One of the routine questions asked of detainees at police stations is: ‘Are you fit and well?’ It has acquired new force in recent weeks. A homeless man I interpreted for a few days ago said he was, though he looked exhausted. He had recently been placed in a hotel in central London as part of an initiative reminiscent of O. Henry’s ‘Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen’, a story about the perils of ‘the yearly hunger which, as the philanthropists seem to think, afflicts the poor at such extended intervals’.
‘The right measures at the right time’ has been a mantra of ministers and sanctioned experts: sensible, uncontroversial. But the government has undermined its own timelines and its own priorities. It has talked up increases in testing – ‘rolling it out’, ‘ramping it up’ – but at the weekend a significant gap appeared between ministerial claim and reality. Michael Gove said in his Sunday morning interviews that the target of 10,000 tests per day was being met; but on Saturday, it turned out, only 8278 tests were carried out on 4908 patients.
It is cold comfort that this time around the wealthy cannot flee to London and Delhi for medical treatment, as they did during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Every day, we hear of prominent people getting tested, even when they don’t have any symptoms, while ‘ordinary’ Nigerians who fear they may have caught the virus are told to come back in 14 days’ time. Covid-19 is known as ‘the rich man’s disease’: you needed the wherewithal to travel abroad in order to catch it in the first place, and the wherewithal to get tested on your return, having infected the ‘masses’ in the process.
The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is the only world leader widely believed not only to have Covid-19 and to have lied about it, but to have knowingly spread it to untold numbers of his followers. Time (or Veja, the country’s leading news magazine) will tell, but at the very least, the circumstantial evidence is curious. Bolsonaro called on his largely evangelical base to hit the streets on 15 March to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court. Under quarantine after his return from the US – 25 members of his entourage have been infected with coronavirus, making Bolsonaro the centre of the largest initial cluster in Brazil – the president broke out of his motorcade to shake hands and high five those calling for the government buildings to be burnt to the ground.
The criminal courts and the jails that feed and are fed by them are ideal incubators of Covid-19. It comes as no surprise that an elderly prisoner has died today, either from or with the virus, and he won’t be the last. Courts bring people together in small spaces for hours or days at a time, in the courtrooms, the cells, and the jury rooms, not to mention the offices where the staff work. In the basement cell area of a court I attended recently, a single air-conditioning unit blew the same air through all the cells and into the interview and staff rooms. My colleagues have been complaining for years about broken plumbing, absence of soap and towels, and frequently filthy conditions.
On Monday, news channels showed Matt Hancock moving boxes of personal protective equipment from a warehouse to a truck. He admitted that there had been a problem with distribution. Last Thursday evening, a London hospital had to declare a ‘critical incident’ after running out of critical care beds. Social media streams are filled with reports from paramedics about missing equipment and sharing masks. Spain meanwhile (to take one example) has ordered 640,000 testing kits from China. International comparisons have become an inevitable part of the response and interpretation of the crisis. Should Britain continue along its own peculiar furrow or be more like Italy, France, Germany, China or South Korea? Also from Spain, there are disturbing reports of residents being left ‘dead and abandoned’ in at least three care homes. Where are we going?
How do we live in a world where, in the short run, we are all infected? Even if we are not infected, and never will be infected, we must live as if we are infected. Every social interaction contains the possibility of death. Not touching your face in public is an act of self-discipline that can protect the nation.
The enormous, blinking radio tower on Twin Peaks is half-hidden in mist, as it usually is this time of morning. And the N Judah streetcar rattles and squeals in and out of the tunnel below every fifteen minutes or so, as it routinely does, except on weekends and holidays when the intervals between trains are longer. I have woken to its sound and fallen asleep, often late, to the last train in the very early morning, for nearly 38 years now. Much else has changed around me here, but these two, the streetcar and mist, have not. I suppose they have become more a part of my identity than I realise.
Macron spoke again on Monday evening. His tone was more sombre; the time had come for a ‘general mobilisation’. ‘We are at war,’ he kept repeating. For most people, it turns out, the struggle will unfold without a trace of the martial virtues: these will be left to first-responders, medics and carers. The rest of us would simply have to crawl into the bunker and remain there ‘for at least 15 days’, effective from Tuesday noon, in the knowledge that the enemy, in Macron’s words, is ever-present, ‘invisible, elusive, making progress’. It isn’t inappropriate or tasteless to recall that in Camus, too, the plague ‘never ceased progressing’ or that it had ‘a characteristically jerky but unfaltering stride’.
By late last year, it seemed clear that decades of attempts to coax governments and business leaders into taking seriously the risks posed by the climate crisis were leading nowhere. Yet faced with the far more immediate threats posed by a global pandemic, states that for decades had been committed to neoliberal thinking have slowly begun to embrace such radically old-fashioned ideas as planning for the future, relying on scientific expertise, or calling on their constituents to make sacrifices in order to protect vulnerable members of society. Environmental campaigners and journalists have begun to document the effects that the shut-down of factories, cancellation of large conferences, postponement of sporting events, and limitations on freedom of movement have had on carbon emissions.
Can a biscuit factory make a ventilator? Can a car plant? In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the government was launching ‘a call to arms for a drive to build the ventilators and other equipment the NHS will need ... We now need any manufacturers to transform their production lines to make ventilators. We cannot make too many. If you produce a ventilator, we will buy it. No number is too high.’
Not since the financial crisis of 2008, when there were fewer smartphones in the world by a factor of ten, has the world as a whole faced an emergency like the coronavirus epidemic. And while the financial crisis affected countries differently, Covid-19 affects countries in pretty much the same way. Such different parts of the world, all the same, all in it together. The fear, the uncertainty, the panic-buying, the masked figures swarming around hospital beds and public buildings. Palm trees in the background, then snowy mountains in the background, then apartment blocks in the background – is this San Francisco, Milan or Shanghai?
Lo’s Noodle Factory supplies almost all the Chinatown restaurants, as well as the Hakkasan group; no one was cutting noodles when I went there on a Friday afternoon. ‘It’s not just Chinatown. It’s anywhere where there are Chinese people. France, Italy – it doesn’t matter; it’s the whole world,’ said the man handing me my order of char siu bao, red bean buns and cheung fun. Lo’s only just avoided closing last November, when Shaftesbury plc (which owns most of Chinatown) tried to turn it into an electrical substation. The whole area was already under pressure from skyrocketing rents and immigration enforcement raids. The novel coronavirus has further stymied Chinatown’s micro-economy.