Since Rishi Sunak says he’ll spend whatever it takes, there is no point taking Deep Throat’s advice “to follow the money” in trying to make sense of this global pandemic.
The best way to understand how the disease is progressing around the world, and what measures are effective against it, is to follow the figures. Christian Yates has an excellent piece on how to model the disease elsewhere on Reaction. But even arts graduates can make sense of the raw statistics tracking the number of confirmed cases and deaths.
There are two sites making the key data readily available. The Financial Times has removed the paywall on its “Coronavirus Tracked” analysis. The most widely used site internationally is “Coronavirus Covid-19 Global Cases” by the Centre for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. I am an Alumnus of Johns Hopkins. Its contribution during this crisis reminds me that my late father who was an Anaesthetist and Intensive Care specialist was only keen on my going there (to do a quite unrelated International Relations degree) because of the university’s unmatched reputation in medical sciences.
Wherever you get your figures from, they are grim. At time of writing approaching half a million people have been infected and more than 20,000 of those have died, a toll currently rising by several thousand each day. As the pollsters remind us at election times the important thing is to look at the trends. There is some positive news – China’s graph has flattened – and some bad – Europe and America’s lines are still spiking sharply.
When the news is weighed down by mass mortality, individual lives lost can sometimes be over-looked. Three chums of mine have died in the past week, though none as far as I know due to Covid-19. I can think of no better word than “chums” to gather up Tristan Garel-Jones, Alan Davidson and Professor Christopher Butler. None of them were close personal friends but they were men who I was always glad to see over the decades. They were kind and amusing, and each in their own way “have done the state some service”.
As an MP for Watford, Tristan was a loyal and highly effective lieutenant for Margaret Thatcher in the Whips Office during her heyday even though his personal politics were “wringing wet” and very different from hers. When he saw that “the old bat” had lost the support of her party, Garel-Jones engineered the rise of his friend John Major. Tristan knew better than anyone what was going on at Westminster and was reliably good for a mischievous chat. But it was his detachment from the Bubble that I valued. He really did decline the chance of a cabinet job to spend more time with his family. The library tower he built on the estate in Spain where he and his wife Catali were such warm hosts contained prized editions of Biggles and Billy Bunter but he was not an English toff. His first language and mother-tongue was Welsh. He grew up in Madrid, was fluent in Spanish and was befriended by bull fighters. There was no-one else like Tristan.
It was impossible to attend a posh party or reception in London and beyond without encountering Alan Davidson with his camera on the threshold. From Princess Di to Mick Jagger Alan got the pictures others didn’t without being a paparazzo. He would politely ask his subjects to pose for him, which meant they didn’t mind the candid shots he also captured. He cared about the welfare of the people he photographed and talked to them on equal terms. The Daily Mail where Alan worked for decades, honoured him with a double page spread of some of his best known pictures. He would have been pleased by that.
Christopher Butler was my tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, the other university I attended. He expertise went well beyond Eng. Lit. to embrace music and the visual arts. You may have read his Very Short Introductions to Modernism and Post Modernism. He was also the college authority who shared a staircase with me during my relatively tempestuous youth and never dobbed me in.
Christ Church seems to have a death wish at the moment. Its wine cellar and picture gallery have been robbed, and its governing body is blowing millions unsuccessfully persecuting the Dean who they themselves selected (see Andrew Billen’s excellent exposé in The Times) . The College has also downgraded the English department since Billen and I were there by abolishing two of the three tenured tutorial posts in favour of “The Christopher Butler Tutorial Fund”. If English graduates can raise £1.2m they say they will re-instate a tutor. Not of course that anyone wants to read English at Oxford’s smartest college. It is a measure of Christopher’s generosity that he leant his name to this travesty.
Oxford features in this week’s Coronavirus silver lining. To most of us PPE now stands for something useful: Personal Protective Equipment for the frontline medics heroically battling the outbreak. Not Politics Philosophy and Economics. The other PPE is Oxford’s blue chip course, the ultimate manifestation of “a little learning” which has resulted in so many shallow British-educated politicians.