How the English deal with the plague?

News Straight From ‘Blighty’

It has without doubt been a most extraordinary year, indeed I stumbled across a little wish list that I started in November 2019, as to what I wanted to achieve in 2020, and no surprise absolutely nothing has happened. No, the world has been plunged into a most bizarre and unexpected turmoil, the likes of which have never been experienced by my generation, nor many others come to think of it.

Ironically, I remember having a chat with my partner in December, when the first news reports started to appear, about this strange illness that had surfaced in Wuhan, allegedly starting in a wildlife market, where bat soup was initially listed as the potential cause. If I am honest I do not think that I took it very seriously, but week by week, facts and figures started to emerge, people were starting to become poorly, and then die. Obviously once human life is lost, things started to get serious, and suddenly it was attracting the world’s attention, including mine.

Overnight new words were appearing in national headlines, Lockdown, Quarantine, Isolation, and even worse, from what appeared to be a very orderly and disciplined response from the residents in Wuhan, footage started to appear of the Police and army enforcing lockdown. The viewing was not good, it was no more Mr. Chinese state Nice guy, the veneer was ripped off and the harsh reality of a deadly pandemic was loose, with human panic and fear dominating control and brutality to enforce the population to stay at home and prevent the virus spreading.

My next recollection was watching people on cruise ships being kept isolated at various ports as passengers started to leave in body bags. My initial inertia was shaken loose as reports started to manifest that cases of the virus began to arrive in the UK, and Europe, and then the USA, and then all around the world. I remember watching a plane load of Brits returning from Wuhan, being herded onto coaches and taken to a specialist hospital for 14 days of self- isolation, (I noted ominously that the UK Coach Company was called Horseman, and there were 4 of them, oh dear, that will be the 4 horseman of the apocalypse I thought). And inevitably it was not long before the first 2 UK cases were diagnosed in York where 2 Chinese people were admitted to hospital.

The strange thing looking back, even though all these events were going on there did not seem to be any real concern by the Government, it was as if we all knew it was going on. But, of course it won’t be a problem over here, will it? After all we are an Island, and we don’t have to worry about such things. Interestingly in the UK, Boris Johnson was busy getting Brexit done, following his election victory. Indeed, reports would come to light later that he actually missed 6 Cobra meetings (Cobra is the emergency group that meet to discuss plans in cases of national emergency, like terrorism or pandemics) that were specifically held to assess the risks and threats of coronavirus. Some in the media suggested that this was because Boris had other EU priorities and was apathetic to the growing sense of world panic that was starting to swell across the continents.

Interestingly, across the pond, Donald Trump also seemed to adopt a relaxed view on the dangers of the pandemic, indeed he was effusive in his praise at just how well the Chinese authorities had dealt with it all. However, before long he closed down the USA to air travellers, taking his wall building to a whole new level. Except, rather oddly, for passengers from the UK and Ireland, they kept flying as if they were immune from this disease. It is interesting how Boris and Donald seemed to not take it all very seriously at first. However, Boris would soon show a new level of interest when he actually contracted the disease himself, mind you he did make a habit of visiting UK hospitals and shake hands with as many people as possible. It has been suggested that he thought for some reason he was immune, as the virus was indeed a foreign illness and had no right being in the UK post Brexit. Donald of course went through many different transformations about the correct tactics, to initially ignore it, and then combat it.

For me his finest hour was when he suggested that maybe injecting or swallowing bleach might be an effective deterrent. The look of abject horror on the face of the poor woman at the famous press conference who was the medical expert, was a joy to behold. Her face contorted with thinly veiled horror while Doctor Trump, shared his latest cure with her, almost expecting her to agree with him in his mass poisoning proposal. And, of course, being the good old USA quite a few nut jobs did just as the Commander in Chief suggested and bleached themselves with fatal results. One poor chap in Arizona and his wife swallowed a chemical used in fish tank cleaning, after watching him on the TV. Tragically it killed him, although his wife survived, not sure what happened to the fish though. Of course, Trump’s aides claimed that the President was being sarcastic, but the trouble is once said the damage was done.

Boris meanwhile was taken to hospital and then amongst much public angst admitted to the Intensive Care Unit or ICU as it is known. To be fair public opinion was very much on his side, he was after all expecting a baby with his fiancée Carrie Symonds at any moment and had only been the Prime Minister for a few weeks. Indeed, his life did hang in the balance for several days, Boris revealed afterwards that the hospital had prepared a press release announcing his death, such was the closeness of his demise. Interestingly enough once he recovered he went on to praise two of the nurses who saved his life. Neither were British and the trade unions happily pointed out that post-Brexit and the new points system would end up with a large number of front line staff being sent home (wherever that is).

Almost overnight as enlightened countries with statesmen-like leaders realised just how dangerous the pandemic was they implemented lockdown procedures designed to stop infection. Chancellor Angela Merkel a scientist by background was very quick off the blocks, as was the Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ahern, and interestingly they have both been proved right as both have enjoyed much lower levels of infection to date than other nations. In the UK, there was a lot of talk about what needed to be done, but for several crucial weeks nothing was done. This was a fatal error, quite literally for many thousands sadly as time was to prove. Eventually Boris announced that the UK was be locked down and we were all advised to #StayHome, #StaySafe, #SaveTheNHS. In addition, all businesses that were identified as non- essential were to close with immediate effect along with shops, bars and restaurants. In essence everything simply stopped dead in its tracks.

The Prime Minister then advised that 1.5 million people who were identified as being most at risk were instructed that they were to go into lockdown for 9 weeks. Now, as it happened this included me as I have cancer and have a very low immune system as a result, I duly got regular text messages from the NHS telling me that I was to stay indoors, and not go out, in addition I had to wash my hands very regularly for 20 seconds and if I needed food or medicine then someone would fetch it for me. By a strange coincidence of fate, I was due to have a major operation on the 26 of March to remove the cancers and implement a procedure called the HIPAX process which requires giving the patient one hour of a special chemotherapy treatment that is placed over the bowel, and then heated up to 40 degrees and then gently shaken for one hour. As it transpired sadly for me the night before my operation was due it was cancelled because the intensive care unit was full. The only way that I could get the operation I was told was by having to pay for it myself.

My surgeon told me it was my only chance, so I somehow got the money together and the next week I had the operation in a private hospital. Interestingly, while I was recovering in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), it was converted for Corona patients as they were expecting an avalanche of sick people and the NHS did not think that they could cope. As a result, they did a deal with the private healthcare providers.

As it happened they never admitted any virus patients and performed conventional operations as they had been suspended. The truth is that even though the national action was very late, people overall seemed to conform to the Government’s wishes, they did stay in, and apart from an initial binge buying of toilet rolls and sanitisers, most people behaved sensibly. Indeed, with the schools closed the nation soon adapted to the new norm of staying in. Some clever, innovative, and funny videos started to appear as the new- found obsession with Tik Tok started.

On the positive side, even though there was a national lockdown with strict rules applied around exercise, and essential shopping, certain people and activities came to epitomise the British spirit of stay strong and carry on. The best example was Captain Tom Moore, this humble former Second World War soldier, aged 99 decided to raise some money for the NHS. So, he decided to walk every day the length of his driveway, the plan was to raise £1,000 by walking 100 laps finishing on his 100th birthday. Consequently, his family set up a Just Giving page, and the rest as they say is history, by the time of his birthday he had raised a mouth- watering £30 million. In addition, he also had a number one hit single, the eldest person ever to top the charts in the UK, was promoted by the Queen to the Honorary rank of Colonel. And just for good measure as a birthday present 2 classic RAF planes namely a Spitfire and Hurricane both like Captain Tom, survivors of the second world war, ( classic fighters which were flown by the Polish squadrons with such distinction during the Battle of Britain in 1941 and beyond), flew over his house to celebrate his birthday.

Another very nice tradition that the pandemic instituted was the regular Thursday night tribute to the frontline workers from the NHS, the shop staff who kept shop shelves stacked, the drivers who kept the nation moving. Not to mention the bus drivers, and train drivers, who allowed essential staff to get to work. And others who worked throughout the pandemic to keep people safe and supplied with essential Amazon salt & pepper sets etc. It is however quite rightly the NHS who are singled out for the amazing and life -saving work that they have done throughout the United Kingdom. The deal is that at 20.00 hours exactly people take to their front gardens and cheer, or bang pans together to show appreciation. In my case, such was my personal enthusiasm I shone a bright blue disco light onto the front of my house. After all, the NHS have kept me alive even though I have had 2 serious battles with cancer, so banging a saucepan is the least that I can do. It is however a sad fact that over 100 NHS staff have died since the pandemic started and more deaths are likely. I myself know 4 people who have been in my life at different times who have passed away. The point is that this illness does not discriminate if you get it, you are in danger, as I found out when my partner became ill with it. She had to self- isolate and fortunately, even though she was pretty unwell for several days she battled it and beat it. I was very fortunate that I did not catch it, as in my case it might well do me in as I have virtually no immune system. As it happens I start 3 months of chemotherapy treatment this week, and as a result will be even more vulnerable, so I am being super careful.

So, as May draws to an end slowly but surely the Government are starting the slow process of controlling the virus and reduce infection. As a result, Boris gave a press conference recently which quite honestly caused more confusion than clarity, in essence what he seemed to say was ‘Go to Work, do not go to work, Use Public Transport, do not use Public Transport’ amongst other things, although he allowed unlimited exercise, and people could start to play golf, play tennis, play basketball, and go fishing, so long as the social distancing rule is followed of 2 metres. Ironically in theory I am not allowed to go to visit my mother who is 91 and suffers from dementia in her house. But, in theory I can take her to play tennis or basketball. The new message in England is no longer stay at home, it is now stay alert, which no one is really sure what that means. What is noticeable is that the politicians in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have ignored the stay alert message, and stuck firmly with the stay at home mantra, and I can understand why.

At the moment the Government are attempting to get the schools to go back, but there is a lot of resistance from the teaching unions, who are not convinced that it is yet safe to do so. In addition to managing the social distancing rule, there are many other challenges but as ever it is a balancing act with the Prime Minister keen to get Britain working again, and that can’t start until kids are out the house. To be fair, it is a tough decision, go back too soon and see a second wave of the pandemic; leave it too long and the economy suffers in a recession that has not been seen since the last war that ended 75 years ago. I must give credit to the Government for paying 80% of employee’s salaries when they were closed down or Furloughed. I do not believe that the Polish government introduced anything quite as generous when the nation closed down. We were very lucky in the UK that this was offered in addition to tax cuts and mortgage breaks to keep people going during a time when Britain, like Poland, started lockdown.

 So, in conclusion this awful pandemic has brought out both the best and worst in humanity, although in my view overall it has been positive. I have watched communities that in a world of social media and modern communications and hand-held devices seemed to stop talking and caring for each other. Suddenly we had to watch out for our neighbours and friends, in addition we were unable to meet, hug, or care for our loved one’s in case we killed them. This has, I believe, made us appreciate the value of family and friends and just how important love and kindness truly is in a world where material things and immediate gratification had become the norm. Who knows out of all this tragedy and grief maybe we might just be better societies, and dare I hope to say it better, kinder, nicer people, as a result. No matter where we live, what language we speak, or flag we fly. #StayAlert and #StaySafe.

Author: Austin Birks