Stay at home, save lives
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - March 28, 2020 - 12:00am

The message is simple common sense, but the abrupt shift in human behaviour is pulling apart the foundations of the economy and bringing in to question the way society itself is shaped.

Never before has the link between what each one of us does with the impact on us all been so stark. Never before has the link between the actions of governments and survival been so clear – at least in some places.

As the numbers of sick and dead rose closer and closer to the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, flanked by his chief medical and chief science advisers, embarked on daily briefings to explain and announce policy. By the time he announced that his previous request for people to stop moving around had become part of a series of orders enforceable by the police, it was pretty much expected and something of a relief to some people.

Night had already fallen by the time the announcement was made and I wondered what would become of this famous city. The infection rate of COVID-19 has been more rapid here than in the rest of the country: a week or so ahead, the scientists say. London is all about activity, from the biggest corporations in the world to market stalls businesses are the lifeblood of neighbourhoods. Art and culture are woven into the ancient fabric of this place where Shakespeare first put on his plays, musicians from Handel to the Rolling Stones played for the masses. It is one of the world’s great intersections where travellers congregate with tales of their adventures, authors and scholars debate possibilities. It’s a place of possibility, London is an act of imagination made into substance. Now its people are being asked to put all that away: go home, shut the door, an invisible invader stalks the streets. It is illness, it is death. Children here learn a nursery rhyme passed on from when children in the City of London could hear the sound of church bells close by: “Oranges and lemons/ Say the bells of St. Clement’s/ You owe me five farthings,/Say the bells of St. Martin’s.” I imagined that night a city once again that quiet, its streets cleared of people, cleared of life and wondered if the bells would ring during this time of modern plague.

London under lockdown: to be honest, I enjoy the restrictions of life under coronavirus. A few years ago I went on a meditation course that required silence for nine days. It was difficult at first, but there came a point when I fully accepted the choice I had made to be there and I allowed myself to fully be there and living my choice. These days at home remind me of that experience. Not going out: yielding to a self-imposed discipline is like a muscle memory. If there’s a single thing that makes it bearable on a personal level it’s accepting being where you are and that you made the choice to be here: another act of imagination in a way.

The government here is telling people it’s okay to go out once a day for exercise or to get essentials. The skies are cloudless and cold, the early spring light is limpid and bright. Weather forecasts mention that there is far less pollution in the atmosphere. People are no longer scurrying from home to work, doing the capitalist shuffle. The consciousness of “being out” as something special, and of that being odd too, is etched in their expressions. This coronavirus is challenging us to exist in a different way in the weeks and months to come if we are to defeat it.

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences,” wrote French author Albert Camus. It’s from one of his best known fictional books: “The Plague.” The fictional disease that takes hold of an Algerian town in the book is, in part, a metaphor for occupation. It is an invisible enemy that challenges the bonds of society, the stability of economic growth, the existence of God; it requires us to think collectively and under lockdown, to take responsibility for the lives that we save by staying in.

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves,” observes Camus. As the story unfolds, the town and its people are decimated however, and what we and our governments do now, in real life, will determine whether these acts of collective sacrifice will mean a reset or even reinvention of society itself.

Millions of people around the world have become jobless, their livelihoods have simply evaporated because of the priority to protect ourselves from potentially fatal illness. Every hour, people are interviewed on the radio and television in tears as they worry about losing their homes and providing for their families as well as staying healthy. The UK government has put together enormous and ambitious public financing packages to help people make it through the economic shock and asked everyone to help, including landlords and employers. Not everyone is listening, but many are. When the government said they needed 250,000 volunteers wiling to be a friendly voice, go shopping or help deliver medicines and other essentials to particularly vulnerable families, 400,000 answered the call.

There is much, much more that governments can do. It’s become clear that having functioning well-funded public healthcare and the doctors and nurses that come with it, are an essential part of a resilient community. So is public housing. The years of austerity since the financial crisis that threatened to dismantle the public sector are definitively over for now, but the future is deeply uncertain for everyone.

I find myself returning to the need to accept where I am and what needs to be done now.

Stay at home, save lives.

BORIS JOHNSON HOME LIVES
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