Isolation Island – Flatholm #underthemask

Cholera – the scourge of Victorian Britain

One of the blights of Victorian times was a rapacious killer, that had arrived in the UK from Asia. It took out many thousands. It was a condition that particularly affected poorer communities and those who arrived from overseas – Sound familiar?      

The disease affected the poor, in cramped conditions

The Cholera epidemic, was one of the defining moments of the 1800s, triggering local authority reform and the harnessing of the finest minds in engineering to create civic sanitation at a scale that had not been seen before.

A significant response in South Wales was the creation of a cholera community and hospital – off the coast of Cardiff.

Overlooking the Severn Estuary – the Victorians saw the Island as a valuable defence against invasion

The tiny Island of Flatholm, four miles from the mainland had had history long before cholera. It had hosted the Celtic saints, the Vikings settled here and moved on when the water and the food ran out. And the Victorian engineers had seen it as a valuable defensive weapon against the threat from Napoleonic France.

Ironically, by the time the hospital was built the epidemic was more or less over. Yet the remains still serve as a reminder.

The plan then was to isolate the sick. For the last two months we have been isolating the well.

The remains of the Cholera Hospital on Flatholm

This has meant that the island, which has been fighting its corner as a attraction for visitors and nature lovers, is in Covid-19  lock-down, with all but two locked-out.

Jen Breen and her partner Matt are working as wardens on the Island: “We were asked if we wanted to stay or go,” she said, “ we decided to stay, just the two of us.”

Cardiff Habour Authority rules stipulate that one person cannot be on the Island alone, so the couple are staying together, in glorious isolation.

“We’re just keeping things ticking over,” says Jen, “making sure that everything is kept neat and tidy to be prepared for some visitors hopefully!”

The Island has been a sanctuary since the time of the Celtic Saints

It was anticipated to be a busy year this year, with a visitor boat carrying up to 30 being re-commissioned and the harbour authority applying for lottery funding to repair some of the remaining buildings and develop the Island’s significance in the narrative of Cardiff Bay and the Severn Estuary.

“We had quite a lot of events scheduled as well,” said Jen.

Securing the cholera hospital remains is part of a lottery application

“There was some yoga stuff and some bushcraft camping, there were scouts visiting and some ex-military guys who were going to come and do some workshops.

“The calendar was quite full, but now it will have to wait until next year or see what we can fit in with the good weather.”

Jen and Matt have been spending their time tending to routine maintenance. Now they are planning to count the seagulls!

That may seem like a function of the very bored but actually its very important part of life on Flatholm.

The island is renowned for its population of lesser black-backed gulls. The survey is generally carried out by a large team – this year it will be done by just two.


HG 11/5/20


One-track Mind – reporting #underthemask

Hywel George, journalist and filmmaker for over 30 years

On the day `British deaths from COVID-19 become the highest in Europe we choose to reflect on problems, that existed before we dropped all other stories for Corona Virus. Girls are still being cut and married young; refugees are still fighting for space and recognition in camps; wives and mothers are being beaten – babies are still being born, the elderly and the sick are still dying. Our worlds may be changing – the human experience remains. And we ask: when the media suggests we look away, what truths go unreported?

 I watched a feature film recently about the connection between the North American crack-cocaine epidemic and the supply of guns to the US backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

former US President Bill Clinton and the intern Monica Lewinsky

The Central Intelligence Agency was forced to admit a connection. The admission, however, came when the world’s attention was firmly fixed on the Clinton/Lewinsky impeachment hearings.

The admission attracted no media coverage (or precious little).

Captain Tom has raised millions for the NHS

This week we have had the scaling back of the Nightingale Hospital project. We have had the outpouring of adoration for the efforts of centenarian Captain Tom and his multi-million-pound fundraising efforts for the NHS and we have had the progressively quieted voices of concern, as the government’s rescue packages start to reach businesses and individuals.

I am not much of a conspiracy theorist and I don’t regard myself as terribly cynical, but I have been a journalist and writer for long enough to ask myself what I should be looking at, if someone tells me I should be looking at something else.

It’s clear that procurement procedures are more open yet less transparent. There’s greater opportunity to ‘tip-the-wink’ to friends and connections. We are on a ‘war-footing’. That means two things – greater fear and greater freedom.

It was with some sadness this week that I read the Welsh Assembly’s grant announcements, for international development through the Wales and Africa scheme. All funds had been directed in this round to COVID-19 projects.

Young African women are still fighting FGM

This did not come as much of a surprise. But I was disappointed. (Not just for my own bid either!)

Across Africa there has been a very limited impact of the virus so far. Many of the countries at greatest risk have very young populations. The young, though not immune, are less vulnerable than older populations. Many countries are applying learnings from other, now almost forgotten crises (Ebola, HIV/Aids, Malaria).

The conversations we have had across Africa suggest populations would rather risk the CORONA virus than starvation, privation, isolation.

How many mothers are getting beaten by frustrated husbands in curfew?  How much crop is left rotting in a field because work-gangs can’t be recruited? How much impact do these visceral experiences have on the normally grey-suited execs in the global-north, languishing in isolation at the pool-sides of Norther Europe and the US.

Africa is a continent of youth

The Corona-crisis will pass. We will have spent an enormous amount of money on rescue bids and health care provision and developing a vaccine.

And the world will return to the ‘new normal’ – it may look like what we knew before, it may be something different. Whatever it looks like, it won’t be based on one story.

My worry is we will have lost our tonal response while we wait. We will only know the difference between COVID and non-COVID, black and white. But life is a unique and shifting pallet of endless grey-scale. Let us not forget.

HG 6/5/20









It never rains but that it pours – western Kenya #underthemask

On top of all the problems of the Coronavirus lockdown, it’s important not to forget that other challenges exist, many of them longer lasting than a virus. In Western Kenya climate change has brought another bout of flooding.

Lowland areas of western Kenya are buried under water

Thousands of Kenyans have been displaced from their homes and are living in temporary camps, according to latest reports from the country.

Heavy rains in the Nyanza region have left low-land homes inaccessible and forced many men, women and children to find shelter wherever they can, according to Alice Kirambi, who runs the development NGO Christian Partners Development Association.

“This is clear evidence of climate change,” she says.

On top of the restrictions in the country due to COVID-19 crisis, the flooding could not have come at a more challenging time.

And it’s forcing people to come closer together, when the guidance is for them to social isolate, and keep a distance from their neightbours.

In a message to the world for much needed assistance Alice says” “Men, women, girls and boys, plus babies are all marooned together in isolated buildings like schools, churches and camps.

“Life in the camps is unbearable,” she says.

“The first major requirements are food; maize, beans, green grams and cooking oil, soaps, clean drinking water and vegetables.

“Secondly,” she says, “some pregnant mother and young babies require mosquito nets, blankets, linen, soap and sanitary pads for the girls and mothers.”

On top of this of course are the basics of COVID-19 prevention – masks, sanitiziers, soaps and hand washing equipment – are also urgently needed.

Sixteen camps have been set up in the region, on the border between Kisumu and Vihiga counties. Each camp initially catering to 200 people.

And Kenya is just coming into malaria season, so the stakes are very high indeed.

“There are 16 camps of displaced persons who are desperate and living in despair,” says Alice.

“The state of hopelessness in setting in and rape and Gender based violence is rampant.”

With the whole world’s efforts focused directly on the coronavirus outbreak, it may be some time before the assistance comes to the needy displaced flood victims of Western Kenya.

If you have any capacity to help, do drop us a direct message and we can direct your funds to the flood effort and the work of Christian Partners Development Association. 


HG 2/05/20