Readers who have had the good fortune to have been living in a cave in Patagonia will not have heard of the coronavirus Covid-19, and it is highly recommended that for the sake of their sanity they return to their cave immediately. Or at least turn off their internet before trying to go any further.
Nearly three weeks ago the Prime Minister imposed a blanket lockdown on the country which permitted leaving the house for:
- essential supplies (not defined);
- medicine (not defined);
- daily exercise of walking, cycling or running (not further defined);
- work that cannot be done from home (relevance of this work not defined).
The Prime Minister then went and stood within about a foot of his medical professionals repeatedly, while telling the population that they must not see friends or family or go within 2 metres of a human being that they do not live with, and proceeded to catch coronavirus. This has been held up as an example of how easy it is to catch, rather like his elevation to Prime Minister is a demonstration of how easy it is to be Prime Minister. Actually both are a demonstration that you can achieve anything if you try hard enough.
There is the oddity that some people are still going to work in offices, where the risk is apparently manageable, but after spending a day with 100 other people in an air-conditioned petri dish they come home to be banned from having a single friend round because that would kill them.
The lockdown was announced to be going to last a minimum three weeks. Much was made of how this would be terribly hard for families stuck together, and ever since the media has enjoyed lots of family activities of people playing instruments and making rainbows.
There has been a grand total of nothing about the circa 7 million people who live on their own. These people, if they are obeying the coronavirus lockdown by:
- not spending time with people with whom they do not live;
- staying at home for work;
- minimising time out for exercise
will have mostly likely had a stock of face-to-face conversations over the last three weeks which can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or indeed none at all. In this writer’s case, none of those four conversations were longer than five minutes and two were with supermarket checkout assistants. (The other two were with the same set of friends-of-friends, during their exercise and shopping excursions. Pot luck meetings. Not a large circle of companionship.)
Now if you have not lived alone at some point during your life, pause and reflect here. Interaction over the breakfast table? Gone. Person to talk to at bedtime? Gone. Person to discuss the shopping list with? Gone. Person to be at the other end of the sofa even if you don’t say much? Gone. Person to walk to the shops with? Gone. Person to spend the weekend with, whether walking or doing nothing? Gone. Person to enjoy that Monty Python film with? Gone. Person to discuss holidays with? Gone. (So’s the holiday, which is a problem if you need a change of scene away from the vicinity of work.) Suddenly, totally, utterly – gone. No, it’s not like bereavement. With bereavement you can look forward to the funeral and talk there. You can throw yourself into work, or some social group. With coronavirus, finding a social group is a criminal offence.
You’re the last person alive on Earth. Some ghosts wonder around and you dodge them. Voices come out of the radio, mostly as urgent Government announcements on the importance of you not speaking to anyone. Other voices come over the phone. Emails make statements in vocal tones that you can’t hear and aren’t sure you’ve grasped. Talking heads come up on the computer screen. But they’re not there. You can’t touch them, or feel them, or have the sense of instant response (computer calls have that slight delay), and the whole thing drops off when the internet gets wobbly.
Except as the last person alive on Earth, or one of the few survivors of a Triffid takeover, you can adapt and re-group. But under a lock-down, you can’t leg it, or seek solace in wandering the high fells, or simply come to terms with this new reality. It is a temporary state – so we’re told. Adaptation to solitary life has birthing pains. You try not to go through them. And so the 21 days are ticked off – until the Government decides it needs to extend them.
But it shouldn’t.
On Monday 23rd March, a number of people picked up coronavirus in work, or in the supermarket, or down the pub having a last drink. They took it home and at some point – the science reports are a little vague on when – they gave it to their household. But they were in lockdown, and so their ability to spread outside their household was limited.
After a bit over a week, pushing two, those fellow householders began to show symptoms, keel over and die. We are now seeing those cases and deaths work through the system.
But those dying people are now out of the system. The spread should be limited, or at least as limited as it is going to get under the terms of a lockdown where we are not all simply locked into our houses for two weeks and those at the wrong point in their shopping cycle starve to death. The question is not whether people are still dying, because the dying people are at the end of this cycle of disease. In many ways, they are irrelevant to the cycle itself. The fact that the numbers of dying are falling merely indicates that two to three weeks ago the number of people getting it began to fall. How many people are getting it now, outside the NHS? We don’t know. The Government won’t collect a useful sample of data.
Contact has been very firmly limited. The big virus distributors who picked it up in London and took it halfway round the country are now limited to their local supermarket. Everybody who had it at the start of the lockdown should be clearing up; everyone who has got it is staying at home. Excepting some supermarket checkout staff and NHS workers, nobody else should be going to get it.
There is a case for keeping a restriction on large gatherings; for not re-opening pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and sporting grounds for a couple more weeks; for encouraging social distancing with people in general; for encouraging working from home and for encouraging people to limit trips to busy places like supermarkets. But the key limitations on exercise and meeting people outside your house can be lifted, in the comfortable knowledge that the practical impact will be limited if people have nowhere very much to go except a) friends (limited by house sizes) or b) to walk around in circles. Most folk still won’t go out much, and those who do all go to the Brecon Beacons can be controlled by a mix of limited parking and their own understanding that they should keep an appropriate distance apart.
“Play it safe” is the mantra encouraged by the health industry and the media. The health industry is like any other industry. It likes being relevant. The doctors might not like the long hours, but their industry is relevant. Managers can put in for bigger bonuses and larger empires. The NHS, if my radio is anything to go by, is having a recruitment drive. NHS top brass can justify their importance to the Government and the Government can be seen to be supporting the NHS (a Tory weak point). Matt Hancock, a man whose opinions vary by the results of the latest poll, can present himself as a strong character making a success of Health, running the country efficiently (especially while his boss is dying) and lining himself up nicely as a future party leader.
On the media side, it must be remembered that the media is not here to sell news. It is here to sell advertising and to sell readers to its advertising, and this applies to print, radio, TV and internet. (Why else would local press websites get hideously upset if they sniff an ad-blocker and not offer subscription packages?) It wants you to read it so you can be sold to the advertiser, and it does that by presenting interesting and dramatic news that you have to read. Like, say, an major end-of-civilisation pandemic.
The Beeb is an exception. Its news team is driven by entirely different considerations. Specifically that the BBC Newsroom was going to be subjected to major job cuts until coronavirus came along, so 450 people reporting on the virus know that as soon as this calms they’ll be fired.
Thus there is a certain likelihood that matters will be overegged and excessively weighted towards the risk of dying of coronavirus, and the medics who study coronavirus are muttering about 13 weeks of lockdown.
Thirteen weeks. 91 days. Three months. Late June.
(Oddly enough, Boris’s favourite day – the 23rd.)
Thirteen weeks during which time residents of single-occupancy households will be banned, by law, under pain of being talked at by the police and given exponentially rising fines, from having a meaningful social relationship with another human being.
This is not a sacrifice for society. This is simply outrageous oppression. You cannot reasonably expect someone used to a moderate level of social contact to not see family, friends and colleagues for that period of time. We will go mad.
At the end of that 13-week period you will have a society involving a large number of people who are used to holding conversations with themselves for the very simple reason that there is no-one else to talk to and nobody to think they’re a bit mad. We will have forgotten how to properly interact with you. Conversations will be hard work.
My social life has gone through ups and downs over the years. The downs are an obvious emotional pig, and this one is being particularly bad. The ups do however have their challenges. Constructing a reasonable conversation – meeting the other person’s responses – being able to listen to the other person – not saying something opinionated or incredibly uncomfortable to hear, but keeping conversation interesting and honest. Do I want to answer questions about “How are you doing?” with “Another ‘black dog’ day,” or “Got some bleach? I feel like packing it in”? Well, not really. But they do become the honest answer, and the more one doesn’t talk to anyone else the more the social restrictions on saying that come down.
Do you find Twitter echo-chambers hard work? Well, imagine talking to someone who’s been living in a one-person echo chamber for 13 weeks. Or being talked at, because we won’t be used to having to stop. And the speech will cover such thrilling topics as the growth rate of geraniums.
When you (as the speaker) get to that stage, your side of a conversation has to be so heavily monitored (either to shut up occasionally, or to consider an actual answer) that it becomes exhausting. It’s easier to retire from society semi-permanently. Possibly with an insurance bottle of bleach in case it all gets too much. Or with several cans of beer, and a future demand on the NHS for liver transplants after spending ten weeks learning how to be incapable of getting out of bed without being one over the eight.
And being stuck in a dusty house, depressed and bored, leaves potential for a weakened immune system that is more easily compromised by a virus than one which is fit, and lively, and positive, and has been in the fresh air doing exercise.
Exercise is rather too easy to lose.
The human body does like exercise. It gets the metabolism going and the brain flowing. Without it, everything settles into a general mush which – in my case at least – rapidly starts rotting. This rotting manifests itself in consistent unpleasant thoughts, up to and including reflections on how my sudden death will annoy a variety of important people who actually won’t notice and wouldn’t care very much if they did. But be careful driving past me for the next 10 weeks in case I happen to be in that sort of mood.
But the rotting also manifests in muscular decay. This takes time and effort to build back up again. Once you’re over a certain age, it probably won’t. There are people self-isolating in their houses now who might be able to get back up and shuffling if the lockdown comes off soon. If it goes on for 13 weeks, they’ll never leave their homes again. Muscles will have broken down; social contacts will have deteriorated (and, ok, in some cases died); the urge to go out will have been suppressed; the horrors of all the things waiting out there will have been firmly impregnated into their brains; and the restoration of traffic will make it a horrible, noisy and confusing landscape that will take serious effort to get back into sync with.
I’ve done that getting back into sync. I spent three years, on and off, in Falmouth at university. One day I went to Plymouth for some ferroequinology. The city centre felt busy. Very, very busy. I remarked on this to my personal tutor during a discussion about something-or-other a week or two later. “Plymouth?” she said. “Plymouth? Busy?”
Yes. Really. Genuinely. Compared to Penryn and Falmouth, it was a culture shock. Returning to South Wales a few months later after my finals – that was almost more of a culture shock, re-learning how to plough around busy roads at speed on a bike without crashing into people. I almost didn’t re-learn it. (Probably a couple of occasions when I almost ended up in hospital.)
To summarise – there are 7 million people out there, hidden in their homes, doing nothing of interest to the Press, saying little and with few people to say it to. We are getting lost and depressed; we have little cause to go out and increasingly will have to force it; we have nobody to properly talk to. Not that conscious, pick-up-the-phone and have a natter thing, which most of us 7 million won’t be good at. We live alone. We don’t talk automatically. We need a reason to chat, and “I’m lonely” is not typically a reason. It feels like an imposition to ring people up and talk about our problems, and we know we’d come to resent the loser who did it to us. Anyway, we’re at home. We have nothing to talk about. We need opportunities to meet people as a matter of general routine, and generate conversation, and have the odd hug.
If it goes on for 13 weeks, we will have become used to this as a matter of course. We won’t go out. We’ll struggle to restore relationships. It will be too much trouble. Already I’m finding that talking to people on the phone reminds me of what I’ve lost and exacerbates my mood swings, without providing a long-term booster to my morale.
Matt Hancock has taken the personal, explicit decision to evict 10% of the population from Society. 7 million people who have seen virtually nobody for three weeks and are now clean, but are to be kept in lockdown anyway.
Meanwhile people whose jobs are deemed urgent and whose employers can’t be bothered making work-from-home provision, like the Passport Office, go into work and swap viruses. They’re the ones who are still spreading it. Not those of us who are working from home, or who have stopped working, and are stuck with our households of a housemate, or a parent, or a spouse – or nobody at all.
Matt – at the very least – show a shred of humanity. It’s alright for you – you get to strut, and make big decisions that affect lives without actually considering what that effect is, and talk to journalists every evening, and go home to your family. Maybe tell the Passport Office staff that they’re not allowed to see friends. But for me, living on my lonesome, having a friend round from another house which has been in lockdown for the three weeks – we haven’t got it. We do not present any sort of relevant risk. We’re just dying.
Allow us loners to see each other.