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 REM
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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