It is an unforgettable image from modern cinema: Cillian Murphy, awoken from a coma after 28 days and dressed in looted hospital scrubs, looking with dazed horror from Westminster Bridge at a panorama of empty devastation; a world overturned, it soon transpires, by a deadly virus that has raged through the land while he slept.
Now transplant such a figure to 20 April 2020: 28 days after Boris Johnson’s televised instruction for all Britons to “stay at home”. What would a person see from that same vantage point in the heart of London? A scene no less empty and deserted; an unrecognisable cityscape.
Danny Boyle’s blood-soaked horror classic 28 Days Later (2002) is scarcely a work of literal prophecy. Zombies do not stalk our cities – the coronavirus pathogen is an invisible foe – and, if police records are any guide, most forms of violence have declined significantly during the lockdown.
Yet the pace of change portrayed in the movie finds an uncanny echo in all that has happened to us since Monday 23 March. Indeed, how easy it is to forget – sequestered as we are in our homes – the sheer scale of the transformation that has unfolded in less than a month.
Was there ever a time when we were not told to keep two metres apart? Or when we did not wash our hands compulsively, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ (or nearest equivalent) twice? When did surgical masks stop being an eccentricity reminiscent of Michael Jackson and become as commonplace as a scarf in winter?
On our screens, we have watched a ghastly show-reel of loss and bereavement. A 13-year-old schoolboy, Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, from Brixton, south London, died in King’s College Hospital on 31 March, his family forbidden from being with him when he died and from attending his funeral; on 12 April, a heavily pregnant nurse, Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, 28, died at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital (her baby survived and is doing well); countless older couples have died within days of each other, such as Valerie Williams, 74, who passed away in Warrington the day after the funeral of her husband, Hefin, 80.
In such circumstances, as tragedy risks becoming routine, we quickly lose our moorings and our perspective. When Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announced on 15 April that there would be a “right to say goodbye”, enabling families to see relatives in care homes before they die, it seemed like a special dispensation – rather than something we took for granted until only a few weeks ago.
As the virus has swept through intensive care units and residential facilities, claiming many hundreds of lives a day, so the world outside these sorrowful places has changed in almost every respect.
Fundamental common law liberties such as freedom of association and movement have been signed away in an emergency act that will remain in force for two years (with reviews only once every six months).
The police now have powers to stop you leaving your home “without reasonable excuse”. They can break up a gathering of more than two people. They have claimed the right – not obviously reflected in the letter of the law – to stop you travelling to a favoured site for daily exercise or to walk the dog.
Are they over-reaching? As important as it is, that is not the core question. Before lockdown, the default position was that we could go where we pleased, and associate with one another as we liked, unless the law specifically said otherwise. Now the onus is on us to prove to the police – and, ultimately, the criminal courts – that our movements and meetings are “reasonable” under the Coronavirus Act 2020.
What is striking is the meekness with which all this was accepted by Parliament: a remarkable contrast to the furious rows of the past, over (for instance) the many anti-terror measures that have been proposed since 9/11. Not this time: the Government’s bill went through more or less on the nod.
To borrow one of Tony Hancock’s best lines, one wonders if Magna Carta died in vain. But that is not what the public is wondering. The polls show that – at least for now – it is overwhelmingly supportive of the lockdown, and of the withdrawal of these fundamental freedoms.
And perhaps this is not so surprising. For freedom, as an abstraction, tends to be a lesser priority when people are worried about putting food on the table, making rent and avoiding eviction.
It is much too early to say whether the Office for Budget Responsibility is right to envisage the shrinkage of the economy by 35 per cent and two million more people on the dole.
Again, however, the stakes are more fundamental: there is no precedent for what the Government has done, which is, essentially, to switch off the economy. Whole sectors of business have been closed down entirely.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has made millions more people dependent upon state support, effectively nationalising huge sections of the economy. More than nine million workers are expected to be “furloughed” under his job retention scheme. A further 1.2 million signed up for universal credit between the PM’s lockdown announcement and 9 April.
What will happen when the government tries to wean UK plc off this mechanical ventilation, jump-starting the system with its monetary and fiscal defibrillator? Will the economy’s vital signs recover quickly, or not? That, at least, is one of the known unknowns that are, or should be, giving us sleepless nights. Whatever exit strategy the Government finally chooses from lockdown, it will lead to a space of profound insecurity.
Already, the familiar rhythms of life have been utterly disrupted, with no guarantee that they will smoothly resume their pre-lockdown beat.
The nation’s schools and universities are closed indefinitely, accessible only to a tiny minority of pupils and students. Yet, for a measure of how quickly habituated we have become to dramatic change, consider the cancellation of this year’s public examinations.
Since their introduction in 1951, A levels, in particular, have been the defining moment of the British educational cycle: the culmination of 13 years at school, the entry ticket to university, and (generally) the portal to a middle-class career.
The comparative nonchalance with which the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced on 18 March that teenagers would not be sitting these exams (or GCSEs) was simply breathtaking. Yes, there is a serious conversation to be had in the months ahead about whether we really need the structure of all-or-nothing tests that, in modern times, has been the bedrock of our qualification systems.
But, for now, there is simply a yawning gap in the 2020 educational calendar – a space that was once stuffed full of expectations, anxieties and plans, all now vaporised.
For the best part of a month, extraordinary moments such as Williamson’s speech have become almost routine: the heir to the throne testing positive for Covid-19; the Excel Centre in east London – a venue for the London Olympics in 2012 – transformed into a Nightingale Hospital, with space for 4,000 beds, in only nine days; the Prime Minister’s life almost snuffed out by the very disease against which he had been leading the charge.
What made it possible for us to get used so quickly to such transformative change? Mark Earls, the acclaimed author of Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature, tells me that what behavioural economists call “redesigning the decision landscape” is initially exhausting, but made possible by enforced practice, and (crucially) the human impulse to imitate.
“Compliance with the lockdown guidelines is made much easier by the fact that most other people are falling in line,” he says. “Our residential streets are noticeably quieter – Camden Town’s birdsong is the loudest I remember it. The media are showing us the ghostly emptiness of Oxford Street and the like. The few people we do see on the streets when we venture out are either muffled or masked and alone or in pairs or small family groups.”
And at the heart of all this a bleak paradox: a struggle that requires us to act together by staying apart, to find solidarity in disaggregation. We express our camaraderie through the social discipline of the wide berth, meeting online or not at all, scurrying out of our hutches on Thursday evenings at 8pm to applaud the NHS and then scurrying back like mice in the lab, fearful of an electric shock if we stay out too long.
We have been here before, or so it seems to me. Not in real life, or in our reading of history, but in the neural patchwork of our collective imagination: there, in the grey zone of memory and emotion, we oscillate between shock at the mutating landscape of the pandemic, and a patchy recognition that much of this was, indeed, foretold.
If anything has prepared us for this, it is not public policy, or lessons learned from previous epidemics, or data charts, or operational drills in Whitehall. It is the fragments of culture that we have absorbed as fantasy, but now understand afresh as inadvertent prophecy.
There is, of course, the dystopian fiction of JG Ballard, suddenly made real in the empty streets, enforced isolation, and high-rise neurosis of the Covid-19 world.
There is the perilous loneliness of grief, making do and moving on, so brilliantly described in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. And there is the shimmering prospect of radically new surveillance technology – apps and barcodes that may govern the post-lockdown world – reminiscent of both Blade Runner movies or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Pop culture, too, has played its part. The infected do not roam the land – but 10 seasons of AMC’s television hit, The Walking Dead, have been an unexpected preparation for life after a game-changing crisis (a study in the human urge to collaborate and be decent versus the powerful forces that seek to thwart this instinct). Even Stephen King’s 1978 blockbuster novel, The Stand – which takes as its premise a pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population – now seems less like a wildly implausible thought experiment.
Refracted through this lens constructed of cultural shards, the new world is both familiar and alien. The media fizzes round the clock with what Saul Bellow called “crisis chatter”, fed by the daily press briefings in Downing Street.
Yet at a deeper, more authentic level we are gripped by a sort of aphasia: a collective inability to speak with confidence about the sudden knock of history at every door in the land.
According to legend, when the 16th-century conquistador Francisco Pizarro drew close to the shores of South America, the indigenous peoples were so traumatised by the size and alien nature of his ships that they saw only inexplicable ripples in the ocean.
Historically accurate or not, this story communicates a deeper truth about the capacity – or incapacity – of human beings to absorb and cope with dramatic, unexpected change; especially, as in this case, when it involves a daily death toll that is hard to comprehend, let alone accept.
The British reflex is to reach, off the shelf, for military language. It has long been natural to us – if horribly clichéd – to speak of the “Blitz spirit” in all situations of adversity. The wards where NHS staff labour round the clock in protective gear (when they can get it) to save lives, or at least to make death bearable, are universally described as the “front line”. The PM has said often that “we must act as a wartime government”, and is reportedly keen to announce some relaxation of the lockdown before the bank holiday on 8 May, the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
As the playwright Sir David Hare has noted, every generation since conscription ended in 1963 has dealt with “the absence of war” by seeking its own proxy conflict. As an example of this trope, the “war on coronavirus” is a natural. It is also a means of simplifying something that is horribly complex, of unknowable duration, and utterly capricious in its impact.
But there is still a broad streak of denial in our collective response to the pandemic. The appetite for an exit strategy from this lockdown is perfectly understandable – provided nobody expects the exit to lead straight back to the place we left on 23 March. And I think that, privately at least, many do expect that.
Much of what has been presented on social media as a profound personal revelation, or a life-changing behavioural shift, is merely modest experimentation masquerading as something else. Zoom calls, learning the violin, catching up with classic novels you never got round to reading, perfecting your chorizo bolognese: these are evidence of denial, not acceptance.
For the vast majority of people, lockdown is a nightmare to endure, not a surreal sabbatical. Deaths from domestic abuse have tripled: the group Counting Dead Women believes that 16 killings have taken place since the lockdown began, more than three times the usual rate for such a period.
Though overall crime has fallen, there have been 178,000 reported incidents of anti-social behaviour in the past four weeks, an increase of 59 per cent year-on-year.
As Mark Earls observes: “This will end up being as much a mental as a physical health pandemic – human beings are not built to live in isolation, to live in small cells, not being able to trust strangers.”
Food banks are barely able to keep pace with the demand for basic sustenance among newly-impoverished families. In spite of a theoretical ban on new evictions, the firms that handle the removal of people from their homes are taking on extra staff to deal with existing notices and those postdated to June. Charities and other organisations that help disabled people say that the care network is perilously close to collapse.
Yes, it is cause for celebration that one million people have volunteered to help the NHS in its hour of greatest need. But cautious optimism about the “new communitarian spirit” should be tempered by a flinty realism about the strains to which the basic social fabric is now subject. With good reason, JG Ballard defined epidemiology as “catastrophe theory in slow motion”.
These 28 days have not been an interlude before the gradual resumption of business as usual: they are the slip-road to something new.
Looking back on the past month, I am haunted by Raskolnikov’s delirium on his sick-bed at the end of Crime and Punishment: “…the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen…. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction.”
In isolation, such visions are more potent than usual. The experience of these weeks has been one of sensory overload but also of existential anxiety. The questions which have gnawed away at us reflect our collective inability to see over the much-discussed “peak” of the death toll. What will the valley below be like?
Alex Evans, founder of the Collective Psychology Project and author of The Myth Gap, frames this sensation well: “The grief we feel about coronavirus isn’t just because so many are dying: it’s also because at some level we know a way of life is passing too. Many things will never go back to normal. Grieving for that is both natural and necessary. But as well as mourning what we’re losing, it’s important that we pay attention to what’s being born. History shows us again and again how cataclysms lead to extraordinary renewal – from how the Black Death led to the Renaissance and the Reformation, to how World War II led to the postwar welfare state, the NHS, and the United Nations.”
But an enlightened outcome is scarcely assured. “We’re now fluttering between two scenarios,” Evans says. “A breakdown in which we turn on each other and the crisis becomes a catastrophe for health, prosperity and our ability to tackle existential challenges like climate change, or a breakthrough in which coronavirus becomes the spur for collective action on a scale we’ve never seen before. Which scenario we end up in depends largely on what goes on in our minds, and above all whether we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or just an atomised ‘I’.”
As in all moments of release – VE Day, the fall of the Berlin Wall – the end of the lockdown will be marked with a burst of human energy. What is uncertain is how that energy will be expended; in the service of what ideals or demons it will discharge itself.
In her classic essay on AIDs as a metaphor, Susan Sontag argued that rampant disease tends to have reactionary consequences. “Self-interest now receives an added boost as simple medical prudence,” she wrote. “All rapid epidemics, including those in which there is no suspicion of sexual transmission or any culpabilizing of the ill, give rise to roughly similar practices of avoidance and exclusion… the illness is such a perfect repository for people’s most general fears about the future.”
And this is true. Covid-19 has reminded us that the NHS and social care system would collapse overnight without immigrant staff – a point which the prime minister made in his very personal video tribute on 12 April to two nurses, “Jenny from New Zealand” and “Luis from Portugal”. who watched over him in intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital as he fought for life (unnerving coincidence – Cillian Murphy awakes from his coma in the same hospital in 28 Days Later).
But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Coronavirus – like many pandemics before it – has already nurtured all manner of chauvinisms. Even before lockdown, Britons of Chinese descent were experiencing heightened xenophobia, especially on public transport.
Travel bans and border closures are now the norm, rather than the exception. And there is a new taste, especially on the Right, for economic nationalism and self-sufficiency: a surefire route to perdition, as the 1930s showed to cataclysmic effect.
Conspiracy theories, too, have gained rapid traction in the past 28 days, as they invariably do in times of crisis: notably, the baseless claim that Covid-19 is caused by 5G technology. Dr Tanya Filer, of Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy, tells me that the soil will be ripe for witch-hunts and pseudo-science.
“Current circumstances have given 5G conspiracy theories a new, expanded lease of life, because these kinds of narratives flourish in conditions of uncertainty. They fill voids in evidence and understanding with a narrative that comfortingly, for their believers, leaves no question unanswered and no dot unconnected. The sense of powerlessness that many people are feeling today may also help the spread of conspiracy theories.”
The global scientific challenges ahead, Filer warns, will invite irrational pushback, weaponised by social media. “Given low levels of trust in medical research, it would not be surprising to see a proliferation of anti-science conspiracy theories over the coming months. Just as conspiracy theories quickly came to surround the flu vaccine and zika vaccine development, as vaccine development for Covid-19 picks up pace, it may increasingly become a focus of attention. When such beliefs are strongly held, it can be difficult to get believers to change their minds, even when presenting them with accurate information.”
Powerful forces are ranged against the better angels of our nature, and we sense this with gathering dread. But the news from the lockdown is not all bad.
We have learned that there was housing available for rough sleepers all along. In neighbourhood groups and voluntary networks serving the vulnerable, we have seen the birth of something like David Cameron’s “Big Society”, four years after he left office.
We have witnessed the remarkable enterprise and innovation of businesses called upon to build equipment for the health service, and the creation of new mega-hospitals in little more than a week. We have, let us hope, acknowledged once and for all that the stain on the nation’s conscience that is social care must be addressed, with thought, will and money. We have watched former champions of the minimal state make the case for something close to a universal basic income: necessity has been the mother of invention and the solvent of decayed ideology.
For me, the mirror-image – and book-end – to Raskolnikov’s nightmare is the speech of Prior, afflicted by AIDs but determined to survive, delivered before the fountain of Bethesda in New York’s Central Park, that concludes Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away…. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come…. More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
More life. Great work. These are daunting but appealing prospects for a nation awaiting release from its confinement.
But for now, like a solitary person in the chilly dawn, surveying an empty bridge, we face challenges enough in getting through the next 28 days.
All photographs Getty Images