Apocalypse missed, or how the Coronavirus could have been so much worse

One of the most defining points about the spread of Coronavirus has been how unprepared the world has been. And yet novel viruses and pandemics are hardly new, in the 21st century alone we have seen outbreaks of novel viruses time and time again. SARS (2003), MERS (2012), Ebola (2014), and the infamous H1N1 strain of swine flu (2009). That is just in the last 20 years. One thing they all have in common is that they were all transmitted from animals to humans. That is where the similarities stop. When looking at Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 we can clearly ignore Ebola, which is probably one of the scariest of the diseases out there right now. Transmitted by touch, and with a high mortality rate, it remains on the fringes, kept in check by the fact that it’s a fast killer meaning it spreads slowly. The rest on the other hand are a different matter.

The big question therefore is why has the world been so unprepared for a new novel Coronavirus? It’s not like there’s been no previous Coronavirus outbreaks, both MERS and SARS were Coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are not exactly rare either, although the types like MERS and SARS are a lot more dangerous than the most common Coronavirus family out there, the common cold. And H1N1 showed that novel influenza viruses could still pop up and cause concern. It has to be remembered that the most deadly viruses of the last few hundred years have been flu viruses, the last big one being the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. More on Spanish Flu in a bit. So why has no one been warning us about the potential for a new deadlier Coronavirus?

Well actually they did. As a result of the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak in 2009 the US government created a special department within the White House to deal with emerging pandemics. They were actually more concerned with another outbreak of influenza as a result of the intensive factory farming of animals in the USA, so research was into influenza strains, the fear being what would happen if a new virus with the mortality rate and infectiousness of the 1918 Swine Flu was to appear. Considering the 1918 outbreak killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide (some estimates go as high as 75 million). You can see why people might be scared. It’s also a good time to point out that while the 1918 outbreak was named Spanish Flu, it, like H1N1, actually originated in the USA. By 2016 they had run simulated outbreaks and came to the conclusion that the incoming Trump administration needed to prepare. The current shortfall in the National Stockpile was raised, as well as the need to have plans in place at a federal level in case the worst was to happen.

In May 2018 this was highlighted again at a conference to commemorate 100 years since the 1918 flu pandemic. As a result of that conference the head of the CDC’s flu division, Dr Daniel Jernigan, gave a presentation that warned that the USA was unprepared for another flu pandemic. By then it was too late, the pandemic response team had been fired and Donald Trump had drastically reduced the CDC’s budget resulting in the withdrawal from the Wuhan laboratory in China of their liaison. The CDC was left blind to what was happening in China, and everyone who could have put in place a plan of action was gone. The official line was that they didn’t need a federal response, it would be up to states to provide a response. But the individual states made it clear that it wasn’t a priority to them and anyway, they didn’t have the money for pandemic response planning.

As an engineer one of my jobs was risk analysis. As an IT manager one of my jobs is disaster mitigation. We have plans for a variety of scenarios. What to do in the event of a major power cut. What to do if a server dies. What to do if the entire building burns down. In any scenario I can turn to a document and there will be a list of things to do. Who do I call first? Who do I call next? How do we get back up and running in the shortest time possible. While pandemic response wasn’t in our planning the fact that we had plans meant we were able to adapt. For a multi-million pound company our pandemic response cost us about £20,000. When the call came to send people home we had laptops, VPN connections, and a server already setup. The plan was pretty much the same as for a loss of part of the building, what do we need to get back up and running as quickly as possible? Over 2 weeks we recognised what was coming, planned, and implemented. We beat the entire country rushing to buy laptops in order for their workers to work from home. How? We looked at what was happening in other countries and acted on what we saw. Partly this was down to the fact we have an office in China, but we recognised early on that it wasn’t going to be contained. This was the job of the White House pandemic response team. A section of the CDC, embedded within the White House itself, ready to tell the President what decisions he needs to make, and when. The problem was, businesses don’t plan for pandemics, and narcissists don’t listen to advice. This wasn’t just an American issue though, we had a similar situation over here in the United Kingdom, with political advisers ignoring the recommendations of actual experts in infectious diseases and, as with Donald Trump, making the mistake of believing this new Coronavirus was just the flu.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of similarities. Infection rates and transmission methods are very similar. As are many of the symptoms. But that’s where the similarities end. Had SARS-CoV-2 been just another flu virus, even with a 0.5% – 1% mortality rate, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in now. We would be reacting the same way that the USA did in 2009. We have a variety of treatments for influenza viruses, as well as vaccines, meaning we’d already be partway to a vaccine. And flu viruses have a very low hospitalisation rate in comparison, at least where ICU admissions are concerned. This is partly due to influenza viruses attacking the upper respiratory tract. SARS viruses attack the lungs. And the symptoms for COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, are much worse than the flu.

The real question though has to be why governments were so adamant that this disease was just a flu virus when even back in January it was becoming clear it was so much more. The CDC and WHO back then were warning that this was going to be a potential pandemic. And even back in January they were warning that it was a much bigger problem. Initial numbers from China and Korea were showing it to be much deadlier than expected. The clues were there already, but because there was no CDC oversight at the labs in China there was no one able to point out a very obvious, in hindsight, fact. The disease must be transmitted between humans. It was simply spreading too fast to be spread by animals. This was the initial mistake made by China back in December. They had assumed the disease was being spread from bats to humans, and that was the only method of transmission. This mistake meant it was able to spread rapidly through China and then, to neighbouring countries. By February the first death was recorded outside China. By the end of February it was clear that this was not flu, even though there was still much to learn. The virus had reached Italy and its true deadly potential suddenly became very clear, it’s ability to rapidly overwhelm a hospital’s Intensive Care Units. Before Italy the death rate had been assumed to be between 1% – 3.4%. Italy showed the world what would happen if they did nothing. With confirmed cases showing nearly 20% of people requiring hospitalisation, and a sizeable number of them requiring ventilators, the mortality rate in Italy soared. People weren’t just dying from COVID-19, they were dying from being unable to be treated because of the overwhelmed system. Ambulances instead of taking minutes, were taking hours to reach heart attack victims. With a wealth of evidence of what was at stake the narcissists still wouldn’t listen though. Even into mid-March Boris Johnson and Donald Trump were insisting it was no worse than flu. There was an insane conviction that the US and British healthcare systems could cope with everything the virus could throw at them. That if we could infect enough of the right people, we’d build up enough immunity to protect everyone else.

Back in March many people looked at Italy and realised what was needed. Somehow the spread of the virus needed to be slowed down. It became known as Flatten the Curve. A recognition that if you can’t stop the spread of infection, at least you can slow it down enough that at its peak demand for hospital beds and ICU beds can be kept below the capacity of the system. The problem was nobody had modelled the data, and without a model that showed what your capacity truly is it would simply be dismissed as alarmist. Imperial College London would change that. They created a real-time model that could predict how the virus would spread, and included social sciences in the data. Almost immediately the UK and USA governments did a U-turn in policy, recommending people to stay at home. France and Italy enforced their lockdowns. Boris Johnson asked nicely. Donald Trump contradicted himself almost as soon as he opened his mouth. Predictably the public decided it wasn’t really an issue, not understanding that it could take up to 2 weeks for the virus to show signs of infection, and that there was a lag of 2 to 3 weeks before someone died. Coupled with being told repeatedly over the previous weeks that it was no worse than flu, they did what you would expect. They went to the beach to enjoy the sun. To the credit of Boris Johnson he did the only sensible thing that he could, he shut everything and gave the police the authority to arrest anyone not complying with the new social distancing rules. Donald Trump carried on insisting it wasn’t an issue, and anyway it was all Obama’s fault, and nothing at all to do with him ignoring every expert that had been saying this was going to happen over the last 4 years.

By now we should be used to hearing politicians lie. But it’s especially bad when they are lying about people’s lives. Or to be more precise, their deaths. There are a lot of assumptions being made. And this may in part be down to politicians wanting to remain positive, and have hope for the future. But it doesn’t help when they underplay the severity of what the country is facing. The bad news first: the UK is saying we could see up to 20,000 people dying from COVID-19. They’ve also said we could see 70% of the population catch it. The problem with this number is that it is based on the crass assumption that only the young will catch it. There are 64M people living in the UK. 70% of 64M is 65M, give or take. 20,000 deaths would equate to only 0.04%. That’s less than half the mortality rate of seasonal flu. Other countries have seen mortality rates between 0.5% and 8%. But that 0.5% was in a country with a much younger demographic. The UK has an aging population, similar to Italy’s. Assuming we don’t overwhelm our hospitals then we could see close to 1%. Or 450,000 deaths. The USA has been a bit more realistic with their figures, estimating 200,000 deaths. But with 327M people living in the USA that means roughly 229M people could eventually become infected. Again, we’ll go with the lower end of the mortality rate and stick 1% in. That’s 2.29M deaths. And it’s looking likely that it’s here to stay.

Did I say that was the bad news? Well there is some good news. Several actually. Firstly the 2009 H1N1 outbreak was estimated to have infected 64M people in the USA. Remember there was little response to the outbreak apart from calls to stay away from everyone else. But being a flu virus it also spread slower. Flu is also seasonal, it peaks in winter and disappears in summer. By the time it reached 64M people a vaccine had been developed and was being administered. It’s too early to tell yet but there’s some hope that SARS-CoV-2 will also be seasonal. That was one reason the SARS outbreak in 2003 wasn’t as bad as it could have been, combined with a high mortality, it was slow to spread and had a seasonal component. Being slower to spread has meant that it has been relatively easy to contain with less than 9000 confirmed cases. And while it may be more difficult to develop a vaccine for Coronaviruses with the advent of AI technology it’s certainly not an impossibility. We just need to slow the spread down enough that we can cope until the vaccine is found, much like we did with H1N1. The work has already started and should be complete just in time for next year’s outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, assuming the world has gone back to normal before Christmas. That’s the big problem with seasonal viruses, they’re like relatives, they come to visit each Christmas.

Finally, it could have been so much worse. Experts have been warning of a pandemic for years, but they thought it was going to be another 1918 flu pandemic. In many ways this is much worse than 1918, the potential is there for a much higher death toll. But it’s when we look at our other big Coronavirus outbreak of the last 20 years that we have to realise that we have genuinely dodged the bullet. SARS-CoV-2 is a mutated bat Coronavirus. So is MERS. And MERS has a mortality rate estimated to be around 34%. Thankfully MERS has been limited to the Middle East, but the potential is there for a Coronavirus mutation with the infection rate of the common cold, and the mortality rate of the Black Death. That would see a potential 100M deaths in the USA alone. Let’s hope someone has funded the CDC’s pandemic response team by then.

The Brexit Conundrum

Before I start with this article, first a brief declaration: I voted Remain. I very nearly didn’t vote at all, because surely no government would be foolhardy enough to leave the EU without a Deal and they would clearly get the best possible Deal from the EU. A Deal that protects our rights to live and work in the EU and our ability to trade freely with the EU. So why did I vote to Remain? Mainly because of the same reason that so many voted to Leave, a £350M bus. Looking carefully at the Leave campaign it was clear that we were being sold a black box, the campaign was all smoke and mirrors. Misdirection, outright lies, and unachievable promises. We were told we would be able to give £350M a week to the NHS, but we were being told the Gross figures, not the Net. They neglected to tell us how much we got back, in science funding, regional development funds, in subsidies. The numbers didn’t add up, so I voted with my head, and not my heart, as it were. I voted Remain.

The Remain campaign wasn’t totally innocent in this either, but by voting Remain you knew what you were voting for, the status quo. A continuation of a democratic system designed to bring the countries of Europe closer together. The grand project, that has evolved over the last 74 years, to ensure there could never be another war engulfing the whole of Europe ever again. At first it was simply an economic partnership, designed to alleviate many of the stresses of post-war Europe, a way to make Germany feel welcomed back into the fold after the defeat of fascism. With the rise of the former USSR steps were taken to increase the political power of the members of this trading club and the EU was created, acting as a bloc in order to counter the threat from the East. Remember, David Cameron did not say that leaving the EU would cause World War Three, that was Boris Johnson who responded to David Cameron’s warnings of increased instability and risks to world peace. David Cameron’s actual words were “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption.” Remember as well that this was said just 2 years after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsular by Russia, in an act of aggression against the Ukraine, a country within Europe, and one that is still fighting a civil war, a war in which Russia in an active participant.

Over the past few months our social media pages have been flooded with scare stories and myths. Many easily debunked. Others are wildly hyper-inflated, such as the claim that lorry drivers were planning on bringing the country to a standstill with rolling blockades that never actually happened. There was more disruption from traffic accidents than lorries, with a handful of protestors being arrested for inconsiderate driving. But no, the country was not brought to a standstill, and as with many claims that led to the Referendum result everything was blown out of proportion by the mainstream media.

The claim making the most traction, and again easily debunked if you were to simply check it, is the Lisbon Treaty. Most of the claims centre around clauses that are said to take effect in 2020, or in some claims 2022. These include the UK being forced to join an EU army, and the UK being forced to scrap the Pound and adopt the Euro. Firstly, the Lisbon Treaty does not take effect in either 2020, or in 2022. It is already in effect. And yet here we are with our soldiers still under Her Majesty’s leadership, and the Pound still struggling against the rest of the world’s currencies. The reason? As with many other countries in the EU who signed the Lisbon Treaty, we didn’t sign up to the whole treaty. We have exemptions, and vetoes. Yes, there is talk of an EU army, but it requires unanimous support from every member state. And given the current political climate with Russia, surely greater cooperation between EU member states for our mutual defence is a worthy goal? Remember we have seen 2 state sponsored assassinations by Russia committed on UK soil in the past few years, both reckless and brazen, putting the health of British citizens at risk. One using a radioactive isotope, the other a military nerve agent.

Another claim that has been spread far and wide, not helped by a handful of politicians, is that the public overwhelmingly wants to leave with No Deal. Further than that, that the country voted for No Deal. The problem with this claim is that without investigation it cannot be verified and allows those who want No Deal to justify their position. It enables them to be highly vocal advocates for a very dangerous and undemocratic hijacking of the Brexit negotiations. There is absolutely no evidence that No Deal is what the majority of people who voted Leave actually want. And it is certainly not what the majority of the public want, given that the majority actually voted to Remain or didn’t vote because a Deal that was promised to them or Remaining were basically a coin flip decision, they didn’t care which way it went. And yet we see people claiming that anyone who didn’t vote effectively voted for No Deal. Yes, people have claimed that because they didn’t vote their votes should be added to those who want No Deal, and that everyone else who voted to Leave should be seen as wanting No Deal. That’s where the majority claim comes from. The best we can do, unless someone was to poll the entire country, or we had another Referendum that actually asked the question everyone in Westminster has been ducking responsibility for, is to look at the recent petitions. I have always had a gut feeling, looking at how many of my friends have repeated this myth, that support for No Deal was around 10% and at the time of writing the petition to Leave the EU without a deal is sat on just under 600,000 signatures. The petition to revoke Article 50 is at just under 6 million. Ignoring the fact that the Revoke petition has been going for just a couple of weeks compared to the Leave petition’s 5 months and that does seem to agree with my 10% figure, that 10% of people who voted to Leave want No Deal. But the reverse of that means 90% of people who voted to Leave voted wanting a Deal.

So why has it been so difficult to get consensus on what the public wants from Brexit? This answer comes in 2 parts. Firstly, in the way the Referendum was conducted to start with, and a flaw in the way political campaigning is conducted. This is David Cameron’s fault, for calling a Referendum with a black box question, and for allowing the Leave campaign to perpetuate lies and myths as facts. When you ticked the box to Remain you knew what you were choosing. As stated above, the status quo, membership of an elite trading club, with special access to other members of that club. The collective bargaining power of every member state brought to bear in trade negotiations ensuring the best possible deal not for individual countries, but for the EU as a whole. When you ticked the box to Leave you voted for 17 million different interpretations of what you believed was inside that black box. The Leave campaign promised everything to everyone. You want to stay in the EEA? Done. Stay in the Common Market? Done. Leave, but trade on similar terms as Canada does? Done. No Deal, and trade as some sort of WTO superpower? Done. Give £350M a week to the NHS? Done. Everyone’s unicorn of a different size, shape and colour. Everyone voting Leave saw the Deal they wanted and voted under the belief that everyone else wanted the same Deal, because surely if I want to Leave for my reasons, everyone else who wants to Leave wants the same thing? And given that absolutely no one actually knew what exactly was being voted for, except a nebulous black box labelled Leave the EU, is it any wonder that nearly a third of voters felt unable to choose between the options? None of this was helped by the claims being made by the Leave campaign going largely unchallenged, even when clearly lying. What was needed was a clear plan before the Referendum detailing all the risks, both of Remaining and Leaving, independently fact checked, a vote that included a secondary ballot on what sort of Deal you would expect if we left. A Referendum that would have given the public the knowledge of what they were voting for, full consequences of that vote, and set a clear path for the government so they could achieve a Brexit acceptable to the majority of the public, including those who wished to Remain.

The second part is down to Theresa May. While the worst-case scenario is leaving with No Deal, the second worst scenario is leaving with Theresa May’s Deal. It was a Deal that was always doomed to fail, it kept just enough in to maintain basic trade relations, while forcing us to effectively remain with a toe in each of the EU’s institutions, but not actually being part of any. It was a Deal not designed with the country’s best interested at heart, but with her party’s interests. More specifically, aimed at bringing in line the hard-line Eurosceptics within the party. It was for this reason that all the different alternatives that would have been more palatable towards those who wished to Remain were removed from the table, her red lines in negotiating. Remain in the EEA? Red line. Remain in the Common Market? Red line. Right for travel to and from the EU? Red line. By setting red lines that only the hardliners would accept she created a Deal that the vast majority in government could not accept, and in trying to create a Deal the rest of Parliament could accept it was one that the hardliners couldn’t accept either. It was a Deal that was always going to fail because it fails for the same reason the Referendum failed. Only now instead of there being 17 million different Deals, there are 650 MPs each with their own different idea of what a Brexit Deal should be. This is why they have been unable to reach any consensus over what Parliament wants, and why the current Deal has been defeated now 3 times. The irony in all this is that Parliament, for possibly the first time in living memory, truly reflects the will of the people. The chaos, incompetence, stubbornness, and selfishness of our MPs in the way they are handling Brexit is a near perfect mirror for what the public wants.

Finally, I mentioned petitions earlier, and how they seem to be the only true marker of what the public wants at the moment. Another declaration, I signed one of the petitions mentioned. In case it wasn’t obvious I was one of the nearly 6 million who signed to Revoke Article 50, but possibly not for the reasons you might think. Another of the arguments I’ve seen repeated over and over again is that it would be undemocratic to hold another vote. Let that sink in, voting would not be democratic. This argument is increasingly being used by those who want No Deal, which as we’ve already ascertained is most certainly not what the majority wants. But apparently going against the wishes of the majority is seen as democratic, but only to those who are in the minority. What about the democratic rights of those who voted Remain who would now like a say in the sort of new arrangement we want with the EU? What about the democratic rights of those who didn’t vote because they believed it was a coin flip between staying or getting the best Deal possible? What about the democratic rights of those who have turned 18 in the near 3 years since the Referendum? You cannot state that your democratic rights are more important than another’s. When it comes to democracy we are all equal. But despite voting for Revoking Article 50 I also recognise that those who voted to Leave still have some valid reasons. This is why I firmly believe that there should be another Referendum, one that finally lets the whole country vote on what they now know, so that we can reaffirm if Leaving is truly what the public wants, but more importantly to confirm how we should Leave. In much the same way that our MPs have been trying to find consensus with indicative votes for a viable Brexit plan that the majority can support, I believe these options should be put to the public, along with a comprehensive, and independent, guide to what all those options actually mean. And it should be voted on as a ranked vote, so there is one clear outcome. In order, would you rather Remain, or Leave, with a Deal that keeps us in the EEA, or the Common Market, or a Deal like Canada has, or Norway, or Switzerland. Or even a combination. Yes, it’s messy, but the alternative is just another Black Box where no one knows what the public wants. What has this got to do with Revoking Article 50? Well if Article 50 remains in place, the default position is to Leave with No Deal, by April 16th. By Revoking Article 50 it gives the government the time needed to go back to the people and gain a mandate for a Deal that the public wants, and to show our MPs which Deal they should be pursuing. And given some control over what we want from Brexit who knows, maybe next time I might vote Leave, but I doubt it.

The truth about illegal logging

Today Cites delegates have made a bold move to protect endangered rainforests from deforestation. They’ve agreed greater protection for species of rosewood and ebony from South East Asia, South America and Madagascar. By protecting these rare habitats it also protects the many species of endangered animals that make these forests their home. However this doesn’t prevent illegal logging unless the international community acts on these restrictions. In the case of ebony and rosewood the primary market is China. For these restrictions to be effective the Chinese government must act to curb their growing black market in timber.

This is not as easy as you might think. An audit of Ikea’s timber usage revealed that 100% of the timber used for making furniture in China was illegal. On one side of the border in Siberia the trade in timber is controlled by the Russian Mafia, timber from illegal logging being added at all points from logging camps to export yards at the Chinese border. The practices of bribery and intimidation result in legal and illegal timber being indistiguishable from each other at the point of export. On the other side of the border in China the import yards are controlled by the Triad. Many factories cut their costs by buying their timber direct from the Triad, having it stolen from the import yards to order bypassing the import taxes paid by the legitimate timber merchants. In theory when you buy a new chair, wardrobe or table from any furniture supplier you should be able to trace it back using the bar code on the box. That barcode sits on a computer at the supplier’s main office and is tied to an invoice order at the assembly plant. The assembly plant can then tie that up with an order number at the timber importer which goes back to the timber exporter. This timber, usually in the form of cut wood, has a number that will be traced back to the log from which it was sawn, which can then be traced to the tree and the number on the tree can be traced back to the very stump that it was cut from using a GPS tag. But when a 30 foot tree suddenly becomes 300 feet of logs at the sawmill it quickly becomes clear that the wood being used is actually untraceable.

Other companies however have taken very stringent steps to ensure that their wood is legally sourced. From the point of tagging the tree to exporting the finished furniture they have put in place systems that ensure that the amount of wood used in their furniture matches the estimates from the initial felling of the tree. This is how the majority of our hardwood furniture is imported into Europe from Indonesia and Malaysia. By removing the ability for illegal loggers to sell their timber it protects the rainforests, but at the cost of higher prices in the shops in Europe. This is a system being deployed across the world but which is being perverted by one of the main supporters of the system. The US State Department. And the reason is very simple, money. As one of the major shareholders in opening up legal logging schemes in emerging markets the US State Department has actually made it easier to trade in illegal timber.

The prime purpose of the scheme deployed by the US State Department in partnership with the Liberian government is to collect tax. At every stage of the process from issuing logging licenses to export the timber is taxed. You pay a tax to buy the logging concession. You pay a tax to tag your trees with a GPS barcode. You pay a tax to convert the trees to felled lumber. You pay a tax to convert the lumber to logs. You pay a tax to sell the lumber to local markets and a further tax to sell the rest to the export market. At any point where the timber is converted from one form to another a tax is paid on that conversion, a proportion of which is paid back to the US State Department as shareholder. In theory this should prevent any illegal timber from entering the market at any point but for one thing. Under the rules of the scheme agreed between the US State Department and the Liberian government any logs or trees found by civilians in the forests of Liberia, rather than be destroyed, can be deemed legal if taken to the relevant point on the supply chain and taxed. The very fact of selling the timber to the logging yard and paying a fee back to the government has the timber declared legal. This has two effects. Firstly, it ensures that all timber exported from Liberia is legal, potentially the only country worldwide that can claim 100% of their exports are legally sourced. And secondly it creates a thriving black market that knows that all they have to do to sell illegal timber is pay a fee to the Liberian government.

In order to ensure that the planet’s forests are protected it takes a very simple and real step. The world must accept that there is only so much wood that can be harvested per year and accept the higher prices that come with it. Governments around the world must do more to protect natural forest, not just from illegal loggers, but from farmers using weak legislation to expand farmland and from emerging climate companies from converting rich biodiverse rainforest into palm oil plantations. You cannot protect this planet’s forests buy chopping them down. Schemes that can have a very real impact must be implemented with protection as the main goal, and not taxation.

Liars and thieves? The reality of benefits in the UK

First, for legal reasons I cannot disclose where I used to work. In December, through reasons not entirely in my control I entered the realm of the unemployed. At first it was a bit of a relief, it gave me the first real break in 4 years after effectively being on call 24/7/365 for 4 years. Even when I was supposed to be on holiday part of me was at work due to being the only IT person in a company of over 200. The first thing I had to do was sign on, and for once this was a simple straightforward process. The DWP now allows you to make your claim online. It’s not the most straightforward of processes, but infinitely better than trying to apply over the phone. Another surprise, interview at the job centre was the following week, rather than the old “sometime in the next month”. Expectations were high, maybe after years of red tape and bureaucracy the new government had improved the lot of the newly unemployed? Housing benefit was applied for as part of the process, all centralised and for once the council agreed to pay housing and council tax benefits. As it was December another welcome surprise was the rebate from the council tax, incredibly useful given the now tightened budget over Xmas. Direct debits were cancelled where none essential accounts were concerned, a conscious decision meaning my now recovered credit rating takes a terminal hit again, but a quick budget shows that we just have enough to manage.

Then comes the end of January, and due to how I became unemployed the DWP informs me I no longer qualify until April. That means no money for food or heating for another 2 months [1]. This is despite full disclosure of the circumstances and recognition that it was out of my control. Rather than now being forced to choose between turning the heating down a bit or eating plainer foods (my time at University has shown me how to eat quite well for next to nothing) I’m actually forced to make the choice of having no heating and not eating anything at all. The only way to ensure my family has both a home to live in and food and heating is to walk out of the door and make myself intentionally homeless. A quick emergency meeting with the DWP and I’m told I qualify for crisis payments due to having a wife and 2 teenage daughters. Of 40%. Yes, I’m now informed I’m expected to feed, clothe, heat and house a family of 4 on 40% of the amount the government declares the minimum needed to live on. So now my option is do I feed my family or turn off the heating and electricity. My only saving graces in all this is that my eldest daughter is soon to be 17, so the new bedroom tax will not affect us. And by being generally in good health I’m not claiming DLA so I don’t have to deal with ATOS. And that’s really the big issue, all of these policies brought together and the way the unemployed and disabled have been demonised by this government and by the media.

It’s very discouraging after over 20 years of working and paying my NI that I am considered worthless now by the very government that is supposed to be helping me. The unemployed and disabled are labelled “lying, thieving bastards” by the people who are meant to help, while those very people who are meant to help take tax payers money for doing nothing. A government that lives a life of excess and luxury at taxpayers expense is guilty of forcing the poorest in this country into ever deeper poverty. Families who are declared as “under-occupying” homes because disabled children need their own rooms are seeing their benefits reduced. Disabled people who need mobility payments to ensure their independence are having those payments reduced or even taken away because they can walk 20 metres, but not 21 metres. People who are losing their jobs because the government has decided employers should be able to fire anyone they want and then hire cheaper foreign labour are finding themselves losing everything, their families, their homes and even their lives. This is the reality of living on benefits in this country. The myth of scroungers living a life of luxury, with plasma TVs, cars and exotic holidays is exactly that, a myth. For those who receive just the benefits they are entitled to it’s not enough. High profile media campaigns targeting the minority who abuse the system do nothing to help those caught in the benefits trap. Billions spent getting the long term unemployed into work do nothing when there are no jobs available and government policies are forcing more people into unemployment. Forcing the unemployed to work in jobs that pay less than the benefits they lose is immoral.

The unemployed do not need hitting with big sticks to find work, they need genuine training. They need real work experience programs that actually pay them, not providing free labour for large multinational corporations. They need the opportunity for education, without the fear that they are going to leave university with crippling debt, regardless of age. The unemployed need the opportunities to prove their worth in a workforce that has been indoctrinated into believing that the unemployed are simply the scum of the earth. The most valuable thing a person can have is their own self worth. Without that they have nothing left to lose.

[1] For those wondering why I can still afford to write this blog given the financial situation this government has put me in the answer is simple. My next electricity bill is due on March 1st. [2]

[2] I’ve never been out of work longer than 2 months thanks to working in a high demand industry. I fully expect to be gainfully employed before this date. There’s also the matter of why I can’t disclose my previous employer’s details 😉

In love with the gun

It has often been said that America has a gun culture. Some would go as far as to say that America has a love affair with the gun. Recently though this gun culture has been highlighted and criticised on a worldwide scale due to what is an almost entirely American phenomenon, that of school shootings. To put this in perspective in the last 100 years Canada recorded 10 incidents of shootings at schools, with 26 fatalities. In the month of January this year alone America has recorded 8 shootings in schools with 5 fatalities. That is within a single month. For the year of 2012 this rises to 10 shooting incidents and a staggering 41 fatalities, more than the whole of Canada over the last 100 years. Since January 2000, just 8 months after the infamous Columbine shootings, there have been 63 shooting incidents, 138 fatalities and 131 woundings. The most telling statistic is that in almost every case the assailant was another pupil at the school, sometimes as young as 13.

Given then that the majority of incidents are not the random events such as the Newtown shootings in December 2012, where the assailant had no direct link to the school at that time it is therefore telling that the NRA’s response to school shootings is to advocate more guns in schools. In fact there are even some that issue permits to pupils to allow them to carry concealed weapons, notably the University of Utah. Several schools have also taken to hiring armed guards, with one school making the news when the retired police officer that they had hired famously left his pistol unattended in the rest room. Advocates of the armed school often cite the lower incidence of gun violence in other countries where teachers are allowed to openly carry weapons, such as in Israel. However, this argument is flawed by the simple facts that due to military training that almost every Israeli citizen receives by serving in the IDF every teacher carrying a weapon not only has had extensive training in handling firearms, but almost every person owning a firearm has received training on how to maintain and keep firearms safe and out of their children’s hands. Something America clearly seems incapable of doing.

To help understand this culture I have enlisted the help of one of my friends in America, ex US Marine Scott Floyd.

1. You served as a US Marine. What rank were you when you left?

I was a Marine for twenty years. I got out as a Gunnery Sergeant, E7.

2. Given your military training and background would you consider yourself pro gun ownership?

Even without it I would still be pro gun ownership.

3. Would you consider America’s obsession with the gun to be a healthy or harmful one?

I don’t consider all American’s to be obsessed with guns. I own five firearms, but I am not obsessed with them. Some people are, it’s like a hobby. Some people like stamps, some like coins, some like guns. If someone is obsessed with guns and likes to hunt or target shoot, I would not consider it harmful in any way.

4. The NRA used to be pro gun control, at least to a degree. Since December 2012 their rhetoric would certainly seem to suggest that the answer to gun violence is more widespread gun ownership. Is the NRA right in your opinion?

I believe they are right to an extent. If you plan on going on a shooting spree, are you going to choose a place where you suspect people are armed or unarmed? If there is a psychopath threatening you or your family with a gun, you better have a gun. Would you rob someone’s house if you knew they had a gun? Probably not. You would choose a softer target.

5. Most gun related violence in America is crime related, with guns being the weapon of choice in robberies and gang related crime. Many of the gun controls being advocated are aimed at making it harder for criminals to obtain guns, such as a ban on unregistered sales at weapons conventions. Should all gun sales be registered?

Handguns and assault weapons are registered I believe. You can still go into a Walmart and purchase a .22 or a shotgun with just an ID saying you are of age. The majority or crimes that are committed with firearms are not the ones purchased at Walmart. Criminals will use guns for violence or crime that are usually stolen so the weapon cannot be traced to them. So no I do not believe you should have to register your shotgun for rabbit hunting.

6. It is estimated that there are more guns in private ownership in America than there are people living in America. Given how prevalent gun ownership is and the protections the constitution affords American citizens do you think the gun lobbyists arugument that gun control is about removing guns from private ownership is a valid one?

No I do not. I hope I understand this question correctly. If guns are lawfully removed from private ownership, then who will have these weapons? Criminals and Law Enforcement. We all know that when you need a cop, they are never there, so you have to protect yourself. Otherwise the cops will be photographing your corpse and interviewing your raped wife. Removing firearms from private citizens would start a crime spree unlike this country has never seen.

7. Many of the most famous gun related crimes in the last century have been committed by the mentally ill. In the last few weeks we have seen a school bus driver murdered and a child kidnapped as well as a decorated war veteran murdered by another ex-soldier who was being treated for PTSD. Should part of gun ownership be proof that you are mentally stable enough to own a gun?

Well, it is. Before you purchase a handgun, you have to obtain a permit. To get this permit you have to go down to the police station for a background check, fingerprints, etc. Then after you get the permit you have to wait a certain amount of time before you can make a purchase. Mentally ill people do not go through that process. They will steal, borrow, or obtain their weapons any way they can. I have never heard of a case where a mentally ill person committed a crime with his own legally owned gun

8. School shootings are almost always perpetrated by one or more students from the school. Should more be done to ensure children have no access to weapons outside a controlled environment?

Of course. In my state you can serve between 5 and 10 years in prison if you store a firearm within access of a child. The parents are just as guilty if their child commits a tragedy with their parents gun.

9. What, in your own opinion, is the one thing that America can do to help reduce the incidents of gun violence within its educational establishments?

We have had metal detectors and armed guards in schools for years. It may sound far fetched, but I have heard suggestions to arm the teachers. I can see this. We certainly can’t arm the students. If teachers are armed and some kid brings a gun to school and starts shooting. A shot from a teacher’s gun can end the killings and possibly save lives that might have been lost. In all school shootings, by the time the police arrive, it’s too late. Arming the teachers may not be the best idea, but no city has enough cops to guard schools, nor is there any money in the budget to hire enough security guards. The teachers are already there, and underpaid. Pay them a bonus for being armed?

When I decided to write this article I started looking at the gun culture in America from a British standpoint. Gun control is almost a none issue here because so few people actually have them. It’s seen almost as an upper class pastime, played out at weekends by the idle rich or by farmers supplementing the pot with pheasant and rabbit. It’s quick and easy for those who sit this side of the pond to state the answer is to remove guns from those that abuse them. What I’ve found is that the argument for gun control is flawed. In almost every case where gun control has been advocated it has been as a direct response to a shooting in a school. The guns used have been legally owned and even with stricter gun controls in place would most likely not have been prevented. Instead we have a media hysteria polarised between two camps, one saying we need to remove guns from private ownership and another saying we need to arm everyone who isn’t a criminal. What is not discussed are the facts. Statistically you are still more likely to die from being shot if you own a gun. This is simple logic, when someone robs your house, they don’t know what weapons you own. If they find any, you have armed them, and knowing you have one gun they are more likely to shoot first than find out if you have any others. Arming the entire nation is not an option, but in a nation where every burglar could be armed it is also hard to argue against owning a weapon for self defence. The flaw in owning a weapon for defence though is what happens when you shoot the wrong person. Only last year a home owner, believing he was protecting his family’s property, shot and fatally injured his own son when mistaking him for a burglar. Even in self defence it must be seen as a last resort.

Arming teachers cannot be the answer either, in doing that you are asking that teacher to make the impossible choice. You are asking them to be prepared to shoot and kill a child, one who for years they may have been teaching. Since January 2000 over half the school shootings in America have been committed by children under the age of 16, the youngest being aged just 6 years of age. In almost every case the assailant has been male. No amount of gun control will prevent the parents of these children from owning a gun. Instead of advocating stronger controls that will do nothing to limit the number of weapons that are already in private ownership what I believe is needed is stronger controls on storage. Quite simply no weapon should ever be accessible to someone who is not the permitted owner of the weapon. Nothing can be done to prevent the next Columbine or Newtown without first ensuring weapons are properly controlled in the home. Any parent who allows through their own carelessness a child to gain access to their own weapons is in effect culpable for the actions of that child. And any parent who allows their child to possess a gun must also be ultimately responsible for that child’s actions.

Silencing Demons

Two days ago I heard that a good friend of mine had recently passed away. The medium of discovery was Facebook, but once the milk ran out and a trip to the shops was in order it became clear that, locally at least, his death was a much bigger story than just a few friends passing condolences on a social website. It was front page news in the local paper.

Like so many highly creative individuals he was tormented by his demons, but we connected on that basic level of shared loves and experiences. A respected artist, engineer and actor with a love of festivals and loud music he was always there to help others, but alas always the last to ask help for himself. In all the time I knew him he was a kind gentle soul, but I knew beneath that shell lay a darker soul trapped and waiting. Depression and bouts of violent psychosis were a constant battle for him resulting in regular stays in hospital until finally in the last few years he was homeless. Even then he worked hard helping those around him and raising money for charity until finally, over New Years, at Beachy Head he finally silenced his demons.

The biggest indictment of the Big Society is not that he finally made the decision to end his own life, it’s sad to say that for those who truly are at their lowest ebb ways and means will be found. The big indictment is that no one noticed for nearly a month. His lifestyle is partly to blame here, he was well known to pack a bag, grab his passport and take off for Europe at the drop of a hat. With friends throughout the country he would move around to where he felt most comfortable with himself. I’d like to think that on the day he disappeared whoever knew him would have informed the police of his disappearance at least. At the very least there should have been regular contact with someone from social services, but it seems social workers don’t help the homeless, many of whom are homeless due to their mental health. Knowing he was a high suicide risk and in the vicinity of Beachy Head it’s not a large leap of faith to consider the possibility, but it would seem no effort at all was made to trace him. Instead his body was found a month later, after the police were searching the cliffs for the wreckage of a car that had been driven over the edge of the cliff.

The Big Society does not mean we get to pick and choose who we look out for. Cameron’s Big Society seems to be about looking after everyone except those that need it, the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the old and the disabled. The most vulnerable in society who need the Big Society instead are pilloried by government. It does not mean that our police services ignore those who are vulnerable, the homeless need protecting more than the housed. While I know there was nothing that could have been done to prevent a friend’s death I still cannot shake that feeling that he has been let down somehow. By a government that has actively made the poor poorer. By a police service that couldn’t care about another homeless person going missing. By a health service that has done nothing to stay in contact and counsel the mentally ill. By a society that sees the mentally ill and homeless as something to ignore at best, or to be ridiculed at worst. By friends who didn’t miss him till it was too late. And by myself, for not being a better friend when needed most.

The great rock and roll swindle

Yesterday the BBC posted a rather misleading article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-20802043

It seems sensible enough, finally the government is going to allow the public to legally do something that everyone who has ever bought a blank cassette or an MP3 player has been doing since the 1970’s. For the over 40’s out there, how many of you have copied an album onto tape so you could listen to it in the car, or on the old sony walkman? If you’re under the age of 40 (or over and a geek like myself) how many of you have converted your entire CD collection to mp3 so you can listen to it on your media player of choice? Congratulations, the government has finally decided that you are no longer criminals. So what’s so misleading about the BBC article then? It’s quite obvious when you read it.

According to the article musicians are in an uproar over the government’s plans. They see the second Ferrari being snatched away from them in stolen sales. Yes, apparently the ability to do what everyone is doing anyway will result in fewer sales. That British musicians will be disadvantaged in relation to EU musicians. Their solution? A tax on portable media, to be paid to musicians. In reality, what they are saying is we want the public to pay twice. We want the public to buy both the digital and the CD version (which no one does, at least no one I know). And if they won’t pay twice, we want the government to force them to pay twice by taxing all those blank discs that they’re buying to shift all their legally bought iTunes content onto CD for the car journey or as backup in case the PC decides to die. What they are saying is, we want to be paid, even when that person is not buying music.

There are a number of issues with this that I find alarming. Firstly, who is going to be responsible for collecting and distributing these non-sale royalty payments? The BPI? The MU? All this will do is create a new revenue stream for an industry that is notorious for withholding money from artists. This is not about rewarding creators and composers. This is no different to how musicians are paid for radio air time. For every pound generated in revenue the musician sees a fraction of that, after the collecting agency and their record label take their cream from the top. My second issue is with who is now paying for this license. At least with the radio licensing you know the radio station is playing music. That fee is generated by actual music played by the station and goes to the collecting agency for that artist. They won’t see much of it, but at least when they play Slade over Xmas you know Noddy Holder will be receiving a cheque sometime in the New Year.

With a tax on CDs it’s the IT industry that is now funding musicians. All those copies of Linux burned onto disc at home will be funding someone’s rehab costs. Money being paid to musicians for something that has nothing to do with music. It may surprise people to know that Britain is actually one of the few countries that doesn’t already do this. Primarily as Britain is one of the few countries that wasn’t fooled by the recording industry that illegal downloads were responsible for a music sales apocalypse. Yes, illegal downloads are still a problem, but they have never been as much of an issue to the recording industry than the global economy. With music continually priced at a premium sales will invariably drop when you don’t have the money to make purchases. The recording industry once equated half of all blank CD sales to illegal music copying. That’s correct, their argument for taxing blank CDs was that illegal downloading and burning was equivalent to the entire music market worldwide. That without illegal downloads, the music industry would somehow magically double in size overnight. This was despite their own research that showed that despite a slowdown in physical sales revenue at that time had remained at the same level.

Finally, it is the matter of who receives the money from a CD tax. The beneficiaries of my blank CD purchase will not be the musicians that I listen to. Why should my blank CD put money into the pockets of a record label or musician that I do not listen to? Will any of my CD tax be paid to Scandinavian rock bands? To German power metal bands? To the band that played the local nightclub last night? No, it will go into the pockets of the likes of Simon Cowell, Adele, Kanye West. To musicians I have never had any intention of listening to. Why should I pay to fund the lowest common denominator? Why should my money be given to a multi millionaire who has done nothing to persuade me to part with my money and invest in their music?

The industry needs to learn that the public is not there as a cash cow. It has no right to my money except where I say it can have it, by my choice of music purchases. I say who receives my money, who I believe has created music that I deem worthy of listening to. If the industry wishes to grow it must redefine itself and realise that while there is undoubtedly a market for the insipid trash that passes for pop music nowadays, with clone bands singing the same harmonies on every other reality talent show, in order to engage with the greater general public it must do more to encourage genuine talent. There is a wealth of musical talent out there looking for a market that the industry is ignoring. And the more you ignore this talent, the more the public will ignore the industry.

History of a time forgot

A young boy, almost a teenager plays in the dirt near the barbed wire fence. He’s hungry and underfed, he can’t remember the last time he ate a proper meal.

On the other side of the fence several soldiers laugh and joke with each other. One points to the boy and raises his rifle. Staring down the sights he aims and slowly squeezes the trigger. The bullet is propelled from the barrel, passes the short distance between the soldier and the boy before the boy’s head erupts with a fountain of blood. the boy slumps down on the ground, his blood staining the dirt in an ever growing pool of darkening red. The soldiers clap each other on their backs, congratulating the shooter on his kill. They’ll be telling the story over and over again back in the barracks, knowing that they have the full support not only of the commanders, but of their government for their act. After all, the boy wasn’t one of them, he was someone to be reviled and looked upon as somehow less than human.

The above is a dramatised account of real events. You’d be forgiven if you think you know the circumstances of the above act, surely this happened in Germany and Poland during the 1940’s? And you would of course be correct, we’ve seen this scene before, enacted in countless war movies. Almost this exact scene is a pivotal point in the film Schindler’s List, and becomes one of the many reasons Schindler betrays his own country by helping the Jews in Germany. But these soldiers aren’t German. This isn’t even the 20th Century. It’s 2012. Palestine. It’s the reason so many people have died in Palestine and Israel over the last few weeks.

I keep seeing posts on the web “Why do they hate us?” “What did we ever do to them?” while ignoring the inhumane treatment that is inflicted upon a nation in their name. The answer is simple, the Israeli nation has become the very thing they hated the most. The world will not allow them a final solution, so instead they keep a nation in squalid camps like Ramallah. They take land that has been farmed for generations by Palestinians and then expect the Palestinians to work like slaves on the land that has been taken from them. They do not see them as people, they label them terrorists and bomb them, killing entire families in the name of “security”. They starve them to the point of malnutrition, but not enough that they look unhealthy. It would not do for the rest of the World to see the suffering that they have caused.

Can you imagine the outcry of protest if in 1970 the RAF bombed Belfast? If in our war against the IRA we saw children as legitimate targets? The Palestinians want the same as the Catholics of Northern Ireland. To be treated equally, as human beings. It was the generations of injustice at the hands of the Protestants in Northern Ireland that allowed for the rise of the IRA. While their methods were quite rightly condemned it was the recognition of this injustice that eventually paved the way to peace in Northern Ireland. It was the recognition that treating an entire group of people as terrorists does not work. The great irony in Northern Ireland was the fact that the British troops were there to protect the Catholics, and not the Protestants. It didn’t take long before generations of resentment turned into hatred of the British. It’s no different in Palestine. Only we never did to the Catholics what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. And we found peace in Northern Ireland, by negotiation and talk. Not by missiles and attack helicopters.

Imagine a future where Russia controls Great Britain. As part of their grand experiment they force the majority of England out of their homes and force them to live in camps in Scotland and Wales. They provide you with just enough food to live, but not enough that you don’t know hunger. They cut off power supplies at random so you are cold and can only sleep after darkness as you have no power for the TV or light to read by. Water supplies regularly run dry. Occaisionally you will travel back to work in the factories and farms in England, where you’re paid so little you can only afford to buy enough food to feed your children. And when the inevitable protests start across Glasgow and Cardiff the protesters are shot at close range, despite only being armed with sticks and rocks. Someone finds some fireworks and rigs a makeshift rocket, firing it across the border into Newcastle where it lands in the Tyne, harmlessly. In retaliation the Russians bomb Glasgow, burning hospitals to the ground and killing hundreds if not thousands, many of them women and children. The fact that the killing is indescriminate is deliberate, after all the intention is not to stop the current uprising, but to instill a sense of fear so deep that generations will never contemplate ever rising up again. And ask yourself how would you feel towards your new masters living in what were once your homes in England? Knowing that for fun they will kill whoever they want, whenever they want and the World not only looks away, but applauds them while they do it?

When you know how that feels, then you know what it feels like to live in Palestine. And that is why the Palestinians hate the Israelis. And why Israel will never see peace until it finally comes to terms with what it has done to the Palestinians and agrees to sit down and talk. Because without that, eventually the only option left will be a final solution. And that’s something not even the Israelis can truly want.