Last week I visited Arrowe Park Hospital (A.K.A. Coronavirus Central) with my father, who’d been sent for an X-ray. Our visit was enlivened by the sighting of a rat making its way swiftly and confidently along the corridor. Eventually the poor wee thing was cornered and forced to surrender to overwhelming force, i.e. a woman wielding a cardboard box. Shock and Awe.
My mind turned, as so often it does, to the Great Pestilence. The 14th century was not a good time to be around. No-one knew what was causing it (academics are still arguing about that), so they did a lot of praying to God (surprisingly ineffective) and, to be on the safe side, killed a large number of Jews. (How depressing to learn that some random Asian people have been insulted and beaten up in England and elsewhere.)
It has been estimated that 25 million Europeans died.
Yesterday morning I took the Golf to Battersea for a service. I was there by 8:30, after a laborious drive through the busy roads of South London, and out the door by 9:15. I considered my options: to stay in town or make my way home. Still undecided, I started to walk eastwards along the Thames Path, past the noisy heliport and into Battersea Park. There is no quick and easy way to get back to Herne Hill from there, so I continued across Chelsea Bridge.
What follows is an account of the thoughts, rational and otherwise, I was having yesterday morning. Events are moving at such a pace that much of it will be out of date by the time you read it.
I am a member of various Friends organisations such as the Tate, the Royal Academy and the British Library, as well as the RSA, and I could have visited any of them for free. But I didn’t fancy spending time in any of the capital’s prime tourist destinations, not just now. Last December I went to the British Museum to see the Troy exhibition and I came down with the flu; and I mean the proper flu. Nearly 6,000,000 people from all over the world visited the BM last year. Can you imagine a better place to contract a super-contagious virus, aside from a hospital?
How would you like to work on the visitor desk at the BM?
I don’t think I’ll be going back there for a while, or to any of the excellent places I’ve name-checked above. In medieval times people would have crowded into churches and cathedrals: perfect conditions to pass on or catch a killer disease, as happened recently in South Korea. Weddings are being postponed right now (and a funeral would be a gathering well worth avoiding.) No-one has any immunity to Covid-19.
So I walked on to Victoria Station and caught the train home, at least avoiding peak commuting hours and getting six seats all to myself.
As a retired person, you might think I’d be well placed to self-isolate, but no. Unlike me, my wife still works for a living. Most days she commutes by train into town and walks over Tower Bridge to the office she shares with 100 other people. If she catches the lurgy so will I. I’m 65 and mildly asthmatic, but I’d probably survive. My father-in-law lives round the corner in so-called sheltered housing. Although in pretty good health, he is over 80, like the majority of his fellow inmates. They all enter and exit through the same communal front door; they use the same lift, pushing the same call button. They will forget to wash their hands and, sooner or later, they’ll catch it – if not from each other, then from the family members, cleaners and carers who come in daily. Should we stop inviting him round to dinner, just to be on the safe side? Should we stop paying him a visit? And if he gets ill are we going to leave my wife’s father to suffer on his own?
I am a Harbinger of Doom, in fact I thrive on it
Pretty soon people will become wary of public transport and will go back to walking, cycling or driving, irrespective of the cost, where it’s feasible to do so. The roads will become even more clogged. Don’t forget to wear gloves when you’re using the petrol pumps, and the same goes for cash machines. A barber’s shop must be a pretty good place to catch it, so we’ll manage without that trim, thank you. Better safe than sorry. Gyms, swimming pools? I think not. I’ll be taking my exercise in the parks; and let’s get the Bromptons (folding bikes, if you didn’t know) out from under the stairs.
Back to those clogged roads: getting your food delivered by a supermarket sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Indeed my parents utterly depend on it – plus the goodwill of a few kind neighbours. But of course the whole operation is dependent on an army of drivers, and those underpaid people who pick the items from the shelves, and the factory and farm workers further down the chain. Any blip in the system will lead to a well-publicised shortage, and then people will panic and make it worse. Am I going to stockpile food? Just a bit. Not for ever, but enough to last us through self-isolation periods and times when we might not be able to get to the shops. We’ll start with meat, frozen veg and pulses. Forget the bread and dairy products and crap like chocolate biscuits and marmalade and ice-cream (except that we’ll all need cheering up!). Expect a run on freezers.
No more finger food at receptions, if there are to be any receptions that is! I was invited to a private view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery tonight, but no thanks. No more sharing plates of cheesy nachos in pubs.
As for the anti-viral hand sanitisers which we are recommended to use when we can’t find good old soap and water, you can no longer get any from our local shops. Thinking of which, we are supposed to be going to Indonesia in May, via London Airport and Singapore. The sensible thing, I hear you say, would be to postpone it until next year. But we’ve already paid thousands of pounds and we won’t get our money back from the insurance, unless and until…
If I am starting to think and act like this, so are others
Anyone with an imagination is bound to be worried – perhaps very worried. The number of confirmed UK Coronavirus cases will shoot up from today’s 80 or so and will soon be measured in hundreds, and then in thousands. It is hard to be insouciant when one issue utterly dominates the news. Italy has closed all its schools and universities! A week ago this would have seemed incredible. Have Italian and French people really stopped kissing each other when they meet? And if so, will they ever go back to doing it? This may sound a trivial example, but there are massive social implications ahead – never mind the effects on the economy. Theatres, cinemas, museums, pubs and clubs will close. Londoners will shun the Tube. Tourists will stay at home. Already Flybe has failed, probably taking down Exeter and Southampton airports in consequence. It’s an industrial revolution in reverse.
One is tempted to say “bring it on and let’s get it over with”; after all, we can’t hide away for ever and there isn’t going to be a vaccine or cure this year. Better to get a hospital bed while there is one. But the thing is: we don’t even know if you can catch it more than once. And what about next year’s mutation?
Anyway if this lurgy doesn’t get you, something else will, so – as I said 18 months ago – enjoy yourself while you can…