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Jun. 2, 2020 | Tuesday
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COVID-19: Letter from U.K.: The challenge of social distancing
NOTL's Susan Hall in lockdown in U.K. (Supplied)

Longtime NOTL resident Susan Hall, a warden at St. Mark's Anglican Church, has been unexpectedly caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic while visiting family in Brighton, England. This is her third letter home to Niagara-on-the-Lake, written on April 25.

Susan Hall

Special to The Lake Report

There has been a noticeable increase in the number of people around in the last few days. As I walk down to the sea front, the narrow roads are more crowded, worryingly making social distancing much more challenging. Up tilI now I found I was anxiously avoiding others, just as they were equally anxiously avoiding me.

Today, in contrast I found I was having to do a complex dance. In the distance I saw a woman with three children, all carrying bulging bags, both of us intent on the same task of delivering our recyclables to the appropriate receptacles. Garbage, including recycling, is no longer picked up from private residences in the inner city, presumably because it attracted vermin.

Clearly labelled, large dumpsters are strategically placed on street corners. Some take landfill, others paper, cardboard, food cans and plastic bottles and yet others for glass. Having said that I was surprised to see a large green umbrella sticking out from a full bin labelled paper and food cans.

Just as I decided to go to the middle of the road, to avoid her so did she, taking two children with her. In fact, she was aiming for the landfill dumpster on the other side of the road. So I returned to reclaim my sidewalk, only to see her third child heading straight for me, carrying his bag of recycling, to the bins I’d just left.

My only escape route was back again to the middle. Couples, I have found are the worst offenders. Heads down, usually chatting, they determinedly lay claim to the whole sidewalk, giving way to nothing and nobody. I’ve lost count of the number of times my student volunteer, Anna, standing outside the house, in the morning, has had to take emergency avoiding action, either leaping into the road or alternatively choosing the opposite direction and running the risk of being impaled on the railings.

Can we attribute this increase in the number of people to the uncharacteristically glorious weather we have had here for the last week or so? Indeed a couple of days ago a headline in the paper announced “Costa del Wales,” making the point that it was warmer in Wales than either Ibiza or Malaga.

The weather is undoubtedly a factor but I get the sense that the lockdown, for many, has become so irksome that they are unable to resist the temptation to jump the gun to return to their “normal” lives. We have spent weeks in lockdown and for the most part our rigorous observance of the isolation rules has enabled us to avoid infection.

I fear though, that the decline in the daily number number of deaths is being misinterpreted as the end of the crisis, lulling people into a dangerous, false sense of security. Regardless of the government strictures the tide seems to be turning. There is more traffic on the road and construction is starting again.

You definitely get the sense that the tide is turning. Today’s paper, for instance, has a page of photos showing visitors, many scantily clad, thronging the busy seafront at Bournemouth; people are photographed travelling closely packed together on the Tube again in London and a large, non socially distanced crowd is pictured outside a recently opened Five Guys burger outlet in Edinburgh. Later in the day, however, the government briefing sounded a note of caution, encouraging people to continue to stick to the rules.

There is no doubt, that if we do not get people back to work we will face economic collapse and serious social unrest but if it is done too quickly then there will be another wave of infection and still more deaths. With deaths already expected to hit 20,000 today in the U.K another similar wave is awful to contemplate.

The importance of this delicate balance was demonstrated graphically on last night’s briefing, comparing the curves of deaths for all significantly populated countries during the pandemic so far. Remarkably, all the curves bar one were very close, following an essentially similar pattern, at the bottom of the screen. The curve, which deviated so strikingly from all the others, was that for the U.S. where the deaths soared so rapidly to such dizzying heights it was almost off the scale, before a slight flattening could be appreciated.

One has to wonder whether this is the result of putting more emphasis on the economy than public health. It immediately made me think of a comment made by my refugee Hungarian PhD supervisor years ago: “Never underestimate the mercantile instinct of the Americans.”

I am enjoying sitting outside in my courtyard garden, surrounded by an abundance of yellow roses, a delightful surprise to find blooming at this time of the year. I have been busy making a batch of garlic spray which is alleged to be helpful for prevention of blackspot and certainly seems effective at clearing aphids off the rose buds.

So far it has not done anything remotely restorative for one of three hollyhocks which suddenly looked as if I had just rescued it from Chernobyl. I found the culprit, a huge creamy coloured, fat caterpillar which, I think is the offspring of a white moth, the young of which feed on brassica and herbaceous plants. It. was certainly chomping away on this one, on a stem, as the leaves had mostly disappeared.

On my morning garden patrol I am on the lookout for its siblings, a bit too late, I fear for that particular hollyhock. As all keen gardeners know, between weeds and pests maintaining a garden is a constant challenge. Here I have an additional challenge of domestic cats. My garden is on the flight path of several local moggies.

If they just wanted to pass through I wouldn’t mind but I do take great exception to five or six cats adopting the flowerbeds as their own, personal litter box. My garlic spray, recommended by some authorities for the purpose of detracting them does not seem to work at all and these slick, city dwelling felines are far too smart to get close enough for a direct hit.

I found, however ,an ingenious product called Silent Roar. Ostensibly it looks like small pellets of nitrogen fertilizer but contains a secret ingredient –composted lion poo, smell-free for humans, I hasten to add. What a difference now, genuinely fearing an encounter with a lion on their travels they positively streak across the back of the garden to and from their homes not even looking at flowerbeds.

The variety of bird life is very limited in this seaside city, consisting mainly of seagulls, pigeons and sparrows. Seagulls are the equivalent of our raccoons in Brighton, considered vermin by householders. During lockdown they must be feeling a dietary pinch.

No longer is there discarded food, piling up behind pubs and restaurants. No partly eaten hamburgers or ice creams are being dropped on the sidewalks, all of which were a major part of their diet.

There are no tourists to dive bomb as they consume their fish and chips while walking along the beach. This seagull behaviour was such a problem that schools & places where food is eaten outdoors, in the summer, employ companies who release falcons, trained to keep the seagulls at bay. There still seem to be masses of healthy looking seagulls around so hopefully they have rediscovered the art of fishing

Talking of birds of prey my daughter said the other day a sparrow hawk was visiting their small garden. After its previous visit they saw it flying overhead with a pigeon in its talons but losing its grip dropped the unfortunate dead, bleeding bird into her courtyard. Sparrow hawks are, in fact, breeding on a highrise block visible at the end of the street. According to a neighbour they are frequent visitors to her garden and she and her husband have photos of one sitting on their fence happily devouring a sparrow in front of them.

My student volunteer visitor, Anna, the other day was understandably quite disturbed because one of her housemates, waking up in the middle of the night, had found a rat on her bed. Many of these older houses have drains that no one knows where they run.

In addition, all had outdoor privies, many of which were later converted to garden sheds without necessarily sealing off the primitive drain arrangements. The exterminators from the council thought the rat had probably come up the drain. In many of the houses, the advice has been to keep the loo seat down. Imagine lifting it up and seeing a rat staring back at you!

This story, today, I’m afraid has lost a lot of its shock value because Anna now says they think it may well have been a mouse. Mmm!

Once again it is Thursday and at 8 p.m. we will all be clapping for the NHS. I can only quote the noted playwright, David Hare, who said this morning, “After years of austerity, doctors and nurses nobly have put their grievances behind them and stepped up to care for the sick and take on this crisis.”

That statement, I believe strongly, can be just as readily applied in Canada.

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