Here in London, ordinarily cool-headed, responsible adults have begun to show tics and tells which belie their rising anxiety levels. Reality has begun to bite.
Over the weekend I spent a morning at a children's party talking to a usually phlegmatic, unflappable mathematician. He was uncharacteristically gloomy, to the point of apocalyptic, in his prognosis for the coming weeks. The Covid-19 coronavirus has unleashed a millenarian mood. Every cough on a commuter train or in the school yard draws suspicious, resentful looks.
Responsibility for self-isolation is privatised, for now, although a policy is being mooted whereby the police will enforce quarantine on elderly people who continue to roam at large. My parents will not be happy, as they like to meet their friends at the pub. It’s not pleasant to picture them being escorted home by the Boys in Blue, but needs must.
According to a source close to Downing Street, Boris Johnson has a communication problem: his counter-intuitive strategy—which stands out among the lockdowns being rolled out across the world—is not playing all that well. People are asking why we are not going into immediate quarantine, and accusations of social engineering and sacrificing the elderly are rising in pitch. The strategy is that, by maintaining a steady rate of new infections, medical resources will be available to treat the afflicted. If we go into blanket quarantine now, we are just shunting the problem a few weeks down the line, not solving it.
Red-hot anger directed at the Conservative government—which abated somewhat when we left the European Union in January—has re-infused conversations among urban liberals. I am reassured that we are seeing an attempt at an evidence-based public health response, even though the science behind herd immunity does not seem to withstand analysis.
Until Friday 13th March, I took comfort in the fact that experts considered the pandemic different in magnitude to the Spanish Flu of 1918 which left 50 million dead worldwide. My paternal grandmother spoke of it as the most momentous event of her girlhood, on a par with hiding in a hedgerow from the Black & Tans. That's how bad the Flu pandemic was, and I have always lived with the awareness that it could happen again—albeit in the context that we have better infrastructure to cope with it. It took out healthy people in the prime of their lives, children, elders—a true plague. This time, even infected babies are, broadly speaking, well.
What changed on that most unlucky of days, March 13, here in London? My husband worked at home for the first time in his career. My child’s swimming gala was cancelled due to parents expressing anxiety about transmission, and the parents’ quiz night was pulled at the last moment. Babysitters were cancelled, sighs of relief could be heard as elderly grandparents were told they could stay at home after all. We pose a risk to them, after all. It was unclear whether, come Sunday, anyone would want to attend a soft play venue for a kids party. Wasn’t that just courting disaster—not to mention selfish?
While disbelief ceded to good humour about the new normal rituals of bumping elbows in place of handshakes, and singing Happy Birthday twice while washing hands, we are now aware that—beneath the Blitz spirit— all is not hunky dory. Panic buying is common. Every gathering and trip for the foreseeable is cancelled. We are approaching the Corona Singularity. On the other side, nothing will look the same.
Like many mothers who work from home, I was able to be—if not blithely—then somewhat detached and skeptical about the emergent pandemic. Shuttling to and from school, running errands before returning to my study, my other half became the harbinger of ill-tidings from the wider world. The picture he brought home was of markets in crisis mode, of panic meetings and inundations of worried emails, of businesses attempting to protect core functions by sending staff to different locations to stem the spread of the virus.
However, while some companies have taken this tack, others - including major US tech players such as Facebook, Twitter and Apple - have for a fortnight been prioritising staff health by insisting everyone who can works from home. Rituals of deep cleaning abound, and the mostly immigrant women who clean for a living are second only to medics in being the most valued members of society.
Critics of government policy claim that the absence of a more aggressive approach will result in unnecessary deaths. Johnson confirmed this in his speech mid-week, in which he regretted that "many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time."
Only time will tell whether or not the UK government's gradualist policy will result in a better outcome. As Boris Johnson has eschewed the draconian lock-downs implemented in Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and Belgium in the last few days, individual communities are left trying to work out what to do for the best. Nobody wants to place our elders at mortal risk by keeping calm and carrying on as usual but as schools, businesses and service providers are under no top-down mandate to shut up shop, they must remain open or individual businesses and workers will be penalised, bankrupted, deprived of livelihood. That, too, is a public health issue. The economy supports lives. Although there is a distinct whiff of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, we continue to bring our kids to soft play parties until such a time as all venues are forced to close. I have no doubt that the staff yesterday were glad to have at least one party to cater for. It was that, or an extremely shaky benefits system.
The silver lining is that if and when the time for quarantine arrives, we may get more time to spend with our loved ones. As any mother (for it is usually us) confined indoors with a sick child for long stretches can attest, cabin fever sets in after a single morning. But this will be different: unless we have to self-isolate due to showing symptoms (persistent dry cough and fever, for which paracetamol is recommended), we will be free to roam the parks and neighbourhoods while the usual diversions are shut. A friend, whose daughter was in full-time nursery care since seven months of age, is looking forward to spending time with her and her husband who usually spends half of each week travelling abroad. Released from extreme busyness, we shall get to know one another again.
Will Boris start to follow the crowd, or will grasping for economic stability, as we blunder out of Europe, take priority? Watch this space. What we do know is that we are in a state of emergency, and changing some of our own behaviours and priorities is right and good. What we can do will be slightly different for all of us, depending on our caregiving and other economic responsibilities, and our health.
I worry for those with underlying health conditions, for our elders, for those isolated and alone, and for those who will likely lose their jobs as businesses tank for lack of customers. I hope that we are not going to see anything approaching the devastation wrought by Spanish Flu. We will at least find it necessary to pull together and look out for our neighbours who need us, while avoiding opening them to infection.
These are not end times. Life will go on, as it always tends to do.