26 April, 2020
The above quote comes from former US President Bill Clinton, and feels very fitting for our times. Or it did, till this week.
For what feels like forever much of the world has been in coronavirus lockdown. I went into my own personal purdah on 18 March, after wisely visiting my hairdresser and buying a crate of wine. On 23 March the NHS sent me a stern text, confining my life and my ‘shielding’ husband’s life very considerably for the foreseeable future. It didn’t feel too bad, as we’d seen the writing on the wall, and anyway, everyone except the amazing key workers risking their lives for the rest of us was in pretty much the same lockdown.
All through this unprecedentedly dry sunny spring the people around us, near and far, were in lockdown. Some, like our French friends and family, have had to carry bits of self-authorising paper with them on each foray out for exercise or food. French bureaucracy, we sympathised on Facebook and Zoom, but still we’re all in the same lockdown boat. Our son and daughter-in-law in New Zealand have been locked down for longer, but their recompense has been vanishingly small mortality rates. (And they have the bonus of an empathetic and clever Prime Minister who takes the people along with her in tough decisions. Just saying, Boris.) And the same for our Australian family and friends, all locked down securely and avoiding risk.
So that was sort of reassuring, despite our tragic death figures here in the UK. Sooner or later the curve of infection will flatten, we keep being told, and meantime we’re in the same boat as France, Australia, New Zealand, Germany…
Except, now we’re apparently not. It was my Sydneysider brother’s birthday today, and during the Zoom surprise party my nephew arranged we heard that some of the Brisbane and Sydney contingents of the family are going back to work tomorrow. Working from home, we wondered? No, actually at work. They still won’t be allowed to meet publicly with more than two other people at a time. But still, back to work. And meeting at least one or two other somebodies in public spaces, in the flesh. And allowed to jet ski. That was a lockdown measure that clearly mattered more to Aussies than you might think.
Our Grenoble-based niece told us there is now a published exit strategy on the national table in France. Still a way off being implemented, with a launch of 11 May apparently, but a plan nonetheless. In New Zealand, some businesses and schools will be opening tomorrow. Not to mention my Texan friend, who doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the hair-raising proposals being offered for lifting the lockdown in different parts of her country.
My point here is definitely not to urge an end to lockdown in the UK yet. I agree with our government that our death and infection figures are so sky-high we are nowhere near being ready; the risk of a second deadlier wave of coronavirus if we do suddenly lift restrictions is very real. But I can’t help wondering: maybe if our country had entered an immediate and proper lockdown when it became clear how dangerous this virus is, back in February or even as late as early March; if we had stopped the Cheltenham Gold Cup and not allowed Liverpool to play an international football match in March; perhaps we too could be actively considering a measured return to some form of economic and social life. We can’t do that right now, for reasons that will become clearer when the inevitable post-mortem takes place (and I choose that word carefully).
So it seems around the world we are no longer all in this together. Measures taken early or late are now having marked effects. The UK has lost probably some 40,000 of its citizens already, and there’s no quick end in sight for us. Though officialdom is making encouraging noises about the infection curve settling down, and infection rates dropping. At some point we will also be able relax some forms of social distancing and open our economy.
Even then, though, even when as a nation we can work, go to school, travel a little, maybe go to the pub to sit at carefully distanced tables – even then we won’t all be in it together.
Last week it was reported in the UK media that elderly people and people in vulnerable groups could be ordered to stay at home for a further year to 18 months, or until a vaccine is found for Covid-19. This is such a blow to me, and the 1.5 million like me who are currently shielding even inside our own homes, that I had a tearful few minutes when I wondered what sort of life it would be. How to cope with not holding my grandchildren, not meeting friends for real, not travelling, or partying, or even visiting beautiful gardens and parks? Not sitting next to my husband? Never hugging or kissing anyone at all? Until there’s a vaccine, if there ever is a vaccine?
OK, that tearful meltdown has passed, and now I find I just have to concentrate on all the lucky things. There’s my novel writing. And it’s spring, and there’s a great new SF series on BBC – I’m really enjoying Devs, if it hasn’t come your way – and Robert Harris and Philip Pullman are writing new books, and soon my roses will bloom.
But we’re no longer all in it together, not now or in the future. A lot of us face being locked up for an indefinite sentence. Please don’t forget us. Keep FaceTiming, and texting, and setting up Zoom parties, and sending us cards. Maybe we can’t be back in the outside world with you for a long time to come, but keep us inside your world. Keep us all in it together, however you can.