Covid#2 – A Shopping Trip (29 March 2020)

After a cycling circuit on Friday that took me via Westfield all the way to Harlesden High Street – my exercise ration and shopping trip allowance combined – I ended up at the Cash & Carry on Golborne Road. It’s always been a go-to store for those harder-to-find household bargains (tins of jasmine tea, anchovy multi-packs, extra-strength Bombay Mix, etc.), and when I had my first seriously apocalyptic thoughts – on Friday 13 March, as it happens – it was where life as a hoarder began for me. The brown pasta shelf at Tesco’s had been bare for days, and the saucepan’s-worth of fusilli in my kitchen cupboard was looking ominously inadequate. Fortunately, North Kensingtonians have a taste for the refined, at least when it comes to carbohydrates, and the Cash & Carry had two triple-packs of wholewheat spaghetti left. After contemplating how many to grab (perhaps you can guess . . . ?), I joined a dozen or so customers in the check-out queue. As we shuffled towards the till, listening out for coughs and snatching more provisions on the way, a woman near the head of the line became so agitated that I made a note of her words after getting back home. ‘They’re reusing the masks’, she said. ‘It’s outrageous. They should be burning them. They should burn the bodies too. Outrageous.’

I’ve no idea what she was talking about. Though she might have been a stressed health worker, she’s just as likely to have been a nutter: whatever the case, no one in the shop took her seriously. Even at the time though, her complaint signposted the peculiar direction this country had taken. Now, two weeks further along the path, it’s not her words that are odd so much as the circumstances in which they were uttered. It’s already strange to remember that you could until recently panic-buy provisions at your leisure in a crowded store on a busy street.

Though my fear of eating differently has lessened, my food shopping is becoming as strategic as it used to be impulsive, and Friday’s replenishment and reconnaissance mission took me through a different world. The consumers on west London’s high streets already seem to keep their distance almost instinctively, while supermarket security guards have become bouncers: the ones at Poundland on Portobello Road wouldn’t stop shouting ‘one-in, one-out’ at a docile queue that never got longer than four. Almost all the smaller shops that were open looked fully-stocked to bursting, and the only proprietor worried about imminent shortages was a philosophical fishmonger (‘if the fish goes, it comes back, but health? Maybe not’) – and yet, there were hints everywhere of bigger problems to come. My local halal butchers, confident that their own links to three British farms would hold, knew of an abrasive competitor who’d had to close because his supplier thought he’d previously taken too much for granted, and they themselves had accepted (and passed on) price hikes of around 10% ‘for the sake of people who rely on us’. It’s easy to be sceptical – if you’re overcharging customers, scapegoats higher up the supply chain are useful – but there’s every reason to believe that pressures throughout the distribution network are intensifying. At a fruit ‘n’ veg stall further up Portobello Road (one of three still standing), someone called Cheryl told me that European border closures and global flight restrictions had turned the wholesale market at Hounslow into a ‘war zone’. Unless she was just making excuses for her own higher prices (and it didn’t come across like that), retailers were battling for limited supplies – ‘literally dog eat dog’, if Cheryl was to be believed – and she was paying up to three times pre-pandemic prices. Most worryingly, the market porters at Hounslow are ‘so pissed off they might just pack it in’ – at which point independent sellers like her would stop being able to load their vans at all. For all the tranquility that’s descended over London’s streets in recent days, nothing in the retail trade sounded calm – and though shelves are full, they’re about as stable as the eye of a storm.

Gurinder Singh, who co-owns the Golborne Road Cash & Carry with his brother, was relatively upbeat when I asked how things had been going since Friday the Thirteenth. Toilet paper was iffy, and they hadn’t been able to source any handwash, but sold-out stock had otherwise been replaced, and business was ‘almost back to normal – down 90%’. When I asked if they expected to stay open for the duration though, he wasn’t exactly optimistic. Hopeful would be a positive way of describing his mood; nervous might be a better word. ‘We want to’, he said – ‘but who knows?’

A Spectral City

In recognition of the struggle our sub-Churchillian prime minister is attempting to lead, I lent this guy a mask yesterday. It was a brief stop on an expedition that also involved more urgent activities, and my cycle ride through London was both beautiful and spooky. The capital’s landmarks were all where they should be – connected by roads that still join, pieces of an architectural jigsaw that isn’t going anywhere – but only a few stragglers were walking the tumbleweed streets, and they already seemed far out of place. While blackbirds have started hopping about happily across the western end of Oxford Street, six Hare Krishnas outside John Lewis were virtually quarantined by cultic standards; though they were drumming and chanting up a storm, not a single pedestrian was around to appreciate their devotion. Later that evening, a preacher in Piccadilly Circus addressed a single person; I think he and his audience were friends, as both had similar accents and the listener sidled up to me in the hope of making a convert, until I reminded him to keep his social distance. Leicester Square’s only busker was so isolated that I was driven to throw a pound in his cello case after hearing him play from Charing Cross Road: a 200-metre distance that would normally be roaring with traffic and heaving with crowds. He was an American student, who hadn’t yet worked out that his dwindling audience wasn’t going to re-expand soon: when I told him that London’s crackdown was almost certainly about to intensify again, all he said was ‘shit’, many, many times. And it wasn’t just the neutron-bomb present that felt odd: it was also thoughts of past and future. As I rolled around town, mawkishness kept making me want to say goodbye to things. Construction sites were the only places that were active, buzzing with gangs of mask-less workers, but it’s as hard now to conceive the capital they’re meant to be building as it would have been two weeks ago to imagine today. Whatever lies ahead (and notwithstanding all the deaths, there’ll hopefully be at least some sustainable positive changes), London’s future ain’t what it used to be.

Covid-19 (20 March 2020)

Though I’m not yet self-isolating (except in the accidental, involuntary sense) the bunker mentality that’s been spreading over the last week has taken its toll. Like many other people, I’ve developed an interest in epidemiology that’s grown almost as quickly as COVID-19 – and even if my learning curve hasn’t been quite as steep, theories of contagion are now exercising parts of my mind that, in happier days, were devoted to more superficial subjects like ISIS and Brexit.

In the absence of jolly things to do and avenues of original research to pursue, I’ve been ruminating on peculiar reactions to the pandemic among people I know. One Facebook friend of my acquaintance was telling anyone who’d listen a couple of weeks ago that coronavirus was a storm-in-a-teacup that would pass as uneventfully as the Millennium Bug; a couple of days ago, he shared a post from the solicitor’s firm where he works which advised ‘all individuals who do not have a will in place [to] consider making one as soon as possible.’ I thought about excluding him from this post’s audience, but then changed my mind. If you’re reading this and recognise yourself, hi!

Less distasteful, but also more common, is the sense of denial that still prevails in some quarters. Though attitudes are shifting fast, a few relatively young and probably healthy people still seem to see COVID-19 as an inconvenience, or at worst an unpleasant ordeal that’s better endured sooner than later. It’s a view I almost sympathise with, not least because I shared it until a few days ago. Quick recovery is obviously preferable to lingering uncertainty, and though no one’s yet sure how immune you become after getting over the disease, I’d hoped to end up in a better position to look after my 76-year-old mum and 82-year-old dad. Having just submerged myself in a few facts and figures though, I’ve flip-flopped – decisively – and though the reports I’ve been reading have had a fair amount of media coverage, I figured it’d do no harm (and perhaps some good) to spell out what they make obvious.

The most extensive survey of the Chinese outbreak so far published (an analysis of 1,099 hospitalised people) reported in early February that 60% of non-severe cases involved individuals aged between 15 to 49 – and among the 173 people whose condition was categorised as ‘severe’, the age spectrum was broad and its profile was surprising. Just 27% of them were older than 65, while 31% were aged between 50 and 64, and 41% were adults under the age of 50. The study’s been translated, and was published in February’s New England Journal of Medicine:

That isn’t a statistical aberration or an abstraction. China’s experience has been reflected in the pandemic’s westward spread – and one consequence in both the United States and Europe is that the patients who have been getting medical treatment are disproportionately young. That has serious implications for those patients themselves, of course, but it also affects everyone else.

According to a US Center for Disease Control report issued on 18 March (, 38% of 508 Americans known to have been hospitalised for coronavirus were aged between 20 and 54, and nearly half of the 121 admitted to intensive care units were adults under 65. A report on the Italian outbreak published yesterday (19 March) states that almost a quarter (24.7%) of nearly 28,000 coronavirus patients in that country are between 19 and 50 years old: I haven’t found an equivalent figure for hospitalisations in France, but at least one official statement indicates that the position there is similar. Last week, the head of the national health agency said that more than half of the 300 patients being treated in intensive care units were people younger than 60:

Those numbers don’t mean that younger people are likely to suffer the very worst outcomes. Septuagenarians and octogenarians are still the people most likely to be hospitalised and to die. But, at the cost of emphasising what shouldn’t even need mentioning, people of any age ought to do everything possible to minimise risks of exposure to the disease and to slow its spread. Anyone who recklessly hopes for a quick bout of COVID-19 to instil future immunity is being selfish even if, by extraordinary luck, they transmit the virus no further. Since every adult has a real chance of requiring professional medical treatment, no one’s gambling with just their own chips in this pandemic. Anyone who ends up recovering in hospital will be using resources and a bed that someone else needs – and they might occupy space in an intensive care unit that another person is going to die without.

A pronouncement like that sounds melodramatic, but at a time when quite a few people still don’t get that social distancing includes them, the point’s worth labouring yet more. This country’s health workers are about to wade through some exceptionally deep shit: as well as the wave of infections that’s already overwhelming several British hospitals, alcohol abuse, depression and domestic violence are liable to skyrocket in coming months. Anything that lightens the burden is worth doing.

Chances are that anyone reading this post reached similar conclusions long before I did. But I thought it was still worth putting the rationale out there. Navigating through this is going to involve more than common sense; it’ll depend on people’s willingness to act in accordance with probability theory. Every avoided physical meeting and every gathering that’s postponed or shrunk over the next few weeks is likely to lessen hospital admissions and save lives.

So It Begins

In anticipation of the crackdown to come, I spent the day at Kew Gardens. The buildings were closed and visitors were scarce, but even apocalyptic portents are uplifting when spring feels so potential. Here’s to a summer of Decameron-esque picnics in the park.