Sunday 15 March, 2020

So where did it start for us, life in the time of Coronavirus? I suppose it was partway through our recent trip to visit one of our sons and his wife in New Zealand. Initially we were just pleased to find no Chinese tourists there when we arrived in Christchurch on 14 February. New Zealand was fabulous, and continued to be fabulous, relatively empty of too many other tourists and virus-free.

But then we began to hear that more countries were limiting flights, and screening passengers on arrival. This was vaguely unsettling, and from around 1 March, when the first positive case of Coronavirus cropped up in Auckland, we began to actively look for face masks for the long journey home. Mainly to stop people wondering about our lingering coughs, having both caught head colds when we arrived. After much difficulty – panic had already set in even in remote NZ – we bought two masks, so big I had to choose between breathing, seeing, or not wearing mine. The long journey home, Auckland to Brisbane, Brisbane to Dubai, Dubai to Birmingham, was spent in putting on and removing the mask in a totally arbitrary fashion, thereby making it useless anyway.

We arrived back on 6 March to find everything apparently normal here in the UK. Apart from the perverse ignoral of a fire alarm by staff at Birmingham Airport, followed by a revolt among us passengers who found our own way to the fire exit, and then demanded a fuel truck move out of the fire muster zone. So as I say, situation normal, SNAFU. Even when Qantas cancelled the route we’d only just flown back on. I wondered vaguely about the British couple we’d met on the North Island who were due to fly out a week after us. They were northerners, I figured, they’d be fine. Paddle home or something. I went to the dental hygienist – I did ring first to check. She wore a mask, they always do. Nothing new there. I went to my book club meeting as usual, and apart from not hugging each other in greeting, we carried as normal in a pretty confined space, making plans to meet in April.

Yes, Italy was having problems, but these were Italians. They always make a fuss. Couldn’t even organise a war without switching sides, twice. But somehow the data from the Italian outbreak was giving me pause for thought. It looked like their older demographics were producing some horrendous fatality stats. I know I said no stats, but it was starting to look very dodgy.

Fourfold increase of Italian deaths in one week; data from worldometers.info

Then the first confirmed case was announced in Worcester, only seven miles away. Now it began to come home to me. I’m the secretary of our local writers’ group, which was due to meet on 11 March. Our monthly meetings are held in an old people’s carehome, of all places. I rang the Chair, a trained scientist, and found she was as concerned as I was. Once we had explained things – the Chair is quite firm and persuasive – our membership very quickly voted to suspend all club activities for the duration, except what we can do by email and on our website. This was the first occasion on which any part of my social network explicitly agreed not to meet, indefinitely. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.

By now, I was uneasily aware that it wasn’t just the over-70s who needed to worry. The media revealed that the lack of testing in the UK meant that the low apparent numbers of infected people were very misleading, and that by the weekend at least 10 000 people were likely to have been infected. But still the government was being very parsimonious with advice. I mean, for goodness’ sake, telling us not to go on cruises? After the past few weeks of headlines, I reckon few people now think a cruise is fun. I changed the venue of a planned girlie night out with my neighbour from the local pub to my house, just the two of us. We didn’t touch, and sat well apart. Peggy didn’t care, and clambered all over both of us in turn. Already we are beginning to value the physical contact of a friendly dog.

By Thursday, my contempt for people stockpiling was somewhat moderated. I am not that old – just about to have my 63rd birthday – but I had realised that as I take an immunosuppressant drug for a long-standing condition, I probably fit the profile of the vulnerable. You know, those fragile useless creatures the Government keeps going on about, and is threatening to put into total quarantine. Okay, I reckoned getting in a week’s extra supplies, not toilet rolls but sensible stuff like tinned soup, frozen veg and endless teabags, would be reasonable. The man on the radio had helpfully suggested I initiate social distancing by food shopping at a less popular time. Accordingly I turned up at my local supermarket at 9.15 am to find the entire population of the town already there, and queuing in the car park. It was a slow shop. And no, there was no hand sanitiser, little soap, and few toilet rolls on the shelves. I hope forthcoming official advice is going to be more useful. And that someone will ration soap and hand sanitiser, at the very least. As you may be able to tell, I am getting a bit fed up.

My husband Peter, meantime, has been away climbing in Scotland since Thursday. Nothing healthier than that, I thought. (Despite sharing a car with several others for hours on the drive north and back again.) Today as I write this, I’m glad he went. I don’t think he’ll be going on his booked rock-climbing trip to Spain in May. Spain is now completely locked down, who knows for how long? And even if by some miracle they re-open the country to visitors, which of the bankrupt airlines will take him there? And me? Well, in the past two days virtually all the social events I had in my diary have been cancelled, either by the organisers, or by me being a wuss.

Not the hairdresser appointment, though. One has to maintain certain standards, after all.

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