Love in the time of coronavirus
Edgy out there, isn’t it? We’ve taken a step back from each other, emptied our diaries and started brooding. The darker forces of nature appear to have got the upper hand for now. Fear is spreading even faster than the virus.
You can just about still look at the cold hard numbers around the coronavirus outbreak and think that this panic is irrational for countries at the beginning of their exponential curve.
We wash our hands as instructed, we cool off on the power handshakes and Instagram friend hugs, rinse and repeat and slow the progress down to something manageable.
Everybody, breathe now. Just not on each other.
The fear is several strides ahead of the reality. As it continues to march through society, it will raise an ugliness in us. It has begun already with our new awareness of self. Even without government instruction, I’ve found myself doing a form of social distancing. Like a dark version of mindfulness exercise, I am hyper-aware of my surroundings, of whom I talk to, what I am prepared to touch, and how I feel.
And it is followed by a wariness of others. No person in the vicinity is neutral any more. Every stranger can appear a threat. On a packed Tube journey the fear is palpable among the anoraks and the backpacks, all of you wondering whether there is some way out of this hell, or at least the one concocted in your imagination.
It also arrives in empty spaces, with a little too much time to think. Walking down an unusually quiet street, I found my mind inquiring of one stranger in a raincoat: is that an Alps ski tan, are they shedding dreaded pathogens? This is irrational when you are six feet apart, I know. And this is where one must check oneself.
Less irrational than the stranger fear but more complex is how we deal with those who are closest to us — our immediate family, friends and colleagues. We might let each other down, act out, or pass around the common cold, but we are a loose tribe who look out for each other. We had not expected one of ours to hand around a virus that may cause us a hospital stay or, worse, be the trigger in an ever-magnifying chain of infections, some with fatal consequences.
That walk down the quiet street was to a dinner where I found myself assessing my companions: who was being too blasé for my liking about the virus, who was anxious enough to match my ritual in their pre-dinner handwashing?
It was not a pretty thought process. I seated myself next to a friend exhibiting all the signs of corona-neurosis.
Fear has smoked out how we react to the crisis — not all the same way. It has divided us into avoiders and deniers, the tough-it-out-crowd and the anxious.
The avoiders in my social circle happen to be young men who inform me they’ve read a Facebook post about how this started because Huawei tested 5G in Wuhan. I listen politely to their conspiracy theory and then tell them in my firmest motherly tone to go and wash their hands. For those who think it is media hype, I ask why our chief medical officer seems to have fallen for it, and make a mental note not to dine with them in the near future.
But more challenging are relations between the anxious and the tough-it-out crowd, people who have absorbed the facts, weighed the risks and decided that life must go on. There are certain things one can’t miss or for which you will take a calculated risk. (A friend and I both have an invitation to a party the PM is attending next week — “Of course we must go,” she says with gusto. It is still just pencilled in my diary.)
And in that tough-it-out crowd are a number in the older generation who already know that they and death are very likely to meet in the foreseeable future. Why worry now? “We’ve come to believe in the religion of medicine, that science can fix everything — it can’t,” one friend who has just turned 70 tells me in a call that was a straight challenge to my fussing. “It is already a miracle that we live this long.”
There was an undertone: examine why you’ve chosen to follow the fear but stop trying to project your anxiety on to me; you are stopping me living.
When the virus arrives in force, our politicians will write cheques to salve their consciences while the medics do the grim work in overflowing hospital wards. The tribes that have now been divided by their different outlooks will, I hope, meld back into one as we realise that our individualism and our suspicion is as much protection as a dodgy face mask.
But the fear, the wild and dark thing that has settled over us now, is not a useless distraction. It gives us valuable time to think about our family and our friendships ahead of the real storm, to talk, to prepare, to let our elders know that we care about them despite their stubbornness. As we think about going into isolation, we remember the value of human closeness again, and of a telephone call over a text.
And it has made a generation of us remember that wonder drug, soap. Whatever happens, keep washing your hands.
Follow Joy on Twitter @joy_lo_dico
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our culture podcast, Culture Call, where editors Gris and Lilah dig into the trends shaping life in the 2020s, interview the people breaking new ground and bring you behind the scenes of FT Life & Arts journalism. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.