Pandemic litany

I started writing this many years ago on Monday. At the time it felt current. I felt apprehensive and anxious, mainly because what we wanted to do – lock everything down as our in-laws in Spain had had to – seemed so at odds with a country that seemed to be carrying on with everything just fine. But part of my discomfort came also from having spent so many years invoking the idea of a pandemic as a wild card in scenario workshops, a plausible future that was disconcerting for people new to thinking about the future, and old news for people doing actual contingency planning. If different futures communities had spent so long thinking about it, how come it seemed to be going so badly? The answer, of course, is that thinking about the future is only a small part of action, and there are many reasons why actions are not taken. But I felt found out, somehow, to have been talking about it in such a familiar way, and yet to have nothing stockpiled or prepared except what we had left from our Brexit box.

Now, on Thursday, in the present, the different parts of my life seem to have caught up with each other, and I no longer feel as though I was LARPing a pandemic on my own. Those early days had the feeling of a radio play, one with three actors and one location telling a story about vast and epic events. My experience was limited to the rooms inside our small house and the garden fence, while I pieced together a world outside from twitter and radio bulletins. Meanwhile next door built their kitchen and the street outside was busy. Now the schools are about to close indefinitely and office work has relocated, living inside Teams and Zoom, as if a team of fractal office movers had reconfigured the building and diffused it through thousands of individual laptops. The invisible college, hiding in spare rooms and kitchens across the Greater London area.

Sohail Inayatullah’s ‘causal layered analysis’ method begins with the litany, the surface of the present visible before analysis. The litany of the pandemic started, for me, as unconnected tweets from analysts and policy wonks, then coalesced into received wisdom as possibilities became more real. Someone has to keep the records. I’m not going to spend time editing these: they are already out of date, and I just want some way of remembering the start of making sense of it all. It’s hard to stop reading and start writing this down, knowing I’m missing something (of course that’s the reason it’s important I do).

It is an emergency — resilience groups dusting off their plans and strategic tools (e.g.,

Scientific advice: lots of early praise for GSA, CMO, and for the PM who surprised us by listening to experts, although we should expect him to change with the wind. Worry and criticism more recently as an adherence to modelling and poor communication made it look as if UK exceptionalism was going to lead to an unfeeling experiment with people’s lives. The BIT’s role was celebrated, then criticised: at no point, outside academic twitter, did I see anyone point out that there are lots of other ways of studying society, which seemed to confirm their total capture of the idea of ‘social science’ within government. “Scientists have been sounding the alarm on coronavirus for months. Why did Britain fail to act?” by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet. For me, the absence of testing made any numbers shared suspect, and so anything other than a conservative approach (isolate early) hard to justify. Y2K was invoked as an example of the truth that a timely response is unappreciated: getting it right feels excessive, and strangely unsatisfying, since it has the effect of removing the central device.

Economic impact: financial markets plummeting, unprecedented scenes (like temperature records, our baseline is the last time things were unprecedented, in 2008). Global economic recession accepted by all, economists urging immediate and massive interventions. Risk moves from the things I don’t understand and into the things that mean something to me — banks, insurance, pensions. UK government making £billions available — not enough, it seems, but the sight of Conservatives cheering this spending is striking. Service industries going to the wall, jobs lost already, SMEs all over in dire straits. Precarious and badly-paid workers vulnerable: in the front line of delivery and care, under most financial pressure to continue working. This is in the public debate now but no clear mechanism to get money to people that need it. Landlords benefitting from mortgage payment freeze, not clear how to ensure this is passed on as a rent freeze. Supply chains tested, fresh produce from Spain and France not making it to markets, panic buying leads to supermarkets rationing shoppers (and instituting quiet periods for vulnerable shoppers. At home we are eating more expensive food than usual, since the organic and gourmet food is the last to be bought around here, which is nice for the moment. Only big chains in this town, apart from butchers: Chinese supermarket in MK might be a good place to shop. Lots of ‘how to cook’ threads on twitter.

Working from home. ‘Those meetings could have been emails!’ — global move online for knowledge workers. More insight into colleagues’ lives (decor, kids, clothes). I feel more connected than ever and my network is flattened again, like when I worked across regions before: there’s no difference between Canada and London. Difference now is that everyone’s broadband seems up to video these days (mostly). My working from home used to be for writing, and now the office has arrived and I wear pyjamas less often I feel put out, as if someone hadn’t taken their shoes off.

Huge push to move teaching online, legitimising online teaching (and surveillance of students/teachers), accelerating the commodification of ‘content’. Pressure from admin team to fit teaching to the tools available. No space to imagine a different way of doing it, for many. Landscape very recognisable from Futurelab years, and reinforces the sense that for a long time I have been involved in trying to change things that have stayed unchanged.

Social: more agreement than previously that staying in the responsible thing. Lots of edge cases come up: what’s ‘non-essential?’ More: when do you stop pulling on the thread once you’ve started asking that question? What do you not question about how we organise our lives? What makes you stop? Tropes: our parents won’t do what they’re told (many don’t need to be told, of course) and we are all worried about them, suddenly, without a run-up. It’s terrible that lots of people will try to write a novel set in these times (though I am looking forward to reading the one that helps me make sense of them, so I hope the author is not put off by people thinking they’re sophisticated on twitter). Isolation a ghastly option for people whose home arrangements are not safe for them. Rise in domestic abuse already evident. Shameful divide between well-paid people whose jobs don’t seem to be vital and can be done away from infection risk, and poorly-paid people on whom we depend even more when we retreat into isolation.

Cleaner air and lower emissions worldwide. Pollution in cities makes symptoms worse in the early months, until cars are regularly off the road. People calling out ‘humans are the real virus’ as eco-fascism.

Collaborative design of medical tools (like this FB group). Useful and maybe life-saving, or amateur and dangerous. Related: dashboards galore, lots of roundups of initiatives, ‘collective intelligence’, service design. I saw a template for putting a note through someone’s door asking if they wanted help, including the hashtag ‘#virtualkindness’, and I wondered why they couldn’t stop before adding it, and why people need templates for writing a note in the first place. Whether this sort of thing comes from a good place or a sort of entitled techbro solutionism, it seems hard for some designers and engineers to sit things out if they aren’t directly related to their expertise. Perhaps it’s mean-spirited of me to lump the groups together. Certainly it’s a positive thing to have people trying to make life better.

Local collective action is organised on FB and WhatsApp, with members organised into category 1/2/3 depending on responsibilities and capacity to help (over 3000 members on our local group and no new members being accepted for the moment)

US – private sector undermining response.
“SoftBank Owned Patent Troll, Using Monkey Selfie Law Firm, Sues To Block Covid-19 Testing, Using Theranos Patents”. “Medical company threatens to sue volunteers that 3D-printed valves for life-saving coronavirus treatments”

Opportunity in a crisis: the true virus is capitalism, and this is a chance to make the foundational changes we need to. We won’t be going back to how things were in any case. Lots of people noticing how easy it’s been to waive mortgage payments, fees, halt evictions, etc – you mean we could have stopped it ages ago? Francis Tseng collecting examples of things that turned out to be possible after all. Mariana Mazzucato on the radio describing the kind of more equitable and sustainable capitalism we should use this emergency state intervention to develop. Can you change things this big on purpose? No-one invented capitalism on purpose — bits of it, sure, lobbying and legislation to keep power where it is and so on, but it was invented in pieces, without sight of the resulting whole. Trying to build a new global economy intentionally feels like engineering thinking, and I don’t think that works at this scale. Instead perhaps we need to mirror the move in moral philosophy back to virtue ethics, away from event-driven frameworks: finding a way of doing what’s right in itself, not for its outcome. UBI.

State power: necessary role is being reluctantly accepted, or enthusiastically embraced, by government, who have spent the last few days stopping short of leading (leaking actions rather announcing them, offering loans rather than bailouts, suggesting people might like to think about staying home, etc) but who are also about to pass a bill granting sweeping emergency powers that last for two years. The emergency legitimises a more authoritarian state action (surveillance/tracking is necessary to contain the pandemic) and bigger role of private sector (helping make good the lack of investment, being asked to make sanitisers/ventilators, footballer hotel owners making their hotels available and keeping staff on payroll). Contrast to Spain taking over private hospitals.

Other things: “gin distilleries as critical infrastructure” (via Justin Pickard): “The transition to making hand sanitiser is difficult for UK [craft gin] distillers, for example, because those using denatured alcohol must be licensed. Those using drinkable alcohol face high taxation, at £28.74 per litre of pure alcohol.”

Religion: seen as a risk, especially after the cluster in Shincheonji church in South Korea. Prayer groups still going on (e.g. in SA:
“The Chief Justice has called for prayer every Wednesday in groups of no more than 70”). But there is thinking going on about how to do things differently: “far from having to ‘shut up shop’, the Church of England must face the challenge by becoming a radically different kind of church rooted in prayer and serving others.” , “BBC to produce virtual church services on Sundays”

Two tweets from @DharmagarageU (lost the date)
Thinking of setting up daily online meditation on Zoom so we can sit together on weekdays, as a small thing to do to help people cope in Corona times. Would be sitting for 20 minutes at 7.30 AM (CET/CEST) to keep it accessible. Let me know if you’d like to join!

Ok, let’s do this! See you tomorrow morning at 7.30! We chat for 10 minutes about practice, and then sit for 20. Some people from our local group are also interested to join online. Here is the link: #digitalsangha

Also Emma Charleston (@undividual – also lost date)
Quaker meeting has been suspended for the foreseeable future with the meetinghouse closed. An email thread discussing how we might continue to share in worship from afar includes ponderings on the potential of MfW (meeting for worship) via google doc

Quaker meeting involves sitting in silence, and anyone who feels moved to minister may stand and do so (its a strictly non hierarchical church). I actually find the idea of sitting in silence in front of a shared google doc for an hour, waiting for someone to type, quite soothing

More from a Quaker in isolation: “Before leaving we also started wondering whether this might be an option we could offer in normal times too. The Spirit, it would appear, does not seem overly concerned about whether we gather in person or online.”

In real life: this is the end of school year for the kids. Eldest will miss the local rites of passage of last school show, the big trip, first Cubs camp. Usual rhythms that have structured recent life are disrupted and won’t return. Overseas friends that we see on skype are on a more equal footing with quarantined local friends, all now seen through a pixelated frame. Very glad, selfishly, that they aren’t worrying about GCSEs or A-levels.

This doesn’t scratch the surface, really, just the main points that seem to recur in print and broadcast. Other people are thinking about the practical second/third order impacts of all the above, though not yet what happens when the emergency shifts into a more Italian gear and the larks of moving online and trying to keep work going seem a long way removed from grimmer practicalities. I’m going to stop here, for now. In the next post I’m going to think about futures and foresight in the light of this pandemic and associated events, where heritage fits with all this, and ask three questions that I think are useful for getting at the scale of what’s happening, beyond all this future-of-telecommuting stuff.

Blogging is better for this than me scrambling to get insights on Twitter. I don’t have the competitive instinct any more, and I waste time being disappointed when the impact I have isn’t commensurate to the effort I put in. I’m putting this online against my newly-introverted instincts because the only way I might help is through contributing to making sense of it all, and that can’t be done in private. Practicing thinking in public. It’s like hearing your voice on a tape-recorder.