135 – Lockdown Walks

Rant ahead.

Driven by economic necessity rather than by overcoming the crisis, many European countries have now started easing the lockdown. The need to restart the recovery is of course paramount, but what has anybody actually done to claim it’s now over? Well, fuck all, really. Every self-taught constitution expert (and football commentator on weekends) has now extended their specialisation to virology and epidemiology. Everyone shares their suddenly gained erudition about droplets, excess deaths and R0 factor, but all statistics turn futile unless enough tests are carried out. To this day, most patients tested are those with symptoms. In Spain it’s practically impossible to be screened for Covid-19, unless sick enough to be admitted to a hospital. Even the big swabbing campaign pompously announced today in the UK is aimed at “anyone above 5 with Covid-compatible symptoms”. Of course, because the swabs only reveal the illness in its initial state, but if it’s true – as it seems –  that many cases are asymptomatic, the value of the information obtained from this type of large scale testing is limited. This campaign (and I do not mean this as a critique aimed at the UK specifically, any other country in Europe – with few geographically advantaged exceptions – hasn’t done much else) was to be done in the early phases of the epidemics, when identifying symptomatic cases would have contained the spread. It was to be done while everyone was confined to their homes. And while I understand the total standstill while the hospitals were collapsing, it was also the (only) right moment to determine how big is the percentage of asymptomatic cases, of which to this day we can only make a more or less educated guess. Six people in my fencing club I had interacted with until the lockdown later developed symptoms, of which only two were tested (positive). I spent the last week before the world stood still in Barcelona, the second most affected city in Spain, eating in restaurants and crowded markets, visiting museums. Have I caught it? I don’t know, I never even had as much as a sore throat, but if not, it’s down to sheer luck.

No serious scheme for serologic testing for antibodies (which tells you if you had been in contact with the virus and your immunity system responded to the infection) has been unveiled – the 20.000 households tested per week before the end of the year is frankly a joke. While the swab tests must continue (extended on people without symptoms who may be infected, also known as tracing the contacts, which now should be doable even without some miraculous app, given people’s social interactions have been supposedly rather limited over the last three months), it is also paramount that we find out how far in the population has the virus spread undetected. Because if not, based on which data do you decide when is a good time to go back to some kind of normality? Without this information, everything else will be just guesswork. If you have no idea how many people have antibodies by the time the lockdown relaxes, can you determine if the presence of antibodies also means immunity to re-contagion, and if so, for how long? Starting any serious testing after the lockdown has been relaxed is a bit like wearing a condom while your partner is giving birth.

And now they started talking about reopening borders for international tourism. Which is great. If they let me travel, I am out of here tomorrow. But on what terms? We come back to the same problem, no country has any clue about who’s had it and who not. To start with, I’d have expected that at least in the EU there would have been some unity in counting and reporting, but we now know how that went. Only now they mention obligatory quarantine for incoming travellers – because until now, they could roam freely? Seriously? And, which travellers? Most airports are closed, all commercial flights grounded. Here they have dismissed the two weeks self-isolation for tourists, because clearly, why would anyone come to spend two weeks in a hotel room in Benidorm? So now, someone had the brilliant idea to test tourists on arrival, and make them wait for the result of the test (3-5 hours). If this happens, there will (rightly) be a popular uprising and I will bloody lead it, because in this country, you don’t have access to testing unless your respiratory system has already collapsed, and you would test drunk Brits and Germans at the airport in Ibiza? Are you taking the piss? (I know Iceland has proposed the same, BUT Iceland also tested the entire population, so they can do whatever they like). So will the EU come back from hiding and propose some kind of a system? For example, define some standards of quality and validity of the tests required for travelling? Or even making such tests available for general public? Or am I asking for too much? Or shall I just book a flight to Iceland and get a swab there?

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Puerta de Europa, Madrid

I understand the economies need to start recovering, and I also understand people have had enough of being imprisoned at home. I have had enough, and I do not see the point anymore, given we are basically just waiting the epidemic out, but we are not much wiser than 3 months ago. If the point of staying at home was to protect the front line workers, what happens next? For all we know, it could all come back as soon as people are allowed to gather in closed spaces (like schools, shopping centres, gyms, offices), and how will we have protected the health services then? Will we just go between confinement to prevent healthcare collapse and some resemblance of normality for the next few years, until it eventually, maybe, disappears the way the Spanish flu did in 1920s? Next time confinement will have to be enforced by regular armies, because people will see no reason to stay at home, given the (presumably temporary) loss of jobs and civil liberties isn’t outweighed by any greater good, like actually doing something concrete to prevent a second (third, twenty-fifth…) wave. I am not advocating overconsciousnesses of relaxing the lockdown measures. Well, I would be, if there was any sense to them, but nothing much has been done to justify preventing people from going about their lives. Were those in charge too busy with more pressing matters? Like, procuring PPE, building temporary hospitals, putting safety measures in place, planning help for people and business AND running a test & trace operation was far too much to accomplish at the same time? Isn’t it why governments have ministries? Like, each secretary responsable for their own field of (presumed) expertise? Employing career civil servants who know what they are doing? Wasn’t the state of emergency put in place so that the governments had more freedom to work without worrying too much about processes? No? Alright, in that case, we can as well go back to before-Covid without faffing around too much.

The governments realise that if the economies stay idle for much longer, they will face more serious problems rather soon, and I understand that, but they just should be sincere. They should say: “this is not feasible any more, we basically just hope that during these three months those of you who had Covid-19 without knowing so are not contagious anymore, so go in peace and fingers crossed. Oh, and don’t get too close to the elderly.” The only sensible action has always been testing. And it hasn’t been done. Everything else is just pretending they are doing something, so they come up with most ridiculous measures. Hairdressers yes, but with the plastic shields…hang on, they are fainting and suffering from severe nosebleed after several hours of wearing it (duh?!), so maybe the shield is not necessary. Restaurants closed. Restaurants reopened but only if people use their own cutlery. Maintain social distancing, unless you can’t. Wear masks in public. Unless you are in a bar, then drinking with a mask on may get tricky.

The biggest of the geniuses currently in charge (obviously, except for the POTUS, who forms his own category) is Mr. José Luis Martínez-Almeida, the Mayor of Madrid. Now, you will need some background here. Spanish government is currently formed by a left-wing coalition of PSOE and Podemos (and in some Spanish citizens label any party that does not propose to shoot immigrants as “communist”), while the Junta of Madrid is led by PP (conservatives) and VOX (nostalgics of Franco’s regime who “say things as they are”). The government’s plan to allow people out in certain hours in age groups are already questionable, but it’s work in progress and it is being revised continuously. While three weeks ago, letting young children out between noon and 6 pm may have been pleasant, in further three weeks time you will have to make a decision whether you prefer your offsprings seared of roasted. As for Mr. Almeida, the only “measure” he introduced on top the government’s guidelines was to close public parks. It is not a problem for his electorate, as people who vote PP don’t engage in such mundane activities like walking in parks and anyway they promptly left Madrid and fled to their summer houses on the beach when the plan to lock the capital down was first revealed. Now this presents a practical problem. As people between 14 and 70 (that is, 70% of the population) are allowed to walk outside between 8 and 11 pm, by definition, maintaining social distancing becomes a challenge. Nonetheless, the Mayor refuses to let go of his only brainchild (and quite possibly an object of some nightly me-time) and reopen the green spaces. Therefore a clever counter-measure: obligatory masks in public spaces. So, while the PPE has never been compulsory here at the peak of the epidemics (except for public transport), we now must wear them on the streets so that the Mayor can wank off over one safety measure he managed to come up with. It’s not a question of which way anyone leans politically, it’s mathematics. If you want people to keep distance, you must provide a larger space over which they can spread. But no, too obvious solution. In the meanwhile, we are opening the bars on Monday. Good luck with that one.

Now, about the bloody masks. Remember how you used to look at Asian tourists at the airports as if they were carrying bubonic plague? Now you look this way at people who don’t wear masks. I just hope that this also means you’ll stop bothering Muslim ladies about covering their faces, but I don’t hold my hopes too high there. I wear the mask in shops, out of respect for the people who have been working there for the entire time. But there is no way I am going to wear one outside, or while walking alone or exercising. It has became a social stigma. Nothing more than a ritual. “I am wearing a mask, I am an obedient citizen and a good person.” Good for you. I’d rather see those in charge doing something sensible beyond shaming people into wearing PPE in the open air.

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Tempo de Debod, Parque del Oeste, Madrid

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Most of the photographs were taken on my phone, hence they are rather terrible. Apologies for all the cheesy sunset shots, but we are only allowed out around that time.

 


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