COVID-19 Diaries #1 (18/03/20)

Preparing for Lockdown

Almost exactly one year ago, I entered the worst depressive episode of my life. I was three and a half years into being stuck working at a call centre doing charity fundraising, having seen my morale, self-esteem and motivation beaten down into a pulp through the daily tedium of a job which provided me with no self-respect and years of substance abuse. I reached a point where I no longer felt like I could go into work or go out and meet people — and since I was paid hourly anyway, not going into work meant I no longer had the means to do even the most basic things other than survival, for which I was lucky enough to have parents to help me with. I had been in a similar way before, but this time it was worse than ever.

I entered a period of self-imposed isolation, during which I would play computer games, smoke weed and masturbate, stewing in my own filth. The passage of time was a blur, as days, sometimes weeks would simply meld into each other, days would turn to night, people found love, died and were born, the world spun around me while I buried my head in the world of fantasy RPGs, role-playing different characters in fantastical settings just so I could desperately forget the seemingly insurmountable wall of shit I had wound myself up in front of. Now one year later, I am once again going into self-isolation, but this time so is the rest of the world under drastic circumstances, and things feel very odd indeed.

As the COVID-19 global pandemic spreads, the economies of the world’s nations begin to grind to a halt. In the midst of this crisis, of a scale we have never witnessed in modern history, the many inherent contradictions of capitalism are coming undone. We have seen vastly different responses to the crisis worldwide, which are reflective of vastly divergent political ideologies, following the WHO’s advice to enforce quarantines and social distancing. In China we have seen the entire country go into lockdown, whole cities being disinfected, emergency hospitals being built, a mobilisation never before seen in modern peacetime. In Western European social democracies, we have seen an unprecedented deployment of the welfare state and social safety net through the announcement of rent holidays, universal basic income, and the nationalisation and requisitioning of private businesses. On the other hand, the UK and the US, their leaders drunk on four decades of unfettered free-market fundamentalism, are still trying desperately to prop up the faltering economy and keep everything open at an unimaginable cost to human lives.

Since the start of this year I’ve been working at a school as a teaching assistant for kids with special educational needs in a particularly rough part of London. It’s my first time doing such work and I really love it. It’s a line of work that people don’t get into to earn money — genuine care and empathy is very much at the heart of what the staff there do, particularly in my department. The fury among those same staff members, many of whom have children of their own, has been evident in the face of Boris Johnson’s decision to keep the schools open in the middle of a pandemic, particularly since in nearly every other country the schools were the first places to be shut. The news is flooding in at a mile a minute at this moment, and between when I began writing this and now, it has been announced that schools across the country will be closed from Friday till further notice.

I have been in self-isolation since yesterday after my friend who I was with on Friday night contacted me on Monday evening saying that he is down with a high temperature and a dry cough. Even then, when I called in to let the school know, the official policy, as mandated by the government, was that unless I was literally living with someone showing symptoms I was fine to come in. I told them that I simply in good conscience couldn’t do it, and thankfully they were very understanding. Every day I was going in to work last week I couldn’t help feeling like I was doing something grossly wrong and irresponsible by taking public transport for two and a half hours a day and interacting with hundreds of children in the middle of everything that was going on.

Especially in light of Johnson’s initial comments about letting the population get infected in order to build “herd immunity” (a totally bullshit concept in this context), it felt like I, along with the rest of the staff and the children we teach, were being treated like one giant petri-dish for these atavistic heartless cunts to carry out their long-desired program of social cleansing. Let’s not forget that this is the same cabinet that fired an advisor after being caught expressing eugenicist views. Makes you wonder what kinds of views are shared between them when the cameras aren’t on. As soon as we are referred to as a ‘herd’, we are nothing more than livestock — expendable statistics and numbers, less than human. Even more frighteningly, fascists have historically often used the language of ‘infection’ and ‘disease’ to justify their atrocities.

The NHS was already at close to a breaking point before the pandemic, after decades of cuts and privatisation under both major parties. Right now, it’s collapsing. Frontline staff are horrendously short of safety equipment and being denied tests despite treating thousands of patients a day. This is despite us knowing that people can carry the virus without showing any symptoms and pass it on to others. The number of hospital beds in the UK has been cut by 17,000 since the Tories came to power in 2010 and now the UK has the fewest critical beds per capita in almost all of Europe. The NHS has a grand total of 5,000 ventilators for a population of 65 million, and Matt Hancock, the human labrador, the joke of a Health Secretary, is tweeting out a request for private businesses to begin producing more.

Private hospitals are now providing 8,000 beds to the NHS, but instead of requisitioning them, or better still nationalising them entirely like the Spanish have done, of course this government has to make sure their private healthcare CEO buddies get their margins, by getting them to charge £2.4 million a day for this vital service. As of writing the current official number of cases is over 2,600, but the real number is certainly many magnitudes higher, because the testing has been so woefully insufficient. The figure is doubling roughly every three days. When the health service gets overwhelmed by such numbers, it’s not just Coronavirus patients who are in danger. People get into accidents every day, other people live with chronic life-threatening conditions. These people also won’t be able to get treated, and many will die.

As further evidence of this government’s total disregard for common human dignity, they announced a mortgage holiday for homeowners, but not for renters. They have put a temporary stop to evictions, but all that will mean is that renters, many of whom will lose their incomes, particularly with the oncoming recession, will accrue a huge amount of debt by the end of the period. Moreover, every other major government has made some form of pledge for wage subsidies or cash in hand for their citizens, while so far the UK government expects people to live off £94.25 a week statutory sick pay. Around 1 in 3 people in this country have less then £1,500 in savings, while around 1 in 7 have nothing at all. I have been counting every single blessing that I signed a permanent contract at a school of all places just over a month before this situation. Had this happened a year ago and I would have been fucked. Many of my friends are in such a precarious position right now, where one missed week of work is the difference between having or not having a roof over your head.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all from a British perspective is its timing with Labour’s brutal defeat at the general election in December. In the face of the Johnson government’s staggeringly evil incompetence, Jeremy Corbyn, in his final act as opposition leader, has still been the one demanding they get their shit together, and the government has been forced to cave in. Many of the same journalists who dismissed Labour’s platform as fantasy and cried ‘But how are you going to pay for it?’ are admitting that in fact far more extreme measures are needed in times of crisis. Even the Tories who are not doing nearly as much as other European countries, are spending manifold what Corbyn’s manifesto would have cost. Which of course begs to question, why are these basic safety nets not in place at other times? Surely that’s why we built this thing called society in the first place, right?

This crisis has exposed the universality of the human experience, both in us having to collectively reconsider the priorities with which we structure our lives and our society, and in this bizarre worldwide quarantine in the age of the internet. We are all apart and yet in each other’s living rooms and bedrooms on the other side of the world, sharing our songs, our memes, our anxieties through screens, and despite the terror and tragedy of it all, there is something reassuring in the commonality of this experience. Mutual aid groups have begun popping up all over the place, and people are suddenly checking up on their elderly neighbours and looking after one another. Other people are stockpiling toilet roll.

The Overton window is shifting at an unthinkable pace. Capitalist realism, our collective inability to imagine a world beyond late capitalism, is over — now everything is on the table. If we can restructure the fundamental fabric of our lives in such rapid fashion, perhaps many of the most basic things we take for granted, such as having to pay rent, working just to survive, can indeed be questioned. If these measures are introduced now, it is difficult to imagine the public wanting to revert them. However, the Tories could just as easily use this emergency to finally turn Britain into their John Galt-inspired techno-feudal tax haven. For now, the true impact of COVID-19 looms in the distance like a tsunami, closing in with haste. The government is getting ready to enforce a lockdown from Friday. What will come next? Who the fuck knows? One thing is for certain. Things will not be the same again after this is all over.

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Aranyo Aarjan

Aranyo Aarjan

North London Bengali, writing about politics, culture, football and climate