The Covid Diaries - Views from Imperial College

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Covid Diaries





Covid Diaries





CONTENTS Introduction

1 PLACE Space for Reflection 2 Lockdown in Germany 4 Iowa, U.S.A. 6 Remembering Wuhan 8 India 10

2 SCIENCE Diary of an Astrophysicist 14 Numbers, Numbers, Numbers 16 Guided by the Science 18 The Science of Hope 20 Dear Science ... 22

3 OUR LIVES The End of Museums 26 Losing My Loved Ones 28

Other People, Other Lives 30 Further Down the Log 32 Supermarkets: A Microculture 34 From FOMO to FOGO: Are We Now a Divided Society? 36 Coronavirus: The Snowball Effect 38 On My Mind 40

4 PERSPECTIVES Faith and the Virus 42 Three Voices 44 COVID and Nationalism 46 Me and the Other 48 Fear, Racism and the Virus 50 Viral Scam 52 The Fragility of Balance 54

5 MOVING ON Plague Dreams 56 Moving On 58 Decisions, Friends, Life 60 A Walk On the Wild Side 62 A Stay-At-Home Dream 66 Moments of Time 68

NOVEMBER 6, 2020



hese pieces of writing, all of them striking in differing ways, were provoked by a single event, the closure of Imperial College on Friday March 13th, 2020. The students of the Science Communication Unit, about to complete the Spring Term’s work, tipped suddenly into crisis. The crisis was COVID-19. Imperial College can model an epidemic, develop a vaccine, and advise a government, but no ordinary classroom can withstand the spell of a dangerous virus. Our term ended, therefore, not with tea and cake in the H bar, but in disarray. Some students stayed in London; others returned home to different parts of the UK, to Aus-

tralia, Asia and America, and to Europe. Flats were shut, possessions abandoned, tickets booked on final flights. An entire masters programme — one based on the concept of communication — was suddenly emptied of its key ingredient, the physical presence of students.

are urgent messages from a world we thought would be short-lived but is with us still, as Christmas nears. Here are the Covid Diaries. The current students were invited to contribute, and we wanted to hear from incoming students too. There are pieces from the staff, and from valued friends of the Unit. The essays are much the same length, and are divided into themes: Place, Science, Our Lives, Perspectives and Moving On. They are thoughtful responses to an unusual time.

Soon reassembled for a Zoom chat, forty worried faces stared from the screen. What happens now? How much is lost? Quickly the conversations began. Two weeks later the programme was rebuilt. And as the teaching returned, so we began to hear the stories of these students: what they were enduring, what Many thanks are due to the writthey were thinking about, and how ers, and to our designer and gradthey saw the future. These stories uating student Lucy Livesay.

Stephen Webster Science Communication Unit Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication Imperial College London

The COVID Diaries


2. Space for Reflection 4. Lockdown in Germany 6. Iowa, U.S.A. 8. Remembering Wuhan 10. India



PLACE MAY 15, 2020



hen it became apparent in mid-March that my university department and work would be closing for an indefinite amount of time, I made the decision to temporarily leave London, my home of nine years, and return to where I grew up in rural Cheshire. Here, I have found that without the light pollution of the capital and with more time to spare, stargazing has become part of my routine. Visible in the UK during lockdown have been supermoons, meteor showers, Venus … even a rocket launch. Combine this with the millions of people looking for a distraction from their stifling immediate surroundings and the daily bombardment of news and statistics, and you have an opportunity to engage new audiences in astronomy. I imagine many people like myself have been observing and learning quite a bit more about our universe. The enforced reduction in travel and inability to plan provided by lockdown has given me the chance to deeply reacquaint myself with Cheshire. Recalibrating my relationship with this area, and launching my new stargazing pastime, I soon found myself getting seriously interested in a mysterious neighbour of mine — the University of Manchester’s Lovell telescope, part of the Jodrell Bank Observatory.


ust a short drive away from where I sit now, the Lovell telescope stands at 89 metres, peering above its leafy agricultural surroundings. When it was completed in 1957, it was the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world. It is still the third largest today. The 76-metre diameter 2

dish is mounted atop recycled gun turrets from two battleships and dwarfs the observatory’s three neighbouring telescopes. The site has played countless vital roles in developing our understanding of the universe in its lifetime. To highlight just a few: •

• •

Today, Jodrell Bank is the headquarters of both the e-MERLIN array of UK radio telescopes and of the global Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. Both are examples of interferometric arrays, meaning that the signals from distant dishes are combined to behave as one larger telescope, The Transit telescope was de- to help give uniquely sharp images tecting radio waves from our of the universe and test out new nearest galaxy, Andromeda, and far-reaching theories. all the way back in 1950. Jodrell Bank detected distant Jodrell Bank has inspired more radio sources in the 1950s than scientific discoveries. It is also and 60s, observations key a modest cultural icon, with apto the discovery of massive pearances made in popular books, distant galaxies powered by television series, music videos and blackholes, known as quasars. films. Buzz Aldrin, Brian Cox and It even became a temporary Dara Ó Briain are among those spy in 1957 during the cold who have filmed documentaries war, being used to detect there. Doctor Who has referenced the site on many occasions and Russian missiles. one of the early incarnations of In 1959 Jodrell Bank received The Doctor even ‘died’ by falling the first images from the far from the Lovell telescope. Stanley side of the moon. Kubrick reportedly called on the Jodrell Bank played a vital telescope’s founder, Sir Bernard role in the space race by help- Lovell, for advice about making ing to track probes from the 2001: A Space Odyssey scientifiSoviet Union and USA, in- cally credible, and comedian John cluding Sputnik 1, the world’s Bishop took the Olympic torch to first artificial satellite. the top of the telescope to mark In 1979, images from two of the London games in 2012. It the Jodrell Bank telescopes also hosts an annual music festihelped to identify a new val, ‘bluedot’, though this year’s type of object known as a event was another casualty of gravitational lens, providing COVID-19. confirmation of an aspect of Einstein’s theory of general hen I think of the Lovell relativity — that space-time telescope now, its giant inbecomes warped around mas- quisitive face upturned toward sive objects. the sky, I find some much needed Jodrell Bank’s telescopes have perspective. For me, Jodrell Bank also been key in identify- and its rich history have become ing new pulsars, the pulsat- a reminder of the boundlessness ing bodies which emit radio of human inquisitiveness and exwaves from their poles and ploration, as well as a symbol of are thought to be remnants of freedom and the importance of research led by curiosity. exploded stars.


The COVID Diaries

territory of this global pandemic. Jodrell Bank is a humbling symbol of the power and mystery of the universe, but most importantly right now, a reminder that our current microscopic, claustrophobic view is not the only way to be human. Emma Needham is currently based in London and was part of Imperial

College’s 2019/20 cohort of MSc Science Communication students. Emma works part-time for the British Pharmacological Society in their publications team, on their magazine and open access journal. Emma loves aerial fitness, exploring London on two wheels, and learning about the world — particularly through reading, podcasts, and travelling.


The observatory is also a reminder of the necessity of global collaboration and connectivity in scientific research. Just as these arrays of distant telescopes are using their collective power to receive high resolution images of the universe, so our community of global scientists are pooling resources and inventing new ways to share information, as they traverse the unchartered

I imagine many people like myself have been observing and learning quite a bit more about our universe. Place


PLACE MAY 25, 2020


The people kept on living their lives as if nothing had happened. 4

The COVID Diaries


re you from China?” the cashier asked me carefully. That was the first time I was ever asked about my nationality while grocery shopping. “Ehm, yes, I am” I answered with some surprise. “But you’re not from Wuhan, are you?” she asked, and this time she sounded a little more concerned. This happened a few days after the first COVID-19-case was found in my hometown Bonn in Germany. Since then I have observed the German sentiment towards the pandemic with a mixture of concern and fascination. What we are currently experiencing has not been seen since the end of World War II. This pandemic, together with the people’s diverse reactions to it, will undoubtedly be remembered in the history books. I find it particularly interesting how drastically the German public’s response has changed over time. So far I have witnessed four distinctively different phases in the German reaction: ignorance, hysteria, calming and protest.


hen the novel coronavirus broke out in China last year, no one would have been able to guess how dramatically it will change all of our lives, how it would bring the entire world to a standstill. While I was already listening to the horror stories from my Chinese family back home in Tianjin, the virus was not yet receiving much attention in Germany. Even after the first cases appeared in Germany, the public seemed not to care very much about it. “It’s not much worse than the flu” was the line we heard everywhere. The people kept on living their lives as if nothing had happened. Even carnival went on as normal — a festival where thousands of people took to the streets, crowded into clubs and gave drunken kisses to complete strangers. This was the main reason why the area around Cologne, which is the heart of German carnival and very close to my hometown Bonn, was hardest hit by the virus. Place

However, as cases multiplied and people died, hysteria replaced the previous ignorance. People started stocking up on food, budget and protection masks. Thousands of masks were even stolen from hospitals and other facilities. As a side-effect, we also got the unique chance to see which things are most important to Germans. Sadly, it seemed to be toilet paper and pasta. On some days, all four of my flatmates and I spread out over the city to hunt down the last overpriced package of threeply premium toilet paper. While the French hoarded condoms and wine and the Dutch stocked up on marijuana, cooking pasta and doing his business in peace seemed to be the highest priority to the Germans. In mid-March the lockdown also started in Germany. Parents suddenly had to work, babysit and teach their kids from home. Restaurants, bars, shops and sport clubs closed down. All of a sudden, Germany was grounded — together with its tons of toilet paper and pasta. Since most people agreed the measures were appropriate, everyone sat out their time at home. The TV program was filled with corona-specials and from one day to the next, virologists became the new superstars. And it helped! The public slowly calmed down. During this time, I became even more fascinated about science communication. This is because I saw how explaining science to the public could stop the hysteria of an entire nation. So I also started to spread news about COVID-19 on my Instagram page Liyang’s Lab News. In general, the lockdown allowed me more time for science communication. Besides posting more frequently on my science page, I also started producing short films for the Zoological Research Museum Koenig, where I normally work as a tour guide. However, studying from home has been a challenge sometimes. For instance, I had to do many lab experiments

at home for my university biology course. I will never forget the time when I had to run up and down the stairs to measure my pulse or when I spent hours shining a flashlight in my eye to find the blind spot. But the greatest worry of German students these days is still the uncertainty surrounding final exams which have been postponed until further notice. After a few weeks of relative calm, the anxiety in the public began to rise again. However, this time it was not due to the fear of the virus. People became tired of the lockdown. The economy was suffering, parents were overstrained and people just wanted everything to go back to normal. And the government thought so too. Therefore, small shops and restaurants reopened in mid-May, children went back to school and even some gyms and sport clubs returned to business. Ironically, this is when people started protesting against the strict measurements. Angry crowds took to the streets claiming back their fundamental rights. The fuzz also gave rise to several conspiracy theories, the most popular being about Bill Gates and how he created the virus to implant tracking-chips into everyone by vaccination. Unfortunately, we are not yet at the end of this stage. And we will see what the future brings. I, for one, am curious to see what phase comes next. No matter what, this pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our time — but meanwhile it is also one of the greatest chances for science communication. Liyang Zhao was born in Tianjin, China and moved to Germany as a child. She is currently studying on the Imperial College MSc in Science Communication; previously she was studying biology and English at the University of Bonn in Germany. Alongside her studies she works as a science journalist and as a tour guide at the Zoological Research Museum Koenig in Bonn.


PLACE JUNE 5, 2020


Pollinators, such as monarchs, are vital for keeping our plants thriving, our soils rich and our air clean. 6

The COVID Diaries


onight there’s a gentle pitter-patter around me at the camp fire here in Iowa’s Backbone State Park. It’s a bright sunny evening and the sound I’m hearing is not rain, but caterpillar poop, otherwise known as frass, falling from the trees onto my laptop. Surrounded by hundreds of these moth caterpillars, a few tree frogs and several other campers looking for a break from the monotony of their living rooms, there is an eerie sense of peace — especially when I think about what is happening in the country around me. Four hours drive from my strange idyllic bubble, in the metropolitan area where I was raised, thousands of protestors are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic injus-tices faced by people of color in this country. At the same time, thousands are still dying from COVID-19, and the curve is still far from declining. And unemployment levels are higher than they have been since the great depression. In many ways I feel guilty, for leaving the twin cities and not standing up for my fellow Minnesotans, for starting a new job during this time, and for having the privilege to travel the country following monarch butterflies.


he pandemic has put many twists and turns into the path that led me to working with monarchs. My job was intended to start at the beginning of April, and follow the migration of the 140 million butterflies from Texas to Minnesota while training volunteer groups for citizen science programs. As the pandemic spread through the U.S. there was no guarantee that the research could go forward. State border closings were uncertain, bunkhouses were shut and citizen science workshops would no longer be permitted. Now, having only started three weeks ago, more than a month afPlace

ter initially planned, we’ve missed most of the monarch migration headed north. Instead, my two person crew will split all of our midwest sites with another crew. Last minute land permit applications will take us in a zig zag all across the region while we stay at campgrounds and hotels along the way.


hen we pulled up to our survey site this morning, our crew was greeted with a few very enthusiastic landowners. Rather unexpectedly, we ran an impromptu training session wearing masks and keeping our distance under the hot prairie sun. When we finished, the daughter of one of the landowners turned to me and said, “you just made my mom’s week, she’s definitely going to be inviting all of her friends out here.” Most of our citizen science programs have been running this way due to Covid. For the time being, we’re offering to train landowners or volunteer coordinators from local conservation organizations. These small group sessions are coupled with online training videos with the hope that these individuals can successfully pass on this knowledge when they deem it’s safe. The volunteers, along with our two field crews, will spend the summer collecting a variety of information about monarch habitats at conserved prairies. At each site, we set up a 200x50 meter block using tape measures. We then walk the perimeter looking for adult monarch butterflies, note their behavior, and count all of the eggs and larvae found on milkweed plants. Most of our time is spent using a PVC pipe quadrat to systematically record the blooming plants in the area. This information will give us a better understanding of what mixes of plant species and management techniques are attracting the adult butterflies. It also helps larger organisations to estimate the monarch’s population size.

The data we collect over the next few months will determine whether the monarchs will be listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Faced with threats from excessive herbicide and pesticide use in crop fields in the Midwest, declining over-wintering habitat in Mexico, and mowing and traffic collisions along roadways, monarch populations have been on the decline for years and the species is likely to be listed as threat-ened. This form of legal protection would help to safeguard monarchs and the prairies they inhabit for the generations to come. Our data from this summer will then give states a head start in deciding regulations regarding when, where and how these prairies will be protected. From the tranquility of my tent, I feel that there is a push for change in the air. I hope that environmental protections will be included in this transformation. Pollinators, such as monarchs, are vital for keeping our plants thriving, our soils rich and our air clean. These are necessities for ensuring a healthier, more equal future. But in order to make sure this research can continue, and progress can be made, I’ll keep social distancing at parks, enjoying the company of the caterpillars around me. Ariana Loehr joined the 2020/21 MSc Science Communication cohort after a period as field technician for Monarch Joint Venture based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previous to this she taught students about the reefs and rainforests of Singapore and Vietnam and helped reforest Maui’s wilderness areas to create habitat for endangered birds. Apart from conservation Ariana is very interested in the arts and spends her free time painting images of the unique creatures she finds in the field.


PLACE MAY 21, 2020



mpty streets, closed stores, and masks running low. The COVID-19 outbreak brought us a multitude of unprecedented situations that rapidly took over as unavoidable norms. In such a crisis, it is easy to let the mind wander into negativity and to pass around prejudice and blame. Yuli Yang, a former news editor for CNN, whose hometown is Wuhan, became worried when the city suddenly went into lockdown in January 2020. During the pandemic, around the world there have been many reported cases of physical violence and discrimination against people with Asian ethnicities. Incidents of hatred have made the news, triggered by the outbreak which originated in Wuhan. Yuli herself was immediately mindful of the rising racism and xenophobia amplified by the disease. To her, the thought of having to fight both the virus, and hate and discrimination, was an unfortunate situation that no one should have to face. So she tweeted a positive message calling for people to not let themselves be divided by hate. This tweet went on to become the global social media campaign #GoWuhan, an attempt to spread optimism in times of overwhelming gloom.

Yuli Yang @once With these mini-tales of Wuhan, I hope you can open up a small space in your heart. A space for compassion. A space to love and to support the millions of my fellow Wuhaners. Your support will empower them. And that is the first step of our collective healing. #GoWuhan!

9:21 AM · Feb 3, 2020

“I wanted to remind everyone that Wuhan is hometown to millions of real people.”

dish to lotus-filled lakes and their tennis champion Li Na. Yuli told me: “I wanted to remind everyone that Wuhan is hometown to Around April, dealing with lock- millions of real people… and they down in London myself, when I were suffering right now and they heard about this wonderful ini- needed your support.” tiative on my daily news podcast, I contacted Yuli, who’s currently The tweet generated a lot of love and based in Hong Kong. She told me support from all around the world. more on how and why the cam- Yuli, along with her friends, transpaign came about. lated these messages into Chinese and put them on Chinese social t all started with that tweet. In media, so that all those messages the tweet she had shared a few of of solidarity reached the people of her favourite things about Wuhan, Wuhan. The campaign blossomed from Wuhan’s delicious noodle into people sharing food recipes,

I 8

and videos of spins on the Wuhan noodles using stunt doubles like spaghetti. I learned from Yuli that at this stage of the campaign, the recipes were really important. “The world has been connected by our shared love of food for hundreds of years, and I wanted to use food to fight stigma. Up to now, the recipe video has been viewed 67K+ times, and many have sent me pictures of their Wuhan noodles experiments. It’s simply amazing to know that somewhere out there, some people’s kitchen has the fragrance of my hometown, even if just for the time of a bowl of noodles.” The COVID Diaries


s the pandemic grew, the campaign started using another hashtag, #postcardsfromWuhan. This carried pictures and messages from the people back in Wuhan, who had been under lockdown for over two months by then. Yuli is sure that amidst the growing fears surrounding the pandemic, many other underlying prejudices or stigmas may be amplified, racism being one of them. Looking down the road ahead, she says that there will be plenty of social stigma that Wuhan’ers will have to fight against. Yuli remarks, for instance, that parents are trying to figure out how to prepare their kids for what might come when they introduce themselves as Wuhan’ers. She hopes that with this campaign she can bring out the human side of a name that has universally become synonymous with a deadly virus. “I do believe that when people see the faces, the eyes and the smiles of my friends and family back in Wuhan, it could make it just a little bit harder to hate and to discriminate.” These messages, Yuli tells me, offer hope and strength to people, not just in Wuhan, but around the globe as they go about their own quarantines. “Every act of kindness, every act of love and compassion really matters.”

times. Yuli points out that editors must be extremely careful with their choices of headlines and terminology. She states as an example, that for ease of reference, there’s an argument to justify the benefit of the virus being called ‘the Wuhan Virus’. However, she states that weighed against this is the very real threat of damage to the people involved, through a social stigma that hurts the city and its residents in times to come. As a Wuhan’er and a news consumer, she thinks that by assigning an easy geotag more harm than good is being done. Yuli also points out the danger of using location-tags in a way that mixes people of the place and the government response. Mixing the two can become a tool for politicians to invoke feelings of hatred or patriotism. Of course we will always ask: where did this happen? But the co-identification of place and disease must be avoided. All of us, and the media, must be careful about the perceptions we carry about, and propagate. Yuli puts the point well: “Should there be a post-mortem investigation into how the governors in Wuhan handled the crisis, especially in its earlier days? Absolutely. Without this we won’t be able to make any concrete assessment in terms of whether the situation was handled well or not. Are there things to be The campaign shows the crucial admired in terms of how individrole of the media in these trying uals in Wuhan dealt with the un-

foreseen situation to the best they could? I would also say absolutely.” Her initiative shows the need for human perseverance to be recognized and appreciated. If ever there was a time to rise above our personal selves and help our fellow humans, that time is now. The messages and stories that Yuli’s #GoWuhan campaign brought forth has become part of a global discussion on how we can keep hope alive during the most testing time current generations have ever known. It’s heartening to see people all across the globe band together and prove that even in the toughest situations, hope can prevail with the smallest acts of kindness and compassion. Priyanka Dasgupta was part of the 2019/20 cohort of the MSc Science Communication at Imperial College London and was co-editor of the I,Science magazine. She also possesses a masters degree in zoology, and is currently exploring different ways of engaging with societal impact of science. Her latest projects include public engagement sessions at the Museum of London, being a student tutor at Kings College London and undertaking short internships in communication roles at University College London). She also dips her toes in policy deliberations by the Science Policy Forum, India.

Yuli Yang @once Our thoughts are with the UK & hope Queen Elizabeth keeps her healthy up. In Wuhan we have our own cornucopia of queens - the grannies in all our families. We’re sharing here their messages with you. Let’s stay strong together! #GoWuhanGoWorld #postcardsfromWuhan



PLACE JUNE 1, 2020


On the surface, India’s strict preventative measures are understandable. 10

The COVID Diaries


t’s been thirteen years since I last visited my family in India. For the past five of those years, I’ve been yearning for the chance to return as I reconnect with my culture. After various missed opportunities, I finally convinced my parents to take me in April 2020. The timing felt almost auspicious — not only would I see my aunt and uncle before they emigrate to Canada, but relatives who have already moved away had planned their visit home to coincide with ours. The trip would also come when I seemingly needed it the most. After months of suffering from a flaring skin condition, I was mentally and physically exhausted. As a result, I was desperate to escape to a foreign sun and give myself a chance to heal.

contain large slums, making social distancing incredibly difficult were COVID-19 to take root. Moreover, with 160 million Indians lacking regular access to clean water, WHO’s recommendation of frequent hand washing to prevent the virus is not possible for all. The millions infected would then face difficulties entering India’s crumbling healthcare system, already plagued with overcrowded hospitals and doctor shortages. Rural areas would be particularly disadvantaged, as most medical resources are geared towards urban areas where only one third of the population reside. The severity of the lockdown thus seeks to prevent a potentially devastating epidemic that India is unable to control.

That was, of course, until news broke of the COVID-19 epidemic sweeping East Asia. What began in China quickly spread to countries around the world and made the prospect of nations locking themselves down highly likely. My worst fears were realised when, on the 11th of March, India suspended all tourist visas and closed its borders. Naturally, I was devastated, though I had little time to process it amid the rapidly developing situation in the UK. Cases were increasing by the day; however, the British government’s response seemed lethargic in comparison with other countries, with vague guidance culminating eventually in a poorly defined lockdown. It paled in comparison to India’s more drastic measures, effectively locking 18% of the planet’s population within their homes. Railways stopped, businesses closed, and those who flouted the lockdown faced a police beating with their wooden lathis.

Nevertheless, the strict lockdown has undoubtedly had severe effects on the nation’s poorest. Chief among them are migrant workers, who come to big cities from rural villages to seek temporary, lowpaid jobs. Many of these workers belong to so-called ‘low castes’, groups which already face extreme prejudice in Indian society. They now face a new challenge: up to 100 million workers have lost their jobs due to the lockdown. With no money to feed themselves, and the privilege of staying at home only available to middle-class Indians who can afford to, many of these workers began a mass exodus from major cities back to their villages. The result has been an inadvertent humanitarian crisis of devasting proportions. As major transport links are closed and buses limited, many workers resorted to walking hundreds of miles back to their villages. In scenes reminiscent of Partition (the separation of India from Pakistan in 1947), hundreds of thousands filled empty highways, travelling without food or water. A Financial Times article described a construction worker, along with his wife and threemonth-old baby, facing a 230km walk from Delhi to their village in


n the surface, India’s strict preventative measures are understandable. Indian cities are some of the most densely populated in the world and often Place

the state of Uttar Pradesh. For reference, this is equivalent to walking from London to Sheffield in 35oC heat. At least 69 migrants have already died on journeys, and many who have reached their villages find they are barred from entering – fear of the virus has made workers untouchable even in their own communities. What is most distressing, however, is the government’s consistent apathy towards the worker’s plight, one that builds on prejudices existing long before the virus. Reports emerged of police beating the walking migrants for breaking lockdown, and allegedly spraying disinfectant on some groups on the road. Such scenes carry uncomfortable connotations of Indian beliefs around the purity of lower caste individuals. Meanwhile, the government’s response to the exodus was to instruct states to make it harder for workers to leave cities, closing state borders and directing workers to aid programmes. While free food has reached some, a recent poll of 11,000 labourers revealed 96 per cent had not received any government aid. Now the lockdown has been extended, supplies can only last for so long. The growing tensions have led to many workers stuck in cities to protest, demanding to be sent home. The unpreparedness for a foreseeable event highlights the BJP government’s callous indifference to the poorest Indians, whose votes helped secure the party’s re-election. A right-wing, Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been fostering an Islamophobic atmosphere in the country through increasingly autocratic actions. These include revoking Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status, effectively cutting it off from the world, and brutally supressing protests after announcing that any Muslims unable to prove their ancestry in India would lose their citizen11

ship. Widespread Islamophobia has now transformed into coronavirus conspiracies; Indian social media is alight with claims that Muslims are responsible for spreading the virus, as well as videos of Muslims allegedly spitting on food. This was exacerbated when coronavirus cases emerged from an Islamic religious gathering in the capital, culminating in violent attacks against Muslims across the country.


hile the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted Indian life, it has done so largely through pre-existing issues in Indian society. Such issues are not just systemic problems of caste and wealth, but also the BJP’s steady erosion of India’s secularism and democracy, its two most defining features. It is an erosion that excludes the country’s most marginalised from the benefits of the world’s strictest lockdown. Coronavirus’ impact on India hasn’t been entirely negative, however. The toxic pollution over major cities has cleared drastically since the lockdown, while the world’s most polluted river, the Ganges, is now clean enough to bathe in. The Earth is healing, and the UK’s lockdown has given me a chance to heal too. Though I have moments of disappointment about my lost trip, I know I’m incredibly fortunate to stay at home in comfort, while millions suffer under a government indifferent to their pain. I hope the pandemic teaches us to hold to account those responsible for our health and our environment, and make plain to the world the death and damage they cause. Vishavjeet Dhaliwal is a British Indian student who lives in West Sussex, England. He was a member of the 2019/20 cohort of Imperial’s MSc Science Communication degree and was sub-editor for I, Science magazine. His writing often looks at race, culture, and identity.


The COVID Diaries


14. Diary of an Astrophysicist 16. Numbers, Numbers, Numbers 18. Guided by the Science 20. The Science of Hope 22. Dear Science ...






e thought we could help. We thought we’d waltz in with a little machine learning magic. We thought we could save the day. After all, we were the heirs of scientists like Fermi and Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project. We got into physics excited by the Moon landings, decrypted the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, and can hold our own when pitted against the AI overlords of Silicon Valley. We went in, and learnt about the R number, SEIRS models for infectious disease dynamics, agentbased models, excess deaths. Some of us fired up their Python and coded their own fits to the data from scratch. We were of a breed undaunted by non-linear differential equations, steeped in probabilistic programming, comfortable with numerical General Relativity. How difficult could a little epidemiology modelling be? It wouldn’t take long for us to clear up the confusion, come up with firm predictions, steel the hand of government and lead society out of the greatest public health crisis anyone could remember since the Spanish Flu. Then it dawned on us. The data were not what we thought they were. Unlike the dependable, well-calibrated readings of the luminosity of galaxies billions of light years away, the number of positive cases and even the number of deaths were incomplete, unreliable, and often mis-reported. The models our epidemiology colleagues had worked on for de14

cades were far more sophisticated than anything a bunch of physicists could come up with in an afternoon spent brainstorming on zoom. Far more.

We did discover a few things about the virus, in the end — but it didn’t take any Markov Chain Monte Carlo or differential calculus: that, just like dark matter, the virus wasn’t any less real for being imperceptible to our senses; that, just like unconscious bias, it disproportionally affected the BAME community; that, just like austerity, it ravaged poorer communities most.

The human beings whose behaviour we needed to influence to stop the virus from spreading were far less predictable than the identical elementary particles whose compliance with the laws of physics we were used to taking for granted. As citizens, we learnt the painful way that science is not about But the penny dropped only when truth, but about understanding we finally realized what should and managing uncertainty; that have been apparent from the very science isn’t a straight highway beginning, and somehow had speeding from one glorious fact to completely missed. This wasn’t just the next, but a tortuous path in an about the science. This perhaps overgrown forest with many dead wasn’t even mostly about the sci- ends, where the sunny uplands of ence, no matter how many times discovery are not always in sight; the government insisted they were that science and technology, as being led by it — not just by any advanced as they are in the 21st science, mind you, but “the very century, don’t have all the answers, best science in the world”. The and the technocratic control on science was only one of the ingre- our lives we were lulled into bedients in an unpalatable cocktail lieving we had is an illusion. of politics, policy, science communication, social media and fake As scientists, perhaps the hardest news that polarized people’s reac- lesson is one that many of us, who tions between the two extremes of skipped the optional classes on existential panic and unconcerned history of science at uni, are still dismissal. catching up on, over 60 years after C.P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’ o, we physicists could not Rede lecture. Science is a human help, at least not in the way activity, and for all the mathewe had imagined — and indeed matical rigour of its tools and some of the noise we created only almost god-like powers yielded made matters worse by making it by its applications, it remains enlook as if ‘the scientists’ were split, tangled in all of the shortcomings unreliable and self-contradicto- of human nature: greed, hubris, ry. Unwittingly, we gave ammo self-interest, narcissism, brinkto those who had their reasons manship, unethical behaviour, to dismiss COVID as a Chinese sexism, prejudice, sometimes even hoax, ‘nothing worse than the flu’, fraud. That science works, despite a fake pandemic created by left- the weaknesses of its unworthy wing Twitterati to advance their standard bearers, is perhaps the liberal agenda. greatest testament to its uncannily


The COVID Diaries

self-correcting nature. Paraphrasing the mathematical physicist Eugene Wigner, the unreasonable effectiveness of science is the larger conundrum if one is to understand how is it that an unremarkable biped, armed with nothing else than an opposing thumb and an anomalously large cerebral cortex, came to dominate the Earth.


Are we up to the task? Will we raise to the challenge of Jonas Salk, who gave away for free his polio vaccine in 1955 with the disarmingly simple question “Could you patent the sun?”. Only if we follow Salk’s admonition to become ‘good ancestors’ to our future descendants will all the suf-

fering that COVID has bestowed upon us be somewhat redeemed. Roberto Trotta is Professor of Astrostatistics at Imperial College London, where he also was the Director of the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication (2015-2020). His research aims at elucidating the nature of dark matter and dark energy in the cosmos using machine learning and advanced statistical methods. An award-winning author and science communicator, he is the recipient of the Annie Maunder Medal 2020 of the Royal Astronomical Society for his public engagement work.


ne day, hopefully soon, COVID will be vanquished. Science will play a big part in that victory, no doubt, but rebuilding our world, its economy and its inter-connectedness, reshaping our society so that resources are more equally shared, finding prosperity

for all while respecting the ever more fragile ecosystems of our planet, preserving the Earth for future generations to enjoy will require more than science — it will require all of our resources of imagination, generosity of spirit, creativity and empathy. And no, there won’t be an app for that.

We thought we could help. We thought we’d waltz in with a little machine learning magic. Science




I’m not sure if it’s morbid, or simply wildly ironic, or actually rather appropriate.


ike everyone else, this pandemic has been taking up plenty of space in my head, all the time. During the first week or so of lockdown, I was mulling things over every minute of the day. I obsessed over every nugget of covid-related information I could find. It’s fair to say that I suffered a fair amount of anxiety. 16

Since then I’ve massively reduced my intake of information. But I remember, during the time when I was keeping up with things, I tended to focus on the numbers: looking at the curves, learning about exponential growth and logarithmic graphs, cross-checking the statistics. I’d lie awake half the night, working out the prob-

abilities of various terrible things happening. For example, what were the odds of family members catching it? And what were the odds of one of us needing to go to intensive care if everyone in the house catches it? What would that mean if there were no beds left in intensive care? And, anyway, how likely is it for someone to have it The COVID Diaries

when they haven’t shown symptoms for x number of days? And so on, and on, and on. I’d find myself checking and double and triple checking the numbers I got, hoping that they would calm me down. Although I realised that even though most of these risks were quite small, working out the numbers wouldn’t help me to calm down. I think there are two main reasons for this.

The death rate of COVID-19 seems to be roughly 1%, which is about the same rate of failure as a properly used condom or contraceptive pill (approximately). This is a risk that most people understand and accept with no adverse consequences. However, many of us will have friends who have been failed by (or blessed by) a condom. Overall I guess we can say that this level of risk is fairly safe.

Firstly, my worries weren’t based on probabilities in the first place, nor were they based on some specific piece of evidence or information — they came more as a result of the oppressive, omnipresent nature of the virus. Every time I’d talk to someone or check the news or any social media the pervasive dread began to dominate everything, and just get me down. No number, not any number, would help me here.

Another example: say two members of my family arrived here from the same house about 12 days ago. The odds of one of them having caught it before they got here and not showing any symptoms by now would be approaching 1% , so the odds of them both having it and not showing symptoms (assuming they will show symptoms at all) would be around one in ten thousand (ie one percent of one percent). Are these good odds? Does it make sense for the rest of us in this house, as a precaution, to stay in different rooms and disinfect everything they’ve touched?

Secondly, I had no way to understand these numbers. There was no reference point in my daily life, no risk that I understood and could relate to COVID-19. I found that these numbers were fairly meaningless — ie, if the odds are one in a billion, that means there’s still that one person that something happens to, and there’s no reason why that one person shouldn’t be me. Most risks I don’t approach probabilistically. It’s a strange, unnatural way to think. For example, when I planned the route for my cycling commute to and from campus, I didn’t look up crash statistics on each road, I just judged which roads felt safest with my gut. Not only did I need a reference point I could relate to everyday experience, but one that could scale to cover a huge range of possible risks — for example, 1 in a hundred, 1 in ten thousand, one in 10 million.


Condoms and the contraceptive pill have failure rates of around 1% if properly used, so combining them gives a failure rate of about 0.01% or one in ten thousand, which is the same as two new arrivals both having the disease and not showing symptoms at this point. Although again not impossible, I think most people would agree that this is a situation that could be described as very safe. A third example: what are the odds of everyone in my house in London having the virus, and then no one showing symptoms now, a few weeks after we’ve all left. This is the same situation as before, but there’s three of us, so that gives one in a million. That corresponds to three independent pieces of contraception, a situation I think you could say is extremely safe.

hen I had an idea. I found an example — one that isn’t exactly from everyday experience, but one that many people will have experience of. I’m thinking of contraception. So this is where I’ve got to, I think. Science

I’ve got a logarithmic scale where each notch corresponds to one extra piece of contraception and covers two orders of magnitude of risk. This scale can continue to cover low risk things, although it loses its correspondence to people’s lived experiences at very low risks, or just stops making any sense (a one in a billion chance would be a safety score of 4.5, equivalent to 4.5 pieces of contraception). For example, by adapting figures from known safety statistics, scuba diving gets a safety score of 2.65, skydiving gets a score of 2.5, and base jumping gets a score of 1.68. I don’t think using logarithmic scales to quantify risks is a new idea, but I found this scale quite convenient for putting things into perspective. I’m not sure if it’s morbid, or simply wildly ironic, or actually rather appropriate, to base a scale to judge the odds of death on things we use to prevent life. Here’s the formula to calculate a contraceptive-calibrated risk factor for anything else you might come across: For a statement of probability in the form ‘1 in x’, like one in a thousand, then your contraceptive-calibrated risk factor is equal to:

log100(x) Joe Paul is from southern England. He mostly enjoys eating, but also devoted much time in 2019 and 2020 working towards an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. Before this, he studied mostly physics, but he realised that it would be better to leave the science to those who are good at it and decided to learn how to use words. Despite this shift towards the humanities, he is still plagued by a brain that likes to shoehorn everything it perceives into neat categorisations and relationships.





“We are ensuring the country is prepared for the current outbreak, guided by the science at every stage.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at the Mologic laboratory, Bedford, 6th March 2020


We need science in all its messy, tentative, speculative experimenting. 18

The COVID Diaries



e don’t need science to tell us e do need science to estimate we should stay home if we how the spread of a disease are feeling ill. will develop in the days, weeks and months ahead. We don’t need science to tell us to wash our hands to keep them clean We do need science to tell us that of germs. We learn that as children. even people with no symptoms can transmit the virus. We don’t need science to tell us that covering our mouths will help We do need science to devise tests stop the spread of a respiratory dis- that are fast, reliable and easy to ease. We learn that as children too. administer. We don’t need science to tell us that people in care homes are vulnerable. That’s why they are in the care homes. We don’t need science to tell us that schools are associated with the spread of infections. Anyone with children knows how bugs rip through schools. We don’t need science to tell us that more people than usual are dying. That’s just counting, albeit counting that requires good administrative systems.

“At every step along this way, we have followed, very carefully and deliberately, the scientific and medical advice that we have received. So that we take the right steps at the right moment in time.” Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, Government press briefing, 16th April 2020


man suffering into private profit. We do need science that is rigorously tested under conditions that are free from vested interests. We don’t need scientists to pretend there is a single correct course of action in response to unprecedented events.

We do need scientists to help us navigate through the uncertainties We do need science to find out of an unknowable future. whether survivors have immunity and how long that immunity lasts. e need science in all its We do need science to work out messy, tentative, speculative which treatments are most suc- experimenting. We need science cessful. to show what is possible, what is likely, and what is simply wrong. We do need science to develop And we need politicians who are safe and effective vaccines to pre- honest about where the scientific vent the disease. advice ends and their own decision-making begins.


“Throughout this period we have based our decisions on the science and scientific advice, taking into account all considerations.” Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, speaking in the House of Commons, 8th June 2020

We don’t need scientists to provide cover for blustering politicians who are out of their depth. We do need scientists who are prepared to speak truth to power. We don’t need science to turn hu-

We do need science, but it cannot tell us what to do. Felicity Mellor is Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London, where she leads the MSc in Science Communication. She specialises in how the media represents science, especially in the ideological dimensions of scientists’ public discourse. She is particularly interested in the role of narrative in shaping knowledge. Her research projects have included looking at how scientists promoted the asteroid impact threat, the role of silence in the communication of science, and a content analysis of the impartiality of the BBC’s science coverage. She is currently distracting herself with the history of a field on the edge of Bristol and the problem of how to tell a story in which nothing happens.





020 has been the year of facemasks, lockdowns, social distancing and quarantining, to be soon etched into history textbooks and taught to future generations. We are in an invisible world war. In a time so darkened by COVID-19, it is uplifting to get some positive scientific news.

— respiratory infections found to be traceable to COVID-19. The viral genome sequence was made publicly available the following day. On 11th March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the novel Coronavirus, officially SARS-Cov2, a pandemic. Spreading rapidly throughout Europe, the USA and beyond, News coverage has been dominat- the virus was rampant. The UK ed by headlines about the creeping locked down on 23 March. death toll, the viral reproduction rate (R rate) and new hospitals On 16th June there was some being built for patients needing good news. Headlines announced ventilators and oxygen support. results of the RECOVERY triGlued to TV screens, smart- al, showing that the anti-inphones, laptops and radios, people flammatory corticosteroid drug worldwide have had to stop and Dexamethasone reduces 28-day reflect, to listen to science just to mortality rates in ventilated paknow whether they can leave the tients hospitalised with severe house. Each and every one of us COVID-19 by almost a third. In has been affected, with schools this seven-arm randomised-conclosing, businesses shutting, and trolled trial, the Hydroxychlorostaff being furloughed; the shift- quine arm was terminated early ing humanity of the situation has due to side effects of irregular transformed remote science into ventricular rhythms in the heart, intimate science: something we whilst the Dexamethasone arm can all connect to without fearing was terminated early due to its it is solely for academics and re- good efficacy. Dexamethasone, searchers. To make our everyday widely used to treat conditions decisions during the COVID-19 such as asthma and arthritis, can pandemic, we follow scientific de- dampen immune-modulated lung tails more closely than ever before. damage, decreasing advancement And though we may have doubts of the disease to respiratory failabout our politicians, our collec- ure and death. It is interesting tive confidence about these details that rather than relying on an is greater than ever. While we wait entirely new drug, the first treatfor the vaccine, the most import- ment to reduce mortality from ant aspect of these details is the COVID-19 has been on the issue of clinical treatment. WHO Model List of Essential Medicines since 1977. There was, n 9th January 2020, the Chi- in fact, initial reluctance to test the na Centre for Disease Con- effectiveness of Dexamethasone trol and Prevention announced for COVID-19, as it was assumed a novel Coronavirus originating that steroid medications wouldn’t from a seafood wholesale market work, having showed unclear rein the country’s Wuhan Province. sults for the SARS and H1N1 flu This followed the identification of epidemics. But medicine is not 15 cases of pneumonia in China without serendipity.



Dexamethasone reduced the 28day death rate by a quarter in those receiving oxygen support but not mechanical ventilation, and had no effect in those who weren’t receiving any respiratory support. This showed that the drug had the most efficacy in patients who were more ill — a promising result. The NHS is now leading the way in the fight against COVID-19, with Dexamethasone being adopted into UK practice on 17 June. Despite this, there are reasons to be cautious about the trial’s results. John Fletcher, Research Editor at The British Medical Journal which screened the preprint of the trial, points out that “the final outcome was unknown for at least 28% of people entered in the trial”, meaning that those who remained in hospital at the 28-day endpoint were not accounted for. Therefore, it is vital that follow-up studies of the patient group are conducted following 28 days to establish whether there are any harmful side-effects in patients with mild or moderate COVID-19. Indeed, the RECOVERY Trial is just one such study; the WHO intends to conduct a meta-analysis of multiple studies to enhance our understanding of Dexamethasone and inform clinical guidance on when it is appropriate to utilise the drug for COVID-19. What we do know is that for every eight ventilated patients treated with Dexamethasone, one life is saved. The drug is widely available and cheap at five pounds per patient, making it just £40 to save a life. I hope the success of this trial will be followed by a lifesaving vaccine that gives immunity against COVID-19. There are now 16 The COVID Diaries

candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation for the disease, with two in phase II efficacy and dosing studies in humans. In fact, it may be possible for a vaccine to be made available under emergency protocols in fewer than 12 months, a feat never before achieved. It is estimated that eight billion dollars will be required to produce at least three vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infection globally. The effort is being supported by funds from the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Gates Foundation. Huge resources will be required, when one thinks about the need for rigorous evaluation, fi-

nancing, planning, manufacturing, representation of science in the transportation and storage. media, and the science itself. From an epistemological perspective, it is easy to hastily promote the results of the RECOVERY trial as concrete knowledge and hail Dexamethasone as a breakthrough drug. But the jury is still out. I hope that the results of this trial represent some light at the end of the tunnel for all of us suffering in the global pandemic. We know this is a time when we see scientists getting close to politicians, but also uneasily looking for the proper distance. To help in that, it is vital that we communicators critically appraise both the

Scarlett Parr-Reid is a blogger and podcaster and is co-host of SciComm Stories. She graduated with a BSc in medical sciences from the University of Exeter and is now studying for the MSc Science Communication at Imperial College. It is in the interactions between science and art that Scarlett is most interested. She is often seen walking in nature where she finds inspiration to write poetry. Her favourite book — on scientists who were poets — is A Sonnet to Science by Sam Illingworth.

We thought we could help. We thought we’d waltz in with a little machine learning magic. Science


SCIENCE MAY 27, 2020


Dear Science, I hope you are keeping well in these strange times. People keep telling me you are the basis of the UK government’s approach to COVID-19. So I thought I would send you a list of questions that I’d like answered. I realise you are busy right now, but you seem to employ quite a lot of people so maybe you can squeeze it in.

Here are my questions.

don’t arrange childcare, we don’t do playdates, and we run away from 1. What does my one-year-old the other families with toddlers in child see when I show him his the park, how will this affect grandparents on a screen? He can’t smell them or cuddle them — does a. his social development? he recognise them? See humans? b. my mental health? Or just see colours and dots? c. my exhaustion levels? 2. What age do children understand what friends are? How can my toddler learn about making friends when he is held two metres away from everyone he encounters?

9. If I let my toddler hug his grandparents, how does their risk of death from that compare to the risk of crossing the road in normal times?

3. If my toddler isn’t allowed to hug or touch his grandparents, who he is really attached to, for months or, worst case, years, what effect will that have on his psychology? Is it worse if he never sees them or if he sees them but hugs are banned?

a. Please assess this i. in a range of childcare contexts (none, nursery, etc.) and ii. at different levels of Covid infection.

Best wishes, and stay safe,

4. How do little children’s memories work, before they create the sort of memories they keep to adulthood?

A citizen

5. What will help my child remember his grandparents when he never sees them?

PS Sorry if you’ve put the answers to these on the internet somewhere. I don’t have much time to look for them at the moment, we’re managing two jobs plus parenting a one year old in this house with no external help, and (frankly, though this is an embarrassingly middle-class grumble) not even a cleaner. You should see (/smell) the lounge. 22

6. If I take my toddler to the park and he starts playing with a ball belonging to another toddler (this is pretty inevitable if we go to the park), and they both dribble on the ball (also inevitable), how much does that increase our chances of getting COVID-19? 7. If after my toddler shares dribble with another toddler, we meet up with my parents, what are our chances of bringing them COVID-19? 8. If I don’t let my toddler see any other toddlers (from whom he can’t be socially distanced), i.e. we

b. I’d like a graph, actually, please, a when-do-I-stop-mytoddler-hugging-his-grandparents graph. Maybe with an axis for health risk to my parents and one for psychological risk to both my parents and my son. Yep, that’d do it. A graph. If I had one of those I could work it all out. A graph, then, please. A nice simple graph. Alexandra Fitzsimmons is a Londoner, an educator, and mother to a toddler. She teaches museums studies within the Science Communication Unit at Imperial College London. She is also founder patron of the UK’s family maths charity, Maths on Toast, and a director of science-inspired theatre company, One Tenth Human. In the past, she has designed storylines for museums and heritage sites, entertained families in museums, and been a school governor. She’s interested in how people learn, and the ways in which museums and heritage shape contemporary thought.

The COVID Diaries

How do little children’s memories work, before they create the sort of memories they keep to adulthood? Science



The COVID Diaries


26. The End of Museums 28. Losing My Loved Ones 30. Other People, Other Lives 32. Further Down the Log 34. Supermarkets: A Microculture 36. From FOMO to FOGO: Are We Now a Divided Society? 38. Coronavirus: The Snowball Effect 40. On My Mind

Our Lives




They will become symbols of the reinvention of social closeness. 26

The COVID Diaries


wonder, typing this in my locked-down state, how many museums around the world are shut today. Never have there been fewer visitors. I’ve spent my working life in them; and as I begin to contemplate what they might be like when their doors reopen, I find myself pulled towards two very different visions of the future. Will their public role become more important and popular than ever; or might they be eclipsed as a pre-corona indulgence? Some very big practical and financial questions will, of course, hang over them when the cultural world does begin to turn again. But it’s also likely that public behaviour and cultural appetites will have shifted. This is what fills my dreams, and my nightmares.


t will be the best of times:

ing, thinking and talking about stubbornly unmovable things, feeling their gravitas. For many people, re-entering the museum will reinforce a feeling they already had before the virus: that back then we already were making ourselves sick and stupid with relentless waves of new technology. And at a subtler level, gallery audiences will increasingly arrive with big questions about meanings and values that crammed their minds while cloistered at home. A close encounter with a sculpture or installation, a guided historical tour, a multi-perspective debate about dying well: these museum experiences will reassert themselves as irreplaceable opportunities to enhance enthusiasm and wellbeing. Increasing numbers will turn to museums, and other public cultural activities, as a viable alternative to relentless worries about the future, and those feelings of guilt that rush in when we feel we are not doing enough to make it better. Visitors will be grateful for the opportunities offered by museums to be interested, thoughtful, playfully engaged without purpose or goal.

Maybe the clearest lesson to emerge from our experiences of physical distancing will be that social gatherings are an essential centrepiece of meaningful lives. Re-opened museums and galleries will provide trusted institutions in which to remind ourselves of that. Tentatively at first, people will gradually be drawn in greater and greater numbers to Or, maybe not. spaces where they can be in company, next to strangers, sharing a t will be the worst of times: similar experience. They will beMaybe months of learning to come symbols of the reinvention treat all but our nearest and dearof social closeness. est as potential grim reapers will instead make permanent sources Most people, particularly the of anxiety any place where peoyoung it turns out, will relish a ple gather. Museums and gallerrelease from the virtual overload ies will of course carefully curate of zoom-employment and, after upbeat programming, and resupper, social lives negotiated launch with optimistic marketthrough the same equipment. ing. At first a few braver souls Stepping into museums, first will try them out. But the diffitime, as well as veteran, visitors cult-to-shake habit of keeping will willingly abandon their mo- clear of other people in enclosed bile equipment at the entrances spaces will blunt their willingness — a post-Covid innovation. They to spend time pushing up close will eagerly seek out the stickier, to exhibits. And new safely-disslower and less distracting expe- tanced, semi-outdoor events, riences on offer: looking at, learn- produced by canny cultural inno-


Our Lives

vators, will prove too much competition. And actually, on reflection, even the most techno-innocent or phobic citizens will recall from lockdown times that much, indeed most, of life was pretty effectively conducted from home behind glass. Gatherings of sometimes quite large groups effectively did come together on-line, all able to attend the same points of interest, simultaneously imbued with a modicum of shared atmosphere. To survive, curators and museum makers will increasingly think online first, realising that all those resources required to maintain expensive buildings and collections can efficiently be diverted to digital content. These slim-line, agile cultural offers will be cheaper. Quite likely too they will reach far larger, and crucially, broader and more inclusive audiences. Sure, sentimentality will enable the richer museums to keep struggling on for decades. But the laziness of short attention spans, and a clamour that anything with even a modicum of state support must show immediate relevance, will in time push through the protecting veil of nostalgia surrounding those baggier, pre-corona, institutions. No-one will be surprised therefore when, 300 years after its founding, the British Museum closes its doors at 5pm on Christmas Eve, 2053, and never opens again. Ken Arnold is director of Medical Museion and Professor at Copenhagen University. He also continues as Creative Director at Wellcome, where he oversees international cultural initiatives. He’s been at Wellcome since 1992. There, he helped set up Wellcome Collection and directed its first decade of programming. He writes and speaks on museums when asked, as well as the creative potential of arts, humanities and sciences intersecting.





ay 1 of lockdown began for me on March 20th, when I lost my job. Surprisingly I still felt positive; I felt relieved to no longer be commuting on public transport around the London area and I was ready to begin isolation with the rest of my family who were already working from home. At the time headlines were conflicted. Some were reassuring and advised the nation not to worry, while others depicted horror stories of panic buying, an absurd herd immunity strategy, and the prime minister’s notorious warning of the inevitable deaths of loved ones ‘before their time’. For my family, the weeks that followed were undoubtably extraordinary. Still, we were coping and sticking to the government guidelines. The hardest part of lockdown seemed to be our inability to visit my wider family. Normally this takes up a huge amount of my life as my family members are close, geographically and emotionally. On a couple of occasions we visited the care home where my Nan and two Great Aunt’s were living, and we simply waved at them through the window. Both Nan and my Aunty Kay suffer from dementia so communicating through a window was near impossible; and then we made the difficult decision just a week before lockdown to keep my other Aunty Vera in the care home with them. Aunty Vera initially went in for short term respite care to recover from a couple of recent falls but when she was due to leave, the lockdown of all UK care homes meant we had to make a decision. We could keep her there or take her back home, but then she would be vulnerable and living alone. We 28

decided it was safer to keep her in the care home where she would be surrounded by loving carers and by her two beloved sisters.

of the most precious members of my family were sheltering had been hit with COVID-19. Then my Nan began to develop similar symptoms. For all of us the fear Day 18 of lockdown and every- and worry became overwhelming thing changed. Aunty Vera had and all-consuming. been suffering with cold-like symptoms, experiencing extreme On Friday 10th April, Good Frilack of appetite, tiredness and a day, my Nan passed away having sore throat for a few days and was never left the care home. Two days becoming dangerously low on flu- later on Easter Sunday my beids. We got the news on Monday loved Aunty passed away too. We 6th of April that my Aunty had were not allowed to be with them gone into hospital. Now our worst during their final moments, nor fears were being realised. I knew able to say goodbye or to thank our local hospital was riddled with them for everything they had givthe virus and I felt like we were en to our lives. sending her into battle. It seemed like she was entering the front I am now on day 66 of lockline of a war zone. I remember down and the past month has thinking: how is all this fair? Why been the most difficult of my life. is it that those who are most vul- We have had to plan two funernerable and even are fighting for als which is challenging enough their lives right now, are literally without the restrictions imposed the very same people that were by COVID-19. I have tried to fighting for our country, our lives, keep busy, dusting off my Nan’s during WWII? old sewing machine and using my Great Aunty Kay’s old material By Wednesday of that week it to make drawstring bags, reusable was confirmed that Aunty Vera face masks and ear savers for the had tested positive for the coro- NHS workers at my local hosnavirus. We were told she had pitals. It has given me a purpose a raging infection. I felt angry which I am pleased about. Where and confused — how could this I couldn’t help my family, I can have happened? All the decisions help others. we had made had been to protect her — yet somehow she had t is clear to me now that the caught this deadly virus that was UK government was woefully capturing the headlines of global unprepared for this pandemic. It news stories. All at once the hun- failed to implement proper prodreds of articles I had read about tection measures, it changed its the pandemic, and the constant strategies abruptly and apparently alarming packages seen on TV, arbitrarily, and it failed to organwere now completely personal. ise the crucial large-scale testing I felt naïve: why had I imagined of the virus. The government has that our family would be safe as been accused by national care aslong as we continued to abide by sociations of completely abandonthe guidelines? Now it was official ing care homes to the threat of that the care home where three Coronavirus and I have to agree.


The COVID Diaries

Back in February the Secretary of State published guidance saying “it is very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected…there is no need to do anything differently in any care setting at present.” This led to a substantial lack of guidance and policy when it came to governing the protection of care homes, despite clear acknowledgement that its residents were “amongst the most vulnerable” of the UK population. I find myself now looking for answers. I want to understand where exactly things went so drastically wrong for UK care homes. Many senior care industry figures point to the decision to move more than 25,000 hospital patients back to care homes in mid-March, in order to free up hospital capacity. Meanwhile the national shortage of PPE left many care home workers abandoned without adequate equipment and without ac-

cess to testing. Now it is estimated that more than half of England’s coronavirus-related deaths will be linked to care homes. It has taken the loss of over 14,000 people, sadly including two members of my own family, for the nation to realise the severity of the situation and to secure an extra £600m in care home funding. But I can’t help but feel this is too late.


hen lockdown began we had suffered just 320 deaths in total from COVID-19 and at the point at which the prime minister announced the initial relaxing of lockdown measures on May 11th we were averaging 500 deaths per day. On the hot and sunny day of May 20th, while thousands ignored social distancing rules to enjoy the sun, my family and I were holding two funerals: unable to have them in a chapel, unable to have more than 10 guests, unable to stand less than 2 metres apart, unable to hug our friends and family, unable to have a wake and unable to give two

of the most wonderful women in the world the proper send-off they deserve. I am concerned for the future but I hope that the worst is in the past and that we can learn from the mistakes that have cost so many lives. The invisible war is not yet finished but hopefully my battle is over. Gemma Ralton is a London-based environmental blogger currently studying for the MSc Science Communication at Imperial College London. Her interests in sustainability and science, coupled with her desire to educate others on global issues, kickstarted her blogging career whilst at university in 2017. This has enabled her to acquire various job opportunities including, most recently, the position of marketing assistant at Science Group where she undertook a range of roles including content production, digital media, visual graphics, event management and campaign administration, all within the scientific realm.

I want to understand where exactly things went so drastically wrong for UK care homes. Our Lives





uring the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve been working at Age UK. I help elderly and vulnerable people, calling them to ensure they have food and to support them emotionally. These phone calls create conversations ranging from intense and sombre to quirky and amusing. Here are my favourite examples. The Cultured Chef I feared the worst when I rang a 94-year-old man on my list. I asked how he was managing his food and shopping. He replied confidently that he had enough to make a lasagna but would need an aubergine and “those little cucumbers” — courgettes — from his neighbour before he could make a proper moussaka. Living in Greece for six months had taught him that traditional moussaka cannot include mint. He added, “it should be goat, not lamb, but goats are too cute”. Lessons learned: Don’t contaminate a moussaka with mint, and goats are cuter than lambs.

her shopping and talk from the doorstep. I also promised a weekly call to chat, both of us cradling a soothing cup of tea.

pandemic was even worse than the war. She added that she never thought the war would end, but it did, and so will the pandemic.

Lesson learned: Small things — Lesson learned: Everything comes both positive and negative — have to an end, no matter how bad it is. a big impact. The Landlady An infectiously cheerful voice greeted me. After admitting I am a barmaid and not ‘strait-laced’, she began recounting her secrets as the landlady of a rough pub. A confrontation with a large family who smashed the pub windows caused her a mild heart attack. A more frivolous — and sultry — encounter occurred while hosting a private function, when she observed a man and woman from separate couples grow friendlier throughout the evening. A discarded pair of red and black lacy knickers later revealed the scandal which had ensued. In good spirit, she hung the knickers on the end of the bar for the disgraced culprit to collect.

Josie Clarkson was part of the 2019/20 cohort of the MSc Science Communication at Imperial College London. Prior to this, she graduated with a first class degree in neuroscience and worked as a dementia adviser for the Alzheimer’s Society. During her masters studies, Josie has worked parttime as a freelance science writer, bar maid, link worker for Age UK, and profile curator for the British Computer Society. Having completed an internship as a research developer for a factual television company, she now aspires to secure a career in broadcast media.

Lessons learned: If you own a The Worried Woman rough pub, invest in triple-glazing Existing clients received a letter and leave space on the bar for lost explaining their home cleaning property. service would be suspended during the pandemic. This single piece of The Italian Immigrant paper triggered a relapse of one la- Her melodic Italian accent and dy’s anxiety, which stemmed from soothing words reassured me that being widowed five years ago. She her daughters are supporting her apologised repeatedly and admit- well through the lockdown. She ted how ashamed and silly she retreats to her conservatory when felt. These visits had become her her daughters deliver her shopconnection to the outside world ping: social distancing includes which suddenly seemed so daunt- family. Despite having the necesing. As she scanned the letter car- sities, she is bored and frustratrying the bad news, she felt five ed, alone in her house. Having years of recovery slipping away emigrated to England after the from her. I reassured her that her Second World War, she concludsupport worker would still bring ed living during the COVID-19 30

The COVID Diaries


These visits had become her connection to the outside world which suddenly seemed so daunting. Our Lives




But at night, I eagerly switch from digital to analogue, the gaze of the webcam gratefully suspended. 32

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imantas in Lithuania is struggling to hear me. I fiddle with the mic, speak up a bit and try again. That’s better. We have a quick chat, mainly about the weather (hot over here, hot too over there) and we go our separate ways. But this is not a WhatsApp or Skype call. We’re chatting via shortwave radio. Like the rest of us, my lockdown days are a succession of encounters on Zoom, FaceTime and Teams. But at night, I eagerly switch from digital to analogue, the gaze of the webcam gratefully suspended. Just in time for lockdown, I qualified as an amateur radio operator. The Americans call it ‘ham’ radio. And no, it isn’t the same thing as CB. We don’t say things like “10, 4 for a copy”. It’s also not community radio, we don’t play records or jingles. It’s a hobby where we use radio equipment to talk to other licenced operators around the world. Basically, I love radio. I love everything about radio — I love listening to it, producing it, being on it, teaching it, studying how it works (that’s why I chose an electronics degree), reading about radio’s history and experimenting with it. I love radio so much that, in my leisure time, I rig up a transceiver in the spare room, string up my own home made antenna (two long lengths of wire hung from the roof down to the garden) and tune through the shortwave bands listening for other users. As a newby, I’ve yet to make a contact in Lithuania, so when I hear Rimantas giving out his call sign, I eagerly reply. “Mike Seven Golf Juliet Mike, you’re a 5 and 9, the QTH here is south London, my name is Golf Alpha Romeo Echo Tango Hotel…”. Sounding distant — as if Rimantas is on Mars — he repeats my call sign back to me. Contact! Our Lives

This is a pastime made for lockdown. When there are no pubs, cinemas or museums to occupy one’s evening and you just can’t bear yet another Zoom call, why not play with your radio and revel in the joy of a pre-internet technology that connects you to nice people all over the world. “But what’s the point?”, people still ask. Well it’s a hobby. Asking why one should bother with it when you can get much better, and easier, results on Skype is a bit like asking what’s the point of knitting your own clothes when you can go and buy them, or riding a motorbike (my other hobby) when you can just go on the bus.

sixty-fives only. Ten hours GMT every morning. Thankfully I’m too young to contribute but it’s moving to listen in as one old-timer after another wonders how they would have made it through lockdown without that friendly daily contact.

Younger users are joining all the time — a lot of the hack spaces, and a few schools are into it. And I particularly like amateur radio’s humanitarian aspect. Earlier this year, ham radio operators in Australia helped organise the response to the bushfires in regions where the internet was down, and mobile phone towers destroyed. In 2017, when Hurricane Maria took out communications in Puerto Rico, My journey to Lithuania and the shortwave lot tuned up and Rimantas, figuratively speaking, stepped in to help. And in 2020, has been long. Attend a ten-part it’s been a lifeline of companonline training course, sit a theory ionship and contact for a load of exam in Southend, a practical test old-timers in their sheds. at the BBC, apply for your licence from OFCOM, buy a second hand For me, it’s another aspect of this radio set (not cheap), a power sup- wonderful, mysterious thing called ply, tuning unit and finally make radio. Another way of understandyour own antenna. Then wait for ing how voices travel through the favourable conditions in the ion- ether and of staying sane when you osphere and hope that Rimantas can’t get to the pub. If you still don’t is patient enough to listen out for quite see the point, then no woryour reply crackling in from your ries, Rimantas in Lithuania does. assembly of string and wire some- And to coin a phrase from our where on the other side of Europe. hobby, I’ll no doubt see him again It’s all part of the fun. ‘further down the log’.


OVID-19 has been great for our pastime. Folks have been signing up for licences and many others have been dusting down their old radios and getting back on air. Out there on shortwave, you meet a lot of older people, mainly old men, many of them stuck at home, feeling lonely, isolated, probably a bit scared and in need of a chat. Many have organised themselves into so called ‘nets’ where a load of users tune to the same channel at an allocated time and just hang out. The main topics are radio sets, signal propagation, antennas and gardening. My favourite amateur radio YouTuber, something of a celeb in the hobby (yes really), runs a net for over-

Gareth Mitchell is a lecturer on the Science Communication and Science Media Production MSc programmes at Imperial. He teaches radio journalism and audio production. Away from Imperial, Gareth presents the weekly technology show Digital Planet on the BBC World Service. He is also a regular voice on Radio 4’s Inside Science. Originally an electronic engineer, Gareth turned to science communication twenty years ago and since then has written for the likes of Focus magazine, appeared across BBC radio and television and hosted events at the World Economic Forum, OECD, Science Museum, Wellcome Collection, European Commission and others.





ut of the coronavirus pandemic a new set of social ‘rules’ have been born. The way we work, socialise and even shop has been rewritten. Usually social rules and norms develop over time and are unquestioned in society. For example the appropriate social etiquette when meeting a stranger or an acquaintance are well mapped out. But at the pace that COVID-19 has swept the world, there has been no time for a natural evolution of our established behaviours. Instead governments prescribe the rules we now live by. Although mobility has been restricted over the past few months, one place that has remained a constant in all our lives is the supermarket. For the majority of us on furlough or working from home, it is the one exciting, be it also stressful constant in our otherwise Groundhog Day lives. Now is the time to dissect and review the ‘new normal’ in the supermarket microculture through the art of observation, as performed at my local Tesco Extra in London. Let’s start at the beginning of the supermarket experience: the queue to get in. George Mikes once commented “an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one” and in this respect the rules of queuing are no different during COVID-19. In fact, it is in our queues that you will find some of the strictest adherence to the two-meter social distancing rule, with individuals often leaving beyond the recommended 2-metre gaps between each of us. Social distancing has been recom34

mended by governments around the world to slow the spread of COVID-19. Keeping a minimum physical distance from others reduces the spread of transmission of the virus. This is an essential measure in slowing the spread of the virus, which we believe can persist in airborne droplets for up to 2.6 hours, and on some surfaces for up to 72 hours. Although social distancing is a new term to us, it is not a novel concept. Historically it has always been the best way to prevent infection; in the 1918 influenza pandemic, cities such as St. Louis, USA, which adopted social distancing early on, cut peak death rates by about half compared with those cities which did not socially distance. It is no surprise that, under the watchful eye of security staff and other strangers, individuals adhere so strictly to this preventative measure.

uals adhering to the rule when it suits them. Understandably it is difficult to maintain these behaviours over a prolonged period of time: when the relative risk of catching coronavirus seems a less imminent threat, we become more relaxed and forget the dangers of getting too close. Studies also show that people are less worried about catching the virus now; a study at UCL of over 90,000 people revealed that at the beginning of lockdown half of adults were worried, now as restrictions continue to be eased only 15% are seriously worried. However, even if we worry less about catching the virus, one thing that has been a constant throughout the pandemic is the feeling that the supermarket is not a safe space. It is a place you want to enter and exit as soon as possible. Perhaps this explains the relaxed attitude to the rules; the fear of the enclosed convoluted Once we are inside the store we space encourages you to be as fast experience the new ‘right’ way as possible in order exit the perof doing things, a kind of moral ceived danger zone. structure, with its one-way system, constant hand sanitisation, ace coverings were the new and obligatory respect for the two spring ‘must have’ fashion item metre grid faithfully marked out and ranged from traditional face on the shop floor. During the masks to plague masks — but height of the pandemic in early these were worn by choice, not April, this advice was consistent- by necessity. The UK only made it ly adhered to. I even noticed an compulsory to wear face coverings unspoken ‘give-way system’ when on public transport in mid-June, crossing the central isle — friend- and never enforced it in superly sympathetic smiles were ex- markets even in the height of the changed between strangers, offer- pandemic. ing a mutual understanding of the new world we found ourselves in. This lack of commitment is likely due to the mixed scientific eviet, as the height of the pan- dence around mask wearing that demic began to fade, so did emerged during the pandemic. our respect for the rules. Now so- Fears included the risk of selfcial distancing within stores have contamination when taking the become subjective, with individ- mask on and off, and that they



The COVID Diaries

may induce complacency. However, it is now general consensus that face masks do help reduce virus transmission and the World Health Organisation encourages them to be worn. Research suggests that contagion risk is especially high in the 24-48 hours before an infected person is even aware they might have the disease, so as people return to work and have increased mobility, mask wearing will be a key tool in prevention, in combination with hand washing and social distancing.


inally, it is time to peer into the nation’s shopping trolleys. It started with a toilet- paper shortage before a pandemic was even declared, then we saw the flour shortage. Some items, such as eggs, continue to be hard to come by. My own most surreal experience was the taped off toilet roll isle, guarded at either end by a security guard at either end. At one point restrictions on valuable

items came into play, and vulnerable shoppers were given their own time to shop, ensuring they could get the supplies needed. Panic buying, or in some cases, hoarding behaviours, is explained by psychologists as a coping mechanism to deal with the atmosphere of uncertainty that coronavirus induced. The inability to tolerate stress means that people buy extra to ‘prep’ just in case — a psychological safety net. Even those who weren’t intent on buying a little extra, can be triggered to do so when they see an empty shelf. The term coined ‘scarcity heuristic’ suggests that we assume items are more valuable when they are in low supply, even though logically we know that there is only so much toilet roll you can use. The pandemic also reminds us of our mortality, and this can lead to an increase in spending to offset fear. Fortunately, as government action was taken, certainty in food supplies stabilised, which reduced

panic buying. Shoppers were also asked to take only what they needed, and reminded that this altruistic act would help vulnerable citizens. Gone are the days where you can just quickly pop to the shop. Supermarkets continue to be a stressful environment filled with new rules — rules which have no expiry date for the time being. Alana Cullen is an MSc student at Imperial College London studying Science Communication part-time. She enjoys learning and engaging with all forms of science communication, including journalism, public engagement and museum studies. Alana is the Social Media and Communication officer for the Foundation for Science and Technology, where she is responsible for social media outreach as well and writing and editing the Foundation’s blog site. Alana also works as a freelance science journalist in her spare time.

There has been no time for a natural evolution of our established behaviours. Our Lives




Does all the anxiety we are now dealing with, and the difficulty of returning to normal life, imply that the lockdown could have been too extreme? 36

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ust a few months ago I was at university in my final year, able to go to pubs, clubs, lectures, seminars and shops. Life was on track and normal. Whenever I couldn’t go out, due to exams or other reasons, it was frustrating, leading to FOMO — the fear of missing out. It is hard to comprehend just how much life has changed in the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that now there is such a concept as FOGO — the fear of going out, and many of us would now rather stay at home. The fact that many are experiencing FOGO raises the question as to whether the UK’s lockdown strategy has gone too far. Will we find it too hard to go back to ‘normal’ life?

so. To put it simply, there will be those who experience FOGO and those who don’t. This divide will Even those that aren’t at high risk be a severe and damaging conseare experiencing FOGO. This is quence of the extreme shut-down because the fear and the dramatic strategy. The economic costs, and news are also contagious, and are the impact on physical and mental spreading through the population. health might have been less if we Rare stories of young people dying hadn’t used such a radical strategy and misleading statistics heighten — there is a balance to be found. the anxiety. There is a mass of con- It is now important that we evalflicting information and it is hard uate the strategy, as we come out to find any depiction of the situa- of lockdown and likely face a section that looks accurate. ond wave. We need to find ways of returning life to some normality, t first, fear of the virus was or the social effects of lockdown helpful: it led to a more ef- might prove to be worse than those fective lockdown. But is too much from COVID-19 itself. It will be emphasis put on the dangers of interesting to see how other counthe virus, without putting them tries such as Sweden, which have into perspective? The death rate, had much more relaxed measures COVID-19 has impacted soci- for example, is often calculated on in place, will fare in comparison. ety in many different ways. Peo- many online sources for the popuple in contrasting situations have lation as a whole — ignoring many The concept of FOGO was an experienced its effects differently. factors, such as age, sex and health important governmental strateOne key divider in the UK going status. The death rate is relatively gy to incite public conformity to forward will be FOGO, in which low in those who are healthy under lockdown measures. However, we those that need to be shielded, or the age of 65, and extremely low have yet to discover whether lockwho are more likely to become se- for those under 45, and wouldn’t down went too far, and whether riously ill, will not be able to go out on their own justify a global lock- too many people remain worried without intense anxiety about con- down. The data from the Office for about going back to a relatively tracting the virus. It has become National Statistics has shown that normal life. The restrictions have clear that for many people the new around 98% of all deaths have been lifted, but FOGO may persist and ‘normal’ will be inside their homes, in those with pre-existing health be extremely detrimental to sociavoiding gatherings of people, un- conditions, or who are elderly. This ety and the economy. I think that til a vaccine or treatment becomes is a new global virus, which indeed a national lockdown is not a feasiavailable. For those who it only impacts heavily on some groups, ble long-term strategy, and if othmildly affects, the temptation to go and so a large governmental and er distancing measures can control back to ‘normal’ life is considerable: civic response is needed. There is no the virus, then this is the best opthey suffer less from FOGO. denying that lockdown has saved tion. As we look to the future, we thousands of lives. However, if the might be seeing a society divided Many more cases of anxiety, loneli- virus continues to circulate in the between those who will go out, ness and depression have spiked as population, and if there is no effec- and those who cannot. a result of lockdown. There has also tive vaccine, which seems likely, it been a rise in other health issues, will become essential to introduce Anna Bassadone has just completdue to missed check-ups, domestic more relaxed control measures: the ed her undergraduate degree in Biviolence and fear of going to hos- lockdown strategy is not a long- ological Sciences at the University pitals and GPs. Of course, back in term solution. These control mea- of Oxford. Her main interests are in March lockdown seemed to be the sures may cause tensions between animal behaviour and disease. At best solution. Following in the foot- those groups who are at high risk, Oxford she was responsible for orsteps of other countries, it almost and those who are not. ganising speaker events for the Biolhad to be done regardless of differogy Society, which helped build her ing political and scientific opinions. So, the fact that the virus will like- interest in science communication. However, as we begin to emerge ly be in the population for a while Now on the Imperial science commufrom lockdown, its effects on all of leads to the idea that society might nication MSc, Anna aims to use the us are becoming clear. Does all the end up being split into those who degree to move into policy, helping anxiety we are now dealing with, can and want to go out, and those governments, organisations and the and the difficulty of returning to that can’t, or are too anxious to do public to make better use of science. Our Lives

normal life, imply that the lockdown could have been too extreme?



OUR LIVES MAY 30, 2020


I had imagined the end of my degree differently: going to our annual May beach bonfire with food for a barbeque, laughing at our friends running into the sea with their jeans on. 38

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have to be honest, I cannot remember the first time I heard about coronavirus. As a student already planning to do a masters in Science Communication next year, I remember that when the story first hit the news, I was somewhat sceptical about the threat. I wasn’t trying to be dismissive, I just took the view that sometimes journalism can blow things out of proportion. I’m sure many people felt the same way. I had made my mind up: this disease would not be as bad as the headlines said it would be. How wrong I was. COVID-19 started as a small worry in the back of our minds, which snowballed into a pandemic affecting everyone around us. And so I’ve been thinking. How can such a tiny virus change everything within just a few months? I remember when my housemate and I were talking about the disease at the beginning of February, discussing its origin in Wuhan and the whistle-blower doctor. At this point, we were not worried at all. In fact, and I feel ashamed of this, we were amused by internet memes of people eating bats that may have been the catalyst for the pandemic. We did not have a care in the world; we had the mindset that, although there were cases in the UK, this too shall pass. Both of us were too preoccupied with our studies and brushed off the notion that this virus, with only a few cases, could have any impact on us. A month passed and I handed in my draft dissertation. The virus had been discussed in the news regularly, but now it was dominating the headlines. People in the UK weren’t panicking yet, thinking everything would be fine, but cases in our country were slowly rising. A week passed. I secured an interview for my masters and felt excited about going to the Imperial campus. However, the day after, Our Lives

Liam Watson, the Science Communication Unit’s administrator, contacted all interviewees to tell us that the interviews would now be on Skype. This was the turning point. Now I realised this was no normal disease. This was serious. The next day the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

In May, the essay titles were released and I spent a month writing my coursework. When the deadline came, I had completed everything and I saw my friends and course mates posting their Turnitin submission pages on social media. Seeing everyone finishing their finals like this made me break down and I sobbed my heart out. I had imagined the end espite lack of direction of my degree differently: going from the UK government, I to our annual May beach bonfire did not attend my lectures and with food for a barbeque, laughwatched them online via Recap. I ing at our friends running into had my interview with staff of the the sea with their jeans on, and Science Communication Unit. the tradition of taking a group Of course we mentioned the ele- photo with someone buried in phant in the room. We discussed the sand. We were denied that the importance of science and its and our graduation. But beyond portrayal during this coronavirus this, people were and are still dypandemic. The interview put ev- ing. erything into context. The entire globe was listening to the scien- The outbreak started as a lotific message, a situation that, at cal virus, which spiralled into least in my lifetime, had not hap- a pandemic eclipsing our lives. pened before. However, there is a silver lining. Undoubtedly, coronavirus is a Threedays later it was my birth- disease I would never wish upon day and I spent it with my house- any civilisation, but without it, mate in our flat. It was lonely, I we wouldn’t have revived hobcannot deny that. Boris Johnson bies, we wouldn’t have put our had ‘advised’ people to stay at lives into perspective, and most home a couple of days before, not importantly, we wouldn’t have a strong enough announcement, realised how essential human in my opinion. ‘Advising’ the connection is. public meant there was room for interpretation and consequently Freya Gadsden-Bolton is a reroom for the disease to spread. cent evolutionary biology grad-


While working on my dissertation, students got an email from the university stating the deadline would be extended due to the pandemic. It announced also that graduation was cancelled. I was devastated, as I’m sure thousands of students across the country were. The university changed our exams to coursework, meaning it would be the first Easter in seven years where I could relax for the whole of April without revision. I drew, I cooked new recipes, I wrote songs on my guitar, and I exercised to get that ‘summer bod’. In other words, it gave me the freedom to find myself again.

uate from the University of Exeter. While studying there, she was awarded a School’s Commendation for her work as Editor-in-Chief for the university’s magazine Life. She has a passion for writing and is a member of the 2020/21 Imperial College London MSc Science Communication cohort.


OUR LIVES MAY 11, 2020


Jacob Smith was part of the 2019/20 MSc Science Communication cohort at Imperial College London. Previously, he studied Biochemistry at the University of Exeter, including a year abroad at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Jacob has always been interested in drawing, having studied art in school and during his time in Australia. Before starting his course at Imperial, Jacob spent a year working at Holyport College as a Resident Fellow. He greatly enjoys musical theatre and plays the piano in his spare time.


The COVID Diaries


42. Faith and the Virus 44. Three Voices 46. COVID and Nationalism 48. Me and the Other 50. Fear, Racism and the Virus 52. Viral Scam 54. The Fragility of Balance






y life, as I’m sure for everybody, has changed considerably in these times. Despite aspiring to a career in science communication, this academic year I have had a break from my studies. Instead, I have been working in hospitality. Obviously I have been furloughed until further notice.

com) which interestingly have shifted since lockdown began. While (for advertising reasons) the exact numbers are obscured, Google Trends operates by comparing the search relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time, giving it a value from 0 to 100, where 100 is the peak time for those searches. You can compare search term I am a practising Christian, frequency over any customisable which has provided the most bi- period of time. zarre change in my regular life. In a normal week I’d go to church I had a little play around with once or twice on a Sunday and the trends, regarding the timing once for a small group discus- of UK lockdown and the searchsion during the week. Typically es relating to faith in the UK (as, we would sing together, listen honestly, I don’t have much else to together, pray together, and catch do!) and have found some striking up with people from various results: walks of life over a cup of tea. Take away the ‘togetherness’ by Searches with the terms ‘prayer’ livestreaming and the experience and related words all started to is wildly different. rise towards the end of March this year, peaking in mid-April, and I have always been interested in gradually decreased throughout the links between science and May. Similarly, terms for similar faith, even though they are of- secular practices, such as ‘medten viewed as polar opposites. As itation’ and ‘self-reflection’ also humans, we are naturally curious followed the same pattern, while about deeper questions such as ‘mindfulness’ stayed the same “Is there more to life than this?” (even though it’s listed on the and “Why is there suffering?” . NHS website as a way to improve The fast-paced pre-lockdown life mental health). wouldn’t normally allow time for us to dwell on these questions. Specifically religious terms have also increased. At Easter this year, As my undergraduate degree was the search both in the UK and in physics, and with time to spare, worldwide for ‘Who is/was Jemy data-trained brain wondered sus’ has peaked much higher than about the links between the pan- any other Easter since data was demic, our psychology and where recorded. Searches for all major faith comes into play with it. Why religions: ‘Islam’, ‘Christianity’, do we have a tendency to explore ‘Judaism’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Sikhism’, deeper meaning in a time of crisis? and ‘Buddhism’ have peaked in the UK during lockdown, while thought to investigate this ‘atheism’ and ‘humanism’ searchusing the statistics for goo- es have stayed roughly the same gle searches ( over the last twelve months.



These results are unsurprising: the link between searching for deeper meaning in a time of crisis is not new. A 2018 Guardian poll found that almost a quarter of non-believers turn to prayer in a time of crisis. Similarly, I have seen some academic papers published about the link between the COVID-19 and prayer, which cross-referenced these Google trends with existing psychology. The Pew Research Center in the US published a study that found 55% of Americans had prayed especially about the virus, including 15% of people who describe themselves as non-religious. Even I have found myself praying more frequently (specifically: “God, why is this happening?”) despite prayer already being a part of my pre-lockdown life. Even though I am not currently studying science, that doesn’t stop me from hypothesising: there are probably copious reasons for this increase in this Google activity. One is that, unfortunately, this deadly pandemic has pushed death to the forefront of our minds. Secondly, the stress and uncertainty of the situation has had a negative impact on our collective mental health, which can be combated with prayer and meditation. On the other hand, this surge could have resulted from boredom — or that the slower pace of lockdown life has allowed us more time for deeper questions. Is it because we tend to seek comfort? Do we, even as rational beings, collectively want to believe something is in control to give us hope? Is it because the scale of the virus is beyond our compreThe COVID Diaries

hension, and the only thing that or faith-related questions. rivals it in our minds is something supernatural? Still, I hope that we will not stop questioning. I hope that, n scientific circles, I am often even when lockdown has ended met with quite a surprised reac- and the threat of the virus has tion whenever I mention my faith. vanished, we will all allow time But are we naturally inclined to and space to find meaning in our approach the supernatural in a existences; to stop and reflect; time of crisis? to pray and listen. Even when everything seems ‘fine’ again, I As we begin to approach nor- hope we remember where we mality again, the likelihood is the turned to, and how it helped. search trends will die down and we And finally, I hope we remember will gradually have less time (and to keep our minds open, no matinterest) to explore deep, spiritual, ter the situation.



Naomi Dinmore graduated from her undergraduate degree in physics and music from Cardiff University in 2019 and is a member of the 2020/21 MSc science communication cohort at Imperial College. In her year off, she has worked at a social enterprise based in Derbyshire. She writes regularly in her personal blog about science and the environment as well as music and popular culture. In her spare time, she plays piano, clarinet and saxophone and can’t wait to travel again (when it is safe to do so!)

Do we, even as rational beings, collectively want to believe something is in control to give us hope? Perspectives





or most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is provoking the biggest of changes to everyday life. At one point, a third of the world’s population was in some form of lockdown, and the social and economic impacts will be felt long after restrictions are lifted. I spoke to three ‘key workers’ from different countries all of which are at varying points in the progression of the pandemic. Their stories provide individual snapshots of life during these frightening times.

Treating patients with COVID-19 presents a unique set of challenges and they don’t end when the shift is finished. For Rachel, who lives at home with her parents, the height of the pandemic saw her world at home shrink to her bedroom and a corner of the living room to reduce the risk of transmission. She reveals she only leaves the house for work and to run or cycle, but at times she is just too exhausted to exercise.

Gabrielle owns a sewing business. While not traditionally meeting the definition of a ‘key worker’, during the pandemic she has begun making masks. Gabrielle has struggled to find sewing materials, and is experiencing price increases, but she has managed to make 550 masks so far. Many states, including North Carolina, now require residents to wear masks in public but despite this Gabrielle told me “I’m concerned there will be a resurgence of the virus and we’ll be back to square one again. Too many people are being careless. Going out without masks and getting too close to one another”.

It is not all bad. The support and appreciation the public have shown for the NHS has been a RACHEL boost. It was uplifting to see phoNurse | England, UK | tos of Rachel and her colleagues 307,980 cases. 43,230 deaths in colourful scrubs, sewn by volunteers. I asked Rachel what she SIENNA “There’s so much we can gain looked forward to once restric- Supermarket Worker | from this, we must not waste this tions are lifted. Her response? Auckland, New Zealand | opportunity” “That’s easy – hugs”. 1,520 cases. 22 deaths As the UK prepares for the reopening of restaurants, pubs and cafes, I caught up with Rachel, a newly qualified nurse who has been working directly with COVID-19 patients in an intensive care unit. I wanted to hear her experiences. The big change for Rachel was her sudden move from the transplant ward she had been working on for the past 6 months, to a critical care ward caring for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients from across the region. Rachel describes a time of increased anxiety, with difficulties in separating her work stresses from home life. Rachel said that limited specialist training, and little time to adapt to the new rules, regulations and teams, were making it difficult to build a routine. 44

“In New Zealand the pandemic was received and dealt with as a Small Business Owner | community, the government isNorth Carolina, USA | sued a message to ‘be kind’ and USA 2,474,382 cases. 124,406 part of the lockdown’s success was deaths | North Carolina 56,238. due to the willingness of the com1,318 deaths munity to cooperate and look out for one another” “I think it’s good we’ve had to slow life down a bit, take stock New Zealand prime minister, Jaof what we really need to make cinda Arden, has been praised for us happy, recognise the things we her success in tackling the coronacan live without, and appreciate virus pandemic. Sienna moved to our loved ones” New Zealand on a working holiday visa in January and is currently While there is variation between working at a supermarket. states, the USA is currently seeing an overall upward trend in cases Moving to the other side of the of COVID-19. The USA has ex- world is challenging at the best of perienced the highest number of times, but for Sienna, most of her cases in the world, alongside more experience has been under some deaths than any other country. form of social limitation. The seGabrielle lives in North Carolina, verity of the situation became which is seeing an increase in the apparent very quickly, with new number of daily cases. rules enforced within a matter of


The COVID Diaries

days. During lockdown she had little or no interaction with others; “I was very isolated and did most things independently from anyone else”. She fears that in the future we will become a society that primarily functions through social media and technology rather than face to face. Something that stood out in Sienna’s experience of the pandemic was the sense of community and she hopes we’ll be encouraged to act this way in the future. While New Zealand’s success has set an example for the world, Sienna pointed out that the outbreak may have taken our focus away

from other important issues. She says “although the country has undoubtedly tackled the pandemic very well, it is facing equally important problems such as homelessness and high suicide rates”.


round the world there has been a contrast in governmental approaches, with very different levels of disturbance and loss. Yet however the statistics vary, there are difficult struggles for people everywhere. There have also been triumphs. We have come together to tackle something that is bigger than any one of us, or any one country. I hope

we can carry through this shared energy to equally important issues in the future. Charlotte Burton is a biological sciences graduate with a particular interest in environmental and marine science. After graduating in 2018 she combined working with travelling, a highlight of which was volunteering with a conservation NGO to survey a section of the Mesoamerican reef and to assist in community outreach. Charlotte enjoys writing and storytelling using the medium of photography and is currently a MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London.

I asked Rachel what she looked forward to once restrictions are lifted. Her response? “That’s easy – hugs”. Perspectives






uring this pandemic it has beor the last 10 years the UK come crystal clear that Britain government has created an has been suffering from its own anti-expert culture — “the people illness: nationalism. in this country have had enough of experts”, said Michael Gove in As COVID-19 started spreading 2016. The government might well into Europe I clung onto my Asian think that not listening to experts connections. From talking to fam- is a good idea, if since 2010 you’ve ily and friends in Japan, Taiwan, been cutting funds to schools, and South Korea, I learned the vi- youth centres, and other organisarus was indeed a deadly threat, but tions — the very places that allow one that could be managed if han- people to learn in engaging ways dled correctly. This gave me some and exercise their curiosity, and so short-lived and naïve hope that become experts themselves. And maybe the same could be true for there are plenty of experts out the United Kingdom. Yeah, right. there reminding us of the damage 10 years of austerity did: you could We were one of the last countries start with the Marmot Review in Europe to go into lockdown. ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives’. ExOur prime minister was shaking perts will tell you there has been hands with everyone in a hospital a dramatic decrease in spending with known COVID-19 patients. on health and the NHS, despite The UK had some of the most a growing NHS budget (because lax airport and travel restrictions more and more of this budget is in the world. Only in May did being channelled into the private Heathrow start trialling passenger sector instead). The message has temperature checks — months af- been clear: education, research, ter other countries such as South and ultimately science, are not Korea had already set-up multiple valuable to society. airport testing facilities for passengers. And still we found that Fast-forward to January 31st, Matt Hancock was fluffing his 2020 — Brexit Day. Despite years words. It’s TEST-TRACE-ISO- of evidence showing the damage LATE, Matt! Not “Track and already done by Brexit, not just Trace”. What does tracking and financially but to the NHS and tracing do without testing and to British academia, all efforts to isolating infected individuals? call for a second referendum have been unsuccessful. As it stands, So, why hasn’t the UK — specif- June 2020, we’re heading for a ically England — listened to the hard Brexit. There’s a belief that official advice from the WHO? Britain doesn’t need support from Why did the government not ‘others’ — foreigners, outsiders, heed the warnings of our Europe- non-Brits (and let’s be honest, an counterparts, or follow South that often means anyone who isn’t Korea’s example of contact tracing white and wasn’t born here). We’re and mass testing? At the core of fine by ourselves. Perfect already. this I think at least part of the answer lies in nationalism. So, COVID-19 arrives and here’s what we have in Britain: an em… Let’s set the scene. bedded ‘anti-expert’ culture; a 46

healthcare system in dire need of support; and the unwavering belief that Britain is the best. We didn’t follow the advice given by the WHO, because as a nation we don’t believe we need to be listening to our own experts, let alone the experts from other countries. And when we felt it would be politic to draw on some scientific expertise, in the form of the SAGE committee — remember the famous saying ‘We are just following the science’ — we made sure to pack the committee with theoreticians with little knowledge of actual life and actual health care, as the dissident group ‘Independent Sage’ reminds us. Our nation has a sense of pride so outrageously large that we’re incapable of swallowing it. The belief that Britain cannot do wrong — or at least couldn’t do significantly better — has caused countless deaths. Britain has one of the highest number of COVID deaths in the world, as well as one of the highest death rates per capita. South Korea never went into an official lockdown. Despite Seoul having a greater population density than London, deaths due to COVID-19 are a fraction of London’s. Unlike what the government has said, there are comparable countries and cities in terms of population density. Population density is not the issue. The issue is not trusting a wide enough range of experts, including scientists and social scientists, or indeed anyone who criticises what Britain does — or has done.


cience at its best teaches us that it’s wise and necessary to change your ideas and behaviours in the face of new evidence. If The COVID Diaries

David Olusoga — another expert not exactly favourite with HM government — that statues are often put up with political purposes in mind. Until Britain confronts its colonial past and is able to swallow its pride, we won’t be able to admit the faults in our systems and rebuild them. We won’t be able to find the right experts, and we won’t know how to listen to them even if we do find them. We cannot better ourselves if we cannot admit we could be doing better. And we cannot do better if we refuse to take advice or learn from others. It’s time we got over ourselves.

During her undergraduate degree in archaeological science, Lily Hayward was especially interested in exploring themes and ideas from archaeological contexts that were relevant to contemporary society, such as domestic violence and women’s rights, immigration, and social identities. As the child of immigrant parents but raised in Britain, she has a somewhat ‘outside’ perspective on what it means to be British. Ideas surrounding identity and nationalism have come to the forefront for her in discussions surrounding COVID and the UK’s response to it.


changing your mind leads to the protection and flourishing of our communities, then it is even more important to be able to listen. Nationalism does not allow for listening and it does not allow for flexibility. When the Black Lives Matters protests began we were reminded of the British capacity for self-congratulation. We saw this with the statue of Churchill. So intrinsic is Churchill (and all that comes with colonialism and capitalism) to our national sense of self that any criticism of him is seen as an attack on British identity. When the statue of Colston fell in Bristol we learned from the protesters and from the historian

Science at its best teaches us that it’s wise and necessary to change your ideas and behaviours in the face of new evidence. Perspectives




How do you respond when you feel an increased hostility towards yourself, especially a hostility that is totally beyond your control?


year old action film franchise that always been a weird element of nobody wanted, yet will somehow mutability to my ethnic identity. still sell tickets. I could plausibly identify as English, Chinese, or multi-ethnic On a personal level, it’s forced me British Chinese. to reconcile with my status as an Other. This has been easy to evade After all, it doesn’t seem like that until now for a variety of reasons, anyone else can agree on my eththe foremost reason being the fact nic identity. To some of my distant that I’m biracial. Without want- family in Hong Kong, my Angliing to make it seem trivial, there’s cisation made me a white En-


The COVID Diaries

ince the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to read more news (that’s never a good start to anything). And one topic I’ve seen is an increase in overt, public, and violent, attacks on people from China or East/South East Asia. This is usually referred to as racism. It appears Sinophobia is returning with a vengeance, like the aged cast of a fourth sequel to a 30

glishman; to the people that have offered me only racist abuse, I was Chinese; and to others, I would be viewed (sometimes fetishized) as biracial.

possible to shake off the feeling of being a pawn in this geopolitical game. The nationalism that will accompany this jingoism, no matter how cold, will be channelled into the everyday lives of Americans, or Britons, or any other Westerner, and towards the people of East Asian descent that are now stuck with their newly public role of ignominy and indignation.

You eventually realise you view the world through these different lenses, depending on the context you find yourself in. At least for me, I’ve highlighted different parts of my ethnic identity depending on the conversation. Consequently, it’s perhaps been We’re already seeing the seeds of easier to emotionally disentangle this in the way some are attemptmyself from my Other status. ing to solely blame China. In contravention of WHO guidelines I don’t mean to justify any igno- Trump’s attempt to use the ‘Chirance about racism I may have nese virus’ moniker is only too once had, or even deny I haven’t predictable. had experiences in my life that have highlighted my inherent Statistics released in early May Otherness. Intellectually, I’ve al- show a three-fold increase in hate ways been aware of institution- crimes against Chinese people in alised racism and tried to be as the UK, when compared to the informed about it as I can be. last two years. And that was just Emotionally, I’ve felt it when my recording incidents between Janfamily, or I, have been on the re- uary and March. What happens ceiving end of vitriol. as the cost — human and otherwise — of COVID-19 continues But, reading the reports of in- to increase? creased racist attacks, and of a climate of Sinophobia that goes This Othering deflects the failures all the way up to Donald Trump, of individuals, national governwhose position as president of the ments, and global systems in preUnited States is ostensibly a posi- venting, mitigating, and adapting tion of ‘Leader of the Free World’, to a pandemic. With a ‘Chinese it feels different. virus’ pandemic, people can ignore governments, and leaders like Bot’s a feeling I’ve been strug- ris Johnson and Donald Trump gling to articulate in the face can be too slow in implementing of self-doubt. I’ve always known adequate lockdown measures. and experienced racism against Chinese and Asian people, who Talking about Chinese bushmeats are unceremoniously lumped into and their food markets can overthe same category. It’s just been shadow a global economic and better hidden. So, surely, it can’t political system that encourages be different. deforestation and habitat destruction. This facilitates closer contact Nonetheless, it feels different to to animals, which are now being me. I think I have some rational- moved or confined to smaller isation for this intuition. From a habitats or being hunted. All of geopolitical perspective, the im- this creates the perfect boiling pot pression I’m getting is of a slow for viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to but inevitable rise in tensions be- jump the species barrier towards tween China and the USA, and humans that are increasingly enmore broadly a conflict of East croaching or cohabitating with vs West. In that context, it’s im- wild animals.




iven the outpour of abuse, and the actions of influential people like Donald Trump, you can forgive me if I wonder whether this won’t germinate into a tree that bares poisoned fruit. Reflecting on some of the coverage around anti-Chinese racism, I detect an undercurrent of confusion, or even surprise. People are perplexed at having to encounter more racism than they ever have before, rather than less. People are scared that what was once a micro-aggression is now an assault in public. And so I ask: how do you respond when you feel an increased hostility towards yourself, especially a hostility that is totally beyond your control? A hatred that one would be incapable of preventing, is terrifying. I’ve naively believed I can live a life within and between a Venn diagram of my ethnic identities. Yet many people, including my family and friends are becoming more hated, and suffering more abuse, as the pandemic take its course. Their identities are being further cemented as Chinese, or East Asian, and then ostracised for this. It’s a pertinent reminder that the dignity and livelihood of many people has been arbitrary throughout our history. One day, I might not be a mixed race English-Chinese person with an adaptive identity. I’ll just be Chinese, an Other. Matthew Dale was a member of the 2019/20 cohort studying for an MSc Science Communication at Imperial College London. He grew up in Norwich and is currently living through the pandemic in London. He loves watching nature or animal documentaries, and he has Simpsons references for every situation. When he’s not anxious about work or the world, he likes to write, usually on topics that make him anxious.





osé Saramago’s dystopian novel Blindness details a world where suddenly and without explanation the population is plagued by blindness.The contagious and unknown nature of this blindness instils widespread fear amongst the government and those who have not been infected. The result is unjust and intolerant treatment of infected and vulnerable individuals. Blindness depicts the collapse of society, as fear outweighs morality. Despite the exaggerations of fiction, the premise of the novel is a close reflection of what is occurring globally, as COVID-19 infections rise exponentially. People succumbing to their fears are displaying questionable behaviours, such as distancing from people wearing face masks, selfishly panic buying ‘essentials’ such as toilet rolls, and selling them at higher prices to capitalise on desperation. More alarmingly, anti-Asian racism is widespread, even amongst ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong. Despite guidelines from WHO to dissociate the naming of the pandemic with Wuhan, China, where it first emerged, there has been continued prejudice directed towards Asians. Questions such as, “Can you get the coronavirus from eating Chinese food or getting a package delivered from China?” are commonplace in online forums. Non-Chinese living abroad are not exempt from this fear grounded in racism. All Asians are grouped as a threat due to the ignorant perception that all Asians are Chinese. In the minds of people consumed with fear, the logic that viruses do not discriminate based on ethnicity is simply ignored.

scapegoating is not new. There is a long history of prejudice against immigrants, painted as a threat to the white working class. We know that racism is as rife as a pandemic, and we know too that institutional racism is a fact: look at the Windrush affair, and the Home Office hostile environment policy. A pandemic provided the perfect cover for increased stigma against minorities, who are often enough condemned as an incoming and rapidly proliferating danger. With confusion and obfuscation everywhere, it is easy for a disease to be viewed as a foreign infestation, in order to create a fantasy of purity at home. An attack that really affected me concerned Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student who on 24th of February 2020 was punched repeatedly on Oxford Street, with insults such as, “I don’t want your coronavirus in my country”, thrown at him. After hearing of such an incident, when I am out of doors, I have a growing sense of discomfort. It is a fear of coughing or sneezing in public, and people looking at me and thinking: “An Asian”. It is the fear that any visible sign of sickness will incite hostility against me, which may escalate physically. I feel I must stay anonymous and fade into the background, so I am not noticed and singled out for my ethnicity. Additionally, my parents advised me to stay silent and “not fight back and cause a scene” if there are any insults directed towards me. It is as if I must become invisible. Whilst the general public is taking measures to prevent infection, Asians also have the added burden of protecting against prejudice and hostility.

This fear and hesitation is shared In the United Kingdom, racial by many Asians students, especially 50

those from China, who have flown home and may choose not to return to European universities, for fears of persistent bigotry. Consequentially, diversity in academia may be diminished in the future. The exchange of perspectives, vital for innovation, will take time to regain momentum, as trust between people from different cultures are rebuilt. For Saramago, blindness is not a disease but a lack of human morality. Blindness is metaphorically linked to social catastrophe: he is writing about people blinded by their selfishness. “Fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness.” The unwillingness and inability to empathise with others’ perspectives has always permeated society. However, COVID-19 has amplified an intolerable climate of fear. We are so caught up with the fear of the outbreak that we do not realise when our actions are negatively impacting others. Saramago’s novel teaches us a moral lesson: we might be frightened but it is up to us to not lose what makes us human. Let us not become like the characters in Saramago’s disturbing and truthful novel. Samuel Liew is a Chinese Malaysian student graduating from the 2019/20 MSc Science Communication at Imperial College London. Having lived in four different countries, Malaysia, Brunei, China, and the U.K., he understands the complexities of shaping one’s racial identity in different environments. In the U.K. he has understood what it means to be a member of a minority. Samuel hopes to use his experience and his skills to empower minority groups through his work promoting the exchange of different cultural perspectives.

The COVID Diaries

It is easy for a disease to be viewed as a foreign infestation, in order to create a fantasy of purity at home. Perspectives





n the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend in my email inbox. Yes, there are plenty of clothes shops telling me about their 25% sales off loungewear. More interestingly I’ve been receiving emails from ‘UK government’, ‘Official Health Advice’, and ‘Corona-19 response’. Of course, none of these are legitimate and are just 3 of the 14.5 billion unsolicited spam emails that are sent each day. Whereas most of them are harmless advertisements, a fair few of them have an insidious intent. Phishing and solicitation emails aim to trick the user into divulging confidential information, such as login credentials or bank details. These emails can range from the generic and painstakingly obvious to highly sophisticated campaigns that are designed to exfiltrate and corrupt data, and even facilitate espionage. In the world of cyber security, the coronavirus is the newest trend.

in 1898), is still alive and kicking, although its modern iteration is typically an email from a rich individual in a politically troubled country.


he COVID-19 phishing scams are similar to the Spanish Prisoner scam in the way they exploit current circumstances, and in the social engineering techniques they use to manipulate and deceive their targets. Social engineering is defined as ‘the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information’, and in times of crisis, two popular techniques are often seen. These are referred to as Authority, and Societal Pressure. The concept of Authority being a tool in social engineering is relatively simple — you are more likely to comply to requests if you believe those requests are from an authoritative figure. This figure can come in the form of an organisational authority (e.g. the United Kingdom government), where the fear is that not following guidelines could result in legal repercussions. There is also intellectual authority, which in the case of COVID-19 takes advantage of the fact that most people are not epidemiologists. Especially during times of crisis and upheaval, this leaves the target feeling ‘out of their depth’ and more likely to comply.

There is nothing new in exploiting a humanitarian crisis for a criminal purpose. The Spanish-American war of 1898 resulted in the deaths of 17,000 soldiers and 40,000 prisoners of war. A popular scam in America at this time was in the form of a mysterious letter, seemingly from a journalist imprisoned in a Spanish jail. Of course, the prisoner just happens to have large sums of money hidden away and is willing to share his treasure — with the caveat that the recipient must send him a small amount of Societal pressure is the concept of money first. human being fundamentally social creatures, and therefore likely This may sound familiar. The to comply with requests that asks ‘Spanish prisoner scam’ (as it was the target to fulfil a social, legal, named by the New York Times or moral requirement. For exam52

ple, to gain a slice of the Spanish prisoner’s fortune, the target must first aid him in some way. During this pandemic, however, the concept of societal pressure has taken on new significance. Being a 23yr old with no underlying health conditions, I am personally at very little risk of developing serious symptoms. The majority of precautions I have taken are not to protect myself from the virus, but to protect others. Many people like myself are not at high risk during this pandemic: we are conforming to societal pressures and following our moral framework. Just as someone may feel morally obliged to assist in the release of an innocent prisoner, morality is exploited in these COVID-19 phishing scams. We want to act, we want to do anything we can, and so we are likely to comply with phishing emails if they exploit our sense of moral social pressure. Although the global impact of this pandemic is unprecedented, opportunists are exploiting it in the same old way they always have done. Human morality will always be a chink in cyber security’s armour. Come to think of it, maybe it is time for me to invest in a better spam blocker, and save myself some trouble. Shannon-Marie Clerkin is a cyber-security analyst for a leading international AI company. During her career she has specialised in email attacks and social engineering. She is particularly interested in human aspect of cyber-security and its constantly evolving role in cyber-crime. In her spare time, she enjoys swing dancing and over-analysing films.

The COVID Diaries


There is nothing new in exploiting a humanitarian crisis for a criminal purpose. Perspectives




The fragility of balance balance of vulnerabilities Susceptible to sicknesses Disease exhaustion prejudice violence isolation Loose isn’t safe. Trapped isn’t safe. Laura Berthoud is Dutch and French, but mostly grew up in Brussels. She was a member of the Imperial College London MSc Science Communication cohort 2019/20 where she enjoyed the open conversations and class discussions. Over the past months, she’s been experimenting with the arts as a way to reflect.


The COVID Diaries


56. Plague Dreams 58. Moving On 60. Decisions, Friends, Life 62. A Walk On the Wild Side 66. A Stay-At-Home Dream 68. Moments of Time

Moving On





t’s 3 A.M. and I can’t sleep. I’m thinking about the things I’ve left behind in London, my shoes, coats, and books, all of which I couldn’t fit in my suitcase due to the weight constrictions. Traveling was a blur, the rush and stress of trying to move up my flight for fear of borders shutting down, or airlines shutting down. The anxiety caressing me to sleep the night before my flight, me bolting out of bed at four in the morning to catch a flight at nine. I clutched my American passport at Heathrow, knowing it was the only argument for why I should be let into the States. The relief when I saw my parents swept over me like a cold sweat, and the idea of the quarantine loomed over my head: six feet apart, six feet apart. I’ve been recovering from depression and anxiety for many years now, but the current events caused by COVID-19 have re-submerged me into feelings of loneliness, angst, and doubts over where I fit in this world. My London adventures were cut short by a force that I could not see, taste, or smell, and yet, within weeks, civilizations bowed to its power. I told myself I could finally relax once I got back home to Colorado. All I had to do was sit it out, wait for the next step, and then the next step after that. Make it to the airport, get on the plane, wipe down the seats and tray tables, try to sleep, get through customs, don’t cough, don’t…breathe. I put garlic in almost everything I ate, pasta, eggs, soup. I drank cups of echinacea tea before I left. I wasn’t sick, I’m not sick, I was just preparing. My mind returned to my training as a medicinal plant intern at the Denver Botanic Gardens back in 2018. Garlic and echinacea were antimicrobials, 56

anti-inflammatories, and anti-depressants. Just what I needed to cross the Atlantic, to go from one sick country to another. I wore a scarf. I didn’t have a mask, but my aunt, who is a nurse, said a scarf was the next best thing. I brought my pack of 80 sanitary wipes, that I had the foresight to buy and squirrel away before they vanished from the shelves, only to use them liberally on every surface I encountered on my travels. The scarf kept falling off my nose, but I tried my best to keep it high up. Once I landed in San Francisco, I was taken aside in a hallway just outside the plane to be checked on whether I had contracted COVID-19. They did not take my temperature, but instead merely asked if I had any symptoms of the virus. They then handed me a pamphlet on the symptoms and sent me on my way, not even reminding me to self-quarantine for 14 days, which is policy for U.S. citizens. I currently am serving my time in self-quarantine, trying to stay six feet away from my other family members, except my pets. It’s more difficult with animals as they don’t know what viruses are. They don’t understand why everyone is home at one time for a week, they don’t understand why we all stay inside. Sometimes I think with my anxiety it would be better to be an animal and not understand the science of how germs are passed. I told myself that once I got home, I could relax, but that wasn’t really true. My fellow students and I waited, with baited breath, to see what would happen to our summer term. Once I realized and was told that the summer term would most like-

ly be online, I decided to ship the rest of my items I had left behind back home to Colorado. I figured that even if I had to travel back to London for a delayed last term, I would have less items with me overall, making my second move back from London a whole lot easier. Currently, we’re still waiting to see what our instructors decide. It’s giving me more anxiety, not knowing where my course is going. I don’t know what to do if they delay studies. Do I find a ‘real’ job and try and continue forward? Will I have to move back to London again? Can I even afford another visa or flat? It’s 3:30 now, and I still can’t sleep. I’m also worried about all my books coming back over the Atlantic. Books are so much cheaper in London. By my second week living there, I already had 40 I had picked up from various areas around the city. But even if all my books somehow don’t make it back to Colorado, and even if I have to return to London, knowing I can’t afford it, I can take some comfort right now from knowing I’m home with my family, all of us facing our the brave new world together. Kenna Castleberry is a podcaster and Digital Media Marketing Manager for the digital agency, the MBC Group LLC. She was a member of the 2019/20 MSc Science Communication cohort at Imperial College London. She’s done a TED talk about oral poetry, as well as written several books. Her podcasts focus on the hidden lives of scientists, as well as interviewing popular science writers about their work. When she isn’t working, Kenna enjoys hiking, running, weight-lifting, and archery. She currently resides in Colorado, USA.

The COVID Diaries

The scarf kept falling off my nose, but I tried my best to keep it high up. Moving On





n this time of crisis it is not easy to focus my thoughts on a specific task without eventually spiralling down to the COVID-19 issue. For me, the ‘easiest’ way to write something coherent is by focusing on the emotions I’ve experienced since the virus outbreak has started impacting my life. I think most people my age have never tackled something like this health crisis before. I’m learning from the media that there hasn’t been anything like this in a very long time. When the first cases appeared in China in December 2019, it seemed so far away that I didn’t give the situation a second thought. I read articles here and there about the progress of the infections, but as it didn’t affect me personally, I overlooked it quickly and focused on my more impending chores. But then people started to die, and more and more cases began to appear in Europe. Suddenly the issue was closer to home, but we were informed that the death rate was very low and affected mostly elderly with pre-existing health problems. Nothing to worry about when you’re young and healthy then? It won’t affect your life much, right? Deeply wrong. I guess this shows how self-centred, and to a certain degree, selfish we are. How something qualifies as an actual problem only when it becomes yours as well. It eventually did. Imperial College decided to close before the end of term, leaving us — albeit only for a short while — with no idea of what would happen to our degree. This is the point where I went from passive to angry. Angry at the virus for disrupting the be58

ginning of the decade, angry at people in general for not being more careful with basic health precautions, angry at the media for ‘reassuring’ us only to realise that the situation is worse than we thought, angry at governments for not taking precautions earlier so as to avoid the pandemic; angry when I saw the violence rising amongst people. Then, but not fast enough, I became ashamed. I realised I was mostly angry because my studies were disrupted. While they are an important part of my year, they were only a minor issue in the midst of the misery that was taking place around the globe. Certainly, the indolence of some might have caused (and still is causing) the virus to spread, but in such an unprecedented situation, there is no right course of action. I think it’s important to realise that there are solutions that can be tested, but there is no guarantee of their success. Therefore, we need to be kind to ourselves as we are all doing our best to accept, cope, and move forward.


ne major difficulty that many must have experienced was the panic that soon followed the global spike in cases. Some was definitely a result of lack of information, like the closing of borders that caused many to rush back to their home country, when in reality they could have gone back as long as flights were available. I personally waited for a bit of clarification before booking tickets back home. Nonetheless, the travelling remained daunting. Every day there were new regulations on travelling, and it seemed there was hardly ever full disclosure of the procedures in place. I lived one full week of pure stress

before leaving the UK. What if they put me in quarantine? What if I get infected and start showing symptoms right on the day of travel? What if the flight suddenly gets cancelled? What if my simple anxiety makes me sick and boarder control decides I’m infected and puts me in an institution? Valid questions, amplified by differing news depending on the source of information, that were only put to rest on the day of travel. While the security in the airports was somewhat increased, no one was actually checking if you were sick. In my case anyway. Setting foot in my home country shifted my mood to relief. I was finally back with my family. I realised that most of my stress rooted from my fear of not being able to get back to them. We were in the long haul with the COVID-19 crisis, and isolation away from loved ones can only go so far. This is a time when we have to make the best out of the social media platforms in order to stay connected with relatives, friends, and family. It’s also a moment of realisation that virtual connection is not enough to thrive. Although the isolation is an excellent opportunity to focus on oneself, we are not fully content without some human interaction. In this current ‘relief state’ I still am witnessing my brain spiralling at all the uncertainties that will come out of this health crisis.


une 5th, 2020. I believe it is fair to say that there hasn’t been a dull moment in the past two months. While most countries have taken similar measures in response to the growing pandemic, the time of implementaThe COVID Diaries

future even more uncertain. For sure, life goes on and time won’t slow down, just so that we can figure things out. As a student, this prospect is daunting. I might not feel its full impact now because the end of the academic year is dangerously close and my immediate duties are occupying my attention. But the question “what happens next” is constantly in the back of my mind. I am fortunate to have a supporting family, and because of that my worries are not taking their emotional toll. Nevertheless, sooner rather than later, I will have to step outside and face what the future

has to offer.

Cristina Coman is from Romania and was a member of the 2019/20 MSc Science Communication cohort at Imperial College London. Through living in three different countries — Romania, France and the UK — she has learned to integrate various cultures. Her exposure to different cultures has taught her the importance of active listening in a growing interconnected world. Cristina believes that one’s adaptability and openness to novel environments is the key to development. She hopes that her work will help to promote international collaborations and the understanding of different cul-


tion, compliance with the issued guidelines, and the capacity of each country’s health system have led to varying outcomes. As the summer days are near, everyone wishes to just run outside to enjoy a warm, sunny day. With different degrees of freedom, countries have entered the ‘relaxation’ phase, meant to gradually implement a return to normality. But how safe is it to be outside? Our invisible threat is still out there, the access to a vaccine seems unlikely to happen until next year, and there are no guarantees it will work. What is more, we are now also facing a global economic crisis and a rise of unemployment that make the

For sure, life goes on and time won’t slow down, just so that we can figure things out. Moving On





th of March. I wake up feeling tired and my body hurts. Could this be fever? I put on the thermometer. 37,5. Not too bad, but my head is hot and I’m finding it hard to get out of bed. A sudden hit of anxiety strikes me: is this COVID-19? I cough. Damn it. I am in a shared flat in Montpellier. We had been four, but it has been a week since two of my flatmates left. Now it’s just my Italian flatmate Alessandra and I. I tell her I have some fever while coughing with my face against my elbow. She looks worried, but tells me it will probably be just the flu. We have breakfast together in the kitchen, while checking our phones. She shows me a post on Facebook from a French friend of hers. She is in a club, surrounded by friends. ‘See?’, Alessandra says. ‘They do not realise about how critical the situation is, it gets on my nerves!’. And she is right. The coronavirus’ spread is threatening: the first case in Europe was in France, and in less than two months it has reached several other countries. In Italy, the abrupt rise of cases in the last two weeks has changed the way in which the country sees the spread of the virus. Most of my friends here are Italians. They have been confined in their homes for several days already, even if nobody has told them to do so. The information they receive day by day from Italy raises their awareness of this invisible enemy’s harmful power. What I get from the media in Spain, or France, is not nearly as alarming. For the moment, France has not taken many measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet, I decide to stay at home. My symptoms and the news I keep receiving from my 60

Italian friends support my decision. had told me a month ago that I would be in these circumstances, I I find it interesting though, the wouldn’t have believed them. fact that people act differently in front of the same situation, de- Spain announced its lockdown on pending on the information they the 13th March and France on the receive. A Canadian friend of 17th. Cases and deaths are rising mine told me yesterday that no so rapidly it scares me. Everyone is virus would ever stop him from aware now that we are in the midgoing out. In Spain things look dle of a pandemic. I wonder what quite similar: I call my parents would have happened if we had in Barcelona to express my con- reacted before. Could more lives cerns about me having the virus, have been saved? Probably yes. but they play down my words and tell me I don’t need to worry. As if th March. I’m recovAlessandra was reading my mind, ered from my symptoms, she asks me with a smile ‘what do without knowing if I have passed you think about this whole situa- COVID-19 or not. I’m going home tion, science communicator?’ tomorrow, and so is Alessandra. We agreed to leave on the same day, so ‘Well’ I say ‘I guess it looks as if so- as to not leave the other one alone. ciety didn’t realise about the mag- We feel relieved we can finally be nitude of a threat until they had with our families but also sad we it just in front of them’. We knew have to be apart from each other. about the possibility of a pandem- During these last weeks, after living ic a while back and now that it is the beginning of a pandemic isogetting closer and closer, coun- lated together and away from our tries seem to improvise, as if no homes, our friendship has grown one knew this could happen. Are stronger. Tomorrow we leave, but we really ready to handle this? Are we both know this is just the begingovernments not going to take any ning and it will possibly last much further measures until it is already longer than we expected. too late, as happened with Italy?



rd March. These last two weeks were quite intense. The WHO officially declared the COVID-19 pandemic on March the 11th. That same day my symptoms got worse. I asked for a test, but my request was rejected. For some days now I have been seriously considering going back to Barcelona, though the fact I could infect my family is a big deterrent. Anyway, the only way I could get there would be by taking a taxi to the border with Spain, where my dad would be waiting on the other side. Like escaping. If someone

Laura Bello Rodríguez is a biomedical sciences graduate student from Barcelona, Spain. She has written articles, performed radio features, participated in streaming sessions and started developing a pedagogical board game with Cosciences ( in Montpellier, France. She is the website officer of the Global Health Next Generation Network (GHNGN,, a network of students and young professionals working in global health. Her other scientific interests are neurobiology, psychology, microbiology, and immunology. She is also interested in citizen science and science journalism.

The COVID Diaries


If someone had told me a month ago that I would be in these circumstances, I wouldn’t have believed them. Moving On





’ve been indulging myself since the pandemic began, wandering the desolate streets of London during the evening. It’s usually eleven pm, or maybe midnight. I wrap myself up with a cardigan over my pyjamas, put my shoes on, and leave my house to walk around my block and the park near me. And I won’t see a soul.

before I was due to begin my course. I only moved in my new room four days before the first day of term. Between that and my busy masters schedule, I never really had the chance to explore my neighbourhood. It was just a place to do my masters before moving on with my life, a transient stepping stone for whatever was left of my ambitions.



On my night-time excursions I briefly admire the size, or the architecture of some newly discovered house that I pass by. I create interesting counterfactuals in my head. What if I lived in that house? Why would I live there, and not here? My imagination will often create a great variety of intricate alternative lives.

The closest thing I’ll see to a person is the occasional car carrying only one person, or an equally empty bus. One time, I think I heard some voices in the park bushes, as if they were haggling over the price for some drugs. Those rare instances asides, the surreal silence and emptiness is overwhelming. I’m not sure why my mind does this, and why I enjoy thinking I like to search for foxes. The de- like this. It seems an appropriate crease in London activity over the way to mourn the time that I, just last couple of months has given like every person, have lost and them new opportunities for ex- will continue to lose. My night ploration. Whilst the foxes in time thoughts are an ode to fumy area still evade me personal- ture experiences that now feel ly, there have been many articles lost. with eye-witness accounts of fox sightings. That’s as close as my mind is to anything resembling clarity, when When I looked out my window, it comes to my night time walks. I could see a pair of foxes sitting on the pavement, grooming thematurally I’ve been trying to selves like cats on their turf. It was understand things better, but nice to see these foxes exploring with no success. and settling in territory they could not have claimed at the beginning It feels perverse to be engaging in of the year. such introspection. And not just because my introspective crisis is a When I grow weary of searching modest problem when compared for foxes that don’t wish to be dis- to the current pandemic. I’m inturbed, I will walk past houses on credibly fortunate that, at least a new street in my area. I had a for now, my night time wanderrather sudden move to London— ings can even be about my biggest only started looking three weeks problem.



My night time thoughts are an ode to future The COVID Diaries

e experiences that now feel lost. That’s as close as my mind is to anything resembling clarity, when it comes to my night time walks. Moving On


But it also feels perverse to find any beauty or tranquillity in something created by our collective suffering. After all, these streets are only empty because of the pandemic. It is this conflicting lack of clarity that cyclically reverberates in my mind.

blocks deemed clunky, pretentious or inauthentic (you can insert a joke of your choosing about how that hasn’t changed).


riting isn’t the only aspect of my life that’s been affected by the pandemic. It makes doing assignments for degrees, sending It isn’t especially surprising, as the CVs, or preparing for interviews lack of clarity isn’t just found in my that little bit trickier. understanding of this topic. For me it is everywhere. It is something This pressure is particularly acute. I’ve been struggling to write about, I’m in a situation where I’m exand something I still am struggling pected to exploit all of my precious to write about, with something like and transient opportunities. I know precision, let alone any kind of elo- I want to, and should, take advanquence. This is as much due to my tage of the opportunities to do evstruggle to write as a struggle to erything I want to do, especially as understand what I’m writing about. the time and resources afforded to students like myself won’t ever be Writing itself has never been a available again. But, trying to take natural talent for me, in so far as it advantage of opportunities when can be considered a ‘natural’ talent. my writing has slowed down isn’t It has always been a laboured task ideal. And I don’t mean to excuse that has required my (often deplet- any low marks I may have recented) willpower to sit at a desk, shut ly received, but merely explain the down my browser and sift through problems I’m working to overcome the many awkward phrases, bro- or circumvent. ken paragraphs, and the words I’ve temporarily forgotten but I know It’s also hard to think about my are imbued with exactly what I’m career direction when my mind trying to express. Eventually, I find, obsessively questions every choice I can break through the wall to and runs through different futures present a legible piece, but it is nev- like a pulp science fiction story. er easy. I’ve never written from an When combined with the ecoether of creativity. Romantic and nomic instability and the resulting sporadic bursts of artistry elude me. transformation that every aspect For me, writing is always a tedious of our lives and communities will slog of putting words together as have to undertake, it’s impossible puzzle pieces. I have to admit: any to avoid the realisation that everywriting I do will result from my thing will change. consolidated determination to not let my body fidget, or my mind It stands as a sobering reminder of wonder. what is often left unspoken. We’re always breaking down and reconNaturally, any ability to write has structing our identities. As I conevaporated completely over the template the career I’m interested last couple of months. Where my in, I end up running into broader mind once could focus and build questions about myself: what are upon a strand of thought, it now most important parts of a job, for self-sabotages every piece out of me? What parts of my life are the existence. Paragraphs are inces- most important to me? My old santly picked apart, and every idea answers influence my behaviour falls apart at its seams. It’s why and choices in significant ways attempting to write pieces like this have taken so long, and often Just like the fox that wades brought mass-deletions of text through areas of the urban jun64

gle now accessible in the era of the pandemic, I’m approaching new problems in a liminal space, on the precipice of radical change. My mind contemplates the different futures I could have in these different houses. Those darkened houses become a symbol, a habitual extension of my obsessive thoughts about the different futures that could await me. Ostensibly, this openness to different futures is a profound and romantic gift, one often played for dramatic suspense or gratification in coming-of-age narratives. Either it the most satisfying end to the complex emotional arc of a narrative. Or it is a frustrating habit, an incomplete arc, albeit one that’s entertaining and compelling. The reality is different. There’s no way out of it. You can’t pause for a respite or fast-forward out of the discomfort. It just plays out. You experience the calm alongside the chaos with no chance to opt out. There probably isn’t even an end, because—to some degree—you’re always doing this. But this reconstruction will inevitably be messier and more daunting during such a dreadful time of upheaval. I’m given to understand that there is at least one consolation I can take from this conflict. It is a universal and eternal struggle, one simply amplified by the plague. I’ll let you know when I find this consoling. Matthew Dale was a member of the 2019/20 cohort studying for an MSc Science Communication at Imperial College London. He grew up in Norwich and is currently living through the pandemic in London. He loves watching nature or animal documentaries, and he has Simpsons references for every situation. When he’s not anxious about work or the world, he likes to write, usually on topics that make him anxious.

The COVID Diaries


Darkened houses become a symbol, a habitual extension of my obsessive thoughts about the different futures that could await me. Moving On




But at night, I eagerly switch from digital to analogue, the gaze of the webcam gratefully suspended. 66

The COVID Diaries


o you remember this one? We were in some restaurant in the city, it was a massive thing, the entire ground floor of a building that took up the better part of a cityblock. We entered through the restaurant’s semi-attached bakery with its rustic theme and fish-tank pastry displays. The bakery was connected by an arching doorway to the main eating hall, which was unbelievably large and taller than you’d expect. It was going for some kind of country-kitchen aesthetic, the walls were papered in blue and white argyle, hung with little wooden shelves displaying all manner of kitschy knick-knacks. The ceiling was black with exposed ventilation and industrial lighting making the whole place resemble a theater set, the kind of establishment where the tables are packed together too tightly, with paper placemats and game boards so you can play checkers while you wait for your food. We went off into a separate pub area, and sat down in a booth that was recessed into the wood paneled wall. A waitress began reading a poem and I remembered that this was the reason we had come to this place, to listen to the poetry reading. It was a Russian poem by a writer named Filiov, probably a futurist, a long poem that was written as one sentence that stretched on for a few pages. She was reading it in Russian but she was going too fast and the stresses were in all the wrong places, so I had to strain to understand anything, and even then I only caught a word here or there. I asked you what she was talking about, and you told me you couldn’t understand it either, that it seemed like she was reading the Russian phonetically, without regard for the meanings of the text, without inflecting in the right places and pausing to let certain thoughts sink in. The waitress heard this and got visibly upset, but went on reading, and then excused herself. We finished our beers and went around a corner Moving On

and saw a staircase going down to a well-lit place below.

we realized that we were on the list ourselves, that they’d been waiting for us. That’s when you started to I thought maybe it was a kitchen breathe heavy and get all panicked at first. You know how sometimes and start crying and I felt so bad at a restaurant you have to pass for you and for myself, and evithrough part of the kitchen to dently the hostess felt bad too and get to the restroom, and it’s real- said don’t worry, that our table was ly uncomfortable because there’s ready and that we should sit down this looming feeling of like, “oh, and try to enjoy dinner. I’m not supposed to be here”, and it feels like all the chefs and dish We were sitting now, and feeling washers are staring at you, but they a bit better, and I ordered the catactually don’t care at all, they ob- fish and I forget what you ordered viously know you’re just going to but we were feeling happier even the restroom? So, we went down though the place was so loud with those stairs, which led out to a long conversations and the squeak of straight hallway with doors along chairlegs on the linoleum. And one side stretching on like an old then someone started banging motel or something. The rooms their table with their palm and the were all the same, fading 70s de- whole place got real quiet and we cor with thick carpeting, and inside heard a voice somewhat self-coneach there were completely distinct sciously but still joyfully sing. ‘events’ going on, bizarre activities that were slightly frightening And I broke my promise on a but also a little humorous. In one very sharp rock room, several young women wearing white were running in a circle, And I was possessed by something holding hands. In another, five or quite unfriendly six people were crouched on a bed, pounding the mattress with their And I was haunted by a fists, wailing. It just then occurred demon in my sleep to me that not only were these people the restaurant’s staff, but And that’s how I learned they were also actors. The restauhow to survive rant held regular performances (like the poetry reading), and these And I realized that I knew that strange scenes were simply the ac- song very well, it was Survivtors practicing and warming up. al Song by AJJ, and I smiled and so did you, and we started singWe bumped into a couple of kids ing along and soon everyone in who we had met earlier in the bak- the entire restaurant was singing ery, and they led us back through along and banging the tables, and a side passageway into the main I realized it wasn’t going to be so eating hall. It occurred to me that bad after all. I couldn’t remember meeting these kids at all, but I was sure that it Billy Irving was a member of the happened. Back upstairs, we were Imperial College MSc Science situated behind the front counter, Communication 2019/20 cohort. and saw a family talking to the He is originally from Upper Darby, hostess about getting a table. They Pennsylvania, in the United States. had a huge fluffy grey dog, which Billy has a bachelor’s degree in we remarked about, and the kids earth sciences and Russian from saw the family and were surprised. Dickinson College, and is interestThe kids said that they weren’t on ed in the intersections between the list, they didn’t have a registra- science and society. He hopes to tion, everyone who came to this find a career in museums or the restaurant had a registration, and non-profit sector. 67




hat is life but a fearful whisper? Blowing wisdom, dancing past our ears, like a kite,

floating silently, softly as a feather. Teasing meaning from fate, away to decay, we flitter. Crafted at the seams between lips of a breath, soaring mid-flight, the promise of Tomorrow is something only the wind can deliver. In the seas of change, the repeated mistakes of Yesterday wash over. Wild waves used to kiss away naked ignorance in the familiarity of the day within the night, caressed beneath the glowing light we were under. Now, we are nursed by the silver sliver of the Moon as she fades for a love so tender. Still struggling, still wanting. Still with all our might. Moving forward, up the hill. Life occurs together. Work the trodden land in your garden to sow caring words with your power. Dream of these wishes intimately, in the dawn of new light. Around us, around death, in a rainbow of colours, watch kindness flower. Where do we go when we sleep forever? What memories do we keep from the battle in these moments of time through the fight? Forming a sense of home from whatever we can gather, with the choice of what to be in this vastness of possibilities, we may carve our own character. Lydia Melville was a student in the 2019/20 MSc Science Communication cohort. She has been an avid reader from a young age and performed poetry at spoken word events in Bristol during her undergraduate degree, as well as at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the woman’s writing group, That’s What She Said. Lydia uses poetry as a means of expressing herself in a creative and abstract way. Her poem ‘Moments of Time’ aims to reflect on what Lydia was thinking during the pandemic, with the hope of a more co-operative world in the ‘new normal’.


The COVID Diaries


Moving forward, up the hill. Life occurs together. Moving On