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Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Covid-19: The Queen, the Pope, and the Grim Reaper...

Covid-19 is really crystallising all those lame but revealing time based comparisons that we all love so much, especially in these mad accelerating times.

Less than two weeks ago, Liverpool were playing Atletico Madrid, 70,000 people were jammed into Cheltenham Racecourse, and I gave my last face to face lecture. Just over a week ago, on the Saturday, I ran a workshop on writing and photography. But there were cancellations and it was already obvious that universities would close, that online teaching would come into being, that a lockdown was getting closer.

My daughter was still working in a bar  a week ago. We went to the pub for a final pie and pint last Thursday. The only other table in the pub was filled with Bath Uni students going home. Town was dead already, and it took one day more for town to become deader still

With everything closing down, the only remaining diversion was last week was  shopping. There was a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing the empty shelves as people stocked up on everything and nothing. It was like being part of the  disaster movie that is unfolding around us. But then what kind of pleasure is that; empty shelf tourism is just one step up from empty street tourism which is possibly the lamest basis for a picture story ever - but that's all anyone is running because what else is there to photograph except for packed wards and dying patients - and nobody's showing that for some reason.

On friday already, some shops were social distancing. There were spaces between customers at the butchers as people flocked in to buy the meat that was sold out at the supermarket. The local veg store had a three customer policy, and in town, by saturday, the wholefood store had a customer limit, had separated the serve-yourself area and made everything contact-free. It was social distancing in action.

There's still loads of food about, the only problem is if you want to eat cheaply. Cheap carbs, proteins and vegetables all sell out quite quickly (and that's down to not trusting a word the government says - as well as selfishness), and it's the more expensive (and more local) options are still available. If you can afford to eat well, you will eat like a king or queen. The deli was well stocked, the Fine Cheese Company was still doing good Mother's Day business, and you can fill up on your home cooked chateaubriand, rack of lamb and venison pie to your heart's content. I think there's quite a few people who will eat and drink really well during the coronavirus season. Think Christmas but without the family round.

But there is a real problem if you don't have money, which is only going to intensify, especially if you are freelance or on any kind of zero hour contract. The money is running out. A clip was put on Facebook complaining about the stupidity of people shopping on Ridley Road market in London. it was quite crowded but not stupidly so (by normal standards), filled with people who were looking for food, much of which had sold out in supermarkets. What I wonder were they supposed to do? How quick exactly is your mind supposed to be able to move?

By Saturday all the pubs and cafes were closed. There was still an ice cream parlour open in town so after going to shops, we bought a socially distanced ice cream and sat down in Abbey Square listening to the busker play melancholic lounge music with a tv-theme tune playlist. But Hill Street Blues on a stand up organ in a Bath tourist hotspot will never grow old. Again, it felt like the last time we'd have an ice cream in the wild for a while.

And so we went home and went to our allotment. We live near our allotments. Walk up the hill behind our house and you're basically in the countryside. We're lucky that way. It was a beautiful yesterday. It's a beautiful day today. It was beautiful on Sunday, and Sunday was mother's day (the flowers in the supermarket remained unsold) and people were out - but at a distance from each other because that's the luxury of open space.

Some friends went out to the Black mountains in Wales. On the motorway there were signs saying stay at home. It's not a matter of going out wherever you like, it's the idea that if you crash your car, if you break your leg, there won't be a place for you to get treated. You're taking your life, and the lives of others, into your own hands.

Reports came out on the news from London - the long lenses were used to compress people to make places seem more crowded than they are. And the criticism flooded out. Yet even this morning, tube services were still running, people were still trying to get to work (in hospitals, in food supply services?) and they were packed. None of it makes any sense.

Every little inequality in this country is emerging complete with the hidden costs. Got a second home? Well don't go there because you will be a burden on the community that live there permanently. Live in a multi-occupancy one bed flat, well never leave because you'll be a burden on the rest of us. Live in the city, the difficulty of localised food shortages in a coronavirus hotspot become very quickly apparent, live in the country and there are multiple other problems.

It's a divisive disease in which the luxuries of food, of space, of transport (I had one rural friend who drove 30 miles to get to her nearest supermarket only to find it emptied - and had to drive another 40 miles to get to the next one - so £10 in petrol before she'd even started), of public transport, of food availability, of access to health services, or disease clusters.

I have family who have evacuated from southeast England to the Northumberland boondocks because of being vulnerable ( basically they get it = they die ) and sharing a house with their doctor son who is working in critical care unit without adequate protective equipment - you will get coronavirus they were told a couple of weeks ago.

And now the lockdown has begun. So the shops I mentioned earlier all have instore customer limits in place. The allotments are packed with people doing the only outdoor thing that is allowed, and a general air of being on the beach as the sea goes out during high tide holds us all in a state of unpleasant anticipation.

I wonder how this will develop. My Italian friend in Venice tell me that the restrictions will get tighter and tighter as the deaths rise, as the intensive care units fill, as the coffins overflow. They also tell me  how the old are still going outside, the trip to the shop their only outlet from the confines of their flats. And that makes me wonder about the intersection of  covid-19, class, morality and the privilege of space will all conspire against the poorest and most vulnerable. And how they will be blamed for their misfortune (they already are). And how money can buy you space or find you space, and keep you fed and make life possibly quite pleasant during what is a very difficult time - unless of course it stops being pleasant, then, well then.

I wonder how people will cope with this lockdown in a multi-occupancy flat - or room. How will you manage for 3 months if you're living in a single room? Which you can't afford to pay the rent for? Or with four kids and a shitty husband whose only saving grace is he's away at work most of the day. it's quite beyond me. And the weather's good now. What happens when it starts pissing it down with rain again. Will that make it better or worse.

I have no idea. All I do know is I'm not really in control of my thoughts right now, I don't think anyone is. I feel like I'm being blustered along like a rogue tumbleweed on a gust of coronavirus madness, a series of stone cold certainties mixed with inconsistent messages and a sense of nearing mortalities. I wonder what I'll be thinking  in one week, in two weeks, in three weeks... as the claustrophobia overwhelms, as bodies start to pile and the hunger starts to bite.


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