episode sixteen: a hopeful hashtag

These are unhappy times, but is there any comfort to be found?

The last place we might think to look would be a shoot ’em up spaghetti western, but these are also strange times…

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, as many millions of people around the planet know, is the title of a 1967 movie directed by Sergio Leone. Quentin Tarrantino describes it as ‘the greatest achievement in the history of cinema’, but what does he know about making movies?

Clint Eastwood is Il Buono, the good guy, though in the Italian Wild West that doesn’t exclude being a bounty hunter greedy for gold. Lee Van Cleef is Il Brutto, the bad guy, who takes pleasure in killing and Eli Wallach draws the short straw as Il Cattivo, the ugly, though the moniker refers less to his appearance than his ‘fast-talking, comically oafish yet also cunning, cagey,’ character.

Many millions of people who have not seen the film will still recognise, and maybe even be able to whistle, Ennio Morricone’s theme tune with its unforgettable two-note melody…which I can quote for illustration, thus…though for copyright reasons, you’ll have to go to the love and care website to hear the real thing, with the added attraction that you get to see the three main characters slinging guns and bullets around like proverbial confetti, or is that spaghetti.

But alongside the music, the acting and directing, the incredible locations and the even more incredible body count, what’s unique about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, is the fact that the movie’s title has entered the lexicon as a way of divvying up the world.

My favourite source, Wiki, has this to say: ‘the respective phrases refer to upsides, downsides and the parts that could, or should have been done better, but were not.’

With a definition like that, it’s just too tempting for me to resist applying those phrases to Covid-19 and the official response to the pandemic, particularly here in the UK. So forgive me, I’m taking a day off from our personal story of love and care, to talk about the big picture, because the upsides, downsides and especially the parts that could, or should have been done better, are becoming more apparent with every passing day.

But let’s draw out those parallels in reverse, partly because the bad and the ugly elements of this disease are painful to hear and need little rehearsal, but mostly because, if we get those out of the way, I can spend time on the good.

As I say these words, deaths directly attributable to coronavirus here in the UK have topped 31,000, the highest in Europe and the second highest in the world, after America. Everybody with any sense knows that estimate to be low and the real figure to be much higher, but still thirty thousand people with children, parents, partners, friends and colleagues means hundreds of thousands of lives touched by tragedy and loss in the course of a couple of months. And we know there are many more to come. None of us expected to face this kind of ugliness in our lifetimes, and the shock is terrible.

I say none of us, but that’s not strictly true. Virologists and epidemiologists – job titles that sounded arcane and foreign just weeks ago – knew this would happen. They knew, because this kind of pandemic has happened before, many times over, going all the way back to the Spanish Flu pandemic that in its turn killed up to fifty million people. Besides Smallpox, responsible for 500 million deaths in the hundred years leading up to it’s eradication in 1977 and HIV/Aids, reported to have killed between thirty and forty million people up to 2018, and still killing people today, the last fifty or sixty years have seen many more coronavirus-like outbreaks like Spanish flu. Asian Flu in the late nineteen-fifties – about two million deaths – so-called Hong Kong Flu which only resulted in about a million, SARS and H1N1, which did not kill millions but were every bit as deadly, if not more so, than Covid-19, and the Swine Flu outbreak of 2009 that killed up to half a million people worldwide.

So, when we say we didn’t see Covid-19 coming, we can’t possibly be saying we’ve never seen anything like this pandemic before, or that we didn’t know it was coming. A coronavirus outbreak has long topped the risk list for many countries around the world, far ahead of terrorist attacks, asteroids and cyber warfare, clear and present as those other risks are still. Here in the UK, Operation Cygnus in 2016 ‘war-gamed’ the potential threat of a virus outbreak and showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the NHS and the economy and the country was simply not prepared to face such a challenge.

The gamers and modellers got it right, but nothing was done. PPE, syringes, ICU capacity, testing kits, everything you might need to fight a halfway effective campaign against such a virus was left to lapse, to pass sell by dates, or simply not purchased and stockpiled because the cost was considered too high, and it was hard to see an upside in terms of votes or short term political advantage. No surprises there, but what is surprising, is those same decision makers refuse to publish the Cygnus scenario, apparently for fear of frightening us, the public. Hmm…frightening us indeed…we’re living it.

President Trump – those two words always sounds like an oxymoron, whatever way you cut it – was elected late in 2016 and the incoming president’s team were invited to play a similar war game to Cygnus with the outgoing Obama staffers and appointees just before taking the reins of power. In a scenario presented to the assembled, they called their theoretical virus H9N2 and projected a situation that if it were real, would be the worst epidemic since 1918 and cause economic mayhem and massive loss of life. Of the thirty or so people from Trump’s team present at the meeting, one fell asleep during the briefing and two thirds are no longer part of the US administration. Trump has since made comments such as “you can never really think” that a pandemic like the coronavirus “is going to happen.”

Not if you don’t listen, and not if you’re an oxymoron.

We have our own oxymoron here in the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who missed the five meetings of the COBRA committee – convened to address existential threats to the nation – as the Covid-19 virus appeared in the country and started its inexorable spread. Johnson was still advocating shaking hands even as his advisors were telling the rest of us to distance ourselves socially. It might be funny if it wasn’t so utterly tragic that the country is rudderless and listing because the captain is all at sea.

That’s the real ugly. The fact that our leaders have allowed all this to happen, despite being warned of the risks by experts and told likely outcomes. The government Boris leads at first flirted with the misguided policy of ‘herd immunity,’ a policy they absolutely knew would kill thousands, and has since been dithering, delaying and obfuscating as it fights a desperate rear guard action to protect itself against charges of gross incompetence and wilful mismanagement of the crisis. Everything we do is guided by the science, my arse. Then why didn’t this government and its predecessors listen to the science that said all this is coming down the line. Prepare.

But we should move on to the bad, and having spent more time on the ugly than I intended, I will offer up only one example of the bad from the many I could choose.

The daily briefings. The ones Johnson doesn’t even see fit to conduct personally, I assume on the advice of Dominic Cummings, the badly dressed Machiavelli behind the wooden panels. On what planet might mealy-mouthed words from second-rate ministers reading from third-rate scripts prepared by fourth rate, sweaty speechwriters in dank basements, cynically attempting to defend the indefensible, be thought to be anything but bad? Where is the  respect for us, the people, likely to spook at the Cygnus briefing from 2016, but perfectly capable of living through the reality of lockdown and mass deaths on an industrial scale?

There is so much that is dreadful about this crisis, but it is the sheer mediocrity of the players and their plays that takes my breath away.

But enough. I’m done, I promise, that’s the ugly and the bad over and now I want to move on to the good. Because there is good. We could mention the time to stand back, to reflect and to enjoy life forced upon us by lockdown and slow down. Or, there’s those heart warming signs of the irrepressible human spirit, from singing Italians and balcony ravers in Amsterdam to individuals like my own favourite, the Aussie zookeeper’s fan dance.

Instead of long haul flights in search of peace and paradise, many of us have found that a local bicycle ride and time pottering in the garden can deliver better long terms benefits at a fraction of the cost.

And maybe, just maybe, recognising that homelessness can be ‘solved’ – that’s in big inverted commas, so you know – overnight, might just empower us to think of other intractable problems as within our grasp. Like excess consumption, ameliorated in the blink of an eye by being forced to make do with what’s in the cupboard, to be inventive and above all, or so it seems from the shortage of flour on the shelves, by the rediscovery of the lost art of baking. Slow food for slow times

And it’s not just the visible changes around us, it’s also things conspicuous by their absence. Silly celebrities for example, now confined to the online world where they can show off and compete and spat with each other away from the general view. Or the stinking rich, suddenly embarrassed when they make a basic mistake like David Geffen – personal wealth estimated at 7.5 billion dollars – who tweeted from his $400 million dollar super yacht, sailing the Caribbean, hoping to share a beautiful sunset with the common people; ‘isolated in the Grenadines, avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everyone is staying safe.’ His tweets are now private, though whether for his sake or ours is not clear.

But we’re talking about the good. Cheap shots and cynicism have no place here. Let’s turn instead to our new awareness of birdsong, to the sight of goats walking the street of Llandudno, and jellyfish moving through the Grand Canal in Venice with greater elegance than tourist gondolas. Dolphins are exploring the stilled waters of the Bosphorus, wild boar wander the deserted streets of Haifa in Israel.

We might cite the shrinking air pollution footprint hovering over China, our own skies, free of aircraft, the air clearer and cleaner. It seems we can change our ways with regard to the planet, at least. Hope is a wonderful thing, but let’s not go all squidgy just yet.

Because whilst we have tangible evidence that nature can respond by bouncing back with remarkable grace and speed, what we are witnessing is the result of force of circumstance, a symptom of the crisis, an unintended consequence, and if we want the future to be rosy, we’re going to need more than happy accidents.

I began to wonder, what if, just for a moment, we conceive of humanity not as under threat from a virus, but actually as a virus. I thought it was a neat idea, until a couple of young folk who know, said, yeah, but , that comes straight out of another movie, The Matrix.

Alright already, I’m old and obviously not original, but let’s try extending the metaphor. Right now, if we were a pandemic and not the victims of one, the planet would be breathing a sigh of relief as the threat of the human virus appears to receding. You don’t see it on the streets or in the air, certainly not in Llandudno, or Venice, or Istanbul, or Haifa. Maybe, like the dolphins and the goats and the wild boar, it’s safe to go out again. Maybe the planet is thinking, hey, perhaps we can afford to ease the lockdown more widely. Maybe the oceans won’t have to rise, maybe extreme weather events and plastic waste and desertification will just be a thing of the past, stories for the kids.

Only there are lessons for the planet – and for us – from the Spanish Flu of 1918. The first wave was mild and few people died. The second wave, peaking in the Autumn of 1918, killed million and millions of perfectly healthy people, many in less than twenty-four hours.

Maybe the last two hundred years of industrialisation, globalisation and rampant capitalism, is just the first wave of the human virus. Maybe, when we’re done with coronavirus, which will happen, instead of learning a lesson, we’ll have mutated into an altogether more dangerous form, like Spanish Flu. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a way we can avoid becoming that lethal second wave, capable of causing irreversible damage to the planet’s ecosystem, to every species of plant and animal on the planet, and to ourselves.

How? Well, we start simply by imagining a different world. Simple as. And that’s the real good of this crisis. In giving us a vision of how different things could be, we get a foretaste of an alternative future. Imagine John Lennon is even now writing a whole new verse in our honour. It’s easy if you try.

What do we do then? It’s not hard. Press reset. If things don’t have to be as they are, or as they were, then by definition, they could be different. That means there is a choice, or many choices, in our own lives but also in how we live together and in who governs us and what priorities and pressures govern them. We can use this time we’ve been given to reflect on what matters, what’s important, what helps us and what hurts us. Re-conceive the world according to that yardstick, using straightforward principles like inequality is bad, more equality good; like too much, is too much and too little is too little, of anything, and everything…money, food property, fame, disease, population, carbon, I could go on, but the principle is clear.

Moderation, middle road, enough, sufficient unto our needs and our needs tempered to the planet’s needs, because you can’t have one without the other.

But what does it mean in practice? They’re fretting right now as I write this about all that money being spent on furloughing workers but don’t want to talk about the benefits of a basic universal income. They’re worrying about the sinking oil price, but not seeing a chance to reduce our energy needs altogether. They’re frightened globalisation has stalled instead of fostering local production and distribution – yes, just like the war – to provide better, cheaper and more sustainable food sources.

Imagining a new future is not hard. Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of that future. Knowing how to achieve that future is not hard. Knowing where to start is not hard. Just press reset yourself, and encourage others to do the same. Hastag RESET and let’s spread the word, because we just need the will to make it happen, yes, that means fighting vested interest and above all inequality and greed, but lest we forget, it’s Blondie, Clint Eastwood, Il Buono, the good, who wins the gunfight with Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, Il Brutto, the bad, and leaves the ugly Eli Wallach, Il Cattivo, hanging by his neck as he rides away over the horizon with his share of the gold.