With all of this hand washing and sanitizing I feel like a method actor rehearsing for the part of Lady Macbeth. The trouble is that this ‘damned spot’ is invisible to the human eye, whereas in Shakespeare’s play it’s the work of the character’s overwrought imagination. No amount of liquid soap from the Kimberley Clark dispenser in the toilet, no prolonged drying of hands inside the crevasse of the Dyson Air Blade, no thorough application of anti-bacterial Ecoclenz from the pump-action bottle on my desk can fully reassure me. Maybe, just maybe, my card is already marked.
For someone my age I’ve been through this kind of thing before with the AIDS pandemic, though that never really worried me if I’m honest. Since then the only viruses I’ve sought to avoid are the ones that might affect the performance of my computer. So, having to share equipment with my co-workers, whenever my fingers happen to alight on a keyboard or manipulate a mouse I inevitably wonder just how thorough the cleaners have been and whether other fingers might have left behind a deadly residue – the dreaded novel coronavirus. Touching surfaces is therefore to be avoided at all costs. Is that pen lying on the keyboard kosher or not? Better not risk it then.
My predicament is like that of a character in a film – I’m Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette with Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter. One of my colleagues mutters that we should be getting danger money. I’m inclined to agree with him. When I worked as a Post Clerk in Winson Green Prison in Birmingham during the 1980s I got an extra yearly allowance of £400.
Despite the fact that the government has advised us not to congregate in large numbers, here I am in a massive open-plan building with hundreds of other people. I work the late shift from 4pm until midnight. My job is pretty routine stuff: I index documents after they’ve been scanned. It’s something that could easily be done from home.
Hearing Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in his daily briefings gives me about as much confidence in the veracity of what he is uttering as listening to Comical Ali during the Iraq War. What next? Pritti Patel being seconded as an adviser for The Samaritans? The dog eat dog situation in the country at large doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Locusts stripping supermarket shelves bare is what you’d expect. These are, after all, Thatcher’s children – ‘there’s no such thing as society’ is what the Iron Lady said when she gave an interview to Woman’s Own in 1987, and now we are getting to see what that actually means in practice.
Although her ‘fake news’ followers invoke the spirit of the Blitz, they are in the main self-centred, cowardly individuals suffering from cognitive dissonance, who fail to understand that only socialist policies can effectively deal with a pandemic on this kind of scale. Choosing to ignore this unpalatable truth, Thatcher’s children are drawn instead to metaphors of war. We are fighting the virus. It attacks the body. It is our sworn enemy. We have to kill it through vaccination. Moreover, a vaccine is going to be our wondrous V weapon. It’s just that we haven’t managed to develop one yet.
The irony is that the Germans are the heroes these days – despite the vast number of cases in that country they have managed to successfully keep a lid on the number of deaths. In the UK, despite the tub-thumping rhetoric to be found in the tabloids, the British government is acting like Neville Chamberlain. It’s pursuing a policy of appeasement.
To cough or sneeze is to be immediately suspected of harbouring the virus, and I therefore can’t help wondering when the first person flouts the dress code and enters the building wearing a mask. This leads me to further speculation as I envisage Apple rushing to bring out a stylish model of facemask – with blue-tooth capability – priced at a reasonable £499.99. After all, how can you put a value on someone’s life?
Throughout my shift the virus consumes my thoughts, and drowning has always been one of my greatest fears. It’s the idea of gasping for breath that I find particularly disconcerting, and from what I understand Covid-19 undermines the body’s defences by causing a severe form of pneumonia, and pneumonia feels very much like drowning. Like an army of occupation the virus even muscles in on my conversations, like the Ancient Mariner buttonholing the wedding guest in Coleridge’s ballad.
Indeed, the current situation reminds me of the period that followed the declaration of hostilities in 1939 – the so-called ‘phoney war’ as historians call it. Given that there were no immediate air raids people couldn’t quite grasp the full horror of what was about to be unleashed upon them. No one they knew had been wounded yet, no one had died. But as Bane proclaims in The Dark Knight Rises: ‘Now is not the time for fear. That comes later.’
[The author’s place of work – the Student Loans Company –was shut down on 24 March, and for a time he worked from home. He has since handed in his notice.]