Covid#3 – Turbulent Gas Clouds (4 April 2020)

I’ve been wondering how best to maintain my mental well-being during this pandemic, and in the interest of intellectual stimulation, I found time in my lockdown schedule last week to investigate where Public Health England’s two-metre social distancing rule came from. I’ll skip summary of my findings for now, but having spent several hours contemplating controversial topics like the fluid dynamics of sneezing and the role of aerosolisation in the Hunan bus cluster, one conclusion has become frighteningly obvious – I really need to get out more. And I’ve been doing my best.

For the little it’s worth, the view from the bike seat is that London’s popular mood might be stabilising a tad. A couple of weeks ago, while Downing Street was still making its tone-deaf pronouncements about herd immunity, swathes of the city were as desolate as a film set during post-production. Many of the people I met over subsequent days sounded like shell-shocked refugees, astonished by their own endurance and hunkering down for the long haul. Now, almost two months since British media first started predicting a coronavirus ‘new normal’, the cliché is becoming half-true: not because reality feels steadier, but because the drift towards disaster is making precautions more routine.

The viral enemy might be invisible (to invoke a second cliché, popular among politicians), but at least one counter-measure is tangible and increasingly in evidence. Medical masks used to be exceptional in London, favoured only by east Asian tourists and over-equipped cyclists, and anyone who walked into a grocery store wearing a bandana over their face would have raised eyebrows: a couple of choice words, and hands would have gone up as well. Nowadays, by my reckoning, 5-10% of west London shoppers, and up to a quarter of the people milling around Notting Hill Gate and Ladbroke Grove tube stations are sheltering behind scarves, gauze and bulbous builders’ masks.

Such measures almost certainly wouldn’t keep COVID-19 at bay, but as death tolls rise, the desire to feel shielded is bound to intensify. And though masks can’t stop contagion, they might slow transmission. If I learned anything from one of the papers I read last week – ‘Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen Emissions’, in case you’re interested – it’s that protecting the healthy from the spluttering sick never hurt anyone. In fact, that’s the best argument for masks, and it’s why several Asian countries and four European ones (so far) now make it compulsory to wear them in public. The US Center for Disease Control yesterday advised Americans to do the same, which points to the second-best argument for masks: President Trump doesn’t think they’re necessary. After delivering the CDC’s new guidance, he made clear he personally wouldn’t be following it. Given the lethal and sometimes malicious incompetence of his administration, perhaps there’s a silver lining to that cloud at least . . .

New rules of social engagement are also taking shape. Quite what they require isn’t yet clear, admittedly – I’ve no idea how long you can loiter with a couple you know after bumping in to them, for example, and everyone seems to have different ideas about inviting friends to gardens, balconies and houseboats – while respect for other pedestrians and cyclists is more like a game of draughts than a matter of instinct at the moment. Though re-learning how to negotiate queues and public pinch points isn’t difficult, the change feels significant. Human space invaders are more infuriating than ever, but I already miss being closer to strangers. It’s complicated.

I thought a lot about social distancing last Monday. On an afternoon far colder and windier than today’s, I’d cycled along a hushed Regent’s Canal towpath up to the summit of Primrose Hill – where, in healthier times, the hungover, the downbeat, the loved-up and the heavily stoned ordinarily congregate en masse, just to keep an eye on the horizon – and hardly anyone had been there. The usually kite-filled sky was empty, and except for a girl tugging ineffectually at a string, the only aerial enthusiast was a dejected parrot-keeper, whose birds wouldn’t fly. Descending again to street level, I accelerated homewards, only to screech to a halt when I saw a friend walking along the pavement. Unsure of the etiquette now governing chance encounters, we smiled and pretended to lunge riskily towards each other – but then, as I wobbled towards him, he genuinely backed away. ‘I’m doing more than two metres’, he said.

The friend happens to be a hypochondriac, and in a parallel universe where lethal pandemics are just an awful nightmare, I’d have laughed. But hypochondria, like fastidious hand-washing and compulsive hoarding, is de rigueur these days; everyone’s having phantom sore throats at the moment, and several friends and acquaintances have told me, Baron Munchausen-style, that dry coughs they remember from a couple of months ago were actually COVID-19 come early. Even I’ve started wondering how contagious this particular coronavirus might be, thanks to a couple of scientific reports I spent too long reading last week, and my friend’s prudence isn’t necessarily wrong. His fear is certainly rational: he regularly visits his needy 83-year-old mother (taking suitably obsessive precautions), and gambling with infection has no upside for him at all.

After weaving and zig-zagging our way down to Regent’s Park, shouting gossip and exchanging pessimistic pleasantries, we waved goodbye – with too much relief in my friend’s case, I thought – and I decided to pop over to the zoo. It was closed, of course, but its inmates can often be heard from the street and some are visible as well as audible. All I got to see were two giraffes and a solitary meerkat, but they looked so calm that I stood enthralled for minutes. At least in some quarters, London’s lockdown doesn’t matter. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once wrote that ‘animals are good to think with’ – and though that’s part of a complex argument that’s sparked many more, it simply made sense on Monday. Overlooked by blocks of luxury flats, I cycled along the park’s deserted perimeter road, leaving whooping, growling cages behind as I headed back to my own enclosure.

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