coronavirus

Symbols of Hope

Have you had your vaccination yet?

If you're a person of my age, that's a question you might be hearing or reading quite a lot recently.

And right now, in my case, the answer is - NO!

My age group hasn't yet been invited to have the Covid19 jab and I'm not vulnerable and I don't have underlying health conditions, so I've not been called early to our local vaccination centre at Fort Regent overlooking St Helier in Jersey.

Here we're getting on famously with the rollout of the vaccination against this awful virus, and I expect to have my jab probably sometime in the next six weeks. Although we all know that it won't cure COVID, it will protect us against becoming ill and hopefully, prevent more deaths.

The world is pinning its hopes on the various forms of the coronavirus vaccines which have been developed over the past year, to ensure we can go back to a sense of 'normal' sometime in the future. It won't kill off the virus because most experts predict it is here to stay, and it won't mean those of us who are vaccinated can just pick up our old lives without thought of risk in the future.

We will still need to wear masks, sanitise our hands, and I reckon social distancing is probably here to stay for a long time. And it's not just about us, it's about the rest of the world. Until the vaccine is shared with poorer nations and we all have an equal chance to benefit from it, the world will still be constantly on the brink of outbreaks, lockdown, restrictions.

These are extraordinary times but are they 'unprecedented'? I haven't the time to go into it in detail here, but in the course of human history there have been many 'unprecedented' times. Many epidemics and pandemics, many diseases which were the scourge of humanity not just for one year, or even decades, but for centuries.

On February 23rd 1954 a group of schoolchildren in Pennsylvania, USA, were the first group of people to receive injections of a new vaccine against a disease which has been around since pre-history.  However, it was in the 20th century that major outbreaks and epidemics began to emerge.

That disease is poliomyelitis - polio. Click on the word if you want to find out more about what it is ... but in short, it's an infectious disease which can in very rare situations cause death, in many has no effect and in others results in long term ill-health, paralysis and disability. It spreads from person to person through infected human faeces or saliva and it's been around for thousands of years. We know this because there are historic depictions of the disease and it's debilitating effects in ancient art.

However, it wasn't until the late 18th century that polio was recognised as a distinct condition. And the virus that causes it ...  the poliovirus ... wasn't identified until 1900.  Since the late 19th century there had been major outbreaks in Europe and the United States  and the race was on to try to identify this disease which in the 20th century became of the most worrying childhood diseases. You only have to look at old films and read history to see the way polio devastated lives. One of the images ingrained in my mind is that of the 'iron lung' - one of the symptoms and effects of polio is paralysis of the lungs, so these massive contraptions helped people to breathe.

Polio outbreaks blighted the first part of the 20th century. The most famous victim of a 1921 outbreak in America was future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) who at the time was a young politician. The disease spread quickly, leaving his legs permanently paralyzed.

The rapidity with which the coronavirus vaccines have been developed has been astonishing. In the past, this took many years of research and tests and trials and in the case of polio it wasn't until the 1950s that the first vaccines were developed by various virologists and medical researchers.

In the late 1940s, President Roosevelt helped to create an organisation by the name of the March of Dimes, to find a way to defend against polio. They enlisted Dr. Jonas Salk, head of the Virus Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Salk's research resulted in the discovery that polio had as many as 125 strains of three basic types, and that any effective vaccine needed to combat all three. Little by little, by growing samples of the polio virus and then deactivating  or “killing” them by adding a chemical called formalin, Salk gradually developed a vaccine which was able to immunize patients against polio without danger of infecting them.

And it was that vaccine developed by Jonas Salk that was used during that first mass anti-polio vaccination of the children from Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on this day back in 1954.

As with the current situation, there wasn't just one vaccine being developed. Soon after that first trial, another medical researcher, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine against polio ... and this is the treatment which is credited with having made the difference to the spread of polio in the second half of the 21st century.

This vaccine, which is a drop on a tongue, is the one most commonly used. I remember as a little girl queuing up in front of a school nurse and having a little drop of something bitter on my tongue. I didn't know then that this was protecting me from paralysis and disability. 

Not everyone was so fortunate. I have a couple of friends who were infected as children and have ended up with physical disability - it usually affects the legs. I feel fortunate that I was born post 1954 when vaccines were available.

Yet the availability of a polio vaccine did not eradicate the disease immediately, or even within a half a century. Polio is still around today and it's mostly in parts of the world that are poor and disadvantaged, and where there is still conflict.

In recent decades there's been a real effort to try to eradicate the disease, led by the World Health Organisation. If polio is completely eliminated, it would be the second disease after smallpox to disappear from the face of the earth.

In 1988 when the WHO initiated the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, around 350,000 children a year across the world were being paralyzed by the polio virus. Back at the beginning of the 21st century the WHO was reporting that the number of cases diagnosed each year had been reduced by 99.9%.  In 2016 polio numbers had been driven down to 42 cases across the globe.  

The multi-billion dollar global effort to eradicate polio is concentrated on children and among those who embraced this campaign more than 35 years ago are the members of Rotary International. 

Their 'Purple for Polio' campaign involves giving the polio vaccine to children across the world.

Why 'purple'? It's because every time a child receives their life-saving polio drops on mass polio immunisation days, their little finger is painted with a purple dye ... this shows they've received their polio vaccine.

Crocus polio 1I've sort of got involved in the campaign over the past years. I've interviewed local Jersey Rotary members about it on the radio and I've been to celebrations, and I've bought and planted purple crocus corms which about this time of year are beginning to pop up across the island, and in my garden!

As the campaign has developed, it has come down to just a few countries where polio is still 'wild' ... including Pakistan and Afghanistan. There, poverty and conflict mean that clinicians often can't get into isolated rural communities, and sometimes prevailing cultural and even religious beliefs prevent the population embracing the treatments or even allowing the medical professions in to host those mass immunization days. It's slow progress in places like this.

Unfortunately during the coronavirus pandemic, where travel has been so restricted, cases of polio have started to rise again. Last year more than 200 cases of wild polio and around 600 cases of the vaccine-derived form of the disease were registered. According to news reports, most of the vaccine-derived strains of polio are in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but rogue strains of polio also emerged across sub-Saharan Africa, Yemen, Malaysia and the Philippines.

So there is still much to do! It might still take a while, but across the world there are those absolutely committed to seeing an end to this terrible disease which affects not just individuals and their futures, but families and whole communities.

We're not quite there yet, but the signs of the purple crocuses springing up in my garden, and across Jersey, are symbols of hope.

 


Audacious Questions

If you've been following my threads of thoughts this week you'll know that we've started our journey into Lent - the 40 day or 6-week preparation for Easter.

During this holy season it's all about reflection ... to prepare us for thinking about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, and the celebration of Easter morning when he defied death and was resurrected.

That's the point of Christianity really, this belief in a God who is a living being, not just a sculpture or an icon, or even just a concept or way of thinking that can make us 'better people'. Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and that by dying and rising to life, death itself is conquered so that we can all live eternally, even when we die, if we have faith and belief in him.

It's BIG stuff - so that's why during Lent there's a good deal of self-reflection and prayer going on.

In the very early days of Christianity, when believers were constantly under the threat of persecution from the Romans, being a Christian was counter cultural and 'conversion' had to be carefully considered, so those wanting to be baptised as Christians often spent loads of time studying and preparing.

Many chose Easter as the date for their baptism into the faith, and the 40 days running up to that important step in life were often set aside for preparation and study. Others in the 'church' joined them by observing the season in similar ways, to support their new friends and sometimes to renew the commitment of their own baptisms. And so the traditions of Lent were born. 

Traditionally, there are three things that Christians did and still do during Lent - prayer, 'almsgiving' (or giving to good causes and those less fortunate than ourselves) and fasting ... and the last point is where the idea of 'giving up something' for Lent comes in.

During Lent even if believers don't fast and deprive themselves of food and drink, it has been common to give up something that is important to them for 40 days, as a way of putting priorities in place, experiencing 'sacrifice' and drawing closer to God.  It's part of the 'conversion' experience of Lent. 

And nowadays, even people without faith have taken up this idea of giving something up for the season ... maybe trying to part with a bad habit, or not eating meat, or giving up alcohol or chocolate for these 40 days. Some take the money they save and give it to charity. Very much in the spirit of Lent. Others do it without realising why they're doing it! It's become a trendy thing to do!

After the year we've had with the coronavirus pandemic, where many of us have had to give up so much anyway, it might be a stretch too far to deprive ourselves even more during Lent, but there is another way we might think of getting involved in the Lenten season.

For a couple of years, instead of giving things UP I have instead taken a different route and have given something AWAY.  In my case, I ended up with 40 items of clothing/books/bric-a-brac in a black plastic bag which I then donated to charity.  

This year I may have to think a bit more laterally because after filling quite few bag loads of clothes, I'm not sure I have many good things to give away now  ... but hey... I'm up for the adventure!

Or maybe the idea of starting something this Lent, rather than giving something up, is the way to go?

Perhaps instead of depriving ourselves of things we love, we can use the next six weeks to improve ourselves. Maybe do some reading that inspires our spirit or perhaps do some volunteering?

Lent is down to us really. The journey, the adventure, has just begun. Question mark

 

So - here are some audacious questions  

        How will you spend your Lent?

Are you planning a 'spiritual journey' over the next 40 days?

          Are you 'giving up' something?

   If so, what that might be? And will that be a sacrifice? 

Or are you planning instead to start something new this Lent?

Over to you!

                                     

 


It's Pancake Day!

It's Pancake Day! Pancake 2

Well at least it is here in the British Isles!

It’s Pancake Day – a day to ... well ... eat pancakes!

Whether you’ve tucked into a pancake for breakfast, or will have them for your evening meal – there are loads of ways to eat them ...

Sweet ... with lemon and sugar or even some fruit or chocolate spread!

960x1200-pancake-Sprouts2278-768x960Or savoury – cheese, ham, spicy minced meat, avocado... I’ve even seen a recipe for pancakes with Brussel Sprouts and smoked salmon!

It seems pancakes go with anything and everything.

All you need is some flour, egg, salt and little milk, a little pan and – voila!

 

But the question is -  why do we eat them particularly on this day?

Why is it ‘Pancake Day’?

Well, actually the real name for this day is ‘Shrove Tuesday’. It’s the day before the start of the season of Lent – that begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday.

The 40 Days of Lent were and still are traditionally a time when people fasted to prepare themselves for the holy festival of Easter which commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on the Tuesday before it all began, Christians went to confession and were ‘shriven’ or absolved from their sins, ready for the serious time ahead.

It was also a day when kitchen cupboards were cleared of all the  stuff which couldn’t be eaten  during the Lenten Season, including eggs and fats which they mixed with flour to make – pancakes!

In other parts of the world Pancake Day is called Mardi Gras ... or ‘Fat Tuesday’ ! That phrase also relates to a season of festivals running from the feast of the Epiphany. which we celebrated on January 6th, through to Shrove Tuesday.

Polish_paczkiSome cultures, including Poland, make donuts instead for Fat Thursday – that was last week! It happens five days days before the start of Lent.

So – however many pancakes you eat today, and however you eat them – you’re in good company.

Pancake

 

And you’re part of history ... the pancake has featured in cookery books as far back as 1439. And no sooner were they cooking them than people were flipping  them! In the town of Olney in Buckinghamshire they’ve apparently been tossing  pancakes since 1445 – it’s the most famous Pancake Race  in the world! Of course, it's not happening this year because of the coronavirus pandemic ... but it will live on!

 

*Footnote - by the way if you happen to be listening to BBC Radio Jersey this morning  - Shrove Tuesday 2021  - you might hear these words I've written above. I have recorded them ... or most of them ... for a little 'Pancake Day Explainer' ... just part of my contribution to the understanding and fun of the day!


Keep Left

We're fortunate here in Jersey.

Luckier than many parts of the world, we know.

Although during the Covid19 pandemic we've had some big numbers relative to our small population, and we have been locked down, with no family or friend visits, schools closed, businesses shut, cafes and restaurants and hotels not open, we are in a good place right now. Or at least, we're beginning to get there.

Numbers have fallen, people are being vaccinated and gradually our island is beginning to re-open. 

And that's why non-essential shops re-opened a week ago and we are beginning to see a relaxation of the restrictions. Schools are already open, next week we expect hairdressers to open their doors again and soon we will be able to go to eat out, indoors, at a very safe distance and with all the safety measures in place.

We've been here before. We were doing well last autumn until some people decided to forget that we were in the middle of a pandemic and organised parties, and then coronavirus numbers shot up and restrictions had to be imposed again. Everything closed on Christmas Eve and it's only now we are beginning to see things easing.

So hopefully this time around people are being more cautious. Keep left

It's been more than a month since I ventured into 'Town' ... Jersey's capital of St Helier ... but I had to do so this week and that's when I experienced the Keep Left system in the main shopping area - King Street and Queen Street.

I was, I have to say, rather disappointed that not EVERYONE was keeping to the  left, and lots of people weren't wearing masks outside of the shops, but I didn't feel unsafe. Because I was keeping to the rules, wearing a mask and even had gloves on ... woollen ones because it was freezing!

But it got me thinking.

We all need some 'rules' in life, don't we?

If we are living in community, we need to know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour. We can't all just do as we please because by doing that, although we might make life good for ourselves we risk making life unbearable for others.

Most societies have rules for living - laws - and mostly they are in place for the common good. Many of them are based not just on consensus but also have their basis in shared culture, history and even in religious/spiritual tenets.

Think of the Ten Commandments handed down to us from early Biblical times. The first few are about the relationship between humans and God, but most are about living in family (honour your father and mother) and living in community - you shall not steal, commit adultery, murder, lie against your neighbour or 'covet' what they have and you do not. It's just basic stuff, common sense really, but on this set of rules many laws of lands across the globe are based.

I understand there are some people who just don't like to keep to any rules. In political terms that's called 'anarchy' but most people who make a decision to pass on the rules set out by their community would not call themselves 'anarchists'. They might think of themselves as 'individuals' or 'free thinkers', but imagine if we were ALL just determined to do our own thing, regardless of others.

If there were no rules of the road, and we all just drove on any side of the track, there would be chaos, and probably some accidents. If there were no speed limits then people could just drive as fast as they wanted and risk killing people ... and yes, I am aware that speed limits are some of the rules that many many drivers tend to ignore! If we just took whatever we fancied from a shop without paying for it, knowing that we would not be changed with theft, what would that do to the economy?

Anyway, you get my drift.

Not that I want to live in a highly controlled society, but there is a need for some boundaries for our behaviour. And whether it's because you're a free thinker or just basically selfish and think only of yourself before others, one thing that this pandemic has taught us is that we DO all need to behave responsibly and follow the set out guidelines if we are to beat this virus.

SO - for all those in Jersey planning to do some Saturday shopping in Town.

Please ... Keep Left, keep your distance, wear your mask and sanitise endlessly.

Yes, I know I know ... lots of rules and some of us might be getting a bit bored of it all.

But if we don't do it, we could well find ourselves indoors, stuck at home, no seeing family members, with no retail therapy, or sports or eating out for much much longer. 

Not sure about you but I'm happy to stick to the rules if it means that I won't have to do so forever and ever, until the end of time!

Thanks everyone!

 

 


That February Feeling

It's that time of year when life can be a little overwhelming. At least that's my experience.

January is over but Spring is not yet with us. We are still often being battered by the winter weather, wet and windy, cold and dull. Life can feel a bit dark in the first couple of weeks of February. Winter can seem never-ending.

Of course, we know it WILL  come to an end ... after all, this is not Narnia during the reign of the White Witch when it was, in the words of their creator C.S.Lewis“Always winter but never Christmas.”

But sometimes it does feel endless.

Although here in Jersey in the Channel Islands we've had the occasional bright winter's day in recent weeks, January was the wettest on record, with only a couple of days of the month rain-free, and right now we're in another dull and cold snap. 

Add to that the fact that we've had nearly a year of pandemic restrictions, working from home and not much getting out, well it's very easy to start to feel sorry for oneself.

But on a day like today I need to remind myself that, even though life is getting me down, actually I have so much to be thankful for.

So many people during this coronavirus pandemic have lost their lives, or loved ones. Many have lost their jobs and life is very insecure. Although the past year for me has not been a bed of roses, I have certainly not had a terribly negative experience. I'm sure I'll talk more about this again from time to time.

But I do need to keep on top of the tendency towards negativity.

A few years back, I realised that sometimes we forget to be grateful for the things we have in our lives. We chase dreams and perhaps things out of reach, rather than just being satisfied with and thankful for what we have - right now!

It was then I created a Facebook page called 'Don't Forget to Say Thanks' . It's not the most followed page in the world but every now and then, when I need to remind myself of the need to feel gratitude, I post a little thought. It's a work in progress. Aren't we all?

So, today, when I am feeling a little worse for wear and mournful of the season, I turn to that inspiration ... and share one encouraging thought with you!

Thanks Feb 9

 


Groundhog Day

Do you have a favourite film? 

Or maybe you have a few movies that would be in your Top Ten? If you were making a list.

Are you an action movie fan, or a sci fi fanatic, or perhaps like me you prefer RomComs, a little light  romance and comedy? 

I have to admit, there are some movies that I can watch over and over and over and over and over... and not get bored. And one of those is linked to today.

February 2nd in North America - the USA and Canada - is Groundhog Day and I love the Bill Murray movie of the same name. More of that in a moment.

GroundhogBut first ... what IS a 'groundhog'

Well, it's a kind of rodent, and apparently belongs to the marmot or ground squirrel family. It's found in the USA, Canada and into Alaska. Among other characteristics, they have big teeth and they live in burrows. When fully grown a groundhog can be as long as 27inches (about 69cm) and can weigh as much as 14pounds (over 6kg). I've been doing my research and all I can say is, that groundhog is not a small squirrel!

One of the important things to know about the groundhog is that are hibernators. They often dig a separate 'winter burrow', which they build below the frost line, which means even when it's frozen up top, the animals can safely sleep away the winter months without fear of freezing to death. Usually, groundhogs hibernate from October to March or April, or thereabouts. 

And that's relevant to the tradition of Groundhog Day (the actual day) which apparently is an old superstition from the Pennsylvania Dutch community in America, which says that if a groundhog emerges early from it's burrow - on February 2 - then it can tell us if Spring is on its way.

So the legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will quickly nip back into its burrow, and winter will go on for six more weeks. If, however, the animal does NOT see its shadow because it's too cloudy, Spring will arrive early!

All this predicting the weather is part of ancient 'weather lore' which is found in lots of cultures, including German speaking areas (and the Pennsylvania Dutch people come from Germanic-speaking areas of Europe) where the animal predicting the weather is usually a badger, but sometimes a bear or a fox.

And these weather lore predictions are also linked to the Christian festival of Candlemas, which we also celebrate today. Tradition has it that if the weather is clear on Candlemas, we're in for a long winter!

Now of course there's no scientific evidence for such weather predictions, but it's fun isn't it? 

In North America, February 2nd has taken on a special significance. Groundhog Day ceremonies happen on this day across the USA and Canada, but it's in a place called Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, that the most popular ceremony occurs, where the focus is a groundhog called 'Punxsutawney Phil'.

And that's the link to the 1993 movie that I mentioned at the start.

'Groundhog Day' starring Bill Murray and Andy MacDowell is largely located in Punxsutawney around the iconic ceremony and the film has not only helped to immortalise the seasonal celebration, but the concept of it has also added a new phrase to our dictionary.

If you haven't ever seen the movie then sorry for the spoiler. Bill Murray plays a cynical (and rather obnoxious) TV weatherman called Phil who is sent to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony, and then finds himself in a time loop through which he is forced to re-live February 2nd ... Groundhog Day ... over and over and over, until he becomes a better person. He learns to live each moment at a time, rather than always chasing ambition and celebrity.

As a result of the movie which was conceived, co-written and directed by Harold Ramis,  we now use the phrase 'Groundhog Day' for any situation which is monotonous, repetitive and even unpleasant and boring.

Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, lots of us feel like we've been living Groundhog Day - don't we?

Working from home, staying in and not being able to go out and mingle with others, not being able to see family members - much of our time during 2020 and into 2021 has felt so repetitive and monotonous. I think 'Groundhog Day' is a great way of describing my pandemic experience.

But just as Weatherman Phil in the movie came out of his Groundhog Day a better person, so I believe we can emerge from the COVID19 experience improved and finer examples of humanity.

Early on in the pandemic, especially, we saw so many acts of kindness and caring. The Thursday 8pm 'Clap for Carers' which some are still doing as they Clap for their Heroes. People checking on their neighbours, delivering food and medicines, thinking of others. 

And although Covid fatigue might have stolen a little of that from us as the months have progressed, I believe this time has shown us what a kinder and more compassionate world can look like. 

I'd like to believe that a memory of that kindness might be part of the legacy of our Pandemic Groundhog Day, along with the realisation that life is short and that, no matter how much status and money and position and ambition we chase, perhaps we just need to take more time to breathe, to enjoy our environment and the beauty of the world around us, to appreciate our loved ones more, and maybe even take pleasure in the simple things - like a walk on a Spring morning - no matter when that might be.

 

 


Blue Monday

Hello!

Welcome to 'Blue Monday'!

That is, apparently, what today is.

Traditionally, the third Monday in  January has been given this rather gloomy title because of a combination of things.

Post-Christmas blues, dark nights, perhaps the realisation that we've still got quite a few weeks of winter ahead, maybe the arrival of bills, including credit-card bills following an expensive festive period. And let's not forget the added pressure of the coronavirus pandemic this year.

I know, I know - all a load of old nonsense, right? Maybe. Who's to say being down in the dumps is especially pertinent today?

Of course, unfortunately for some people being 'blue' is not just for one day. It's much longer lasting. Some do suffer serious depression and it's not just about feeling 'down' for 24hours. I also know quite a number of people who are really affected by the time of year. Some experts call it 'SAD' - Seasonal Affective Disorder - and it can be really debilitating.

If you are feeling constantly sad and depressed, it's not a bad thing to get some help.

But if it's just today that is making you feel 'blue' then here's a little thought for you which might help you to smile through today, if you can!

It's a poem I came across in recent years. It does mention an 'epidemic' ... sorry about that ... hope no one is offended.

But it might help.

It's apparently attributed to the brilliant, funny, talented Spike Milligan, who himself experienced challenging mental health at times during his life.

 

A SMILE

Smiling is infectious

You catch it like the flu.

When someone smiled at me today

I started smiling too.

I walked around the corner

     And someone saw me grin.

When he smiled I realised

I'd passed it on to him.

I thought about the smile,

And realised its worth.

A single smile like mine

Could travel round the earth.

If you feel a smile begin

Don't leave it undetected.

Let's start an epidemic quick

And get the world infected!

(Spike Milligan)

Smiling flower