A Journal of the Plague Week 15

Sunday, June 28th, 2020

I’m gearing up for a long winter.

That may seem like a strange thing to say on the cusp of July in the northern hemisphere. This was the hottest week of the year so far in the UK; the temperature hit 31C/87F in Brighton on Wednesday and Thursday, which I understand is laughable to folks in hotter climates—but you try living in a tiny flat with no air circulation (much less air conditioning), in a country not at all designed to cope with the heat. The scenes from Bournemouth beach were appalling (and Brighton hasn’t been great either ), but I do understand the desire for cool water and a sea breeze when you’re stuck in a stifling city apartment. (That obviously doesn’t excuse the whole getting-drunk-and-trashing-the-place thing, but that’s Merrie Olde England for you.)

Our garden has been a life saver these past months, and particularly in these past weeks. All the prep work from a few weeks ago paid off, and we now have two raised beds filled with luscious salad leaves. We’ve been vigilant about watering and weeding and checking for snails, and we’ve been rewarded with healthy plants getting bigger by the day. Our neighbor’s big beech tree and some overhanging lilacs at the back of our garden provide much-needed shade from the noontime sun, so we can sit out and get a breath of air at the hottest part of the day. But a lot of folks aren’t so lucky. And a lot of folks don’t want to sit quietly in a garden—a lot of folks clearly want to party.

England is grinding back into gear, for better and worse. Warm weather always brings out some of the ugliest elements of British life, and warm weather combined with easing social restrictions following months of lockdown has unleashed all sorts of weird energies. The Bournemouth thing and the big street parties that have been taking place in London and elsewhere are just a highly concentrated version of what I expect will happen all across the country in the coming weeks, when pubs and restaurants re-open and everyone properly emerges from hibernation to pick up where they left off back in March. It’s already happening in Brighton: neighbors having parties, folks lining up (maskless) for coffee from the café down the road, restaurants taking bookings for July, pubs plonking bottles of hand sanitizer by the door in preparation for their first customers next weekend. I keep reading assurances that these establishments are “following government guidelines” and I think: is that actually meant to be comforting? We have over 43,000 people dead and close to a thousand still dying every week—the worst figures in Europe, and among the worst in the world, thanks in part to a government that has consistently ignored the recommendations of its own scientific advisers. I get that the hospitality industry has taken a devastating blow, but you know what else is devastating to pubs and restaurants? Not having any business because their customers are dead.

Even in the rest of Europe and other parts of the world that seemed to have the situation under control, the virus is flaring up and dying down and flaring up again. And I can’t even think about the United States right now without feeling my stomach drop to my feet. Everything is tenuous everywhere, and with no vaccine yet and no foolproof way of preventing new outbreaks in previously corona-free places, that tenuousness is going to be a permanent state of being for the foreseeable future. We might make it through the summer relatively unscathed, but when autumn comes, it will bring cold weather that forces everyone back into poorly ventilated indoor spaces, just in time for the start of a new flu season piled on top of the ongoing COVID crisis. Scientists could find the perfect vaccine tomorrow, but it would still months and months to test it, manufacture it in massive quantities and roll it out all over the world. The situation we are in right now is the situation we are going to be in for a long time to come—with no really safe options for traveling anywhere or doing anything other than what we’ve been doing since mid-March: staying home.

So I’m already gearing up for a long winter, because I need my mind (and body, and household) to be prepared for it. In the weeks to come, I will dip my toes back in the waters of normal life when it seems reasonable to do so. I will enjoy the sun, I will check out our lovely outdoor Street Diner when it reopens next week, I will assess the apparent safety of opportunities as they arise. But I will not fall into the alluring trap of thinking that just because we’re allowed to do something (e.g., drink in a pub) it means that thing is safe to do. And I will not let myself believe that the Bad Times are over and life is back to normal now, because it’s not—not here or anywhere else, not by a long shot.

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