Covid#10 – Driving Blind (29 May 2020)

Even before yesterday’s announcement that the lockdown’s being relaxed, London was feeling buoyant. COVID-19 is now spreading so slowly through the capital that infection statistics plotted on a graph look set to sink to zero within weeks – and though eradication’s still a fantasy, the city’s dismantling its defences. Police tape and plastic wrap is coming off park benches and playgrounds. Smoke’s rising from barbecues. Houseboats are hosting house parties. Social distancing continues, but social confinement is coming to an end.

As if the feel-goodery called for edgier excitement, central London also saw two major car crashes. The pile-up happened in Downing Street. In response to reports that Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had violated the lockdown by driving 260 miles to his parent’s farm in search of child-care options, the prime minister and his aide both staged press conferences. Though Cummings had dismissed the charge as ‘fake news’, he went on to confirm its substance in great detail. Issues arose that might one day be forgotten, from bladder control and petrol consumption to the wisdom of driving blind, but the takeaway was memorable. For my money, the pithiest assessment came from Nazir Afzal, a former senior prosecutor, who compared Cummings to a figure familiar to every criminal lawyer: ‘the suspect who creates a story around the known facts’. As though a Novichok assassin reminiscing about Salisbury Cathedral, he even explained why he’d been spotted on an excursion to a medieval tourist attraction. And like Prince Andrew, he radiated abnormal confidence. People would appreciate the truth, he was convinced, now that he’d spoken out.

If they did, it didn’t help. 71% of viewers polled just after the press conference thought Cummings had broken the law, and more than forty Tory MPs called for his departure. The reputation he’s built since Brexit as a strategic genius with his finger on the people’s pulse isn’t just mangled; it’s looking like a write-off. He’s either committed a crime, or co-designed lockdown rules so incomprehensible that everyone outside government misunderstood them.But Boris Johnson looks to have seen off the immediate threat, and that opens up a deeper mystery. He has many qualities, but loyalty and self-sacrifice aren’t among them, and his willingness to haemorrhage support for the sake of his advisor suggests deep dependency or fear. Smart political money explains it in terms of rivalry – the prime minister’s concern that his theoretical underling might back Michael Gove’s perennial leadership bid – but I prefer to imagine a darker secret. My pet hunch involves a lucrative publishing contract Johnson signed in 2015 to write a celebration of Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. Throughout February, he laid low at Chequers, skipping five COBRA meetings in a row, and I suspected even then that he was pondering The Riddle of Genius with an eye on post-Brexit laurels and his half million advance. (He has relevant experience – The Churchill Factor got churned out while he was London mayor – and his fondness for deputising and springing surprises is notorious.) In any event, the prime minister’s inaction during that crucial month is a sensitive subject. Perhaps it’ll stay that way . . .

The scepticism made more plausible by Johnson’s retention of Cummings – and the specific belief that their health advice should be discounted – could have serious consequences. As of Monday, amended regulations will authorise the re-opening of shops, markets, car dealerships and schools, and groups of up to six people will be able to gather lawfully for the first time in ten weeks. Though millions of people will welcome the implication of returning normalcy, pollsters say more than half the country is worried that the lockdown is being loosened in haste. This tension’s bound to increase, and the risks are compounded by the government’s recent launch of a ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system that the Health Secretary’s said will depend on ‘civic duty’: public goodwill, in other words. At a time when credible guidance and trust is essential, the government seems to be prioritising the prime minister’s comfort zone over the nation’s health.

That calls for reflectiveness as well as criticism though. Cummings isn’t the only lockdown violator in town, after all. I’ve certainly bent a few rules over the last couple of months, sneaking into friends’ gardens or loitering alongside acquaintances without reasonable excuse, and other people I know did worse. Only 43% of those who responded to a Daily Mail poll last week claimed never to have broken the health regulations at all. Hypocrisy at the heart of government is obviously of greater national significance (I hope), but that doesn’t make personal choices unimportant. Quite the opposite.

I happen to be feeling pretty optimistic at the moment. Though traffic jams are coming as an unpleasant shock, the routine amazements of London in the spring get me every time, and the reoccupation of pavement furniture and park lawns that’s currently under way feels like a little fiesta. But thousands of people are still catching COVID-19 every day outside the capital, and I wouldn’t yet bet on a smooth summer. Though the chance of a second wave of infections and the near certainty of an economic abyss still lie ahead, Boris Johnson has so thoroughly undermined his pandemic strategy that any effort among his ministers to promote it sounds insincere. It feels as though a gambler’s in charge, abetted by careerists and cowards. Important as it’ll be one day to recollect that, however, complaints can only go so far. We’re living in risky times, and it’s up to us to improve the odds.

Covid#9 – Yes To Life (20 May 2020)

Last Saturday, I faced a dilemma. A friend had told me about a ‘mass gathering’ in Hyde Park. A Facebooker she knew who called himself an astrologer, tarot reader and love guru had forwarded her the details. Urging people to protest against the lockdown by turning up with picnics and music, the UK Freedom Movement wanted everyone to ‘have some fun and say yes to life’. Though that sounded quite hedonistic, the only UK Freedom Movement with a website is made up of nationalists who want to ‘shake up British politics like never before’ and ‘fly the Union Jack at every opportunity we get’. By Friday, Twitter was abuzz with complaints, and two rival Islamophobes were denying involvement. I felt conflicted. Gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb, and the likely gatherers weren’t my kind of people. But the possibility of a new age neo-fascist love-in was too intriguing to miss.

I wrestled with my conscience. It’s hard to say who won, but the outcome was a compromise. It would be acceptable to cycle round Hyde Park, I decided, so long as I showed my disapproval of picnicking and protesting by wearing a mask. I duly bumped in to about 300 demonstrators milling around Speaker’s Corner, and spent half-an-hour loitering non-committally on the sidelines. There were flag-waving patriots, drum-banging Hare Krishnas, prophets of doom and admirers of Julian Assange. One man wanted people to remember God; another demanded that everyone remember Jeffrey Epstein. A speech by Piers Corbyn – the battier brother of Jeremy – was cut short by his arrest, but not before he instructed listeners not to be brainwashed and to remember that COVID-19 isn’t contagious on sunny days. It was a cacophony, but a couple of themes were recurrent. No one liked Bill Gates, and everyone seemed to agree that vaccinations were somehow at fault.

That’s triply weird, given that a COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t exist and may never be developed, but it’s underpinned by a logic of sorts. A narrative that’s been energising US anti-lockdown protests for more than a month now holds that Silicon Valley, in cahoots with Big Pharma, is whipping up fear because its leading figures stand to profit from a vaccine. And as Bill Gates was targeted by right-wing Republicans (because his medical priorities contrast so dramatically with those of President Trump), people on this side of the Atlantic took notice. One of them was ‘professional conspiracy researcher’ David Icke. Three weeks after recycling a bizarre theory about 5G telephone signals and COVID-19 without mentioning Gates, Icke disclosed on 6 April that Microsoft’s founder was ‘one of the most sinister people on Planet Earth’. In a broadcast that promptly became legendary among anti-vaxxers, he identified Gates as a member of a murderous cult that plans to control humanity using not just 5G frequencies, but microchips, nanotechnology and vaccines ‘full of shite’.

David Icke isn’t renowned for rigorous thinking. His most consistent opinion, maintained now for more than twenty years, is a belief that the world is governed by shape-shifting reptiles. Even people who greatly fear political manipulation typically think him unhinged. As a consequence, it was striking to hear an echo of his views outside Hyde Park on Saturday, when I stopped at Portobello Road on the way home. I told my regular mushroom supplier that I’d just been to a big picnic, and though I was smiling, he nodded grimly. He’d stayed away, he said, because ‘it’s not yet time, you gotta play the game’.

Eyebrows raised, I asked what that meant – and a very detailed explanation ensued. To paraphrase, Tom wouldn’t say he was anti-vaxx, he doesn’t know what to make of Bill Gates and 5G, and all he really understands about COVID-19 is that it isn’t as contagious as they say, but he wishes there could be a proper debate on TV. Stuff’s being hidden by scientific journals, he believes, and the mainstream media isn’t telling the full story. But he’s going to stick by the rules for the time being, because the financial support he’s received from the government is tiny, and he needs to sell his mushrooms. ‘You gotta play the game.’

It’s always risky to read too much into a single conversation. Anecdotes are no basis for theories. But the conversation with Tom didn’t just crystallise what had been obvious in Hyde Park: that lockdown impatience is breeding scepticism. It also made me recall a trio of modern cataclysms – the World Trade Center attacks, the Iraq War and Brexit – and the way that hesitant political divisions involving all three had quickly become chasms of misunderstanding. And though the speed with which those disasters have receded into history is a reminder that no aftermath lasts forever, the latest new normal feels particularly destabilising. My opinions about mass murder, civil liberties, military aggression and nationalism were almost predictable – but COVID-19’s riddles have thrown me. Questions about individual rights and duties and what governments should do to protect the vulnerable from the irresponsible are familiar, but the answers are suddenly personal. It’s not just whether to sacrifice some privacy and download a contact-tracing app; even watching picnickers is a moral choice.

The conflict between individual and collective interests is reflected starkly by attitudes towards a COVID-19 vaccine. Even assuming such a thing feasible, many people too fragile to be jabbed would remain susceptible to infection until at least 60% of the population, perhaps more, gained immunity. One person’s opt-out wouldn’t kill anyone – except, perhaps, the opter-outer – but collective abstentions certainly could. Deciding hypothetically to dissent might be principled; it’s certainly selfish.

Individualism isn’t irrational, and it’s not paranoid to point out that governments sometimes invoke the common good to cloak injustice and repression. But opposition to vaccination is regressive, all the same. That’s why the world’s poorer populations trust vaccines most, and it’s why Western opponents tend to be under-educated, politically disillusioned and socially disengaged. And though anti-vaxxing sentiments aren’t quite as capricious as the fears of 5G might suggest – because they’re part of a protest tradition that originated in reaction to 19th-century laws that made smallpox vaccinations compulsory – the instinctive disrespect for communal safety isn’t inspiring.

Less than a mile from Speakers’ Corner stands a memorial to Edward Jenner, the physician who coined the word ‘vaccine’, and as I cycled away from Saturday’s protest, I stopped to say hello. As a direct consequence of a pamphlet Jenner published in 1798, it became routine to immunise people against smallpox by injecting them with harmless doses of cowpox – and though it’s impossible to calculate how much suffering that alleviated, the number of lives saved runs into hundreds of millions.

The statue gets no more attention today than any of the other bronzes littering London, but it used to be more prominent. When unveiled in May 1858, it was in Trafalgar Square. Within days, MPs were demanding that ‘the promulgator of cowpox nonsense’ be removed, because he was ‘altogether out of place among statues of our naval and military heroes.’ Less than three years later, Jenner duly yielded his spot to Henry Havelock, a senior army officer who had died heroically of dysentery during the second Siege of Lucknow. The British Medical Journal wasn’t pleased, but it kept its criticisms sardonic. Jenner’s expulsion made sense, it observed, because ‘his honourable neighbours killed their fellow creatures whereas he only saved them’. Today’s anti-vaxxers might have some history on their side, but that’s a decent epitaph.

Covid#8 – Victory in Belarus (12 May 2020)

Contemplating catastrophe is part of the daily grind at present, and though I’m keener than ever on distractions, VE Day made me dwell on devastation some more. Wandering through council estates and parks in east London that owe their existence to Nazi bombs, I tracked down the landing sites of the first V1 and last V2 rockets to hit the capital. En route, I passed a plaque near Cable Street that’s always moved me: a memorial to 78 people taken by surprise in their cots and beds on the second night of the Blitz. Around forty thousand Londoners died that way, and the total number of British civilians killed was almost twice that number.

Once upon a time, I was hoping to be elsewhere. A couple of weeks before the lockdown began, I was shopping for flights to Minsk. Belarus lost up to a quarter of its entire population during three years of Nazi occupation – many more than a million people – and its ruler is even keener than our own to associate himself with wartime sacrifice and leadership. Within a year of winning the presidency in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko instituted a tradition of commemorating the Great Patriotic War with a march through Minsk. Attending the 2020 victory parade – three months before elections that will almost certainly secure him a sixth term – seemed a good way to get acquainted with the country he’s made his own.

Events intervened. On the same day that curiosity stopped being a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, Belarus required that foreign tourists isolate themselves for 14 days. Insofar as that suggests a precautionary approach to public health though, it’s misleading. With a neo-Soviet folksiness he’s made his political trademark, Lukashenko told Belarusians back in March that COVID-19 was ‘a psychosis’ which could be overcome by driving tractors and washing with vodka, internally and externally. He then ignored WHO recommendations to extend physical distancing measures, and infections are now spreading faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below 150, but the true figure’s almost certainly higher: two TV journalists have just been stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.

All in all, it’s probably for the best that my sightseeing trip didn’t happen. There’d have been plenty to see though – because Lukashenko’s victory parade went ahead. On Saturday morning, thousands of flag-waving spectators, including veterans in their eighties and nineties, spent more than an hour watching their uniformed president take salutes from dozens of armoured formations and military battalions. The state-sanctioned livestream coverage on Youtube (snazzily remixed by me here: showed packed crowds and few masks, and Lukashenko wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. A week earlier, he’d dismissed calls to cancel the parade by observing that the heroes of 1945 hadn’t let mere viruses stop them. Unless people showed otherwise, he warned, the world might think Belarusians were ‘scared’.

The political aim was transparent enough. Pretending to be the world’s bravest anti-fascist will bolster the president at home – especially because his frenemy Vladimir Putin decided last month to call off the even more spectacular celebrations he was planning for Moscow – and though an electoral landslide in August is all but guaranteed (Lukashenko’s vote has never been lower than 77%), autocrats crave popularity as well as power. But the recklessness is even clearer. A historic episode that US media have been recalling quite often in recent weeks is particularly ominous. On 28 September 1918, as a second wave of Spanish Flu was about to break across the United States, Philadelphia’s health commissioner authorised a huge fundraising parade for the war effort. Every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was occupied within three days, and 12000 infected people died in a month. In St Louis, where a similar event was cancelled, the peak mortality rate was eight times lower.

A Belarusian friend, a little concerned by my fascination with Lukashenko, reminded me before the parade that no nation should be defined by its leader. The corrective was useful, and after the livestream, I discovered worlds of virtual opposition on Facebook and Telegram. Across Belarus, a network of volunteers has sprung into existence to equip health workers with PPE. Football fans have been calling on their own clubs to stop playing games, or paying to occupy stadium seats as photos on mannequins. On Friday, there was even a slightly socially-distanced public protest, involving four Minskers carrying a coffin past the capital’s premier shopping mall: Though Lukashenko has very definite priorities, sensible citizens aren’t relying on their ruler to save their lives. Appreciating that is has made me doubly fond of the city I didn’t visit, but it’s also provoked reflection on matters closer to home . . .

The weekend that began with a military parade on my laptop ended on Sunday evening with Boris Johnson’s much anticipated television address about the next stage of the lockdown. The time had come, he announced, to ‘stay alert’ rather than ‘stay at home’. The baffling change, complemented a day later by 50 pages of more detailed confusion, came with so many inconsistencies that they’re not worth individually identifying. But though it reflects an inattentiveness that’s characteristic of the prime minister, at least some of the instant criticisms levelled at his government struck me as misplaced. It’s not wrong in principle to argue for relaxation of the lockdown. It certainly isn’t malicious to observe that the longer people have to stay at home, the greater the suffering that might result from unemployment, impoverishment, untreated medical conditions and unhappiness in general. Lifting the lockdown isn’t just the eventual destination: it’s an increasingly urgent one.

It’s in that context that my virtual trip to Belarus this weekend was thought-provoking. In a pandemic, it’s crucial that politicians act in good faith to maintain health services, give citizens informed warnings, and protect vulnerable people. Beyond that, I’m not sure. No government can eliminate the danger of infection until development of a vaccine – and though the UK would ideally have as much control over COVID-19 infection rates as South Korea or New Zealand, 66 million UK citizens won’t easily be shepherded. Gambling with increased risks is becoming unavoidable, and government failings can’t eclipse the importance of personal choice and responsibility. To a greater extent than is comfortable, our collective lives are in our individual hands.

Luckily, I don’t need to end on that very earnest note. While writing this post, I learned that Vladimir Putin hasn’t actually cancelled his own parade. The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender has just been postponed, apparently, and he says it’ll be celebrated later this year. Attending the festivities might still pose difficulties, and not just because Putin’s own position is starting to look a little precarious. Heathrow’s CEO recently claimed that socially-distanced boarding for a single jumbo jet ‘would require a queue a kilometre long’, and almost everyone returning to the UK from another country may soon have to self-isolate for 14 days. But if you’re interested in a Moscow trip, do let me know. It’d be nice to go in a group.

Covid#7 – The Sound of Silence (4 May 2020)

There’s no mood the Thames foreshore can’t improve – ebbs and flows are good for the soul – but the river’s almost too serene at the moment. People are still unofficially treasure-hunting, picking through the tobacco pipes and Tudor tiles that slosh in and out with the tide, but all Port of London mudlarking licenses are on hold. The boats that used to throb through the capital, all tinny tannoys and flashy discos, are anchored and tethered. The helicopter corridor is open for emergencies only, and flight paths from Heathrow to the estuary have fallen silent.

That got me thinking. Though London’s been looking apocalyptic and feeling atomised, it hasn’t been sounding desolate. A week after my Wapping adventure, it even felt a little musical. While cycling home from Hampstead, I saw something as startling as it should have been predictable: on the zebra crossing outside the Abbey Road Studios, no one was trying to re-enact the Beatles’ album cover. In visual terms, it was probably the dullest non-event I’ve ever photographed, but a couplet from the LP looped through my head all the way home. A minor epiphany – pedestrian, even – but I’ve been hearing the city a little differently ever since. It isn’t silent. It’s a soundscape of usually less audible noises – not just blackbirds and goldfinches, but gear changes on a bike and footsteps on a high street – as well as amplified memories. London’s haunted by the hubbub it used to be.

A couple of Sundays ago, I found out just how quiet the river’s become. For want of greater excitement, I clambered down a ladder near Wapping Pier and strolled across the mud with a friend. The tide was exceptionally low and, gazing over waters calm as a Canaletto, I thought of someone else who lives on the opposite shore in Rotherhithe. A telephone call later, she was at her window – and it wasn’t long before our chat turned to shouts. The yelling didn’t last long (too many eavesdroppers), but the fact it happened at all was surprising enough to provoke some online investigations. A sound archivist I then contacted at was impressed. In days gone by, east London’s lightermen apparently used to identify each other through ‘distinctive ways of whistling, based on the songs of different bird species’, but ours was the first trans-Thames conversation Ian Rawes had ever heard of. A layer of warm air over cold water could have been acting as an acoustic lens, he said, but the exchange also had a simpler explanation: ‘the decline in traffic of all kinds: road, air and river’.

My pretensions to aural sensitivity have had a side-effect: ominous forebodings. Insofar as the lockdown has felt hushed, one reason is that its clang was so deafening. Boris Johnson’s reassertion of leadership has sounded a lot more post-traumatic than optimistic, and his claim last Thursday that we’re ‘past the peak and on the downward slope’ could hardly have been less ringing a forecast of recovery. Views about the way ahead, meanwhile, are thoroughly fragmented. Journalists are reporting, echo chambers are reverberating and everyone’s Zooming, but the semblance of a national conversation barely exists. Even the scapegoat hunters seem to be keeping their voices down: those on my Facebook feed are remarkably unsure whether capitalism, the media, 5G or Bill Gates is most to blame. Meanwhile, the House of Commons itself has dialled down the noise in the process of going semi-virtual. Under a pilot scheme launched on 21 April, no debate can now have more than 120 participants: fifty MPs in the chamber and the rest on video, laggy connections and Zoombombers permitting.

Every severe pandemic in history has left behind brittle institutions and crumbling social networks, and though COVID-19 isn’t as lethal as the Black Death or Spanish Flu, it’ll be similarly damaging. Post-Brexit Britain was hardly a purring political machine, but switching off the engines isn’t going to repair them, and it means that too many huge changes are being disregarded. Senior judges and lawyers are exploring, sotto voce, how best to curtail the right to jury trial. Attitudes towards the EU look frozen, at a time when future cooperation is more urgent than ever. The balance between public health and economic security isn’t being adequately debated, and the tax rises that will have to pay for both aren’t being openly discussed at all.

The streets of London are getting noisier now. I personally clocked a change just days after my trip to Wapping, when a cyclist next to me at a junction in Vauxhall blamed a sudden coughing fit on exhaust fumes. Though I made sure quickly to put great social distance between us, figures put out by Public Health England that same evening said that car journeys across the country were on the increase, and they’ve been rising in London ever since. Revised lockdown rules on Thursday will almost certainly turn up the volume some more. Traffic’s a superficial sign of normalcy though – and it feels as thought the capital’s quiet could give way to levels of discord that are no less intense. But perhaps I’m just being gloomy. Maybe it’s time for another walk along the foreshore . . .