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It’s an ill virus that spreads no good!

by Julian Dowse

When Princess Diana’s death convulsed much of the world in 1997, I can well remember the  near wall of flowers that surrounded Buckingham Palace having been left by visiting mourners. By the day of her funeral there were so many floral tributes that the collective perfume of the bouquets filled the London air. Many of London’s main roads were closed for her funeral procession. It was observed by many it took the death of Diana to imagine what a pre-industrial London was like: fragrant and still, except for the noises of people talking and carriages moving through its stately streets.

The social, economic and, inevitably, political convulsions, caused by the corona virus are unprecedented.

Yet, maybe, like 1997, we have to look for silver linings amidst the shutdowns, lockouts, panic buying, cancellations and quarantines. Probably more than ever.

The world’s environment may well have a reprieve from the worst of our excesses. During China’s recent economic shutdown there was a marked change in the appearance of Beijing’s sky. May a thousand sunbeams bloom! There will be fewer emissions from aircraft as the world is forced to return to an almost pre-industrial state. The water in Venice’s canals are suddenly translucent and fish can be seen. Maybe clipper ships will become back in vogue? As industries inevitably  scale back production for the foreseeable future, there will be fewer noxious emissions around the world. 

At the risk of disclosing a personal prejudice, there could finally be hope that retirees will no longer be trapped on cruise liners. I always thought there were many reasons to avoid voluntarily risking cabin fever on the high seas and my fears are now confirmed! The ill-named Diamond Princess may have forever dimmed the lustre of  twee seaborne adventures for the elderly.

In focussing on combating the virus, we have been distracted  from the contest for the Presidency of the world’s most important democracy that will take place in November. The incumbent President has shown very little understanding of what democracy means during his term. His likely opponent, Joe Biden, shows very little understanding of where he was last week. Notwithstanding the candidates’ combined 151 years, there is nothing to inspire confidence that wisdom and judgement lurks within either of them. And, isn’t it lovely not to be bombarded by the media about the daily life of Harry and Meghan?

The notion of Lenten sacrifice has been suddenly made real for all of us by an episode that insurance companies may be stretched to describe as “an act of God”. So many things that existed to distract and amuse us have been removed from our cultural experience: sporting events, concerts, film festivals, dramatic performances and simple ‘static’ gatherings of 500 or more.  So many seminal events will have an asterisk beside them for the year 2020. No ANZAC Day marches. No parades on St. Patrick’s Day, and pubs closed in Ireland! No one knows when normality is to return. The police have, rather surprisingly, announced they will cease conducting random breath tests. Well, I guess they consider that not as many people will be heading out to “pubs and clubs, games, screens and stages” for the foreseeable future.

The confidence to ask one’s neighbour for a “cup of sugar” may be replaced by a request “for sheets of toilet tissue.” More importantly, people will have to time to consider what matters truly to them as they construct new patterns of life and regimens. We might not be able to smell the roses as autumn looms, but there is much around us to admire and notice. 

Walking to work today, the flocks of corellas seemed larger and noisier. They have reclaimed their ascendancy over the noises of a diminishing number of cars. The trees lining the streets seemed more vibrant and imposing.

The vaccine will be developed. To paraphrase Hugo, “There is nothing so powerful as a vaccine whose time has come.” When it does, and the worst period of transmission risks passes, we will recognise the unsung heroics of our woefully underpaid and unrecognised scientists and healthcare workers.  Another tangible benefit!

For those owning a business facing closure, for those casual workers who may lose their regular employment, for a retired pensioner whose income has evaporated, for those stranded in Australia and unable to travel to visit elderly relatives in other countries, what I have written could be dismissed as romantic and sententious drivel.

However, history reminds us that there have been many times when it appeared that we were heading to hell in a handbasket, but we survived. Following the defusing of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy spoke to a graduation ceremony at the University of Washington in June, 1963. Reflecting on the near Armageddon of months earlier, he exhorted the graduands:

"So, let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

The coronavirus has compellingly reminded us of Kennedy’s observations. To cherish what we have and to provide for the future is once again our challenge. In its relentless march across the world, the virus has jolted us all.  Presently, matters seem out of our control. But to preserve our fragile existence, we may have to accept that, despite our material and scientific progress, we should never be so arrogant to assume that we are masters of the universe.  To borrow another of Kennedy’s observations, we are neither “omniscient nor omnipotent.” 

Sadly, the effects of the virus have led to selfish acts of breathtaking desperation. The ‘toilet roll wars’ and panic buying  in supermarkets will be a galling memory of this experience. Thankfully, the counter-revolution is slowly coming. Major supermarkets have allocated dedicated shopping hours to assist the elderly. As the abnormal becomes the temporary normal, people will learn to adjust, and maybe a greater number of us will recognise the myopia of a selfish, singular life. 

So, for more than forty nights and forty days, the Western world will endure a compulsory period of self-denial. Less will have to be more. There could be many unintended benefits. People may have to truly learn who their neighbours are, and possibly even learn to ‘love’ them. The Italians, even though stricken by the worst effects of the virus, have begun the process by singing to each other from the balconies of the apartments to which they are confined. A virulent commitment to recognise and act on what ennobles us, may well, in the long term, be the greatest unintended benefit of covid-19. Acts of the soul will be as important as much as ablutions with sanitisers to see us through.

February 2020

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