On 11 May 2020, as Britain reeled from the first wave of the pandemic, Boris Johnson urged the public to use ‘good, solid British common sense’ to navigate the risks posed by Covid-19. One year and 120,000 deaths later, the prime minister’s advice to the nation was the same. ‘It’s about basic common sense,’ he said on 11 May 2021. Now, as Britain lifts all Covid restrictions while recording nearly as many cases as the entire European Union, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who tested positive at the weekend, has told the Commons it is time to ‘start a new chapter based on the foundations of personal responsibility and common sense’.
‘I take full responsibility for everything that has happened,’ Boris Johnson told the House of Commons at the end of May, in answer to a question from the SNP leader Ian Blackford. He qualified himself in answer to Blackford’s next question: ‘I take full responsibility for everything that the government did.’ It’s a line he’s been peddling for a while. ‘As prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,’ he said at a press conference in January, on the day the official tally of Covid-19 fatalities in the United Kingdom passed 100,000. Since the pandemic began, there has been plenty of talk from the government about responsibility, though usually ours not theirs.
In response to a series of adroit questions from Dean Russell about the structural and institutional lessons that might be derived from his experience, Cummings could only return to Johnson’s personal flaws, ‘like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle into the other’. It’s true that ‘don’t elect Boris Johnson’ is a useful first step for dealing with any problem, but it is a little galling to hear it coming from the man who masterminded Johnson’s rise.
Cattle plague was a lethal disease of bovines cause by the rinderpest virus, an agent closely related to measles. It came to Britain from Europe in the mid 1860s and killed at least 420,000 cows. Rinderpest is not a coronavirus. Its R number is probably three times greater than that of Covid-19, and its mortality rate is much higher. But as a model it still has relevance to contemporary events.
Regardless of its dubious etymology, ‘Everest’ – a hyperbolic adverb raised to the superlative degree – is a fitting appellation for an extreme, lawless world in which ordinary moral conduct is suspended. Above eight thousand metres, acclimatisation is impossible. (The highest human settlements are at five thousand metres.) Everest stands at 8849 metres, which means climbers are effectively dying in a queue and must get to the summit and back before they succumb. If the person ahead of you keels over or goes blind, it isn’t unusual to step over them and carry on. Should someone else’s oxygen canister jam or explode, you wouldn’t be the only one keeping quiet about your spare. Climbers pause for a rest beside the body of ‘Green Boots’, thought to be Tsewang Paljor, who died in a blizzard in 1996. All this is normal on the ‘roof of the world’.
In May 2020, one of my clients asked the local authority – her landlord – when essential maintenance work would start at her home. Damp and mould had made her daughter’s bedroom uninhabitable. ‘It seems to us that you have not given a moment’s attention to present realities,’ the landlord responded. ‘Staff are low in numbers across many of the council’s departments due to personnel self-isolating.’ I told her not to be disheartened, everything was slower in the lockdown. The works would be delayed but they would happen. I was less sanguine when I saw the same excuse being given in letters written in August and September, when even bowling alleys and casinos were open.
On 11 March, the Department for Culture and Europe of the Berlin senate announced a pilot project for ‘the opening of cultural and economic events for a tested audience’. It was conceived in a more hopeful moment than the one we are in now. A few weeks ago my amateur football team’s WhatsApp group was buzzing at the prospect of being able to play full-contact football again from as early as 5 April, if the seven-day incidence remained below 100 cases per 100,000 people. It was about 60 at the beginning of March. It’s now approaching 150.
Giovanni Anichini is the 36-year-old manager of a hotel in the foothills of Florence. From the end of January 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Italy, he witnessed, first with disbelief and then with despair, the cancellation of all reservations months into the future. The cancellations represented the disappearance of years of work and, for many, the loss of their livelihood. Ten per cent of the workforce in Florence are (or were) employed in tourism.
Last April, we began to see children admitted to hospital with a new inflammatory disease. Paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome temporally associated with Sars-CoV-2 infection (abbreviated to PIMS-TS in the UK or MISC-C in the US) can occur two to six weeks after an initial Covid-19 infection. Many of the children will have been asymptomatic, or have had very mild symptoms, and Covid swabs usually come back negative when they present with PIMS-TS. Antibody tests might show evidence of a recent Covid infection, but hospitals are not routinely testing for Covid antibodies. The symptoms were initially attributed to other inflammatory conditions. News began to come in from other parts of the world, however, confirming that what we were seeing was a novel illness. Cases have been rising again over the last two months.
Covid-19 has taken more than 100,000 lives in the UK. Restrictions mean that no more than thirty people can go to a funeral. But a funeral is not supposed to be a small, intimate affair, in the way a wedding or baptism can be. There’s a Congolese saying: ‘A family doesn’t bury its dead on its own.’ But what do you do when a community can’t come together, whether financially or spiritually, to aid a mourning family?
‘Profiteer’ was coined as a verb during the Napoleonic Wars and a noun in the First World War, when ‘illegal profiteering’ by opportunist ‘unscrupulous dealers’, the Times reported, proliferated in ‘aggravated form’. A Royal Proclamation of 31 August 1917 prohibited the import of bacon, butter, hams and lard except under government licence. Profiteering Acts were passed in 1919 and 1920, and newspapers reported on the plans of housewives’ unions to ‘beat the profiteering tradesman’.
Covid-19 is not only a new nasty virus, but the techniques used in its discovery, monitoring and medical management are also new, particularly from my perspective as someone old enough to be in the highest priority group for vaccination. If the prime minister had suffered from the virus when I was a junior doctor at St Thomas’s Hospital, he wouldn’t have been treated in the Intensive Care Unit, because there wasn’t one. Residents of Lambeth with severe respiratory problems – and there were many because cigarettes were cheap and sulphurous smogs were common – were given oxygen on thirty-bed Nightingale wards, with tracheostomies if they were really sick. Monitors didn’t bleep. There weren’t any.
The Covid-19 regulations are draconian, inconsistent, obscure and inconvenient, but they are not unconscionable. They do not require me to do things that the state should never make its citizens do. They are proportionate to the threat that the virus poses to health services, and necessary to slow the spread of the disease and protect those services: or at least, they are arguably so. The law and the reasons for it make sense. The regulations are contained within statutory instruments. They alone are the law. They are the ‘rules’. They can be enforced with criminal sanctions. Guidance and advice are not rules and cannot be legally enforced.
Were it not for the semi-consistent use of masks in the street, and the closing of the beaches on Sundays and Mondays, you could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic hadn’t reached Salvador da Bahia, the capital of the state with the second-lowest Covid-19 death rate in Brazil. The official number of deaths for the whole country surpassed 200,000 on 8 January. Locals and visitors (mainly from elsewhere in Brazil) congregate in groups at outdoor tables without masks, and people walk – some masked, others not – along the oceanfront. A festa continua, mas não.
The first recorded polio epidemic was in Sweden in the 1880s, though inscriptions in Egypt suggest the disease dates back to ancient times. In 1916 the virus devastated New York and swathes of the north-eastern United States, killing six thousand people, mostly children, and leaving thousands more paralysed. Unlike other deadly epidemic diseases, such as tuberculosis, polio appeared to have no correlation to poverty. ‘Once the terror stalks, mere wealth cannot buy immunity,’ as the Ladies Home Journal put it in 1935. ‘The well-fed babies of the boulevards are no safer than gamins from the gutter from the mysterious universality of the crippling midget, once it’s on the rampage.’
Joe Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was overseer at the Ballina Union Workhouse in County Mayo from 1848 to 1850 during the Great Irish Famine. Many died in the workhouse and others perished in the temporary fever hospital built against one of its walls. With his family, Blewitt emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1851. He did well, despite the political power of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Know Nothing movement, a nationalist and Protestant political party, which in the 1850s had a hundred congressmen, eight state governors, and a controlling position in half-a-dozen state legislatures. Before his job at the workhouse, Blewitt had been an engineer for the Irish Ordnance Survey; in Pennsylvania he helped to lay out the new mining town of Scranton.
On 6 November, Liverpool became the first city in the UK to undertake a mass testing programme for the virus that causes Covid-19, with the hope that all 500,000 residents will be tested at least twice at a variety of sites – mostly leisure centres – manned by 2000 army personnel. Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, and his director of public health, Matt Ashton, said they hoped between 5000 and 10,000 people a day would come forward for testing; by the end of the first week, the council announced that 90,000 tests had been carried out. Among them was mine.
When lockdown began in March, live music stopped and my career as an opera singer ground to a halt. I’ve tried to hold onto a nugget of hope that the arts won’t be allowed to fall over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless abyss. But that hope has been steadily chipped away, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, talks about ‘viable jobs’ and suggests people should look for ‘fresh and new opportunities’; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, tells those who work in the arts to ‘hang on in there’ (he didn’t explain how, when innumerable members of the community are on the breadline); and Edwina Currie, forced to resign as a junior health minister in 1988 for misguided remarks about bad eggs, instructs the UK’s freelance music community to ‘go and do something useful’ and get ‘an education’ – all perhaps taking their lead from Dominic Cummings, who allegedly said in a meeting in August that ‘the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue.’
Democratic Party moralism and Trumpian macho risk-taking are internally related to one another. Gambling, with all its macho undertones, has a special if covert appeal to the evangelical or Puritan mind. It allows individuals to throw off the slow, painful and laborious burden of subordinating their wishes to the superego with one manic play of the dice. Running around without a mask in the face of a pandemic could serve as a huge relief from the endless self-examination of the hypertrophied Protestant conscience. Finally, it’s out of our hands; everything will be decided by ‘fate’.
In the week after the schools went back in England and Wales, an extra 538 people died (77 a day). Over the previous five years, an average of 8720 people had died that week in September, but this year the number surged to 9258. How many more would be dead by Christmas? The next week there was a lull: only 289 excess deaths. But then the universities returned, and the excess mortality count doubled. In the week ending 25 September, 574 more people had died each day. There was a drop to 319 excess deaths the following week, and then a rise to 678 (97 a day). On and on it went, week after week after week. Almost five thousand excess deaths were recorded between the schools going back and the start of December. The year was 2015 and most people weren’t paying attention. No one read the numbers out.
Student halls of residence have now joined cruise liners, care homes, meat plants, giant evangelical church gatherings and migrant worker dormitories as Covid-19 transmission hot spots. The US is top of the league table so far. A New York Times survey found that by 25 September, 1300 colleges had been affected and 130,000 students had tested positive. Universities in Scotland start teaching earlier than in the rest of the UK, so here they have led the way, with cases and outbreaks at St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Many other universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed since.
There’s a long history of describing laid-off workers using metaphors of disease. The first comprehensive policy effort to deal with unemployment in the UK was the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909. ‘Relief works cannot seriously be regarded as a cure for unemployment,’ Gavin Hamilton said, proposing the bill in the House of Lords. ‘At the best they are only a palliative. What is wanted is not a drug to still the pain of this disease, but a cure which will reach deep down to its roots.’ Only recently, though, has unemployment come to be seen as a disease of the individual rather than social body.
The First World War and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire brought an end to Central Europe’s place at the forefront of biomedical science. As the Allies’ wartime blockade continued into the peace, hunger and disease gripped Central and Eastern Europe. Vienna, Berlin and Moscow saw a dramatic spike in deaths after 1918. The Spanish flu has received a great deal of attention recently. At the time, people were just as – if not more – preoccupied by the risks posed by typhus and tuberculosis. In Vienna, one in every four deaths was caused by TB. Dr Siegfried Rosenfeld, of the Austrian Department of Health Statistics in the Volksgesundheitsamt, called it the ‘Viennese Disease’.
Brazil has 2.8 per cent of the world’s population and (so far) 14 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. The country’s death toll topped 100,000 on 8 August. For the first time, the military took rhetorical distance from Bolsonaro, who commented on the football results rather than the gruesome pandemic landmark.
In 1964 there was a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen caused by contaminated corned beef from Argentina. Opinion among older Aberdonians is sharply divided about Ian MacQueen, the local medical officer of health. Some say he saved the city. Others say he did more damage than good. Dr MacQueen ran daily press conferences. At the beginning he said the outbreak was under control and the number of cases would be small. Then, as case numbers continued to rise, he started doom-laden talk about a second wave, and predicted as many as 40,000 possible cases. But as case numbers fell, his waves turned into a series of wavelets. At the end of the outbreak, 507 cases had been diagnosed. There were no waves, or even wavelets. Three people died, none of typhoid.
Bribing people to congregate during a pandemic and spend money so that others don’t starve is the mark of an economic system that doesn’t work, and a government that lacks the imagination to do better.
Quarantine has always been a political tool, imposed on citizens by governments. In 1631, Charles I received a report from one of his physicians, Théodore de Mayerne. The king had asked Mayerne to look into how England’s quarantine procedures, especially in London, could be updated to meet current standards in the more civilised cities of France and Italy. Mayerne pulled no punches. People infected with plague in London should no longer be isolated either with their families at home or in makeshift sheds elsewhere. There should be new hospitals for the sick and separate ones for their contacts. Above all, Mayerne called for the creation of a metropolitan board of health, properly funded and with ‘absolute power’ in time of infection. Only that could guarantee ‘order’, the ‘soul and life of all things’, and so safeguard ‘the public health of all’.
As the city began to shut down in March, I decided to stay indoors. I had rice in one pot, tomato stew in another, mangoes in a bowl, carrots in a small bucket, garri in a black nylon sack, more tomatoes in the freezer, and more rice in a bag. I would survive the apocalypse, and if I didn’t, I would go out on a full stomach. When the lockdown was announced, the naira slipped further against the dollar, prices of commodities went up, and Lagosians thronged the markets for last-minute supplies. I went out to buy fish but there wasn’t any. I bought turkey parts instead. There was a preacher on the road near the market, bible in hand. He returned the next day with a translator. He spoke English and she echoed his words in Yoruba. He reminded us that the coronavirus was not as severe as the hellfire waiting for sinners.
Pharmacopoeia raiders are busy, looking for Covid-19 remedies that might be hiding in the long list of tried, tested and safe drugs. I did this for smallpox a long time ago, when it was discovered that the antibiotic rifampicin blocked its growth. It turned out that the effective dose was far too high to be useful. The smallpox strain I used in this work was called Butler. It had been isolated in Rochdale during a big outbreak in 1952. Most of the 138 cases had never been vaccinated. Nobody died, because the causative virus was variola minor, very closely related genetically to classical smallpox – variola major – but very different in its clinical effects: v. minor with a case fatality rate in the unvaccinated of less than 1 per cent and v. major with a rate higher than 20 per cent.
According to figures compiled by researchers at McGill University, the Covid-19 pandemic is predicted to cause an additional 400,000 malaria deaths this year; an additional 700,000 HIV-related deaths in Africa alone; 15 million unintended pregnancies; and up to 1.4 million additional tuberculosis deaths by 2025. The list continues: at least 80 million children under one are at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, rubella and polio, as routine immunisation services have been disrupted in almost 70 countries. There could be an additional 113,000 maternal deaths in the next 12 months because of disruption to care before, during and after childbirth.
Plague struck Wittenberg in August 1527, ten years after Luther posted – or didn’t post; historians disagree – the 95 Theses on the door of the castle church, and two years after the Peasants’ War of 1525, when thousands of peasants were slain after they revolted against their lords. Luther had backed the authorities in putting down the revolt with massive bloodshed. Earlier in 1527, Luther had undergone a major physical and emotional collapse, and found himself unable to write or read for some months. Then, just as he was starting to recover, plague broke out in the town.
Although dozens of her own officials have been involved in corruption scandals, including a health minister caught price-gouging on respirators, Añez – like Bolsonaro and Trump – peddles conspiracy theories about enemies in the media, government and civil society. They allegedly follow Morales’s directives, and plot her overthrow through terrorism and drug trafficking in conjunction with Peruvians and Colombians (never mind that Colombian guerrillas are less than a shadow of their former selves).
Contrary to some assumptions, libraries have not closed during the current pandemic. The entrenched view of libraries is that they are just physical places where communities come together to access knowledge. Covid-19 has upended these assumptions. The question, for all libraries, as the crisis was unfolding in March, was whether we would support our communities better by staying open and continuing to provide the services that need the physical spaces to operate, or by closing, as libraries are busy places where the disease could easily spread, affecting frontline library staff as well as users.
At Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport you come out into the arrivals hall not through an opaque set of automatic doors but down an escalator. You can see the people waiting expectantly below, watching as you descend. When I returned to Tehran last month, however, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the airport was empty. I tried to imagine the hall crowded, as it should be. Of the few people I saw, most were wearing facemasks. My suitcase had been wet when I took it off the carousel. ‘Is it raining?’ another passenger asked. Then we saw a man in a red and yellow uniform spraying the luggage with disinfectant. My journey from Toronto had lasted forty long hours, through deserted airports in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Before that I had spent fifty days alone in a deserted city where I knew no one; the only person I had known in Toronto was killed in January.
After a performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the Concertgebouw on 8 March, 102 of the 130-strong Amsterdam Gemengd Koor fell ill. Forty-five members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, Washington, were diagnosed with Covid-19 within three weeks of their last rehearsal, also in mid-March. Singing is thought to be an especially effective method of coronavirus dispersion. Infective droplets are spread by people talking; droplets spread further when people talk louder; singing is like a very loud form of talking. It’s debatable – and far from proven – that singing may also produce lingering aerosols, and therefore a higher risk of mass spreading. Theatres and concert halls can reopen in England from 4 July, but live performances won’t be allowed.
Brazil’s official Covid-19 death toll has more than doubled since I last wrote, four weeks ago, with 51,407 deaths and more than a million confirmed cases. According to the first nationwide study, the real number of cases could be seven times that, but the research teams charged with investigating were harassed and detained, and 800 tests were destroyed. President Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is still pushing hydroxychloroquine and making jokes about the ‘minor flu’. The federal court in Brasilia has ordered that Bolsonaro be fined every time he appears in public without a mask.
‘The readiness of the English to apologise for something they haven’t done is remarkable,’ Henry Hitchings writes in Sorry! The English and their Manners (2013), ‘and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologise for what they have done.’ Boris Johnson presents a classic case. He’s the sort who’ll gabble apologies on entering a room or sitting in a chair, an upper-class tic that gives the impression of excessively good manners. By mumbling vague apologies and failing to individuate his words, Johnson creates an aura of harmless stupidity that makes him seem like a friendly, slovenly underdog to a nation with a soft spot for incompetence.
In the run up to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I was, as a doctor, concerned about whether mass protests were the right thing to do. We know that mass gatherings with lots of shouting invariably lead to localised outbreaks, especially for a virus as contagious as Sars-CoV-2. Did I really want my patients and colleagues putting themselves at even more risk? Is this really in the interests of people of colour, especially when they are between two and four times more likely to die from the coronavirus? My most immediate worry is my parents; they are precisely the right (or wrong) demographic to suffer badly from this virus. As my social life and travel shrank over the first weeks of lockdown, I urged them to take it seriously and stay at home. They reminded me that this is how they’ve always lived; the pandemic has not changed much for them. They have always been in lockdown.
Covid-19 has made A&E departments very quiet. I worked in the one at St Thomas’s Hospital when it was called Casualty. Undressing a homeless patient once caused the centrifugal escape from his clothes of a shimmering sheen of lice, hundreds of them. Sister Cas was called. She rolled up her sleeves and said: ‘This reminds me of Dunkirk!’ Most lousy people have only a handful. The best quantitative study of lousiness was done by Alexander Peacock, an RAMC entomologist, in the trenches on the Western Front in the First World War. He found that 95 per cent of the soldiers were infested, more than 60 per cent with 20 lice or fewer, but 2.8 per cent – he called them ‘horrible examples’ – had more than 350 on their trousers and shirts. This pattern of distribution, in which most of a human population’s parasites are concentrated in only a few individuals, is very common. Statisticians call it ‘overdispersion’.
Cummings’s disregard for the new social contract is another data point in support of the hypothesis that the repudiation of protective measures is gendered. As with other risky behaviours, men are more likely to break lockdown rules. A study published this month shows they are also less likely to wear face masks. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many men believe they are less vulnerable to contracting or dying from the virus; others worry that masks are shameful or will be interpreted as a sign of weakness or subjugation.
The Financial Times reported today that the UK has the worst death rate from Covid-19 ‘among countries that produce comparable data’ (new data from Spain now put it ahead of the UK). The delay to introducing lockdown measures was made worse by shortages of PPE, a chaotic testing policy and a failure to protect care homes. The standard the government wanted to be measured by was ‘excess deaths’ – a public health term meaning the number of deaths above the expected level in any given period – and by this measure its policies have fallen short. ‘The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March,’ the FT says. The evidence points to a catastrophic mistake. But something worries me about the apparent neutrality of the term ‘excess deaths’. British political culture is very good at making avoidable deaths seem like an unfortunate fact of life, or a matter of personal responsibility.
Bolsonaro’s cabinet meeting, which lasted several profanity-laced hours, was more like a mafia conclave than an affair of state. No reference was made to the thousands of dead and dying. The one reference to the virus came from the environment minister, who noted that with everyone distracted by the pandemic, the time was ripe to privatise and liberalise the Amazon further. Brazil now has to explain those remarks to the UN. The main issue in the meeting was that Bolsonaro had tried without success to change the head of the federal police in Rio so that no one would ‘fuck over’ his family or friends. He would therefore fire whomever he needed to, including the then justice minister, Sérgio Moro, and replace them with ‘people who belong to our structures’.
It would be nice to think that such statements, like the weekly ‘clap for our carers’, acknowledged the value of affective labour. But when work is characterised as a set of exceptional actions or feelings – sacrifice, heroism, selflessness, going ‘above and beyond’ – the question of pay, or economic and social security, can be avoided. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, Kit Malthouse, the justice minister, said that he hoped the crisis would foster the development of care work as a credentialised, ‘desirable, professional career’. Would there be more pay, he was asked. ‘Possibly,’ he replied. Like the ‘care badge’ proposed by Hancock (one of the most toe-curling government micro-responses to the pandemic), the great thing about praise and thanks is that they don’t need to come with guarantees of anything else.
One of the central motifs of Orientalist painting is the Eastern market, with sunbeams cutting through dusty air onto opulent fabrics, bright piles of fruit, pyramids of spices, and enigmatic stall-holders (the genre has its own subsection on Wikipedia). The modern analogue is the holiday photograph of the exotic bazaar or mercado. There’s one of me in a souk in Palestine, feigning shock in front of a shark impaled on a giant fishhook, reminiscent of a scene from Jaws. As with other Orientalist representations, these images have a dual effect: they express desire and fascination, on the one hand, and repulsion and condescension on the other. Foreign markets are both alluring and horrifying.
On 13 May, Italy’s government unveiled an economic support package that, among other measures, includes an amnesty for undocumented migrants who work on farms and in social care. ‘It’s true. I cried,’ the agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, who had proposed the amnesty, wrote on Facebook. ‘Because I fought for something I believed in from the beginning, because I closed the circle of a life that is not only mine, but that of many women and men like me who worked in the fields.’ Bellanova, who was born in the southern region of Puglia in 1958, began work as a day labourer on farms around Brindisi at the age of 15. She says she saw girls her age die from the harsh working conditions. She spent years as a trade unionist before being elected to parliament in 2006.
Under slavery, the masters had an interest in maintaining the health and even longevity of the slaves, who were their main form of property. After abolition, however, maintaining the health of free workers turned into a burden, especially as the cost of medicine rose. Understanding these simple facts of modern political economy may help explain how the United States, the self-proclaimed ‘greatest country in the world’, ended up with one-third of all Covid-19 cases.
Laurel and Hardy reruns often played on Iranian television when I visited as a child. Wholesome, black-and-white slapstick didn’t need to be censored. In the Kurdish version, Oliver Hardy’s voice was dubbed by my uncle, Hashim Shahvisi, who was for decades a popular radio presenter. A year ago, he was in hospital in Tehran with an unspecified illness. My father spoke to relatives every day without getting any closer to finding out what was wrong.
Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition. Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
‘Children are not the face of this pandemic,’ the UN said on 15 April, but ‘they risk being among its biggest victims.’ The policy brief predicted a sharp increase in child poverty globally; huge losses in child learning worldwide because of school closures and digital exclusion; risks to child safety from lockdown and ‘shelter in place’ measures; and threats to child health and survival from reduced household income, disrupted health services and the mental health toll of the pandemic. ‘Without urgent action,’ Unicef had warned earlier in April, ‘this health crisis risks becoming a child rights crisis.’
Two years ago Sajid Javid, newly appointed home secretary after the Windrush scandal, declared an end to the phrase ‘hostile environment’. It was an ‘unhelpful’ form of words, he told Parliament, which ‘doesn’t represent our values as a country’. The phrase, which describes the bureaucratic obstacles conceived in 2012 to make life in the UK impossible for unwanted immigrants, may have disappeared from the official lexicon, but the policies remain, even during a pandemic.
In the city below, things seem in good order. But what kind of order? The place is hardly bustling. No teeming crowds, no variety, no interaction: in fact, no apparent vitality.
Within days of Covid-19 taking hold in the US and Europe, demand for fast fashion crashed. The production line was frozen. There were products in the design stage, fabric on order, fabric waiting to be cut, already cut, sewn, finished, ready for shipping, en route to stores, sitting in warehouses waiting for distribution, hanging in shops waiting to be bought. On any given day, these goods have a total value of billions of pounds. The question, when the crisis hit, was what to do with all the orders: some in progress, some finished and ready for shipping, some already shipped and awaiting sale.
The hope is that almost all of us will download the app, that we will be diligent about using it if we develop symptoms, that the detection of identifiers will be reliable, that the subsequent risk calculation will be more or less accurate, and that we will, by and large, self-isolate if the app tells us to. Crucially, the strategy also requires easy access to tests so people can be rapidly alerted if a contact who had symptoms turns out not to have had the disease.
When I was at primary school, one of the things they did to keep us occupied was make us perform a strange, tuneless chant about a factory worker named Joe. ‘Hi!’ we would shout. ‘My name’s Joe! And I work in a button fac-tor-ee. One day, my boss came to me and said “Joe! Are you busy?” I said “No!”’ As the chant developed, poor Joe would be given more and more instructions. First it was ‘Push this button with you right hand!’ and we would have to jab our right index fingers rhythmically in the air while continuing to chant. Then it was the left hand, then the right foot, then the left foot, then the head. I don’t remember there being any natural stopping point. It just went on until we made mistakes, forgetting some of the ‘buttons’ or losing our balance and falling over.
Last week a journalist asked Jair Bolsonaro how many people in Brazil would die from Covid-19. The president replied that he had no idea: ‘I’m not a gravedigger,’ he said. A few days earlier he had fired his health minister, Luiz Enrique Mandetta. Speaking scientifically in his daily press conferences and acting consequentially between them, Mandetta had eclipsed Bolsonaro. Working with state governors (the president’s chief political opponents), Mandetta had achieved an approval rating nearly double Bolsonaro’s and, more important, saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.
On the cover of Le Petit Journal of 1 December 1912, cholera was shown as death personified, black-hooded and skeletal, scything soldiers and civilians to the ground as they fled its advance. Depictions of the virus that causes Covid-19 have not had to resort to symbolism. We know what the pathogen looks like: a ball studded with rococo spikes, the ‘crown’ that gives the coronavirus its name. At first glance, this shift looks like progress.
More than sixty years ago, puffing on an untipped Senior Service (we were allowed to smoke in those days) to cover up the reek in a dissecting room at St Thomas’s Hospital, I was struck down by a pandemic virus that had recently evolved in China. By the time I fell ill (its onset was very sudden) the virus had already killed more than 20,000 people in the UK, with 1150 dying every week at its peak, and 80,000 in the US. In the first UK wave, more than half the deaths occurred in the under-55s. It went for the elderly later, in its second wave. It killed quickly: nearly 20 per cent of its younger victims died before getting to hospital and two-thirds were dead within 48 hours of admission. But it has been airbrushed out of history, despite being by far the most lethal pandemic to affect Britain at any time in the hundred years after the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic at the end of the First World War.
Decades of living in overcrowded refugee camps and a rapid transition to cheap and readily available high calorie foods, in part a result of the neoliberal economic changes that came with the Oslo Accords, have led to an explosive increase in obesity and diabetes among Palestinians. As in other parts of the world, the prevalence of the disease is linked to land dispossession, structural violence, colonial domination and oppression.
On the glass of a bedroom window, one of the students across the road tallies ‘days inside’ in red lipstick, the letters oriented to be read from the street. My desk faces this window and its cheery running total that, with no release date in sight, lacks the sense of scratchings on the walls of a prison cell. An uncertain, unwelcome freedom awaits, with promises of economic collapse, unemployment, austerity and, for many, the long, potholed road of grief. Still, it is a comfort to see signs of life in another household, and to know someone is counting as though these were normal, individuated days and not a continuum of lost, fretful time.
‘But now is not the time for anger.’ That’s another one, intended to defuse your rage, and you’ll hear it over and over again. First, it will be too early: what we have to do now is pull together, there will be time enough for recriminations later, you shouldn’t politicise this tragedy, the present is too dangerous for point-scoring. And then it will be too late: what we really have to do now is pull together, you should have said all of this at the time, what’s done is done, we need to look forwards not back. Anger, it seems, can never have its time.
Over three days and two nights of teleconference, the finance ministers of the Eurozone fumbled their way towards an emergency response to the Covid-19 pandemic. No comments were recorded, no minutes taken; the Eurogroup, an ‘informal’ body headed by a president known as Mr Euro, isn’t obliged to disclose the details of its internal discussions. Still, we know that last week’s marathon meeting followed a familiar script. The PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) aimed high with a demand that the Eurozone share the burden of the crisis with a jointly issued debt instrument known as a coronabond. The FANGs (Finland, Austria, Netherlands, Germany) beat them back down, proposing that each member of the currency union bear its debts alone. And Mário Centeno, the Portuguese finance minister and current Mr Euro, brokered a late night compromise. ‘At the end of the day, or should I say, at the end of the third day,’ he announced, ‘what matters the most is that we rose to the challenge.’
Quiz is based in part on a book written by my husband, James Plaskett, and the late Bob Woffinden. James had himself been obsessed for years with getting on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He got as far as the studio several times but was lagging on the ‘fastest finger first’ test, so I rigged up a little board with several light switches screwed to it. That seemed to help.
Social distancing is impossible for most Indians. More than 500 million people live in densely populated slums, urban villages or makeshift housing; large families share small spaces; many don’t have direct access to running water or basic sanitation. Most had not heard of hand sanitiser until three weeks ago. The Indian government’s response to Covid-19 has not, so far, accounted for the lives of the majority of India’s population, or the informal nature of much of the economy. Attempts to control the virus have instead exacerbated a vicious form of social distancing that has marginalised this same population for centuries: the caste system.
After leaving university in 2015 I worked for eighteen months as a gardener with my father, trimming hedgerows, planting bulbs and tearing out bindweed. By far our most illustrious client was Dominic Raab, then a junior minister at the MoJ. He had the kind of lawn you want to roll around on: unnaturally healthy, a real joy to mow. He was rarely in – 2016 was a busy year – so I had little opportunity to ask the tough questions I’d spent my spare moments rehearsing.
The government announcements that flash up on Twitter tell us that shopping for basic necessities such as food or medicine is one of only four legitimate reasons for leaving your home (although the regulations include 13 ‘reasonable excuses’). But what counts as a basic necessity? The police and local councils have announced that Easter eggs are ‘non-essential goods’. In Plymouth, the police tweeted that ‘going to the shops for beer and cigarettes is not essential’. In my local Boots, in north-east London, the self-service cosmetic racks are covered up as if they’re an offence to modesty, with a sign saying ‘sorry cannot sell as it is non-essential’. The pandemic has unleashed a rash of puritanical dictums on what we’re allowed to buy.
In the late 19th century, as public libraries grew, so did anxieties about their threat to public health. Scarlet fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were thought to be spread through germ-ridden books, and various methods of disinfection were used, including steam, formaldehyde solution and heated carbolic crystals. (The practice was revived this year, in less elaborate form, as libraries began disinfecting books with antibacterial wipes.) Demands that libraries should be closed were resisted, but the 1907 Public Health Amendment Act threatened heavy fines for anyone infected with disease who borrowed books.
In a pandemic, some common-sense policies can closely resemble authoritarianism. Banning large public gatherings, for instance, is both a classic authoritarian move and a reasonable strategy to control the spread of the virus. This tension opens up an opportunity for would-be authoritarians to exploit the situation, using the pandemic as cover for implementing policies that would otherwise result in a lot more pushback, domestically and internationally. While the population is staying home and the media are distracted, there is time and space for political shifts that would otherwise be impossible.
We don’t know how many Australian Indigenous people lost their lives during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic; they weren’t counted in the country’s official statistics. When the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic hit Australia, the Indigenous population recorded almost five times as many deaths as the non-Indigenous population. Now, as Covid-19 spreads across Australia, some doctors have warned that whole communities may be wiped out.
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.