It’s been my way of life ever since the budget airline got going in the 1980s: virtually every month I have taken a flight – most often between England and Ireland. I have also taken planes, ferries, buses and coaches elsewhere.
This way of life has now – quite suddenly, it seems – come to an end.
It looks as though I will be sequestered, almost under a form of house arrest, for the next four months. That is, if the Almighty preserves me through the pestilence.
A whole lifestyle has been altered for many people from now on. The aircraft industry has been thrown into an emergency crisis by the breakout of the coronavirus. Airlines are experiencing a 30 per cent increase in cancellations, and many are grounding large numbers of their own fleets. The virus is “emptying the skies” of budget holidays and even business trips.
We had taken it for granted that if we had a credit card in our wallet, and the will to do so, we could book a flight to any destination, almost any time. We had “bucket lists” of places we always wanted to see – Sicily, Stockholm and Santiago di Compostela were on mine. It was just a question of finding the time to make the arrangements.
Now, I’m wondering if I’ll ever get on an airplane again. To be honest, it has become an incrementally less enjoyable experience ever since 2001, which brought about draconian measures of security – understandable but tedious, uncomfortable and even sometimes humiliating. (I’ve even been asked to strip down to my underwear by airport security, because I have hip prostheses.) Going to an airport has meant one thing: endless queuing.
And, as it happens, I have frequently picked up a chest infection in an aircraft. It’s not a healthy experience. The recycled air is, I fear, full of germs.
The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on so many lives, and the fear and anxiety it has spread are part of the collateral. The end, or curtailment, of flying may be only one element in this unprecedented emergency.
The pilgrims aiming for the Camino may soon have to emulate Chaucerian modes of transport: on foot all the way.
The Derbyshire village of Eyam presents a famous case of self-isolation during a time of plague.
In 1665, when it was evident that Eyam was infected by the Bubonic Plague, the people took the community decision, under the leadership of their Anglican priest, Rev William Mompesson, to seal themselves off from the outside world – so as to contain the pestilence within.
It was an altruistic gesture, to save others. From a population of 350, only 83 people survived.
But besides being a heroic communal action, William Mompesson must have been a cleric of authority. He was assisted by a Puritan churchman, Thomas Stanley, and the villagers followed the lead of their pastors.
Eyam also turned out to become something of a medical experiment: why did some of the survivors not catch the infection? Mompasson’s wife, Catherine, succumbed to the illness, but he himself, though in normal contact with her, lived for another 44 years, dying at the age of 70. A mother who buried six children nevertheless herself survived. Though it’s a desperately sad story, it is also an example of how individual our immune systems can be. Whether we are susceptible to infections can be, to some extent, a lottery. Or, as the New Testament puts it: “One shall be taken and one shall be left.”
In modern times, we talk about who is “vulnerable”, but even among the “vulnerable” some will survive and recover and some will not. We have to be sensible, but we also have to be brave, like those Derbyshire folk 355 years ago.
With so many of us now consigned to “social distancing”, I imagine that couples, and families, cooped up together may find the constant presence sometimes vexatious.
The actor Timothy West tells the story of a man who retired from his busy job, and thereafter stayed at home all day. His wife grew irked by their unvarying togetherness. “I married you for better or for worse, darling,” she said. “But not for lunch!”