Well, be careful what you wish for. When in my last post I asked for 2020 to be a year of healing, little did I dream that the universe would respond in epic fashion. Now it’s two weeks into the UK lockdown, and like most people, I’m still adjusting to the dystopian world we find ourselves in. An invisible threat, mobile morgues, economic paralysis: it’s a perfect storm of science fiction scenarios, but apart from a few furious Facebook posts – and a slightly drier one pointing out the uncanny similarities between the Tory Cabinet and the Keystone Kops – I haven’t written anything about coronavirus. Partly that’s because, between Zooming, Skyping and FaceTiming, finally figuring out my home sound system and vacuuming behind the sofa for the first time in two years, staying at home all day has proved oddly hectic. But the problem is also writerly: where to start – a pandemic is by nature vast – and how to contribute something that someone far better informed about epidemiology, politics and the NHS hasn’t said already?
I do, though, know a little about coping with a life-threatening illness. And as I re-read my poetry sequence ‘The Cancer Breakthrough’ in preparation for two online Open Mics, I realised that that experience has given me some personal insights into the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cancer isn’t contagious, but it is endemic – in the UK your chance of having it is now 1 in 2. Although toxic environments surely play a role, this ubiquity is also because treatment for other fatal illnesses has dramatically improved, whereas cancer is an inherent feature of human mortality: reproducing uncontrollably is simply something cells do, especially as they age, and whenever it occurs it’s still very difficult to stop. As I put it in my ode to chemotherapy, the villanelle ‘Rough Justice’:
Everybody has cancer . . . abnormalities lurk
in the twist of a helix, an innocent cough, the quirk
of a habit some wear well, to others spells:
Chemo’s the new mercury – metallic assassin, it works.
It’s in the traumatic nature of being a poet to constantly be finding infelicities in published work – how I wish that line read ‘Every body has cancer’. But anyway . . . As it struck me when re-reading the poem, cancer and the coronavirus are also alike in their draconian containment strategies. Chemotherapy, like the old mercury cures for syphilis – which did work when applied topically and immediately to sores ‒ is a toxic, slash and burn medical intervention that destroys healthy cells as well as malignant ones. In the case of Covid-19, lockdown not only runs the risk of killing a nation’s economy, but takes a significant toll on many people’s mental and physical health. We may have to live through twin peaks of this pandemic, but we’re not all David Lynch – by his own account, a devout self-isolater. The potential health dangers of long-term self-isolation and quarantine, from depression, anxiety and Vitamin D deficiency to impoverishment, domestic violence, and childhood developmental problems, are real and must be addressed by government.
Regarding the prospect of the end of capitalism, though, many people are saying: bring it on. Already with planes grounded and motorways empty, the planet is breathing more easily: polluted waters run clear, wildlife is emboldened, and the dramatic improvement in air quality is saving lives and buying us more time to fight climate change. As for the economy, the magical money tree is shooting up like Jack’s beanstalk, making Labour’s 2019 visionary electoral manifesto seem downright parsimonious, and prompting hopes that the government’s desperate scramble to refit the chronically underfunded NHS will finally demonstrate to the British electorate, once and for all, not just the Tories’ arrogance and incompetence, but the cruel and brutal folly of their lie of austerity.
As commentators from Charles Eisenstein and Rebecca Solnit to Arundhati Roy are pointing out, the coronavirus crisis is offering humanity a chance to stop, look in the mirror – or as Roy puts it, pass through the portal of the pandemic – and make a definitive choice between what Eisenstein calls the Way of Control or the Way of Love, that is to say: a doubled-down ‘business as usual’ model of the future, in which governments and corporations impose a permanent regime of intensified surveillance and social restrictions, or a path of profound moral and political evolution in which technology serves human beings, allowing our inherent tendencies to cooperation and empathy to guide us into a safer world. You could also call the choice ‘kill or cure’. 2020, the year of ‘clear vision’ – which I am still determined to think of as two swans emerging from twin Venetian tunnels – will undoubtedly prove pivotal in the battle to establish the kind of sustainable and equitable global economy that is our best, if not only, chance of preventing runaway climate change.
Of course, it could go either way, and things most likely will oscillate, unevenly, over the world for quite some time: in the US and UK, aided by lawmakers, disaster capitalists still seek to profit from chaos and crisis, while Roy reports on horrific developments in India, where Modi’s order to lockdown with four hours notice has resulted in death marches: 460 million impoverished and hungry people heading back to their villages, beaten on the way by police for defying the law. South Korea has succeeded in flattening its curve without lockdown, not only through mass testing, but by the imposition of tracking apps that expose the precise movements of infected people to everyone near them who owns a phone. None of this can be ignored. But it must also be recognised that there is another, countervailing trend.
As I discovered when I had cancer, life-threatening illness can bring out the best in people. It doesn’t surprise me that this pandemic is provoking a collective surge of compassion and volunteerism all over the world; and, while it is heartening, neither have I been amazed to see British society demand that, from hospital care to financial compensation, government treat all people fairly and equally. What’s been a revelation is the government’s response.
Don’t get me wrong. Certainly, Johnson and Co. are still blinkered and abominable Tories. At time of writing, April 4th, government has only just acknowledged the necessity of mass testing and has not even broached the subject of tracing. There’s still a desperate shortage of Personal Protective Equipment in hospitals, and social care workers lack any PPE at all. While individuals and small businesses are turning their hands to making masks and scrubs, the Tories have signally failed have to put in any orders, leaving beleaguered hospital trusts to support piecemeal what should be a proud national enterprise. As in my poem about cancer volunteerism, ‘If it is a War’, the British fight against coronavirus is being led by Mum and Dad’s Army, while the Keystone Kops hurtle down the wrong roads, frantically shaking hands, scratching their noggins, and saluting the NHS workers they have literally rubbished, leaving doctors, nurses and hospital support staff to fight a pandemic dressed in bin-bags.
As for cancer itself, the massive diversion of limited NHS resources to coronavirus patients, already means that vital cancer operations are being delayed; while, having gone through chemo myself, I can’t imagine that any chemotherapy patient could survive Covid-19. In the UK as well as India, cancer patients, along with disabled people who will likely be denied ventilators if infected, are fast becoming hidden victims of the pandemic. None of this pain and suffering can be denied, and while it is right for Labour to work in the national interest at the moment, a day of reckoning must one day come.
But at the same time, let’s recognise – and seize upon as the bedrock of post-corona society – the fact that on a fundamental principle of social justice, the Tories have, astoundingly, overnight, caved: in their commitment to unprecedented spending on health and social care the Conservatives have finally acknowledged that you cannot put a price on life. Critics are right to point out the inevitably uneven spread of largesse in this chronically unequal society, but that this principle has been established in financial deed, not just empty words, and is backed by national and world governments and banks, is a potential game-changer. Already we see Britain, France and Germany flouting American sanctions to provide humanitarian support to Iran, and hear a loud international call for Israel to finally end its brutal blockade of Gaza, where the medical system is already on its knees, lacking reliable electricity, basic supplies and medicines. We cannot put a price on beyond-human life either: as Extinction Rebellion is still demanding, governments also need to go on a war footing to save our only home. Coronavirus proves it can be done.
This empathic response reminds me of my cancer experience. Although the holistic therapies were largely volunteer-led, I was offered an incredible range of support while I was ill, from exercise classes and a personal trainer, massage, counselling, a retreat in Bath, and, from the state, free prescriptions for five years. Due to having a life-threatening illness, I felt that I counted for something in the eyes of society. Other parallels between cancer and coronavirus, for me at least, are the sense of being in it for the long haul, and the nightly struggle with insomnia as my daily routine shrinks out of shape. But late nights and early mornings are also invaluable time for inner housekeeping. I’ve started a dream journal and kindness meditations, tapping back into the gratitude I discovered during my cancer treatment. Then, I was just happy to be alive. Here in lockdown, I feel incredibly lucky to have a job, friends I can see onscreen, fresh air, local shops, YouTube yoga, the sea at the foot of my road. I also treasure WhatsApp and email conversations with my family in Canada, to whom I have been so much closer since my illness. I recognise that many single people will be feeling lonely under quarantine, but I am not. The opposite, in fact. My days at home are happy and productive ones. So much so that, watching the news last night and hearing a suggestion that restrictions are to be eased after Easter, I found myself panicking: what, over so soon!? I guess I am a bit like David Lynch . . .
Obviously I don’t want the economic standstill to continue indefinitely at the expense of others’ lives and livelihoods. But ultimately, cancer and coronavirus are both existential crises; both demand we slow down and make essential changes to our way of life. Much has to change in this world if we are to leave today’s children a planet worth living on: as cancer was for me, may the coronavirus prove to be humanity’s medicine. That means no sunbathing, folks! You need to stay at home today and make a lovely no-sew mask!
Graph from The Lancet.
No Sew Mask instructions from Japanese Creations