Notes From the Margins…

Waiting for Corona

  • March 15, 2020
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“The face of London was—now indeed strangely altered: I mean the whole mass of buildings, city, liberties, suburbs, Westminster, Southwark, and altogether; for as to the particular part called the city, or within the walls, that was not yet much infected. But in the whole the face of things, I say, was much altered; sorrow and sadness sat upon every face; and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so every one looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger. Were it possible to represent those times exactly to those that did not see them, and give the reader due ideas of the horror that everywhere presented itself, it must make just impressions upon their minds and fill them with surprise.”
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722


These are strange times, and they aren’t times that many of us expected to live in.  It’s not that we haven’t imagined them.  Pandemics, epidemics, plagues, alien invasions, terrorist attacks, floods, zombies, nuclear wars and cataclysms – all these possibilities have haunted the human imagination for more than two hundred years, as writers, filmmakers, security analysts and governments have contemplated various potential sources of societal and civilisational breakdown.

For many years, governments have imagined that terrorism might bring about this outcome, from the ‘anarchist bomber’ of the late nineteenth century to the collapsing twin towers.

These visions of collapse aren’t uniquely ‘modern.’  From the biblical apocalypse to the flood-myths of the Hopi Indians, different societies have considered the possibility – or the inevitability – of their own destruction.

In modern times however, such fears are often exacerbated by a persistent sense that civilisation and the whole structures that underpin modernity are fragile and easily broken.  This is one reason why we constantly turn to disaster movies with a kind of awed fascination, because the prospect of our destruction is frightening and also fascinating, and even though human societies are often much more resilient than we think, we can never entirely dismiss the possibility that there might one day be an ‘end’ to the things we take for granted.

We are very far from this outcome – at least as far as the coronavirus is concerned.  Nevertheless we are now in uncharted and unprecedented territory.  In little more than three months we have entered a world in which what once seemed incredible or impossible has become normal.

This is a world in which entire cities and countries have been quarantined or subjected to various forms of lockdown; in which millions of people have been subjected to the most extraordinary range of restrictions ever imposed in peacetime.  In China, volunteers and state officials in hazmat suits have delivered fruit, vegetables, and even MacDonalds to entire regions, in a formidable feat of logistics and civil mobilisation, and phone apps now tell quarantined Chinese and Taiwanese where they are allowed to walk and whether they have gone too far from their allotted zone.

In South Korea, a single member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus spread the virus through hundreds of people, and the state tracked down all 230,00 members of the group to see if they had contracted the virus.  In Italy and Iran, health systems have been brought to their knees by the surge in cases.  Some of them have died horrifically, isolated from their relatives and loved ones, and doctors have been forced through the sheer volume of cases to deny healthcare to some of the victims and decide who lives and dies.

All this has weakened and damaged the structures that underpin the global economy.  Stock markets have plummeted; supply chains have become frayed or broken – the whole notion of endless economic growth that sustains early 21st century capitalism has been undermined by a virus that crosses frontiers as easily as a hedge-fund or laundered money.

It remains to be seen how all this will play out.  But already it echoes all the catastrophic films and novels we have seen and read, and which also seems to go beyond them.

We now inhabit a world of fear, dread, and anxiety, in which planes turn back in mid-air to avoid a danger that is invisible and potentially omnipresent; in which Spanish police order people not to walk in parks; in which it is no longer possible to plan for anything to plan more than a few weeks or even days ahead; in which we must think not only about washing our hands and not touching our faces, but about every surface we touch, and every person we meet.

All this has obliged us to move away from each other. We are told not to hug, kiss or shake hands, but to bump elbows and maintain a two-metre distance.  We now routinely use words like social-distancing, self-isolating, quarantine, and lockdown that seem to have come from some dystopian movie.

Like the Londoners in Defoe’s fictional reconstruction of the 1665 plague, we feed on, and often horrify ourselves, with bits and pieces of fragmentary and contradictory information, that ‘spread rumours and reports of things, and …improve them by the invention of men.’

Here in the UK, we hear one day that our government is pursuing a strategy of ‘herd-immunity’ that might require up to 500,000 deaths.  Two days later we learn that the government is not pursuing that strategy, but may confine everyone aged over seventy to their homes for four months.

Even as we pinch ourselves to remind ourselves that this is real, we remain in a kind of ‘phony war’ situation.  In about two weeks time we expect the numbers of coronavirus victims to soar, and we anticipate some form of lockdown, with no idea how long it will last.  What we do know is that many people will die, and that most of them will the elderly and vulnerable, that is to say, our parents, grandparents, and relatives.

Many of us over a certain age know that there is a possibility that we may be the ones who die.

All this is bad enough, but it is made worse by the fact that we are led by leaders very much like the ones Shelley once described, who neither see, nor feel, nor know.  Here we have a government led by a Poundland Churchill who compares fighting a virus to squashing a sombrero.  In the United States, the president is a man who has apparently attempted to bribe a German pharmaceutical company into developing a vaccine exclusively for Americans.

This is the predicament in which we find ourselves, and here in the UK, neighborhoods and communities are beginning to mobilise in order to provide each other with the support and protection that they sense will not be forthcoming from their own government.

All of us know that NHS workers will be on the frontline, but we also know that even their best efforts will not be able to save the people we care about, and that we will have to do what we can to help.

In these circumstances, it’s incumbent on us to show resilience, courage, humanity, and solidarity; to prepare ourselves for tragedy and loss, and also keep in mind that one day we will get through this.  But however this ends, and however many people become sick or die, it is difficult to imagine that we can return to the same ‘normality’ that we had before.

This emergency has been societal, national, and global.  In the UK and the US, it has exposed the weakness of national healthcare systems that were already poor or inadequate, or undermined by cuts and underfunding.

In exposing the institutional and political failings that created this situation, the crisis has already called into question the priorities of the prevailing economic model and its abandonment of the public sphere.

It remains to be seen whether the coronavirus emergency deals a death blow to the populist movements that have wrought such havoc these last few years, but already it has revealed the uselessness and incompetence of some of its representatives when presented with a real crisis rather than the ones they have manufactured.

Already it’s clear that they will not be the heroes in this emergency.  That mantle goes to the nurses and doctors across the world who have worked beyond the point of exhaustion, even at the risk of their own lives; to the scientists now working in laboratories to find a vaccine; to the volunteers who stepped up without even being asked to help strangers.

We should take inspiration and hope from them.

Many years ago, imprisoned for years for his political activity, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote:

Living is no laughing matter
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people—
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.

It is. It always will be. And if we remember that, we can get through this. If we can organise to protect each other, and extend that net of solidarity even as we demand that our governments fulfill their duty of protection to us; then perhaps we can  turn this tragedy into the seedbed of a better future.

In fighting COVID-19, perhaps we can discover how we might respond to the even more calamitous possibilities now bearing down upon us as a result of the climate emergency.

In this way we might discover something entirely counterintuitive: that in separating from each other and withdrawing into our homes to save those weaker and more vulnerable than ourselves, we might find a way back to each other, even as we sing our songs at the empty streets, and sit between four walls waiting for corona.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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