Shop ’til you drop?

On 15th June 2020, the UK government re-opened “non-essential” retail business (then, in England only) to trading.

TV reports showed queues forming outside retail parks, and interviews with representatives of other parts of the economy still closed, like ‘hospitality’. There were opinions from medical science about the safety of reducing ‘social distance’ from the present 2 metres, but not any behavioural science underpinning the relaxation.

I struggle to understand why any, never mind many, people are in such desperate need for “non-essential” items to the point they would queue overnight – as happened in some places. Crowds, bordering on disorderly, were seen outside so-called flagship ‘brand’ shops. What the social distancing was like inside the stores we do not yet know.

The point of this post is not to focus on the unquestionable health risk associated with this behaviour, but on what I perceive to be the fragile, and fundamentally unsound, basis of our economy which caused the government to allow shopping to resume in spite of the risks.

The UK is a service-led economy. We don’t manufacture much to sell to anyone but ourselves, and most of what we do sell to others is services, not goods – apart from very specialist and high priced items like luxury cars and aeroplanes. We sell ideas, designs, science, ‘systems’, lifestyles. We buy goods from (mainly) developing nations because they can make ‘stuff’ and ship it to us cheaper than we can make it ourselves. In consequence our economy, the flow of money round the nation, and critically into the coffers of the tax man, depends on us spending – especially discretionary spending. Much of our retail, and of course our leisure travel, sector is dependent on this sort of activity but the Covid-19 pandemic has also starkly exposed how dependent we are on routine international air travel for underpinning supply chains with freight carried on passenger airliners.

The latter part of the 20th century saw the confluence of two developments in the economic activity of so-called first world countries: on-line commerce and “just-in-time” manufacturing. Very few major sectors of our UK economy, whether it be retail (including food retailing), car making, construction, or even heavy industry like ship building or wind turbine manufacture, hold ‘stock’. This means, as an island nation, we are extremely vulnerable to disruption of supply chains. In the past we, as individuals, went to ‘agents’ for purchases and they co-ordinated all our purchases and placed orders with suppliers. Now we are all our own agents, making individual direct purchases and “cuttting out the middle man”. This sort of activity is almost impossible to plan for, whether in materials, manufacture or logistics, and so there have been shortages. Shortages create unease, unease creates panic, panic influences our buying behaviour to such an extent that we will buy things we wouldn’t normally buy – in order to get ‘something’: a sort of displacement purchasing.

And so, back to the point of this post. Judging by the queues, and excitement, as shopping became just a little bit easier it seems that we have become so dependent on buying, and spending (even getting into debt to do so), for our emotional and psychological health that we are individually prepared to take Covid-19 risks with our physical health. It also seems our economy is so dependent on our spending, even on “non-essential items, that our government is prepared to encourage us to take risks too.

Sadly, for some, “Shop ’til you drop” may become the reality.

Are we all ‘ists’ practicing ‘isms’?

There has been worldwide reaction to the illegal killing of an African/American (George Floyd) by police in Minneapolis. In ordering my own thoughts about this issue, and the current unrest in and on behalf of the BAME communities about it, I have come to the troubling conclusion that I am an ‘ist’, or at least guilty of ‘ist’ behaviours – or ‘isms’. This realisation has helped me to understand, I hope to some extent, the institutional and inherent racism in my own country.

The manner of George Floyd’s killing, by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost 9 minutes, could not have been more calculated to evoke the history of black slavery in the Americas. However, not all of the understandable reaction has been well intentioned. While it has given people from ethnic minorities a focus around which to express their anger over past and present injustices, it has also provided opportunities for “racists” to promote their views during demonstrations against them. It has also provided opportunities for those who benefit from creating and maintaining division, in society more generally, to exploit the situation by provocation.

The event sparked the creation of a movement (fuelled and fanned by social media) that self-identified as “#BlackLivesMatter”. Curiously in the UK (so far) #BlackLivesMatter has not appeared to focus much on similar events in the UK. In other words it does not appear to be using the George Floyd incident to draw attention to occurrences of UK people, often young male people of ‘colour’, dying while in British police custody.

In the immediate upwelling of protest, some individuals defaced or destroyed statues, and other memorials, of historical people with links to slavery, the British Empire’s colonial past, or believed to be associated with support for historically contentious figures like Mussolini and Hitler. In passing it made me wonder whether, across the former British Empire, in fact all of the former Empires of European nations, similar things are happening? Are statues being torn down in the former African colonies of Belgium or Germany, the French colonies of north Africa and South-east Asia, the Far East colonies of the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of South and Central America?

In the fairly recent past of other nations, effigies of world-influencing people have disappeared from view. In the former Soviet Union, once replete with images and statues of Stalin Marx, Lenin, Engels etc., such are hard to find except in museums, while those of pre-Soviet personalities are reappearing and revered. Iraq and Libya have seen statues of former dictators torn down after regime change; the same happened in Cambodia, Romania and many more.

For what my opinion is worth I think we’ll have to reconsider how, and where, we ‘memorialise’ people in future, but I’m happy to think of existing statues being moved to a “walk through history” sculpture park – not a theme park, but somewhere that allowed space for interpretation, information, and context. Where exisitng statues of contentious individuals cannot be moved, why not add some interpretative panels nearby or even erect another statue adjacent which depicts another part of their story? I believe we have to face up to our past, and through education learn from it, not try to expunge or edit it. To do so is to deny their context: a context that seeks to explain, not excuse. Otherwise we are no different than those who seek to deny the reality of the WW2 Holocaust, and murder of 6 million Jews by the Fascist Nazis.

Naturally as a person with some Jewish heritage and DNA, I have a reaction to this last point in particular, and it’s visceral. A novella by John Buchan, “The Thirty Nine Steps”, is a favourite story of mine but there are profoundly, and explicitly, antisemitic passages in it which I really struggle with. I have to skip past them in order to read the rest of the book, but I couldn’t burn it. Antisemitism is not part of my direct experience: I’ve never been abused, called a ‘Yid’ or a ‘Jew boy’ (not to my face) so my response is taught, learned and passed on, inherited. I am a white, middleclass, well educated and, I like to think, ‘liberal’ person and yet I have a direct instinctive response to an indirect stimulus: I am preconditioned by my environment (upbringing) to not have a rascist bone in my body and yet, and yet, I find myself admitting to prejudice about people I have never met.

In considering the undoubted rascism experienced by our BAME citizens, and trying to imagine how people of those communities must feel, really feel, I tried to put myself in their shoes. Of course that’s impossible, but in my head I tried to go through some benign scenarios, such as how would I react to people of different appearance, dress, skin colour, race, ‘presentation’, turning up unannounced at my door, say to conduct a survey. I had to admit I might be, probably would be, instinctively more wary of a young black man in a ‘hoodie’, and talking in ‘urban patois’, than I would a white middle-aged man in a suit. That is prejudice. That is racism. And there is nothing in my direct experience that leads me to this, quite the opposite, so it must be environmental. I must have been insidiously exposed to imagery and attitudes in various ways, some so subtle that they have been un-noticed, that I have formed some underlying attitudes to stereotypes. I suspect most of us have, and so it is entirely understandable that for some people, without the priviledges of a good education, sound upbringing, decent housing and work opportuities, these prejudices are nearer the surface than in others.

I recently undertook a DNA-based exploration of my family history. There were few surprises: I expected my genetic makeup to be mostly Celtic and European (Ashkenazy) Jewish, and it is. However, I also had a few ‘outlier’ strands, some from north and west Africa. I wonder if some of the Nazi-saluting fascist thugs who counter-demonstrate #BlackLivesMatter gatherings might be similarly surprised to find how cross-cultural their DNA is? Those who parade proudly under the cross of St. George or Union Flag, and proclaim themselves thoroughly English or British, might be surprised just how polyglot they are.

When I lived in Scotland, from where my Celtic DNA derives, my wife experienced occasional low level anti-English bigotry. She is not identifiable as being from a particular racial group, or origin, until she speaks. At that point, some deep seated stereotyped response was triggered in some people she met. Not based on who she was, or on appearance, skin colour, attitude or behaviour, she was made to feel unwelcome. That was 30 years ago, and yet it has coloured her feelings about the Scots ever since. She knows that this is irrational, but her slight experience has created an emotional ‘trigger’ in her. How do we expect people of BAME origin in the UK feel, when they are individually and collectively subjected to much more overt, systemic, and frankly nastier, abuse?

The unpalatable truth, as I see it, is that humankind is tribal. It is complex and multi-layered, but we have an animal need to belong. Whether that be defined by race, religion, politics, profession, class, sporting affiliation, age, gender, neighbourhood (and sometimes several of these) we seem to need the safety of our ‘clan’. In times of societal stress, whether that be caused by a pandemic, a financial crash, or even a war, we fall back on the instinct of what makes us fit in with our group to feel safe. We are frightened, especially just now, and frightened people are often irrational.

And so I would ask that we self-examine our motivations, and feelings about #BlackLivesMatter, both for and against, and whether over this or other things, we are also ‘ists’ and practice ‘ism’s. I know I do, and it’s not a very comfortable place to be.

UK Covid Travel Quarantine

On 8 June 2020 the UK government initiated quarantine restrictions on incoming travellers. With a few minor, and clearly (?) defined, exceptions everyone arriving in the UK by air, sea or rail, has to self-isolate for 14 days.

In the weeks since ‘lockdown’, during a period of unusually fine weather, 1000 illegal migrants arrived on the shores of the UK by various means – mostly small boats crossing the English Channel. In one day alone, in the week before the new restrictions, 160 arrived. How many arrived undetected is obviously not known.

In the context of quarantine restrictions intended to prevent ‘importation’ of new Covid-19 infections, one has to wonder where, and how, the illegal migrants are being quarantined – for their safety and ours – and how many of them have been tested and proved ‘positive’ for Covid-19?

Violent Protest in UK – George Floyd

Violent behaviour in demonstrations is unacceptable, but mass public protest has always been ‘hi-jacked’ by violent elements. I’m old enough to remember what happened during the height of the Vietnam War protests, and the CND movement, and the Miner’s Strike where sometimes extreme violence was perpetrated by, and against, protesters.

However, our society at large is tolerant, even encouraging, of violence legitimised by context. You just have to look at mainstream Film, TV, video ‘gaming’ to see how we glorify violence.

It is also the case that political protest has always been exploited by ‘agents provocateur’ – for example police dressed as miners during the miner’s strike – and unscrupulous media looking for a ‘good’ story. I’m not saying these incidents in London and Bristol are like that, but you have to be mindful that those small number of violent protesters may have an ‘agenda’.

Finally, I would ask those who are uncomprehending of protests triggered by an event thousands of miles away, to consider these 2 points:

1) The sort of casual and institutional violence exhibited by those police officers in Minneapolis sometimes happens here in the UK. Simeon Francis, a 35 year old black man, died in police custody in Torquay Devon on 20th May this year. Whatever the cause proves to be, you can be sure that racism is in the UK too.

2) Put the boot on the other foot. How would you feel if your society was largely of a different ethnicity from yours, where justice and law enfocement was delivered by a judiciary and police force largely of that different ethnic group, and where members of your ethnic group were routinely abused, even killed, by them without sanction? When you come to the point where, even in a pandemic, you think “Enough is enough”, would you be calm and measured? Would you maybe lose the plot, or be susceptible to the encouragement of others to do so?

Generation after generation, the words of Martin Niemoller are there to remind us that if we turn our eyes away, and stay silent in the face of such events, we are complicit. However ‘liberal’ and fair-minded we believe ourselves to be, if we do not protest we are no different from those who allowed the stain of fascism and Nazism to spread across Europe in the 20th Century.

‘Tombstoning’: Metaphor for Relaxing Lockdown?

In recent years there has been a growth in numbers of people (mostly young people) undertaking physical challenges that involve high risk. One of these is ‘Tombstoning’ – the practice of jumping from height, sometimes considerable height, into a body of water.

Over the sunny weekend of 30/31 May, in Dorset (UK), there was an incident involving ‘tombstoning’ which provides a clear metaphor for the UK government’s decision to relax the strictures of ‘lockdown’.

People were frustrated by being confined, at that time for 10 weeks, and the government had signalled that we could have a degree of freedom to go outside. It began by saying, three weeks previously, that we could travel any distance to enjoy exercise, as long as we maintained the prescribed social distancing of 2m. Predictably, people took that as a green light to go to the ‘seaside’ – in their thousands. Cars streamed to the coast, clogging roads and carparks, disgorging their occupants in confined locations where it was inevitable that ‘social distancing’ would be challenging if not impossible.

Durdle Door, in Dorset, is an iconic and beautiful location where an enclosed shallow bay features a natural arch over the water. It is, or should be, self-evident that an enclosed bay surround by cliffs will have limited access, and the limited space on the beach will be influenced by the fall and rise of the tide. Apparently not. Many hundreds of people arrived and spread themselves on the beach. Amongst them were three who decided it was a good idea to test their bravery by climbing up the cliff, over the arch of the ‘door’, and ‘tombstone’ 70 feet into the shallow water, encouraged by the onlooking crowd shouting “Jump, Jump”. They were all seriously injured and had to be airlifted to hospital, although it is questionable whether land ambulances would have been able to get anywhere near on the clogged roads. To make room for 2 helicopters to land safely, hundreds of people were compressed into a small space, destroying what remained of any potential social distancing, and were eventually evacuated from the beach up the single access path in a massive ‘crocodile’ file. In this case, amongst the unknowable infected people, any one or all three of the jumpers might have Covid-19, presenting risk to their rescuers and medics, not to mention that flying helicopters into that location is not entirely risk-free either.

This event is where my case for ‘metaphor’ comes in. Over a fairly short time frame UK governments (there are 4 devolved administrations) have decided to shout “Jump, Jump” while we contemplate tombstoning off a lockdown cliff. In the face of conflicting (and in some cases absent) evidence and scientific advice, we are being told we can come out of lockdown but, explicitly, to do our own assessment of risk. The problem with this is that the assessment of risk, in relation to Covid-19, remains, as it has been all along, selfishly focussed on not catching the disease rather than not spreading it. One thing the scientists are agreed on is that we need a robust, fully functional, ‘track and trace’ system to pick up, and isolate, outbreaks of disease. We have seen the value of this in other countries where they had systems for, and experience of, population scale testing and tracking in pandemics. To be robust and fully functional it needs to have adequate capacity, both for carrying out tests and analysing the results, and critically that means speed because outbreaks must be stopped quickly or they rapidly get out of control. At present the UK does not have this and, by all accounts, the statistics on tests carried out are suspect. The evidence, or should I say experience, from other countries where they have had a better grip of Covid-19 is that it keeps coming back. Other countries experimenting with coming out of lockdown have low rates of new infection, in the low hundreds at most. Our daily rate of new infections is stubbornly high, apparently around 8000, of which perhaps 25% are actually confirmed by a test. After 10 weeks of lockdown, which has limited movement and contact, one has to ask why? What is driving community transmission? I have my own theory, which is asymptomatic spread. Asymptomatic infectees will not be picked up by track and trace, or other existing testing, because they fundamentally require self-reporting of symptoms. Those contacted by ‘track and trace’, as having been in contact with someone who is confirmed (by another test) as infected, will be asked to isolate. However, though they may also be infected they may not have, or go on to develop, symptoms. In fact they may be the person who unknowingly gave the infection to the reporting person in the first place!

The science around modality of spread, of viability of deposited virus, of viable infectivity in a person after infection, of any acquired immunity and persistence of immunity, is weak. This brings me back to my metaphor. In a country where some seem only too ready to accept the government’s encouragement to “jump”, while applying their own assessment of risk to them, I fear we are all tombstoning to potential disaster with them.