Date: Thursday 12 March 2020
Reported deaths in the UK: 10
Reported cases in the UK: 590
Epicentre of the virus: Wuhan
For a few days this March staying at home felt anarchic. The World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a global pandemic and although the virus was creeping up around us here, life in the UK continued largely as normal. Our government simply told us to wash our hands. I called my friends in Beijing. They’d been in lockdown for weeks and spoke of what they’d been following in Wuhan: the havoc this illness makes on the body, any body; how it overwhelms healthcare resources; kills medics who are too exposed. They told me to stay at home. And so in my house we decided to join the Beijing lockdown and hope that our government would make this the plan for everyone in the UK.
That evening we listened to our prime minister speak on the radio. His strategy he said was to ‘delay’ the spread of the virus. Delay. Why not prevent? Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and now China was preventing the spread. His single piece of advice for the elderly, those most at risk of death, was to avoid cruise ship holidays. It was an absurd thing to say. Beneath his words I heard Dominic Cummings (his chief advisor), cavalier, cynical, nonchalant, as though he’d taken the view that pensioners were dispensable, a drain on the state.
‘It’s naughty to say ‘stupid’, mummy!’ my three-year-old said at bedtime. He told me quite seriously that I must stop shouting at the radio. He was upset by how furious I seemed when Johnson spoke, how worried, how out of control. But it was frightening to feel that our government wasn’t taking care of us. Or was it that we were overreacting? How could we be sure?
Luckily there were other good sources for guidance. The editor of the Lancet, the UK’s medical journal, was a vocal critic of our government’s approach. Among friends we shared articles, posted them on Twitter. BBC News had begun blanket coverage of the virus a few days earlier. Having worked there throughout my career I often find I’m critical of the news, but there was something about the corporation’s decision to focus on this story, and the calm, concerned tone that presenters and reporters had fallen into, that moved me and I tuned in. The next day the Premiere League cancelled all matches. The day after Apple closed its stores. There was reassurance in the idea that even if our government wasn’t responding then individuals, institutions, companies were taking this into their own hands.
During those early days the coronavirus was like permanent surround sound. Our red, scoured hands were wrapped to our phones obsessively retrieving and circulating information. Panic fuzzed around us. It was like being on a precipice that at any moment could give way. For a second I recognised this feeling from childhood when my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness and I was suddenly overly aware that anybody I loved could be taken. Now everybody in the world might share this fear, all of us forced to face the fragility of life at exactly the same time.
I’d just managed to convince my mother, now in her seventies, to stay at home. She’s rebellious and freedom-loving; she was expelled from school as a teenager for skipping class and running across a field to a sweet shop. It had taken days of forwarding her terrifying articles, but my brother was sending her different messages and encouraging her to go out. He had his own legitimate worries – about her feeling afraid and isolated on her own. Running a small business and responsible for his employees, the implications of staying at home without government endorsement or support seemed impossible to my brother, whereas for my family of freelancers, the decision to stay at home may have been easier to make. So my brother and I found ourselves in a battle over what we thought was best. I’d passive-aggressively dump articles on his WhatsApp, he’d respond infuriated. We’d meet on FaceTime, I’d see his face, miss him; we’d have a tender conversation about something else. Different technology platforms contained both our friction and fondness.
All our ‘real-life’ interactions seemed to be taking place across platforms now too: conversations through open windows, closed doors, across rooftops, doorsteps to front gates, from the pavement up to a balcony on the second floor.
At this moment there was still time for existential thinking. In the pre-modern age people often thought that when the natural world turned on its inhabitants it was a warning from God. This is rooted in our scriptures: the floods in Noah’s Ark, the ten plagues in Exodus. To what extent has this religious thinking seeped into our modern world? Even the secular among us, do we feel punished? Taught a lesson? Awoken? Do we try to find meaning in it? Or do we explain with science? As unbelieving as I am, I can’t resist trying to make sense of the virus in this older way. It did feel like a comeuppance of some kind. The coronavirus seemed to demand immediate responses to the questions we’d been struggling with for years. Are we able to sacrifice our consumer comforts for a greater good? What happens if we close our borders? What do we value more life or economy? Who can afford to put their life before their need for income? Who owes what to zero-hour workers? Climate change, Brexit, populism, inequality. The virus re-colours the issues that have been dividing us, the ways we’ve let things go. We thought we’d received our punishment for leaving all this unresolved when Boris Johnson won an election in the UK, when Trump won in the USA, but what we didn’t realise was that the ultimate penalty would be their leadership during a global pandemic.
A friend FaceTimed us, my son in his bath, her daughter in her bath. The kids splashed about as if they were together in the same room. After the squealing I realised that for the first time all week, for the three minutes of that call, I’d forgotten the virus.
Date: Monday 23 March
Reported deaths in the UK: 335
Reported daily deaths in the UK: 54
Reported cases in the UK: 6650
Epicentre of the virus: Europe
Birds sing and we hear them. The streets are quiet. Stars prickle back into the night sky. Everything has stopped to prioritise life. We’ve stopped travelling to work unless it’s essential, we’re not shopping unless it’s essential, we’re burning fewer fossil fuels, we’re not busying about. Our government finally instituted a lockdown, and all that we thought was impossible a few months ago has become the new normal. It turns out that we won’t collapse on the street if we don’t hold a cappuccino in a paper cup. We barely notice they’re gone. In many countries around the world life is being put before economy for the first time in modern capitalism. It’s beautiful, for a moment.
Not only this, but also our government’s compensation packages explode some of our myths about money. We can now see that money is not finite; the government doesn’t need to rely on our taxes to reduce its deficit. It can print money, or add zeroes to its balance, without sparking inflation if done in the right way. It can afford, for example, to fund a Universal Basic Income. Homeless people are given housing in hotels. There’s a moment of hope. People are asking: if we can do this in exceptional times, what can we do after them?
People have, over the last few weeks, been panic-buying, stock-piling, even occasionally wrestling over goods in supermarkets. But it turns out that we can still get the stuff we need. Who is making it? How does it arrive at the shops? To our doors? With what precaution? What risk to life? This is the world as it was, but now heightened to the nth degree.
The coronavirus begins to act like the ‘show all formatting’ option on a Word document, exposing the workings of our society for all of us to see. A gap in life expectancy between rich and poor has been growing in the UK over the last fifteen years. Now the discrepancy is not just about a future date, decades from now, a fiction, a statistic, a number with a decimal point inside a bracket on a category. Now it’s immediate. Today, tomorrow, people working on the supply chain making and distributing essential goods, working in hospitals, their lives are potentially threatened three weeks from now while the rest of us are relatively protected at home, tapping on screens.
Maybe this is why the coronavirus coverage feels different. During the last few years the BBC’s commitment to balance has meant that discussions have been polarised: climate change activists versus deniers; globalists versus Brexiters. Now a single value unites the coverage: what chance is our government giving each of us at life. The news has become Hippocratic. A journalist from The Times picked up a leak that Dominic Cummings’ initial advice on the virus had been (paraphrased): ‘Herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die – too bad.’ Journalists across the span of left and right leaning media outlets lean together in their horror.
On Thursday night we all stand outside our front doors at eight to Clap for our Carers, to thank the people working in our healthcare system. People are raucous with excitement at this expression of solidarity, and to be focusing on something that people feel positive about and grateful for: the courage and care of doctors, nurses and hospital workers, and the NHS which provides free healthcare to all.
Date: Saturday 4 April
Reported Deaths in the UK: 4313
Reported Daily Deaths in the UK: 708
Reported Cases in the UK: 41,903
Epicentre of the Virus: USA
Lockdown isn’t only about being at home, in one place, but also in one time: the immediate present. Socially agreed upon hours have vanished from the day; there are no more commuting times, no rush hour, no ‘after-work’. We no longer feature in slots in other people’s diaries, we don’t consult diaries. There is no past except for before the virus, and no future except for a thought about when the fridge might be empty and a plan for how to refill it.
Insomnia trends on Twitter.
Of all of us here, it’s our three-year-old who knows best how to be at home. On our living room floor we are diamond thieves (diamond thievery is a trope in Western children’s animation); he’s a jailer, I’m in prison (this one he likes to repeat a lot); he’s Heracles carrying out murderous tasks against wild beasts. Children build the world with their imagination more obviously than we do. I go out for a walk on the high street. Everything is shut. I pass a French clothing shop where I once bought a taupe cotton cardigan. Suddenly the making of these clothes, originating on a piece of paper in Paris, via a factory somewhere very far away, and ending up on this particular street corner seems like a hysterical act.
Just as the 2008 government bailout was distributed to financial institutions at the expense of austerity on the British public, this time the government’s stimulus package reaches businesses and people in fixed employment but leaves out the UK’s precarious workforce. People are losing their jobs, not being compensated, going to food banks so as not to starve, and with schools closed there are no free lunches being served to children who rely on them.
The world economy, we hear, is falling apart. But isn’t economy the sum of all the things that we do and we make? And can’t this pause be an opportunity to re-think, start again? Many people now wish for an index of companies that are ecological and ethical, all the ones that have treated their employees well during the virus, helped them to survive. Surely this is the time to build new businesses and an economy that fits this earth now.
The NHS doesn’t have enough personal protective equipment: gowns, masks, gloves. Nor are there enough ventilators to help their patients recover. We hear a manager of manufacturing firms on the radio who’s been trying to contact the government about supplying them but received no reply. Will is everywhere. The national effort is enormous. Instead of listening to the radio I want to work for it again. Being at home is nothing like anarchy. It’s luxury.
Date: Sunday 12 April 2020
Reported deaths in the UK: 10,612
Reported daily deaths in the UK: 737
Reported cases: 84,279 (includes our prime minister, his chief advisor and our health secretary)
‘Are wizards real? Are baddies real? Are police real? I think I saw two once,’ our three-year-old asks us. The outside world gets murkier, further away, smudged. I’m sure I must be missing my old life but I can’t particularly remember it. Some days at home we don’t know how to look after each other. We get it wrong. We start again. The news becomes too awful to listen to. We tune out. It’s difficult to take in the enormity of the loss, the failures, our failures. We’ve become immune to the numbers. When Italy had as many deaths a day as we have now we were shocked, devastated, afraid. Now we can’t take in the volume of the loss. Slowly a new way of life is becoming established, and again we’re too busy to think.
Our prime minister leaves intensive care and tells us, starry-eyed, that the NHS is ‘powered by love’. As if we didn’t know. Over the last ten years Conservative governments have reduced funding to the NHS as demands on it have increased. We wonder if he might now start giving the NHS the money it needs, but epiphanies often dissipate when the everyday returns.
For now, the workings of our society still remain visible on every street. Dots in the spaces, arrows on the line-breaks. I go for a morning run. Nobody else is around apart from a guy in a high-vis jacket sweeping the street. We greet each other with a warmth and sincerity that is rare in normal times here. He has a pride in what he’s doing, and I a realisation about how easy this is for me in comparison. That was true before the coronavirus, but now it’s impossible to imagine or pretend it’s any other way. Although lockdown conditions might not be the best for us to re-think everything, if we don’t now use the clarity the coronavirus gives us – when we step back out to our cities heaving again, the moment might have slipped away.
Our three-year-old finds that staying at home is beginning to drag. He says that he’d like to go to a playground, and he misses his grandmothers. I ask him whether he prefers his life before the coronavirus came to the UK or after. ‘Before,’ he pauses. ‘And after. I like after and before.’
author’s note: All data refers to reported figures. Real figures are not known because from 12 March only people admitted to hospital were being tested in the UK. Real death figures are also unknown. Causes of death may not be clear if people haven’t been tested. Towards the end of March the government increased its targets for testing but hasn’t yet come close to meeting these targets. We attend to these reported numbers nonetheless.
Image courtesy of the author