By William J. Furney
Britain asked its people this week to stop going out to eat and drink, as the coronavirus death toll in the Brexit nation of four countries started to creep up, but many carried on regardless, thinking themselves impervious to a new flu strain that only other, weaker folk catch. As more than 4,000 people died in not-so-far-away Italy — now the country with the highest number of deaths from the animal-vectored bug in the world, even including China, where the global health disaster began — and fatalities crossed the 1,000 mark in UK holiday spot Spain, Brits continued to think of themselves and their EU-exiting bravado as superhuman.
Not any more. “You may think you are invincible but there is no guarantee that you will [not] get mild symptoms and you can still be a carrier of the disease and pass it on to others,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a daily news briefing at his home-office in Downing Street on Friday as he ordered a shutdown of public places and asked people to stay at home after days of dithering as many fell in neighboring nations.
But a day later, as coronavirus deaths in the UK jumped by 53 to 233, the BBC reported that roads were as jam-packed as normal and that hordes of people had headed for eastern coastal towns to amuse themselves in slot-machine arcades and have tea at picturesque cafes. How very lovely, as a terrified world shudders from a pathogen that knows no borders, genders or ages.
For the UK and other countries, it could all get so much worse. We are living in unprecedented times, when the virus that’s said to come from a bat in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan has killed nearly 13,000 people around the world and infected almost 300,000 as of writing.
And for many people, the fear of living in isolation — whether self-imposed or state-ordered, as I find myself, and I’ve had this virus — is almost as bad as succumbing to the illness itself. (The majority of cases, doctors say, are like a mild to moderate flu — mine was at the upper end, or beyond, with rolling fevers, chills, aches, pains and a suffocating, unending cough that has now, finally cleared, and those most at risk are the elderly, who have weaker immune systems, and those with various health conditions.)
The streets of Europe and other places in the world, including, now, California, resemble something like a ghost town twinned with an invasion of the body snatchers and an apocalypse wrought by zombies that has actually come true.
Sub-Tropical Ghost Town: Cycling to my local supermarket today, as police patrol.
I am holed up in a tropical complex that I occasionally dare to leave, but twice this week have been stopped by patrolling, furious police. “Where are you going?” one asked from his car as I cycled to the supermarket. “Shopping!” I fired back? “Supermarket?” he demanded. “Yes!”. And then, foolishly out running one morning — but who is going to catch me, and who is going to catch anything from me? — the beeping of a patol car’s horn as it chased after me, stopped, officers wondering what on earth I was doing out and ordering me back to my place, which, thankfully is a bungalow complex that’s big enough to run around for ages.
Not being able to go out and experience the world, on a whim, and being confined to your home for most of the day is the equivalent to a prison sentence, even if you have internet, TV, a myriad of appliances and all the other comforts of the modern, connected world.
But in places like Italy, Spain and France, the public is isolating themselves without question for the greater good and the continuation — and survival — of society against an unseen enemy that is ravaging entire populations. Meanwhile and elsewhere, in the US, some are taking legal action against clampdowns that they say are infringing on the basic human rights of freedom of movement and to travel wherever you please (not that you’d get very far these days).
For the developed world it’s lives interrupted and few find the social isolation and alone-time easy to bear: they seek constant and uninterrupted validation that they are great and worthy and that their lives, above all, matter. Suddenly, having the riches of the world removed at a government stroke reduces pampered people’s existence to that of the great unwashed — hence the Great Toilet Roll Rush — and you can’t even fly yourself out if it, because planes all over the world are grounded.
This is an introspective moment of global levelling, when all the peoples of the world — obscenely rich, desperately poor or somewhere in between or at the extremes — are coming to terms with the reality that there is no cure as yet, that anyone, old or young, could die and that we all need to be humble amid the giant, silent roar of nature.
- Title image, of a deserted shopping centre in Gran Canaria on Saturday, by William J. Furney