Virus Warning

A doctor writes…

A medical adviser to the government has today said that they may have to re-think their coronavirus strategy, admitting that the policy of home confinement has in fact exacerbated the situation.

According to Dr Jolyon Brakespeare of St Thomas’ Hospital London, ‘People now have time on their hands and, sadly, some automatically reach for their phones. This is far worse than the email problem back in the 1980s. When email first arrived we were threatened with an epidemic of so-called “funny emails”. It got quite serious at one point, especially with the very nasty “copy to all” variant, but at least it was mainly confined to office workers, particularly civil servants and those in large corporations. Sacking a few people and then educating the public about using spam filters meant that the problem seemed to be under control.’

Some scientists warned, however, that the threat had not gone away and that email was effectively a “gateway application” that would lure innocent people on to the internet, ill-prepared for the addictive software freely available there.

Sadly, it now appears that these fears have been confirmed. Dr Brakespeare again: ‘It’s a familiar story. They start when they’re young with Facebook and think “I can handle this. A few holiday snaps, a bit of bants with my mates, where’s the harm in that?”’

Then came WhatsApp.

Dr Brakespeare says that the biggest danger with WhatsApp is its ease of use. Even the elderly, some of whom have said they wouldn’t go near the internet, are now joining in. ‘It’s growing like wildfire. Single cells, i.e. individual users, can quickly form clusters and those within the cluster can immediately start transmitting to each other. One person sends a video clip or newspaper cutting and the whole group can instantly see it. The problem starts when each cell within the cluster passes the clip on to members of other clusters to which it belongs, and so on. Within a few hours a video clip can be halfway around the world. Some of these clips can be three or four minutes long. Think of the thousands of hours of people’s time this can take up.’

The doctor highlights two other potential problems. Firstly, addiction: ‘Some people spend hours looking at their phones waiting for a new clip to arrive so that they can immediately pass it on. I know of cases where if there is a quiet period they will start re-sending old clips again hoping that people won’t notice.’

Then there is what Dr Brakespeare refers to as Repetitive Viral Messaging Syndrome. ‘Some of the video clips are, of course, very funny, but many of them are variants of old jokes or slightly adapted versions of related video clips. The trouble is that you often have to watch the clip before realising that you have seen it or something very like it before. People with RVMS experience a feeling of tension when a new message arrives, which then turns into violent rage when they realise that they are watching “old ladies fighting over bog roll in Croydon supermarket” for the fifteenth time. Phones get smashed, cats kicked and loved ones abused. It’s nightmarish.’

The doctor has a radical but simple solution to the problem. ‘Open the pubs again and encourage people to visit them. Give them free beer or wine vouchers on condition that they hand their phones to a member of staff on arrival. It’s my belief that the danger from actually catching the virus is significantly less than the psychological damage caused by wanton WhatsAppery. And besides, if you do get it you’ll be too hungover to care.’

A week is a long time….

Poitiers is closed

14.00 Sunday 15th March

We live in interesting times.

Just as I had got used to regular handshakes and kisses with all and sundry, I noticed over the last two weeks that people have gradually stopped doing this. A few still persist, but more and more people shrug and make a joking remark about not doing it. Some half-embarrassedly offer an elbow instead.

I have yet to see anyone wearing a mask in Poitiers. The government has announced that it is stepping in to requisition stocks of masks and hand gel to ensure they get to the people who need them. This follows reports of thefts of masks and gel from hospitals in Paris and Marseille. The government’s advice is that only people who are infected or who are self-isolating need to wear masks.

There is little sign of the panic stockpiling that is being reported in the UK. Toilet rolls are in plentiful supply, and the only thing that we’ve noticed there being a slight shortage of is dried pasta. Obviously this may change over the coming weeks.

On Thursday, the French Health Ministry said that the death toll in France from the coronavirus outbreak had risen to 61, from Wednesday’s 48. It added that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in France had also risen, from 2,281 to 2,876 with 129 people in very serious, life-threatening condition. That evening, President Macron did a twenty-five-minute television broadcast. It was a dignified, impressive performance, in sharp contrast to the bombast and blather of President Trump the previous evening. Macron announced that France was to close all schools, crèches and universities from Monday to try to curb the spread of the virus. He also urged employers to allow their staff to work from home wherever possible, and said that people who are over 70 years of age or who have existing health conditions should stay inside as much as they can. The broadcast seems to have been generally well received both by the media and by the public at large, although, predictably, Marine Le Pen criticised him for not closing the borders.

Last night we went out for a meal in La Mangeoire, a small local restaurant. Midway through the evening, Florent, the owner, came up and told us that it had just been announced by the government that all bars and restaurants in France would be closed from midnight until further notice. This meant of course that his staff would be out of work for the foreseeable future. Florent was philosophical and said he had been expecting it. At the end of our meal he gave us each an enormous brandy and said he hoped he would see us again soon. We hope so too.

The government has in fact announced the closure of all ‘non-indispensable’ shops and entertainment facilities. Food shops, pharmacies, tobacconists, banks and petrol stations will remain open. These restrictions are currently imposed until 15th April.

On leaving La Mangeoire we made a quick visit to two of our regular haunts, the Café des Arts and Le Cluricaume, to say a temporary au revoir to the staff there. Again people were generally philosophical, though Marie, the serveuse in the Café des Arts said ruefully that she had just come back from two weeks’ holiday. Le Cluricaume, the nearest thing Poitiers has to an Irish bar, is a popular student haunt, and there was a fairly wild atmosphere as people made the most of their last few public drinking hours. Jean-Philippe the barman told me that he was sorry that Tuesday’s planned St Patrick’s Day celebrations would not now take place, but I suspect he has more pressing things to worry about. I didn’t like to ask, and it may be too early to know, what financial arrangements are in place for people who are laid off.

The current emergency has not led to the postponement of the municipal elections here in France. The first round takes place today and the second next Sunday. As an EU citizen, I am entitled to vote. Alas, Madame S, with her UK passport, can no longer do so. When I dutifully turned up to La Maison du Peuple in Rue Saint-Paul this morning, the first thing I was told to do by an official was to use the dispenser of sanitising hand gel by the door. I was then allowed to pick up a small brown envelope and eight sheets of paper, each containing the list of candidates of one of the parties contesting the election. From here I was directed to a line of curtained booths. I went into one, folded the sheet of my chosen party and placed it in the envelope. I was then directed to a table where a group of other officials were sitting. The first one of these checked my voting card against my pièce d’identité, my passport. The second checked my name on some sort of electoral roll. There was a moment’s concern when it couldn’t be found, but a third official had spotted my passport and said, ‘Ahh, you are Irish’. My name was then found on a separate roll, presumably of foreigners and other dodgy characters. She continued, ‘You are Mikayel Antony Shayan?’ It was close enough, and I nodded. At which point I was allowed to put my envelope through the slot in the top of a large transparent plastic container. A fourth official date-stamped my voting card – I need to keep this, as you use the same card for up to ten elections. A fifth official then asked me to sign my name next to my entry on the electoral roll. While doing this, she held a sort of plastic frame that covered the whole page apart from the box for my signature. A sixth official proffered a box of Bic biros from which I selected one, signed my name and then put the biro into a different Bic biro box held by a seventh official (this contained a number of other biros, all presumably used only once). I was then thanked by all the officials for doing my civic duty and was allowed to leave. At no point during the whole process did either I or anything I touched come into contact with another person. We will all have to do the same thing again next Sunday.

15.30. Update. The Secretary of State for Transport announced this afternoon that public transport will be ‘gradually reduced’ over the next week. This Monday, seven out of ten trains will run at SNCF. 

16.30. Update. Germany has just announced that it is closing its borders with France, Switzerland and Austria.

To think that only a week ago I was worried about revising for a French exam. (I spent Monday learning what to put in a French letter.)