Imagination games can help you laugh in the face of fear. So make-believe the dilemma of a pretend London family halfway through a fortnight of virtuous self-isolation after one member “got it”. No one else seems to have succumbed and the last of the PG Tips have gone. Should someone nip out to the corner shop?
You would, wouldn’t you? Probably. You wouldn’t breathe on anyone or hang around, you would make your purchase quick and rush away. But, remember, we are ruled by a “wartime government”. Things could get pretty Home Front very soon.
During the actual war, the one in which the Luftwaffe flattened the East End and 30,000 Londoners were killed, the capital was seen by some not as the home of chirpy cockney patriots who weren’t going to let a little Blitzkrieg get them down, but as an incubator of moral weakness and sedition. Now the city has been branded “ahead of the virus curve”, you wonder if similar fears will grow.
The capital has yet to have a full lockdown imposed and France-style police curfews do not (yet) feel imminent. But can we rule out the formation of bands of virus vigilantes roaming streets from Upminster to Uxbridge in search of quarantine-breaking plague traitors driven by stir-crazed cravings for anything from Angel Cake (Islington) to Oatley Organic Oat Milk (Camden) to reclaim lost retail freedoms? Or maybe just stepping out for some of that fresher air we’re all going to inhale once the bus and black cab drivers are laid up?
Managing social distancing within multi-human dwellings will present its own challenges. Gardens might become the equivalent of prison yards, with inmates exercising in them for 15 minutes a day while watchful neighbours wearing surgical masks peer at them fearfully from upstairs windows. Young professional couples ensconced in blocks of New London Vernacular will take turns sharing micro-balconies with cacti and folded Brompton bikes as COVID Watch volunteers patrol deserted public realm below.
It’s OK to get carried away. We are consenting adults and this is just a game. So let’s note that there was a time when London was a patchwork of discrete administrative jurisdictions and extra-legal sanctuaries with a jail on every street corner. The law seems to have been made up as those in a position to enforce it went along, and any who fell foul of it weren’t likely to receive much mercy. The place was heaving with disease back then too.
You might think it alarmist or flippant to publicly indulge in such dystopian reveries as the coronavirus death toll mounts. If so, be advised that some of London’s public servants have long been required to plan for large civil emergencies and wargame catastrophic social breakdown. Scenarios briefly explored in one borough have, I am assured, included supermarket freezers being requisitioned for keeping the dead fresh if local morgue capacity can’t cope. The option of seizing ice rinks was chewed over too, but ruled out when someone objected that corpses might get stuck to the surface. Harder to stack stiffs three-deep on ice rinks too.
So do not be alarmed, just laugh darkly instead. Think of it as a vaccine to fortify your spirits through the bleaker days ahead.
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