A FRIEND told me recently about the year her Scottish boarding school closed early for Christmas because of the polio epidemic.
At the start of the new term, when school reconvened, the girls were informed that one of their classmates had died during the holidays. No fuss was made, and they were expected to carry on as near to normally as possible. Even so, beyond the school gates people were growing so alarmed they avoided cinemas and swimming pools, for fear of contagion. Some even tried a form of social distancing to keep their families safe.
In certain respects, the present pandemic bears little resemblance to the polio crisis of the 1950s, which swept through Europe and the US. Survivors recall months of hospital isolation as they recovered, many suffering lasting disabilities. Those of us born in the 1960s can still taste the sugar lumps laced with pink vaccine we were given at school. These bittersweet doses meant, in this country at least, that the terrifying scourge was soon a thing of the past.
This week, as stricter Covid recommendations come into force, it is worth bearing in mind that global outbreaks of fatal and debilitating disease always eventually run their course. And that, in times like this, it takes far longer than is comfortable or convenient before any of us can feel safe.
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The rapid escalation of the latest new variant, and the government scramble to put precautionary measures in place has, for me at least, felt like a turning point. When friends arrived at the weekend for coffee, we were painfully aware that such gatherings might soon be banned. Or, if not now, then at some point in the coming weeks; or with the arrival of a new variant next year, or the one after that.
The mince pies lost some of their savour with the realisation that Covid-19 is not a two-year wonder. Who knows what lies ahead, but I suspect we have to resign ourselves to clipped wings for a considerable period to come. For those who are not patient by nature, this is taxing. It’s far worse, though, for anyone trying to run a business dependent on footfall, and unsure if it will survive. Awful, also, for relatives living continents away from family they have been unable to visit for months.
Whether you’re an anti-vaxxer outraged at what you see as the erosion of civil liberties, or a resident in a care home dreading being cut off from your loved ones, the gravity of this latest situation is hard to take. You can view our current state as that of a seesaw or a rollercoaster.
Throughout 2022, and who knows how much longer thereafter, we face a perpetual relaxing and tightening of the rules. As the disease waxes and wanes; as NHS pinch points ease or tighten; as vaccines grow more – or less – effective, we will be treated like cogs in a massive medical and political machine, designed to keep us safe and the country running smoothly.
Despite the seriousness of the disease, indignation at what we are not allowed to do keeps resentment simmering. Even when the rules barely affect us, we chafe at restrictions the way hamsters gnaw their bars. We cannot fly on holiday without fear of being stranded abroad or quarantined at eye-watering cost; throw a party without dread of infection; go clubbing or to a rock concert without proof of vaccination or a negative test.
Given the regulations by which we must abide, there’s no avoiding the fact that we truly are in something akin to war-time. Just like those in 1914 or 1939, we do not know how long this conflict is going to last, or when and how it will end. Nor do we have any idea of the number of casualties it will ultimately claim, or what our world will look like when we emerge on the other side.
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During the first lockdown parallels were drawn with the Second World War and Britain’s famous Blitz spirit. Then, as the novelty wore off, folk began to grumble that at least in war-time you could continue going to the pub or the movies, and didn’t have to wear a face covering.
They were far off the mark. In 1940, an American general, while in London, went to a production of The Mikado. He was impressed by the audience’s sang froid, as they sat there enjoying themselves, “in their tweeds and gasmasks”. Aware of what was heading their way, he reflected, “the English have changed very little since Gilbert & Sullivan’s day. One hopes they have the same persistence and courage.”
He knew it wouldn’t be long before sirens were sending folk racing out of pubs and theatres for air raid shelters, in terror of falling bombs.
By comparison, life in Britain today is peachy. Indeed, for those in Syria, or other embattled countries, or where famine and poverty are rife, or regions destroyed by flood or storms, Covid restrictions are as nothing. They’d swap places with us in a heartbeat.
This is not for a moment to deny the depth of misery the ongoing pandemic is causing for the millions who cannot enjoy the life they expected or deserved. For the youthful and the elderly in particular, things have been difficult, even intolerable, since the virus arrived. Today, as precautions are stepped up once again, there is a pervading sense of dreariness and resignation.
It was not Job who coined the phrase, “This too will pass,” but it might have helped him survive his ordeal. I have friends who chant it mid-way through a long-haul flight to Australia, for instance, or before a wisdom tooth extraction. Whether it offers any comfort in our current scenario, however, I do not know.
More helpful, perhaps, is to consider all the things we still can do, rather than what is off limits. With that in mind, you could do worse than turn to War & Peace. While Napoleon terrorised Russia, and countless soldiers died in combat, and Europe was in panic, Tolstoy writes, “Life meanwhile – real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest, and its intellectual interests in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred and passions – went on as usual”.
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