With Covid-19, I find we forget how we felt. At the start of the crisis, that panic about ventilators. Would we be overwhelmed? Could hospitals exhaust their supplies of oxygen? Might our just-in-time logistics mean that shortages ran to something more fundamental than toilet rolls?
As life has settled into a new pattern, those initial few weeks of deep uncertainty take on a dream-like quality now. Did we really panic that much? Householders look at those hoarded bags of rice (yes, I’m one of them) and feel ever so slightly foolish. We’re left with that feeling you get as a youngster when dawn breaks after a night of nameless terrors.
My generation had heard dire predictions and promises of irrevocable alteration in the national character before. – Colin Brazier
For many of us, the near hysterics of late March and early April marked the only time in our lives when anarchy presented itself as a genuine option for modern living. Could the state cope? Would the NHS collapse under the strain? If it came to devil-take-the-hindmost, what would I do – not just to protect my job or livelihood – but my loved ones from harm?
As a child of the late sixties (I was born in 1968), I was fond of the idea that I knew what an existential question looked like. After all, I was one of those teenagers who had recurring dreams about having four minutes to get under the stairs, or into the cellar, once the early-warning sirens sounded. It wasn’t quite a childhood spent under the shadow of the mushroom cloud (that was the generation before and the Cuban Missile Crisis), but the sense of mortal threat felt real enough.
But it’s one thing to consider societal oblivion as a 12 or 15 year old, quite another as a fifty-something. In youth, we tend to be more naturally open to revolutionary change and upset. It’s what we’re going through personally. By middle-age, having seen life’s cycles oscillate more than once, we convince ourselves that the fundamentals never really change.
My generation had heard dire predictions and promises of irrevocable alteration in the national character before. After 9/11 Tony Blair told us nothing would ever be the same again. But it sort of was. After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, we were told Britain had endured a nationwide nervous breakdown. But, as Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, once reminded me in an interview – half of the country didn’t even bother to watch her funeral on television.
Covid-19, however, changed that. Here was an utterly unignorable event, truly something novel under the sun. To an extent, we’ve learned to live with the “New Normal”. And perhaps part of coming to an accommodation with Covid-19 demonstrates our reluctance to remember how it felt during those few mad weeks in the spring.
That might explain how unforgiving we are of some of the decisions made then, by individuals and institutions, working under unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty. We look back and think “how could we have got it so wrong?” How could we have discharged so many old people into care homes which were seething with the virus? While forgetting that – at the time – all bets were off.
I mention this because I think it’s useful to conjure up some of those feelings from the recent past as we contemplate the future. As a widower with six dependent children, I’m braced for the start of the school term, the resumption of a life governed by syllabus and timetable. Who has netball on Tuesday and how do I get them home? Where’s John’s homework? Why hasn’t Agnes got a clean shirt? Early September always feels like a giant defibrillator applied to the family home. And that’s just after the school holidays. But after five months?
What if this was the other way around? What if the virus took off the young, not the old? – Colin Brazier
So here’s a corrective and a warning. In those first weeks of Covid-19 in the UK, I found myself – like everyone – trying to understand what was going on. What was at stake. What was the worst case scenario. As a TV news presenter on a rolling news channel, I conjured with these questions daily. Not in the way that policy-makers or clinicians were meaningfully having to deal with them, but still catastrophising in a way that only journalists can. And one question kept recurring.
What if this was the other way around?
What if the virus took off the young, not the old? Even as a thought exercise, it’s a difficult one. What would our hospitals have looked like if every doctor and nurse feared introducing a fatal disease into the family home? What if shielding affected the most economically productive section of society, not those who had retired from the labour market? At the most profound level, what if the primeval desire to protect our children at all costs had been unleashed into the teeth of a public health crisis?
It’s a useful way of contextualising how comparatively lucky we’ve been, how grateful – not grumpy – I should be about the resumption of school life. But a warning too. A reminder that we are not dealing with the human condition here. The virus will not tire of a Cold War, or grow embarrassed about sentimentality, or weary of terrorism. It is inhuman and unpredictable. It is capable of mutation. I pray, as we all do, that we will not be put to the examination it may yet set for us. A coronavirus that kills children would usher in a degree of pandemonium that, I fear, would test our social cohesion to destruction.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families?
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