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 . . .

Covid#6 – Park Life (26 April 2020)

On the Sunday after this lockdown began, I headed for Hyde Park. Boris Johnson had said that police would be enforcing the new rules ‘through fines and dispersing gatherings’, and that’s the kind of warning the ranters and hecklers of Speakers’ Corner might ordinarily have had opinions about. Not on 28 March. The only conversation in sight involved three despondent Muslim men talking to a policeman on a bike. As I watched, the trio nodded and trudged towards the gates.

Cycling up to the officer, I asked if they’d been cooperative. Victoria Park in east London had just been closed for fear it was attracting too many visitors, and I was ingratiating myself in the hope of learning if Hyde Park was similarly threatened. The three men had been disappointed but civil, he said, and though he’d been fielding extra complaints about panting joggers and unleashed dogs, most people were ‘too stunned to argue about anything.’ All the same, he personally suspected that a closure of all the Royal Parks was imminent. Even if necessary, he added, that would be a shame.

I wondered what exactly had made park-users seem ‘stunned’. With a baffled smile, he shook his head. It wasn’t just other people; he too was ‘shell-shocked’. But the very intensity of the crisis might, he thought, have positive consequences. In vague agreement, I mumbled something about caring and sharing more. He ignored me. ‘I’m a druid, see. And our god – whatever, the thing we venerate – is nature. Maybe we, the environment, are going to end up in a better place’. After a week of trying hard to expect the unexpected, that was one surprise too many. All I could really think of to ask before we parted ways was whether the demands of druidry ever clashed with being a police officer. ‘I don’t really call myself that’, he said. ‘I prefer peace officer.’

Having spent a month mentally kicking myself, there’s a far longer conversation we’ve now had in my head. But it doesn’t dwell on the planet’s future. Though COVID-19 is provoking big questions about where humanity goes from here, I’m less focused on the answers than I probably should be. I’m more interested in what a pagan police officer would make of changing attitudes towards the urban environment in London. As millions have hunkered down in flats without gardens, sometimes in solitary confinement, the great outdoors is looking more attractive than ever. Public land feels precious. Unobservant people are noticing flowers. I’ve downloaded a birdsong-recognition app.

Access to green space almost seemed to get a government guarantee last week, when Communities Minister Robert Jenrick said that he’s ‘made it clear to councils that all parks must remain open’. But that welcome announcement was counterbalanced four days later by a quieter, more ominous proclamation. On 22 April, Health Secretary Matt Hancock put his signature to revised lockdown regulations that now make it a criminal offence not just to ‘leave’ your residence without good reason, but to ‘be outside it’. The four-word amendment took effect without parliamentary debate and no journalist seems to have noticed, but its legal effect is real. As of last Wednesday, you can be arrested, fined or charged simply for staying out too long.

The government’s decision to make the tiny change gives rise to a question as important as it’s obvious: why? If the aim is the improper one of making arrests easier, heavy-handed action would ordinarily lead to quick scrutiny and challenge in a courtroom, but judicial processes are sticky at the moment, and police interpretations of the new power are likely to stay undisputed for a while. That’s a shame. Though social distancing is as important as ever, COVID-19 isn’t the only malady that worsens and shortens lives. Immobility, loneliness and enforced cohabitation take their toll too, and the police should be told explicitly that the psychological benefits of being outdoors are legally protected. The lockdown regulations permit ‘exercise’, and there’s no sensible justification for limiting that to physical fitness, rather than well-being in general.

That’s what I wish I’d discussed with the druid-cop of Speakers’ Corner. And when we were done exploring the spiritual dimensions of lockdown laws, I’d have liked to chat some more. He was the friendliest policemen I’ve met during the last month, and it would have been good to hear his thoughts about over-eager enforcement. Across London, there are benches wrapped in plastic tape, like hundreds of small crime scenes. From North Kensington to London Fields and Walthamstow, police vans have been prowling across patches of grass, telling individuals not to sit down or sunbathe. A couple of Sundays ago, I heard a policeman on Primrose Hill tell everyone that they were required by law to ‘keep moving’. Though he earned my sympathy (‘people – I haven’t seen my own family for five weeks’, he pleaded), that invented rule was particularly dubious. In the words of a houseboat resident with whom I later spoke: ‘So it’s fine if you’re running in lycra, but old people watching the sky from a bench get moved on? That’s wrong.’

Last week’s extension of police powers is likely, as usual, to have a disproportionate impact on the poor and the vulnerable. While well-heeled Richmond and Hampstead have been full of spaciously distanced sunbathers and picnickers on days that I’ve visited, areas of south and east London where public space is at a premium have faced strict controls from the lockdown’s start. Lambeth’s Brockwell Park shut for a day in early April, while Victoria Park – which lies between three of the most densely populated boroughs in England – was closed for two full weeks.

Victoria Park’s fate was particularly ironic. The very reason it opened in 1845 was to combat disease. Cholera had raged out of the Limehouse docks across east London in 1832, and though deaths were few by COVID-19 standards – about 800 – the epidemic convinced senior politicians and Queen Victoria that giving East Enders an outdoor recreation ground wasn’t just charitable, but also self-interested. The man who did most to persuade them – a ground-breaking epidemiologist called William Farr – explained in 1839 that letting poor slum dwellers spend time in fresh air would probably ‘add several years to the lives of the entire population’.

With that history in mind, I cycled to Victoria Park on 12 April: the day after its two-week closure came to an end. An online notice warned returning visitors against ‘static exercises such as yoga, pilates and general fitness training’, while dos and don’ts on the gates instructed everyone to exercise just once a day and, again, to ‘keep moving’. Sentries in masks and high-viz shouted at cyclists through megaphones to get off their bikes. Happily, the people scattered across the sunny lawns looked unbothered as they strained at resistance bands and bent themselves into shape. Spotting a cross-legged figure, serenely framed by cherry blossoms, I asked permission for a photo and we fell into conversation. When I mentioned William Farr’s concern for the health of east Londoners, he meditatively stretched a hamstring. ‘Should’ve fucking remembered that, shouldn’t they?’, he said.

I agreed. Farr’s pioneering work on tracking disease wasn’t complemented by scientific brilliance; like many contemporaries, he had no idea that cholera was water-borne and thought it was spread by drifting clouds of dank air. But that doesn’t make his belief in parks (or the ‘the lungs of London’, as Victorians called them) any less valuable. Enjoying outdoor space won’t keep COVID-19 at bay, but without it, no one’s going to stay fit and well for long.

Covid#5 – Locked Down (19 April 2020)

So. Another three weeks of working out what to do next. Extension of the lockdown was no great surprise, but it came with less predictable woes. On the Tuesday after Easter, as the UK theoretically returned to work, the Office of Budget Responsibility warned of 10% unemployment and a 35% decline in GDP by midsummer. The IMF pitched in with predictions of ‘the worst global recession since the Great Depression’. Reports on Channel 4 News and the BBC simultaneously revealed that COVID-19 has been raging through UK care homes. Only hospital deaths figure in the government’s daily fatality statistics, and a report in Friday’s Financial Times said that uncounted victims might number six thousand in England and Wales. That would put the UK in pole position to reach the largest toll in Europe.

The care home scandal is the clearest evidence yet that the government came to this pandemic unprepared. But another charge against ministers – that they should set out details of an exit strategy – is less convincing. So many calamities lie ahead that strategising a route through the pile-up wouldn’t just be premature; it would be incredible. Transparent planning is important, but all that’s absolutely certain is that, whatever steps are taken to ease the lockdown next time round, the social world that dissolved in March isn’t about to return. Everything that draws strangers together, from acts of worship to dating apps, has already changed, and though dreams of a vaccine might keep us sane, the intensity of life under lockdown is scoring deep psychological tracks.

That’s making central London feel like a suspended city. Nostalgia got me even before it closed down, but as the desolate streets and shuttered shops have grown more familiar, the 24/7 metropolis of yore is becoming increasingly hard to re-imagine. Zone 1’s space-age plazas, pseudo-traditional food courts and lunchtime amphitheatres, eerie enough to begin with, are downright spectral without the commuters, tourists and slackers they were built to accommodate. Uncongested roads are flowing, but the lanes filled with emergency vehicles, supermarket juggernauts and passenger-forsaken buses aren’t traffic as we knew it. The most visible measure of London’s economic health, its advertising space, meanwhile looks like a particularly sickly COVID-19 victim: for want of lucrative clients, screens across the city are urging praise for the NHS and calling on consumers to save lives.

Every circuit through the urban desert takes me sooner than I’d like to the same dull oasis – home – but though I badly miss the detours and pit-stops of pre-pandemic London, things could be worse. During an evening of lockdown-fuelled obsessiveness last week, I excavated a book I’d last shelved about two decades ago – Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – and re-contemplated the measures taken in seventeenth-century France whenever plague broke out. Mayors would sub-divide their towns into residential quarters, and wardens were made responsible for specific streets. They locked all residents into their houses and, until the plague passed, everyone had to appear daily at a window to respond to a roll-call, on pain of death.

That didn’t just make me grateful for small mercies. It reminded me of conversations I’d had with several friends before our own house-arrest scheme began. They had complained that the government wasn’t clamping down hard and fast enough. Over recent weeks, lots of other people have been repeating similar charges: among them, plenty who’d say they were liberal. I can’t pretend to have agreed – though hindsight is showing the government got lots wrong, a Tory-declared state of emergency always felt instinctively to me like something worth resisting – but even if the clamp-down enthusiasts are right, their longing for a more decisive, repressive Prime Minister Johnson shows that political perspectives can shift fast during a crisis. And though Foucault had many convoluted and controversial theories, that’s why his account of French plague regulations is straightforwardly relevant today. Information gathered about individuals can be the source of immense power, and politicians who control it need to be kept in check.

That matters because of the current clamour over mass testing. The government’s consistent inability to organise the tests it’s been promising is glaringly apparent, and identifying people infected with COVID-19 would potentially benefit everyone, especially if recent contacts are traced and warned to self-isolate. Such a system won’t just spring into existence though. On Radio 4 last week, Imperial University’s Neil Ferguson said it presented an organisational challenge greater than Brexit and demanded ‘a small army’ of infection trackers and tracers. The government already seems to anticipate that ordinary members of the public will have an important role to play. Here, as in several other countries, apps are being developed that will use bluetooth to monitor physical interactions, so that people can be notified if they’ve recently been near someone who’s recently reported coronavirus symptoms. The questions thrown up are a lot easier to ask than answer though, and they go beyond concerns about mischievous mis-reporting and anonymity protections. What will happen to citizens who can’t be bothered to download a track-and-trace app or self-isolate? Will the government force them to? Will we, the people?

Another dimension is opened up by the controversy there has been about antibody tests: the ones that reveal not that someone’s infected, but that they’ve had the disease already. Ministers seem to have given up on Boris Johnson’s grand claim of mid March – that they’ll be a ‘game-changer’ – but only because trials at Oxford University found that 3.5 million tests purchased from China were useless. On 2 April, four days before the Oxford findings were reported, Matt Hancock was still vaguely foreseeing a time when recovered victims of the virus would get certificates or wristbands to prove their immunity. That was a double fantasy, because there’s no reliable evidence that exposure to COVID-19 produces lasting immunity, but a system that privileged people for beating off the disease would also be objectionable in principle. It would disadvantage everyone else, especially the old and vulnerable. It would encourage some people to catch the coronavirus rather than avoid it, and the value of certificates or wristbands could quickly generate a corrosive black market. The only way of safeguarding the system’s integrity would be yet further extensions of government power.

All the dangers lie ahead, and lockdown London certainly isn’t an Orwellian dystopia. Even if advertisers’ exhortations to love the NHS are starting to feel a touch totalitarian (and I admire health workers as much as the next potential ICU patient), police on patrol seem friendly enough. Though there have been reports of heavy-handed enforcement elsewhere, the greatest insensitivity I’ve personally encountered came from an officer at Kings Cross station, who laughingly told me that smack addicts now have to pay heroin prices for methadone. Drug dealers are being spooked by the city’s emptiness too.

States amass power invisibly and slowly though. And fear is driving so many decisions at the moment that authoritarian approaches to the current crisis are bound to gain support. Intrusive and repressive measures might even be necessary (I don’t yet know where I’d hypothetically stand) but it’ll be crucial to view the downsides through perspectives that aren’t just medical. If there’s one thing this government’s ineptitude has proved for sure, it’s that sound science can underpin bad policies. And the choices being made now are going to shape whatever’s left of society, long after COVID-19 subsides.

Covid#4 – Bluebells (11 April 2020)

Another week, another mood. It started calmly enough, at least by the frenzied standards of this pandemic. During my visit to Kew Gardens last month, one of many pauses for thought had come as I’d wandered through a wood where, in ordinary years, bluebells erupt in April and May. Imagining the leafless trees in bloom, I’d felt then that the sight would be sadder this year. It is – not least because the sight can’t be seen, now that Kew has closed its gates – so when I stumbled across a little blue riot near Hyde Park Corner on Sunday, I became quite sentimental. So much so that, in memory of springtimes less weird, I decided to keep an eye open for more. Flower-appreciation’s never been my greatest strength, but bluebell photography would, I figured, at least give me something pretty to worry about.

Events, as usual, intervened. By last weekend, death rates and epidemiological graphs were becoming familiar enough to make the immensity of COVID-19 slightly comprehensible. Though it hardly felt safe to go back in the water, it looked at least as though the shark was looming into view. But on Sunday evening, when news of Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation stuttered out of Downing Street, perspectives skewed and the outlook darkened all over again. Within hours, state-owned Russian media was citing ‘a source close to the leadership of the national health service’ to report that the UK prime minister was about to go on life support. The claim was as wrong as the supposed source sounded, but government assurances that Johnson was simply undergoing ‘tests’ were also misleading. His condition worsened, and he entered one of the intensive care units at St Thomas’s Hospital on Monday evening. By Tuesday afternoon, BBC journalists were on standby to cover his death.

Almost everyone has firm opinions about Boris Johnson by now, and those in London are a lot less favourable than they used to be, but the shock of his sudden deterioration sucked yet more energy from the already subdued capital. If the streets I cycled on Monday and Tuesday were representative, a quiet atmosphere turned into a hushed one. And, during a week when it emerged that COVID-19 has so far killed ten doctors and fourteen Transport for London workers – twenty-four tragedies in a daily toll that’s now hovering close to a thousand – my personal sense of foreboding also grew. Something that must have been true from the start struck me for the first time: it isn’t just food stores, chemists and post offices that are allowed to stay open during the lockdown, but funeral parlours too. They’re looking as inert as ever behind their discreet screens and fixed floral arrangements, but it’s been disconcerting to realise what’s become obvious: the business of death is booming. And on Wednesday, when I travelled through south-west London in glorious sunshine to wish my mum a happy birthday, yet more gloom punctuated the day. As I rolled through the meadows and lanes of Richmond and Kingston – leafy suburbs, with fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other London borough – I counted seven ambulances, parked outside houses or speeding to unknown destinations.

I’m not as despondent as those morbid reflections might suggest – cycling in the sun definitely has its benefits too – but the prime minister’s hospitalisation directly affected me, and not just because I’m a man of almost exactly the same age. As many people reading this already know, I was quite close to Boris for years, through a long friendship with his recently divorced ex-wife, and until Brexit wreaked its havoc, I liked him. That wouldn’t be worth saying on Facebook, except that it helps contextualise what I’ve just written – and it’s also made me acutely aware of certain reactions within my social media bubble. Insofar as my news feed keeps me properly informed, all my close friends (hi!) sensibly kept any opinions they may have had about the prime minister’s illness to themselves, and most of the people who expressed a view noted – sometimes to their own surprise – how strongly they were rooting for Johnson to pull through. But a handful of acquaintances preferred publicly to signal that their sympathies lay elsewhere. A couple were indifferent to his fate; at least two hoped he would die.

Such sentiments are awkward even to describe, but the attitudes are also worth recording and considering. It’s the urge to go public with contempt for a hospital patient that’s particularly unpleasant, not unarticulated uncaringness; there are several thought experiments involving Donald Trump that would probably end very badly in my own head. And though sympathy has typified the public’s response to Boris Johnson’s illness, that minimal mercy doesn’t equate to unity. This country has deep political wounds that four weeks of combating the coronavirus certainly haven’t healed – and for all the government’s talk of ‘shielding the vulnerable’ and doing ‘whatever it takes’, the present crisis will invariably end up exacerbating the divisions. A prediction that sweeping requires more reasoning than fits comfortably into Facebook, but the takeaway’s short: the stunned fear that’s been generating consensus and compliance is likely soon to give way to disagreements and disorder. If I’m wrong, no problem (I’ll just edit this post to prove I was right), but hopes for the prime minister’s full recovery are only decent and proper; they’re no guarantee of stability, and won’t change whatever lies ahead.

In fact, the very insistence of ministers that they can hold it together has already started to feel like a sign of things falling apart. Michael Gove’s attempt on Tuesday morning radio to reassure listeners that all was under control, for example, was followed three hours later by a statement that he was going into self-isolation; nothing has been heard from him since. The politician standing in for the absent prime minister, Dominic Raab, meanwhile instils no confidence at all. In respect of the government’s most urgent duty – to procure protective personal equipment for critical workers, and to roll out reliable COVID-19 tests – he’s done nothing but repeat unfulfilled government promises that now date back almost a month. With eyes that are both terrified and terrifying, Raab’s resemblance to a rabbit in headlights has been too apparent to be funny; at the first press briefing he led after the prime minister’s admission into intensive care, he twitchily declined four times to say he was in charge. Asked how policy differences would be determined in Boris Johnson’s absence – if Cabinet ministers disagree about steps to loosen the lockdown, for example – he insisted nonsensically that disputes would be resolved by everyone assuming collective responsibility for the argument. As I listened to Raab’s performance through headphones on my bike, he managed somehow even to sound like roadkill.

Anyway, that’s enough discord. I’ll go easier on the politics next time. It’s important still to imagine that we’re all in this pandemic together. And as I started this post by saying, I’ve been taking photographs of a much prettier outbreak: the bluebells that are spreading across London at the moment. I’ve even turned a few of them into a self-indulgent video ( It’s been a nice distraction. At the moment, reasons to look away from the enormity of events feel more precious than efforts to comprehend them.

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.

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.