Martial Lore ...
29 April 2021 | or Ends & Means
We were in Portugal when all this covid malarky kicked off.
And we still are, what with international travel having been somewhat frowned upon.
At first, this looked to be another confirmation of our uncanny and ill-deserved ability to fall neck deep in shit and still come up smelling of roses. If you're going to have to sit out a global pandemic there are many situations a lot worse than that in which we found ourselves. We had independent incomes; the climate was mild; our airy apartment was just two minutes' stroll to the beach, and we were in an otherwise empty enclosed complex with its own pool. A variety of coastal walks could be reached on foot in minutes. There were two supermarkets that delivered essential supplies such as smoked salmon carpaccio and Puligny Monrachet '95. Just in case we became bored with such basic home catering, there were a plethora of desperate food outlets delivering everything from pizza to Indian via Thai, Portuguese, Japanese, tapas, and all points in between. It looked like we were set up for the duration. We could soft it out.
And so we could. What must life have been like for a laid-off, minimum-wage barman, living alone in a squalid little bedsit in Grimsby, spending all day staring out of his solitary window which looked out onto a tiny walled yard with only the outside privy to break the bleak, grey monotony, and the sole sign of life being one of the local feral cats dropping in for a quick shit? Doesn't bear thinking about.
Our unjust and unwarranted good fortune, however, was about to meet its nemesis. "We've got it sorted here", we crowed inwardly while hypocritically feigning sympathy for those poor sods stuck in lockdown in the UK. "All we have to do is sit here through a few months of mild inconvenience and wait for the boffins to pull their collective fingers out and sort out this vaccine business."
Which, of course, they did - five times over. Well, six if you count the Russian one, and seven if you include the snappily-named BBIBP-CorV from The Peoples' Republic of China. It only lasts about three days, but it is ridiculously cheap. Line honours, though, must go to number eight, Donald J Trump's inspired scientific breakthrough of intravenous hypochlorite bleach. The man's wasted in politics, he should be running the Medical Research Council.
This was where the downside of sitting it out in Portugal became painfully apparent. The UK may be grey, cold, expensive, generally xenophobic and run by Boris, but it has an experienced and well-performing public health system and a well-developed collegiate approach to public administration. Portugal, on the other hand, is more, shall we say, Mediterranean, in its approach to such matters.
Everything and everyone are so much more personal, individual, and idiosyncratic. How something gets done (or indeed, if it ever gets done at all) depends very much on who, not what. Procedures and progress are determined not by policy but by prejudice and personal experience. You can ask the same question of five different officials and get eight different responses. This creates an infinitely complex, unstable web which serves as a perfect exemplar of chaos theory. The slightest alteration ripples through the whole system in a cascade of panic and destruction. Any internal consistency that might, inexplicably, have been there in the first place buckles under the strain and self-destructs. As soon as the lowliest telephone sanitiser (second class) crawls his way up the greasy career pole to data input clerk (probationary) a tsunami of uncertainty and random change rampages through the whole structure until it eventually, though temporarily, settles down into a new metastable arrangement.
As a result, fundamental principles and procedures change without warning, rhyme or reason. At the beginning there was a relatively clearly designed and explained prioritising system that determined who was to get first dibs at the vaccine. This was based on a trade-off between clinical need, maintaining the provision of essential services and economic considerations. This compromise evolved early on as politicians, clinicians, epidemiologists, civil servants and other interested parties tried to square the circle. In the main, it was generally understood and mostly approved of.
This happy state of affairs lasted about as long as clean sheets on a teenage boy's bed and after that seemed to change on an hourly basis. Co-morbidities were in and out like a premier league football manager. Who was, and wasn't an essential worker seemed to be determined by Schrodinger's cat. At one point I was convinced that it was actually being done alphabetically and looked into changing my name by deed poll to Aaron Aardvark.
And so it came to pass that by the 26th of April, Israel had 62% of its population vaccinated, while the UK boasted a healthy 50% and Portugal trundled disconsolately along behind with 21%. The likelihood of our getting a jab before the virus got us made the national lottery look like good odds. We were confronted by the ultimate irony of our luck and paranoia having got us through so far only to fall at the last fence. You can only delay the inevitable for so long. The little bastards will find a way in the end. They've got all the time in the world. I wouldn't say I stared Death in face, but I didn't half give it a look.
Desperate times require desperate measures. The whole programme faced failure on a catastrophic scale, so the government was forced into actually doing something. And, uncharacteristically, they didn't pussy-foot around this time; they fired the top honchos of the whole ramshackle edifice and brought in the military to run the whole shooting match (unfortunate choice of metaphor). Now, I'm just a teensy bit ambivalent about the military, especially in civilian contexts, but in this case it was a stroke of genius.
It has often struck me that if want something done, done well, done thoroughly, and done quickly, with no arguments and no awkward questions asked, then what you need is the military, preferably the Army.
Or a mafia hitman, I suppose. They're not renowned for suffering existential crises over the ethical and philosophical implications of their chosen line of work, either.
Can you imagine what it would be like with the army in charge of the vaccination programme? Picture the scene: The local primary school has been requisitioned as a vaccination centre. Vulnerable pensioners are playing shuffle dodgems with their Zimmer frames in the tarmac playground cum waiting area when an RSM, all waxed moustache and swagger stick, strides purposefully into the melée:
"ORL RIGHT YEW 'ORRIBLE LITTLE SPECIMENS: ATTEN - SHUN!"
The assembled pensioners look bemused at this interruption of their morning grumble and continue to mill aimlessly around the playground in their slippers and dressing gowns.
PRISONERS PATIENTS WILL LINE UP IN FOUR RANKS IN DESCENDING HEIGHT ORDER!" bellows the RSM.
Bemusement intensifies and the shuffling stops. Grumbles and murmuring start. No attempt is made to form orderly ranks and files. They start to get the hang of things after twenty of them are cajoled at gunpoint into dropping and giving twenty press-ups. Persistent troublemakers are taken away and shot. A querulous voice emanates from the middle of the ranks.
"Please, sergeant major, which vaccine are we getting?"
"WOT VACCINE IS YEW GETTIN'? WOT VACCINE IS YEW GETTIN'? YEW IS GETTIN' THE VACCINE WOT WE IS GIVIN' YEW. THAT'S WOT VACCINE YEW IS GETTIN!"
Another voice pipes up: "Sergeant Major, I really must protest..."
The sergeant major turns a delicate shade of puce.
"YEW 'ORRIBLE LITTLE MAN, YEW..."
A sergeant whispers in his ear.
"ORL RIGHT YEW 'ORRIBLE LITTLE MRS LA-DI-DAH LADY MAYOR YEW. GET BACK IN LINE!"
"PATIENTS! ROLL UP...SLEEVES!"
"PATIENTS! PREPARE TO RECEIVE... VACCINES!"
"Ow! That hurts, sergeant major."
" 'URTS? 'URTS? THAT DOAN' 'URT, YEW SIMPERIN' LITTLE NANCY-BOY! I'LL TELL YEW WOT 'URTS - A BAYONET UP THE JAXIE! NOW THAT BLOODY 'URTS!
It's brutal, but by Christ it's effective. Between them the logistics, medical, signals and transport corps turned things around here, as far as we know, without the assistance of special forces. Vaccination rates are growing exponentially. There's hope for us crumblies yet.
Stop Press! We have a date and a time for our first jabs. Tuesday 4th May, since you ask. Mind you, I'll believe it when I feel that needle go in.