the absence of change over the period.

Graph after graph proceeds in an even line as each week passes, sometimes on a slightly upward trajectory, sometimes downward.  What is missing almost completely is the kind of volatility that we read in the headlines each day.  ‘Loneliness’ (see above) has been almost completely flat since the last week of March, unaffected by the recent marginal lifting of the lockdown.  ‘Life satisfaction’ has gradually risen from 5 to 6 on a 10-point scale [it should be 7.7].  ‘Happiness’ [you may not know what that is, but here it is measured by the Office for National Statistics wellbeing scale], has been at or just under 6, again on a 10-point scale, with very small fluctuations.  Levels of depression and anxiety have been higher than in pre-Covid times but have gradually declined through the Spring and early Summer.  Confidence in the English government showed one of the largest short-term changes, falling from 4.5 to 3.5 on a 7-point scale at the beginning of May, but has since levelled out. Notwithstanding this decline, willingness to comply with guidelines has barely altered, slipping over three months from almost 100% to just over 90.  The sharpest fall has been in worries about food security, which began at around 60% of the population and are now only a little above zero. 

The scale of the sample, which involves 90,000 respondents, inevitably has a dampening effect on variability.  Individuals who have lost their jobs, or have been ill, or have suffered serious bereavement, will scarcely report so uneventful an experience.  Nonetheless the absence of sudden change across the population in such fundamental areas as depression or life-satisfaction is a necessary corrective to the melodrama played out on the front-pages of the newspapers.

When the scores are broken down by issues such as income or living conditions, there are generally only minor differences.  In most categories the young are suffering more than the old, the poor more than the rich, but often the differences are small.  Much the largest variable on almost all issues is a prior diagnosis of mental ill-health.  Again the scores show little change over the period, but there are significant gaps between the graphs of the well and the unwell. On key issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and happiness, the mentally fit are between half and three times better off than those who entered this crisis already in trouble. 

According to a report by the charity Mind this morning, almost two thirds of those with a pre-existing mental health problem said it had become worse during the lockdown.**  When we consider where the effort should be placed in alleviating the consequence of the pandemic, the mental wellbeing of the population at the outset of the crisis will require particular attention.

* Covid-19 Social Study Results Releases 1-14


From David Maughan Brown in York: Culture Wars

April 28th

The culture wars have made a very public appearance on our street for the first time in the 18 years we have lived here.   One of our late twenties/early thirties neighbours set up a Melbourne Street Whattsapp group immediately after the lockdown for the benefit of those of us who couldn’t get out to do any shopping, and anyone on the street who needed any other help.  After watching yesterday evening’s BBC Panorama programme on the government’s unspeakably negligent and incompetent approach to and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was so incensed that he posted a message on the group suggesting that when we go outside for the now ritual clapping of NHS and other ‘frontline’ workers at 8.00pm on Thursday evenings we should perhaps chant instead of clapping.  The Panorama programme had made the point that the clapping served the useful purpose for the government of distracting from, and papering over, its culpability.  Precisely what we should chant was, probably fortunately, left unspecified.

I made the mistake of responding, in vastly more restrained terms than I felt inclined to, suggesting that the clapping was clearly appreciated by the NHS workers and that, rather than chanting, other ways needed to be found to hold government to account for the deadly danger NHS staff are facing.  Someone further up the road, to whom I will give the benefit of any doubt as to whether or not she had watched the programme by assuming she hadn’t, responded by saying that she agreed with me but added:  ‘I also think the government is trying to do their best in exceptional circumstances.’  This brief exchange resulted in the rest of the evening being punctuated by a series of pings as my mobile phone alerted me to a flurry of Whatsapp responses.   The stampede for the exit as members dropped out of the group because it had become ‘politicised’ was akin to someone having suddenly shouted ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre or nightclub.

The Panorama programme was definitively damning as it made it all too clear why the UK, which had the longest time of any country in Europe to prepare for the arrival of the pandemic as it made its progress Westward, is heading inexorably towards having the highest death toll on the continent.   Among other things the programme highlighted were:  the grossly negligent failure to stockpile adequate quantities of PPE in advance of a widely anticipated pandemic; the cynical downgrading of the formal stipulations about what was essential protective equipment when it became apparent that there wasn’t enough; the failure to maximize opportunities to acquire more; and the staggering incompetence whereby British offers of assistance with the manufacture of PPE were ignored by government, with the result that large quantities of the necessary materials ended up being exported, rather than being used to satisfy the desperate need here.   The government is constantly trying to shift the blame for its failings onto ‘the science’ by parroting the assertion that it has always ‘followed the science’ in its response to the virus. What part of the science was it following when it committed that catalogue of deadly errors?

If that is the best the government can do, no matter how hard it is trying, it is blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t be the government.  To add insult to fatal injury, they announced today that they will be paying £60,000 by way of compensation to the grieving families of the now over one hundred NHS and care workers who have died from Covid-19.    So the lives of those who have died trying to save the victims of government negligence and incompetence are valued at significantly less than half the annual salary of the Cabinet Ministers responsible for many of those deaths.  The insult was then compounded as they extended it to the NHS as whole with the announcement that the compensation payment would not disqualify the families from suing the NHS if they felt the deaths of their loved ones were the result of failings on the part of the NHS.  That has to be the most jaw-droppingly blatant attempt to shift the blame yet. It goes without saying that it shouldn’t be the NHS that is sued in the present circumstances, it should be the Cabinet.  But you can be 100% sure that the legislation around corporate manslaughter will have been framed to exclude that possibility.  In the end, of course, it is the electorate that gets the government it deserves.   Which probably takes us back to the number of people angrily removing themselves from a Whatsapp group as soon as anyone presumes to voice the slightest criticism of the motley gang of Brexiteer incapables who are responsible for the mess we now find ourselves in.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Numbers Game

April 24th

If only Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had thought of it they might have managed to keep their heads on their necks.  Never mind telling the plebs to eat cake if they can’t lay their hands on any bread, their Majesties should just have given the plebs bigger and bigger numbers to satisfy their needs.  Who needs bread, or Covid-19 tests for that matter, if you can be given numbers instead?  Promising the Parisian mob ten million tons of bread by the end of the month should have been enough to stop the French Revolution dead in its tracks.

The UK government has perfected this numbers trick, and there aren’t even any guillotines around to focus their minds.  When Boris was promising 25,000 tests a day and it was pointed out that fewer than 10,000 were being achieved, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care raised the bar to 100,000 a day by the end of April.  Now that the end of April looms and we have achieved a testing capacity of only 40,000 (even if our organizational skills only extend to having 23,000 tests carried out every day), and we obviously don’t have a hope in hell of getting to 100,000 in less than a week, it is time to go stratospheric and promise ten million tests to frontline care workers.  That is sure to distract the masses.  All the care workers need to do is phone up and make an appointment.  Needless to say the system crashed within a few hours, as NHS staff desperate for the tests that should have been available to them weeks ago rushed to make their appointments.

 This after the UK government had declined four invitations to take part in an EU purchasing consortium that will use its 500 million inhabitants’ leverage to acquire desperately needed ventilators and PPE at preferential rates.  Sir Simon McDonald, a senior member of the civil service, was forced to retract his manifestly truthful statement on Tuesday within a few hours after he had made the mistake of acknowledging that the refusal to participate in a post-Brexit EU initiative was ‘political’.

The only thing that can be said in favour of our hopelessly incompetent shambles of a government is that they haven’t as yet suggested that injecting oneself with disinfectant might be a good way to keep safe from the virus.  Given the unknowable, but almost certainly considerable, number of deaths our government’s combination of ideological rigidity, dilatoriness and incompetence will have been responsible for thus far, one might think that the great British public would be taking a pretty dim view of its performance.  Not a bit of it.  A recent poll indicated that 66% of those polled think the government is doing a cracking job of managing the current emergency.  What is more, the inimitable Boris – he who demonstrated his anti-Covid-19 leadership credentials by boasting about shaking the hands of victims and bunking off five of the COBRA emergency committee meetings held to plan for this emergency – has seen his popularity ratings go up by 16% as a reward for his indolence and recklessness.

Those figures lead me to suspect that it may not have been their failure to hit on the cunning wheeze of feeding the Parisian plebs with numbers rather than bread that primarily did for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette after all.  Their sad demise may, rather, be more attributable to the absence from the Paris of their era of any royal praise singers even remotely up to the blindly ideological and wholly amoral standards of our Boris-adoring tabloid press.   

from Steph in London, UK: will all be well?

April 16. I was in the garden this morning and a heron flew over followed by 4 ducks, who landed on a neighbour’s roof. If this wasn’t North London, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid but I wonder what our wild life make of the new world. The owl still hoots at night and the woodpecker seems to have taken up residence close by.  The rather handsome fox still walks across the garden at about 6 am every morning- either going home or going out … I have yet to find out. The lack of airplane noise gives us a clarity of sound I can’t remember having unless we were in the Lake District or Scotland or Wales. And I can see the stars…

My confidence that all will be well is waning fast. Lockdown or not, life for the foreseeable future looks more than restrictive and I can’t see being able to be spontaneous with travel, socialising and everything we took for granted a mere few months ago. Instead of thinking weeks then months I’m beginning to think in blocks of 6-12 months … And what little confidence I have in our political masters has once again hit the ground. No PPE, not enough testing kits in the right places, not enough access to the testing kits at all, a complete disregard for the care sector and boys trying to play at being men..I wonder if a more experienced government would be doing  it better or whether it’s so far out of left field everybody would be  floundering… but why are Germany, New Zealand etc etc coping…… surely not as simple as only a woman leader?

Having always been ‘doers’ this new enforced passivity does not sit well on our shoulders- or those of most of the people we know of our vintage. From being proactive, useful members of our communities and beyond, we have all been consigned to the at risk group and as such to the keep quiet and wait for the next instruction. We’ve even been taken off the street litter rota –  I hate being categorised. Perhaps that’s why Captain Tom Moore has hit such a nerve with everyone.

I might suggest I cycle (on the machine) to Manchester to see the grandchildren up there, for no particular reason than ‘why not’ and probably if I could admit it, to prove we are not totally useless. I’m still thinking …

from David Vincent, Shrewsbury, UK: An infection foretold.

April 10.  Now it’s personal.  I learnt last night that my niece, my sister’s younger daughter, has coronavirus.  She is a twenty-eight-year old, recently-qualified doctor, working in a city-centre hospital.  She was infected five days ago, and is resting at home.

I am of course anxious about her, though her symptoms do not seem serious.  She is young and fit and the likelihood must be that she will make a full recovery.  I am also concerned for her parents’ anxiety.  But most of all I am just infuriated by the event.  Many of the cases of coronavirus can be described as random misfortunes.  Not this one.  She was told three weeks ago that she was being posted to a Covid-19 ward.  I was in touch with her parents, who were very worried that she would not be given appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE).  The press was full of stories about shortages, and I could understand their fears.  But I did think that by the time she entered the ward, something would have been done.

It was not.  She lasted just a week before a coughing patient got through her inadequate protection.  This was a predictable and predicted outcome.  A monument, amongst many others, to the criminal lack of preparedness of the NHS, and the Government that funds and manages it.  We are now nearly three months beyond the point when the spread of the epidemic to Britain became a realistic likelihood. And still every part of the system is in arrears.

There is my niece’s suffering – it started with a fierce headache, and she was tested and sent home when she complained she could not taste the chocolates a well-wisher had sent to the ward.  Now she feels extremely tired.  And there is the sheer misuse of resources.  My niece was freshly trained and full of enthusiasm.  She shared a flat with another young doctor who as a consequence has had to self-isolate.  So that’s two doctors who should be on the front line, shut up at home.  It is an utterly stupid, avoidable waste.

From John T. in Brighton, UK: Grim News

Yesterday the grim corona news served us up a doozy – in Margate  a 39 year old previously well nurse and mother of three died at the hands (or to be more scientifically precise pepiomers) of covid-19. That’s just dreadful. My anger at the disgrace of inadequate PPE for the front line goes up a notch to white heat. Of course we can’t say that she’d have been safer but at least we could classify it as an act of God and not potential negligence. I’m reminded that exactly ten years ago we heard how soldiers had been inadequately equipped to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan – equally disgraceful but staff in the NHS don’t expect to risk their lives, the army do.

After forty years at the NHS front line I know just how committed and kind are the NHS nurses  – we undervalue them, underpay them and they still go over and above. I also thought I was pretty battle-hardened to tragedy but this story brought a tear to my eye.  A young nurse dies doing her bit for the sick – that’s unthinkable, preternatural ….except that I doubt that it will be the last.

The  clapping is a fine gesture, politicians and celebs labelling them heroes…..but  I’m sure the staff would prioritise the tangible of correct safety equipment and testing every day of the week and not just on Thursdays.