COVID-19: where to start?


feel like I want to bookmark this historically weird moment but the enormity is paralysing. Nevertheless… COVID-19.

The UK is in lockdown. It feels like a living dystopia, or maybe a prelude to the full horror story. Still we cling to the hope that it’s a passing worry. Hope, eh?

I woke up this morning in my home, everything ostensibly normal — but I can’t grab my dog and go for a run, or meet up with friends for a coffee, and it’s not due to my own illness or injury: I’m not allowed to.

These days, in the UK and various other countries, we can only leave our houses for four identifiable reasons: (1) essential work, (2) essential (food and meds) shopping, (3) one exercise period a day (and only with members of our household), and (4) to help the vulnerable. We’re not to drive anywhere to exercise, either: we have to walk, run, or cycle from home.

COVID-19 has arrived.

Coronavirus 2019, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus and WHO designated international public health emergency, is currently spreading across the globe, causing in some, mild symptoms similar to the “common cold”, but in others, severe symptoms leading to pneumonia, organ failure and death. The death rate is yet to be determined, perhaps 4-5%, perhaps more, or perhaps those with mild symptoms have not been reported and the overall death rate may be lower: estimates vary. We don’t know. It appears to be higher in the elderly and high-risk groups with underlying health issues.

When it first appeared in Wuhan, Hubei province, China went straight into lockdown and by doing so, flattened the initial exponential incidence curve in their country in a way that other countries did not, because no one listened to China’s warnings; no one thought it would happen to them.

It happened to them. Italy was hard hit, going from normal life to disaster in a fortnight. Italian journalists and writers have been issuing stark warnings: it’s coming, stay in your homes, don’t be complacent. The UK said, don’t panic, we’ll be cautious and gradually build herd immunity. Then COVID-19 arrived and started killing people.

So now we are in lockdown.

Public gatherings of more than 2 people are no longer allowed. If we meet friends, we could be subject to police intervention and fines. We can’t visit elderly relatives; if we do, they could catch COVID-19 and potentially die, either at home — locked in and alone — or in hospital in one of the invaluable beds still remaining, with or without respirators, depending on supply. Currently, they’d be treated. In the months to come, we are warned, if the exponential rise of infection continues, there may not be enough medical resource to go round and treatment could depend on a bleak triage system of who is most likely to survive or, potentially, who should.

Most people survive.

“Most”: reassuring yet terrifying.

All we can do is be socially distant, to slow the spread and allow our medical services to keep up. Social distancing applies to everyone, including family: we can only be with people in our own household. Mother’s Day was spent on the phone. Flowers were left to wilt in the shops or handed out to women for free on the supermarket doors.

We mustn’t visit the supermarket any more than necessary; ideally we should order delivery. The elderly struggle with online confusion and younger relatives step in remotely only to find there are no delivery slots for 3 weeks, the ordering system only extends to 3 weeks, and you can only get delivery if you can prove you are high risk. Most people will have someone high risk in their family. People will continue to go to the shops if they haven’t already hoarded, because they need to eat. Some people are spraying or bathing their goods before unwrapping them.

Social media is infested with anxiety, pictures of politicians getting their health tests before frontline NHS workers, and mobile videos of drunk British people abroad ignoring the rules. The comments are angry. The commenters need to be angry, because otherwise they would have to be afraid.

Newspapers are publishing deaths by country. Everyone is astonished at the deaths in Italy. Germany has far fewer per patient. Why? Demographic? Reporting artefact? Healthcare investment? Why? The scientists are rushing to their calculators and their labs, and the race is on to create a vaccine. Meanwhile the antigen test (for recent immunity) is being piloted in Wales and will soon be rolled out across England. The EU are organising supplies of medical equipment: ventilators, ventilators, masks, and more ventilators.

The UK left the EU in January this year, but is still in transition until the end of the year: we may or may not benefit from the well established EU efficiency in distributing necessary medical supplies. Unless we extend the transition period, we may well only receive the vaccine later. Time will tell but we know that time is not always kind.

All over the world, hospitals are being built or expanded, both traditional and makeshift.

Swiftly drafted UK legislation forced the closure of all shops not selling essential items — such as food, meds, and money. Immediately, the public dashed out to panic-buy everything they thought their own families could possibly need — apart from those tied to urgent work, or vulnerable people who couldn’t reach the shops or afford the extra: they went without.

People were told not to stockpile. People stockpiled. In America, people rushed out to buy guns — if you believe the media. No one believes the media but everyone absorbs the media. In the UK, it was toilet rolls. Anyone with any sense bought high calorie food, Vitamin C, and the next size up in kids’ clothes. All the soup and pasta vanished.

The government ordered everyone not to approach each other, to remain over 6 feet — “over two arm-lengths” — apart. Food shops peppered their floors with taped “X”s two metres apart, to help customers see how far they must stand from one another, and allocated certain times when only vulnerable customers were allowed to shop.

Schools closed for all children except those whose parents work in essential roles; the doctors, nurses, postmen, and the teachers themselves. Some open schools now have more staff than children.

NHS workers are faced with the dual worry of working with dangerously ill, infectious patients, while not being able to hunker down at home to care for their families. Last week, UK households turned out on their doorsteps in the evening and clapped, a national salute to our NHS who we hope and trust will save us. In the US, you need insurance to be treated. In the UK, you don’t. In the UK, to qualify for treatment, all you need is an injury or illness. Some NHS staff on the front line have left their family homes entirely to protect their loved ones from the risk at which they are putting themselves; they now live in hotels. Some of the hotels, closed to trade, are offering their services for free.

Otherwise, hotels, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, and the like are all closed. Weddings, baptisms, church services, and all public gatherings have been banned. Only funerals are allowed. Many — many — people have lost their jobs and businesses.

The government is trying to build a scheme to bail out people financially but it will be 8 weeks in the making and some will go hungry. Families already eating out of food banks will face competition for decreasing stocks and some food banks are closing.

Businesses that remain open are now functioning on skeleton staff on rota, or personnel working from home. Chief Executives’ voices ring out on fuzzy voicemail messages, asking people to be patient because their operatives are working on shaky home broadband, while also looking after children. Broadband is slow.

Skype, Zoom, and Webex prevail: our pixelated faces leering into one another’s home offices, the noises of children, partners, and dogs echoing in global teleconferences and all meetings start with “How are you?” more heavily weighted than before.

Politicians appear online talking about how many tens of thousands of deaths would constitute national success, while those wanting to push through unpopular bills have a free rein because no one, no one, is looking.

It’s essential to know what’s going on, but also sometimes essential to turn off the screens.

Today I will go for a walk with my family, basking in the gorgeous sunshine of a lovely spring day. Nature is as beautiful as she is uncaring. We’ll see other families walking together, keeping close, chatting but wary of others. We’ll shout hello and there will be huge relief in seeing friends and acquaintances, to have a moment’s contact. If we smile or laugh, other people’s faces light up in relief. It no longer matters whether we got on in the past; we’re friends now. Chances are, we always were.

The dogs don’t care. We pull them in, but we’re glad they don’t care: it’s a marker of the old normal. The old normal from a fortnight ago, before this became a whole new way of life.

The parks are closed. Children are not allowed to play together because they could pass on the disease. They miss their friends.

Instead of hugging, kissing, or walking, eating and drinking together, we’ll all phone or text our friends and ask how they are doing. Some will be enjoying the family time, the break in demanding routine, the enforced quiet after a too-hectic decade. Some will be motoring on, searching for new routines. Some are twitching with anxiety, already struggling to cling to their mental health. Everyone is concerned; some people are in pain.

I can’t bear to not be able to visit my grown-up children. 

My child (brother, sister, mother, partner) is high-risk – diabetic (heart disease, elderly, infirm, lung disorder, immunocompromised)…  

I like to chat, I like to hug, I live alone, how long is this going to go on? We don’t know!

We’ve already been told that this is likely to go on for months. At least it’s spring now: this matters, because the flu season ends and with it at least one burden on the NHS. Small, necessary mercies, and a welcome reminder that this too shall pass, although we hesitate to look forward to the end, not knowing what we might lose in the meantime.

Conversations have edged towards not caring about money. There’s talk of valuing people, community, our world, our environment. Already as our traffic slows, we are told the canals of Venice are running clear again.

I met a woman last week in front of the supermarket, walking in circles and trying to make eye contact from the regulation six feet away, babbling about her store-card and how many points she didn’t have, and she’d forgotten her purse, and they wouldn’t let her buy anything, and could I please lend… give… her some money? I gave her a note, trying not to touch hands by accident, and she asked my name and I told her.

Because you can’t go shopping twice in a day.

Because the isolation and anxiety are driving some people crazy after only a week.

Because we don’t all have someone to lean on, to lend us humour or perspective when we wake in the small hours. Or any hours.

Because we’re afraid of going home and shopping again later, knowing that the hoarders will have stripped the shelves, because shopping becomes scary when you’ve just lost your income, because uncertainty is a void — but mostly, because we’re human.


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