A perennial and increasingly fevered subject of conversation in this fractured moment is what, precisely, each and every one of us expects to do ‘when this is all over’. By ‘this’, of course, people mean what they are slightly incorrectly terming ‘quarantine’ and not, per se, the disease which may yet still end the lives of millions.
There is increasing longing in all these wishes.
A few are charmingly ordinary. People want to get out to the gym; many want to ram the bars with laughter and voices and drain all the kegs beneath their taps. A good number, increasingly plaintively, want to hold their grandchildren close.
A few people near me have planned fantasy holidays – with more urgency than the normal desire to leave work and obligation behind, and more determination.
I have not left the country for a few years, mainly for financial reasons, but foolishly I have at least once in recent weeks expressed a cheery desire to get the hell out of the old place for a little while, whenever that exactly becomes possible. I should not have bothered.
All of these things are a few steps from reality. ‘When this is all over’ represents an indeterminate time in a murky future. We don’t know how distant it is, but we ought to know by now that it is far away.
The disease has us in its grip, and billions more to infect. It will continue extending its coverage whether we check its pace or not.
A far more pressing concern, and a far more pressing aim, is in sight and has been all along. It’s very close to hand, but somehow our vision is occluded by its bitterness. Any nearsighted view ought to leave aside the stuff of vacation and fantasy. The immediate objective, one a large number will not be able to enjoy, is not taking that city break or summer cruise, sadly deferred, or drinking the pub’s cellar dry; it’s remaining alive a few weeks or months from now.
The pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands, at minimum. It is overwhelmingly likely that most of the people it will kill, in the fullness of time, have not yet fallen sick. And with no cure or proven programme of drugs which improve any individual prognosis, the number it will kill diegetically, irrespective of the treatments to hand and the care afforded, remains chasteningly high.
Lives will be saved by preventing hospitals from being overrun. The longer that can last, the fewer will be denied care and life for want of space.
But many will continue to die regardless of the efficiency of distancing. Many will die irrespective of the doubling rate and the number of surgical masks and gowns.
All that left to one side: let’s briefly discuss waiting the thing out. Remaining indoors, being calm and quiet and hygienic, doing everything right. People expect to be OK if they follow the programme. Reality does not accord with that hope, but hey, at least it’s a little better than how some others take the situation.
Another common perception, articulated in full only occasionally, is that all of this is something of an imposition. It’s an interruption of normal life and approaching an affront.
The most famous are more visibly of that view. Celebrities are praised now for telling the public about their struggles; and some foolishly attempted to capitalise on the same thing here. In their large gardens and surrounded by their tasteful furnishings, a few talked earnestly into cameras about how strange it is not to be jetting around and eating expensively and being feted on stage or TV.
These people most eagerly await ‘when this is all over’.
When this moment in history elapses, perhaps because it outstays its limited welcome, the good times can resume – at least for those people, in their own mind.
Still alive, and hopefully not too bored, the pretty people can emerge from their cocoons to rule the world once again.
Enough young people are of the same view that they consider public health rules an impediment. A significant number of those in their twenties have simply had it with being indoors and want out of there, disease (which they’re sure they could shrug off) be damned.
I have now tried a number of times to suggest the sort of experiment a morally bankrupt government might want to organise to test that proposition.
If it promised, hand on heart, to release them from ‘quarantine’ – I asked – how many people from the ages of 20 to 45 would agree to be sequestered away from their families and friends in camps, and actively injected with the virus, to be released in the event that they recovered?
Of the few people I’ve canvassed, a fun divergence can soon be spotted. Those over 50 seem to think not only that the suggestion is evil on its own terms (no argument there), but also that few people would be reckless enough to take the little stab in the dark. Everyone I have spoken to who is under thirty, meanwhile, believes that in Britain alone, millions would volunteer.
The conditions that came with this bargain could be as draconian as you liked. Would fewer people look upon the needle as a passport away from boredom indoors if they were prevented by contract from receiving medical care? (To preserve the health service, of course – all in a good cause.)
A number no doubt would. Heroes to herd immunity and hedonism all. Or otherwise dead.
But we are foolish, and many are optimistic in our own favour. We believe the world, and microscopic assailants, will make exceptions in our own case.
Being alive to the alternative has some use at a time like this, not least in cutting down to size hopes of a near future, close at hand, from which ‘all of this’ has vanished like a light mist leaving behind a clear and sunny day.
But putting risk of death aside, then. How else have we allowed the future to be misassigned? Politicians have not helped in their constant desire to sell a vision of a gleaming tomorrow under their direction.
The British government is at the moment having public relations trouble. Its measures are working and are broadly popular, but it has committed itself to the avoidance of a second peak in the disease, which it cannot in good conscience promise will occur.
There is some question of language – whether one of its tests for lifting the present lockdown should conclude that there must be no second peak at all (an impossible thing to promise); or that a second peak is just barely acceptable, if only it does not swamp the health service.
The second form of words has been adopted, and thus that approach is likely on the cards – and thus so too is a second peak of some description. Many more in hospital, many more dead.
All this PR puffing will give a misleading impression.
The prime minister, a congenital optimist whose own life was recently saved by timely medical intervention, sees light at the end of the tunnel. He believes we have wrestled the metaphorical villain that represents the disease to the ground, and must merely keep him pinned and hold his forceful arms in hand until a policeman arrives.
A lift to lockdown awaits.
This metaphor is misdirected and could well backfire. Even if measures are lifted in the immediate term, they are likely to be reimposed. The doors will have to snap shut sharply if they do not want the intruder to get back in. When the disease begins to spread again more freely, any freedom gained will either be curtailed or it will be bought at the cost of others’ lives.
We may have some faith in the policeman of earlier imagery. Perhaps he represents a vaccine (far off, on the impossible horizon), or perhaps the great technological assets which will allow a semblance of regular life to return.
But all these things cannot be promised, at least not at this stage.
Any pledged return to ‘normal life’ remains a mirage and a feint. We all have a number of socially-distanced funerals to attend before that can be contemplated with confidence.
As for ‘when this is all over’, it’s loose talk. And it betrays a strange short-termism in all of us.
He has not said this too me directly, but a friend of mine wants to catch the virus, or to be miraculously found to have had it already without symptoms – the latter the equivalent of discovering a ‘get out of jail free’ card, or a million pounds, under his mattress.
More than anything else, he wants to get out of doors, and to live full-time in the world his fantasies furnish pleasantly before his now-glassy eyes. His daydreams have hitherto unimagined depth.
He is expectant and bored. A prime candidate, perhaps, for the imaginary injection offered by a more authoritarian government.
‘I really thought this year would be epic’, he said to me sadly.
But instead he must stay indoors, and if he is well advised, he will write this year and his plans off. We have a lot more to suffer before the present moment can be escaped. It will have its fill; its demands will be satisfied and its toll will be paid.
‘When all this is over’ is a daydream, a fantasy, and very far away.
This essay originally appeared in Correspondence, an occasional journal.