A neighbour might have caught it. Two nights ago, while reading in bed, I heard, raw and clear, the sound of someone coughing from next door. It was a harsh, hacking, persisting kind of cough. I wondered about it. Then, Boris Johnson got me wondering some more. True, the words of the Prime Minister are not, by and large, to be relied on. But there he was on telly, flanked by two medical experts like they were Truth Police and he was on day release from Fibber’s Jail. If you have a new dry cough you should stay home for a week, he said. The cough next door did not sound old or wet. It sounded vicious. Can coronavirus pass through party walls?
The answer to that question is no. But daft thoughts, even when conjured for your own amusement, are just part of the swell of uncertainty and speculation that accompanies adjusting to the sudden and burgeoning intrusion into your life of an invisible bearer of disease. You decide you will go about your normal business, continue to move freely among fellow Londoners. But even as you the defy the slide into mass anxiety you find your behaviour has changed. You didn’t always push that swing door open with your toe. You didn’t used to think twice before resting a hand on a Tube escalator rail. Why have you chosen to stand in a space on the Overground train next to a door when there are so few fellow passengers in the seats?
We’re supposed to be part of a calm and measured national response. And not everyone is panic buying, not every shop in town has had its shelves denuded. But all over the city meetings are being cancelled and home working is being encouraged. The financial sector is busily decamping to its “disaster recovery sites” in Croydon. Shops, pubs, restaurants and schools remain open, yet parts of London life are locking themselves down anyway. Meanwhile, a new social etiquette is forming by the hour, as people hastily explain that their throat-clearing is a habit not a threat, and the mutual eschewing of handshakes becomes a humorous enactment of being all in this together. Somebody I know is trying to remember if he breathed in the other week when brushing past Mikel Arteta.
The capital, or more particularly, its globally-mobile cosmopolitan centre, has seen the largest numbers of confirmed cases so far. It’s a reminder that the psychology of urban sickness can have a political quality. Big cites are perceived as incubators and enablers of unfamiliar contagion, places that churn with alien infestations. Donald Trump’s characterisation of COVID-19 as a foreign invasion force for which defensive patriotism – as gloriously personified by himself, needless to say – is the strongest defence against infection smacked of an appeal to his backwoods base.
Of course, London does have form – you know, plague pits and everything. It isn’t true that Londoners’ unfriendliness means self-isolating and social distancing will come easily to us because it isn’t true that Londoners are unfriendly. And there are a lot us, and we do live close together, and we do seem to be becoming more conscious by the hour that this thing might very soon hit us very hard. We’re living in Corona City and I’m still wondering about that person with the nasty cough next door.
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