‘Waiting for the world to begin again’— a letter from a plague
I know it’s been a while since my last letter. But we agreed, didn’t we, a few months before you died when I broke down in the hospital, that I’d get on with life?
The thing is, 25 years after you left us, we’re in the middle of another plague. I had to let you know.
Yesterday, as the nation woke, the Prime Minister, announced from Downing Street that he had ‘tested positive.’ I should get one thing straight. It’s not HIV.
We’ve kind of got that under control now in the developed world. Though in poverty’s grasp, it’s still slaughtering— 770,000 in 2018.
Here, you can even take a drug called PrEP which helps to stop it. A bit late for you, I know. And in London, where we were, they had to fight to get it on prescription.
Imagine that, after all the suffering and the loss. Thirty-two million and counting across the globe.
Anyway, this plague is called COVID-19. There’s something eerily Sci-fi about that name — like HTVL-3 all over.
But everything has a name nowadays, even the storms. Apparently, people are more likely to act after hearing a name than a bad weather forecast.
Remember poor old Michael Fish and that woman who phoned about the 1987 storm when we were holed up in Madrid? They’re two a penny these days.
We’ve already had Brendan, Ciara and Dennis this year and it’s only March. And it’s not just the wind, it’s the rain. Floods as well as plagues. We’re praying the locusts will stay away.
But back to this plague. Honestly, it’s like something from a disaster movie. They weren’t really our bag back then were they? And I’m definitely avoiding them now.
The thing is when I heard those words ‘tested positive’ I couldn’t help conjuring up the moving pictures of our life together. And how it all began — on the bench at Victoria Embankment 35 years ago, the rest of the world scurrying by.
‘I’m positive’, you said. So nervous you couldn’t even look at me. Thinking I might just walk away. Hoping I wouldn’t. ‘It’s okay’, I replied, barely pausing. And the rest, well that’s history. Those 10 years made me the person I am today.
This plague isn’t like ours though. You don’t get it from sex or drugs, or any of those nasty things that made people shun us. You can catch it just by walking past someone if you come close enough. And we can’t see it — so we have a two-metre rule.
So — everyone’s at risk. And everyone’s talking about it. In fact, we’ve stopped talking about pretty much anything else. Life before COVID is a foreign country. Life after COVID is dry land we can’t see.
And there’s this whole self-isolation thing, to keep others out of harm’s way. In hospitals, people wearing protective equipment to keep themselves safe.
This time they really must. But I can’t help thinking of that nurse who wore a mask and gown to deliver your newspaper in the early days. I know it was just fear. But still.
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a respiratory syndrome. So, of course, I think about Tim too, dying alone in his bed from pneumonia because he was too frightened to talk to anyone. Even me.
So many resonances I’m tripping over them. The global death toll so far is just 28,000 today. But it’s rising fast and it looks like exponential is a word we’re going to get to know horribly well.
Already a quarter of the world is in lockdown. Here, we can barely leave the house. Instructed by the Government no less. ‘Stay at home, save lives.’ I know it’s right — I’ve been urging the message as much as the next person.
But, you know, back then we could barely make people turn their heads to start with. And then they stuck a tombstone on the telly.
This time, here, at least, our leaders are working day and night to get us through this nightmare. Some argue it’s too late, not enough — that’s democracy.
In the US it’s a terrifyingly different story. This guy called Trump — you’ll be glad you didn’t live long enough to see him in the White House — he makes Reagan look rational. From a different kind of movie altogether.
I spoke to a gay friend in Manhattan last night and thought of the devastation we witnessed there in 1989. Now, no sooner than they’ve written their stories of how to survive a plague, this one comes along.
This time, so far, there are only ‘innocent’ victims. That’s good. A life’s a life. I just wish yours had been worth a bit more back then. And Tim’s. And all the rest.
Of course, I know this plague will discriminate too. They always do.
The aftershock in poorer communities will be greater everywhere. Soon it’ll reach the developing world — and the refugee camps (we’ve more of those than you could imagine but that’s another story). When it does the death toll will dwarf the numbers here.
It’s all quite unfathomable really. Who knows where we’ll be in three months? Or even three weeks — which brings me to a letter from Italy I read in the Guardian yesterday.
‘I am writing to you from Italy’, the writer says, ‘which means I am writing from your future. We are now where you will be in a few days. The epidemic’s charts show us all entwined in a parallel dance.’
You’ll remember Italy, of course. Our 1985 trip to Venice and Florence in the first attack of love. And just a few years later, in our thirties — the nearest we got to middle-aged bliss — roaming the Marche hills. Up with the sun, reading to each other in the lamp-lit evenings.
I saw a video of Florence the other day. It’s a ghost town — its people locked away in their houses. Like us, waiting until it’s safe to come out.
Country by country, the world is closing down — holding its breath.
I‘m going to sign off now. I hope life in Rossetti’s ‘silent land’ is treating you well. Perhaps I’ll write again soon. I guess I should let you know how this plague ends.
And I’ve time on my hands. We’re furiously busy in the new normal, keeping everything going. You wouldn’t believe the digital connectivity.
But, in truth, waiting — for the world to begin again — is all most of us can really do. What that world will look like, none of us knows. Yet.
- With thanks to Ricky Ross
- This post is a available as a Podcast here