Of Birds and Viruses

I have officially been retired since Saturday 1st January, or perhaps, to be pedantic, since midnight on 31st December 2021. I must confess to feeling a little uncertain as to what the future holds. There needs to be a plan, budget, and cash flow projection, all but the first can be done quickly. The Covid crisis has made planning difficult. I really want to do some travelling, but it is hard to book tickets with any confidence. This is changing slowly though. It is hard to believe that the world began this seismic shift just two years ago. I became aware of this new disease in January 2020. I had no idea how rapidly and far it would spread, or the incredible disruption it would cause. More on this later.

One thing I am really enjoying is the birdlife in the garden in Norwich. I did not realise how having a cat and a dog reduced the visits from the birds, even though they (the cat and dog) were not hunters and chasers. Both have been gone for over two years. While they are greatly missed, there are some benefits in terms of the other creatures we are seeing. The most common visitors are blackbirds, up to 15 at peak, all squabbling individuals. Second are blue tits who feed from the hanging feeders. The other regulars are gold finches, magpies, robins, dunnocks and the occasional jay. The pigeons are ubiquitous, they are large bullies and, in my eyes, don’t count. Sadly, although there are delicate doves in the suburb, we are not on their feeding route.

To encourage the birds, we have bird feeders; spread seed on the garden every morning; and have fat balls hanging on the bushes and on the ground (in metal cages). To my amusement a couple of the blackbirds try to act like hummingbirds. They attempt to hover in front of the feeders, flapping and pecking furiously. They do not have any comparative advantage in this activity. We are not surprised to see the squirrels getting chubby, despite having to get the food through the mesh.

About once a week a sparrowhawk makes a pass over the suburb, much to the alarm of the rest of the gang. Today, though, it was perched in a tall tree at the end of the garden waiting for the food to be spread. Perhaps it saw this as a breakfast buffet, not the seed but the birds! It was spotted because of the unusual behaviour of the blackbirds; they were perched nervously in one of the bushes, unwilling to go down to the ground.

I won’t turn into a ‘twitcher’, but I love seeing and hearing the birds. Just one more bird related observation. While the garden has a rich variety of birds, there are sparrows and starlings living on our road, perhaps 200 yards away. They do not ever seem to come to our end. Are we in the ‘better’ or ‘worse’ neighbourhood? Is there no space for them in the micro-environment? I would love to see sparrows in our hedges, they are such cheerful little creatures.

In 2013 I left Durban, cleared out my office and kept some papers and books, shipping them to Canada. After 30 years it was a herculean task. Earlier this year I did the same for my office and my flat in Waterloo, this time shipping boxes to Norwich. Over the next few weeks, I will go through my home office and attempt to rationalise it. The criteria: will I ever read this again? If the answer is no it can go. There are whole canons of papers and books that have little relevance now. The best place to donate books of all types is Oxfam. They seem to sort out and deliver to places where most obscure material can be sold or recycled, and this includes academic material.

The books are relatively easy to deal with. As I work though my office it is apparent that papers and reports will be more problematic. I have a considerable stack of these too, and they can be kept or recycled. There is also the question of confidentiality, some are sensitive and should be destroyed rather than put in a wastepaper bin. At the end of this process, which might take another month, since I am doing it in phases, I will need to deep clean and perhaps refit. And then there are still the CDs to be sorted out, and there must be 200+ of these.

Covid: an incomplete update (4th January 2022)

This month marks an important anniversary of the pandemic. It has been two years since it emerged and swept across the world. In March 2020 I began blogging on Covid-19. The first blog stated:

“I am expected to know something about epidemics and pandemics, and their causes and consequences. Many friends and colleagues have been asking me about Covid-19. Here is a quick ‘fact sheet’ as of 4 March – what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know”.

The blog was initially published every week then in 2021 less frequently. By the middle of 2021 I was unable to keep going. The reasons for ending it were:

“it was surprisingly time consuming; the situation with regard to the science, numbers and response is increasingly complex; and it was getting too depressing to keep going.”

The last blog was on 11th August 2021. Before Christmas I sat down to write an update but did not get very far, so let me try again.

The numbers and epidemiology

There are excellent, accessible data websites.1 As of 4th January there had been 292,567,808 cases and 5,449,575 deaths globally. There had been 9,214,046,229 vaccine doses administered. At the end of 2021 and in early 2022 the number of new cases had risen from about 5 million per week to over 10 million. At the peak, a year ago, there were just over 100,000 deaths per week, currently there are about 42,000. Vaccination rate stands at over 250 million per week.

The top three countries on 4th January were the US with 56,191,733 cases and 827,749 deaths; United Kingdom with 13,497,515 cases and 149,367 deaths; and France with 6,667,511 cases and 89,573 deaths. The OECD countries dominate the pandemic. In Africa, South Africa leads the pack at 3,475,512 cases and 91,312 deaths. In South America Argentina has the most cases, 5,739,326 and deaths, 117,245. In Asia it is India that leads with 34,960,261 cases and 482,017 deaths. China – where this all began has recorded 115,597 cases and 4,849 deaths, with new outbreaks being reported over the past few days. The Chinese data seem remarkably low.

The take home message is that waves of infection are inevitable and seemingly unstoppable. The UK is in its third (or possibly fourth wave), the USA is in the third major wave. In South Africa, at the beginning of January, the Cabinet stated:

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level.”2

However, these are waves of infections, the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths, while following the same pattern with lags, are very much lower. There is consensus that prevention messages have been heard and populations have adopted and maintained these without governments necessarily forcing them to do so. Vaccinations have given a measure of immunity, although these have not been made available equitably. In addition, the idea of herd immunity seems to have come back into play in some settings, simply because so many people have been infected. The surge may appear contradictory, but it can be primarily attributed to Omicron. The fall in illness and death is due to vaccination and advances in medicine.

Over the past two months a new variant has come to dominate. Omicron, as it is officially named, was first identified in Southern Africa. It spread with amazing rapidity across the world and quickly overtook Delta as the dominant strain. There is much that is not known about this variant and scientists are generally unwilling to commit themselves. Early indications are that it is very much more infectious than any other variant. It seems consequent illness is generally mild. The problem is that if under normal circumstances 100 people are infected and five percent need medical attention, only 5 patients need care. With Omicron, 1,000 people are infected and only one percent need care, that is 10 patients. Nonetheless there is cautious optimism that the Covid crisis will be over soon.

Vaccines

The incredible advances in science meant vaccines had been developed within the first year and could be rolled out in the second year. There was not just one vaccine, but three from the OECD countries (Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna), two from China and one from Russia. Progress continues with potential additional vaccines being developed and being trialled. Existing ones are being improved. There may be new variants but there is optimism that vaccination will keep pace with this. Vaccines are however highly political at many levels.

There has been a great deal of coverage on the inequity of vaccine distribution and administration. The wealthy countries were able to make vaccinations available to most of their populations very quickly. In many poorer countries governments have been unable to acquire the necessary doses, despite numerous grandiose sounding proclamations about ‘leaving no one behind’.

The consensus is that three doses are required to provide immunity. Originally two doses of most vaccines were prescribed, then a booster dose was added. It would be more honest to simply say it is a three-dose course. What we do not know is how quickly the immunity will decay.

“Now Sir Andrew, the head of Britain’s vaccine body, has warned that fourth Covid jabs should not be offered until there is more evidence they are effective, as he said giving boosters to the whole population every six months was “not sustainable”.”3

I believe Covid will be like with a shot needed every year.

A challenge in the OECD countries is vaccine hesitancy, people who are not willing to be vaccinated. Some news programmes have featured doctors expressing frustration. To paraphrase:

“Of course we will treat everyone who needs it, but when you have a Covid patient who has not been vaccinated and now says they wish they had, then we wonder.”

All the evidence is that vaccination makes a huge difference and prevents adverse outcomes, data can be found in the footnoted article.4 However vaccination alone will not halt the pandemic. It might happen that, where resources are scarce, access will be rationed by willingness of people to come forward. It makes some sense but is probably impossible to operationalise for equity and ethical reasons.

Treatment5

At the beginning of the pandemic there were no drugs specifically available for Covid. This is not surprising as the disease was new. Initially some drugs were repurposed, some successfully. By January 2022 the New York Times reported there were 33 drugs: one with FDA approval, seven widely, and five with promising evidence. One potential bottleneck is that drugs must go through an approval process which may differ from country to country. One of the advantages of the European Union is centralised drug approval.6 Vaccines will mean fewer people are infected, develop serious illness, need hospitalisation and die of Covid. Drugs mean some can be treated at home and won’t need in-patient care while, for those unlucky enough to be admitted, the prognosis is much better.

Consequences

Since Covid appeared I have warned of the economic, social, psychological and political effects. They are still unfolding and need more time and space if I am to do them justice. I can talk from the OECD perspective. The 5th January was the first day of the new school term in the UK. The news has been dominated by the fears of educationalists that they will not be able to provide education because of staff absences. The National Health Service (NHS) is in a similar position as so many staff are absent. These people are generally not sick but have had a positive Covid test or been in close contact with an infected person.

It is not just the public sector that is facing these challenges. British commuters have been warned that staff absences mean services on many trains to and from London (and other cities) have been cancelled.

“Around 8,000 flights were cancelled worldwide between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day – approximately 3,000 of which were due to go to or from the US.”7

“Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for “worst case scenarios” of 10%, 20% and 25% absence rates, the Cabinet Office said.”8

The ‘Consequences of Covid’ may be the research project I take up in retirement. It needs people I can work with, and ideally some funding for them. If anyone has ideas let us talk.

We should not underestimate the divisiveness of this issue. The BBC reported French MPs as saying they received death threats when they debated a Covid-19 pass. The law would require people to show proof of vaccination to access public venues and transport.

“On Sunday Agnès Firmin Le Bodo of the centre-right Agir party tweeted an email she received containing graphic threats to kill her over her support for the vaccination pass. “Our democracy is in danger,” wrote Ms Firmin Le Bodo, who is also a pharmacist and vaccinates people against Covid.”9

What to watch out for10

Increasingly the discourse is that we cannot eliminate Covid so will have to learn to live with it. Despite the astonishingly high case rates reported in a number of countries at the moment, it is generally believed they will not turn into unmanageable hospitalisation and death rates. I am prepared to stick my neck out and predict that in OECD countries the pandemic will be under control by the end of 2022. There may be continued restrictions to life such as facemasks on public transport, but these will be limited and not too invasive. The situation in poorer countries will probably be more Covid, but the demographics will remain protective.

The rules change and it may be for political reasons. The advisors in England have been keen to stress they ‘advise’ not instruct. It is up to the government to set rules and make decisions. At the moment in England a person must self-isolate if they develop symptoms or receive a positive test result. The period has been reduced from ten to seven days. Two negative lateral flow tests (LFTs) are required to end self-isolation.11 We need to monitor the restriction of liberty and not be afraid to challenge it, but as David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters said in an Observer column “beware of people who use the line: ‘I have done my own research’.”12

Above all we need to ask how to help those who have been disadvantaged by the events of the past two years, this includes material and mental impact. Along with the climate crisis, Covid shows it can not be business as usual.


  1. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html and https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/31/omicron-fuelled-fourth-covid-wave-has-passed-says-south-africa-as-it-eases-restrictions
  3. The Telegraph, ‘Vaccine expert says jabs will need to be restricted’, 4th January 2022 http://m.email3.telegraph.co.uk/nl/jsp/m.jsp
  4. https://www.medscape.co.uk/viewarticle/hospitalisation-risk-omicron-variant-around-third-delta-2022a10000kc
  5. New York Times, Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker, accessed 3rd January 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-drugs-treatments.html
  6. Although this blog is primarily about Covid this is yet another reason to rue the day the referendum voted for Brexit. It is painful to realise how much the UK lost.
  7. https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-christmas-travel-disruption-as-omicron-hits-rail-and-airline-staffing-12504644
  8. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59848109
  9. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59860058
  10. Nature, COMMENT, “Two years of COVID-19 in Africa: lessons for the world”, 03 January 2022 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03821-8
  11. BBC News, ‘What are the Covid self-isolation rules now?’ 31 December 2021 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-54239922
  12. David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters, “Can you capture the complex reality of the pandemic with numbers? Well we tried…”. The Observer 2nd January 2022

The clock ticks

I was shocked to see it has been over a month since I last posted. I have two countdowns going on in my life. The first, at the end of 2021 I will get my last salary cheque. Apart from a few short ‘student type’ jobs, since 1980 I have always had someone paying me a regular income. The short jobs in Swaziland included working for a school book supplier one holiday, and a week as a ‘hanger round’ at the Central News Agency in Mbabane. In the UK I spent a week packing bulbs (tulips and daffodils) etc. in a warehouse, ironically in the industrial site near where we live. I was fired for being too bolshy. I also spent three summer months as a warehouseman in Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The second milestone is, in March 2022, on my 66th birthday, I become eligible for a British State pension.

Most young people, certainly those under 40, see people aged 50 to 80 here as an exceptionally fortunate generation. This is true for a high proportion of us. We had access to free university education, jobs, and many will get a state pension that, while not hugely generous, is significant. We were able to travel widely. We only became aware of the appalling damage we have wrought on the world, in terms of over exploitation and environmental damage, as we were doing it.

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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.

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Pollen and polling

In my blog, posted at the end of March, I described the surgery I underwent in Durban. I also talked about going out a couple of times, with friends, to a really delightful little bakery/pizza restaurant in the neighbourhood. It does not even have a liquor licence; and this does tend to mean the evening is cheaper as one takes one’s own wine. Among those friends was Jurgen Brauninger and his family. I wrote in that blog:

‘On a personal level it is interesting to see my cohort, friends and colleagues ageing into their 60s, for the most part with grace and dignity. It is however a shock to us all – but, as I said to one friend, ‘it is better than the alternative’.’

Within two weeks of these dinners we learned, out of the blue, that Jurgen was not well. He was suffering from pancreatic and liver cancer, and was having difficulty in eating. After various consultations he was scheduled for urgent surgery to ease pressure on his duodenum. While this was not a cure, it was expected to improve the quality of his life. The surgery was carried out on 26 April (by the same surgeon who did my hernia); Jurgen did not recover and died on 6 May.

I want to pay tribute to a dear friend and colleague, a talented musician, but above all a devoted family man. I know Tania, Hannah and Brigitte will be torn apart by grief. Sitting in Canada I have felt very distant, but no less sad. I wish I had deep and meaningful forethoughts about this but I don’t, I just know I will miss him enormously. Andrew Marvell’s lines “But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near”, were not written about death; they do seem very apt though.

The Brauningers lived a few houses up the road from us in Manor Gardens. Their children were similar ages to Rowan and Douglas. We celebrated many milestones together; Brigitte did the most amazing Easter lunches for the university crowd and others. The families went away together for a number of short holidays in the province. Everyone enjoying each other’s company, even braaing under umbrellas during a heavy rainstorm. Their home was an original ‘wood and iron’ house, this is one of the first Durban houses and relatively few are left standing. Jurgen, I and Ullie, one of his friends, purchased the house next door when it came on the market, in order to preserve it and the jungle of a garden for a little bit longer. Jurgen and Brigitte had just moved a few kilometers to a more modern house and were planning their retirement when this devastating event occurred. This has been a deeply sad time.

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Surgery and Sunshine

I was offline for a few days in March, an interesting experience especially during the time of crisis in the UK. It was my birthday on the 18th and I celebrated by returning to South Africa on the 16th for a series of elective medical procedures. I took the 06h15 KLM flight from Norwich to Amsterdam where I connected on the 10h15 flight to Johannesburg. The journey takes nearly 11 hours. My case was one of the first to be unloaded and appear on the carousel, these little things matter.

There are no connecting flights to Durban that late. My standard operating procedure is to stay in a hotel at the airport and connect the next day. Normally the travel agent’s opening proposal for the connection is a plane at an absurdly early hour, 07h00 for example. On this trip I was sensible and got a flight a little after 13h00. It allowed me ample time to sort myself out, and have a leisurely breakfast.

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The Meaning of Life

Half of September was in South Africa and half in Norwich. I travelled from Norwich to Cape Town via Amsterdam on the 1st September. This visit was to oversee the scientific writing course we held in Stellenbosch. The KLM flight takes over 11 hours and seemed very long, especially since these days I usually travel in economy. I am very grateful for my ‘Life Time Platinum Elite’ frequent flyer status as it gives me seating choices and lounge access. This practically means I usually get a bulkhead seat with more leg room, and that really makes a difference over long flight.

The 2nd (Sunday) was a free day and on Monday the participants started arriving. The programme is mainly taught by my friend and colleague, Tim Quinlan, whom I have known for close to 30 years. He came to Durban to teach at the University of Durban-Westville, which in those apartheid days was the ‘Asian’ higher education establishment. He subsequently joined HEARD as the first Research Director. This is the second year that he has run this programme with me. I am very lucky to also have as the main recruiter and administrator Nick Zebryk, who did a degree at the Balsillie School, and was my first (and last) full time research assistant in Waterloo. He managed the application process, and travelled to South Africa to troubleshoot. Thanks to his hard work there was no trouble to shoot!

We had 16 people from across Africa. On this occasion the largest number were from Malawi (four). I had taken some flack last year as six people were from Swaziland and this was seen favouritism. Everyone came with work in progress, and both Tim and I met with individuals to go through their manuscripts. We finished on Friday morning and on Saturday I went to Cape Town and spent a night in the City Lodge at the Waterfront. Firstly I wanted time by myself and the hotel is ideal for that; second I had a lunch meeting with the acting editor of the Global Fund Observer. This is run by a Kenyan-based NGO AIDSpan and I am on the board. As with all donor funded organisations, there is the constant need to raise funding and this means being relevant and supportable. Fortunately, so far, this has not been an issue for us.

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Farewells and Coincidences

In July 2018 I went to my last Governing Council meeting at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College (WK) where I have been a Governor for 24 years. I thought I would weep at the farewell cocktail party. To my surprise I did not. Perhaps this was because of the example of fellow Governor Derek Blackman retiring after nine years. Derek never tires of reminding me that, in the minutes of the meeting where he was nominated, a Governor (in fact me) remarked this was a mistake as he was based in the UK and would not travel to the meetings. He attended all 27 meetings during his tenure and made a great contribution. It was, however, an emotional evening. I posted my farewell remarks on my website, not because they were earth-shattering, but because I put thought into them and they are reflective.

I stayed at the Mountain Inn which has become my home in eSwatini. It is at the top of the Ezulwini Valley and has magnificent views. I was particularly glad to spend time with Quinton Reissmann, who was at St Mark’s primary school with me. He is currently a teacher at WK, having worked mainly in government schools in Swaziland. We are both grey (him more than me because he has hair). When I am with him I feel the years fall away.

The hotel has five new rooms. They were good enough to put me in the largest, not that I needed the space. The new rooms were not the biggest change, a couple of months ago it was announced that the country was changing its name from Swaziland to Eswatini. In this, and future writing I will refer to past events as having happened in Swaziland, but from now, if it is something new, I will talk about Eswatini. I had a very African experience, as I was walking down to the room one evening I felt a thump on my upper arm. I wondered what it was: a large moth? When I got to the room I glanced to down and to the left. There was a little gecko riding, contentedly, on my shoulder!

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A Dry Spell

It seems that the weather dominates the opening paragraphs of my monthly posts. At the end of June there was a very warm spell in Norwich, and no rain for over two weeks. More worrying is there is no rain in the forecast for at least 10 days. A stubborn area of high pressure has located itself over us. Of course East Anglia is the driest part of the British Isles, not widely known, but this has been quite exceptional. Some of the plants in the garden are given favoured treatment. They get water from the butts that drain off the roof of shed. The lawn, however, does not, and it is beginning to look rather the worse for wear.

My sister came up from London to visit for a weekend. Ailsa was away visiting her mother so Douglas and I were in charge. I think we acquitted ourselves well. We had thought of going to see a film, the choices at the local cinema were the ‘Happy Prince’ or ‘Oceans Eight’. In the end we did not. The weather was so pleasant that sitting inside a cinema would have seemed like heresy. What we did do was to go eat in Waterloo Park.

I have mentioned before that Norwich has some amazing municipal parks. In 1919 Captain Sandys-Winsch was appointed as the City Parks and Gardens Superintendent, and he stayed in the post until 1953. He is largely responsible for the fine public parks. There was government funding after World War I as part of a building and planting programme to provide unemployment relief, aimed mainly at ex-service men. Waterloo Park actually predated this, it began in 1904 as Catton Recreation Ground. A new design was drawn up in 1929, and in 1933 it reopened as Waterloo Park. It is 18 acres with a mixture of play areas and gardens, with lots of magnificent trees. There is, as in most of the parks, a pavilion which has a café.

There are many reasons to visit the park, but at the weekend we went for brunch. The café is run by Britannia Enterprises and most of the staff at this, and the two other sites, are serving or ex-offenders from Her Majesty’s Prison in Norwich. The project aims to offer mentoring, training, employment and rehabilitation to prisoners. They claim that just five percent of participants in the programme re-offend, compared to the national average of 46 percent. It is an excellent example of a social enterprise, and the food is good and reasonably priced. As it was such a beautiful, warm and sunny day, we were able to sit outside, and that meant we could take the dog.

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Driving and relaxing

I finished teaching in Konstanz on Friday 3rd November. Rowan arrived on the Wednesday before this. The cancellation of a train from Zurich Airport meant she got in sometime later than we hoped. As predicted by the family, she got the bedroom and I took over the sofa bed in the apartment’s lounge. This made sense since I get up frequently during the night. She had only two full days in the town and we went to Friedrichshafen and the Spa, both second visits for me, but no less enjoyable. She came to class on the Friday, my last session. All students produced blog posts, those who wanted, have them posted with this blog.

On Saturday 4th November we flew from Zurich to Amsterdam and stayed in an Ibis Budget hotel not far from the airport. The actual hotel was very basic but entirely fine, the rooms sleep three people with a bunk bed arrangement over the double bed. There should, perhaps, be a warning “Beware of falling children”.

It seemed a very remote spot and I was not confident of our ability to get into the city. The receptionist said confidently that there was a bus stop across the road, and the bus, a number 193, went punctually every 15 minutes. I expected a lonely pole on the banks of a drainage ditch, but instead it was a busy barn sized structure with numerous buses. All we had to do was cross four lanes of traffic. We went to Leidseplein near the centre of Amsterdam, found a decent restaurant, enjoyed a good meal, and got the bus back with no difficulty at all.

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Sharing 60

Sharing 60

Normally when I post on the website I comment, at the end, on films I have seen or books I have read. This month’s post unusually begins with the two films I watched on the flight from Amsterdam to Johannesburg in early November. The first was the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It was excellent, thought provoking and depressing. The story is of a 59 year old scaffolder who is unable to work because of a heart problem. He is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare of not getting the state benefits he should, because he is deemed fit enough to look for work. It is a searing indictment of the failure of the welfare state, increasingly the case in the UK. This is the result of global trends to elect people who don’t care, at least not in the way I was brought up. It made me ask what I would do if I had power, probably a basic income grant for all.

In Durban I am sharing the car with Rowan, who has travelled over to spend five months in South Africa. She has two days’ work a week in Umhlanga, so on those days I walk. There was a youngish white man, on crutches, begging on the street a few hundred metres from the flat. I asked him over to tell me his story and, in exchange, gave him a decent amount of money. He said he was a welder by trade. He lost the lower part of his left leg in a motor accident a few years ago. He said he was trying to scrape together enough money to replace his identity document in order to get work. He is living with his wife and child in one room in the town centre. How much of that was true? I don’t know. South Africa is a harsh society for people who don’t have resources.

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