A Journal of the Plague Week 45

Sunday, January 24th, 2021

Friday afternoon was spent lazing on the sofa and watching Paddington 2, which Jeremy had already seen but I had not, and which seemed like perfect soothing fodder for the end of another long week.

It was quite charming and I chuckled throughout—until about the last 30 seconds when (SPOILER ALERT FOR PADDINGTON 2) Paddington opens the front door to find his beloved elderly aunt on the doorstep, flown all the way from Peru to see him after a long time apart, and they hug each other tenderly. And just like that, I was in a flood of tears.

It’s been over a year since Jeremy and I have seen our families. We last saw my parents, and my brother and sister-in-law, and our little niece in mid-December 2019. We last saw Jeremy’s mom a week later, when we spent Christmas in Ireland. We all regularly video chat with each other, but the last time we arrived on a family doorstep and gave each other a hug was 13 months ago. For some families that span of time is normal, I guess. But not for us.

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the start of the Wuhan lockdown. I remember being bewildered at the time, wondering how you “lock down” a city of 11 million people. Like, people just can’t leave their houses? How does that even work? How do you live? Well, now I know. The first American case of COVID had been reported three days before, and the first European case was reported the day after. The UK dragged its feet on doing anything about it, while in the US the then-president actively played the whole thing down: “we have it totally under control”, “it’s going to be fine”, “we’re in very good shape,” “it’s a problem that’s going to go away,” “one day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Oh, and not forgetting: “the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. … And this is their new hoax.”

The “hoax” has now killed 400,000 Americans, and the US will probably hit the half-million mark in the coming month. The UK has followed suit, with nearly 100,000 deaths in total and over a thousand people currently dying of the coronavirus daily. That’s the equivalent of everyone on our street and the 9 similar streets around us all dying in the space of a day, every day. For comparison: on average, about 450 people die of cancer and about 460 people die of heart disease here each day. Those are obviously terrible numbers, too. The difference is that while there’s really only so much you can do to avoid cancer and heart disease, there’s quite a lot you can do to avoid catching or transmitting COVID-19. And for the past year, both my country of birth and my country of residence have done a piss-poor job of helping people to do those things.

Jeremy and I were talking a while back about how other countries had handled the pandemic so much better, and I started to say something like, “Well, New Zealand has the advantage of being an island”—and then I caught myself, because obviously WE ALSO LIVE ON AN ISLAND. The UK could have been stricter about closing its borders, and testing and quarantining incoming travelers, and rigorously testing and tracing inside the country, and locking down sooner, and making sure key workers had the protections they needed to stay safe, and encouraging people to wear masks, and not sending totally mixed messages about whether we should stay home and save lives or spend time in bars and restaurants, and generally just not being a day late and a dollar short in every damn thing.

But here we are. A year on, and the virus is still rampaging, now in new and more contagious variants. Record numbers of people in the US and UK are testing positive, record numbers are hospitalized, record numbers are dying. The vaccines are getting rolled out, but only stutteringly, and they’re not a silver bullet. And in any case, Jeremy and I are (rightly) way down the priority list for vaccination. All we can do right now is what we’ve been doing since March: staying home and saving lives. Our own included.

And I’m so angry and sad because it didn’t have to be this way. There is a parallel world (I believe it’s actually called Taiwan) in which the US and the UK took the virus seriously from start, consistently implemented the right measures, and supported their citizens in doing the right things instead of giving them no guidance at all or, even worse, mocking them for doing the right things and goading them into doing the wrong things. In that world, half a million Americans and Brits haven’t died of COVID-19. In that world, Jeremy and I could spend time with friends and play music with people, and I wouldn’t lie awake in panic in the middle of the night wondering when we will ever be able to safely visit our families again.

But in this world, I won’t be hugging anyone but Jeremy anytime soon.


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