Then came the day we were asked to stay home. The police went too far, it was said. They took a little too much joy in posting drone footage of a couple walking on a deserted path in a national park. Too far from home, the police officers commented, and let this be a lesson to you. How we can see you, we can track you, we can shoot you. The commissioner hastily apologised for their zeal.
Online everyone was writing diaries about how life had changed, and how it felt, and how they were trying to think about it, and how we should think about it. The social channels spilled over with kindness, anxiety and gallows humour. The news expanded and expanded until it became a wall of noise. If you had ever wanted more updates in your life your time had truly come.
If you had a pre-existing condition of catastrophising, your time, too, had come.
Or if you had a pre-existing condition of paying attention to scientists.
There was an emergency that affected every human on the planet, that demanded we change almost everything about the functioning of our economies and societies. It had to be done immediately; there was no time to spare, every day made a difference. The prime minister was focused on it and was often seen talking to the press alongside his top scientific advisor. The government’s policies were based on the best scientific advice and on the scientists’ modelling of what was likely to happen in the future. The government said this is not a time for politicking, we have a grave threat and we must do whatever it takes to confront it. The government said that we could not and should not worry about the cost of these new policies; the time to worry about the cost would come much later because some things were more important.
The government said we have to accept that the world has changed, and this demands unprecedented sacrifices of all of us. The prime minister seemed too busy for a time to worry about photo opportunities and sound bites.
We are all in this together. We are in it for the long haul. We must look out for each other. We must reflect on what we value most—what we care about when we are forced to pause what we are doing.
These were the truths that became apparent.
Inequality became apparent. The pitiful level of unemployment benefit payments was acknowledged. Childcare became free. Urban farming exploded overnight. Chickens, vegetables, herbs in pots on balconies. The most highly valued workers, those most essential, were revealed to be nurses, doctors, teachers, public servants, farmers, grocers. Also, artists of all kinds, who had the job, as always, of entertainment and generally making sense of what was left to live for. Their work appeared online, with or without payment. If you couldn’t afford the internet or 4G you got nothing.
The government said to the foreign students whose cash the universities had come to rely on like a drug: why don’t you go home now?
The government said to the Indigenous community organisations who had developed urgent plans to shield their elders from the virus: perhaps or perhaps not.
The government said to the asylum seekers it had locked up for years or left destitute in the community with no access to income support or working rights: nothing.
A long, long time ago (only a month or two but time is different now), a visiting philosopher told her audience to remember: we are all in this together, but we are not the same.
At last the distance between the urgency of the problem and the urgency of the response collapsed. A sub-microscopic infectious agent that looks in some pictures like a crocheted tea cosy had done what the entirety of the human race assumed impossible: put a halt to modern life.
This was the largest experiment the world had ever seen. Almost all flights, all production, all global trade; in many places all human activity outside of hospitals, supermarkets, data farms, surveillance agencies, pharmacies, government agencies, funeral parlours, cemeteries: on hold. The air over Los Angeles cleared. The pollution over China cleared dramatically. This couldn’t go unnoticed, not least by the animals and plants. The humans, finally, had retreated to their nests.
What would happen next?
Snake oil merchants offered cures. Rumours ricocheted. Certain loud voices momentarily fell silent. People said, let’s stay in touch. People said, on the screen everything is flattened. People said, on the screen everything is more exhausting. They wondered: how do I turn off the picture of myself when I am talking to you? It is as if I am walking around with a mirror in my hand. They worried about the lighting, what they were wearing, they talked about objects visible in the background. These pixelated rectangles became more and more important.
Then came the day another week began, and it was a new month, and there was no end in sight. The dream, the shock, the is-this-really-happening: all of this started to wear off and at the same time started to intensify. New words and phrases emerged: hibernation, the other side, the bridge. And the old words—images of war remained top of the pops. This unseen enemy within, the frontline troops, our heroes. Vera Lynn was covered for the NHS in Britain: we’ll meet again.
Briefly, right-wingers wondered out loud whether it might be better to let a lot of people die rather than ruin the economy. And you could tell that if it were only foreigners who were dying, this might have gained more traction. But the virus did not discriminate. It loved luxury cruises and skiing parties in Aspen. It adored weddings and public celebrations of any kind. Football matches, street demonstrations, music festivals, art galleries. It found the common humanity in our airways and our lungs.
The symptoms: a feverish overheating of the body, acute aches and pains, the latter invisible to observers. All of it happening on the inside. For the unlucky few, there would be shortness of breath. An inability to get enough oxygen through the lungs. The system might tip into organ failure. The word all people came to know was: ventilator.
You open a vent to let the fresh air in. You ventilate a room to clear it of bad smells. The virus ventilated the world of many bad metaphors. It stopped people obsessing about many things that no longer seemed important. In a funny way, it calmed things down, many people observed. There was perhaps a new space that had opened (if you weren’t among those who were starving or were homeless or were trapped inside with a violent partner or were in a nation without universal healthcare or were already in the midst of having your country and your culture destroyed before your eyes, and even if you were among those).
So many things had stopped, so many livelihoods been threatened, so many plans interrupted, gigs cancelled, rollouts unrolled-out, planes unflown, projects postponed, calendars unravelled, that people began to wonder what it meant, actually, to be alive.
The verb to zoom would never be the same.
The irony was that only humans were affected. There had been so much talk of the Anthropocene, this new era in which humans had assumed the power to affect the Earth even on a geological scale. Now to talk of humans, plural, was to speak of herds. Cattle themselves were immune, likewise sheep, and so on (although tigers in the Bronx Zoo tested positive). Butterflies and cabbage moths went about their days. Snow peas germinated and floated their tendrils towards the sky, free to wrap themselves around whatever they could find. Rain fell. Snow fell. Coral continued to be bleached. People began to be curious about the world without us. Meanwhile, in the cities, there were always sirens.
Another philosopher suggested people draw up lists of all the things they used to do and all the things which used to happen in our societies which we would like not to take up again and not to see happening anymore. Having paused, there was an opportunity. There would be another list of new things that people would like to see commenced, perhaps things previously deemed impossible or not thought of until now. All these lists could then be shared, cross-referenced. It was like homework for a future that had surprised everyone except those who had been warning us for years.
The tussle over normal started. The new normal, the old normal, going back to normal, normal life resumed. Understandably some people loved normal more than others. Some people felt they were entitled to it. They literally had a lot to lose.
Would there be one day the party to end all parties? Would people be dancing in the streets as they did on VE day? Would there be iconic images of elders hugging grandchildren and long-separated lovers kissing? Would the prime minister come out to address the nation without his scientific advisor and tell the people that the war was over, and the time had come to go back to where we were, to all the previous truths and lies? Would there be a new epidemic of desires: to sweat together, co-mingle fluids, eat with our fingers, burp and fart and snort with laughter at a crowded table, feel the heat of each other’s flesh, because tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow never comes?
Would people say, let the world burn!? Or would people say, something happened to me back then? If the virus-time was a carnival—a period of time that upturns all the norms—it was a carnival with and without carne. Daily life became disembodied at the same time it returned people forcibly to their bodies and to a preoccupation with their not-so-private skin and insides.
Some said this was only a rehearsal, a wake-up call. There would be more viruses, and viruses more deadly. Some said, remember, too, what else we have been telling you is coming. There were the nutters and the zealots, yes, and the preppers hoarding guns and beer and paracetamol. But there were also the carers and repairers, the scientists, the artists and the elders, those with a weather eye.
Some reported that the drought had broken; it had rained like billy-o; it would be a great year for daffodils. For a while it was a relief not to think about the bigger catastrophe unfolding. It was also a relief not to be making it worse by flying and driving and consuming. It was a relief to have one’s hands tied in this regard. The planet had a breathing space.
This was a time when old types of magical thinking might come in handy.
Whatever had been written would soon be out of date. Time would pass. People would say, we will look back on this… they grew nostalgic, looked for yet more new words. As usual the poor suffered most. The new words did not speak to them. It did not matter; they made their own new words despite the cramped conditions. The rich worried about the depreciation of their assets.
In those days, at the height of the time of updates, nobody knew what would happen next. Previously they had known that Wimbledon would be in June, football on Friday night. In the summer would be festivals and eating at tables on the streets. Next year would be the trip we had saved up for. Tomorrow would be the day we slipped away from work at lunchtime and lost ourselves among strangers. It was possible to keep a semblance of control.
Then came a brief few days of calm, staggered across the timezones and the weeks at the crest of the disaster. This was the time when people who had been asked and then ordered to stop what they were doing stood by their kitchen windows or sat down on their couches and watched, in their minds, the wave slowly crashing. In every house there was a different soundtrack to the movie.
Dreams were called upon to do a lot of work.
The agent of disaster, although pathetically small, invisible, soon proved immune to mockery. Despite what Bolsonaro said, or Trump (remember him?), you couldn’t take it like a man. Or even an American. It didn’t care about your fantasies. You couldn’t appeal to common sense or make a joke. You might end up in intensive care.
Nobody knew what lessons would be drawn. All over the world people had become literate in reading graphs, in paying attention to the latest data, the field reports, the clinical trials. It was only a matter of time before attention turned to flattening other curves, on other timescales. The pandemic was a rehearsal, a wake-up call. It showed what could be done under the precautionary principle. But nobody knew, at that time, how quickly the pendulum would swing. It would be said: now, more than ever, we need to protect jobs. Now, more than ever, we need to draw the walls up and protect ourselves. But elsewhere: now, more than ever, we need to cooperate since we are all in this together (although we are not the same). Now, more than ever, we need to organise ourselves each and every day around preventing an imminent catastrophe.
Imminent, in those seasons of contagion, meant next week and next month. It would take an effort of unprecedented global imagination for imminent to mean next decade and next century. And yet it clearly did.
These old words remained relevant: