Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19’

One year later

March 21, 2021

One year into the pandemic. One year ago, we decide to isolate ourselves: not officially lockdown yet, but then our PM never has managed to act in a timely fashion… Then, I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and thought to myself, I’ll write a contemporary journal. It wasn’t long before I gave up: there was nothing to write about, with so much of my ‘normal’ life disappearing: no U3A language groups, no weekly yoga classes, no Quaker Meeting for Worship, no holidays, no seeing family. And there was no point in recording the tergiversations of useless, lying, corrupt and venal politicians because there’s public record of that wherever you look. I was full of intentions of reading other plague-related literature such as CamusLa Peste – which I still haven’t gone back to – and I did manage Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague recently. There’s still Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides to reread.

Of course, some of those lost activities soon resumed on that tiring platform which is Zoom. Our French conversation group still meets fortnightly to talk about anything and everything, although with life as curtailed as it is, there’s actually far less for us to talk about. And I know I’m not the only one to notice how group conversations on Zoom and other platforms are different: much harder to pick up visual and body language cues with such small pictures, and one is inevitable distracted by one’s own picture in the corner of the screen. Our German group opted not to continue on Zoom, and I don’t know whether it will recommence; our Spanish teacher finally decided to retire from teaching. Quite a gap in my routines and my learning.

Our elders at local Quaker Meeting have done sterling work in enabling Zoom meetings every Sunday, for which I am very grateful, and again Friends agree that it just isn’t the same as being gathered together in the same room. Modern technology has meant it’s been easy to be in touch with friends and family, and at various points it was even possible to meet up under carefully defined circumstances. I have sorely missed my weekly yoga classes: our teacher carefully followed guidance and we managed to have some smaller, fortnightly classes but these inevitably fell at the first hurdle when things had to be tightened up again…

Travel – which has been one of my major retirement activities, with usually a couple of serious road trips to Europe each year – disappeared almost completely, although I did manage a week’s walking in Scotland late summer.

I thought I’d get loads of reading done, but this was not to be; I couldn’t settle on what to read, and frittered time away. Much gardening, and much tidying and decluttering happened. Things are different now, in that I’ve lately got a reading fit on and am revisiting lots of books I haven’t opened for many years, which has been very satisfying.

In and among all this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting: what have I learnt over the past year?

I have learnt a good deal about people, and can see that we have not yet reached peak stupidity. People swallow the lies of politicians, and the lies spread on social media. People do not listen to advice, especially that of the experts in the field who advise us carefully. Too many joggers thud selfishly past, not putting distance between themselves and others, too fixed in their own little achievement bubbles; a lot of cyclists are the same; dog-walkers can be worse. People don’t wear masks properly, or pretend that they can’t. They clap for the heroes of our NHS and then vote for the politicians who have starved it of resources for years and pretend there’s no money for wage increases for nurses: people don’t want to pay taxes.

I have learnt how corrupt the UK actually is. We have a mental picture of endemic bribery and corruption which we associate with the Third World, when actually the same things are happening right here at home, and with our tax-payers’ money. Our NHS has done astonishing work tackling COVID and planning and carrying out a massive and apparently successful vaccination programme that’s the envy of many other countries: our shameless government is basking in the credit for this, and people are lapping it up. I’ve learnt how undemocratic the US really is, despite all those lectures to the rest of the world about its being a light shining on a hill, an example to the rest of the world.

In and among all this negative stuff, I’ve learnt how caring and thoughtful neighbours can be, with a word or a chat, a note through the letterbox or a message on social media. I’ve realised how important social contact is, especially now I’m retired. Retirement has made staying safe easier, although my greater age brings greater risks along with it. I’ve renewed contact with many friends and acquaintances with whom I’d lost contact for years. I’ve learnt the importance of sustaining regular exercise – the same boring circuit every day – and even made new friends, chatting briefly at a distance with total strangers whilst out for my daily walk. And I’ve learnt that being financially comfortable makes all these things much easier. We’ve wrestled with click and collect at supermarkets, and learned how much we don’t need to go shopping.

I’m a different person; tidier, more organised, somewhat more wary. I’m nervous about what happens when we’re ‘allowed’ to do things again: will I have lost my nerve? Self-confidence is one of those things that does wane as one ages… I am fervently hoping that I will still have the nerve to get behind the wheel of my under-used car and drive off to the forests of Luxembourg again when that is allowed once more.

What is wrong with the country?

August 21, 2020

Warning: politics ahead!

I’ve always kept up with the news, ever since I was a child. COVID-19 has taught me some particular lessons, though, as I have read about how other countries have approached looking after their populations, and keeping them as safe as possible from the pandemic. Some have been pretty successful so far, others less so. And our own country has been pretty awful, surpassed only by the USA and Brazil, perhaps, in its brazen insouciance and incompetence.

The countries that have done pretty well have also made mistakes, needed to backtrack, tweak their responses and actions, tighten up again. Their politicians have acknowledged this, and apologised and done the necessary. I have read quite closely about the different measures they took, why, and how quickly they took them, and how they presented to their people the need to behave in certain ways, for the benefit of everyone. Why have we been so different?

Everything about the UK, it seems to me, has been set up for centuries to perpetuate a small elite and its great privileges: the rest of us are basically peons who don’t really count. We are expendable, of use in the further accumulation of wealth and maintenance of privilege for the few. Even if you accept the idea of a monarchy (which I don’t) ours is ridiculously large, with dozens of hangers-on, and phenomenally wealthy, and our aristocracy owns vast tracts of the country. Our education system – schools and universities – have been set up to keep the elite at the top, via astonishing financial privileges and legal protection for private schools, and their two chosen universities, to which a few more have been added over the years to protect the interests of the almost elite, which assists in the perpetuation and reproduction of the elite. This happens in a way not seen in other countries, to the best of my knowledge…

This embedded class-system was challenged briefly in the seventeenth century; we gave up on the Commonwealth experiment and re-imported the monarchy, and again for a couple of weeks in 1926. Other countries have been rather more effective in eliminating class privilege, even without going to the lengths of the Jacobins or Bolsheviks. My family name officially classes me a member of the Polish nobility; there is a coat of arms; we could have taken part in the election of the king (!) and yet our background is in the peasantry: it’s name, not wealth that counted. I can derive nothing from all this, fortunately, for the nobility was abolished – just like that! – in 1919.

Our ruling classes have an arrogance which resembles that of the elite in the USA. Theirs comes from their military and economic might, and ours comes from our inflated sense of ourselves, because what the US is now, the UK once was, and we resent the fact that that has changed. We had a huge empire. We claim to be a paragon of democracy. We are, in fact, a small island off the coast of a very large landmass, and we have recently decided to sever many of our most useful political and economic ties with that landmass, in an attempt to ‘go it alone’ (whatever that means). We attempt to hang, pitifully, on the coattails of the US and imagine we still count. And the ruling classes have managed to persuade enough of the rest of us to believe this.

Nothing can begin to improve our nation, it seems to me, until (1) we have a twenty-first century voting system rather than an eighteenth century one; (2) until we abolish the foolishness that is the house of lords, and replace it with a properly-elected second chamber; (3) until we abolish the aristocracy once and for all, as most other countries did ages ago; (4) until we abolish private education. Then, if we can understand that it’s in our best interests to work closely and effectively with our nearest neighbours, we may begin to build a better country, which serves the interests of all its inhabitants and has the welfare of all at the core of its values.

Failing the future: COVID-19 and schools

August 19, 2020

This retired teacher is profoundly grateful not to have been working under lockdown, either at the chalkface or from home, and is in admiration of anyone who has. I have tried to imagine how I might have taught and managed a full teaching load and run a department under the circumstances, and failed. I have, however, been reflecting on what has been happening and not happening, according to what has been reported in the press.

I am saddened at the thought that students in year 11 and year 13 had such an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending to important stages in their lives, and are uncertain about how their futures may (or not) be affected by the disruption. I wonder why the government has not finally grasped the nettle and taken the opportunity the occasion has presented, to bring an end to university applications based on predictions rather than actual exam results. Having undermined faith in teachers’ professional judgement and set schools in competition with each other, predictions are now highly unreliable for many different reasons. I see no need to comment on the recent farcical sequence of events surrounding this year’s public exam results: it speaks for itself.

What surprises me most of all is that no-one in power has addressed the potential for further disruption: everyone is meant to be back at school in September, whether this can be done safely or not (and that’s another thorny issue). But what if there has to be another national lockdown in winter? Or a series of local lockdowns, of varying length and at different times? How can any system of student assessment through examinations be carried out fairly under such conditions? There used to be a lot of collective expertise in the profession about continuous assessment and moderation – I know, because I was heavily involved in it – but that has all gone.

Is is possible to set up a system whereby exams might be taken in students’ own homes, with sufficient inbuilt security to prevent cheating and personation? I don’t know, but someone should surely be investigating.

What about all the students without access to IT at home? Laptops have been promised for months but none or few delivered. Can a basic device with an OS and software only for school use not be designed and produced, and be enable to work on 4G for those students without broadband at home? This might go some way towards levelling a very uneven playing field; again, I have no notion that anyone is working on this case.

I can imagine that individual schools will be devising protocols for briefing their students fully come September about how things will be done in the event of further disruption, insofar as the schools themselves have been informed…

I have always seen education as society’s investment in its future citizens, as well as individuals’ investment in their own future. And we as a nation have been trying to do that on the cheap for far too long. That’s without thinking about the broader picture, the building of curious, educated and intelligent people, with an interest in knowledge and culture for its own sake, because it’s a good thing; as a nation, I think we’ve thrown that one right out of the window.

Back to lockdown: as a teacher, how could I share a love of books and reading at a distance? How could we discuss the novels, characters and ideas, the issues that they raise, not being together in the same room? More difficult, how to communicate grammar and spelling, analysis of texts and more? How to draw out and encourage the quieter ones, and allow them their moment in the sun?

Even under ideal circumstances – whenever were they? – and with the best of intentions, things can slip. At home, many students will find better, more interesting and more distracting things to spend their time on: who will keep them focused? A parent has to be a parent first, not a teacher, and teachers are trained in their craft, as many parents have been somewhat surprised to realise over the past months.

What I have written comes from the perspective of a secondary phase teacher, where the task is harder because there are so many subjects and input is required from so many different people; I have the impression that some wonderful things have been happening in primary schools because so much comes under the remit of a single class teacher who is able to have more of an overview of the planning of what is taught to their pupils.

I said earlier that I cannot imagine how I would do all this, and yet I realise that it all must be done. I have the picture of a government that isn’t really bothered enough, doesn’t care enough and isn’t competent enough to make the good happen. And so I fear the consequences of the selling short of several years’ education, and what the reactions will be of those young people when they realise just how badly they have been treated. We are not a poor country, and our future citizens deserve a hell of a lot better.

Learnt in lockdown

July 15, 2020

I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year at the start of lockdown (no surprise there!) and thought I’d keep my own journal of this year’s experiences; that resolution lasted a few days, as there was so little to record. All the days were the same, melting into an endless fudge of time, so that frequently I cannot recall what day of the week it is, and end up at the end of a month wondering where the hell it went. However, after several months of nowhere near as much reading as I thought I might be doing, I have found myself taking stock with a longer-term perspective:

I miss: grandchildren very much, all the people I used to meet in my language classes (Zoom is there but no substitute for real interaction and company), my weekly yoga session – I’m getting stiffer – and the spiritual support of my local Quaker meeting (again Zoom to the rescue but see immediately above).

News: early on one of my daughters told me that now was the opportunity to get back in touch with all those people I’d lost contact with over the years. An excellent idea, as when you reach my age you’ve certainly managed to be out of touch with quite a few people, and the initial enthusiasm affected those I got in touch with, so we have made up some lost time. However, things are now quietening down again.

Stuck: initially to within a mile radius of our house, latterly we have been allowed exercise further afield, and this has compelled me to discover the walking possibilities near to where I live, which I have neglected for years in favour of further afield. But – first world problems, I know – I have sorely missed my travels overseas, my spring walking in the lovely Ardennes, and constantly making plans for my next adventure. As a solo traveller and walker it’s even harder: to perhaps fall ill a thousand miles and a couple of days’ drive away from home is not something to risk lightly. This has, for me, been the most frustrating part of the whole COVID experience.

People: I have been much heartened by the kindness of neighbours and their concern for whether we are OK – clearly we count as “elderly” – there are WhatsApp groups I can be in touch with and numerous leaflets have also offered help. I have also seen thoughtlessness, by those who ignore the concept of safe distancing when I’m out and about taking exercise, particularly some joggers and cyclists who are so wrapped up in their own little world that they don’t see others…

Shopping: I have explored new ways of getting those things we need, as well as new ways of doing without: lots of money has been saved as the realisation that I have enough has anchored itself even more firmly. And once I had sourced a home delivery of decent whisky, that was it!

Politics: I have always been pretty cynical here, but it has become even clearer over the last few months that there are some countries that seem to care about the welfare of their citizens and act accordingly, and others that don’t give the proverbial. When we are talking about about risks of life and death for many people, the sense of individual powerlessness grows very strong. Here in England, the wealthy and powerful are once again saying very clearly that they can and will do what they like, and the rest of us can fend for ourselves (polite version there!).

Planet: the news about the dire state of the planet and its future has grown ever worse over the lockdown months: vast mounts more plastic being used and thrown away in the name of being cleaner and safer, greater use of cars because public transport isn’t safe. What on earth are we going to do?

Gratitude: for being healthy and safe thus far, and more than anything for being able to be just that little bit further distanced from the world, and therefore perhaps safer, because we are retired. On the other hand, as we are frequently reminded, being older isn’t such a good thing here…

I wish you safety and sanity, dear reader.

On being a member of a not very intelligent species…

May 23, 2020

Warning: politics ahead

Once I’ve waded my way through the acres of knitted words, confusion and hypocrisy about COVID-19, sometimes I’m reminded that there’s a world out there that’s increasingly wrecked thanks to our stupidity. Today I came across this article, which told me of temperatures hitting 27 degrees inside the Arctic Circle and 30 degrees in Western Siberia. So global warming, melting icecaps, and release of methane from thawing tundra proceed apace, creating irreversible change…

We are (quite reasonably) currently preoccupied with a dangerous disease, and yet we are also allowing the rich and powerful to continue wielding the wrecking ball, as they strive to return us to ‘normal’: the main concern at the moment seems to be, will people be able to jet off on holiday, or will airlines and holiday companies go out of business? We are still wondering whether there needs to be another runway at Heathrow, and various people want to expand our local (Leeds/Bradford) airport. We are planning to spend astronomical sums on a high speed rail track that will not benefit most of the country. We are not thinking, here is an opportunity to rethink transportation and working practices in order permanently to use far less energy and produce far less pollution.

And this is where I come back to an increasingly frequent thought: we really are not a very intelligent species, and it’s showing more and more. The very rich and powerful have always managed and will always do so: they will survive the ravages of disease and global warming by doing whatever they need and want to do. In the end most of the rest of us can die off, and they will just preserve enough slaves or serfs to sustain their luxury.

I’m currently reading an interesting and unusual take on the story of the Russian Revolution and subsequent attempts to build socialism, and I’m constantly reminded of what a Polish friend who is a historian once told me: a different group managed to take over the reins and they assumed the power, wealth and privilege that goes with it… and all things considered, that is exactly what happened. The rich and powerful are not intelligent, merely rather clever: they see how the current system works in their favour and work single-mindedly to keep it that way. If they were more intelligent, they might see how to do just as well or even better out of preserving the planet for everyone, but that’s not actually necessary from their selfish perspective.

Which leaves the rest of us also deficient in the intelligent stakes, because we collude in allowing all of this to continue, to our detriment. Are we really that stupid?

Keeping us distracted is the first thing. There is so much to watch, do, buy, consume, that we do not have the time to contemplate alternatives, and our media see to keeping it that way. Deceiving us is next: democracy gives us just the right amount of soft power and manipulable choice that we think we are in the best of all possible systems. If that doesn’t work, there’s always brute force to keep us in our place (Chile 1973). So even though a relatively small number of us might succeed in seeing through (some of) the murk, it gets us nowhere…

I get quite depressed seeing this picture of our species, and seek to raise my spirits by thinking of all the astonishing inventiveness and creativity that we have demonstrated through the ages, which has helped get us to our current, quite advanced, state of development. And I think of all the good, helpful, and selfless people I know, those who in so many ways are serving their fellow humans. Is it intelligence that is lacking in all of us, that no-one has yet come up with a way to show enough of us that we must do things differently, and to offer a way of achieving this? Are we so easily duped, deluded and side-tracked?

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