Assorted Thoughts on COVID-19, Part I

Y’know, it’s… tough. On the one hand, and to state the obvious, for the last few months it’s been hard to think or converse about anything but Coronavirus. Yet, now that I sit down at the keyboard, I also can’t help but feel like it’s difficult to know what to actually say about it.

Sure, it would be easy to just vent the swirling anxiety word-vomit we’re all feeling, but trying to figure out some intelligent comment to offer is a very different matter. Don’t let this elbow-patched lab-coat fool you; I’m not an epidemiologist, nor do I possess expertise in any other relevant field; I just found this rather confused garment in a thrift store. Even though I try my best to look at the data and listen to what the experts are saying, there’s a complexity to the whole thing which is just mind-boggling in the truest sense. I mean, I wonder if I’m alone in struggling to overcome the instinct to just mutely point at this insane situation we, as a species, find ourselves in. To jab a finger at it with mouth agape and eyes wide, just mouthing the words “holy fuck, not good, holy fuck, not good” over and over.

And yet, well, I’m not sure just uploading a JPEG of me doing that (or maybe even a GIF — by the way, hard-gee pronunciation, heathens — so that you can lip-read my silent exclamations) is a blog post unto itself. So I’d better come up with something vaguely coherent to say. And fast. Because this cruise-ship internet café I find myself toiling away in has electrified seats which activate once your time is up. I even had to sign a waiver confirming that I don’t have a pacemaker, which an errant jolt might disrupt. Joke’s on them though. I do have a pacemaker. Suckers.

Besides, you maybe already know my dumb shtick by now: I do a little bit of hand-wringing because I surely haven’t got much to say, then I give you 8000 words. I doubt this piece will be that long but you get my point. (Hmm, am I jinxing myself there?…)

[*record scratch* NARRATOR: “He was.”
RYAN FROM THE FUTURE: “The piece ended up being more than double that. And was groaning beneath its own weight so much that it had to be cleaved into two parts. I make no apologies. I really just never know how many things are gonna pop into my head to comment on until I actually sit down and pull open that word-hole incision on my forehead with both hands.”]

Anyhow, with my accustomed throat-clearing out of the way, let’s get into it.


(I did already talk a bit about my personal experiences during this time on the latest episode of my podcast. But I wanted to go into more detail about some of it and cover other stuff I forgot to mention.)

It’s wild to think that all this has unfolded over like just three months. It feels like so much longer…

The beginning (i.e. just prior to the full-blown onset of the pandemic) was a deeply strange time. As someone who always follows the news closely — even checking sites repeatedly throughout the day — there was a constant drip-feed of new developments. And the picture they incrementally painted was clear: something very big is coming, something very bad is coming. I noticed a feeling of almost primordial dread beginning to coalesce, the same kind which probably afflicted our ancestors when they saw water sources running dry or a new predator entering the local area. Also, there was a sense that the oncoming catastrophe was inevitable. Like watching a boulder slowly rolling down a hill towards you and realising you have no way of moving out of its path. You can go on living your life, and indeed must do so, but not without a sort of low-level background fear hovering over everything. And deep in its deepest marrow, quotidian existence becomes tinged with a mocking dark absurdity. Because you’re just waiting, really. Waiting for the awful to arrive.

For me, the exact moment early on which really felt like the kick-off of it disrupting everyday life, of the hysteria having reached where I live, was the first time I went to the nearby (very large) supermarket and almost all the food shelves were bare or close to bare. I’ve never ever seen that before. They really didn’t have jack-shit. No meat, no fruit, no bread, no pasta, no tinned food, et cetera. Nor did they have the other essentials which have become catnip during the panic-buying, like toilet roll or hand wash or disinfectant wipes. There was just… nothing. It somehow seemed unreal. It was such a surprisingly eerie and disquieting sight. I mean, you know it’s gonna be a weird thing to see, but it’s surprising just how alarming it really is. It was exactly like the imagery they always use in a disaster-porn movie. It feels like you’re in one of those scenes, and so your brain can’t help but subconsciously wonder whether the coming days are going to bring the usual subsequent scenes too. The really dire ones where everything starts to unravel, where the cracks in society become fissures and then eventually irreparable chasms, where people shrug off the mental raiment of civilised beings and regress to their base animal programming.

I know it sounds kinda ridiculous when stated this plainly, but when I saw those ransacked shelves I really did think to myself “fuck, if the supermarket’s run out of food, what the hell are we going to eat this week?” It’s so easy to take things for granted. You just subconsciously assume that the availability of food to purchase is a bedrock constant. The possibility of going to a grocery store and coming away empty-handed and dejected literally doesn’t even occur to you. And then one day you’re forced to realise the painfully simple truth that if there comes a point where all the supermarkets around you are empty, you will essentially have no way to feed yourself or your family. In other words, your access to the antidote to starvation itself comes down to a single point of failure which is totally out of your control.

(Man, there must be so many goddamn people who started a vegetable garden or bought chickens or something like that in response to the same epiphany. And hey, I get it. If my girlfriend and I weren’t apartment dwellers who are sans backyard — and definitely mega-sans green thumb or livestock rearing skills — we may very well have done the same thing. Just to soothe the anxiety and uncertainty. I mean, I even gave a little consideration to how I might conceivably cook and eat our housecat if it came to it, but then I remembered that sometimes I fuck up making soup and thought better of it.)

I know that, in hindsight, all this may seem a little melodramatic to have been catastrophizing about, but at the time there was no way to know whether or not the food shortages were going to become a long-term feature of day-to-day life and it was sure as fuck easy to expect the worst. Even though spokespeople for the big supermarket chains were claiming that it was only a temporary shortfall and everyone should remain calm, anyone with half a brain understands they would be obliged to announce the exact same thing even if they knew that there wouldn’t be another loaf of bread for sale in the entire country for a decade. (The thing about these textbook attempts to quell public-panic is that, perversely, they’re so well-known/obvious as to be panic inducing instead. People suspect that if the authorities’ first priority has become pacifying our ‘baseless’ fears, there’s probably an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. Again, movies conditioning the collective psyche.) So let’s just say it was a lot easier to believe — and extrapolate upon — the evidence of one’s eyes. And they were telling me that they hoped I enjoyed last night’s dinner, because not another floppy corkscrew of fusilli was ever going to pass my lips again.

Actually, while we’re here… I find the widespread panic-buying to be an interesting phenomenon, because it presents a sort of difficult ethical calculus. It’s easy to just say anyone doing it is stupid and greedy and so on, so forth. And, absolutely, in an ideal world everyone would feel enough solidarity with their local community to refrain from acting selfishly at others’ expense. They would also ideally be smart enough to realise that if people continued shopping as normal, just buying what they need when they need it, there would be no shortages to have had to counter by preemptively stocking up excessively. (It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. Heavy emphasis on the self part.)

Still, I find I can empathize with the parent who’s envisioning their children going hungry and so impulsively throws fifty tins of beans into their trolley as a fallback insurance against that. I can empathize with the person who has a phobic terror of hospitals and so goes online and orders as many antibacterial cleaning products as Amazon will let them have, to make quadruply sure they don’t get sick. Hell, I can even empathize — up to a point — with the average Joe who doesn’t have any special reason whatsoever, who was just startled into stupidity upon seeing their supermarket being speed-emptied like a tree being violently shaken to despoil it of all its hanging fruit. I’m not saying it’s okay. It’s not. These choices have harmful knock-on effects. I’m just saying that you have to remember that we’re fallible creatures, confronting every extreme situation with merely the over-hyped mammalian brains at our disposal. No-one wants to get left behind. Everyone fears that when the end-times comes they won’t have overreacted enough and their supposed ‘cool-headedness’ back at the start of the whole thing will just result in them having to use dust as an exciting new seasoning for their meal of boiled water when everyone else is tucking into their pantries full of endless, varied, impossible-to-get-now yummies.

What I’m saying is, I understand that when people get scared and panicky, they make bad decisions. I felt the exact same thing pulling at me when I saw those bare shelves. Latent primitive instincts activate. You can actually feel it happening, it’s weird. I found myself becoming slightly paranoid that someone might try to fish some prized item in short-supply right out of my trolley when I stepped away from it. (And, seeing other people warily glancing around them and protectively clutching their trolleys, I obviously wasn’t the only one thinking this. There was a real, palpable tension in the air; everyone was very much on edge.) There was also an irrational, ineloquent, imperious little voice in the back of my mind which was demanding I buy a fuck-ton of long-life food, take it home, heap it up into a defensible pile, and then zealously stand guard in front of it with a machete and a lit torch whilst grunting in a belligerent manner at anyone who dares come too close. I managed to ignore it though. Just about.

The other thing that ought to be pointed out is that unfortunately once the food hoarding has already begun, everyone else suddenly becomes ensnared in a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ type of conundrum. If I’m running out of food and I go to the supermarket and there’s miraculously some ramen noodles left, I know that I actually can’t just buy one pack and then come back a few days hence and buy another, because the panic-buyers are each going to buy like twenty packs without hesitation. Meaning that when I return, there’ll be none left. That’s why I’ll probably end up buying five packs myself so that I won’t find myself empty-handed. It’s like a domino effect. Even people who weren’t ever predisposed to be panic-buyers find themselves pressured into becoming one by the nature of the predicament which greets them. What’s the good of being selflessly forbearing if those around you are going to nullify any practical effect of that with their own selfishness? Might as well go with the flow. Look out for number one. Get yours while you can. I’m sure there are some other platitudes of this sort I’m forgetting, but you no doubt get the picture now that I’ve obnoxiously reiterated it in triplicate.

I now present to you two anecdotes — sourced from supermarket visits at different stages in the pandemic timeline — which I can’t help but share, because they illustrate the thrust of this point with almost ludicrous exactitude:

1) This was at the point where they largely weren’t even bothering to unpack the new deliveries of stuff and restock the actual shelves. They were just opening up the big boxes or pallets of whatever it was and leaving them in the relevant aisles. (I imagine that was because everything was going so fast anyway that the extra work would be pointless. Or maybe they were just short-staffed.)

I was trying to grab a tin or two of sweetcorn. Because they hadn’t been unpacked they were just sitting right there in those big cardboard trays; at least 16 tins in each one, I’d guess; the whole tray shrinkwrapped with thick plastic. I was doing my best to pierce through the plastic with just my fingers — no fun, let me tell you — when these two women mosey up beside me. The younger one looks at all the stuff stacked up there, thinks it over momentarily, and then grabs an entire tray of the tinned sweetcorn and says with a laugh, “if everyone else is being selfish, why can’t we?” With that, she tucks it beneath her arm and she’s away around the corner.

That line is verbatim by the way. I can fully understand your incredulousness, but I’m not paraphrasing or punching it up or otherwise simplifying what she said for convenience or dramatic effect. It really was that blatant and absurdly on-the-nose. It was uncannily like some line of dialogue from a children’s book about everyday morality.

Anyhow, the other woman with her, who I’m pretty sure was her mom, lingered for a second to sheepishly mumble something like “sorry about that” to me, with a significant look attached to it. Although there is indeed a certain mould of older British person who will feel so uncomfortable that they’ll compulsively apologise to anyone in earshot for someone else’s crassness or unscrupulousness, I think that in some sense she wasn’t really saying it to me. I mean, I hadn’t been wronged. That’s why I wonder if it was more of a reflexive addressing-the-universe type of thing. Trying to preemptively propitiate the heavenly tribunal of karmic justice with a show of vicarious contrition. Because it was obvious that she was more than a little ashamed on her daughter’s behalf.

2) This next one isn’t quite as… satisfyingly perfect, if you know what I mean, but it’s still worth relating I think. It’s also much shorter.

I found myself unintentionally eavesdropping on two shelf-stockers’ conversation as I stood in an aisle and tried to figure out which of the very few and very random things which were left for sale I was going to buy to vaguely substitute for what I had actually come there for. One of them asked the other, in an unmistakably low and conspiratorial tone, if they were able to just take this stuff they were meant to be restocking straight to the checkout and buy it for themselves before the customers ever even got to see it. I’m not sure whether they were asking whether they were allowed to or simply whether they could get away with it. Though it is perhaps a distinction without a difference given that the result remains the same.

My point in presenting these two anecdotes in apposition is that people on both sides of the fence are pulling this shit. (In fact, if we might conceive of a somehow three-sided fence to expand this metaphor a step further, is there really any doubt that people running wholesale suppliers are slyly secreting away their own large cache of hard-to-find items before they even enter the retail supply chain? I wouldn’t bet against it, personally.) As such, it becomes increasingly impossible to convince yourself that there’s any real point in being the chump whose principled conduct this unethical majority are more than happy to take advantage of. Like, fucking hell, what’s the use? You force yourself to buy two instead of ten, and it just means that the next guy gets a slightly increased spark of illicit joy when he finds that he gets to buy the last forty-eight instead of the last forty. If that’s guaranteed to happen, why shouldn’t it be me who gets them all? And I’m not even anywhere as bad as that other guy, because he was freely choosing to be an asshole but I was forced into it by his (quasi-hypothetical) existence. See? That’s the problem. Everyone becomes an opportunist when the right extenuating justifications are present. “If anyone’s going to do the fucking-over, it’s gonna be me!”

I will admit that, despite having just outlined somewhat of a psychological exculpation for reluctant panic-buyers, I do feel a small amount of pride at not having succumbed to the antisocial hoarding instinct. Take toilet paper for instance. I tried to just buy about the usual amount for the week ahead, and only went to multiple stores to scout for it when one or more had run out. I don’t know if this warrants a medal being struck in my honour or whatever, but if so I can provide a P.O. box address to send it to. I hope it features an engraving, in the ‘Socialist Realism’ style, of me heroically handing out some of the rolls I had the restraint not to buy to a line of needy comrades.

(Talking of scarcity, there was a period back then where TP was damn near impossible to get. During which time, I have a feeling that Andrex was worth its weight in gold on the black-market. Probably a darknet market or two was set up just to traffic in stolen quilted three-ply, a fleetingly hotter item than the dankest weed or the… shit, I don’t know… life-ruiningest heroin.)

But then there were all those stories of people travelling to every store in their city and using each family member to buy as many packs as was permitted. Such that they end up having finagled their way to devoting an entire spare room to towering stacks of their semi-misbegotten TP. And, of course, stories of outright theft: people jacking whole trolleys full, just straight-up walking out of stores during the overcrowded chaos. I even remember reading a news story about a group of guys — no doubt formidable intellects to a man — stealing a van crammed with TP from a building-site and dangerously ramming their way out of there. (Call me crazy, but I would venture to say that building-site TP is probably not worth having, even if instead of requiring grand theft auto they were just giving it away. Like, I’m not sure what’s less than one-ply, but I imagine that specimen would provide answers. Some kind of flimsy mesh, perhaps.) When people are committing toilet paper heists, you know that the situation we find ourselves in is all fucked up. That could maybe be a good index for determining the state of a society at any given time: how many people are currently willing to commit serious crimes in order to get their hands on toilet paper, of all things.

A couple other moments thereafter really stuck out to me, and no doubt have lodged in my memory forever.

  • Sitting awkwardly huddled together on the couch with my girlfriend, staring down at the live-feed on her phone as we watched Boris Johnson’s televised address where he finally announced a countrywide lockdown. That was a deeply surreal moment. It was also the point which really hammered home to me that “oh man, I’m living through history here.” Without really meaning to, I found myself able to step outside the moment as it was happening and imagine kids fifty years from now looking up this video on YouTube and wondering what the fuck it must have been like to experience at the time.
  • Learning that Boris Johnson had contracted the coronavirus, just three weeks after boasting, with his trademark jaunty bluster, about shaking hands with coronavirus patients during a hospital visit. (By the by, even putting aside his obligation to try and stay healthy so that he can discharge his more-important-than-ever duties as Prime Minister, he had a pregnant fiancée at home. Who… you guessed it… soon after developed coronavirus symptoms herself. What a heartwarming tale to tell his child that will be.) This was such a bizarrely movie-like development. There was just something so predictable about it. Downright banal, even. Like whoever’s writing this global-outbreak movie has no originality whatsoever and is merely relying upon the most tired, tropey plot-twists of all time. The kind of film which would rightly have a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, is what I’m saying.

To be honest, my ‘experience’ of the pandemic, such as it is, has largely been mediated through screens.

Seeing it all unfold on a screen is probably why I instinctively keep referring to things as seeming like they’re from a movie. Because reading about real-life events like the early twentieth-century Spanish Flu outbreak in history books (or, rather, Wikipedia — a.k.a. the ‘New History Books’™) is just nowhere near as vividly impactful and memorable as watching a dramatized version of it play out on-screen. That’s why it’s what my mind effortlessly goes to as the best frame of reference, even if it’s not necessarily a good, accurate comparison. Because many of us have never directly been affected by a real pandemic before, that filmic simulation suddenly seems like the best analogy we’ve got.

I notice that I’m very much not alone in this. I’ve heard quite a few people mildly bragging about how they braved re-watching the movie ‘Contagion’ from about a decade ago. (For the sake of politeness, let’s just put aside the absurdity of suggesting that it requires bravery to watch — from the safety of your own home — a fake version of the disaster which the world is actually going through right now.) In case you’re not familiar with this movie, I’ll get you up to speed real quick. Here’s the gist: ‘Contagion’ is a contagion-movie about an extremely contagious contagion which frighteningly contaginates everyone in sight to the point where… yeah, I’ll say it… a not good amount of the population is contagioned and societal collapse is imminent. It’s a by-the-numbers movie I hadn’t thought about even a single time since watching it when it originally came out, but which now everyone won’t shut the fuck up about, revering it as if it was Nostradamus’ directorial debut or something.

The larger point I’m trying to get to here is that it’s an incredibly weird experience to watch the world start falling apart on your TV (or, rather, your laptop —  a.k.a. the ‘New TV’™). You simultaneously feel like it’s all happening at some impenetrable remove from you and also right outside your door.

This might help elucidate what I mean. (That’s right, it’s anecdote-as-metaphor time. Your fave.) During one of the times I had to go out for something, I saw a small crowd of people standing around gawking at this house just round the corner from me. More specifically, they were staring at the black smoke still billowing out of it and the — hmm, let’s see — three or four fire engines parked in front of it. They had evidently put the fire out (or thereabouts) by the time I walked past. But given the amount of firefighters who had been called out to tackle it, I have to imagine that it was a substantial blaze at its peak. As I stood there with the other rubberneckers taking in the scene, it occurred to me that I didn’t quite know how I should feel about this house burning down just slightly down the street from me.

All I could really think about were the contradictions at play here. In one sense, this event was completely unrelated to me. If I hadn’t ventured outdoors that day, I would’ve been just sitting at home utterly oblivious to it, totally divorced from the reality of it. Nevertheless, a really out-of-control house-fire can potentially result in a whole street going up in flames with it. And try as I might, I still haven’t perfected my flame retardant skin-lotion formula yet, so finding myself set on fire would be… sub-optimal, at least at this stage in the game. So its practical relevance to me was binary: it would be completely inconsequential right up until the point where it threatened my life. That’s why now that I had come across it, it was, in an oddly mutually-compatible way, both awful/terrifying and also… just something absorbing to look at.

Don’t get me wrong, the comparison is far from exact. For example, coronavirus’s negative effect on you is a continuum instead, and also one which has no zero-point, in that unless you live in a mountainside cave the pandemic is guaranteed to have disrupted your life to some greater or lesser degree — even if you’re not infected. However, it is still true that it’s kinda like watching a raging house-fire in the distance. Well, a bit. If you really squint. Because on the one hand, coronavirus is undoubtedly this horrific, heart-wrenching thing, taking so many lives and otherwise destroying so many more. I feel so incredibly badly for those who have died or who endured its physical ravages in a hospital bed or who were bereaved of a loved one or who have lost their livelihood or home. It’s all just so unbearably harrowing to even contemplate. It’s more than the mind can grapple with all at once.

But then on the other hand, what is the only way I can actually interface with the catastrophe itself? By looking at it on a screen. By passively consuming news stories all day long. (And in that sense, it’s again unlike the house-fire anecdote. In that you’re instead constantly aware of it, constantly staring fearfully at it. Right up until the point where it infects you and you get sick and it takes over your whole life.) There’s a stabbing sense of guilt I feel about that. About having that luxury, about being lucky enough to isolate myself from it as best I can.

Though I should probably point out that it has certainly indirectly touched my life to some extent. Although he wasn’t able to be tested at the time, my father went through a bout of illness which in hindsight — now that the understanding of the range of symptoms has improved and expanded — was most likely the virus’s doing. I also have really quite a few family members who are healthcare professionals, or else who work in that environment in some other capacity. Given that they are on the front-line, continually putting themselves in harm’s way, there’s been a lot of fretting about them and their safety all round. What’s really scary is that for people in their position, it seems to be less a case of if and more a case of when. For instance, three cousins of mine (two are nurses, one works in hospitals fixing equipment) have all tested positive for coronavirus at one time or another. One is currently battling it in fact, and has… hopefully just temporarily… lost her sense of taste and smell.

But again there’s that inescapable wall of separation which abounds right now. Because how did I learn about these developments? Via a phonecall. Argh. You know? Just argh. It’s such a galling and unnerving disconnect, finding oneself reduced to a mere passive consumer of news in every possible way…

My girlfriend and I were well-prepared for having to stay at home under lockdown, because we’re both introverts and homebodies already. There is, however, a big difference between choosing not to go outside and being prohibited from going outside. Sure, both result in you sitting there on your couch, but they feel tangibly unlike. There were times where I even found myself experiencing the first spores of cabin-fever starting to spike my bloodstream. This is very much unlike me. I’m not at all the type to get stir-crazy. I’m an indoor-kid, who likes quiet and solitude and privacy. All the same, I found the urge to go breathe the fresh air and stand beneath the open sky to be surprisingly strong once it was restricted.

And then even when I had to go out to get/do something which couldn’t be gotten/done otherwise, it was impossible to in any way enjoy being outside because there was just so much anxiety which pervaded the experience. It was hard not to feel a sense of slight danger at all times, especially seeing how reckless other people were being. Even during the height of the lockdown and public affright, I would see very few people wearing a mask or strictly observing social-distancing protocols. This was incredibly disheartening and infuriating and flummoxing. We were very fortunate to have incidentally already had masks in our possession (to safely undertake some hazardous cleaning chores.) But believe me, if we didn’t, I would have been wrapping a scarf around my face whenever I had to leave the house. Not just out of self-preservation but also to avoid infecting others if I was an asymptomatic carrier without realising it. I mean, there you go, there’s a selfish incentive AND a compassionate reason for wearing a face-covering of some kind. And… yet… so many people evidently felt unmoved by either. Hard to imagine what would move them then…

Personally, we’ve definitely been pretty paranoid. Always erring on the side of cautious overkill. My girlfriend has some underlying conditions which we worried might make her more susceptible to the virus, so that really made it a no-brainer to go the extra mile. Only leaving the house when absolutely necessary, disinfecting the ever-loving fuck out of delivered groceries, handling the mail with disposable gloves — the whole shebang. You gotta do what you gotta do. You know what I mean? Better safe than sorry.

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