Postcard

Postcard From Vienna

by Russell David

Why did I visit Austria? Why now? Here’s why: I’d been due to stay in Vienna (and Luxembourg) in 2020, having paid for non-refundable hotel rooms but had been forced to cancel (twice); both hotels said I could use the booking until the end of 2021. Little did I realise then that it wouldn’t be until 2021 was nearly over that a trip would be feasible. So I embarked on this three-night break because I sort of had to, and a few tweaks to the testing requirements meant that this was unlikely to be as much of an ordeal as my trip to Slovenia in September was.

It’s no surprise most people aren’t booking holidays at the moment. In the 10 days leading up to the flight I received five emails from Ryanair, four of which were identical, headed ESSENTIAL REMINDER FOR YOUR TRIP in bold, capital letters, red and underlined. A couple of lines down it said: “Failure to comply with local travel requirements may result in you being fined or denied boarding or entry into your destination.” That too was in bold and underlined. There was then reams of copy about the E.U. Digital Covid Travel Certificate, passenger locator forms, masks and tests, until it returned to its theme: “Failure to produce required forms/negative Covid test results may result in boarding/entry to your destination being denied and may also result in very expensive, on the spot fines.” By this point you’re thinking: “Christ, should I really have booked this holiday? Is it worth the pain and stress?”

It didn’t start too well. At the Ryanair departure gate at Stansted, already a whirlpool of anxiety and hassle thanks to the staff’s incessant cries of “are you double vaccinated?” and “your bag’s too big, you have to pay extra”, I was called forward, unmasked as ever, clutching my exemption letter from my GP, and came face-to-mask with, well, let’s call her Eva. She peered at my letter for a long time before drawing herself up.

“I’ve let you on this time,” she said with the imperiousness of the Empress of India, “but this is out of date”, and she pointed to “July 30th, 2021” on my letter.

I was rocked back on my heels. Why on earth would the date matter? I have the exemption largely because I can’t breathe properly in a mask because of a lung condition I had 20 years ago and will have for the rest of my life (and I also don’t like being a subservient drone who blindly accepts politically driven dubious science). I begged to disagree, and I also pointed out that these GP missives are £25 a pop.

“Yes, I realise that,” Eva said in a tone that suggested I’d just told her the planet we were standing on was called Earth, and then her body language said “Next” and she looked for a new victim.

“You’re wrong,” I couldn’t help grumbling as I walked away.

“I’m not,” she called after me.

“You are!” I said a little loudly.

Standing in a very non-socially distanced queue I checked on the web on my phone and I found this on Ryanair’s mask exemption policy:

If you have an exemption from wearing a mask, you must bring a signed doctor’s letter or a medical certificate (either in a printed or digital format). The certificate must state that you’re exempt from wearing a face mask but does not need to specify a medical reason for the exemption.

So no mention of a date required. Then I had the joy of meeting Eva again 10 minutes later as I went to board the plane, so I gently (no really, I was very nice) told her what I had just read. Apology? She should coco. Instead, she doubled down.

“This isn’t even from a GP or hospital,” she spat, clearly not being able to understand that the Heart of Bath Medical Practice is a GP practice and that it was signed by a doctor, with the names of five other doctors at the bottom of the letter.

“You’re wrong about that, too,” I snapped, my previously genial manner deserting me. “This is appalling. I’m reporting you.”

“You do that,” she sneered with unrepentant glee.

“Oh, I will,” I intoned as I joined yet another cattle queue to get on the plane. When every scald, every fishwife, every fishhusband, has been turbocharged by 20 months of state-sanctioned tyranny this is what you get. Anyway, the report’s in!

The flight itself was fine, despite the pressure pill she’d popped me slowly dissolving in my stomach as we crossed Europe. Disembarking in Vienna, though, my day got worse again.

At passport control, my naked face was once more proclaimed indecent as I was sent to one side to show my exemption letter to the meanest, scariest looking man I have seen in many a year. He was wearing what looked like army fatigues, had a shaved head and of course an industrial-strength mask (definitely with a scowl behind it). Some bloke in front of me was already getting big hassle over his NHS Covid certification. When my turn came, I nervously pushed my little letter forward.

He looked at it with as much disgust as if I had just expectorated a globule of bright green mucus into the palm of his hand. And then, of the document that been acceptable for easyJet and Slovenia, he snorted – and I’ll never forget this – “This is nothing!” He indicated that the letter didn’t provide enough details of my condition and didn’t have enough passport-type data on it.

I immediately reasoned that it would be unwise to adopt the airport tactics of Sexy Beast’s Don Logan. I also decided that to quip “Now I know why this country was the birthplace of Hitler!” would be unwise. I’m smart like that.

I meekly acquiesced and pulled my mask out of my jacket pocket and put it on. Being able to breathe properly and strong principles be damned when a bellicose airport skinhead stands before you. He said something I didn’t fully catch (something about a 250 Euros fine I think), so instinctively I pulled down my mask to say “Pardon?”

“Put the mask up!!!” he barked.

In retrospect, I’m surprised he allowed me to get away with my blue cloth mask, as FFP2 masks are now required everywhere in Vienna, (well, theatre is very popular here). I eventually had to buy one to enter the splendid Sigmund Freud Museum a couple of days later. They’re similar to cloth masks except even more difficult to breathe through and they rob you of perhaps another one-seventh of your humanity. Because you can’t breathe very well in them, you take bigger breaths in and out; you feel the breath jettisoning up past the bridge of your nose to your forehead, gently tickling your eyebrows. Perhaps it might ruffle your hair…

Essentially an admittance of the uselessness of cloth masks, FFP2 masks are compulsory for the unvaccinated and recommended for the vaccinated in shops and on public transport; if you break the rules it’s possible you could go to prison for three weeks. And you’d see fewer masks at a Johann Strauss masked ball than you would in modern-day Vienna. You almost expect to see dogs wearing them. Thankfully, and surprisingly, my hotel – the fabulous 25 Hours Hotel – didn’t require them for guests, but it did insist upon proof of vaccination or an antibody certificate or a PCR test. “They love their bureaucracy here,” said the doorman to the hotel’s rooftop bar as my papers were once again perused. Nice chap though, originally from Hampshire. Sadly the hotel’s spa wouldn’t open until two days after I left, because they’d only just got the green light from the Government, a receptionist told me. Screwy old thing, ‘the Science’.

Near my hotel there was a theatre with a series of talks titled The New Normal (a phrase uttered by Dominic Raab as early as April 2020, curiously enough). Surprising I know, but I didn’t attend: the Beethoven Museum in the leafy outskirts of the city was more appealing, although having my kneecaps removed without anaesthetic would be too.

Regarding masks, it is remarkable that despite an avalanche of evidence pointing to their very limited efficacy, especially outdoors, they are ubiquitous. I think the truth about masks and this virus will never come out – can never come out, because scores of governments have made their citizens wear them for almost two years now.

I understand how masks make one feel part of the team and like a good citizen, and being good feels good. The world can feel less threatening when you have a fabric cover over your face. I get that. But the psychological and social costs of this unprecedented behaviour on this scale for so long are unlikely to be small.

Interestingly enough there were very few masks on the tourist buses that I took around the city – we’d pull up beside a tram or bus full of disconsolate citizens gazing at us from their muzzled faces and I for one would feel jolly lucky and relatively free. Hooray for tourists!

The world has been gripped by extreme safetyism. As Jordan Peterson remarked on a recent podcast with John Anderson, if cars were invented now they’d probably make driving them illegal, such is the cost in human life. I hope Dr. Peterson would agree with me when I observe that because liberals tend to be higher in the trait of neuroticism – thus fearing disease more – and conservatives higher in orderliness, and with a lower disgust threshold – thus welcoming greater security and being more revolted by illness – it was a cinch to mask the world. Almost everyone, scared out of their wits by governments and the media, was on board.

Back to Vienna, which is a great, sophisticated city, make no mistake. Wandering around I didn’t notice any boarded-up shops that are now such a common sight in Britain. You have to prove you’re not a disease-riddled leper in many places, but not all – it keeps you on your toes. There’s a nauseating amount of traffic but the magnificent buildings are still beautifully clean: these monuments to the apogee of Western civilisation adorn the landscape. When it came to giving up their liberties, though, Austrians dispensed with them as fast as they did the schilling at the start of this century. Oh, Vienna! as Midge Ure once cried, presumably in anticipation of this state of affairs.

Waiting for my flight home at the departure gate, FFP2 masked up, natch, I heard an announcement from the next gate along for a Dublin flight: make sure you have your passenger locator forms, vaccination certificates and PCR test results to hand. PCR test results? My heart started thumping. What if – somehow – I’d misread the rules and I had needed to have done a test either before my holiday or during it? My palms sweated, my head ached. Thankfully it was a false alarm, and the first two things were enough. Just as well, as we had another Eva on departure gate duty.

Never in the field of human existence have so many people been given such a rotten time for the (perceived) benefit to so few. And when future historians look at the civil liberties grabs that ensued for a disease that has around a 0.3 infection fatality rate, whose average victim was 82.4 and had an average of 2.5 co-morbidities, they may be astonished. But imagine the freedoms we’d be robbed of if this was a disease with, say, a 0.5 infection fatality rate, whose average victim was 80.4 and had an average of just 1.3 co-morbidities.

And a Day Trip to Bratislava, Slovakia

I did what many tourists do and got a train from Vienna to Bratislava, about an hour’s journey. A la Schengen, there are no passport checks or anything and you’d never know you were passing into another country. And in terms of Covid-mania it’s pretty much the same as Austria: masks everywhere and vaccine passports to access most places, although I managed to visit a small museum and buy a ‘placka’ (potato pancake) from an outdoor food stall without getting asked for mine (which was not the case in Slovenia).

Bratislava is a canny little city with delightful remnants of the past like a castle and an old town – plus there’s an ‘erotic supermarket’! Down by the river there was a large open-air photography exhibition, much of which focused on the travails of the last couple of years, including grim shots of suffering patients and hassled doctors in grey-looking hospitals. There were also several shots of anti-lockdown protests in the city last October, which a caption informed us was orchestrated by “fascists, communists and football hooligans”. I wonder how correct that was.

I eventually climbed back up the hill to the train station and, looking into bus after bus of masked human beings, I couldn’t help but think it resembled some terrible footage of prisoners being carted off to some unspeakable detention centre for some undeclared crime, never to be seen again. Thankfully not this time. Then it was back to Vienna.

Find Russell David’s travel blog here.

Postcard From Poland

by Benjamin Marsh

My wife is Polish and we have two young kids, two and five, and it had been two years since we’d seen her family so we thought we should try and get over there for a holiday. Below is a brief snapshot of life in Poland during these most desperate and depressing times. The good news is, Poland appears to be bucking the trend on Covid apocalypse porn.

Getting there was relatively easy. The wife and I are double jabbed – I know some people think we have sold our souls by doing this, but if it means I can take my wife and kids to Poland to see the family, then to me it is a small price to pay.

Once we were there, it appeared Poland was treating Covid with the respect it deserves, which is essentially not much at all. The authorities do require quarantining from the U.K. if unvaccinated. However, this was brought in after the Delta variant got blown out of all proportion by our media. People from all other countries are exempt if they produce a negative test, which you can do at the airport.

Once through the border checks, life is pretty much as normal – there is no ‘new normal’. Masks are ‘required’ at airports, hotels and bigger establishments, but enforcement is sporadic and based on how zealous the person behind the counter is. In all other settings, masks are not worn and, unlike in the U.K., where if you choose not to wear a mask you are looked at with a mixture of disdain, smugness, disgust and pity, the Poles respect your decision and leave it at that.

In all other aspects of life, everything is as before. Everyone is getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves.

Almost 50% of Poles are double jabbed, so they are a little way behind Brits, but nothing is ever really mentioned about the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated or about ‘herd immunity’.

It appears as though Covid is over for pretty much everyone. They are learning to live with it and as far as I can work out from my in-laws, no work from home mandate has ever been issued. They did close schools, bars and restaurants for a bit last summer but then opened them again last September and have never forced them to re-close.

So if you’re looking to have a break from Covid and want a relatively cheap getaway (prices have increased a lot in the two years since we were last there but they are still cheaper than their Euro-loving neighbours) I would definitely recommend Poland.

Another Postcard From Manila

by Kyle Helke

My wife and I are employed in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. This summer we took some time off to visit family back in the U.S. and Italy, where my wife is from, and enjoyed breathing fresh air, taking our young son to the playground, going out for ice cream – you know, all the normal things that humans do that we haven’t been able to do over the past year because of the draconian restrictions imposed by the Philippine Government. It certainly was a breath of fresh air. Despite all of the madness going on in both the U.S. and Italy right now, I am still green with envy at the freedoms enjoyed by the people living in those places. It jarred my brain to meet people this summer who have never had to submit to (multiple) PCR tests.

You can imagine our morale as we returned to Manila a few weeks ago (we are contractually bound by our job). Here in the Philippines, it’s as if time stopped in April of last year. Still, you must wear both a face mask and shield when you leave your house. Still, children under 18 and senior citizens are technically not allowed to leave their houses (although this summer that loosened up a bit, but after two weeks the ‘Delta’ variant put an end to that). Still, schools are closed. Still, you must have a negative PCR/antigen test to travel to the next province, book a flight, or stay a night in a hotel. Still, gyms, theaters, cultural institutions, and outdoor sites (such as the American Memorial Cemetery – a cemetery!) are closed. Still, upon entering every shop or workplace one is subjected to a temperature check and a contact tracing form. Still, most restaurants are take-out or are reduced to 50% capacity (only on the lowest-level lockdown). Still, people think that if everyone ‘just gets the vaccine’, Covid will just go away and all of this will be over. Still, what is considered the longest lockdown in the world continues. Indeed, what is happening in places like France and Australia is very alarming, but it is frustrating to see that the Philippines is never acknowledged for its continued brutish restrictions that have been imposed as a result of the de facto martial law that has reigned over this country since all of this began. At least in other places, people are beginning to question the narrative; there isn’t even a shred of that here, people are too scared of the Government (and of catching Covid).

Upon return to Manila, we finished our two-week hotel quarantine and went right into a hard lockdown, the third here since all this began in March 2020. Once again, due to the so-called ‘Delta’ variant, citizens are expected to remain at home for two weeks (a tired trope by now) and may only exit their residences for essential items with a quarantine pass (one per household). Outdoor exercise was allowed until yesterday, but the authorities probably got spooked into banning it when they saw people still outside enjoying themselves (or trying to be healthy) and not cowering in fear at home. Naturally, only ‘essential’ workers are allowed to leave their homes to go to work, and because our work is somehow included in that category we consider ourselves lucky to be able to leave the house; our four year-old son, however, isn’t so lucky. Most likely, the current round of hard lockdown will carry on until at least October: they always start out with two weeks but then extend it by a month or more. The Government changes the lockdown classification but keeps all the restrictions the same. It’s always one step forward, five steps back here. I’m sure we’ll get two weeks of loosened restrictions in November before the Government panics about people wanting to be human for Christmas and then walks everything back.

I suppose what is particularly frustrating about this round of house arrest is that the Government didn’t even try to justify it with rising ‘cases’. Instead, it was just: “We could have over 10,000 cases a day because we have ‘Delta’ now, and we don’t want the hospitals to be overrun.” Reading the local news, the screeching about rising ‘cases’ and the daily death toll that characterised previous stay-at-home lockdowns is conspicuously absent. Instead, the headlines praise the improved vaccine roll-out, which until recently has been mostly farcical (and is one of the activities that has been allowed to continue during the lockdown). On the eve of the current lockdown, over 10,000 people in Manila city panicked about rumors that one wouldn’t be able to leave their house without being vaccinated, and overran a local vaccination center, scrambling over each other to get the ‘jab’. The Government blamed ‘fake news’ for sparking the stampede, but I’m sure they were secretly tickled by public enthusiasm for vaccination when threatened with the stick.

In a certain sense, there is some serenity to be found in the assurance that nothing will change here in the future, that lockdown will be on the horizon here indefinitely: at least you know where you are at. On the other hand, that can swing the other way too, and with it comes feelings of desperation and hopelessness. Additionally, the Government makes decisions so quickly and capriciously that the small pleasures of life that can be squeezed out of the current situation can be snatched away at any moment, like outdoor exercise, or whether the policeman patrolling the local park will stop turning a blind eye to you taking your kid out to get some sunshine because of a new top-down order he received. All of this takes a heavy toll on the soul. Thank goodness that we have been spared the divide-and-conquer rhetoric regarding vaccines, at least so far.

When will this ever end? No one knows, and there is no clear objective. It appears that the Philippine Government’s goal is to get every single person in the country vaccinated, even though they’ve only managed to get to 15% thus far. The fact that the vaccines don’t appear to be very effective, which at least is being mentioned in the media in other countries and discussed among the public, is barely being mentioned in the public discussion. ‘Vaccine passports’ aren’t here yet, but I’m sure they’re in the works, as there has been some talk of banning unvaccinated people from public transport once 50% of the population has been double jabbed. However, I don’t know how the Government will manage that given that they can’t even institute a unified track-and-trace program, let alone get everyone in the country a basic ID card. Sometimes the best defense against tyranny is bureaucratic incompetence. Presidential elections are coming up in early 2022, and most likely rolling lockdowns will persist until then. I’m of the opinion that, at the very least, there were certainly some high shenanigans carried out under the shadow of the Covid crisis during the U.S. presidential election in November, and I suspect the Philippine Government is taking a page from the American playbook with the goal of installing the current president’s daughter as the next President, since his term is up in early 2022 and he cannot run again. I can’t imagine how the public would willingly vote for more of what has run this country’s economy into the dirt, but then again, I never would have imagined any of this two years ago, so nothing is beyond imagination.

One ray of hope is that the official will towards indefinite lockdowns is cracking. When the Government announced the most recent hard lockdown, they were asked if stimulus payments, or, ayuda would be provided for those forced out of work, and they gave a noncommittal answer: “We’ll have to look into that.” This was a tacit admission that Government coffers are running dry, and that eventually they will have to take a more relaxed approach because the situation is becoming economically unsustainable. Public opinion is also shifting marginally, as it was recently discovered by an audit commission that billions of pesos budgeted to the Department of Health (DoH) for the Covid crisis went unused. This is especially shocking considering how many Manila residents were dependent on volunteer food pantries during the last hard lockdown in March, and the present one. The DoH has also appeared to be, until recently, in denial about the presence of the ‘Delta’ variant; although several returning overseas workers were found to have the variant, the DoH over the past weeks has consistently refused to recognise that there has been community transmission of the variant.

Naturally, as much as the Government would like to inflate the threat of the virus by pointing to ever-increasing case numbers, I’d be willing to bet that this virus is largely endemic in Philippine society at this point. Given the high poverty rate of the Philippines, if Government policy is to take those who test positive for Covid and subject them – and their families and close contacts – to a mandatory 14-day quarantine (sometimes in a Government facility), who in their right mind would volunteer to a PCR/antigen test if it might mean you will be locked up without an income to support your family for two weeks? This leads me to believe that, like every country throughout this crisis, the numbers are much higher than the headlines lead on. The coming months here in Manila are only going to get livelier. What the Western countries that have vaccinated a large percentage of their populations are going through right now is certainly on the horizon for this country. Because the Philippines is so far behind other countries in its vaccine campaign, and vaccine adverse reactions and the efficacy of the vaccine itself is barely being mentioned by the media, it will be interesting to see how the strained medical system here manages another Covid ‘surge’, or large number of adverse reactions to the vaccine, or a combination of the two. This, of course, is the same system that could barely manage a Covid ‘surge’ even with the hardest of lockdowns, and now that the Government is waking up to the fact that indefinite lockdowns are unsustainable, the worst may still be in store for this country. As they like to say here, rather fatalistically, bahala na – whatever happens, happens. That seems to be the best approach for all of us to take at this point. 

The piece originally appeared on the email newsletter from the radio talkshow host Tom Woods. You can sign up to his newsletter here. Read Kyle Helke’s first “Postcard From the Manila” for Lockdown Sceptics here.

Postcard From Romania

We’re publishing a new addition to our ongoing series ‘Around the World in 80 Lockdowns’ today – a “Postcard From Romania”. Romania isn’t in lockdown at the moment – but the Government’s attempts to vaccinate the population has stalled and Romania currently sits second from bottom in the European vaccination league, just above Bulgaria. Here is an extract:

On the face of it, Romania’s much the same as elsewhere in Europe. Masks are compulsory inside, but not out. Vaccination clinics have popped up like mushrooms in a dark Transylvanian forest. Just yesterday we passed the famous clinic at Dracula’s Castle, promoted across the region with banners (which must’ve cost a pretty penny) bearing the provocative message: “Who’s afraid of a vaccine? Come get it; one sting and you’re immune!”

Even in the middle of a mountainous nowhere, right after the needle-shaped curve of a narrow road crossing the mountain-face from east to west: VACCINATION CLINIC 100m. And lo, there it was! A lonely little wooden cabin, apparently thrown together one night in a desperate hurry, lying between the road and the ravine. What if a traveller from Moldavia to Transylvania (some panjandrum must have fretted) were to feel a sudden urge for a sting right at that improbable chicane? Good preventive thinking. One never knows.

And yet one does, because the bigger urban vaccination sites are every bit as empty. Big banners hung across the boulevards beckon to the population. ‘There is one just across the street… 100m… No need to move far from the safety of your apartment…’ etc., yet people are shunning them. According to reports last month, the country has stopped importing vaccines and even sold a million unused doses to Denmark.

Worth reading in full.

Postcard From Toronto

We’re publishing a new postcard today, our first in a while. This one is a postcard from Toronto, which has been in lockdown in one form or another since last November. The Ontario Premier Doug Ford hit the “emergency brake” in April, ramping up restrictions, and it hasn’t been released yet. Our correspondent, Catherine Brennan, is more than a little fed up. In the following extract, she writes about attending her first anti-lockdown protest a couple of weeks ago:

I have to admit, I felt somewhat nervous about going to the rally. Would I be arrested? What would these protesters be like? An unruly mob, frothing at the mouth with questionable personal hygiene? One left-leaning politician (and in Canada we’re all rather left-leaning – so this guy is practically falling over), warned that these rallies were full of white supremacists. While I am white, and no amount of self-tan can disguise my Irish legs, I struggled to find anyone to fit that description so cruelly slurred by the noticeably absent MP. How did he know who attended when he himself wasn’t there? So I asked my friend, she of Russian-Jewish parents who fled the pogroms living in barns for two years – was she secretly a white supremacist? I asked the lovely black couple who, very sensibly, set up lawn chairs to enjoy the convivial atmosphere. Why are you here, I asked. They answered, like so many other people I spoke with, that they were worried for their kids, whose lives have been on hold. They too had called their local politicians only to hear canned responses. Like me, they wondered whether a better balance might be struck between absolute risk and relative risk. They were disturbed by the political deafness on how lockdowns have affected kids’ welfare. These were not anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers or any other of the ad hominem name-calling around dissent these days. They were there to show support in a time of great isolation.

Worth reading in full.