Warning: mostly not about Covid-19, but On Operations and Lockdowns

This is not a Covid-19 communique but rather a standard blog post. Don’t feel you have to read on. The reason for the change in emphasis this week is that Covid-19 events simply passed me by. The explanation is that I was engaged with the National Health Service (NHS), finally having elective surgery for an umbilical hernia. It has been a long road to get here, I am relieved to have it sorted.

I have always considered myself fit (but overweight), playing squash, touch rugby and running. A few years ago, I noticed I was developing bulge in my belly button. It was confirmed as an umbilical hernia. All the sources of advice: doctors and the internet recommend these occurrences need to be dealt with, and that means surgery. Two years ago, I arranged to have the hernia operation in Durban. It could have been a day surgery but, stupidly, I decided to spend the night after the operation in the hospital. It was that or go back to the flat. The surgery was straightforward, the hospital experience was not great. Unbelievably the morning began, at 05h30 am, with inappropriately cheerful nurses. I was on a men’s ward where all had more serious conditions and concerns, and felt somewhat fraudulent.

The original surgeon gave me options for the repair. I selected stitching rather than putting in a mesh. This was a mistake, as I realised, when the bulge reappeared some months later. This time I did more homework and consulted with medical professionals in Waterloo, Norwich, and Durban (as well as qualified friends). The consensus was it had to be redone, but with a mesh. In addition, I learnt I would have to wait at least a year before a surgeon would even consider reopening the wound.

Covid-19 meant that, after arriving in Norwich in December 2019, I have not travelled outside the UK or even on a plane for 14 months. (I am seriously tempted to go for a flying lesson as soon as it is permitted just to get in the air!) This in turn necessitated arranging to have the surgery in Norfolk. I began the process and expected to have to wait for at least a year. As it happens it was quicker than that, but my word it became a complicated process, and it has been an insight into the amazing NHS and how they function in time of crisis.

The centre for these surgeries in Norfolk is the James Paget Hospital. This is in Gorleston on the Norfolk coast, about 50 minutes (or 30 miles) away. The process involved visits for assessments, an MRI scan, a Covid test and other ancillary events. The surgery was originally scheduled for January 2021. However, the government unwisely relaxed restrictions in England at Christmas, and the number of cases soared. On 8th January 2021, they peaked at 68,192 up from just 12,386 on 12th December 2020. The hospital called me to say, regrettably, the surgery would be postponed. I expected this!

I was quite happy to wait, after all it was elective, and not urgent. The next, and unexpected development was the hospital called and offered me a date, at a private hospital in Colchester, some 60 miles away. One of the ways the NHS is trying to manage their waiting list is to outsource some procedures to the private sector. I declined the option and eventually heard from the local surgeon who said that the surgery could be scheduled for 2nd March. As an aside the number of new Covid-19 cases across the UK on that day was 6,411.

On the day, I had to get to the hospital by 7 am. Ailsa drove me down and dropped me off. I checked in to the day procedure ward and was wheeled into the theatre at 11 am. I had hoped it would be earlier. This delay was entirely my fault. When we got up, just before 5 am, I had a cup of tea with milk in it. Note to self: read the instructions carefully and follow them! I could have had water or black tea; it was the milk that was the issue!

Apart from extra hygiene precautions and wearing masks, the part of the hospital I was in appeared to be functioning normally. There is a separate terribly busy Covid section. The biggest obvious difference is visitors are not allowed at all. This makes for a very much quieter environment. The day procedure centre was active, but not manic and the nursing staff were caring, professional and calm. Everything went smoothly and, after passing urine, (a non-negotiable apparently) I was discharged in the evening. I left with a ‘goody bag’ of everything I needed for post-operative self-care.

My ‘N’ for hernia operations is now 2. The first was an incision while this second was done laparoscopically, through five places on my stomach. I had to take a few painkillers, far fewer than prescribed. Generally, I have been fine although getting up and lying down have been challenging. In addition, I was given about 10 preloaded syringes with blood thinning medication, to inject into my stomach. Not a pleasant process. I have been really impressed by the standard of service in the NHS despite the Covid-19 crisis. This also needs to be seen against the backdrop of a public sector pay freeze except for nurses, who have been offered a derisory 1%. They are furious, feeling it as a slap in the face, and I quite understand. I recognize the need for fiscal conservatism to pay for the Covid-19 response. It has cost billions, not just care costs, but also keeping families and supporting the furlough programme so people have jobs to return to. This stingy pay offer to core staff stinks.

I have taken several lessons from this experience. The first is to read and follow instructions carefully. Second is that the health service is amazing. Even when it is under immense pressure, people are seen and treated. At the same time as this was going on, the government is rolling out a vaccination campaign. I was able to go online and book both the appointments I need, the first on 12th March and the second three months later. My hub is the Food Court, in the currently shuttered, Castle Mall Shopping Centre in Norwich.

I do have a few quibbles though. The main one is about ‘joined-up’ thinking. The provision of a decent health system is part of the social contract, but the major challenge faced by humankind is climate change. I have been taken aback by the use of resources in the health service, much of which probably can’t be recycled. I was given 14 disposable syringes, each in separate plastic wrapping. It may be that there are no options! However the instructions and pamphlets were on recycled paper.

I have talked before about how fortunate I feel we are. We have a home, an income, and a family close at hand. The children are coping with this as well as anyone. My extended family are all OK, although no one is very happy. In addition to that, our environment is changing in two significant ways. First with regard to Covid-19, the numbers are falling, and the vaccination programme is working very well. Second, there are signs of spring. I can see the first leaves beginning to bud on the rose bushes and today we spotted blossom on the trees in the neighbour’s garden. It is still chilly but there are signs of spring.

This good fortune was brought home to me when we walked to a local shop to get some essentials and the Observer newspaper. The rule is only one person from a household should go in and so I waited outside. There is a ‘security guard’ at the entrance to make sure people wear masks and sanitise their hands. I think he is from Norwich. I started chatting with him and this is his story: he worked on cruise ships out of Fort Lauderdale in Florida and was also paid as an American Football Player. I know this may come as a shock to readers of this blog, but there is a league in the UK and Norwich has a team which he was part of before going off adventuring. He said he played in Australia, before going on to join a team in Vladivostok in Eastern Russia. Covid put an end to this, and I think he was lucky to get back to Norwich. I would never have known any of this. What a story. The next instalment will be interesting, and I am looking forward to it. End of personal stuff, some COVID-19 coverage next.

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Covid-19 Continues

For the past two months I have not written my usual personal blog for my website. There is a reason for this, the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 is the greatest global challenge I have seen. It could be outstripped by a climate catastrophe, but for now it is all consuming. Given the work I have done on HIV and AIDS I am supposed to know a bit about pandemic diseases. It is worth remembering that like AIDS, Covid-19 is a retrovirus that transferred across the species barrier into humans. AIDS was recognised as a new disease in 1981. There were scares with SARS, Ebola, Zika and MERS, but none developed into a major pandemic.

In four short months Covid-19 has claimed over 250,000 lives and infected more than 3,500,000 million people. I began posting a weekly communique on Covid-19 to share what we know and need to know. This replaced the personal monthly blog I have written for more than 10 years. You have, along with several other hundred people, signed up for the communique and now you are getting this additional piece, so please feel free to delete it.

I originally wrote the monthly offering because I had something to say and share. It was just two sides of an A4 sheet when printed, and the reason was to keep the price of postage down.

“Ah ha”, I hear, “But it is on the website and sent electronically, so what is this postage business?”

Well, several of my elderly relatives are either self-confessed luddites or just lack technological skills, and don’t have email, so it was printed and posted to them. Yes, in an envelope with stamps on.

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Family and Travel

March should mark the end of winter in England. There are clear signs that spring is approaching. Some of the trees are covered with blossom. The daffodils in our garden are almost all in full bloom. However, despite the signs that nature is stirring, the weather has been rotten. We experienced periods of sustained strong winds and rain for nearly two weeks at the end of February. The western part of the country has had flood after flood, houses and homes have been wrecked. I find it quite confusing to see car roofs protruding from the middle of floods, surely you can drive a car out of harm’s way.

Of course, the serious floods over the past fifteen or so years meant defenses have been built, and in many cases they have worked. It could have been so much worse. The problem is that there are just too many houses built in vulnerable places (unbelievably on floodplains), and the nature of these storms is that they are ever more intense, a month’s rain in 24 hours. Yes, global warming is real, and it is affecting us in the UK in clear and measurable ways.

I had been organising a lunch in London with our extended family in mid-February. It turned out to be the wildest and windiest weekend of the month and public transport was greatly disrupted. As my sister and her husband are not youthful, canceling the gathering seemed appropriate, and indeed this turned out to be prescient. Fortunately, we made the call to postpone before I finalised the restaurant booking.

My brother, Derek, was passing through London for a day on his way back from the United States to Cape Town, and so we decided to have a smaller lunch the following weekend, on Saturday, 22 February. The plan was for Douglas and I to take the train down to London and meet up with the family at a restaurant they had booked near Notting Hill Gate. This was a central location and gave easy access to and from Heathrow for Derek as he had a limited amount of time.

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Month One of English Living

Now that I am in Norwich for a spell I am in the process of organising my office and activities. This involves something of a clear out. I have been going through huge quantities of paper. Many printed papers have been recycled, the realisation is that I am neither going to reread or refer to them.

Books get appraised for their usefulness now and in the future, and there is a high bar if they are to remain. I probably have 300 CDs and they too need to be gone through. Anything that I am uncertain about is being put on the player. If there are scratches on the disc, or it is something I will never listen to, it either goes in the bin or the charity pile. In a few months I expect to have a very much more habitable and organised office.

Since London is where so many interesting things happen, I anticipate going down reasonably regularly. This is made easier because the ‘over 60’ railcard I have makes travel more affordable. In addition, to my surprise on looking at the train timetable, I discovered there is now a train that has cut 30 minutes off the two-hour journey, a few times a day. That does make it a great deal easier to travel down. I went at the end of January for the day – leaving Norwich at 9.30 and getting back at 10.30, not sadly, on the fast train.

Decades ago, I joined the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). This was a club on Northumberland Avenue, very close to Trafalgar Square and only about 100 yards from the Embankment station on the Circle Line. When I first joined it was a bit dusty and old fashioned, but the club had a library, meeting rooms, a restaurant, lounge, bar and bedrooms. It was a great place to hang out and meet people. I organised meetings, seminars and dinners there and even, occasionally, stayed overnight. Unfortunately, over a period the offering dwindled, first the bedrooms, then the meeting rooms, until the club finally closed in 2013. I had been pondering what to do to get a London base and came up with a solution earlier this year.

In 2009 I was appointed as a Senior Research Fellow for the British Department of International Development. I held this fractional post for several years. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the experience of working in the Civil Service. This means I will get a small British Government Civil Service pension. It also meant, I realised, that I was eligible to join the Civil Service Club, very close to where the RCS was. The address is ‘Great Scotland Yard’! I applied and was accepted. The fees are modest, which is a real plus. Towards the end of January, I had occasion to visit London. I went to the club for the first time and got my membership card sorted out. I would not describe it as modern or flashy, but it has all the amenities one could want, and it is a place one can meet people, hangout and relax without feeling pressure to consume. There is a very nice patio for the summer and the street is extraordinarily quiet.

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New Decade! New Life?

The 1st January 2020 marks the start of a new decade as well as a New Year. I am aware that some purists (or pedants) think that the decade does not actually officially start until 1st January 2021, I am not part of that group. This is it! A new decade!

The next year will be interesting, I need to adapt my lifestyle. The first order of business will be getting used to living full time in Norwich. At the moment I have absolutely no travel planned for the next calendar year. As I am on sabbatical I don’t have to think about teaching but I am ‘on the books’ to the end of 2021. What should I do? This will become clearer in the next few months.

I returned to the UK on the 23rd December, just ahead of Christmas. My last few weeks in Waterloo were crammed with wrapping up the term and students and seeing and saying goodbye to friends. I also had to pack up the apartment for rental. Fortunately, I had help. The estate agent who is handling it for me, Dave McIntyre, is hopeful it can be let furnished. This means crockery, cutlery, furniture, linen and books were left out, but could be packed away if necessary. Dave is the chap who sold me the place originally and who will take care of the sale in due course. He is not just an estate agent but a decent and trustworthy person.

I did not write about this in my last post (not enough room), but at the end of November I went, with my friend Dana, to the event Dining with the Dead! This was held at the Kitchener Museum which had a themed exhibition on the afterlife. The way it was advertised was as a

“one of a kind dining experience! To coincide with the Exhibition at THEMUSEUM, we’re hosting Psychic Medium Kerrilynn Shellhorn (who) will utilize her strong connection to the other side to bring messages from lost loved ones while you dine on a delicious 3 course dinner.”

The food was excellent and the service great. The séance was, well, medium. There were about 35 diners. Only a few were given messages from the departed. I was not convinced but will chalk it up as an interesting experience.

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The end is nigh

It is many years since I included a ‘round robin’ in with Christmas cards and this, lazily, also constitutes my blog post for December. There is a good reason this year. I have significant news and don’t want to leave people out, or have to write it in all the cards I send.

You may recall in January 2014 I joined the Balsillie School in Waterloo, Ontario as a full time member of faculty. It is complicated appointment. My salary is paid by Wilfrid Laurier University, but I work at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Here I was, according to my letter of appointment, employed to teach two courses per year, and carry out the other responsibilities of a senior academic, including researching, writing and publishing.

About two years ago the University unilaterally, and with very little consultation, decided to change the conditions of service. They were, of course, made less favourable for academics. Of particular concern was the doubling of our teaching commitment. I came here because I had not, in 30 years as an academic, taught (two years of teaching one course at the University of Natal on Southern African Development in 1984 and 1985 had receded to a distant memory). I wanted to see what it would be like to work with and teach MA and PhD students. The idea of supervising a thesis from start to finish was intriguing, and I am happy to report that I did manage to do that with one student.

This new demand regarding teaching made staying in Waterloo problematic in the long term. I neither had courses prepared, nor much guidance on what to do. In addition to more teaching being mandatory my academic cohort was assured, when we signed up in 2012 and 2013, there would be research money available to us, without too many hoops to leap through. This promise evaporated like the dew in the Kalahari in January, although it was not entirely the fault of the university but rather the shocking behaviour of one of the other ‘partners’. In addition to this moving the goalposts, a part of the university bureaucracy was irrational to me. I have every intention of writing about this in due course.

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The Misty Murky Mornings

I had not been in Waterloo for long when I was at a meeting on a very foggy day. I looked out of the window and declaimed:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run”

This is from John Keats’ poem To Autumn, published in 1820. Everyone looked at me blankly. Doesn’t everyone know the romantic poets? Evidently not! My mind is a bin of snatches of poems and quotes. I can’t always quote them entirely accurately, but I do generally have something appropriate.

There is so much going on around the world that it is hard to know where to start. Britain remains on the edge of a cliff as the Brexit process continues to falter and stutter. So far Theresa May lost three crucial votes and was replaced by Boris Johnson. At the weekend, on 19th September, in an exceptional Saturday sitting, he lost the first vote seeking approval for his ‘deal’. I am not sure that anyone knows what is going to happen. I hoped that by the time I posted my monthly blog, things might be clearer. This does not seem to be the case, and the only credible way forward is to take the decision back to the country, either in a general election or a second referendum.

My sources of information are BBC World News and the occasional dip into the Canadian Broadcasting Service. Canada had an election for the Federal Government on the 21st September. The main parties were the Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, the governing party going into the election; the Conservatives, led by Andrew Sheer, an oleaginous individual; the New Democrat Party (NDP), whose leader is a Sikh complete with turban (which he could not wear as a public servant in secular Quebec); and the Greens, lead by a faintly desperate looking woman. There is also Bloc Québécois (BQ) which advocates for Quebec nationalism and sovereignty. They are not a force outside Quebec. Interestingly, like the DUP in the British Parliament, they had 10 seats before the vote, but 34 after the polls closed. Finally there is the small The People’s Party of Canada, a splinter group similar to The Brexit Party in the UK.

I watched the results come in. The process was amazing as the CBC had excellent hi-tech coverage down to individual polling stations. This meant they were able to call results before all the constituency polls had been counted – although they did warn that these were preliminary tallies. The final outcome was 157 seats for the Liberals, 121 for the Conservatives, 32 for the Bloc, 24 for the NDP, three for the Greens and one Independent. Ironically the Conservatives got the most votes at 34.4%; Liberals’ at 33.1%; The New Democrats took 15.9% of the vote, followed by the Bloc at 7.7%, the Greens at 6.5% and the People’s Party at 1.6%. Of course there are more tiny parties, but none should be taken very seriously. It is clear that there will be a minority or coalition government. No bad thing in my opinion. Equally the green vote did not translate into seats!

Around the world from Lebanon to Chile, Barcelona to Hong Kong, people are taking to the streets to protest against governments. Unfortunately these events frequently turn violent, but it should be noted that, at the time of writing, there have been few deaths. This is very striking and suggests restraint on the part of everyone, authorities and protestors alike. The reasons for the increase in protests range from climate change (which is having an insidious but serious impact) to unemployment to global anomie. This is, to my mind, the key concept. As originally developed by Émile Durkheim it is

“a social condition in which there is a disintegration or disappearance of the norms and values that were previously common to the society”

We have to respond to this upheaval, and not with repression.

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Heat and Humidity

The Canadian summer has been hot and humid. I have never enjoyed humidity and so wonder why I managed to do summers in South Africa and Canada. The UN held a Climate Summit in September and there is increasing recognition of the environmental crisis we are facing. Earlier, in mid-September, the running news bar on the BBC was that the bird population has fallen precipitously in North America. In Waterloo there was a climate strike day on the 27th and people marched from the Universities to the town square. There were thousands of participants and I was proud to be among them.

Another running news bar on the BBC has been that ‘flight shaming’ means the growth in airline travel is expected to fall. Looking back more than 40 years I was so excited to take my first flight. I got a ride from Mbabane to Johannesburg, and boarded a flight to Heathrow to go to University. At 19, this was the first time I had been on a plane. I have a record of all the flights I took on a computer file, it is a bit scary.

Today when I board a plane I feel somewhat guilty. It is my intention to drastically reduce the amount of air travel and increase the amount of train travel. From Norwich to London is two hours by rail, and from there it is easy to get to Brussels or Paris. Plans for 2020 including going to Ireland (Norwich, London, Fishguard and the ferry to Dublin), and, perhaps, Amsterdam (Norwich, Harwich and ferry to Rotterdam). The possibilities are numerous.

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Frying in Norfolk

Anyone who denies climate change, and more specifically, global warming, is seriously wrong. At the end of August we had record temperatures in Norwich. Fortunately it cooled down in the evenings so sleeping has not been too difficult. However, this summer the rowan tree in the front garden died from a mixture of disease and heat stress. Ailsa has been using the water from the rain butts to keep some of her favourite plants alive, but it is an uphill battle. It presents a dismal picture and I really wonder what the next 10 to 20 years will hold. I am increasingly aware of my contribution to this crisis, particularly through flying, but I do not consider myself to be a flamboyant consumer of other things.

Having said that, I have to begin this blog by reflecting on my travelling over the past month. My final class in Waterloo was on 30th July. I had to complete the marking and submit the marks by 8th August. I was able to do this, and almost all of the students should have been pleased with the outcome. The temperatures and humidity gradually rose in Waterloo, and I was glad to be heading for Norwich. I did not realise how hot Norwich was going to be.

I travelled over on Sunday 11th August, flying via Amsterdam. Toronto to Amsterdam is not all that long, just 7½ hours. This is not long enough to take a sleeping pill, so I sat and watched the film ‘Red Joan’. This was about a British woman who became a Soviet spy in the 1940s and 50s. Oddly I was reading a book called ‘And Is There Honey Still For Tea?’, by Peter Murphy, set in the same time period and covering the same topics. It is hard to believe how much skullduggery there was going on then. I guess it is still happening, with electronic surveillance playing an ever-increasing role.

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Sunshine and students

There are three semesters at the Balsillie School, and across Canada. The Autumn term starts in September and ends just before Christmas; the Winter term is from January to April; and we are completing the Spring term which lasts from May to July. The terms are longer than in the UK and Europe at 12 weeks.

I taught two courses in the Spring and will teach two in the Autumn. Next calendar year (January 2020 to December 2020), I am on sabbatical and am very much looking forward to this. This is the first time I have been in Waterloo for the Spring term, and while it might have begun as spring it ended as summer – which is the one term we do not have. My word it was hot and humid for weeks at a time. Fortunately there were occasional thunderstorms that roiled across the region and brought some relief.

It has been very hot across much of Europe as well. We have a friend who has been in hospital in Norwich for some weeks now. The Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was opened in 2001. It was built on a greenfield site near the University, which means that UEA is able to offer medical degrees which was not the case when I was a student. It replaced a Victorian establishment in the centre of the city.

The new hospital is ‘state of the art’, except that there is no air-conditioning! This is OK for 10 months of the year. When there is a heatwave, as there was in July, it means that everyone from the consultants to the patients really suffers. It is miserable and sadly I don’t think there is any way that AC can be retrofitted into the building. The other major problem is that the hospital is not easy for the public to get to. It is an expensive and inconvenient bus journey, while those who drive have to pay car parking charges.

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