Saturday, 31 October 2020

Better than Chess

Although the holidays of my childhood were entirely taken up with rounders, kick-the-can, Happy Families, Monopoly, knucklebones, jacks, charades, pelmanism, Happy Families and so forth, as an adult I have rather taken against games. Perhaps it was the experience of an Easter in Cornwall where one of my English cousins appointed himself banker for every Monopoly tournament and won each and every one - that is, until he made a slip and one of us, belatedly eagle-eyed, discovered that he had brought with him to Cornwall all the money from the Monopoly set his family had at home. 

This is how he did it: we always sat on the floor to play, and that holiday the criminal among us insisted on only ever sitting right at the corner of the rug that was closest to the window. The reason, we eventually discovered, was that under that particular corner he had hidden his horde of extra money.

It may have been that shocking experience that did it, I don't know - whatever the reason, until recently games of all kinds had been banished from my life. However, a couple of weeks ago things changed completely. Against my will, we began playing a new game that has only recently been invented. It is called COVID Christmas borders. It is addictive, and is probably the most difficult game I have ever tried. 

The aim of the game is to reunite families living in different parts of the world, so that they can spend Christmas together. Let me say at the outset that anyone thinking of trying this with Australian relatives should simply give up now. Getting a flight to Australia is, if not impossible, extremely nearly impossible, and, in the unlikely event that you do manage to get one, you have to go into two weeks' quarantine when you get to the other end. 

And I don't mean quarantine as it is practised in much of the world - that is, you can land, travel to where you live or are planning to stay and then stay there, without supervision. No, in Australia, the army meet you off the plane, transport you to a hotel, where you go into a room and don't come out at all for fourteen days. That means no walk around the building, no exercise in the gym, no stroll down to the lift and back, nothing. Best of all, you pay handsomely for the privilege.

And should you decide to meet up with someone who is in Australia now and feels like a little trip to somewhere else, forget that too. Australians have to ask their government for permission to leave the country, and that permission is usually denied.

In Europe, things are, if not less strict, certainly more fluid. It is this fluidity that drew us into the game. 

Our original plan for Christmas was that we would spend it in our flat in Budapest, with our daughters, who would come to stay with us from where they live in Britain.  But on 1 September, Hungary closed its borders to those without citizenship or residency. 

Move 1, Us: Well, we thought, if the girls can't come here, then we will go to England. We will hire a house and we can all stay in it and explore somewhere new. We then spent hours poring over Air BnB properties in remote bits of Scotland, and even on islands off the coast. 

Move 1, the Authorities: The Scottish government announced that anyone from overseas would have to quarantine for 14 days. 

A good move. We were stymied for a day or two. 

Move 2, Us: We remembered Pembrokeshire in Wales. We had loved the walks on the coast near St David's. Cue more poring over Air BnB but this time in a westerly direction. 

Move 2, the Authorities: The Welsh government banned non-essential travel into its area. Would they see getting together with our children as essential travel? While it is to us, they might disagree.

Move 3, 4, and 5, Us: Well, what about Italy? Yes, lovely idea. Lichtenstein looks good. Greece? At first all looks rosy.

Move 3,4 and 5, the Authorities: An announcement that masks have to be worn at all times is made in Italy and, then, oops, the country's taken off the British safe list, along with Lichtenstein. A closer reading of Greek government guidance reveals that if officials there feel like it, they may make you quarantine, and it is impossible to tell who this will happen to and who will be spared.

Move 6, Us: Never mind, we'll all meet up in upper Bavaria. We love Bavaria. And, oh look, what a gorgeous house, right next to an enchanting village, masses of wonderful walks, pick the kids up in Munich, no quarantine for them when they get back to Britain, perfect.

Move 6, the Authorities: Germany introduces quarantine for people coming from Hungary and people coming from Britain. 

Very clever. 

Move 7, Us: We refuse to admit that it's checkmate. We will not be beaten, (we think, or hope). We will go back to plan A, but instead of Scotland, we will find a place somewhere else, a part of England that hasn't been much affected, and we will rent it for two weeks before Christmas and quarantine there. Nice places are available wherever we look, close to moorland and walks and generally ideal.

Move 7, the Authorities: Germany closes all hotels and France goes into lockdown and so, given that we were planning to drive to Britain via these countries, we will now have to plough on through day and night without any rest. On top of that, Britain appears to be on the brink of going into countrywide total lockdown, so we won't be able to meet up with anyone else, including our children, even if we manage to get there.

Move 8, Us: I don't think we are quite beaten. The Canary Islands are our latest wizard wheeze, but, to be truthful, we aren't pinning our hopes on them. Or, indeed, feeling very excited by the prospect. 

In any case, regardless of what happens, I realise that above all we have been the unwitting victims of an educational toy, a mad and complicated activity with a perpetually shifting set of rules that has taught us  we cannot always plan everything - or anything - in advance, that, even though it's almost Christmas and we've had all the time since last Christmas to get ourselves organised, we cannot, after all, control events. Sometimes everyone has to sit patiently and wait and see. 

(And yes, of course I understand that all the rules we were playing against were not really designed to teach us anything, even if they did in fact end up giving us this valuable lesson. And, yes, I know that, paradoxically, what they are meant to do is precisely the thing they forced us to learn is impossible - to control events. Still, having absorbed so extremely well the inadvertent lesson of the game we've been playing, I do have to ask whether the rules are actually useful for their intended purpose? Is there anybody who can demonstrate that the various newly introduced measures are truly controlling anything? Or is it possible that events are, indeed, uncontrollable - that, whatever happens, the virus will sweep Europe, either slowly, with lockdowns, or swiftly, without, but inevitably, one way or the other, it will sweep? And, if it is indeed inevitable, is it truly necessary to precede it with successive new waves of panic measures, that deprive so many people of so many rights and freedoms? Did anyone ask to be ruled by doctors? Has anyone in authority checked that we are all prepared to give up so much for dubious, unproved outcomes? Are there guarantees that the terrible pain being inflicted across our societies is going to be truly beneficial - or will the result be only a deferral of illness, with the addition of monstrous social and economic pain?)


  1. Sorry, but I just don’t believe you ever considered Wales

    1. I can see why you've remained anonymous - otherwise I'd be able to report you for hate speech.

  2. Our daughter, son in law and two grandsons are in New Zealand, where the rules are every bit as harsh as Australia's. They've decided that all they can do is emigrate – not to the UK alas but Canada (son in law's homeland). They had a great life in Wellington, but New Zealand is finished now. It's all terribly sad.

    1. The weirdest thing is that, if NZ is like Australia, they believe they've done better than anyone in the whole wide world.

  3. Time will tell, it seems.

    I enjoyed your game theory approach to Christmas holiday planning, says she loosely, but it seems like chairs prevails.

  4. These are good questions zmkc, and ones that have been discussed many times in/by Australian media. Our practices here have been by no means universally accepted.

    I think your questions are too complex to answer (or have no simple answers) because, in a way, we won't know until we have the benefit of hindsight. But let's just say that even if it can't be controlled completely, one of the goals, as I understand it, of strict measures is to enable hospitals and medical facilities - and in some cases - morgues to cope. If hospitals can cope with the numbers coming in, the hope is that fewer people will die. We saw terrible scenes in New York, Italy and elsewhere of people in the last northern midwinter lying on the ground outside hospitals etc waiting for a bed. That's no way to treat human beings, particularly desperately ill ones, I think.

    My children were caught up in Melbourne's very strict lockdown, and supported it despite the difficulties involved (our son being part of a young couple with a toddler home all day and both trying to work) because they saw the numbers slowly coming down and could see the freedom coming (which indeed it has, though after a long time). They also felt personally safe. We have suffered greatly by not seeing them, but it looks like we will be able to at Christmas.

    I'm not saying Australia's is the only response, but I think there is value in considering short term pain for long term gain. Unfortunately we won't know yet whether this current hiatus we've achieved is long term or not. Australia's deaths, though, have been minimal (and would have been minuscule if it hadn't for mismanagement of aged care places re the virus.)

    Meanwhile, many Aussies (like us in Canberra, those in Perth, Brisbane, all of Tasmania, NT and most rural areas) are living their lives, "relatively" normally. There are some limitations on venues and the economic impact is still to be determined but again some signs are that recovery may be faster than we at first feared, and there are some creative programs being developed to keep people working. I also wonder whether a useful re-set may occur! I am though I admit an optimist! (And I have a privileged life.)

    BTW I did find your game analogy very entertaining.

  5. I must say I didn't see any pictures of people lying outside hospitals in Europe (I didn't see any from the US but I have read articles over the years about people dying in hospital carparks because hospitals there won't let them in because they have no money, an entirely different issue and appalling if true). The disease is absolutely frightful for those who get it badly, but a small minority do; people are not dying like flies here, despite the fact that the virus is very much around. I think Australians and New Zealanders have a vastly exaggerated idea of the risk, which certainly exists, I absolutely don't deny it - I only argue that it has been got out of perspective. I wonder if many people have until now not really acknowledged that death is unavoidable, ghastly though that is to write.
    My other main concerns are a) the speed with which governments turned to coercion - Sweden has done a lot of what other countries have done but with suggestion, information and not police state tactics (they admit that they failed at the start with aged care, but, again, that doesn't make their entire strategy not worth looking at) 2) the fact that, when more began to be understood about the illness and its risk groups, more urgent, highly intelligent planning was not done to give those at low risk, the young, a great deal more opportunity to go about their lives; c) the freedom you see coming does not include freedom of movement in and out of the country and that is an enormous infringement of liberty (not to mention a huge problem economically) and I really have never seen a proper explanation for why testing cannot replace quarantine prison; d) the shocking revelation that we are not Australia but a group of states and the medical consequences that have resulted from that for some people have left me wondering what this is all about - lives have been lost thanks to those border measures, which were designed to save lives. As to Victoria, obviously one would support numbers coming down, but the mismanagement that led to that situation has cost not just Victorians but all Australians. And just now in South Australia we have seen the danger of letting government power go unquestioned. Locking down without really good reason is something no government should ever feel it can do and that is why it is important to question constantly. And yet when the young journalist Rachel Baxendale questioned Dan Andrews persistently, which is exactly the job of a journalist, she was horribly vilified, making me realise how worryingly eager to be dictated to some Australians seem to be, which makes me wonder whether we could slip permanently into living in a police state if we weren't careful.

    1. All you say makes sense, and they are all reasonable questions. Thanks for this considered response.

      I am though a bit of a Pollyanna, I admit, and I think Australians are not likely to tolerate a police state that makes no sense to them. Do you really think they (we) would? There was much pushing and pulling at Dan Andrews and as numbers came down he had to bring forward relaxations. Not, perhaps as much and as quickly as some would have liked, but probably faster than he would have liked! I do think the SA Govt panicked somewhat and their restrictions were over the top it seemed (not able to walk your dog outside?) - but it was for just 6 days and they quickly reduced it to 3. I stand though by my comment about managing numbers. Once again various places' hospitals etc are being overwhelmed with, one has to believe (doesn't one?), people who are seriously ill? This has to be managed.

      And yes, mismanagement did result in the Victorian outbreak. You could argue that if they'd gone in hard earlier, the restrictions might have only been needed for 2 months not 4. Lessons are being learnt, I hope.

      I understand that deaths are reducing, but the unanswered question still is the long term effects. Again, I don't know what percentage of people will have them or how long they will last but some people are suffering and in the absence of knowledge, this adds to caution.

      But here, I guess, is the nub. Liberty is not the be all and end all for me. The general good, however we define that, is far more important to me. But that's just me. Sure I want to travel again, but you could also say how privileged are we to be able to travel. Many people never have that opportunity. I try to remind myself of this. Meanwhile, with a centenarian father in Aged Care, I have to be careful - otherwise I'll not be able to visit him, and that would be cruel.

    2. Well, the eggs are all broken now, so there's no going back. Only time will tell. On quite a different subject, I've been meaning to say on your blog re your post on returning novels that I have an idea that Martin Boyd's The Cardboard Crown and Patrick White's The Twyborn Affair might be good fits in that interesting category, although I read them so long ago, I can't say for certain.