from York, UK – David Maughan Brown

Occasional poet and novelist since retiring as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of York St John University in 2013.  Prior to that, Professor of African Literature, and subsequently Senior DVC, at the University of Natal.  First degrees from the universities of Cape Town and Cambridge; D.Phil from Sussex.

31st March. So much for our liberal society.  NHS staff who are risking their lives every time they go near a Covid-19 patient without adequate protective equipment, which for many of them is most of the time, are now being told that they risk losing their jobs if they speak to the media or complain on social media about the lack of appropriate equipment.  So they have a choice: risk their jobs or risk their lives.  Not that speaking out about the danger they are expected to court every day would appear to have made any difference.   At least there are two sides to the hopelessly bad planning and general incompetence coin:  significant numbers of NHS staff in self-isolation can’t get back to work, and can’t therefore run further risk of contamination, because they can’t be tested.  Germany is testing 500,000 people a week; we, after weeks of promises to ramp up testing, think we might have got it up to 7,500 a day.

In the meantime a liberal reluctance to issue clear and unequivocal instructions to the police and general populace has resulted in some police forces taking it upon themselves to “shame” people who have been driving out into the countryside to take their one form of exercise a day by publishing drone footage of their dog–walks, and to issue people with court orders for going for a drive or going to the shops to buy “non-essential items.”  Corner shops have been instructed in some parts of the country not to sell Easter eggs because they aren’t “essential”. Tell that to the parents of all the children who will be looking out for the Easter Rabbit come Easter. Or is home-schooling these days supposed to include lessons on how closely related Covid-19 is to myxomatosis?

30 March. We were scheduled to be in the Kruger National Park today with Sarah, Andreas, Hannah and Mia.  Apart from anything else, that would have made sure Andreas was well away from the “front-line” at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield’s A&E department, where he is a consultant.   Worrying about how he is going to survive the pandemic in the absence of the protective equipment all the medical staff need has cast a shadow over the past 10 days for us all – a particularly deep and dark shadow where Sarah is concerned.

As the novelty of coping with the lockdown fades, its place is being taken, for me at least, by steadily growing anger.   A new global plague such as Covid-19 has been predicted for decades. Peter Schwartz, to give just one example, identified it as one of his ‘inevitable surprises’ nearly 20 years ago.  Ebola, swine flu, and SARS have since highlighted that likelihood, but without going on to become global pandemics themselves.  So what has the UK government done by way of preparation for Covid-19?  It has spent the past ten years cutting the funding to the NHS, and the public sector more generally, in a blindly ideological, and wholly unnecessary, ‘austerity’ drive whose underlying goal has been to shrink the State.   Look where that has got them.  It has generated a shortage of some 50,000 nurses by removing university grants for nurses and discouraging qualified staff from other countries with its xenophobic Brexit rhetoric and the reputation its ‘hostile environment’ has given us.  It has hastened the early retirement of doctors by imposing ill-judged pension taxation and enabling increasingly unsustainable workloads.  Where Covid-19 itself is concerned, it initially followed the infantile example of Johnson’s friend Trump in not taking the virus seriously and delaying essential social distancing measures until it was too late.  And now, on the absurd grounds that ‘we have left the European Union’, it has refused the invitation to join an EU purchasing consortium dedicated to obtaining the protective equipment and respirators indispensable to coping with the pandemic.  All of which is going to result in thousands and thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of wholly unnecessary deaths, including the deaths of doctors, nurses, carers and other staff who are being expected to soldier on on the ‘front line’ unprotected by their derisorily inadequate ‘protective’ equipment.   One can only hope that once people have got over the “Stiff upper-lips Chaps, let’s all pull together, this is no time to criticize the government’ syndrome there will be a forensic, rigorous and unforgiving reckoning with those who have been criminally responsible for the many thousands of wholly unnecessary deaths.  

29 March. Part of the morning has been spent cursing IT as I carried on trying to find and retrieve files and folders on my iMac after a Zoom conference-call on Thursday somehow resulted in my desktop being wiped clean and some of my folders disappearing from view.  Zoom’s ‘documents transfer’ facility is apparently vulnerable to hacking, viruses and other nasties – not that we were transferring any documents – so time needed to be spent updating virus protection and getting it to scan everything in sight.  Unfortunately it isn’t much good at spotting coronavirus.

Part of the afternoon saw the other side of the coin as – again using Zoom – we played charades with the grandchildren in Cape Town, Sheffield and York, feeling profoundly thankful for the communication made possible by IT. 

28 March. The ‘New Walk’ along the bank of the Ouse, established in the late eighteenth century (hence the ‘New’ in its name), is eerily empty today – probably as empty as it has ever been early on a Saturday afternoon when spring has just sprung.  The occasional person being taken for walk by his, or occasionally her, dog was suggestive of the aftermath of a disaster movie in which 99% of the population has been wiped out and, with all the shops closed, the dog is being granted its wish for a final walk. 

The highlight of the lockdown to date has been this evening’s surprise dinner – a seriously good parmagiano – prepared for us entirely by James, our eleven-year-old grandson.  All we needed to do was pop it in the oven to bake for 40 minutes. James, very poignantly, could only stand on the pavement on the other side of the front gate and wave proudly to us as his father passed it to us at the front door.  With only the recommended two or three hours of structured time being devoted to ‘home-schooling’ every day, and no sport to play in the afternoons and evenings, one of the positives that could come out of the lockdown is the range of new interests and skills children are having the opportunity to develop.

27 March. News from Cape Town seems better, or at least no worse.  Brendan and Becky both feeling better but not, I suspect, entirely up for home-schooling two lively little girls who would appear from Face Time to be fully recovered and now feeling cabin-feverish rather than Covid-feverish.  

Our boiler has taken itself off duty.  Having observed the warm spring weather of the past two days it has decided it is no longer needed in the war on cold and gone AWOL.  Given that Intelligence is available suggesting that the cold has only beaten a brief retreat by way of a diversionary ploy – the forecasters are predicting a full frontal assault over the weekend with the temperature dipping to 2 degrees – we have called in auxiliary forces by way of true British Gas.  (Well we wouldn’t be expected at a time of national embattlement to tolerate any other nationality would we?)  We are relying on whoever we have enlisted in this particular skirmish to get the boiler back on duty in appropriately sergeant-majorish style.  A luta continua!

26 March. News comes of the first family members to contract the virus.  Becky, our Cape Town daughter-in-law, had been working very closely with the first member of the Cape Town university staff to test positive, and had been self-isolating for ten days.  She’s had a high temperature and bad headache for two or three days, but no cough; both our granddaughters have had temperatures, one for three days the other just one day; and Brendan now has the temperature and very bad headache.  Becky had booked to have the test but her GP told her after a phone consultation that it would be a waste of a test as he was certain she had contracted the virus.

One of the consoling factors about living so far away from them has always been the thought that if anything bad happened, if our support was ever really needed, we could get a flight to Cape Town and be there within 24 hours.  Now there are no flights, and even if we could get to Cape Town we wouldn’t be allowed in: the border is closed.  For the first time in my 44 years of being a father I find myself wholly unable to go to the help one of my children if he really needs me.  It is a rather bitter irony that the best thing we could do in present circumstances to help was, in fact, what we did:  two weeks ago we cancelled our visit to Cape Town at the last minute, partly because of the responsibility it would have put of Brendan and Becky had anyone in the family gone down with the virus.

25 March. Time Stands Still. The clock on the Tower House clock-tower across the road has stopped working.  Time stands still.  Is it just that whoever usually winds the clock is self-isolating, or is there some kind of cosmic message there for us to spend our weeks of down-time puzzling over? It stopped at exactly twelve o’clock.  If there is a message to be read, one would much rather the clock had stopped one minute before it reached midnight.

My one permitted daily outing for exercise yesterday took me along beside the river again on my bike.  People were abiding by the ‘social distancing’ advice this time: keeping their distance, walking dogs and children in small family groups, going for solitary runs or bike-rides.  And that was on both sides of the river, not just the side where I saw four policemen ambling peaceably along in pairs in the spring sunshine making their uniformed presence visible.  Media commentators are talking about ‘house arrest’.  This is not, at this juncture, house arrest as those of us from South Africa know it.   Nor is the injunction not to meet more than one non-family member at a time as yet comparable to the Riotous Assemblies Act’s prohibition of ‘gatherings’ of more than two people.  Perhaps the clock stopped at midday and not at midnight.

24 March. So Boris has now formally and with due, and uncharacteristic, solemnity ‘enlisted’ us all in the ‘fight’ against Covid-19.  His best Churchillian imitation having been much more reminiscent of Captain Mainwaring, I can now feel myself authoritatively confirmed as a member of Dad’s Army, and go on military maneuvers around my house to make a cup of tea, knowing that I am ‘winning the battle’ by staying at home.

The wholly inappropriate invocation of World War II and the ‘Blitz spirit’ in the coronavirus context is a supreme example of selective memory.   The Blitz spirit didn’t ‘beat’ the bombs which rained down on our cities and, like the virus, killed large numbers of people; the heroic little boats that rescued the troops from Dunkirk wouldn’t have had to do so but for the shambolic and humiliating army retreat from which they serve as a distraction; and the cowardly and wholly unnecessary massacre of the civilian population of Dresden has to be conveniently forgotten if that war is to be invoked as our inspiration.   Coronavirus is a disease people need to avoid getting; it is not an enemy army we need to go to war against.

23 March. Went out for a ride beside the river yesterday afternoon to make the most of the spring sunshine and do something about incipient cabin fever.  There are no longer designated cycle and pedestrian sections of the path, the rubric being ‘share with care’.  That meant not only bewaring of dogs on seemingly endlessly extendable dog-leads, when they were on any leads at all, and avoiding children learning to get around on assorted skates and scooters, but also having to negotiate a way through clusters of socially undistanced young people busily ignoring all medical advice.

Are these the same young people who are reportedly pushing past elderly people to clean out the supermarkets during the hours supposedly set aside for NHS staff and the vulnerable?  Or haven’t they heard that there are 30 and 40 year olds with no underlying health conditions in intensive care in London? Or don’t they believe anything the experts are saying? Or do they just feel invincible?

22 March. It is going to be a very bleak Mother’s Day indeed for millions of elderly or unwell mothers social-distancing and self-isolating all over UK and unable to hug, or in many cases even see, their children.   Nowadays we can consider ourselves lucky that we do at least have Facetime and Whatsapp, and no doubt many others, that allow split-screen family get-togethers.  But it isn’t even approximately the same.

It is going to be an even bleaker Mother’s Day for the florists who are going to be left with buckets of expensive flowers that aren’t going to be sold, and the Mother’s Day card sellers who are going to have to put most of the cards back in a cupboard and hope that if they still have their businesses by next year people will have forgotten the designs on the few cards they saw this year.   They, like so many others, will no doubt be spending their day wondering how on earth they are going to keep their businesses going.  One of the few categories of traders who will be enjoying the day are the wine-merchants with on-line delivery systems whose businesses are burgeoning.  It isn’t difficult to guess why.

21 March. The news carries footage of people queuing up the street with empty supermarket trolleys waiting to get into the supermarkets; people coming out of the supermarkets with grotesquely overfilled trolleys; and aisles and aisles of empty supermarket shelves. Today, the main news broadcasts have also picked up and broadcast a tearful plea to ‘just stop it!’ from a desperately tired critical-care nurse who had been to a supermarket to get some groceries after a 48 hour stint and found nothing to buy.  Everything had been taken by panicking shoppers stock-piling anything they could get their hands on.

“There’s plenty of food for everyone”, “there’s no need to stockpile”, we have repeatedly been told. The Prime Minister, flanked by his two chief experts – the Chief Medical Adviser and the Chief Scientific Adviser – have taken the opportunity to reinforce this message on more than one occasion from behind their lecterns at the daily 10 Downing Street news conference. They appear to be nonplussed that nobody seems to be listening to them. But, when it comes to having food on the table for their children to eat, why would anybody believe a Prime Minister who has built a career on being a serial liar? And, after the advocates of Brexit have spent three years trashing experts and pooh-poohing their expertise, why would people suddenly take any notice of experts just because Johnson, of all people, arrives at a lectern flanked by two of them? Chickens and roosts come to mind. But that doesn’t help exhausted nurses to buy the food they need.

20 March. There’s something quite liberating about looking at the calendar and recognizing that every commitment entered onto this month’s page, and next month’s too, if one could be bothered to look, could be erased, if one could be bothered to find a rubber to erase them. There’s nothing going on out there that I should be going to and need to be anxious about forgetting. It’s one step on from retirement, when I felt liberated at not having to go in to work from nine to five every day (at least in theory), but wondered how I was going to maintain some purpose in life. Right now the purpose in life is just to stay alive, and doing nothing at all apparently helps towards that end.  Whether that end is worth striving for, if going nowhere, seeing nobody and doing nothing much is what it takes, will be a question more easily answered in three, six, nine, twelve or even fifteen months time. Who knows?

19 March. Wake up with a slight headache and feeling a bit warm and immediately wonder whether it is the onset of Covid-19. No home test-kit available so you can’t tell. No test available at all, for that matter, until you are gasping your last in intensive care, at which point they test you to establish whether it is, in fact, the virus you are dying of so that you can be definitively added to the daily casualty figures. The vacuum where testing is concerned is just another telling symptom of the North/South divide.  In Harley Street you can pay £375 to have yourself privately tested.

The chances that it is coronavirus are very small. There isn’t only one virus in the universe. It is just that Covid-19, with the able assistance of the media, has bullied, harassed, chivvied and harried every other virus out to the very edges of global consciousness. That hasn’t stopped the common cold from still being common, or the winter flu from overwintering here before moving seasonally onward somewhere else. The other bugs just have to bide their time out there in the viral undergrowth and nip in to make stealth attacks while Covid-19 hogs the limelight.

18 March. It’s my youngest granddaughter, Rosie’s, third birthday today. She lives a mile away in York but the closest I can get to her in my ‘self-isolation’ is to leave her birthday presents in the re-cycling bin outside her house. At least we haven’t yet got to the point where a drone is going to tell me to get back inside my house, or a policeman stops me to demand to know where I’m going. But that might only be because austerity has denuded the authorities of policemen, and the manufacturers of drones are responding to government requests to manufacturers to tweak their production lines a little and make respirators instead.

We phoned Rosie this morning to wish her happy birthday. She responded by singing “Happy Birthday to you” to us over and over again. Tell two year olds to sing Happy Birthday twice every time they wash their hands to keep the hand-washing going for 20 seconds and the word ‘birthday’ becomes just a measure of the passing of time – a finite fraction of the twenty seconds worth of grains that have to trickle through the hour glass before they can stop washing their hands. But then birthdays are just a measure of the passing of time. Experience enough of them and you end up in self-isolation.