Love in a Time of Coronavirus

Love in a Time of Coronavirus

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One of the upsides of social distancing is that it seems to have cured my halitosis and body odour. No one’s mentioned either for weeks.

And since I murdered my entire family after day two of the lockdown, nobody’s making veiled comments at home. Though their body odours are starting to irk a little now.

I am, of course, joking.

I’ve actually wrapped them in cling-film and put them in the chest freezers in the garage, so I’m golden.

So here we are. Finally this is our moment. It’s our generation’s chance to save the world using a skill we’ve been honing all our lives: sitting on the sofa and watching the telly. But, “sit down, point remote at black oblong, eat, repeat” still seems to be flummoxing many, failing at these basic patriotic duties by meeting in the park, jogging and sunbathing.

For those of us, ahead of the curve, who, pre-Covid-19, failed to find an office that would be happy to have us at their water cooler – and so already loafed worked from home – this isolation comes easy. What’s less easy, is now sharing our home office with the rest of the family 24/7.

Celebrated wartime weatherman, Jean Paul Sartre famously said “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – Hell is other people. Then, frustrated that his Gitanes puffing acolytes thought he was being brilliantly metaphoric, he wrote No Exit, a play in which three people who mildly irritate each other are stuck in a waiting room together and, spoiler alert, it turns out that they’re all dead and that room is literally Hell.

Of course, if you’re stuck on your own in this lockdown it’s another kind of lonely hell, peering at your facetime/skype/zoom mates. But you can, at least, turn them off.

Nothing changes relationship behaviour like disease. A pestilence of amateur epidemiologists on social media are claiming that the way different cultures show love might account for the differences in infection rates in different countries. Singapore, with its obedient gum-free citizens, kept the infection rate in check, whereas all the demonstrative affection found in Mediterranean families, in Italy and Spain, the kissing and hugging in greeting, living with extended families etc. might explain their rocketing infections. The slightly-more-awkward-in-company, nuclear family, Brits and northern Europeans tend to favour the stiff handshake and the quick bunk-up, which could account for the slow initial take-off of Covid-19 in this country and Germany. Clearly, our Prime Minister’s penchant for slipping some skin to everyone he meets – not always the same part of skin according to a number of young mothers – put him straight into the at-risk category. 

As heirs to Victorian decorum and detachment, we may dodge a viral bullet by being acclimatised to social distancing from birth, but we run slap bang into another one with our ingrained belief in British exceptionalism. Birth nation of the Industrial Revolution, winners of the Napoleonic and two World Wars, without any help from any other countries mind, colonial conqueror of the world; we are God’s own creatures. Rules are for other people. No bloody plod is going to stop me having a barbeque in the park with my mates.

The idea that we are not only different, but better than others, fed the Brexit decision against all the data and was clearly still visible in the scandalous strategy of herd immunity first adopted and then quickly dropped by the Government when they realised the projected fatalities.

We are, as a breed, isolationist in temperament and in many ways, the nostalgia about Blitz spirit suggests a secret hankering for a crisis such as this.

But “When things get back to normal I’m going to…” is still a popular thought experiment. What it doesn’t take into account is that things will never get back to normal after this.

Every pandemic has changed the way societies behave and their cultural norms. Empires come and go with them. If you ever wondered what happened to the enlightenment of Antiquity, the Greeks and Romans, and why we descended into the dark ages and centuries of ignorance, it was plague. If you ever wondered what happened to the feudal system, it was plague. So many of the workforce were wiped out, up to 200 million globally, survivors had the power to pick and choose their masters, with the requisite rise in pay. So the black death (which was also Made In China) basically created Europe’s merchant and middle classes.

Even the London we see today is the result of the Great Plague of 1665. Just Like Covid-19 it was so successful because it could be passed by carriers who were a- or pre-symptomatic. “Fathers and Mothers have gone about as if they had been well,” wrote Daniel Defoe in his Journal of a Plague Year, “and have believ’d themselves to be so, till they have insensibly infected, and been the Destruction of their whole Families.”

And, just as we may worry about going to Tesco, Defoe wrote about “the fatal breath”. “The Infection generally came into the Houses of the Citizens, by the Means of their Servants, who, they were obliged to send up and down the Streets for Necessaries, that is to say, for Food, or Physick, to Bake-houses, Brew-houses, Shops, &c. and who going necessarily thro’ the Streets into Shops, Markets, and the like, it was impossible, but that they should one way or other, meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal Breath into them, and they brought it Home to the Families, to which they belonged.”

It killed so many Londoners that, when a small fire broke out the following year in a bakery in Pudding Lane, there were too few to respond to douse it before it spread. London was rebuilt, in stone.

The Spanish Flu in 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, doing much more than WWI to end the patriarchy and open doors in all fields to much-needed women. Workforces were depleted to such an extent only the very wealthy could afford staff while cities, on the other hand, hardest hit in all infectious outbreaks, needed workers and were willing to pay; thus the building of Britain’s sprawling suburbias.

We are never going “back to normal” just a new normal will emerge. What it will be is impossible to tell. Now we have been forced to do it, more of us may end up working from home permanently, our visits to the doctor may be more likely to be video calls, our grocery shopping may change to delivery. Will we ever sit in cafes as we used to? But deeper than that, if this carries on for a long time our children may learn to fear closeness and intimacy, and that might create a birth-rate dip ten years from now. Or because, unlike previous plagues, this disease victimises our elderly and vulnerable we may start treasuring the ones who survive and see a decline in care homes, or conversely we could be so affected by the loss of the vulnerable we rethink how we test for defects at birth. In the short term, as we get the rate of infection under control, xenophobia will rise even more, fearing those who might bring it back into the country. Can Schengen survive Covid-19? We will all tighten borders, even possibly quarantining visitors. And, when this virus rages through Africa and third world countries, as life proves even cheaper than ever and resentment of the protected health-care rich West rises, so will terrorism.  

We have had just over a hundred years since the Spanish Flu to build the medical science and distance communication technology to do so much better. But, as a coronavirus, just as the common cold is, there may never be a vaccine for Covid-19, and likewise we may never build a permanent immunity to it; just as we can catch colds several times a year.

Our best hope right now is to develop medicines that prevent the onset of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which is what actually kills Covid-19 sufferers. Then we may learn to live with it as we do with flu.

For now, when a kiss can be deadly, love in the time of coronavirus is from afar; we just find new ways to express and send it. It is through a screen and behind a mask.

Will we ever go back to hugs and kisses with those we love? Nope. We’ll never go back to it. But intimacy is innately human and through all our plagues it has always found a way, so, for certain, we will go forward to it.

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