The Connection Between Covid-19 and Secret Eating

Let me tell you a secret. I’m a secret ‘Secret Eaters‘ fan.

I must have watched a week’s worth of this British ‘reality TV’ gem, that packs more of a health education punch than you probably think from the name. If you haven’t seen it, there are umpteen episodes on YouTube from half a dozen seasons, all of which revolve around a very tight formula: Two obese people want to know why they are obese, and a chirpy, weight-obsessed hostess sets about figuring out the mystery for them.

It’s the same rigmarole every week, with only slight elements changing in the rigid donut of a storyline. Husband/wife | girlfriend/boyfriend | brother/sister | sister/sister | mother/daughter are filmed whining about their weight, mourning their metabolism, and claiming to eat the calories of a canary. The empathetic hostess mugs into the camera as she reiterates their dilemma: “So you only eat kale and coconut husk, walk five miles to the gym and back nine times a week, and you’ve gained four stone in a year. How can this possibly be?”

The willing victims agree to have hidden cameras installed at home for five days, so that agreeable Anna Richardson can find out just how indeed it can possibly be. What the poor schlubs don’t realise is that she also unleashes a pair of perceptive private eyes to invade their privacy 24/7 by following them around incognito, watching for any sign of mystery mastication or baffling bingeing. Then the big reveal is sprung, leading to one of the most humiliatingly cathartic concepts I’ve ever seen in reality realms, that genuinely shocks both subject and viewer into the realisation that we all eat and drink wayyyyyy too much.

Every. Single. Time.

Every episode runs along the same lines. The same people who “get fat just looking at a Mars Bar” turn out to be stuffing themselves day and night with frightening mountains of fish and chips, doner kebab and chips, pizza and chips, fry-up and chips, big cream buns, multi-sacks of crisps and bricks of chocolate. Then they wash it all down with diet drinks – of course – by the flagon. Some of this videoed gorging might involve them sneaking off on purpose to avoid the Secret Eaters CCTV at home, but mainly these famous-for-forty-minutes stars simply had no idea they were eating so much so much of the time. As if food at home was the only kind worth putting in the diet-diary, and ‘outside food’ – or meals you didn’t prepare yourself – didn’t count.

And the booze! In some episodes, the good time guy drinks his month’s recommended alcohol units in five days of surveillance, but doesn’t realise there are any calories in his pints and shots. One woman could have floored a rugby club with her Prosecco consumption, but was visibly astonished to find out that every bottle she waved around her head before guzzling was adding 500 empty – if enjoyable – calories to her day.

That’s 20% of a healthy woman’s daily recommended eating allowance and it has been for years.

The recurring lesson is that in Britain – where alcohol is deemed an essential supply these days – a big slice of the population thinks that drinking a bottle of vodka is like slugging down a pint of water. Or has no idea that five cans a night amounts to “a whopping” 150 cans and 2000-plus calories a month around their belly.

It’s just social drinking. No calories. No impact. No fucking clue!

I’m not going to fat shame anyone in this world, because I’ve been there, carried around the pounds, and passed my own food mistakes on to my kids. I still know the basic “calorie-controlled diet” rules my mother taught me at age eleven, but I’ve learned they only work if you apply them for life. I still don’t have a handle on my relationship with food otherwise I’d be able to eek a solitary pack of dark chocolate digestives out for five days instead of snarfing them down in two gos. But I’m working on that for all the reasons being thrown around in this treatise, precisely because I’ve already lived an obese existence, and I don’t think going back there in my fifties is a good life choice. If only I could apply it on both my weekly lockdown-shopping excursions.

I’m not shaming the Secret Eaters programme either, because it became a favourite compulsion to watch it when I myself was actively preparing not to eat every shred of yumminess laid before me on extended-vacation in Belfast last summer – to gird my sweet-tooth, as it were, against the home-bakery hordes. More recently I’ve been brainwashing myself through lockdown, resulting in a decrease in chocolate consumption replaced by mango and papaya over-consumption. In fact, that’s why I started watching again.

Now I’m putting on unwanted weight after eight years, so this blog isn’t about shaming. It’s about knowledge being power.

It is also about the incredulity that forty years after my own secondary education, people in Britain know so very little about the food they eat and the effects it has on their health. Each one of the participants in Secret Eaters is already suffering from an obesity-related ailment like knee pain, diabetes or high blood pressure. But they know little about nutritional needs and fresh food – choosing it, cooking it, understanding how important that is in living a healthy life.

It’s not a ‘lifestyle’, because not having that knowledge can lead to death, and death is never in style.

Wrapped up in a reality format, Secret Eaters and its graphic predecessor ‘Supersize / Superskinny‘ are actually very poignant pieces of public health programming for our time, because these stories of average people make clear that the easy availability of fast food, pre-packaged, processed, refined and ridiculous, has become the source of a different pandemic than the one that preoccupies us right now. And for whatever reason, three generations of Brits know nothing about the basics of ‘Food & Nutrition’ that were taught to me as a module of Home Economics ‘O’ Level in 1980. Now many kids have no idea of the names of common vegetables like courgette and aubergine. Many young adults haven’t the cooking skills or motivation to boil an egg.

A favourite boss of mine used to talk about “joined-up” thinking, and I’ve tried to apply it as a regular habit ever since.

Joined-up thinking usually leads to the next stage of conclusions for any problem. We are what we eat. We eat a lot of garbage that contributes to other, more deadly conditions in the human body, which never evolved to cope with sitting in a recliner consuming humongous amounts of saturated fats and refined sugars on an hourly basis. We are pandemically lazy, with exercise scratching a low priority for the many.

The human body was never meant to weigh half a ton, and the impact of obesity is already a devastating public health disaster.

Joined-up thinking …

Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. They are already the world’s biggest killers.

And they are non-communicable. Some science points to the role of DNA, but most scientists underwrite lifelong nutrition and exercise habits as having a significant impact on the probability of not developing a laundry list of NCDs. Now there’s evidence that such globally prevalent pre-existing conditions can cause increased vulnerability to Covid-19 coronavirus, which makes sense, simply on the basis that the immune system is under attack via these very same diseases.

Neither should this be shocking news to us. The World Health Organisation reports on key statistics every year, although the accuracy of its data depends on that of the countries submitting reports. Currently, under ‘Obesity‘ as a topic, the latest thumbnail on this worldwide problem states: “Rates of overweight and obesity continue to grow in adults and children. From 1975 to 2016, the prevalence of overweight or obese children and adolescents aged 5–19 years increased more than four-fold from 4% to 18% globally.”

About Diabetes: “… 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, particularly in low-and middle-income countries, and 1.6 million deaths are directly attributed … each year. Both the number of cases and the prevalence … have been steadily increasing over the past few decades.” This of course, does not include the hideous toll diabetes can take on the living: Cataracts and blindness; limb loss and disability.

About high blood pressure, or Hypertension: “A serious medical condition [that] can increase the risk of heart, brain, kidney and other diseases. It is a major cause of premature death worldwide, with upwards of 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women – over a billion people ­– having the condition. The burden … is felt disproportionately in low- and middle-income countries, where two thirds of cases are found …”

That’s the global outlook. Percentages in the Caribbean are worse than average, as evidenced in January 2017, when a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) stated that Obesity was on the rise throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly among women and children.

In the study, it was reported that close to 360 million people – around 58 percent of the inhabitants of the region – were overweight, with the highest rate observed in the Bahamas (69 percent). Pre-obese, they call it.

The report also noted Obesity affected 140 million people – 23 percent of the region’s population – and that the highest rates were found in the Caribbean countries of Barbados (36%) Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda (31% each).

Strikingly, the Obesity trend back in 2017 was disproportionately impacting women. In more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the rate of female obesity was 10 percentage points higher than that of men.

Need I go on extrapolating? When I wrote about this report in a SHE Caribbean Magazine women’s health article around the time it was published, those numbers screamed danger for our big and beautiful community. No shame. No judgement. Just the facts. I’ve remembered that particular piece often, even if I can’t find my copy.

So what’s the joined-up thinking between Obesity and coronavirus? Well, it goes something like this:

  • Obesity causes health issues like heart disease and diabetes;
  • which cause the immune system not to work properly;
  • which reduces the body’s ability to fight off infection;
  • which leaves the body vulnerable to Covid-19 [and a plague of other transmittable diseases];
  • which means in Saint Lucia, the vulnerable community may be as high as 50% of the population.

Which means to protect our truly vulnerable people of all ages, genders and socio-economic levels, we really have to evaluate the moves we take to reopen our borders. Without politicising, proselytising, procrastinating or prevaricating, we must admit the scale and numbers of the already vulnerable community, here in Saint Lucia and across the Caribbean, then make a plan to avert a different level of public health catastrophe that is based on our collective pre-existing conditions.

Then we have to stop ‘Secret Eating’.

Stupider and Stupider: Does Keeping Up with Covid-19 Lower Your IQ?

I swear there are days when I slap my own head to make sure I’m not imagining the covidiocy streaming in from the outside world through my tiny cocoon’s ten inch tech portal. There’s no other way to describe it, I’m afraid, despite the fact that particular trite pandemicism was coined less than two months ago, so should already be outta style.

‘Full-on fuckery’ comes to mind, but I hate to offend.

By now, keeping abreast with pandemic facts has become part of my working day, which I believe is the responsible approach to take. But man, it’s difficult to find only the facts, the real truth and nothing but, in a world where opinion reigns supremo. Literally. Check the live-streamed daily circus conducted by the Pandemic Pumpkinhead himself, who’s Dunning-Kruger rating is at least a Level 4 – “Sovereign of Stupidity”, if not a full throttle Level 5 – “Fuckwit King”.

A PSA from The Milwaukee Independent on 24/04/2020

In hope of conserving my IQ points, I don’t go near the daily feeble-minded task farce. I wait for the funny guys to rip it apart overnight and give me something to smile ironically at in the morning with my coffee. The filter I choose is humour, although it helps that they’re all on the same page as me in terms of a general world view. They’re also – sad to say – not as funny as they used to be. A syndrome called Late-Night-Host Burnout started to set in three years ago with the election of a monomaniacal manchild, and now they can’t find enough ways to say “I feckin’ told you so!” from the comfort of their own homes.

After getting away from the big-screen luxury of hotel quarantine, I started off watching two official briefs every day – the first was Governor Cuomo’s from New York around 11am [same time zone as me] and the second was from an ever-growing cast of UK government spokespeople a bit later [five hours ahead of me]. My quest for solid information was taking more than two hours every day.

For two weeks, my usual working-at-home habits were perforated with lengthy live streams of death statistics, testing needs, wildly differing models, cheesy slogan mantras and undistinguished Powerpoint 101 presentations in a “political-but-trying-to-sound-not-at-all-political” tone that eventually started sounding too much like marketing.

Sometimes irony is on the nose…

The commentary around the daily UK brief became dense with explanation from numbskullian newsreaders that these numbers were the UK numbers but not quite because Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland number counters count theirs differently, on a different schedule, therefore mucking up the whole credibility and concept of a daily brief. Why England’s numbers still don’t include care home deaths is beyond me, and sounds like more marketing. Why they can’t just make one accurate collated statement a day is symbolic and shambolic.

The trouble with cable TV news in a pandemic is that you end up knowing a few things very well, because they are delivered 10 times x 24 hours a day in biteable chunks – if you get obsessed with watching for hours like I did in my quarant-otel room. You only know those ‘facts’ through the filter of the news corporation on screen at any one time: CNN, BBC, EuroNews being the limited options on Flow’s shitty basic package. One ‘fact’ can generate ten minutes of passionate coulda-woulda-shouldaing from talking heads who all this time have essentially been just faces in boxes on talk shows masquerading as news.

Believe me, I CAN HANDLE the Truth!

Verified truths unskewed by politicism, emotion or opinion.

Who thought it would be so difficult to feel confident in ‘facts’ delivered by elected governments ‘live and direct’ across the internet, at a time when we need to trust those facts for our personal survival?

Choosing which filter you watch the news through is a reasonably young phenomenon for 50-somethings like me who grew up with two TV options: BBC and ITV. In Northern Ireland around tea time, we had the local news, then the national news, and you watched your loyal parents’ channel of choice religiously. Well, the adults watched and there was only one TV set. The kids were expected to shut up or disappear, and the latter was preferable to me and my primary schooler siblings. We’d bolt into the sitting room to play Monopoly or run around outside if the brighter evenings were in.

Anyway, around 6pm on the streets of West Belfast, you’d rarely see any adult on the street gossiping because they were ensconced on the sofa – with a tray of dinner if they were lucky – watching the Evening News like their lives depended on it.

And they did. It was the 1970s, so The Troubles supplied plenty of gritty newscast content from riots to bombings to shootings to shouty politician pastors who yelled so loud, one of us kids would have to jump up and turn down the volume knob if we hadn’t already escaped the scene.

Years later, we discovered just how much that daily fix of “news” was biased and twisted by self-interested journalism, political corruption and worse. Just watch Netflix’s affecting documentary about the community-shattering slaughter of the Miami Showband if you want an insight on how it is to relearn the “facts” of your past.

Lost Lives: A 2004 book by a group of friends that became a heartbreaking film in 2019.

That’s just one of thousands of of stories created by 40 years of ‘political struggle’, in which 3637 people lost their lives through violence.

In the UK, Covid-19 has taken 33,614 lives as of today {14/05/2020].

So here I am, with a world of internet news feeds at my fingertips and all the paranoia of a conspiracy theorist on a bad acid trip, at which point there’s a brown-out in my melted brain and I ask myself why the hell it matters at all, what’s going on hour by hour in the world outside these 238 square miles of Saint Lucia? And off I go to watch something to remind me of “the old normal” for an hour or two – like Shrek or Finding Nemo.

Of course, reading is the answer. Watching and listening to “facts” spewing forth from some horses’ mouths, can [allegedly] cause mental anxiety and high pressure, leading to increased alcohol consumption, spontaneous episodes of Tourettes directed at the TV and other unusual symptoms deleterious to your already threatened health. Reading is this writer’s preferred method of taking in data – although I do love a great bar chart thrown in for the edification of my inner science nerd.

More accurately, the Covid-19 forecast models and relentlessly changing numbers scratch a corporate memory itch, a reminder to flex the same neurons that once allowed me to apply acrobatic mental arithmetic to the nuanced trends of six different countries’ merchandise sales performance v budget on a weekly basis. And an OECS one of all that! To say nothing of being conversant in EBITDA…

There are two sides to everyone’s story.

My left brain had a daily workout for almost thirty years in a career that evolved from computer operations in Brighton to retail buying in Saint Lucia. Wordsmith came about when my whole brain disintegrated under the pressure of a director-level corporate job that required me to care more about cents on the dollar than any human being or their wellbeing. But that’s another chapter in my story.

Right now, there has to be some sort of data-intake strategy if I’m going to stay productive and earn a kwas with my right brain, so adopting the voluntary post of Personal Pandemic Correspondent for Marisule, I’ve settled on a once-a-day-towards-the-evening global-research-roundup that covers Belfast, UK, Caribbean with focus on Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia. Enough to keep me unfearful for my family and friends, and to have an informed conversation with the regulars at Boardwalk Bar should the opportunity ever arise.

But please don’t ask me what the hideous hell is going on in the big, wide world. I jus deh, minding my own business.

Counting Days And Blessings

I don’t know about you, but some days I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. You’ll know what I clumsily mean, despite realising that I’m neither.

It’s that time vacuum feeling that used to be a feature of holiday planning-going-coming-home, when the months before departure were rich with hare-brained schemes and endless listing of what to pack for a three week adventure that was over-too-soon, once our bums were back on the sofa getting ready for the next school year.

My melted head hurts like a hungover time-traveller from the full awareness that it’s only been forty-two days since I landed back in Saint Lucia and the evolving national Covid-19 reaction plan. That was on March 23, the very day they closed the borders and checked three hundred arrivees into quarantine-hotels.

Only forty days ago, the PM surprised us all by imposing a 24/7 lockdown without warning, catching many people by surprise and resulting in a little bit of terrifying behaviour from an unimpressed public. He also took away our booze but as Rick Wayne would say, that’s for another show.

Just twenty-eight days ago I was deposited back to my flat and went into Marisule Martha mode for two whole weeks. That felt like the real start to my lockdown after fourteen days of all-inclusive quarantining. The adrenaline rush of familiarity and nesting kept me going from 5.30am until collapsing to sleep at an old-fogeyish nine o’clock.

With domicile cleaned like there were visitors coming, every available receptacle sprouting with tomatoes, basil and pumpkin, and several blogs a week posted for my wonderful resort client, the blues came along after about eighteen days home alone. They didn’t sweep up with a dramatic slap, but as the manic level of activity ramped back, the time became filled with a slow-gathering feeling that doing my civic duty was an excuse to indulge in some of those depression behaviours that were a major feature of my past life.

In the early days, ‘not going out’ was like a game more than a challenge to my single-work-at-home self and in my head I had leveraged that game for days: Move the bed and have a rationed rum and coke at sunset; sweep the balcony while the kettle boils for a coffee; generate an interesting and informative four hundred words with six images for Marigot Bay Resort and Marina before watching Shrek or whatever denialistic movie takes my fancy on Netflix.

New habits form in twenty-eight days, so despite knowing full well that it’s not a good thing, my fixation with watching daily live feeds of coronavirus updates from London, Scotland and New York became almost an obsession and will probably need some weaning. My one thousand, one hundred and fifty-nine Facebook friends were a great comfort, despite rabid unfollowing every time I discovered an eejit among them. Far less a pandemic political proselytiser.

Just as I became almost completely dependent, a four day enforced break from wifi taught me that priorities change, and pandemic news definitely moves at a crazier pace than you’d even imagine. That long-weekend disconnection from the internet was probably the straw that broke the gathering gremlins’ back, requiring me to hang on by the skin of my nails to another type of awareness I’ve been learning about for four years.

Where was all my “gotta-be-grateful” malarky when the constant presence of social media, free messaging and YouTube were suddenly removed from my lockdown reality? How would I cope without my bi-hourly check on the news sites and evening roundup from PBS? What would my diasporic family think when my beautifully-composed photos of baby basil plants disappeared from the WhatsApp chat? Who would know if I fell and broke my neck in these socially-distanced days and nights?

Well, that’s easy. My lovely landlords are just a holler away and have been great in a previous crisis. The what-ifs of living alone are not a route I allow my general musings to take very often, but it would be a lie not to admit that as a women of certain years who considers herself a born-again lone ranger in life, there’s a time to reflect in the right way.

But it was really hard to halt the slither of invasive, self-pitying thoughts until The Universe took me out onto the balcony to look at the calm blue sea of Choc Bay and listen to the singingest set of birds ever to live in an avocado tree. That view alone has made me happy every day that I’ve lived here, and the pears are already popping all over the branches I can reach. There are dozens of classic movies on my laptop and two orderly shelves of books I promised myself to read once the tiny-interior redesign was complete.

Once established, Gratitude-with-a-capital-g is the hardest good habit to break. In my own experience, the more you remember to practice, the more mental health benefits accrue. At this unprecedented moment in our collective existence, some points in our day are bound to be mentally challenging. For some, the stresses of close confinement and home-schooling are a real thing. For others, loneliness that already existed is amplified under these public health restrictions. Others still are without a comfortable place to stay safe, far less stay home. So many people are vulnerable in ways unimaginable, and that’s always a healthy thought to keep in mind.

During those four disconnected days from my seaview perch on the hillside, I remembered to be grateful for:

  • Being the mistress of my own domain with nobody to annoy my peace and quiet;
  • Having ample food in my cupboard and fresh produce in the fridge;
  • Having family and friends who will seek me out anyway, because I matter to them;
  • Being able to continue filling my days with productive – and mindful – activities while the lockdown continues.

And mostly I felt the deepest gratitude to my friends Marise and Wendell, for teaching The Art of Living principles that brought me to this and other practices that helped anxiety and depression become a manageable element in my life, rather than the dread hand that governed my existence in previous decades.

But what happened on Monday morning at 9am when my phone exploded to life with a cacophony of bings?

Oh yeah, I was all over that laptop like white on rice!

Welcome To The Age Of Dunning-Kruger

Less than four months into 2020, it’s become dramatically clear that world has gone insane, and lunatics have taken over to lead us into what history will no doubt speak of as ‘The Age of Dunning-Kruger.’

In the technologically developed world over the past decade, sufferers of this challenging psychological condition have presented in ever greater numbers, in all walks of life, and at various levels of delusion. Anecdotally, it also appears that a more potent strain of Dunning-Kruger has developed since mid-2016 that now threatens to reach pandemic status in its effects on the rest of the planet.

Discovered in 1999 by two switched-on social psychologists, David and Justin respectively, Dunning-Kruger effect is “a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are.”

According to VeryWellMind.com: “Essentially, low ability people do not possess the skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leads them to overestimate their own capabilities. The term lends a scientific name and explanation to a problem that many people immediately recognise — that fools are blind to their own foolishness.”

Basically, you’re too stupid to recognise that you’re stupid, which at some twisted level of logic is a happy mindset to inhabit, maybe even the very essence of zen. The problem arises when stupid becomes the rule rather than the exception, which is, I suggest, what we’re now witnessing now, twenty years since the definition of this very 21st century condition was coined.

Nationalised Dunning-Kruger effect can be observed in the recent evolution of several of the world’s former geopolitical superpowers, sometimes to the point of sufferers attaining high status in government by debunking the very real scientific achievements of their own practitioners and institutions of the past hundred years.

Climate Science Denial Cartoon

Forget the seemingly vast impact of social media on the virulent spread of Dunning-Kruger in the last decade: The root of this particular disease of the mind goes back to the 1970s with the dawn of comprehensive secondary schools and mass media.

The proliferation of the disease started with the “dumbing down” of society via eroded public education systems, and the proliferation of television, like an unrelenting tsunami, becoming the social centre of every household. If you saw it on TV it had to be true, right? Forget school-learning, when would you ever use Algebra or Trig or USA Politics in your foreseeable future?

Dunning-Kruger continued its virulent spread with the genericising of populations by insistent, corner-officed Mad Men flogging uniforms to consumers in segmented demographics, generation after generation: Dayglo spandex and big hair; sherbert tracksuits and big sneakers; grunge chic and big sweaters; skinny jeans and big asses.

Another year, another season, another trend to make you spend.

This psychological virus was an equal opportunity disease, and throughout the 2000s, Dunning-Kruger climbed the social ladder to big business, led by aspirational brand marketing. Everything was logoed and labelled – real or fake – to create an illusion of keeping up with the celebrity Joneses. Even when it broke people financially and spiritually. The Beemer outside the shack was a reality on my patch.

When the market value of teenagers was discovered in the 50s – along with their gullibility – selling to the herd became the marketing strategy of choice. Creating a worldwide trend became the grail for every executive in search of a profit and before ‘going viral’ was a marketer’s aspiration, there were other ways of selling.

As a late boomer/early Gen-x type, I’d characterise the contribution of mass media to the ascent of Dunning-Kruger thus: In our grandparents day and when our parents were growing up, radio was the go-to media method of getting messages into the public domain. In the 1960s and 70s, network television developed with maybe three or four options to fill eighteen hours a day.

As Seen On TV Infomercials

By the Eighties, cables were being laid across the planet and the number of channels proliferated exponentially, as did their availability in every corner of the globe. Unimaginable quantities of marketing time became available during an economic boom decade and the real fight was on for every consumer dollar.

Kids programming became peppered with long neon-coloured chunks of loud-hard-selling slapped between a few minutes of cheap animation. Daily soap operas flogged household products and arthritis medication breaking up the loosest of storylines. Sleepless night times were filled with fascinating infomercials that could fool even the most canny of us into believing that melon extract would make us look like a supermodel, or some air-dry-radiowave-with-knobs contraption would cook your turkey in half an hour.

Every ten years since then, newly-monikered generations of people have been bombarded with not-too-subtle sales pitching, memorable cinemascope-worthy theme tunes, non-perfect-everything-shaming and style-or-die propaganda designed to lead them like lambs to the slaughter of regimentation. And corporations to uber-profitability.

No Playstation/X-Box/Gameboy? No friends, my yoot.

No Louis Vuitton handbag? No class, my girl.
No Nike tracksuit? No hope you’ll ever win, my boy.
No BMW? No thanks, I’ll walk in my designer sneakers.

Social media helped marketing evolve as the nerds knew it would, amplifying messaging in ways we could never have imagined, with knowledge freely available to all who had the will to learn. I remember when the internet came to my little rock in the mid-90s, and how we were gasping at how easy life and business would become. Fast forward to 2020 and experts will tell you just how much has changed since we all logged into the world wide web and never logged out.

In terms of the stupidity virus, if the 2000s was the decade in which symptoms started to present, the Teens were the years when social media took Dunning-Kruger’s biggest carriers under its wings and encouraged them to sweep the infection across platform after platform until it seemed much of the world population was suffering from early symptoms.

Now these monumentally dense wannabees were called ‘influencers’, and some of the most clueless, least educated, most narcissistic, least knowledgeable, most self-involved, least empathetic characters ever spawned by the human race were left to run rampant across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, selling snake oil, half-truths and plain old steaming piles of bullshit to an avidly following public.

As the latter part of the Teens unfolded, the power of the internet was fully behind the exponential spread of Dunning-Kruger in ways perhaps only the keenest of conspiracy theorists would have considered possible. Millions of church-goers handed off billions of their income to fake preachers with their own channel to the Big Man. Fat people spent bajillions on weightloss inventions only to end up obese and diabetic. Aging women ploughed credit-card loads of cash and bagfuls of silicon into their bodies only to end up looking like ancient clones.

Elections were interfered with by auto-didactic hackers now earning big bucks for using millions of data points against voters who had the attention span of less than the average goldfish, and less desire to seek the truth than have their thoughts delivered by private message by a far off bot.

Perhaps in future, historians of public health will identify November 8, 2016, as an auspicious date in the spread of Dunning-Kruger, offering unshakable evidence that the virus of stupidity had spread so far and wide there was nothing holding back its most crushingly imbecilic carriers from holding the highest public office in the land. In several functioning democracies, legions of undiagnosed sufferers came out to show off their thick-headedness by voting for the rich candidate that did the best job of influencing them by spreading a bunch of lies and hatred.

Bad Spelling
MAGA rallies were a Wordsmith’s worst nightmare.

So started a three year period during which it became increasingly more difficult to tell what was real, what was fake, what was news and what the feck was going on. Watching it unfold from afar, day after day, one’s compulsive reaction was to yell at the [TV/laptop/phone] screen “are you underestimating my intelligence?” in my mother’s most annoyed voice. The national vocabulary shrank with every passing month, as did the size of the national media’s cohones for calling out Dunning-Kruger fuckery going on at the highest levels of government every day.

For the media themselves were showing a range of D-K symptoms, regardless of what the colour of their political leanings. Liberals spent twenty-four-seven asking if the spreader-in-chief was a liar, was lying, was telling lies, was not speaking the truth, was untruthing. It was more than their advertisers were worth to actually answer the burning question and besides, keeping an ever growing cadre of talking heads discussing it filled the twenty-four-seven cycle. Not answering that one question was also a sign of the underpinning stupidity that was bringing the credibility of many news agencies into sharp focus.

On another side were the official channels of nitwittedness, for whom the Dunning-Kruger virus had become an editorial standard and way of life. Their viewers were treated to an-all-you-can-eat buffet of ignorance, idiocy and ineptitude wrapped up in a bland, blonde bundle of bigotry, creating a new news reality that a certain strain of D-K sufferers could really get their teeth into. They perched smiling on couches, spewed their own facts, spat on science and sucked up every stupid word spouted by their king as he unleashed his lack of knowledge on a baffled political world.

Three long years of being governed by leaders with “poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability lead[ing] them to overestimate their own capabilities” seems like a lifetime. Hundreds of steps backward in terms of legislation for the environment; slicing and dicing of social programs and arts funding; institutionalised racism that was always there; hiring and firing of key staff over and over until every seat is empty or filled by a related-by-family Dunning-Kruger sufferer.

The nationalisation of stupidity looked to be almost complete when a majority of government decided to ignore all the evidence and find their D-K King not guilty of impeachable charges that Hollywood would have declined as way-too-obvious a plotline.

As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man in 1871, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” What could possibly stop the relentless march of Dunning-Kruger into the 2020 decade, before more lunatics succeeded in taking over the asylum.

It seemed there was no end to the pandemic of stupidity sweeping across Mother Earth.

But just as she decided to complain vociferously about the treatment levelled at her for the past few hundred years, by throwing back all that garbage we’d been hurling indiscriminately around her blue seas, the planet awoke to protect herself. Just as she took back precious species that man had ceased to care about and threatened others with similar extinction, Mother Earth conspired with The Universe to create a diversion from the politics of Dunning-Kruger.

At the end of 2019, in Wuhan, China, a pneumonia-type flu cluster was reported and started to be monitored by the world Health Organisation.

The novel coronavirus was named Covid-19 on Monday, February 17, 2020.

WHO declared Covid-19 “the first Coronavirus pandemic” on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

As of today, April 21, 2020, the numbers are staggering.

WHO Covid-19 Map April 20 2020

WHO Covid-19 Map April 20 2020

So what to do? Well, Dunning-Kruger is just a type of cognitive bias, even if it has grown into a global pandemic. According to Intelligent Speculation, there are a number of ways to minimise the effects of this bias on yourself and the wider population.

“For this particular bias, it is important to stop and try to gain a more holistic perspective of the situation, wrote Jonathan Maloney just about a year ago to the day. “That is, you’re going to want to seek out as much information as possible about the particular topic of concern in an attempt to understand the bigger picture.”

In what seems now like a prophetic “how to fight Covid-19” advisory, Maloney continues: “What is more, it is important to seek out the science if it exists and seek out multiple, credible scientific authority figures who are informed about this particular topic. These scientific authority figures act as a conduit for the information coming from the community and will be able to tell you the conclusion(s) reached from all of the scientific evidence gathered to date on the topic. Instead of relying on first impressions or doing what your ‘gut’ is telling you, it is important to take these steps before making any decisions.”

Now who’s going to tell that to the Dunning-Kruger Dunderhead before they all die of a different pandemic altogether?

Trump Covid-19 Cartoon

Quarantine Zen Queen 9: Been There, Done That

Staying at home twenty-four seven is a breeze, isn’t it though? Not at all like Quarantine-with-a-Capital-Q !

After two weeks semi-self-isolating in Belfast, followed by two of all-inclusive non-Covid-Certified hospital[ity] courtesy of Saint Lucia government, I’m just effervescent with enthusiasm for staying home, back in my little pad-with-a-panorama where, as it also turns out, there’s so much to do!

Of course, at this time of year, my vista of glory cedar and flamboyants is a little frazzled under the hot sun of the kawenm, helping far-off neighbouring houses to pop even more colourfully off the hillside. There’s barely a vehicle to be heard clambering up or down the disgracefully bumpy road that passes at a forty-five degree angle outside my building. But that’s usual enough in my quiet corner of Saint Lucia.

Choc Bay is still glistening and changing colour every hour around Lilet Walcott-la. Day and night, clouds roll by – or don’t – in a constantly evolving skyscape. Flish-flashes from the Sir Richard Peterkin Lighthouse are still a mariners’ guide and reassuring landmark on my after-dark horizon.

The big avocado tree outside the balcony is throwing out little bud bouquets that will soon begin flowering to attract dozens of hummingbirds every day. By August, as with every year for the last fifty or so, she will bear dozens of head-sized, purple-skinned, butter-sweet zaboka. I’ll ask my landlord more about her history one of these days when he comes out of isolation.

In the pinky grey dawn, the same operatic birds wake me up as did before that crazy month separated me from this humble space. Is it just another stress-hormonal rush of affection for familiar surroundings and the squidgy cocoon of my own bed? Or maybe I’m really grateful for the haven of my home.

Perhaps the audible sigh of desperate relief is because, in another twist of The Universe, I’ve been in training for this Covid-19 pandemic for the past four years, living alone and working mainly from home. We were already growing club among my circle of friends in Saint Lucia and it was a great lifestyle for those of us who embraced the opportunity to set weird working hours against a fickle exercise schedule and demanding social life. Now literally half the world is doing it.

The first four days of my personal #StayHome #StaySafe campaign has been a liberty-fuelled, ergonomic-space-making, feng-shui-infused whirlwind of activity that would have made Martha Stewart’s maids turn chartreuse with envy, interspersed with big, snort-happy sleeps that don’t miss the background noise of that hotel TV. I have to say, so far so good in the chapter entitled ‘Cheer Up Sleepy Zen Homecoming Queen.’

It’s always dusty this close to the beach and after all, it’s been a whole month! Did I mention my wee nest is three minutes from the highway and three minutes from a beautiful little cove that’s almost always calm? Another reason I originally took the tiniest rental ever, when setting out at fifty-two to live alone for the first time.

About eighteen months ago, I literally went up in the world when a first floor flat was finally finished by my hard-working landlords. For a while I’d been sneaking past the building-supplies-barrier to maco it, smitten with the view as well as the opulent size, compared to the tiny-living I’d been practising downstairs. It was mine within the month and over the course of two days I single-handedly carried everything except the bed and desk upstairs .

Since then it’s become more of a sanctuary than I could ever anticipated. Restorative, productive and well-rooted with many friends and neighbours.

Except that all this week I’ve had a pervasive feeling it must all be written about in palatable chunks of quirky language, describing every detail of my escape from Q758 into 24/7 curfew, peppered with Looshish humour and ridiculous examples of human nature under extreme pressure. Something that sounds like me and around which even my wonderful boy can wrap his rare-reader’s attention span.

By Wednesday, my inner monologue was more annoying than an atrium full of animated Alexas, so I started to dismantle my ti kaye‘s two rooms and recreate the space with a plan that focused more on a permanent yoga space and less on the hot-pink blanketed bed-and-fourteen-pillows.

Inside my head, more #Quarantine #Team758 tips came tumbling to mind as the hours passed at the speed of a Whirling Dervish. Every good decorating idea was a paragraph in my ever-expanding-blogiverse. Every old photo invoked yet another welcome rush of memories and a family gallery wall was born.

Every new #MalletMeal [yep, my new favourite hashtag] was a source of proud amusement and re-purposing NEMO groceries was becoming a fine dining art. Every unearthed craft supply released a little shout of praise to Jah as another time-constructive, functional-art project was unleashed unto The Universe.

I realised the surreal newness and structure of being quarantined at a hotel had propelled a level of sharing unprecedented in my career. Trying to tell the story – as well as think things up to amuse myself – was part of the routine that sustained me for fourteen days, but now there was no reason to foist every domestic brainfart onto a corona-meme-exhausted public already at home for two weeks and more.

Taking steps to control any living-in-my-head-and-over-sharing tendencies, I put away the blog and threw everything behind the driving impetus to make a fresh start in this physical space. Suffice to say, since then there has been:

  • An absurd amount of Olympic-level cleaning and tidying for an apartment this size;
  • Rearranging of furniture and personal treasures to reflect mood in this new life episode, up to seven times between dawn and dusk;
  • An astounding level of creative cooking with cans, suddenly enhanced by the arrival of Big Chef multi-grain bread and fresh produce on Thursday afternoon;
  • Somewhat successful plant resuscitation strategies resulting in the Miracle of the Easter Bromeliads;
  • Demolition of the vertical cactus garden and reconfiguration as balcony allotment, starting from seed with spring onions, basil and sweet peas.

So now on Good Friday, April 10, 2020, it’s down to work, recalibrating my thoughts on life spent in isolation at home.

That’s easy.

For about the past year I’ve been working from here most of the time, bar visits to multi-million dollar real estate investments or stays in a five-star luxury resort or conferences packed with the Caribbean’s brightest corporate directors – when I have to actually put on ‘outside clothes’ and show up.

Living alone and working at home is my speciality, so I guess I’ve got a head start on folks for whom it will offer challenges. Writing about it is new to me though, so what is my first piece of real advice for weathering the Covid-19 quiet storm as you #StayHomeAlone?

Be grateful for every little thing, every single day.

They say home is where the heart is, and for now we have no choice but to [re]discover the joys of our own private bolt holes, whether tiny-living or in spacious style. Imagine how many souls have no safe home to sleep in tonight, or any other night of their disenfranchised lives? Or the key workers who have to go about their business, risking their lives to keep us safe. Or the Saint Lucians stranded in other parts of the world who would give anything to be right here, right now.

For our collective sake, I reiterate:

#StayHome #StaySafe #StayGrateful

 

Quarantine Zen Queen 8: Day Of The Dread

There were two dark days among the fourteen. It would be a lie to pretend it was a breeze from end to end, and I stopped lying about my mental health a couple of years ago. On day nine, things started off with my favourite ritual of sitting on the balcony watching the pink, fluffy, post-dawn skyscape with coffee and a sense of wonder. I put everything into an early hour of Sri Sri yoga and followed up with his twenty minute guided meditation called, ironically as it turned out, ‘Contentment’.

Room service was bang on time and the chef had been particularly creative with the veggie breakfast, so I snarfed down the couscous-stuffed baked tomato and broccoli accras with relish – well, actually with the Baron’s pepper sauce that my lovely young friends had delivered early on. A daily dose of 100,000+ Scoville units was exactly what my tastebuds needed to remind themselves of their purpose, even if the searing scotch bonnets made by nose run every now and again.

The Nurses came around and declared another encouraging 95.7, admired my newly-gifted Saint Lucia t-shirt – the silky-soft blue one with that matched my newly cut-off jeans shorts so well – then continued on their morning round of knocking doors and pointing that super wee gadget at a hundred foreheads. For the nineteenth time, I was thankful not to have to stand there with a glass thermometer under my tongue, waiting for the mercury to slide into place. Even more so, not to have to bend over for that other type of temperature testing.

A bout of OCD room-cleaning came next, or at least a good wipe down with a damp handtowel to remove the layer of dust that seemed to settle every day on the wooden furniture. Where it came from was a mystery, but removing it gave me a sense of purpose and an insight into what our national cadre of room attendants dealt with on a massive scale during their crucial but under-appreciated careers.

Then I made the calamitous mistake of flicking on my phone and checking the latest social media malarkey. It was day one of Saint Lucia’s national 24/7 curfew, announced the previous evening in the PM’s address to the nation – or at least to those citizens who could be arsed to watch it. After the brutal news was delivered, a few of the quarant-inmates had made some noise from their balconies and broken the rule by whacking up the Dennery Segment decibels until late. I could hardly hold it against them, given the mostly stellar behaviour being exhibited around the block by then.

So it should have been no surprise to find the avalanche of polarised posts – swinging from appeals for god’s blessings on government to the poison-pen trolling that characterised Saint Lucia’s sectarian approach to politics. Clearly, many people were taken aback by the abruptness of the announcement. Just as clearly, some of them had had their dunderheads in the sand for the past week, since curfew had been introduced and swiftly extended due to the stinking anti-social behaviour of some of our citizens. Just as he’d promised on Sunday, March 29, such selfish acts of lawlessness would be the driving force for clamping down further. The man had just stuck to his promise.

The anxiety started ratcheting up notch by notch as I broke my own promise not to take ‘them’ onboard, then erupted full pelt as I speed-read a few of the lectures and homilies from the coulda-woulda-shoulda crowd. It’s one thing to accept that many prolific posters showed a lack of education and emotional intelligence. It’s another to swallow the self-important intellectual and political jousting of those who really do know better. In the USA, politically partisan covidiocy reigned supreme, with dire consequences already obvious to anyone who understood the term “exponential”. For their electoral sins, that didn’t include the Petulant President, who was still struggling to understand the scientific predictions in full view of the world.

At least our PM had a good grasp on the reality of the threat, even if he wasn’t quite fluent enough yet to convey it without notes. Our CMO was even more impressive and reassuring in her delivery, but the story was the same dire prophecy. This full lockdown was the plan for now, whether one hundred percent of the population agreed with the rationale or not. There would be a time for the naysayers to take retribution – at the ballot box, whenever that may be. For now, I wished wholeheartedly for some of my better-educated and influential online friends to find a different way to communicate for the duration of the next few weeks, when this little island was about to be slapped in the Pitons by something worse than a hurricane.

The tsunami of negativity broke me down and I gave in to a long bout of noisy, snotty sobbing that left my eyelids swollen like a busted boxer and did little to alleviate the anxiety. Thoughts of my ‘logical family’ in Gros Islet and Marisule sparked more internal churning and I inwardly cursed out the well-off ignorami that were up to their necks in self-absorption, while many poor people – who didn’t always have one meal a day in normal circumstances – were about to fall through a loose safety net being tightened in real time as new lessons were being learnt.

Messages came in that pandemic pandemonium was rife on our streets, and another level of anxiety formed around my feelings of relief that actually, it was easier to be stuck in this lovely hotel than if I were at home right now. As I howled into the clean, white-cased pillows on one of my two comfy beds, the result of a sleepless night came to my rescue, knocking me out for an hour of deep sleep before room service delivered lunch.

But even the normally-welcomed food seemed to be a trigger today. Rice and peas had been a regular repast from day one, and my Zen Queen self had joked about it while accepting that quarantiners couldn’t be choosers. One look at the boiled rice and yellow split peas set me wailing again, despite being disgusted at the shallowness of my reaction. Two spoonfuls sealed the deal by sticking in my throat. Today I will fast, whispered the Queen, because every disappointment is a blessing.

At which exact moment there was a knock at the door. With no option to ignore it without setting off a ‘missing inmate’ search party to hunt me down, I leapt to answer, copping a glimpse of myself in the mirror looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Bel Jou’s General Manager, Dean, was standing outside, eyes full of concern above his mask, asking “Miss Dee, you ok today? I haven’t seen you.”

There’s nothing like a little empathy to push me over the edge, so I let the tears flow and admitted it wasn’t a good day at all. I even shared my current inability to eat another split pea or grain of rice, despite understanding that the chef was working with limited means. He spoke a few simple words of comfort, pointing out that everyone was bound to have a dark moment or two. Then he asked what I would like to eat, and minutes later returned to my door with a huge green salad dripping with dressing, and I smiled for the first time since the Sri Sri yoga voiceover made me do it.

That gesture of thoughtfulness became the pivot I needed to get back to a better headspace, and the rest of the day was saved from being a blubfest of monumental proportions. When all this is through, I’m going to throw a party for the people at Bel Jou, and Dean will be the guest of honour. When he came back next morning to check on me, he found the Zen Queen had returned, and we had a wee laugh about the pressures of Quarantine-with-a-Capital-Q. Another lady had been having a bad day too, he admitted, so I gave him a bodice-ripper of a novel to pass on in the hope it would help.

Sure, what was there to cry about? Well, everything really, but it wasn’t going to work as a long term coping mechanism.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 7: Reality Dawns

One of my favourite feels is arriving at a new destination in the dark and discovering what it looks like in the morning. I realised asking the receptionist for a room with a view had been a wasted joke. The carpark crowd that had been so tired, anxious and hungry were now waking up to a glorious vista over Bel Jou gardens and west to the familiar blueness of Caribbean sea and sky. Granted the first reaction of a few vocal locals was to stand on their balcony hollering their frustrations at the world in general, but we were all finding a personal strategy for coping.

It was Tuesday, March 24, and now I had an answer to all the wondering and worrying about what ‘Quarantine-with-a-capital-Q’ would look like. Let’s face it, two free weeks gazing at the ocean from a hotel room in Saint Lucia is on many people’s bucket lists, and here we were getting the full treatment courtesy of Covid-19 and the government. I decided to throw the full force of my Positive Pollyanna vibe behind every effort, and knuckled down to making this another life-learning experience, while regularly entertaining the folks on Facebook who had been / were still worried about me. Friends in the real sense, not just the social media type.

For the ninety-ninth time in a week, I praised Jah for internet, although the hotel wifi was already staggering under the weight of a hundred or so smart phones all trying to reach out to family or catch up with the news. Photos of my spacious room with its two double beds and private balcony-with-a-view were sent to the family Whatsapp chat, and their collective sigh of relief could be felt from the Dominican Republic to Belfast to Brighton and back home. Yes, there was a kettle for all that tea and coffee I’d been carrying and a fridge for Horley’s best grapes and cherry tomatoes. Yes, there were toiletries enough to keep me smelling sweet. Yes, there was definitely a TV but it would be rationed because I’d already overdosed on Corona-coverage for 48 hours in the UK and knew that watching the news would be an anxiety trigger to manage carefully. Especially here given that most of the news channels were CNN and couldn’t be relied upon for facts.

New routines would evolve around the room service schedule laid out in the official “welcome-to-quarantine’ letter that slid under the door. Breakfast around 8am, lunch around noon, and dinner around 6pm would become the high points of the day, or at least a time to speak to other humans from a safe distance. The staff were masked and gloved, efficient and friendly, despite having to put up with the odd tirade of expletives from a few ungrateful quarant-inmates who felt their human rights entitled them to the all-inclusive luxury package. Day one with no rum was not going well for some.

Room service arrived with eggs, bacon, sausages and a pile of toast. Outside I heard them yelling “what kinda [insert Patois curse here] breakfast was that?” while I rustled up a spare sausage sandwich to keep in the fridge for later. Hoarding would become an obsession – in a good way, because three massive meals a day was way too much for my travel-shredded digestive system to contemplate. It was another mind game to engage in, and games would be important if the two weeks were to be tolerable. Saving something for later would also mean I wouldn’t end up hungry and miserable at random times of the day or night, and the strategy led to some very creative snack options over the course of the first week.

I spent the first morning relieving my wheelie bag of a small pile of winter clothing, one t-shirt and a pair of old shorts I’d left in Belfast on a previous visit. Obviously ‘Hand-washing with Mindfulness’ would have to be on the regular itinerary, otherwise I’d end up living in jeans and woollies with the AC turned down to glacial. Exploring the amenities, I had to admit that life would be just fine in this space, as long as I continued rationing supplies and accessorised the room with scarves and personal artwork from my 5 year old nephew. I hadn’t seen my tiny-but-surprisingly-loud bluetooth speaker since arriving, but there it was, stuck in the wrong corner of the bag just trying to give me a heart attack. Drowning out the human noise outside would be key for my sanity, that much I knew.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? The Nurses. The Nurses who?

The Nurses who would be taking our temperature twice a day, every day for the next fourteen, that’s who! From here on, in my mind and written content, the term will be capitalized out of deep respect for every medical professional in this world at this time in history. They waved their gadget at my forehead, declared the number to be perfectly normal and exchanged a few kind words of assurance. They even got my sense of humour, and over the next few days felt like family, or at least close friends. By day five I was being called “behbeee” so I knew they liked me too.

The next visitor was bearing lunch, and that started another ritual of taking a photo of every meal, just in case I’d forget. Yeah, irrational, but when I line them all up at the end it’ll probably blow my mind. Five hours later there was dinner, and other than that I can’t remember those first twenty four hours in any detail now that we’re ten days into the vacation, I mean quarantine. But my routines evolved quickly to include morning yoga and meditation with The Art of Living community online, strategically timed cuppas, OCD-style tidying up and an hour of news in the evening to stay informed on the terrifying numbers coming in from around the globe. It wasn’t my favourite part of the day, but it felt like a responsible thing to do. Daily showering and skin care assumed spa session proportions – it’s amazing how long you can take washing your face and slapping on serum if there’s nothing else on the agenda.

So the first day was done and the great unknown was less unknown, which I find is always a better headspace. Of course there were a few things I hankered after, like real milk in my tea and cute nail polish, but those could wait a while longer. After all, every disappointment is a blessing and delayed gratification is good for the soul.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 6: The Return of PTSDee

The seat beside me was the last free one on the ramshackle bus. As we sat there baking in the full force of the afternoon sun, I secretly prayed that nobody would be forced to sit next to me – for both our sakes. The Universe provided, and I hugged my bags for comfort. Half an hour later and after someone had begged him to move the vehicle into the shade, the masked/gloved driver climbed into his seat and we were off on the last lap of this endless dystopian day.

Emerging from the airport some three hours after arriving, the road was almost empty and my hungry eyes sucked in the scenery as we sped north towards Castries. Behind the sunglasses, I was grinning like Alice’s feline friend at the “lush verdant flora” and “dazzling blue ocean” I so often wrote about to earn a kwas. If ever there was a moment to believe your own PR, that was it. I thought for a moment about the majority of my friends and family employed in tourism and wondered when things might get back to “normal”.

At some level, the anxiety had ebbed away just because my feet were on home soil, but I still had to pinch myself at the thought that this was no ordinary airport shuttle. We were more than a dozen medical-masked, potentially contagious travellers heading to quarantine and whatever that held in store. The driver probably had no choice in transporting us, so he was channeling Sandra Bullock in Speed just to get the hell out of there quicksmart. He swerved around the hairpin bends of the Barre De Lisle, swinging us from side-to-side in our seats like crash test dummies. It was all I could do to hold onto the seat in front and offer a prayer to Jah that after two days travelling through Corona-country, he wouldn’t let me end up dying in a boring old traffic accident.

After an hour we were bouncing along the moonscaped surface of Millennium Highway, bones crunching as hard as the suspension that was taking a battering beneath our bums. Now we were in the capital and suddenly people were looking at the bus, making the sign of the cross, fainting to the floor or grabbing their children and backing slowly away. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but as we crawled along Jeremie Street there were plenty of folks watching with shocked expressions on the pavements, as if they hadn’t heard of Coronavirus as yet. I noticed the temporary market was full of glorious produce and brave (or maybe clueless) vendors. The CDC rum shops were closed but plenty of citizens congregated on the street, drinking a beer and catching up on the business of the day.

Who could blame them? It must be hard to maintain “social distancing” when you coexist cheek-by-jowl in ancient government apartment blocks. Island living is more outside than in, and that doesn’t just mean manicured gardens, private pools and gorgeous beaches. When you live in the city, you sit outside on your own front step or someone else’s porch or in the alley between the buildings or at a table on the street in front of a bar. It’s easy to be judgemental from the first world, but spare a pragmatic thought for those who have no choice, even when new government regulations dictate otherwise. Welcome to real ghetto life, which is different to the B movie badman scenario that London kids think is the essence of woke.

By the time we were crawling up La Pansée – stopping every few minutes to negotiate two-way traffic on a road with a 45 degree gradient and less than one lane wide – I could have reached out and touched the fellas on the tiny balcony outside my open window. One of them locked eyes with me in abject horror, then slowly pulled his t-shirt up over his mouth and nose. I was laughing like a drain under the mask and started wiggling my fingers at him Scooby-Doo-fake-ghost style. Praise Jah, the brother got the joke and cracked up with me. He’s just lucky I didn’t grab the cold Piton right out of his fist.

Clearly the people in this neighbourhood weren’t expecting to see evidence of Covid-19 live and direct in their own front yards. I empathised with them, but Bel Jou was at the top of this particular hill and by now I just wanted the journey to be over. It felt like a relief to know I’d soon be locked away in a quiet, air-conditioned room-with-a-view, but I’d have been happy with a broom closet as long as it was big enough for me to sit down and cry.

As the bus rounded the last corner, I saw the gates manned by a dozen SSU officers in combat gear, automatic weapons and industrial-strength masks. Reality hit me in the anxiety gland and set off my biggest PTSD trigger. Being a raised in Northern Ireland during The Troubles means that guns and I don’t get along, to the extent that my hands began trembling and I started deep breathing exercises to get through the next bit. I knew they were there for our safety, but that matters not a jot to PTSDee.

We pulled into the thronged parking lot, where busloads of panicky people and safari jeeps full of multicoloured luggage jostled for space. I was tempted to leap out the window when nobody moved, but opted to be first out the door once it was ok to do so. Heading for a wall where there was nobody hanging out, I dropped my bags, grabbed my fags and chain-smoked two while watching a gorgeous fiery sunset. Don’t judge me, I’d been cutting down for more than two weeks, but muscle memory demanded nicotine if I was going to get through this final process without losing my cool. My cabin bag was at the bottom of the pile, so I stood and watched the chaos for a while before our long-suffering driver began unpacking the back of the bus. Once it was extricated, I dived into the crowd that was waiting pretty patiently at the entrance to Reception, and recognised some characters from the airport tra-la-la. They were a lot less vocal now it was obvious that “no, no, we eh goin’ home”.

A calm, professional lady from the hotel team appeared and asked for quiet, which remarkably was achieved within a few seconds. We listened to her welcoming words and I concentrated to hear the instructions that came next. One person per room unless partners, family or best friends wanted to bunk together in twos. Confined to assigned room 24/7 at the risk of being re-quarantined for another 14 days. No access to the grounds or pool or restaurant or bar as all were closed. Food would be delivered three times a day. Family could drop off extra food and other supplies but these could not include alcohol or “contraband”. The girl with the duty free rum asked if she was allowed to keep it and I rolled my eyes at a missed opportunity. Hiking through the customer-free miles of Gatwick Airport retail early that morning, I’d considered investing in a litre of the hard stuff, but decided to hoard my cash instead.

We’d be allowed to go five at a time to the reception desk, where PPE’d staff would check us in for our virus vacation. I managed to wriggle right to the front and was waved through as part of the third group, leaving the rest of my bus posse somewhere in the back of the crowd. Joking with the young lady – it’s such an irritating habit of mine – I asked for a room with a view, grabbed my card key and was directed to the main block. Finding 205, I pushed open the door, turned on the lights, dumped the bags, filled the kettle for tea and sat down on one of the two comfy beds to sob my eyes out for half an hour. Then it was time for bed, at last.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 5: Don’t Stand So Close To Me

If you’ve never sat for an hour in the hot sun wearing a medical face mask, oversized shades and a black cap, you may think I’m exaggerating, but it feels like sticking your head inside the door of a sauna while your body stays outside in the 30 degree heat. There’s a point at which all the wiping and dabbing with tissues is a waste of time, so you let the sweat flow where it may. Lying on the ground beside me was a guy claiming to be diabetic, who had made a lot of noise about “going at his home” in the short distance between the plane and our temporary queuing position.

To be honest, I started off thinking he was full of shit and trying a ting with the authorities. It’s a habit for some Saint Lucians to publicly share at top volume whatever beef is on their mind, and there was a lot of eye-rolling going on behind my sunnies and quiet swearing under the mask. After an hour, the man was looking drained while his young teenage son sat silently watching, and my mindset changed to a what-if scenario. What if he was hypo-ing right there beside me while I inwardly accused him of being a big fake? What if his kid had to witness all the unpleasant, scary effects that accompany a dramatic drop in blood sugar?

We’d been watching the circus going on around us for what felt like forever. Departing passengers were emerging in spurts from inside the tinted glass doors, blinking in the mid-afternoon sun and looking lost. Some were headed to a couple of planes that sat on the steaming tarmac, some to the buses that had been laid on for transportation to quarantine. There seemed to be dozens of airport staff, catering contractors and Ports Police milling around with no real sense of purpose which didn’t instill any sense of confidence that the “processing” would be simple or speedy.

As soon as our own Port Medical nurse reappeared and – ignoring the puddle of melting humans in the tiny Virgin group – headed towards the arrivals door, I hauled myself off the hot concrete and nabbed her before she disappeared.

“Hi again, we’re really suffering over there and one of the guys is diabetic. What happens next?” I pleaded. From her reaction, it was clear she’d temporarily forgotten us, but I couldn’t hold it against her. So far I’d seen two nurses dedicated to taking temperatures and escorting groups to buses. Everyone else in uniform seemed to be dousing themselves in hand sanitiser and having a laugh.

“Oh, you can all go inside in the cool,” she said in a tone that implied we should have guessed that ourselves.

I briefed my new travel buddies and dragged my baggage to the cavernous area where we would normally have been lined up snaking towards customs and immigration. The beautiful baby and his ladies were already inside, praise Jah, and he was still behaving impeccably. I hadn’t noticed them leave the line. Another couple of nurses were stationed at a booth, while about forty passengers remained out of two hundred that had come off a flight from the USA. They were repatriated cruise ship crew who had already spent a month in quarantine on board an MSC liner, and some of them were really ticked off.

“I eh go in no hotel,” yelled one short fella repeatedly in a testosterone-fuelled tirade. “You taking my human rights away!” He harangued the nurses while an entire cadre of uniformed officers with stupid little batons stuck under their armpits watched in silence, even smirking about the dude whose anger was encouraging others to vent at the same decibel level. A lady from my flight had been classy and circumspect for the past twelve hours under Virgin’s care, but now she kicked off in a Lucian/London accent about how we were being “treated like animals.” Once started, she never shut her trap until we were in Castries.

Of course I understood their frustration. I just couldn’t see what would be gained by expending all that negative energy at the nurses who were doing the hardest, most dangerous job. They’d never experienced anything like this before. They were obviously trying to carry out government enforced regulations that had not necessarily been well thought out. There was no social distancing in place, so people were milling about and mixing with others, new plane loads were entering the area and most travellers had no masks, no gloves, just a rancorous attitude and a ton of loud self pity.

“Behave yourself! It’s not all about you,” I hissed at them from behind the mask, knowing nobody would figure me out. What Lucian would suspect it was the nice white lady muttering “Mésyé gason!” every few minutes? Slumping down on the cool tiled floor, I was already fighting off the urge to join them hurling abuse in every direction, especially at the pint-sized pot-bellied puffed-up Ports Police that were doing eff all to intervene, shut down the yelling and give suffering medical staff a break from the ignorant histrionics.

By now I was withering with dehydration and one of the nurses pointed to a water fountain nearby. Considering a couple of hundred people were milling around after long haul flights, I felt a bottle of water for the onward journey would have been a sensible provision, but alas, nobody had thought of that. Around two hours after stepping back on Saint Lucian soil, we were rounded up and escorted to one of the island’s saddest, mankiest buses and it was obvious there would be no social distancing all the way to Bel Jou Hotel in Castries, which had moments earlier opened up as the next quarantine centre for the island.

We sat on the bus for another half an hour while passengers from two more flights were jammed into the free seats – UK, USA, Jah knows where they were coming from. I huddled up to my bag on the next seat and hoped I wouldn’t be asked to share. That moment was surreal in all sorts of ways. It was another indication that the authorities were not, as Stephen Covey recommends, “beginning with the end in mind”. No doubt the ground staff were trying their best to execute the directives, but science said that several of us might catch Covid-19 in the next hour and a half, as we hurtled up the highway in matching face masks and senses of panic.

More to come…

Quarantine Zen Queen 4: Uncharted Territory

If you were among the nine passengers aboard VS89 from LGW to UVF on Monday, March 23, I have a message: Swear to Jah I don’t always get on like Father Jack in an off licence. In fact it’s years since I consumed more than two adult beverages on a long haul flight, partly because of the amplified effect that leaves the body dessicated by dehydration, and partly because at some point they started charging and who could afford those prices?

But when the Virgin Atlantic crew welcomed us to our Premium Economy upgrade with a glass of Prosecco at 9.30am, I was secretly delighted at the chance to get pissed after two days of solid angsting. Don’t judge me, most of you would have done the same. Settling into my roomy leather window seat with its oversized entertainment monitor and two warm blankets, I felt an avalanche of emotions and gratefully accepted a rum and Coke to celebrate the fact that Saint Lucia was only nine hours and forty minutes away.

It was surreal to know there was one cabin crew for every passenger including the baby, but of course it meant service was amazing. Even better than that one time I got a surprise Upper Class upgrade from Delhi to London, when I sat there hungry until the thoughtful Flight Service Manager briefed me it was like a restaurant and one had to order from the menu. But here we were, living large on an empty airplane as we traversed the Atlantic towards the most beautiful island in the world and whatever the Universe had in store for us.

Despite VERA offering a mind-boggling list of movies and TV shows, I went for the music channel, stuck on my big, comfy headphones and started browsing the genres. “Another drink, madam?” offered the blonde one. “Does a fish have a waterproof head?” I replied, having discovered the classic album section populated by Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Kate Bush, and perfect-for-the-occasion Fleetwood Mac.

Chair-dancing is my favourite so there was quite a lot of energetic bopping in 20K, to say nothing of the personal karaoke session – like my Mum when she got her first Walkman and didn’t realise we could all hear her singing along at the top of her voice. I didn’t – as my people would say – give a shite who heard me this time. After what we had witnessed with our Grenadian friends, I needed to blow off steam and the music was soothing my melted brain. After an hour, I cruised over to the TV shows and found something even more welcome. The second season of Derry Girls was there in full, and I was just gagging to see it all.

“Another drink, madam?” offered the brunette one. “Is the Pope a Catholic?” I replied, “but hold the pathetic pretzels please!” [Btw, whoever is responsible for creating these tasteless cardboard abominations must be having a laugh!] Wrapping up in the better-than-Economy blankets, I grabbed my big bag of emergency M&S Prawn Cocktail Shells and started the first episode with great anticipation.

What a genius body of work Lisa McGee has gifted the world, and in particular, the Northern Irish people who remember The Troubles. I howled with teary laughter at the superb accuracy of the dialogue, then howled with snotty tears of nostalgia that splashed onto the purple blanky as I remembered my own senior school days just a few years before the Derry Girls. Humour in the face of adversity. Who can beat us at that, I thought, doing the big snort-laughs that make my kids laugh even harder.

By the time it got to the visit of the President in the final episode, my intercostal muscles were aching, eyelids swollen like chipolatas and I’d lost all inhibition that my fellow travellers would hear or see the madness going on in the seat over the right wing. It felt like I’d been thinking exclusively about Covid-19 for two whole weeks, so the fact that I lost myself in two hours of comedy diversion was a welcome breakthrough.

“Another drink, madam?” offered the ginger one. “Does a bear poop in the woods?” I replied. Actually that’s a lie. This time I said “Just one more for de road,” and meant it. According to the tracker, we were still five hours away from Saint Lucia and it was Bacardi-induced nap time. There, I admit it – they only had my least favourite brand but at least it was the dark and not the white. I chased it with a bottle of water and fell sound asleep in the big seat.

Three hours later, I was up like a lilty and trying not to focus on what was to come. No expectations and be ready for anything, I reminded myself, which included fourteen days of quarantine at a hotel since my landlord had respectfully requested that I not seek self isolation at home in the building that also housed six other tenants. It was a moot point because Saint Lucia had implemented mandatory quarantine over the weekend, and I was grateful enough to be getting in, far less getting home.

The Cornish cream tea was served an hour before landing and I swiped the sandwich into my Quarantine Prepper kit with the rest of the spoils I’d been gathering like an OCD magpie all through the journey. The Singapore noodles were still there, along with the lone, untouched bar of chocolate which would alleviate some major cravings if rationed to a square a day. I practically offloaded every tissue from the well-stocked toilet at the rear of the plane that had offered a leg stretching opportunity with every ‘comfort break’ as the PC crowd would say.

Documents were double-checked, landing card filled-in, cabin baggage stuffed to twice its size with every layer of clothing I wouldn’t need in ten minutes when we landed in 30 degree heat. I was on the wrong side to see the island as we approached, but considered that disappointment as a blessing in case emotional histrionics would invade my now calmer, more businesslike brain. Gazing at the mad blue expanse of Caribbean Sea was enough to make me grin from ear to ear, so I settled for a quick glimpse of Moule A Chique as we bounced onto the runway. This time I didn’t clap, still embarrassed that I was the only one to celebrate the take-off with a round of applause.

There was another emotional moment though, as we headed for the door and I remembered again that this was actually the last ever Virgin flight to Saint Lucia. The company had had decided to pull out in June, and coronavirus had simply accelerated the permanent departure of my favourite UVF – LGW carrier. I thanked them for dozens of great flights over the years and hoped they’d be back in the post-virus future. For now, they weren’t even allowed off the plane and were heading back to unpaid leave for the foreseeable future – although not before dropping off cargo in Grenada. Yeah, people were left behind but cargo got through. It was a devastating snippet of insider information that made again me ponder this cruel time in our collective lives.

So many personal stories, worries and unknown quantities. I mentally applauded the crew for being so darn cheerful and professional throughout the whole journey and hurtled down the steps to do a Pope John Paul and kiss the tarmac. Not really, but I almost couldn’t resist the urge for a flamboyant gesture. Realising I was back in Saint Lucia where the local sense of humour is such that they’d probably cart me off to the National Mental Health Centre for being a crazy white lady, I gave it a miss.

As our tiny group walked to the terminal, I buddied up with the masked, gloved and laser-focused Port Health nurse from the requisite six feet away, and asked what we could expect now. She was terse but polite: “We’ll process you and then you’ll be put on a bus to quarantine in a hotel. Just line up here for a short while.”

An hour later we were still outside Departures, sitting on the ground, leaning on the glass, sweating like pigs and getting gradually more vexed as hordes of officials wandered around kixxing off with their mates and generally not communicating with the passengers. I knew I was home and would now need all the zen I could muster.

More to come…