The Front Line?

Around a month ago I was blown away by the logic and sense in this facebook post from a member of medical staff here in Malaysia:

Facebook Post – Dr Michelle Au
(Click on the link above to open the facebook page either in a new tab or a new window)

At that time we were adjusting to being locked down at home under the Movement Control Order. As more and more countries locked down certain language started to be used more and more often. One phrase was to talk about medical and essential workers being on ‘the front line’ in the battle/ war (I’m going to talk about that in a separate post!).

Dr Au’s point is a very simple but poweerful one – one that might have brought about a bit more self-discipline from some if acknowledged. In short she said it’s not her but us who are the front line. If we put ourselves in the way of this virus by not observing sensible isolation and distancing, then more of us will catch the illness. Some may be lucky, asymptomatic and unaffected, but others may suffer very severely. Incidentally, as an asthmatic with COPD I’ve had pneumonia a number of times. I know well what it feels like to struggle for each breath, for the breath that’s going in to your lungs to be inadequate and then for your lungs to fail to extract adequate oxygen from it. There’s a sense of drowning inside your own body – a slow, inexorable suffocation.

From Dr Au’s perspective the medical professionals are not on the front line, but they are, in fact, the last line of defence – when all else has failed, when in the worst of situations your own body has been assaulted by this virus or some other condition and cannot solve the situation, but must be put in to their hands for them to fight and battle to save you. Their roles in battling to save people’s lives as the last line of defence are harrowing, mentally challenging and ultimately physically dangerous for them (and their family members) . We have very sadly, seen many of them pay the ultimate price as they are faced with impossible conundrums and challenges to decide who may survive and who may die. Beyond them, there are no more defences. They are not the front line – we are – we serve our role by complying with the scientifically determined rules on distancing, isolating ourselves and taking every necessary step to keep ourselves safe.

There are some other people who, during this virus crisis are also described as being ‘on the front line’ – essentially being all those deemed to be employed in essential services who are therefore continuing to travel to work whilst the vast majority of populations live in lockdown, quarantined in their homes. Going beyond doctors, nurses and other medical staff there are the police and military, those involved in refuse collection and other municipal services, all those engaged in logistical services to get essential food and materials to where they need to be.

Ecommerce warehouse

There’s an issue that’s been troubling me more and more as the weeks of lockdown have gone on. There are quite a number of companies that send me emails encouraging me to buy their products. The fact that they have continued to send these indicates that at least some of their customers are buying. However, it’s quite possible this particular customer might never buy from them ever again.

In addition, i’ve seen news reports from both US and UK concerning both big and small online retailers where warehouse and packing staff have contracted the covid-19 virus (and even passed it to family members). Alongside, I’ve seen various people, celebrities or otherwise parading their new purchases acquired through ecommerce websites. It seems, for some, the consumerist – “I shop, therefore I am,” ideology doesn’t give way just because of a pesky virus.

Does your desire for a new barbecue, some fancy home dumbells or the latest ring light so that you look beautifiul on screen when you zoom conference justify the potential risk or even death for the hard working, under-paid warehouse and sorting staff or the delivery personnel? Is this really what they should be risking their lives for? I’m sorry, but to me it’s not acceptable. There are countries (I’m aware of India for sure) that have mandated that ecommerce companies may only take orders for and arrange deliveries of essential products. I’m also aware that when India imposed that rule the world’s biggest ecommerce company tried to argue with them! Shame on them, I say.

I’ve also seen in recent weeks two prominent writers who were due to publish new books. Despite the virus and all its implications they went ahead with their campaigns to persuade maximum numbers of people to buy their books (in hardback form) with various incentives etc. These are writers who consider themselves great thinkers about the lives of men. They’ve probably both lost my respect and my readership for ever. All because they couldn’t see beyond their own personal desires to make the New York Times bestseller lists with their books.

They had other options;

  1. Delay the launches of the books – it would have been legitimate to tell their readers that they were doing this for responsible reasons,
  2. To take the orders for the books, with an understanding that the hard copy books would only be despatched later when it’s safer, but in the short term providing ebook electronci copies of the book for their loyal readers who want to buy now.

There are people doing critical jobs to whom we owe enormous gratitude. These people are risking their lives to keep the vital functions of cities working, to maintain law and order and ensure the logistic channels for ESSENTIAL goods, such as food. They should not be joined by those who are forced to work to pander to people’s wants (rather than needs).

If the shoppaholic who isn’t faced with crippling fear of job and income loss feels the need to indulge in wilful spending I’m sure there are plenty of organisations in their areas doing vital work to feed the hungry, make protective clothing for medical staff and face masks for those doing essential work who would have been very glad of their support.

When so many are doing phenomenal selfless things for the good of all, it is saddening that greed and thoughtlessness can still stand outin its insensitivity.

Mindfulness and SEL for Educators

Educators’ ability to meet the heightened social and emotional needs of their pupils right now are critically dependent upon their own wellness and attention to their own needs.

Here’s a very good webinar shared recently by the Awake Network that explores what that entails and shares some good practical thoughts on how to ensure that educators are addressing these self care needs.

Reviewing 30 Days of Covid-19 Lockdown

covid lockdown

Today is my 30th day of lockdown here in Malaysia, alone unless I’m counting the cat! It’s a surreal experience in many ways – one that I know I’ll never forget. I live in an apartment some way out from the centre of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The first two weeks of MCO (Movement Control Order) started on 18th March, but were then extended to 14th April. Then it was extended again to 28th April. We wait to hear any day whether there will be further extension,  but maybe with slightly relaxed rules (the fasting month of Ramadan will start on Friday).

The rules are pretty clear. Only 10 types of business/ essential services are allowed to operate and people are only permitted to make reasonable steps out of their home for groceries and pharmacy. If you are caught out otherwise, the punishments can be very severe. But, beyond that, I firmly believe in our duties to each other in this and the necessity to ‘flatten the curve (I’m writing a separate post on this).

In my own case, there’s an additional factor, one that feels frustrating and unfair (but I have accepted – it is what it is). I gave up smoking around 17 years ago. At that time I suffered a lung collapse and a serious situation that could have killed me. I lost a business I had set up with all the money I had at the time, but eventually was glad that I still had my life to live. That left me with COPD, and my left lung after surgery was very prone to infections. Over subsequent years I’ve had pneumonia quite a few times. However, in recent years with attention to my health, a good doctor and good medication it’s been so under control that I’ve really had very little issue for the last 2 years. All this means that I’m in the high risk category if I catch the corona virus and therefore the implications for me could be simply life threatening. ‘Flattening the curve’ won’t be the end of risk time for me and I may only really be safe once there’s a vaccine.

Many who know me know that just over two years ago I lost my son (who lived with me) tragically and suddenly. He would have been 18 now, on the verge of completing A levels before thinking about heading off to university. I know he would have struggled to cope with the uncertainty of what we’re going through now. For me, those two years have not just been about the grief of losing Thomas, but also a complete restructuring of my own life, including my job. That was hard as someone for whom my work had always been important and with a sense that in my role here in Malaysia I had barely had time to achieve what was possible. But it was gone, Thomas was gone and I had no choice but to put in the hard and lonely work of figuring out what my life is for, what is to be my contribution in my remaining years and how I would ensure I leave a legacy that somehow makes the world even a little better. As an expat in this part of the world it’s near impossible to access professional counselling, support or psychological guidance. So, in dealing with this I’ve been on my own, needing to dig deep to draw on my own resources, even at times when the well may have felt completely dry. There were very hard and painful times, but by putting in that hard work they’ve been less and less frequent. As a result, my level of confidence to really shift in to fully positive mode for shaping my life going forward has been stronger and stronger.

In the down times over these thirty plus days I’ve felt the sickening dread of knowing just how easily I can slip in to anger against the world. I had battled up from the floor over these two years, suddenly for life, the universe and everything to seem to conspire to thwart me.

When I find myself thinking like this I can’t like the me I see in the mirror too much. Selfish and self-indulgent aren’t personality traits I’ve ever liked in anyone, least of all myself. Each time it’s happened my response has been to give myself the biggest of metaphorical kicks up the backside and a firm order to get on with it and stop sulking. The fact is that I still have a life that millions in the world would envy.  If I live my life positively and with conviction I can contribute to making a better world. In those circumstances there is little justification for wallowing in what might have been, fantasies and wishful thinking. My duty is to dust myself down, pick myself up and get on with things with 100% energy and focus.

A few things have helped:

Gratitude

I started gratitude journaling around a year ago, after seeing it recommended in a few books and podcasts. I use a form of journaling based loosely on one known as the five minute journaling method. It literally only takes that much time out of my day first thing in the morning, and last thing at night before I go to bed.

In the first days of lockdown everything felt disturbed and i stopped journaling. I quickly realised that it was now more important than ever. It starts in the morning with writing down three things for which I’m grateful. These can be simple or complex, but it’s important to push through with three even if I’m starting the day in a less than positive frame of mind. For me, it can be something as simple as my gratitude for the air in my lungs.

Then, I write down three things that, if they happen/ I do them/ make them happen will make the day great. This forces me to focus on priorities in the day, but also to cut myself some slack. If I’m not in a positive frame of mind I might look for small victories, little achievements that still remind me that I matter and I make a difference and have agency – little things that move me forward positively. Finally, in the morning, I add a single daily affirmation – something that feels significant to me and sets the context of that day in to the longer stretch of my life.

The evening session consists of writing down three amazing things that happened in the day. To me, the impact of this is the knowledge in the back of my mind throughout the day that i’m going to be asking this question of myself come the end of the day. i admit sometimes ‘amazing’ feels a bit of a stretch, but it forces me to think about the outstanding positives, even in a day that was grey and listless. Finally, I acknowledge one way in which I could have made the day better. This is not an excuse to beat up on myself. I approach it with self-compassion, but still treat it as an opportunity to hold myself accountable. One of the things that dawned on me was that I might have a “poor me” story for myself and a belief that the world has thwarted me after I had worked so hard, but so does almost everybody. We all have some form of this story and some sense that goals we were pursuing, things we aspired for, have now suddenly been blocked. I cannot assume that my story is any more significant for me than anyone else’s story is for them.

I’ll be honest. When I first started this journaling I was a bit doubtful about it. As a result, my activity was a bit sporadic and there were times when I dropped off. However, i was willing to believe that there was enough in it, on the basis of recommendations from a number of writers I respected. So, I stuck at it. Thankfully, now it’s as regular as clockwork and two little bits of my day that I really look forward to. I focus on gratitude that isn’t comparative, but simpler. What in my life, right now, is a cause for me to feel gratitude? On darker, harder days I may have to search my mind a bit, but I can always find something.

Meditation/ Mindfulness

I hesitate a little to mention this, as there’s some degree of cynicism around in some quarters these days. However, I can say without any hesitation that it’s been a critical part of my climb out of the dark ditch over the last two years. I had a meditation habit before I lost Thomas, but it wasn’t always regular and I occasionally drifted away.

I realised that it’s not the easiest habit to build. We tend to think that success at meditating defines as calming the mind. However, especially when I started, far from feeling that my mind was being mastered and calmed, there was the realisation of just how busy and uncalm it was.As a result, I didn’t feel very successful, even after a few months of trying hard to stick at it. Things got better once I eased off on the ‘success’ ideas and accepted that an objective of just watching and being aware in the moment of my busy mind – without judgement – was enough.

Over the years I’ve explored different methods and vehicles. These days I’m probably most comfortable with the ‘Calm’ app.  Incidentally, as a paid subscriber I have the right to give out five guest passes for people who want to try out Calm for a while. If you would like one of these passes, please send me a message and I’ll get you fixed up.

Movement

On this, I have some good news and some bad news – a boast I’m proud of and a confession of a task not yet mastered.

Confession time first – with access to the gym denied for the last month, I promised myself that i would have a strenuous exercise session of the High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) variety on at least 4 days each week. It’s only a time commitment of around 20 minutes, but I have to admit the reality so far has been only about one session each week, instead of the intended four.

So, that’s a task that is a work in progress.

On the plus side, even though I’ve only stepped out of my apartment three times to go to the supermarket (which is just a few minutes walk from home and permitted under the lockdown rules here), I’ve kept up a strong commitment to moving through walking each day.  There’s a regularly recommended piece of advice to ensure getting 10,000 steps of walking in each day. With a bit of rearrangement of furniture, I’ve ensured a loop around the rooms of my apartment.  Most of the time I combine my walking, at a reasonable pace, with reading, listening to podcasts or reviewing emails etc. The results are clear from the data from my Fitbit. After this very good week, my target is to see if I can do 50 miles in the coming week. I stress – barring a single walk to the supermarket this is done entirely inside my apartment – just round and around!

Fitbit

 

Schedule and Structure of the Day

Many people, in these lockdown circumstances can be very easily tempted to decide that they’ll take a relaxed and flexible approach and do what they’re in the mood for, except when they have commitments for phone or video calls (or a child’s online school class commitments). However, I had learned what I needed to adjust to working from home over the last couple of years and I know that without some structure to the day I can too easily get sidetracked and distracted. the result is usually a dissatisfying day without enough achieved and an expanding ‘to do list’.

I’ve also learned that, especially on days when there’s a lot to distract and mood isn’t easy to handle I need to be relatively kind to myself in terms of expectations. So, I structure some blocks of the day, but leave some other blocks of time unscheduled. For those blocks, how I use them is determined largely by my mood and level of positivity as the time approaches. If I’m working on something and I’m comfortably in flow, I let it spill over in to the unscheduled time. Alternatively, I give myself the freedom to do less structured things during those periods, including checking social networking etc. This is not all wasted time, as i’ll explain in a minute.

One way that i am a bit tough on myself is an old habit that i haven’t yet got to work on, but probably should. If, by the evening, I haven’t completed all that I had hoped I will try to push on in to the evening. This tends to coincide that i get a new burst of energy in the evenings (as a bit of a night owl type), so I feel the work i get done during that time is of quite decent quality. However, the downside is

Controlling Media Exposure and Social Networking

There are things happening in the world that are unprecedented and therefore it’s a very human and natural instinct to feel the need to track the news and aim to keep on top of the facts, the data and what’s happening. Once upon a time we would have settled for a limited time, probably in the morning, to read the daily newspaper to be informed. Then, later came TV news which over time morphed in to 24-hour TV news channels.

When you then layer on top of all this media exposure the commentary on it that comes from social networking and it all gets very overwhelming. it becomes so easy to get tempted to disappear down the rabbit hole of news and information for hours on end.  After being disappointed with lack of productivity on a couple of days I figured that I needed to change some things. I figured that deciding to go ‘cold turkey’ wasn’t realistic. So, instead, I built three specific blocks of time in to my day when I permit myself to check the news, read and post social networking stuff and engage with others’ posts.

These three blocks of time go in to the schedule mentioned above. I’m not going to claim that every day i stick within the parameters of these blocks, but i’m sure that it’s better than if I just left it unstructured.

Doing for Others

There’s a lot of scientific evidence that loneliness can be as damaging to life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Today, it is a massive good fortune that we have the means to make contact with others, anywhere in the world,  So, for my sake as much as anyone else’s it was vital to me from the start to make sure that i was having frequent and regular contact with others. Even with family and close friends there are times when busy living means that we neglect our communication with those we’re not seeing regularly.

So, I committed to reach out regularly and have meaningful communication with family members and my closest friends. I then went through all my contact lists and drew out a list of names of people I had maybe not been in touch with for some time. I committed to make contact with 4-5 of these people each week – reaching out to check that they feel OK and have contact. This has lead to some really delightful interactions, catching up and filling in the gaps in each other’s lives since last contact.

In late 2018 I joined a Facebook Group for parents who had lost a child suddenly. In the early months I was fairly passive in that Group, but it was a help to know that there were people there who were more likely to understand my feelings and emotions when there were difficult days. After a few months I responded to a request for moderators for the Group. The Group is quite big – about 1,600 members. We manage with two admins and around four of us as moderators. this has brought me more actively in to a role of being a sounding board and help for others. Over time, this helps me to deal with my own emotions and to feel that I’m doing something positive. There are times it can be a bit harrowing as the circumstances of some people’s lives are dire and bleak. In recent weeks with the stresses of what’s happening in the world we’ve seen an increase in numbers of new members and more existing members reaching out to unburden themselves as they deal with a whole load of new challenges and problems. This sin’t a commitment that fits neatly in time or can be planned for. But, it’s important enough to me that I accept that and adjust around emergencies when they arise.

In the very first days of the lockdown I saw an article referring to an idea that originated in Canada for ‘Caremongering’. The idea was to bring people together, through social networking, to provide community, local support to others. I searched around and discovered that another expat, Joe Mathers, also from UK, had had the same idea and had formed the Malaysian Caremongering Group on Facebook. Diving in and getting involved was a great way to feel less isolated and also because it was clear that, as good as the local arrangements might be to support those in need, there would be gaps and people who would find themselves in severe difficulty. Within days there was a flood of interest. Today, the FB Group is approaching 10,000 members. IIn turn, there are more localised Whatsapp Groups that enable for close coordination. There are usually two Groups – one in which requests for help are identified or raised and one in which volunteers coordinate for raising funds, purchasing goods and deliveries.

This is all entirely spontaneous and among people who have never met. However, it’s been heartening that we’ve been pretty effective and ensured that food and vital supplies reach those who would otherwise be going hungry. These might be refugees, undocumented migrant workers or others not getting support through official channels. As an expat, with above average risk from the virus, I may not be able to run around outside taking supplies to the needy, but from my home I can still play my part. This also feels right from the perspective that I know my circumstances are so much more comfortable than many others.

 

Coronavirus and the Money Men

The world’s stock exchanges, banks and financial institutions allegedly have at their disposal phenomenal technology power, enormous volumes of information and data and some of the smartest (certainly the most expensive!) minds.  It’s often said that share prices (indices) don’t respond to events, but are determined in advance on the basis of what is going to happen. In turn, it is frequently said that share prices will always reflect the common set of knowledge that is freely known to all.   With that said, it might seem strange to many that the stock markets of the world could be thought to have reacted so very late to the coronavirus pandemic risks.

I should mention here that in a past existence, I worked in investment markets in London, employed by the Private Banking division of a major bank for eleven years after graduation. This time period included the 1987 stock market crash. I will never forget the hours spent on phones talking with desperate, fearful investors  looking for reassurance and guidance as to what they should do. At that time, our advice was that investors shouldn’t panic and sell, but should sit tight. Most were persuaded and thankfully it paid off as the old high levels were regained over time.

This time, however, there are aspects that look mysterious to me, making me skeptical that there may be strong forces that have worked very negatively towards the small investors. First intelligence about the covid-19 virus was received in America and around the world in mid-January. The stock market didn’t waiver and continued to be buoyant right up to 20th February. Only then did it start to fall. We now know that during that period there were fairly significant sales by senior political figures in America who were privy to briefings on the situation. After falling around 12% by 28th  February, the price then recovered more than half that drop by 4th March. Only then did the market turn genuinely negative, becoming something of a rout in the speed prices dropped.

Two weeks later, the stark reality of what the world faced became apparent. I was frankly shocked to see many financial pundits suggesting that the fall in the market had basically completed the ‘fastest bear market ever,’ was now oversold and a golden buying opportunity. Until 26th March it bounced quite strongly higher (giving one of the biggest market rises in a century). Since then, as day after day horrific news emerges around the world and as the full implications on the world’s economy are still not fully fathomed prices have drifted back down.

My suspicion lies around those two rallies in particular. In recent years, certain safeguards in the financial markets have been diluted. These included very strict limits on the ability of financial services companies and banks being both investors in markets for their own sake and market makers for the public. There have also been relaxations in the rules on the levels of gearing that financial institutions are allowed to use. Gearing means that if I have $1m dollars, I might buy $10m value of shares, putting up the $1m as margin (security) for the deal. After some time, if market prices increase by 10%, then I double my money. However, if  prices drop by 20% I not only lose my $1m completely, but I’m obliged to hand over another $1m within a certain amount of time. if I don’t have another $1m I’m busted, bankrupt and the bank has a hole of $1m in its balance sheet.

Margin calls would explain the sharp drop in prices of gold and bitcoin – assets that should have been seen as safe havens in the market storm. Investors had to sell whatever they could to meet the calls. However, I’m also suspicious that those faced with horrendous margin calls played a part in pumping the market back up, even though there was no fundamental basis on which it should rise. This would have enabled them to exit their positions without, at least losing everything. However, this would amount to a fraud on unwitting smaller investors.

It’s very early in the whole scenario, but the media has contained no hints or suggestions of any financial organisation in the world hitting a crisis of liquidity. In the current scenario the last thing any government in the world would want would be panic and a run on banks because of fear over the security of people’s deposits. nevertheless, around the world, banks and financial institutions have been riding a rise in market values that has tempted them to lend very heavily. We’ve already seen banks in India have to be rearranged under the weight of bad debts.

Reports from London reveal that bankers’ annual bonuses were paid out in February and March. So, yet again the ‘fat cats’ are likely to have walked away smelling of roses while leaving the common man to pick up the pieces. The British government had to step in this week and order them not to pay out enormous amounts of money in dividends to shareholders – money that may be desperately needed in the coming months to help out small businesses and distressed borrowers.

There are many ways that the world seems to have learned little from the financial crash in 2008 at the government level or at the level of the man in the street. It’s been a time of improved prosperity for some years. Yet, data suggests that 40% of people in America, just before this virus hit, would be incapable of absorbing a $400 financial hit. And, all this time, they’ve lived in a bubble where marketers and the government encouraged them to consume and consume, as though it was their duty to keep the economy merry-go-round moving.

The reality is this is going to be massively more than a $400 hit for millions. And the financial implications are going to be stark and painful. In a separate article I’m writing I’ll share that whilst this will be painful enough for people living in prosperous economies, the knock on effects for people in developing countries will be devastating, returning millions to poverty and even causing widespread deaths (that won’t show in the coronavirus statistics)

These are dark times, made worse by the hubris and greed of a system that so many said was broken and running on borrowed time. The cause of the carnage in the system might not have been foreseeable (a matter of debate), but many warnings were there. As we hunker down in our billions, locked in our homes to escape this evil deathly disease, we need to spend some time reflecting on the diseases in our world and society that played a part in unleashing it and making its impact way worse. This, believe it or not, is also an opportunity to give thought to the sort of world we want.

For the corporate executive who assessed winning and losing in the world by how much he/ she ducked and dived, out-grafted, out-earned and out-spent his peers – how does that big house (with big mortgage), top of the range SUV, cupboards full of suits, 10 pairs of jeans, bags, shoes etc etc feel now? Are they your source of happiness today and in the future? That car can’t move (in many countries today and maybe more soon). They don’t feed your family and they won’t save the relatives and friends you may lose to this virus. Keeping up with the Joneses is judged by very different criteria today. And maybe all those baubles were simply the superficial rewards for being loyal and dutiful cogs in other people’s bigger games.

A final thought – how busy in February and March were the secretive bankers in the Bahamas, Malta, Gibraltar and the other tax havens? Because it may be that the most powerful had already cleared a lot of their chips (and those of their companies) off the table in full awareness of the imminent storm. That was, just before they issued the layoff notices to employees in thousands.

I’m no communist, or even a socialist. However, we’ve known for long enough that rampant and unchecked capitalism was destroying our world. This may be the pause needed to decide what we want instead. So that we can build a more fair, inclusive and empathic world.

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