As I write, the government is removing holiday destinations from the “travel corridor” – France, Spain and Jamaica among them. This will be disappointing for travellers, who now have to cancel their plans or face a lengthy stay in self-isolation.
Looking at other countries’ policies, however, can help put the rules in perspective. I wonder how the great British public would react if Boris Johnson’s government employed the same lockdown tactics as Thailand – regulations of which I am, as I write, currently on the receiving end.
Thailand, a country that boasts over 35,000 temples and prison sentences of up to 35 years for insulting the royal family’s pets, is subject to more entry restrictions than there are pages in this magazine.
On the UK government’s website, the Department for Travel warns that “if you are eligible to enter, you will be subject to a 14-day state quarantine at a Thai government-designated facility at your own expense”.
And so it is that I am here, enduring my twelfth day of “state-assisted” quarantine in Bangkok – a concrete jungle (in so far as I can tell from my window), speckled with the occasional palm tree. I am a paying guest, of a kind, at the internationally-renowned Bangkok Hospital.
In another life, I might have flown here for dental treatment or, if I was following the fashion, top-secret vanity projects; the medical tourism industry in Thailand was, before the pandemic, growing at an average rate of 14 per cent a year. It is estimated that medical services carried out here save a patient between 50 and 75 per cent on charges they would incur for similar treatments in the United States.
How I would welcome a scalpel now: I am here because someone I love very, very much is very, very ill. A pain that has ripped through my soul and turned my blood to fire has propelled me into these unearthly conditions. From inside these four (extremely sanitary and very beige) walls, there is little to do besides contemplate the many thorny agonies of the universe.
But one of the key insights of the Christian tradition is the meaning it gives to solitude. The word is often seen merely as synonymous with “being by yourself”, or as something purely negative: the absence of life. But the actual practice of solitude can be far more dramatic than our common cultural understanding.
Psalm 62 tells us “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation”. For many religious, of course, that is the work of their lives, waiting for God in silent prayer. When I visited the Poor Clares in Arundel for a Herald article, I was struck by how they described contemplative prayer: “silence and intimacy with God”.
And then there are the hermits, many of whom have been canonised in recognition of their unwavering devotion in extremis: well-known names like St Paul the Anchorite and St Charbel Makhlouf, but also lesser-known figures like St Mandrier of Toulon and St Lupicinus of Lipidiacum. (Look them up; their lives are fascinating.)
Nevertheless, I am here on a mercy dash and not to live a hermit’s life. I frantically attempt to fill the thundering silence as the days roll out and into each other. As many of us have found during lockdown, it’s a blessing being able to video-call family via FaceTime or WhatsApp.
The television adds to the noise, although it shows only BBC World (dominated by a running tally of coronavirus cases) or CNN (which contests President Trump’s latest conspiracy theories). Neither makes for uplifting distraction. With little news, the appeal of my digital devices gradually fades and thus, unwillingly, I am forced into silence.
In solitude, there is an overwhelming sense of separation from the world at large. Being so close, and yet so far, from the patient who I have come to visit, is torture. Such physical isolation from other humans is, well, inhuman, and quite contrary to our instincts and our habitual practices. Watching folk go about their daily business five storeys below – men playing cards around a makeshift table in the cool of the shade, a mother and baby splashing in the swimming pool, motorbikes zooming around with seemingly carefree passengers – I feel frozen in time, but surrounded by those who are racing through it.
These days are long. But quarantine, 14 days of it, has demonstrated that time does not stand still – even in these four walls. One day, these days won’t be so long – and when we feel the shortness of our hours, we will look back and we will wish we had stopped, and stared, and focused in silence.
That, and that we had gone to Jamaica while we still had the chance.
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