Covid#15 – A Risky Business (11 July 2020)

North Kensington’s feeling capricious at the moment. A couple of weeks on from a stabbing, a shooting, a rave and a riot, no one’s expecting a calm summer. When England’s lockdown ended last Saturday, I wondered if there’d be a celebration.

Things started quietly. ‘More stalls, fuck-all business’, was the assessment of a market trader who I bought peas from as I strolled down Portobello Road. When I suggested that the prospect of pub reopenings might have frightened some people off, he misheard. ‘Yeah mate!’, he laughed. ‘They’re probably all getting pissed.’ A few were, but no one looked very happy about it. With visors and squirts of hand sanitiser, bouncers were explaining COVID-19 compliance protocols to all new arrivals. Customers keen to get to the bar nodded solemnly. Others, less interested in going to the pub than in being around one, diverted to the supermarket and bought cans instead.

Later that evening, things moved up a gear. Local restaurants were fully booked. At the more exclusive establishments, patrons dined at outdoor tables in the drizzle, just because they could. The junction of Blenheim Crescent and Portobello Road, an epicentre of entertainment in recent weeks, had turned into a small dancefloor. Several hundred people were milling around it, wondering when something would happen. The answer turned out to be 11.45. Dancers scattered like pigeons, the sound system vanished, and a fluorescent phalanx of riot police advanced on the crossroads. Chanting some kind of haka, they pushed east- and northwards. An officer shouted orders to ‘leave immediately or face arrest!’ Buildings flashed blue, police carriers zipped round street corners, and a distant helicopter chopped towards the scene. I called it a night.

Notting Hill’s seen better fiestas. It wasn’t social distancing violations that made the night dreary though. It was the social fragility and economic vulnerability it reflected. And that extended far beyond Portobello Road. Earlier in the day, I’d cycled through Soho, and though it was filling with party animals, signs of vitality plummeted everywhere beyond Old Compton Street and Soho Square. Theatreland was a silent, flickering time capsule, and the shops of Oxford Street were so deserted they looked almost inviting. A few cycle rickshaws were back in operation, but there weren’t enough passengers to go round. The same looked true of Thames clippers I saw plying the river the next day, while East London’s Sunday markets, starved of tourists, were spindly shadows of their former selves. Brick Lane’s Bengali restaurants, desperate at the best of times, had so few passers-by to entice that one tout took a chance on me. ‘Fully socially-distanced, sir’, he said. Sadly, I believed him.

All that’s been causing me angst, especially because the question of constraints on pre-pandemic behaviour arose during my own little contribution to last weekend’s festivities. The occasion was a garden dinner party on Friday night. The host had cautious intentions – indeed, he was the most COVID-wary person I knew back in March – but it was raining, and arriving guests instinctively stayed around the dining table. Though I kept my distance for a long time, eavesdropping from the patio and yelling contributions to the conversation, I finally gave in when the dancing started. It’s not that the downsides of this coronavirus have become abstract – strokes, scarred lungs and heart attacks still flit through my imagination more vividly than I’d like – but catching up with people I care for by shouting at them just felt wrong.

It’s not just me. A friend who used to wash his groceries and quarantine his post went to an unashamedly house party last weekend. Another friend who’s spent weeks talking about her fondness for isolation popped out on Saturday to raise a pint. And though plenty of people are perturbed by the mingling that’s kicked off, a set of IPSOS-MORI polls I’ve just read suggests they’re in the minority. Young adults, always relatively sceptical about public health restrictions, see their relaxation as long overdue. Non-white people have also been less likely to comply with lockdown rules, perhaps reflecting their disproportionate susceptibility to loneliness, anxiety and depression since March. The population as a whole has always claimed to be more concerned for the health of the country than personal well-being – and that worry is less intense than at any time since the lockdown began.

Evolving perspectives about the risk of COVID-19’s spread can’t easily be shrunk to generalisations, but they divide at least three ways. Some people assume that loosening the lockdown will hasten a second wave of unnecessary infections. Others think that danger minimal or inevitable, and the only controls they potentially support are local restrictions and laws to shield vulnerable groups. The most numerous group stand somewhere in between. Fearing the worst and taking sporadic precautions, they’re recalibrating their alarms and lowering their guard. In case it’s not obvious, that’s where I am.

All middle ways are open to criticism. Awaiting disaster is obviously passive. Anyone who eases up in the process might, like the metaphorical frog in a slowly boiling kettle, miss the biggest threat of all. It’s never complacent to rethink attitudes formed at the peak of an emergency though. They’re easily skewed by fear, and those maintained for the sake of consistency sometimes reflect a less principled response to shock – namely trauma. And though dismantling the lockdown obviously carries risks, a refusal to take chances now seems even riskier. Screened from public view by furlough schemes, at least a million jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry may already have evaporated . . .

As I contemplated the mysteries of risk-assessment for this post, a sideways slant on the subject popped up across Facebook in the form of extracts from Samuel Pepys’s diary about London’s plague epidemic of 1665. They’re fake, and the invented observation that’s been most popular over the last week suggests, topically enough, that Pepys had no sympathy for anyone who risked infection by going to the pub. ‘A dram in exchange for the pox is an ill-bargain indeed’, he supposedly wrote. The supposed lesson’s obvious. Anyone intelligent knows to weigh long-term danger against short-term pleasure.

As usual, the propaganda’s less interesting than facts. Pepys was deeply troubled by the plague. It killed around a fifth of London’s population, including many of his acquaintances. As it circled the City, he became obsessed with death tolls and regularly resolved to put all his earthly affairs in order. But contemplating mortality didn’t paralyse him. Quite the opposite. As his morbid interest in burial statistics grew, he criss-crossed London by carriage and ferry, downing pints of wine, feasting on oysters and partying nights away. On 5 October 1665, he visited his mistress in Deptford, and though ‘round about and next door on every side is the plague’, he ‘there did what I would with her’. Death finally caught up with him – but it wasn’t till 38 years later, and whatever might be said about Pepys’ personal choices, the takeaway from his 1665 diary entries isn’t caution at all costs. Only fools ignore danger, but risks are sometimes there to be taken. That’s life.

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