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by Mandy Rhodes
05 April 2020
This illness is coming, and it is changing us all

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This illness is coming, and it is changing us all

We are watching life as we knew it dismantled in real time as the spectre, but not yet the reality, of COVID-19 rips through our communities, leaving behind a very different world.

And as we all work blind, fighting a disease we cannot see, waiting for symptoms we have yet to feel, in a timeframe unspecified and with a cure still unknown, it is the uncertainty of when or where this will end that is affecting us all.

We may all be in this together, with a virus that recognises no bounds and where the principle of collective responsibility has had no higher value, but in the wee small hours, we are all going through our personal hells.

Our uhtcearu: that fitful unease, the predawn anxiety, waiting for the light to dispel the darkness. But then, when you awake, the nightmare has no end, playing on, as it will for some time yet, into another day.

Living in a constant state of hypervigilance is tough, and at times I can feel myself sinking. We all are.

But ultimately, this will be a big story of how a contagion changed the world, how society as a group altered its behaviours simply to survive. And stripped down, it will be about each and every one of us playing our small role and understanding that what we did altered history.

Individual heartbreak, single acts of heroism, small acts of kindness, grand charitable gestures, community-led initiatives and massive programmes of state intervention, they will all play their part in how this plays out.

It’s just a fortnight since we were forced into lockdown. And even then, politicians were cautious to call it by its name. Curfews, rules on exercise, group gatherings, who could work, who could not, and when to take your dog for a walk, all were covered, although sometimes without the clarity one required. But then needs must in an emergency.

Only a few days have passed since police were charged with enforcing the laws designed to prevent us leaving our homes. And in a country that cherishes its liberty that has been sore, but one that will save lives.

Already our country is unrecognisable. The streets of the capital quiet, the few people that are around wear face masks. Runners step onto the road to avoid close contamination from others and every cough is greeted with a recriminatory stare. Shops shut, bars empty, schools locked and homes with their doors tightly closed.

This illness is coming, and it is changing us all.

Governments working together, politicians putting differences aside. And at a stroke, political orthodoxy torn asunder with state intervention on a scale unimagined by any Tory prime minister. And with his chancellor writing blank cheques to save jobs, pay mortgages, stop evictions and to keep the self-employed afloat. And with private sector employees now effectively instruments of the state, transport nationalised and the health service now being recognised, not just in warm words, but with much-needed hard cash, it is not too hard a stretch to see that Jeremy Corbyn has left the Labour leadership safe in Boris Johnson’s hands.

Low-skilled workers, once devalued and disrespected, have become essential actors to the national effort. Immigration is now a necessary tool of recovery and prisoners, once victim to the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mentality of successive home secretaries, are now a population to be treated with some degree of empathy and literally, for some, a sense of freedom.

But it has been brutal.

Social distancing will save lives, but that is cold comfort to families who face the agony of being separated from elderly parents, barred from giving that much-cherished hug, and even when mourning, unable to find comfort in the arms of others.

And I have been angered by some in my own circle whose cavalier attitude to collective responsibility has meant that breaking the rules to travel to work or to visit loved ones is a sign of largesse rather than idiocy.

So far, we have been assuaged by the daily death toll prefixed with the words ‘underlying health conditions’ or selfishly ticked the boxes that don’t personally apply. But then there are the growing number of victims that don’t fit with the norm and the fear begins to grow.

Look at Italy, so familiar and yet now so foreign. A cosmopolitan country of culture and grace, where corpses are so many that they are now left where they lie and in overrun hospitals, doctors are making heart-breaking decisions about who gets to live.

And even as we argue about the naming of an emergency hospital in Glasgow rooted in the ridiculous assertions of constitutional divides, we are distracted from the reality of why we are converting a vast venue for festivals and fun into a dormitory for the sick.

This illness is coming. And the fear of what is still to arrive is growing.

I find myself overcome by almost everything right now, when even a bee awakening from its hibernation and struggles on a window frame to find its escape brings me to tears.

But then seeing the fortitude with which my elderly mother is carrying the burden of trying to fend off a disease she hadn’t calculated for is humbling.

Her life has changed immeasurably over the last five years: first a devastating stroke that left her disabled and housebound, the death of my dad which has left her alone, and now this, the virus that threatens to kill her but also keeps her from the people that she loves the most and who have provided her with the emotional sustenance needed to keep on going.

She is now the one telling us to take care and keep our distance.

In the last few weeks, we have changed habits of a lifetime, even become conscious of how often we touch our face, how little we washed our hands, and ignored the personal space of others. The powers we are living under are draconian, and the consequences monumental. Our economy is wrecked. After this, there will be a reckoning and there will be things we can fix. But as the First Minister has reminded us, you can’t breathe life back into the dead, so stay home and stay safe.

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