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Covid: five lessons learned

At the time of writing, given national variations the UK reached Step Two of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s “road-map” out of the Covid-19 crisis two-and-a-half weeks ago. So far, so good, and I think we can be reasonably confident that Step Three will happen on schedule on 17th May. As will, we all fervently hope, Step Four on Midsummer’s Day.

But as we emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, seeking to rid ourselves of the “prison pallor” of repeated lockdowns (a word borrowed from jail jargon) and tier-based restrictions, is it too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from our collective experience of this wearisome scourge?

Yes, it is – and probably always will be. We don’t know, cannot know, how long Covid will be with us, what shapes it might assume, or what effect future variants might have. But it’s a fair bet that locally, nationally, globally, society will have to adapt and mutate, just as the virus does.

There’s been much talk throughout the pandemic of the “new normal” – of learning to live according to changed parameters: wearing masks in crowded areas, sanitising here and there, undergoing frequent Covid tests, (maybe) carrying vaccine passports, and so on. But the phrase is misleading, implying as it does that we will simply have to get used to living under a new set of rules. As long as the Coronavirus is mutable – surely one of its key characteristics – there can be no fixed new normal. The best we can hope for is that whatever steps we have to take to counter new mutations stop short of what we’ve had to put up with thus far; but what I see going forward (and I’m no clairvoyant) is not a new normal, but an unending succession of constantly changing new normals.

But the past 14 months or so have certainly been a time of sustained introspection for many. For me, anyway. And I’ve learned five not-necessarily-edifying things about myself, which I will pass on to you here. Egotistical? Guilty as charged; but this is my blog, not yours. If you want to read on, read on. If not, go write your own.

In no particular order, then:

First, I’ve learned that it is possible to be selfish and selfless at the same time. Selfishly speaking, I want Covid restrictions to be lifted according to my criteria – what’s important to me – but I find it hard to care too much about other people’s priorities. I want to be able to go to pubs, restaurants, the movies etc as (was) usual: to be elbow-to-elbow with strangers at the bar, to revel in the hubbub of a busy eatery. I want to be able to travel on buses and trains without wearing a face-covering. I want to dispense with masks altogether, actually – I don’t like them. Most of all I want to be able to hug my family and friends. But foreign travel? To all those desperate for overseas holidays, or who have family living abroad: sorry and all that – but it’s not important to me right now, and therefore I don’t really give one.

I know: me me me. Appalling. But in mitigation I should add that at the outset of the pandemic I signed up as a volunteer delivery driver for the local food bank, and I’ve been doing it ever since. My three days a week have since been reduced to one, but I’ll carry on with it for as long as there’s a need. Which there will be, for the foreseeable.

See? Breathtakingly selfish, and at the same time ready to help those less fortunate. To do my bit for the greater good. Odd, no?

Second, I don’t mind being alone for longish periods – as long as it’s on my own terms. Wordsmithery is a solitary occupation; but being alone for much of my working day has never really bothered me. Nor do I necessarily hanker after company at points during, or at the end of, the day; I can be quite happy on my Jack Jones for several days at a time (though whether that is healthy or not is a whole other matter). But the above, arguably misanthropic, state of mind is predicated on being able to see people, to socialise, should I choose to. I have found it very hard to handle that option being removed – in fact I’ve resolved, once that element of choice is fully restored, to make much better use of it.

Third, my boredom threshold is surprisingly high. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a restless soul: someone who needed near-constant stimuli, from different quarters, in order to be at my scintillating best. Not so, as it turns out. Yes, like many I have binge-watched most of Netflix (other streaming services are available); but I’ve also been quite happy to sit quietly and daydream – and for quite long periods at that. Whole afternoons can go by with me doing little more than staring into the middle distance. If you wanted to dress this up you could call it meditation I suppose, except that implies there’s an element of discipline, of structure, to it. Truly, there isn’t; but I seem to emerge from these “trances” clear-headed and emotionally calm.

I’ve also rediscovered books. An odd thing to say for someone who makes his living out of words, but while I read – a lot – latterly it’s tended to be in short bursts, for research purposes. To have the time to immerse myself in a well-written novel, and let my imagination run free, has been a total joy.

Fourth, I’m not comfortable with uncertainty. When we went into this year’s lockdown, I felt bullish. Yes, it was winter. Yes, we were on a post-Christmas comedown (though in truth it wasn’t much of a Festive Season anyway). But, I reasoned, as we had a way out of this, lockdown was a price worth paying.

Except we didn’t. The vaccination programme started in December; but throughout early January and into February it did nothing to lower the death or hospitalisation rates. Until Boris unfolded his road-map on 22nd February, we had no indication of when, or how, restrictions might be eased as we clawed our way back to something like the way of life we knew – and, it turned out, loved.

And those six or seven weeks I found close to unbearable. A daily diet of bad news, and no end in sight, really messed with my head. If – God forbid – we have to put restrictions in place again, let there be a start date, and a firm end date. Be as pessimistic as you like; as long as the date is fixed, I won’t care.

Finally, I’ve learned to value my freedom. An unlooked-for benefit of being a voluntary food bank delivery driver is that I’ve had both jabs (Pfizer) a little ahead of time, which makes me theoretically more or less bulletproof. However, should a variant happen along that can pierce my armour, and only a risky, untested vaccine can stop it? Bring it on. Use me as a pin-cushion. Throw vaccine-loaded darts at me. I don’t care. I don’t even much care if the vaccine is effective; but if having jab after jab means that, after 21st June, I can continue to walk out of my front door and lead something like the life I want to live, then being stuck full of needles, and suffering any side effects short of death, is a price worth paying.

Brexit: let the choice be based on facts

Today, 1st October 2019, is, potentially, the first day of the last month of Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Whether you view that as cause for celebration or lamentation is, of course, up to you. I’m a Remainer, and proud of it; but I do respect that others have the right to take an alternative view.

But to my mind, the case for a second referendum on the issue becomes ever stronger, day by day.

Not because I don’t like the result of the first one. I mean, I don’t; and actually, I fear that a second go at it could produce a similar outcome, so entrenched are people’s positions. No, there needs to be a second referendum because the people were lied to in the run-up to the first one, plain and simple. It’s not about democracy, not really (though I would argue that at this stage a second referendum would be the least undemocratic option); it’s about making a momentous decision (whichever way it goes) based on facts, not mendacities.

Of course anyone with half a brain takes campaign pledges with a healthy pinch of salt; it’s sad, but a fact, that politicians distort the truth to suit themselves. Particularly in a democracy, as it happens (a column for another time, perhaps: The Plus Points of Dictatorship). But the whoppers peddled by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings et al in the lead-up to 23rd June 2016 were of a different stripe. The sunlit uplands of prosperity. Remember that? Trade deals galore. Remember that? £350m a week for the NHS. Remember that? The Turks will join in 2020, and invade our shores. Remember that?

And the people, 52% of them, went along with it. Whether they knew that these statements were falsehoods is, I think, a moot point. Personally I’m of the opinion that there was, probably, a widespread suspension of disbelief; but let’s not disappear down that particular rabbit hole.

The last three-and-a-half years have seen a nation convulsed as it seeks to find a way out of the resultant mess, against a lazy but growing chorus, from thickoes on both sides of the debate, to “just get it done”. Guys, the reason it can’t just be got done is because it’s really bloody complicated, and reducing the arguments to yes-or-no, black-and-white binaries (as the Prime Minister and his cronies are attempting to do) risks sending us back to the economic and societal dark ages.

So, how to resolve this? There is talk of a general election, which, given PM Boris Johnson’s (or, more accurately, shadowy, unelected strategist Dominic Cummings’s) ability to play the parliamentary system, appears fraught with risk. Also, in the unlikely event that the Conservatives lost (which, sadly, I don’t think they would), Labour (the main party of opposition) is in such disarray, fighting its own internal, ideological Brexit battles, that the Liberal Democrats could emerge as winners. Now I like the Lib Dems, but they have already pledged that, if returned to office, they would immediately revoke Article 50 (the 250-word clause of the Lisbon Treaty that serves notice on the EU that a member state wishes to withdraw) – now and for all time. Which might on the face of it suit us Remainers, but would be rightly seen as a slap in the face of the Brexiteers, and of democracy, and would surely cause the already deep divisions in our society to deepen still further. Outright civil war, anyone?

No, the least-worst option is an extension of Article 50, and a second referendum. Imagine the Leave campaign’s sloganeering! From “Taking back control” to “We’ll get through this, somehow”. Not quite such a persuasive message…

Although actually, as I say, I fear it may not make a decisive difference to the result. But at least we can no longer claim to be ignorant of what Brexit really means. And if, in possession of most, if not all, of the facts, the outcome is the same – well, I suppose one positive is that people like me will have to shut up.

I said in an earlier submission that Drum and Monkey doesn’t do politics. I lied. But then, so have so many others.

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