Sixty Days in a Strange World

There will be plenty of retrospective prophets this year. A few scientists will be revealed to have had perceptive papers published in obscure journals just before C-19 hit, but a larger number who predicted other crises will keep quiet. Writers of certain dystopian novels, TV series and movies will be lauded as prescient, although those who scripted meteorite impact or robot takeover stories will have to wait a little longer. ‘I told you so’ pundits of all shades are already pointing to this report or that course of action which if handled differently would have changed everything (maybe).

With this in mind, I looked back at my own awareness over 60 days of the mounting crisis. I’ve kept a daily diary since I was 14 and for the last decade have accumulated a store of emails, messages and social media posts which amount to a second ‘unofficial’ diary.

In mid-January I took a holiday in Sri Lanka. It was a spur-of-the moment decision and if I’d faffed around and chosen a later date I would never have gone or worse would have been marooned awaiting rescue. My diary of 24 January refers to the “new panic about Coronovirus in Wuhan”. Three days later I was nervous standing for three hours on a packed train squashed between Chinese tourists wearing masks.

In mid-holiday I caught a conventional cold that proved no more than antisocial but would not make me popular on my returning planes. On the way back at the start of February I was wary of fellow passengers at Bandaranike, Doha and Manchester airports, making use of my little travel-size hand sanitizer and avoiding groups.

My habit of snacking constantly on flights had to stop; the way the bat-meets-pig Chinese virus spreads in the opening sequence of the 2011 movie Contagion was strong in my mind. Contagion would become one of the most-downloaded films of 2020.

At the time of the SARS outbreak in 2005 I’d written pandemic plans for a merchant bank, and I revisited this by writing one for the Museum I managed from 2006. I hoped my successors were dusting those plans off and finding them adequate.

As a novelist and a scientist of sorts I was watching developments with detachment. The 1918-19 Spanish Flu reared its head in Glint of Light on Broken Glass and the research came in handy for a museum display I mounted on the end of the Great War, so I was alert to the developing story.

On February 8th I was writing as if C-19 was something I’d ‘escaped’ by getting back to the UK. In England the news was all about the floods; storm Chiara and her accomplices. As late as 26th February the Opposition were still laying into the Prime Minister for not paddling around flooded villages and not convening a COBRA meeting to deal with it. No! I yelled at the telly; convene COBRA to discuss the virus! Eerily the TV series COBRA was showing, in which an embattled Prime Minister deals with social breakdown –­ in that case after a solar flare.

For my own ‘disaster planning’ I decided not to book my next holiday, which would have been June; on Feb 9th I noted “This virus could lead to air travel shutting down, travel companies going bust etc”.

I was due to chair a session at the Guernsey Literary Festival in May and launch my new book Occupation to Liberation. Crimefest in June was also something to look forward to, but I held off booking hotels or trains. I warned friends to be prepared for cancellation of a whole slew of events, but felt rather like a Jonah for doing so.

On February 25th I re-watched Contagion as pandemic was fast becoming a topic of conversation. I invited my folks around, and I must admit that as they are in that 70+ category this was partly to bring them into the zone of pandemic planning. “Stop touching your face, Jerry!” Kate Winslett chides. I posted about the film on Facebook and engaged robustly with people who were downplaying the virus or using selective facts to score cheap points against the government. On Friday 27th I went out for a pub meal and for the first time passed around hand sanitizer.

My diary from the 2nd March begins to note the successive real-time crises we are all familiar with, and that day I pasted a semi-jokey “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” notice on Facebook. There was plenty of black humour around. On the 8th March we enjoyed what could prove to be the last big family supper for a long time.

I was fully booked to take part in the Alderney Literary Festival in late March, but changed flights to go out a week earlier to tidy up some of my archaeological commitments. This was the time of indecision in the UK and all transport was still running, but if hadn’t made the change, I would not have got away at all. I flew out to Guernsey on the 11th, then on to Alderney. This was the day WHO at last declared C-19 to be a pandemic.

On Friday 13th the Festival was cancelled with just a week to go, and my heart went out to my friends who had put so much effort into organising it. Italy had just locked down; it was only a matter of time before the UK did the same and the Channel Islands would surely close their ports in the hope of keeping the bugs out. Spending two weeks away from home looked increasingly unwise, so I cut short my trip, returning on the 15th wearing gloves all the way. As I’d travelled on two planes, two trains and passed through three airports, I decided to avoid all physical interaction with my family for five days after returning and turned down a meet-up with three old friends which was disappointing.

Many, if not most, people were still not taking this very seriously and I was still seeing Facebook posts from some setting off on holiday. Every event I had on my calendar was cancelled over the next few days, even Guernsey’s landmark 75th Liberation Day. The excavation in Alderney I planned for May would not be happening and that scheduled for August looked in doubt. Friends became gloomy as all our plans for the spring and summer fell away.

Expecting to be away for two weeks I’d emptied the fridge, so did a ‘big shop’ on my return wearing gloves and bought sufficient to see me through two weeks of self-isolation in case I’d picked up the bug. ‘Panic buying’ was becoming fashionable but shelves were still full. I urged friends and family to close down their social life and plan for longer lockdowns. Even this late it was the ‘self-isolating’ and disruption of my social diary that I thought would be the biggest inconvenience of this crisis. As a writer I work from home anyway, I was never going to be ‘furloughed’ and I no longer have small children to worry about. I bunged in a quick order to Amazon for a Playstation to stave off potential boredom, and filled the Jeep at the garden centre on the 20th to give myself a few weeks of garden projects.

By the time I went to the builder’s merchants on the 22nd, apologising for wearing a scarf like a bandit, most people were keeping a wary distance apart but I could have slapped the woman who literally pushed past me in the door. The atmosphere in the Co-Op was edgy and grabbing the first bunch of tulips I saw seemed positively daring. On Mother’s Day I placed the bunch outside a closed door and made four paces back feeling vaguely ridiculous. It was all increasingly surreal, as if I was acting out a scene in a dystopian film or was slavishly following those decade-old pandemic plans I’d written. Suddenly on the 23rd March we had the bombshell of lockdown, not quite two months since that first marginal note I made in January. In sixty days, the world had changed.

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