The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
In Episode 40 of his new book Life in a Time of Plague, author Julian Roup watches England dancing with the devil of Covid-19.
In case you missed Episode 39, click here.
Life in a Time of Plague
Sussex, 13th May 2020
By Julian Roup
As of today, May 13, (lucky for some) people in England can spend more time outside, meet a friend at the park and move home, as the government begins easing some lockdown measures. And the day delivers some insights into what our future will look like.
Under the new rules, garden centres can reopen and people can meet one person from outside their household. Sports that are physically distanced – such as golf and tennis – are also now permitted. And some employees who cannot work from home are being encouraged to return to their workplaces.
It follows a speech by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday in which he unveiled a ‘conditional plan’ aimed at reopening society, much of which has been in lockdown for seven weeks.
The government has set out plans to restart England’s housing market, which has been in deep freeze since the coronavirus lockdown. From today, estate agents can open, viewings can be carried out and removal firms and conveyancers can restart operations.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said the changes must be carried out under social distancing and safety rules. It is estimated there are 450,000 buyers and renters with plans on hold.
So, without saying as much, it sounds as if we are returning by default to the strategy of seeking ‘herd immunity’ once more, allowing the virus to move through the population at will, but keeping the old and the vulnerable in lockdown for some time yet. For nothing has changed as such; we are no closer to finding a way to protect ourselves against the virus. So we are letting nature have its way with us, accepting that there will be a second spike now that our hospital infrastructure is better prepared.
We are stepping out of the dark room, not sure what we will find, but knowing that if Britain is to survive, we have to get its economic engines firing again. It’s a tough call. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are staying in lockdown, staying home, looking at what happens in England before making any move of their own. So now we have a two-speed nation.
And what is driving the Government’s action to risk a second spike? The BBC offers a story that may well be the reason. The UK economy shrank at the fastest pace since the financial crisis in the first quarter of 2020, as Coronavirus forced the country into lockdown.
The Office for National Statistics said the economy contracted by 2 per cent in the three months to March, following zero growth in the final quarter of 2019.The UK’s dominant services sector suffered a record decline. Analysts expect a bigger slump in the second quarter, before the economy starts to recover. This is the first official growth estimate since the UK was put into lockdown at the end of March.
While analysts expected a larger quarterly decline of 2.6 per cent in the first three months of the year, it is still the biggest contraction since the end of 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, the bank that started the global economic implosion 12 years ago.
At the moment, the closely watched R number, the rate of infection, across Britain, is estimated to be between 0.5 and one. But the R number will be much higher in care homes and hospitals, where there are more cases of the disease. Outside those settings, the spread of Coronavirus in the community appears to have been reduced, potentially to below epidemic levels, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This, then, is the gamble the Government is taking, while keeping its hand on the brake, ready to pull hard if things get out of hand, sending us all back into lockdown.
I am reminded of old Western films where a train feels its way gingerly over a damaged trestle bridge hundreds of feet above a river ravine, ready to reverse if the creaking alerts the driver to imminent collapse. It is all down to the driver’s judgement. And our driver is Boris Johnson, known as the man with the safest pair of hands in Britain. Ha! So, nothing to worry about.
But I do worry, as so many of us do right now about our lives, their meaning and their direction. And I worry about my self-indulgence in writing about my own life. I have been teased a bit by my family about finding my own life the most interesting subject on earth. But who can honestly say that they don’t feel the same? Our lives astonish us, as much for our failures as for our successes. We are such gossamer beings, such insubstantial things; if we stop to think about it, our lives and our survival are a constant source of wonder. The mere fact that any of us live, given the dangers faced over a steeplechase course of millions of years, is a fascination to me. My existence was the cause of outrage on both sides of the family. A Jew and an Afrikaner were not meant to fall in love, get married and have children. My parents lost two children before I arrived, so I have two lost siblings that I know nothing about. So, my existence (like all of ours) is the matter of purest chance. This is why, I suspect, that I think, now and then: Have I lived enough, achieved enough, made enough out of this priceless gift? Have the curses that heralded my arrival been wrong? I hope so.
Bringing me back sharply to the true subject of this book, Jan sends me two Twitter comments on the issue of the Government’s handling of Covid-19. Radical feminist and domestic violence campaigner @JeanHatchet tweets: “So @NicolaSturgeon has suggested Boris is playing “Russian Roulette” with our lives. I said to Sidekick [her partner], more like legislative genocide. I think it’s deliberate. They know who will die. It’s the poor, the old and BAME people. All of whom the Tories see as costly rather than human.”
And @bencooper replies: “The plan is still herd immunity, it always has been – they just realised they shouldn’t say that out loud.”
All across England, workers are being encouraged to return to work, and those who have worked throughout this three-month period are fearful. The Guardian describes one man saying: “It is like dancing with the devil”, the two-metre rule impossible to maintain, no protective clothing and maybe just a bottle of hand gel at the washing up sink at work, the only nod to the danger.
And in care homes there is ongoing misery. Care home operators have accused the UK government of “a complete system failure” over testing for Covid-19 after Government officials repeatedly deflected responsibility for the task and left vulnerable residents unchecked. If we judge a society by the way it cares for its most vulnerable, then Britain is a failed state.
America is not doing much better. Under the headline ‘Covid has Exposed America’s Most Dangerous Virus’, Tim Wise writes in the political magazine Medium about racism: “There is a virus ravaging America, but it’s not the one you’re thinking of. It has been here for a long time, for much longer than Covid-19. It has mutated over time, and some have been struck with more serious symptoms than others, having contracted it. But we have all been exposed, no matter the care we have taken to avoid it. This virus lives in the DNA of the nation, in our history books, our economic policy, our politics. It has roots in our culture and has shaped our worldview. It is a virus so central to America’s existence that it is hard to imagine us without it. Whatever antibodies it provides clearly falter.
“It is a virus of indifference to (or active contempt for) broad swaths of humanity. It is the same virus we have occasionally located in other lands, while ignoring its presence in our own.”
He is of course speaking of racism, which he claims is informing the response to Covid-19 in the USA, and in many other places, doubtless, too.
He says that the US Government, much like the UK Government, is offering us just two options: to stay home (and go broke), or go to work and risk our lives and those of our families. But he says that there is a third option we could take if the stakes were higher: we could force the government to protect everyone by keeping them safe at home and financially assisted by government. This is not happening, because those that are dying in the greatest numbers just don’t matter that much to government or in fact to most US citizens, for a number of reasons. Racism, ageism, classism and ableism.
In other words, we are saying that people of colour matter less (racism), the poor and working-class matter less (classism), the elderly matter less (ageism), and those with a pre-existing health condition matter less (ableism) than our philosophy about the role of the state, even in moments of crisis.
Is this what we have come to? Really?
My mind takes me to a Neanderthal gravesite in northern Europe where anthropologists are studying its remains. The skeleton is that of an old man, his remains are surrounded by pollen, indicating the presence of flowers placed in the grave, and that he was clearly loved and cared for, his loss felt deeply. But it is his bones that really tell us most about this society of early man. His one leg has been very badly damaged some years before his death, which would have made hunting and gathering impossible. It is a crippling injury that has healed badly. The fact that he lived on for many years after his injury is clear proof that he was cared for by his community. Are we saying that Neanderthals cared more for the disabled and the old than we do? Covid-19 has shone a horribly clear light on this question. And it seems the answer is yes. God help us all.
And what of the future, how does it look? An article by Naomi Klein headlined: ‘How Big Tech Plans to Profit from the Pandemic’ is a sobering, long read in The Guardian, republished from The Intercept, and it casts a pall over my day. The future, it seems, is here already, rushed to us superfast by this pandemic. And this is how the future looks. It will be brought to us by artificial intelligence through the gift of the tech giant companies, which will utterly control our every movement and will invade our homes and our depleted privacy, turning our homes into doctor’s waiting rooms, school classrooms, places of work and even prisons, if the government so wishes. And all of this to supposedly protect us from other germ-bearing humans. The future is going to be contactless. Everything we need or want will be delivered to us, or to those who can afford it. How long will it be before we need a passport to leave not our country but our homes, as trialled in France so successfully?
My own advice is to get outside as fast as you can when it is safe to do so, go travelling, make the most of the old world while it lasts, the new world is going to constrain us, tightly, even as it pretends it is freeing us up. The future is frightening. This pandemic has given us a glimpse of what the future will be. It has also been a reminder of the ultimate lockdown, death, which may come just as suddenly and as unexpectedly as Covid-19 did, changing everything overnight. So don’t put off all those things you planned to do. Seize the day and make the most of your life. Remember, we are dancing with the Devil, and who knows when the music will stop.
Click here for Episode 41.
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