Covid#8

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 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

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.

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 www.soundsurvey.org.uk 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’.

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.

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 . . .