World

A Letter from Locked-Down London

An almost empty concourse at Waterloo Station in London, England, as the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus continues, March 26, 2020. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Nothing readied the U.K. population for how disorientating this pandemic would be, or how isolating.

The United Kingdom is in lockdown.

Each morning, a nation wakes and wonders if it has dreamed of a deadly virus from a far distant place having wreaked havoc on a civilization that seemed so stable, so prosperous, so hopeful. It just can’t be real: the virtual house-arrest of the U.K. — over 63 million people requested to stay within their homes — the effective halting of all travel, apart from that of ‘key-workers’; the closing of schools; the new experience of unpredictable periods of empty shelves in supermarkets with lines of now orderly — if dejected — shoppers waiting outside; and the ever-growing specter of the collapse of the British economy. Yes, surely all a dream?

Then the daily news reports begin. As of April 1: 29,474 cases of confirmed infection; 2,352 deaths, and so on.

Nothing readied the U.K. population for how disorientating this pandemic would be, or how isolating. Nothing prepared us for the impact of a public-health concern on all areas of the economy and on the wider civil society. Today, there are only two questions on everyone’s mind: How this is going to end; and, even more importantly, when?

The British government has acted as swiftly as any, contrary to what some are saying. No one expected the COVID-19 virus to arrive with such devastating impact. No one reckoned on its speed — not just the spread of infection among the population but the fears it would induce.

There is a natural solidarity in times of crisis, but never far below the surface is the desire to protect and conserve whatever scant resources are at our disposal, be they food or health services. As a result, the virus, and the fear of the virus, have impacted urban and rural lives differently.

Cities across Britain are all but “ghost towns.” They resemble the sets of dystopian movies of a former time, when such entertainment was watched by the masses for pleasure and which now make for bleak cultural reference points for our daily lives. All Britons have now an unwelcome bit part in this latest dystopian fantasy turned real.

Isolated rural communities, from the Scottish Highlands to Cornwall, places whose economies are built on tourism, have started to “self-isolate” en masse: Those with second homes or with camper vans have been told to stay away. Re-enforcing this message, local politicians from these communities have made impassioned pleas citing how the lack of regional health infrastructure and food supply chains cannot cope with an influx of people from other areas. Locals in Cornwall and elsewhere have been blocking some roads. No one could have envisaged this.

Nor could we have foreseen the rushed-through parliamentary legislation that has given powers to the police not seen outside of wartime. We are not quite at the point of having to produce “our papers” while walking in a local park, as is the case in France, Spain, and Italy, but this feels closer with every passing day. As always, the state’s power is not so much in visible policing as in the invisible grip it has upon the minds of its citizenry. At the moment, people are staying home in vast numbers — partly out of fear of the virus, partly, one suspects, because many sense they should not leave their homes because of “government guidance.” The police, however, are only empowered to enforce the law, never before have they been seen as interpreters of ministerial guidance — until now that is. It is a dangerous precedent, albeit one that meets with little opposition from any quarter during these unprecedented times

At a pace never witnessed previously, new “hospitals” are being created within days. A new 4,000-bed field hospital has been constructed at a London conference center. It is not really a hospital, per se, more like one great intensive-care ward. The speed and organizational skill that has created this is impressive. More of these hospitals are planned in the North, Midlands, and Scotland. One question, however, is where will the government get the medical staff needed to work in these new ventures? 20,000 former National Health Service medical staff have responded to a call to return to the fray. Nevertheless, given the rate of the virus infection and growing sickness within the NHS, it will take a great deal of organizational skill and planning to make this new reality work quickly and decisively.

Similarly, the 750,000 individuals signed up for an “NHS volunteer army” is a heartening response at this time of national emergency. However, their sheer number raises another question; namely, how best to deploy essentially well-meaning but ill-prepared individuals for the biggest public-health crisis this country has faced in 100 years? The uneven geographical spread of the virus — London, the West Midlands, and parts of Wales currently being the areas worst hit — makes the purposeful use of any volunteers a daunting logistical challenge, to say the least.

The news last week that first Prince Charles and then Boris Johnson were infected with COVID-19 impacted upon the public consciousness. Both had but mild symptoms, and no doubt both have been well looked after, but the announcements came during a fraught week. It made many wonder if things were about to fall apart. It is a fear, of course, not a reality. Prince Charles has recovered, and the prime minister continues to lead the government via the modern means of communication. But, still, unwelcome shocks such as these are to be expected in the coming weeks and, depending on one’s temperament, will be responded to with hysteria or with an ever more needed “stiff upper lip.”

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