Life in lock-down
We are back from Normandy. Except that we didn’t go there. This is the twelfth week of lock-down for us here in Edinburgh. It is the longest that I have been in the same city for as long as I can remember. Perhaps for ever. Since March 15th I haven’t been anywhere other than a walk round Arthur’s Seat, about an hour and a half every day; two cautious visits to a local shopping centre, to go to the chemists and the bank; and a return trip by taxi to take a funeral at the crematorium.
There are of course some good things about lock-down. There is scarcely any traffic on the Dalkeith Road. Reports from cities around the world speak of reduced carbon emissions and better air quality. Venice canals are crystal clear. You can now see the Himalayas from downtown Delhi. Though you have to be in Delhi of course to appreciate that. I saw vapour trails over Arthur’s Seat yesterday. You normally see planes circling out over the Forth on their approach to the airport, but now there are virtually no passenger flights arriving in Edinburgh. We travel relatively little compared with some people, but I am struck that we have already cancelled six flights since lock-down began; Edinburgh-London-Grenoble return, and Edinburgh-Jersey return.
There is no doubt that the painful consequences of the pandemic and of the consequent lock-down are not equally distributed. We have been told ad nauseam that the elderly and those with ‘underlying medical conditions’ are at increased risk. So, as a seventy-plus Type 2 diabetic, that means me. But when in future years the statistics are collected and analysed I suspect that what will emerge is rather different: that there will be major discrepancies relating both to ethnic background and to socio-economic status. We already know that BAME people have been disproportionately affected. And we know that NHS employees at all levels, doctors and nurses, cleaners and hospital porters, include a disproportionately high number of BAME people. Said to be 44%. Tragically, a lot of these people have died; 90% of doctors who have died are from BAME backgrounds.
What remains to be seen is how the deaths stack up in terms of socio-economic status. Amid some confusing messages from the government, there has been much talk of people being encouraged to work from home. I know a lot of people, including my own children, who are happy enough to work from home, doing a lot of stuff on line, and setting up Zoom meetings with colleagues as required. All of which requires a spare room to work in, a computer or tablet or smart phone, and a job that can be done at a distance. Which is easier for an accountant than a bus driver. So, we shall almost certainly discover that COVID deaths are higher among traditional working class occupations, bus and train drivers, shop-workers, delivery men, taxi drivers, doormen and security staff; none of whom can easily shelter behind a home computer.
We live on the south side of Edinburgh, and I realise that I don’t know personally anyone who has contracted COVID nor anyone who has died from the virus. A neighbour’s father died down in London, and another neighbour’s best friend died here in Edinburgh, but these are not people that I know. So we just get on with our lives, trying to put some structure into days that are not easily distinguished one from another. Susie has joined a clarinet class, working on Zoom sessions with a teacher in Canada. And she does a lot of gardening, telling me where to dig holes and what to water. Apart from walking over the hill every day, I am trying to do some more serious reading. Though in practice I end up turning the pages of a lot of books that are going to the charity shop. And I have just, with help from a friend and neighbour, replaced the thirty-year-old lining in our pond, which involved finding temporary housing for a myriad of newts and a trio of frogs.
Worrying things: in the UK
The Cummings episode [it emerged that Dominic Cummings, principal advisor to No. 10 and an architect of the lock-down policy, had bent the rules to drive to Durham with his wife and child] was a nine-day wonder. The problem was not so much that Cummings, memorably described by David Cameron as a “career psychopath”, who dresses like a ten-year-old skate-boarder, had broken the rules. About which there is little doubt. And the problem was not so much that Cummings was distinctly economical with the truth. His bizarre press conference in the garden at no. 10 concealed as much as it revealed. And his wife’s article in The Spectator, an account of their experiences in lock-down, omitted any mention of their drive north.
What is more shocking is that blustering Boris responded in a knee-jerk defence of his advisor. Without bothering to establish the facts. And sundry ministers including the slithy Gove were sent out onto the media to lie on behalf of their master. Claiming that Cummings was a man of integrity, who must be ‘allowed to exercise his own judgement’. Even Church of England bishops, not known for raising their heads above the parapet, were quick to protest at this flagrant obfuscation. Most of the public assumed that it would now be OK for them to use their own judgement too, and the efforts of the police to enforce social distancing rules became more difficult. Barnard Castle, the attractive town to which Cummings drove his wife and child on Easter Sunday, “to test his eyesight” has experienced a sharp spike in tourist enquiries. BrewDog, a craft brewery in north-east Scotland, has launched its Barnard Castle Eye Test [‘dry-hopped for a juicy hit with pineapple, mango and hint of zesty lime’] with all profits going to support the NHS. The first two batches are already sold out. It was all a gift for Have I got news for you, but Cummings remains in office.
We continue topray for the NHS, and we continue to clap for them on Thursday evenings. But there is an increased willingness to hold the government’s [mis]management of the pandemic crisis up to scrutiny. Testing and tracing is sad and complex story. Yes, we will. No, we can’t. Yes, we will. After a false start blustering Boris promised a ‘world-beating system’ [overseen by his friend Dido] by June 1st. It hasn’t come yet. Hastily-recruited tracers are said to spend their days watching Netflix. And there is no data available to show how much work has actually been done [‘waiting to verify the figures’]. A few thousand tests were sent to the States for analysis [Why ?], but it now transpires that half of them will need to be re-done. Meanwhile, Pretty Awful has announced that all people flying into the UK are to be required to self-isolate for two weeks. Soon. But there is no explanation as to why incoming flights weren’t checked three months ago, when other countries had more COVID cases than the UK. The new policy will be labelled Operation Stable Door.
The opposition have accused the PM of winging it. Boris swings between boasting, when the government has met some self-imposed target, and, more frequently, blustering when he doesn’t know the answer. The buffoon Rees Mogg wants to insist on all MPs returning to Westminster. Presumably to shore up Boris who is wilting severely at PMQs under forensic questioning from Keir Starmer. Stop press news is that Alok Sharma, a junior minister [no, I didn’t know either], who was sweating into his handkerchief in the Commons earlier this week, may have tested positive for the virus. Which might mean the entire cabinet going into self-isolation.
Worrying things: around the world
So, the government is a bit of a joke. And there are still too many deaths and new COVID infections. But otherwise life at local level goes on quite smoothly. Which is clearly not the case in many other parts of the world. For the first time in twelve weeks the television news is starting to carry stories and pictures from elsewhere in the world. And some of it makes for grim viewing.
The killing of George Floyd has once again exposed the systemic racism that runs through too much of the United States. Friends both black and white have written about this more movingly than I can. It is a distressing truth that we have been here before all too often. Some twenty years ago Rodney King, a black construction worker, was gratuitously assaulted by fourteen Los Angeles police officers, who struck him with batons more than fifty times. The assault was caught on a camera by a local civilian and appeared on media around the world. When the officers involved were acquitted six days of rioting followed, during which 63 people were killed and more than 2,800 were injured. Something very similar had happened in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles in summer 1965, following the arrest of the black motorist, Marquette Frye, for drunk driving. The disturbances which led to 34 deaths and an estimated $40 million worth of property damage were eventually put down by more than 4,000 national guardsmen. George Floyd’s killing suggests that little has changed in nearly fifty years.
Even more distressing is the response of Trump. Who is patently unable to unite the country at this time. And who sees everything in terms of his personal popularity ratings. And whose aggressive twitter feeds are designed to play to his core supporters. Commentators have reached for the phrase, attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” There is some doubt as to whether Lewis did in fact say this. But there is a character in Gideon Planish who says: “I just wish people wouldn’t quote Lincoln or the Bible, or hang out the flag or the cross, to cover up something that belongs more to the bank-book and the three golden balls.” The use of tear gas to disperse peaceful demonstrators in order to create a photo opportunity for Trump to brandish a bible in front of a church was a shameful act of desecration.
It is genuinely distressing to see one of the world’s most powerful countries tear itself apart. It is equally distressing to see what is happening in Brazil. And, worse, in the Yemen. Too many countries are run by populists who despise the people they govern. And while other countries are distracted, by the pandemic and by wars and race riots, China seeks to crush human rights protesters in Hong Kong with an iron fist.
Between Ascension and Pentecost churches around the world have been praying together Thy kingdom come. And I’ve been reading [trying to read] Jürgen Moltmann, who reminds us that –
those who hope in Christ suffer under reality as it is. “Peace with God means conflict with the world” . So, the Church must continue to work and pray for the realisation of righteousness, freedom, and humanity here in the light of the promised future that is to come. Too easily our faith can be eroded by the sin of despair. Sisyphus, Moltmann wrote, has become the patron saint of the mid-twentieth century; fully familiar with struggle and toil without any prospect of fulfilment. But more of that another time.