THE number of collateral victims of the coronavirus beyond those directly afflicted by the disease itself is devastating, and still growing; the extent of the lasting impact unquantifiable.
Those of us whose livelihoods aren’t threatened, whose routine or potentially life-saving operations and treatments haven’t been postponed or cancelled, whose homes weren’t recently flooded, should be counting our blessings — and I was, I really was. . . until the internet crashed. That’s enough to generate hysteria at the best of times, let alone in working-from-home self-isolation (and especially when you report the fault and the internet provider helpfully sends you a text message with a link to their “brilliant new online support tool”).
There was an extra reason for my panic. Knowing that internet-shopping slots were in short supply, I had prudently booked one a fortnight ahead by the simple expedient of dropping a particularly expensive bottle of champagne into my trolley to reserve the delivery until I could see what we actually needed.
Unable to access the internet, I couldn’t make the necessary changes. My smug confidence at having a delivery in place gave way to despair at the realisation that the only thing on it would be unaffordable champagne — which, during Lent, we couldn’t drink anyway.
ONE of the things that makes this virus particularly daunting is that we in the First World are so unused to plague mentality. Our awareness of our rights as individuals extends even to death. However horribly we may die, we expect it to be our death: that it will be singular, and can be marked appropriately; and that it will somehow confer value on our life. Epidemics and body-bags and mass graves are entirely alien to the modern Western mind — except, of course, for those who have served in the armed forces, or with aid organisations.
And the idea that loved ones might be quarantined out of reach, and that we should not be hugging our nearest and dearest, for fear of sharing more than we (or they) had bargained for, is anathema. Noli me tangere is still more easily said than done.
Bringing up the rear
STRANGE that our instinctive response to the crisis is apparently to hoard loo paper (bidets have also reportedly been enjoying a — resurgence).
In a devastating tale worthy of Midsomer Murders, The Times reported the death from suffocation of a couple whose 11-ton hoard of lavatory paper fell through their bedroom ceiling from the loft above. For one of the victims, hoarding the soft stuff had been her default reaction to every world drama since the Cuban missile crisis. And not only the soft stuff: the pile’s nether regions were believed to include “some of that shiny stuff that looks like tracing paper, which you can’t get any more”.
Although relieved — so to speak — that it’s no longer obtainable (it was memorably uncomfortable and never seemed to, er, do the job anyway), I nevertheless Googled “Bronco lavatory paper”. The first result was on a well-known auction site, labelled “Used”. I looked no further.
DEATH by hoarded loo roll is a cautionary tale, like the story of the man who bought a samurai helmet to protect himself and died from the leprosy that had killed the previous owner of the helmet: what you acquire in the interests of self-preservation may actually have the opposite effect. Who saves his life shall lose it. . .
It would be good to feel that something positive might come out of all this. Brexit and Megxit forgotten, we are temporarily united, not just nationally but globally, exchanging knowledge and information to tackle a common foe. There is evidence of environmental benefit (a case of every gas-cloud having a silver lining?), and heart-warming tales of communities’ rallying round to deliver groceries to the housebound, or to arrange friendly phone calls for the isolated.
Perhaps these will help to compensate for the collapse of communal activities, and encourage us to build new (if, obviously, distant) relationships with those around us. Perhaps, while being thankful for the technological wonders that — when they work — enable us to work from home and to communicate with each other, even while incarcerated, we will also tire of our screens and pick up a book, or talk to those with whom we cohabit.
Perhaps, faced with uncertainty and the inability to plan ahead, we will learn to prioritise what really matters; to live in the moment, and seize the day. Perhaps we will come to understand that, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Love is most nearly itself When here and now cease to matter.” And, perhaps, despite the collapse in the aviation industry, pigs might finally fly.
In the beginning
HEARING the Revd Professor Diarmaid McCullough talk about his upbringing in a rectory, all sorts of things that should have been obvious suddenly fell into place. “You’ve got no money,” he observed, “but you’re surrounded by books, and by people who are prepared to discuss abstract ideas.” And, he went on, “You’re also conscious of being a storyteller, because your dad’s work is telling stories.
It not only helped me to understand things that are evident in our own children, but it also belatedly dawned on me why so many early, and celebrated, women novelists were clergy daughters.
Caroline Chartres is a contributing editor to the Church Times.