It’s the end of the world as we know it

It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's the end of the world as we know it
And I feel fine

Today (Wednesday 13 May 2020) marks 55 days since I last left the house. Almost eight weeks. 1,320 hours. 79,200 minutes. 4,752,000 seconds.

And I feel fine.

I have adjusted to the lockdown with no apparent effort and no perceptible ill-effects. After 4,752,000 seconds it has become my ‘new normal’. I have adjusted. Our household has adjusted. My wife and I have found it perhaps surprisingly easy to do so. There are a number of reasons for this. Neither of us has any enthusiasm for the kind of soap-opera drama that so many people seem to suppose constitutes normality. We quite enjoy each other’s company. After 35 years together we have learned how to be together. We like enough of the same things and agree on enough issues to a sufficient degree that conflict simply doesn’t arise. Forced by the circumstances of raising a family while both working two jobs, we have fallen into the habit of sharing the workload. There is little discussion of who does what. We just get stuff done.

We both like routine. Novelty and excitement are for youngsters and people with non-standard brain chemistry. We pretty much do the same things at the same time every day. It’s what we are comfortable with.

We are free enough to do things we like doing. Disciplined enough to do things we must do. Intelligent enough to recognise the things we can’t do. Mature enough to accept the things we cannot change.

Judy is working from home. Her job is such that all she really needs – apart from her knowledge, skills and personal qualities – is a phone, a computer and a broadband connection. All of which we have. She has long been accustomed to conference calls and online meetings. Making this work for events which were previously deemed to require physical presence has at times been a challenge. But she enjoys a challenge.

I am retired. But I have never completely lost the habits of a working life. I have found it helpful to preserve the ‘hooks’ of a normal working day – a start and finish time and various breaks. These are not rigidly adhered to. But they provide a framework for my days. A framework which I can make fit with my wife’s inevitably less flexible routine.

Creating a suitable working environment necessitated some expenditure on new office equipment. Which suited me fine as I’m a dab hand at the online shopping; and package tracking is the only form of sport in which I engage. I’m a bit of a tech-geek. Selecting, buying and setting up new computer equipment is my idea of fun. And I’ve nothing else to spend my pension on these days.

I just don’t go out. I reckon that if you’re going to do lockdown then you should do lockdown. If the advice is to stay at home, then stay at home. Not that I needed any advice. I understand enough about how viruses behave in populations to know that the only way to be sure of not finding yourself on a chain of infection that only exists because someone has failed to break it, is to be the break that others have failed to make. The only certain way of stopping a virus from spreading through an entire population is to ensure that no two people in that community ever come into whatever proximity the virus requires in order to pass from infected individuals to new host individuals. That this may be impractical should not deter us from getting as close to total social distancing as human ingenuity will allow.

So, I just don’t go out. My wife goes out to provide us with the necessities of life. But she keeps these trip to a minimum; observes strict social distancing practice while away from the house, and ‘decontaminates’ when she returns. All of which is our new normal. We’re fine with it.

I’m not being smug. I know our household may be far from typical. I know lockdown affects people in different ways; because people are not all alike and neither are their circumstances. I recount all of this merely to make the point that life in lockdown can be perfectly liveable. People can adjust. Circumstances can be modified. It can all be made fine. Mostly.

People will always require other people – for purely practical reasons, if nothing else. What lockdown is teaching us – if we are willing to learn – is that we maybe don’t need others as much or as often as we thought. We’re discovering that we can do without – or do it ourselves. Hair-cutting has been an issue for a great many people. It may be trivial compared to, for example, having a tumour removed but it nicely illustrates the problems thrown up by the lockdown. I have cut my own hair for many years. I have professional-quality electric hair-clippers which I run across my head every two weeks or so. Obviously, I’m not fussed about style. My hair-style is whatever is left after the clippers are put away. Lockdown hasn’t affected my hair-care regime in the slightest. I’m fine.

Judy is another matter. She is accustomed to having her hair cut and styled professionally. Understandably, she is not looking forward with any great enthusiasm to the day the man from Amazon delivers the professional-quality hairdressing tools I will be using on her head. I’m not exactly thrilled about it myself. My first job when I left school was in a barber shop. I have cut hair. Men’s hair. More than half a century ago. I’m a bit rusty. But needs must. If you find yourself in a similar position then I recommend you just keep telling yourself that it has to be easier than DIY dentistry. I can testify to the fact that home dentistry is not remotely fine.

You may also want to take my word that you better get used to home hairdressing, if not home dentistry. Because it really is the end of the world as we have known it. There is no ‘when this is over’. There is no ‘back to normal’. It is best to suppose that everything you once considered normal now isn’t. The phrase ‘new normal’ shouldn’t be taken to imply some minor tweaks here and there. It implies major changes to every aspect of everyone’s life. Or so we should assume. If we are to avoid a massive culture-shock, we had better start thinking very differently about how we are going to live in the future.

Responsible politicians have made a start on gently introducing the idea that none of us is getting our old life back. A few have recognised the need to assiduously avoid making bold promises about what it’ll be like ‘when this is over’. Our own First Minister was an early adopter of cautionary language about what the future holds. On 23 April, the First Minister unveiled the Scottish Government’s framework for decision making which contains an entire section called ‘Adjusting to a New Normal of Living with the Virus’. The words that struck me most powerfully are ‘living with the virus’. Not beating it. Not taming it. Not curing it. Living with it!

For how long?


This may be unsaid. The politicians may not be spelling it out. But it stands to reason that if, as Nicola Sturgeon said “the virus will not have gone away” even if and when we figure out how to control it then we have to think in terms of “coexisting with the virus”, as Italy’s PM Giuseppe Conte put it. There will always be viruses. This coexistence is not a temporary arrangement.

Note that both these politicians spoke of “the virus”, obviously referring to Covid-19. But Covid-19 is only the latest such pathogen to threaten the world. There have been others before – Spanish Flu and HIV for example. There will be others in the future. Even if and when we learn to “control” Covid-19 – and bear in mind that “control” of the virus itself means reorganising our lives – we will have to consider the general and constant and unending threat of viruses and other pathogens. We cannot now become unaware of the threat that they pose.

The world ‘forgot’ Spanish Flu. But that was a world without the web. We now possess something akin to a ‘species consciousness’. However much some may want to, awareness of pandemic disease cannot now be eliminated. And, being aware, we are compelled to act. It is not viruses that have changed – any more than they have always changed as they mutate. Nor is it human physical vulnerability that has changed. Although changes to the environment wrought by humans cannot be other than a major factor in pandemics. What has changed is our awareness. Our consciousness Our knowingness. We cannot unknow what we have learned. We cannot lose a consciousness that exists independently of us. We cannot become unaware when awareness is common to all of humanity.

The monster has come out from under the bed and is looming over us with its teeth bared. The monster is still there when you turn on the light.

Blame the scientists! If they hadn’t found ways of detecting viruses and gained an understanding of how they affect the human body and how they spread and how they can be stopped from spreading and how they can be prevented from killing us, we could be comfortably unaware. We could be blissfully ignorant. We could all be dead. And I do mean all of us. All bliss and comfort could come to a ghastly end with an extinction level pandemic. The remarkable thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is not how the world reacted but that it reacted at all. For the first time ever we’ve had something that is at least an approximation of a global response to a global threat. Setting aside the politics of the thing for a moment (longer if we can get away with it) what happened is that scientists in China identified the virus very early. They then notified the world. The world decided the best way to counter the threat. The world implemented all the necessary measures and maintained them until the threat was reduced to a manageable level. Run closing credits!

That’s the fictional version. It wasn’t quite like that. But what matters is that we now know that it could be like that. We know there’s things we can do. So now we’re obliged to do them. And, being obliged to do them, we will feel compelled to do them better. We’ll do better next time. It’ll be fine. Maybe.

We’ve been lucky. It may not feel like it. And to whatever extent this is ever over we will doubtless then put all the success down to our own ingenuity and effort while blaming someone else for the failures. That process has started already. Sometimes I think the viruses deserve to win. But not this time, I think. Because we’ve been lucky. Even if it turns out that there is no Covid-19 vaccine. Even if it transpires that there is no acquired immunity. Even if the hidden effects of the virus now being discovered prove as big a killer as the effects which were more immediately obvious, still we have been lucky.

We are fortunate that this was not an extinction level pandemic. We can thank who- or whatever it is we’re in the habit of thanking for things that we have nobody to thank for that this was not an extinction level pandemic. We can light a candle or slit the throat of a baby cow or whatever it is we generally do to propitiate the supernatural entities which could have visited an extinction level pandemic on us if such had been their whim but instead blessed us with Covid-19. We’ve been very, very lucky.

Had “the virus” satisfied only a few more criteria and/or better satisfied the criteria that it did then we would have been in a condition for which epidemiologist have coined the term ‘fucked’. Our state of readiness was such that we’d have been past the point of no return on the road to extinction before the first emergency cabinet meeting was convened.

Here is what you need to know! That virus already exists. Or it could come into existence at any moment. Viruses, like everything that is (sort of) alive is the product of random mutation. Random! It takes no more effort for a virus to be deadly than it does for it to be relatively harmless. It’s just a matter of luck. Our luck. Given that we must work on the assumption that all viruses are harmful to humans and none are truly harmless, the odds are tipped very slightly in favour of the big killer emerging. Which means the odds are against us. Viruses are everywhere and constantly mutating in the same random way as didn’t quite make Covid-19 THE ONE. It’s like a planet-sized game of Russian Roulette in which viruses are the chambers in a gun pointed at humanity’s head and one of those viruses (at least one) is the live round which will blow us all away. In this analogy, the trigger is pulled when THE ONE enters the human population.

You’re probably wondering what THE ONE will be like. You may be curious to know what it is that makes it THE ONE. Don’t bother! It could be any of numerous permutations of any of numerous characteristics. It would be possible to describe THE ONE. But THE ONE that turns out to be THE ONE might be nothing like THE ONE that has been described. It doesn’t matter. There is no way to prevent any of these permutations arising and no way to counter its effects once it finds a host. The only hope is to either stop THE ONE from getting into the human population or to prevent it becoming a pandemic when it does.

All viruses have the potential to be THE ONE. THE ONE could be any virus. Which means that, given our new awareness, we have to assume every virus is THE ONE, and act accordingly. Unless we are prepared to be exterminated, we are going to have to prepare to meet every new viral infection as if it heralds an extinction level pandemic.

The good news (about bloody time!) is that it can be done. Those generous, beneficent fates have given us a practice run. They’ve given as a warning. We know what must be done. We know how to defeat a pandemic. We know that this will require the total transformation of the world as we have known it on a timescale that would make the most hyper-Panglossian of state planners weep tears of blood in utter despair. But we know. And knowing, we have no excuse for not doing.

It may be the end of the world as we know it. But we can all still be fine. It’s just that it’ll be a new fine.

This article was originally written for iScot Magazine
but I missed the deadline.

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24 thoughts on “It’s the end of the world as we know it

  1. A very apt description of what and is happening and hopefully how we become better prepared , but unfortunately being a cynic I won’t hold my breath


  2. This is the most sensible and perceptive piece I have read on this pandemic- and I’ve read plenty.


  3. Good and sensible message. The world will not resume as normal but look on the bright side, you are now breathing cleaner air than ever before. My worry is the control factor in relation to governments v civilians in this new reality that will surely be abused. It’s up to us to to let that happen although I’m not sure if the fight is there in the general population. That’s the dumbing down effect.


  4. Same Peter.

    I used to commute 62 miles a day to the office. I don’t miss one bit of that. I don’t miss the office. I miss a few people, but the others not really.

    I don’t miss having to leave the house at 7.30am to get home at 6.30pm. I fall down the stairs in my pyjamas, coffee toast and that’s me.

    I spend quality time with my daughter everyday. We are a double act now. My wife works most days. But she likes getting out.

    I will dread the day I have to actually go back to the office. If that ever comes to pass.

    I am now a home worker and full time dad. It’s not all bad. I like this set up for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this.

    Your words resonate with my experience of terminal cancer – particularly the bit about living with it. I have a feeling that the initial fury and shock I experienced, aged only just turned fifty three that even if I did what the doctors suggested, I would be dead in three years, is rather similar to the collective experience of COVID19. Eventually though I settled into my new normal and learned how to adjust to terminal diagnosis, concentrating not on the end point, but the bits before it, celebrating being alive, here and now. I have in fact learned how to love cancer, for without it, I would have not been made aware quite so insistently of the precious beauty of life. Perhaps some of us will also come to realise that living with COVID19 presents us with the reasons why our lives are important, focusing not on what has been taken away (a lot of useless consumption?), but on the ordinary habits and duties of being alive.

    I suspect however that the powers that be will use this crisis as an opportunity to instal even more repressive and moronic legislation. But we’ll have to wait and see about that.

    I have been very impressed with your ability to maintain your blogging, and pleased that there is somebody biting at the heels of the idiots who swallow the establishment narrative without criticism. I have been unable, despite many false starts and rough drafts to blog anything myself. Although my blog is ostensibly about Munro bagging, which of course I cannot now do, I have written about other things too. And yet in the mental chaos unleashed by the ideologues and idiots running this benighted kingdom, I have been unable to write. (My only consolation has been discovering the infinite rabbit warren of Twitter where fury can be safely unleashed.) I wanted to write a blog post similar to yours about living with cancer in a time of lockdown and creeping despotism. It would have contained many of the points you mention here. So thank you. I don’t have to do so any more 🙂 I hope that having written yours, you will return to your polemic with renewed vigour.

    As a postscript, I might add that I am nearly eight years into terminal diagnosis, no longer consumed by fear and rage, but living life to the full (in my garden), and also that one of my blog posts will be appearing, slightly modified, in a forthcoming edition of iScot Magazine 🙂

    Thank you once again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. People who think they live a full life in their garden sound like they were pretty lifeless in the first place. Speaking as a musician, a climber, and a club cyclist, the lockdown is an absolute, unmitigated disaster. The only plus point is the lack of cars on the road. That’s it. And I am heartily sick of having to wash all the shopping.

    The whole thing is a pile of steaming shit. Is this a blog for pensioners?


    1. Here’s the bit you skipped in your eagerness to vent some excess outrage.

      “I’m not being smug. I know our household may be far from typical. I know lockdown affects people in different ways; because people are not all alike and neither are their circumstances. I recount all of this merely to make the point that life in lockdown can be perfectly liveable. People can adjust. Circumstances can be modified. It can all be made fine. Mostly.”

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I am sorry you think that those of us working in the garden now must have been lifeless before the lockdown. Firstly because your impression of mine is empirically incorrect. Since being diagnosed with terminal cancer I have climbed 183 Munros. Secondly working in a garden is extremely hard work, very physical, not to mention rewarding. Thirdly, I refer you to the last lines of Voltaire’s Candide. Fourthly, as Mr Bell said, these lives of ours are by no means typical, nor perhaps our self discipline. Speaking for myself I consider myself extremely privileged to be locked down as I am with a garden and a good marriage. That my life is as it is is no judgement on any other. I do not believe however that this precludes me from expressing an opinion.

      As it happens, I too think it is a pile of shite. I too crave, after recovering sufficiently from chemotherapy, several weeks wandering through West Monar, Fisherfield and the Fannachs. My rucksack is packed and ready. My wife is prepared to drive me to a lay-by and drop me off in the middle of the night. But I know that now is not yet time to head into the mountains. My desire is frustrated too. But I recognise my social responsibility. We must all do as best we can. That’s all.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Sorry you don’t appear to have the ability to adjust. No need to slag off those able to do so though. Nor assume “pensioners” don’t share your passions while being able to adjust to the current situation themselves. Maybe if you took the time to understand what is being said in this article, your own situation may become more liveable. Learn to chill.


    1. There is no guarantee of either immunity (innate or acquired) or a vaccine. And even if there was for this one, there can’t be for the next. The extinction-level pandemic is a mutation away.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Extinction level pandemics have never existed in hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. It is extremely gloomy to assume one is imminent. This is the first pandemic in 100 years. It may be 100 years till the next one …. maybe more. The fact is, nature is unkind to killer viruses. If a virus kills its host it is doomed to die itself. Therefore, over time, the less virulent strains are selected for by natural evolution. They are able to infect the host without killing it and are therefore able to spread throughout the host population as an endemic, rarely fatal illness. Like flu.


        1. You’ve rather missed the point of the article. But, meh! I don’t let that bother me any more.

          In your eagerness to contradict me, however, you miss several glaringly obvious and crucially important points. I’ll mention a couple. You say that “extinction level pandemics have never existed in hundreds of thousands of years of human existence”. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been pathogens entering the human population which had the potential to be a pandemic. It wasn’t the absence of such a virus which prevented a pandemic but the fact that for most of that time humans lived in relatively small nomadic groups with very little or no contact between or among those groups. Social distancing wasn’t a choice. It is our populous and highly connected world which makes a pandemic possible.

          That connectedness also thwarts your natural selection argument because it makes it possible for a deadly virus to spread through the global population before natural selection can have any effect. In fact, a pathogen with the right characteristics would be bound to spread through the entire global population. As we have no way of knowing where or when a virus with pandemic potential will enter the human population we have no alternative but to treat all viruses as potential population-killers.

          It’s also worth stressing that there is not just one model of pathogen that could be THE ONE. there are numerous criteria which, if satisfied in the right combination or permutation will produce a globally deadly virus. Viruses have a high generation rate and a high mutation rate. Near ideal attributes for natural selection randomness to result in one of perhaps thousands of THE ONEs.

          But that was the point of the article. The point you appear to have missed.


  7. Sorry, I was commenting on the specific comment not the article as a whole. However, I do work in Medical Microbiology and was even involved in the Covid outbreak in a small way at the beginning. I know quite a bit about viruses, bacteria and parasites.

    We can’t treat every one as if it was an existential threat to humanity as life would be unbearable. There are just too many of them. Some are pathogenic, a few are beneficial and the vast majority are not interested in us. Yes we need to be prepared to combat “THE ONE” when/if it comes. Hopefully the current crisis will act as a wake up call to the authorities in that respect, but we cannot exist in a constant state of emergency. It would be counter productive in terms of health and well being. We’re just not built for social isolation.

    Its interesting to note that Flu killed nigh on 60,000 people in the UK alone in one outbreak in the mid seventies while nearly 30,000 died in the 2016/17 outbreak …. yet I have no memory of it ever being mentioned in the news never mind generating a response such as we have now or …. worst of all …. getting the football cancelled!!!!

    Not trying to contradict anybody here. Just putting my view forward.


    1. “We can’t treat every one as if it was an existential threat to humanity as life would be unbearable.”

      There is no dichotomy. The challenge is to find a liveable balance between precautions and social existence. There is no going back to the way things were before because there is no eliminating consciousness of the threat. All precautions against any threat must start from a worst-case scenario and work backwards until a viable level of precaution is discovered. Otherwise, how are you to know your precautions are optimised? Hence, we start from the assumption that all pathogens are populatio-killers. We then ask what risks we’re prepared to take.

      Life’s a gamble. The experience of Covid-19 has altered – in my view permanently – the way people assess the odds and the stakes.


      1. Fair enough Peter, but I think you under estimate people’s capacity to forget and ignore. How many people have successfully fought cancer and emphatically stated that was their last cigarette …. only to light one up mere days later. Neapolitans know Vesuvius will blow its top fairly soon yet they still build on its slopes. On the island of Nisyros, there is a village perched on the caldera edge while working farms are situated on the caldera floor …. despite the fact the volcano is active. But it didn’t explode today and probably wont tomorrow sooooo …. so far so good. If people can ignore the danger that is right in front of their face, they will have no problem ignoring the invisible, theoretical one. People will forget because it is expedient to do so. In one way it is scary, in another it is comforting. I don’t want to live my life in constant fear of what I can’t control. Like almost all human beings, I want to socialise and enjoy my life. It probably wont kill me …. probably.


        1. It’s hard to believe you read the thing at all. You are talking about individuals and, of course, as individuals people will forget. Or, to be more accurate, they will put the danger from their minds. But what I referred to in the article was a societal awareness which exists quite independently of individuals. A meta-awareness, if you will. The societal awareness which informs social norms and mores and the rules which reduce the unpredictability of behaviour to the level that makes large, complex societies viable. An awareness which, due to the very same connectedness that makes a global pandemic a real hazard, has become something akin to a species awareness.

          As individuals, people are not constantly conscious of a vast range of threats and hazards. They continue to make their homes on the slopes of volcanoes, atop tectonic fault-lines and on riverine and coastal flood zones. They put the danger from their minds. But the danger is not forgotten. If it were, how might we explain the demands for more and better (but ultimately futile) flood defences? Society remembers. And now, because all individuals and societies are connected in ways and to an extent which was impossible for no more than a bawhair less than 100% of human existence, the species remembers.

          Were it not so, we’d be extinct already.


  8. I don’t see how anything you have posted there refutes what I have said. People have always been aware of viral illnesses and the possibility of a pandemic. The Black Death is no forgotten period in human history. The Spanish Flu (I always feel I’m doing the Spanish a disservice calling it that) has been documented and referenced so often it is widely known about. SARS and MERS are recent viral scares that got loads of publicity while HIV was the depicted in much the same terms you are now depicting Covid-19. Not to mention the plethora of movies, TV programmes and books that have used pandemics as the basis of their plots. People are not just waking up to the possibility of a pandemic.

    The world today may be “connected in ways and to an extent which was impossible for no more than a bawhair less than 100% of human existence”, but it is better equipped to combat pandemics “in ways and to an extent which was impossible for no more than a bawhair less than 100% of human existence”. If this virus was “The One” and behaved in the way you describe, we’d all be dead already. But it is not and we are not. Modern science and, not least, the sheer size of the human population with its massive diversity will give any virus a hard time killing more than a relative few of us before it hits problems. However, a species exterminating virus, while not beyond possibility, is extremely unlikely to occur any time soon if at all. Not naturally anyway.

    People WILL go back to “normal” because they HAVE to. Not just to ensure the capitalist system gets its labour force back, but to ensure society doesn’t spiral into a decline that will be much worse than anything Covid-19 could cause on its own. You may think hairdressers and dentists are out of a job now, I think you’ll find others disagree. As soon as it is deemed okay I will be down the barbers pronto and putting my name down for a dental appointment as soon as I can get it. I wont let the tiny chance (which has ALWAYS existed) I will get a viral disease put me off. And I imagine I will struggle to get both a haircut and a dental appointment for some time as the rest of the population try to get in first. None-the-less, I wont have hair down to my arse and a mouth full of rotting teeth to stay slightly safer from a virus I am extremely unlikely to contract anyway and have a >99% chance of surviving. A virus that will remain notable while becoming part of the “back-ground noise” of pathogens that have always existed and always will exist.

    I apologise if this comes over as confrontational. Its not meant to. I don’t know why I’m even writing this. Probably because the dystopian world you paint as inevitable both jars with my own view of the future and scares me at the same time. The world you claim is the future would not be worth the social isolation and restrictions necessary to support it. When the “all clear” is sounded, many people may be initially cautious about re-entering “normal social interaction”, but they will get over it. They have to …. or the World is just as f*cked as if Covid-19 actually was “The One”.


    1. I didn’t paint a dystopian world. You did that all by yourself. All I suggested was a different world. You went straight from different to dystopian. You might want to think about that.


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