Tom Rachman’s novels include The Imperfectionists and The Italian Teacher.
The daffodils are out at my local park. But visitors are as rare as the swans. Enjoy this sky, I tell myself. We’ll all be confined indoors soon.
I spread a tartan blanket on the lawn, and my four-year-old son takes the centre, scavenging in our Lego lunchbox for his bagel. The sun flirts; a drizzle proves more faithful. We take cover under a broad-branched tree and reconvene our two-man picnic there, propped against the trunk, protected.
Strangers notice and chat with us from a safe distance. Always, it’s the elderly, gleaming at the little fellow, who chews in blissful oblivion. “You two look cozy in there,” says an old lady on a rickety bicycle, grumpy until she saw my boy. Something is coming. We don’t know its dimensions. We are afraid.
Before coronavirus, the British rhapsodized about the Blitz Spirit, the grit of those who persisted despite German bombing in the Second World War. That unfussy camaraderie was national legend, cited too smugly at times, as if these islanders were more valiant and rational, especially than those on the Continent. Today, the children who survived the Blitz, who grew up in its pride, are of the age most likely to succumb. Is the wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” appropriate?
My son’s grandmother in Rome has lived in lockdown for days, alone in her roomy apartment near the Vatican, disinfecting the daily newspaper, petrified of a soaring death toll beyond her front door. Here in Britain, they say we’re a few weeks behind Italy. The government’s worst-case scenario amounts to a half-million dead. Yet while other countries rushed to ban mass gatherings, close schools and ordered the public to stay home, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delayed.
At first, his team’s approach sounded worryingly like capitulation, as if the virus were destined to roar out of control and drastic prevention was less sensible than attaining “herd immunity.” They permitted arena concerts. Pubs remained open. Meantime, the health authorities stopped tracing all new cases. The official advice is that, if you fall ill with symptoms, you needn’t inform the National Health Service, just self-isolate at home – but do get in touch if you’re dying.
According to the government, the public would only tolerate severe restrictions for a while, meaning that timing was critical, lest people break the rules just as the epidemic peaked. Did this mean the British lacked grit enough to hold out during a crisis? In Italy, the streets are empty.
At my local Sainsbury’s supermarket, I watched a woman with rubber gloves stacking 96 rolls of toilet paper in her trolley. Hand sanitizer has become a mythical product. “We are absolutely confident our supply chains are working,” Mr. Johnson declared, although photos circulated of the old staring at bare supermarket shelves, clutching unfilled shopping lists. When I logged onto a grocery-delivery service this week, I was 12,744th in line. Each time I refreshed, dozens more had joined the queue. Ultimately, the service shut down.
The National Health Service, underfunded for years, cannot cope either. “We have run out of eye protection, long sleeve aprons,” a hospital manager told The Independent. “We are buying safety goggles from industrial wholesalers to try and get something.” If nurses and doctors experience symptoms, they aren’t necessarily tested. But the greatest dread is the coming weeks and months, when the peak of cases is expected.
Finally, Mr. Johnson cranked up his response this week, but in a lurching manner that was sometimes bewildering. To enforce social distancing, he first announced the closing of schools and nurseries – but not of bars and restaurants. People ought to avoid those, he added. But if packed pubs were a hazard to public health, why not shut them immediately, rather than delaying the inevitable? At the time I write this, London is abuzz with talk of closures and a wider lockdown. At some point, the elderly may be told to stay at home, perhaps for months.
Perhaps the gradualist British response will prove wise. Nobody has experienced this before; all are scrambling. I can speak only of how this feels, which is less like pluck than dithering. This crisis has built since January.
Friends on lockdown in Italy are stupefied at the British laxness and message me for explanations. Perhaps, they speculate, the British are callous and would sacrifice their elders for the economy. This is far-fetched, invoking stereotypes of cold Anglo-Saxon culture. On the other hand, Mr. Johnson’s detractors cite a speech he once made praising the mayor from the movie Jaws, who advised everyone to keep calm and carry on swimming.
“A gigantic fish is eating all your constituents and he decides to keep the beaches open,” Mr. Johnson said in 2006. “Okay, in that instance he was actually wrong. But in principle, we need more politicians like the mayor. We are often the only obstacle against all the nonsense, which is really a massive conspiracy against the taxpayer.”
I cannot forget that Mr. Johnson – who cuts a more dignified figure in this crisis than his typical sniggering guise – is also the person most responsible for the self-harm of Brexit, a chauvinistic project whose damage to the economy is already dire. As a bonus, Brexit promises the imminent British departure from the European Medicines Agency, meaning everyone here may wait longer for a coronavirus vaccine and pay more for each dose.
I try to conceal the fear from my son. But this coming period, I suspect, will be among his strongest memories of childhood, especially when restrictions mount. There will be little to do, much for parents to explain.
How to make the best of a plague? Optimists remark that, when quarantined, Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Newton invented calculus. I’m not sure how much child care each had. Quarantine today isn’t a farmhouse with nothing but your thoughts and a quill. It’s crowd-sourced anxiety on a laptop, replenished with online deliveries, and a steady diet of streamed distraction. For all the damage of tech in recent years, its tools are a salvation: video chats, free phone calls, multiperson courses.
My own chief occupation, writing stories, seems an especially strange pursuit nowadays. During tough periods in my past, when I sought to escape distress, imagination was a trap door. This time, I open it and find coronavirus. I am constantly interrupting myself to check the updates. I try to limit myself to two industrial doses of news a day. Otherwise, I exist in a frenzy.
A cousin in north London messaged me the other day, saying we’d meet “on the other side” of this pandemic. I wonder what culture and society will be on the other side. Many will have spent weeks or months deprived of human contact and daylight, perceiving the outside world as a seething infection. Perhaps they’ll be jobless. Hopes will have been dashed, marriages ruined, babies on the way. The handshake may be finished. Will the climate emergency seem urgent at last? Or will the financial fallout divert us again?
Publishers imagine that the quarantined masses may pick up books, perhaps absorbing novels with renewed enthusiasm. I hope so. Another possibility is that the dominance of screens feels complete after this.
I was living in Brooklyn on Sept. 11, 2001, and remember smoke rising from the obliterated towers across the water, dust and documents falling on my street, the emergency sirens screaming in so many places that I felt paralyzed. For a while, you talked to strangers – the solidarity of shared fear.
In normal times, Londoners do not interrupt each other’s day. But this picnic is not in normal times. Each time the elderly pause to smile at my son eating his bagel under the tree, I suspect they see something more.
The mercy of the novel coronavirus is that it spares children. The old know – whatever their own fate – the young will reach the other side, will spread a picnic blanket beside another crop of daffodils, glancing skyward at the drizzle, hoping for a glimpse of blue.
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