Coronavirus: A letter from London, with sinking confidence

3:41 pm on 25 March 2020

By Sophie Bateman *

Opinion - If you open our window as far as it will go and lean your body right out, you can almost see the bar we said we'd go to. Just past sight is the cash machine I ran to on the day we moved here, so I could pay the driver who had crammed our Ikea flatpacks into his van.

A man wears a medical mask as a precaution against coronavirus at deserted Leicester Square in London, United Kingdom on March 23, 2020.

A man wears a medical mask as a precaution against the Covid-19 coronavirus in Leicester Square, London. Photo: AFP

Just past that, a 24-hour bakery which makes bagels thick with slabs of salt beef. And beyond, the taco restaurant with a kitsch cocktail menu named for movie characters. I ordered the Patrick Bateman there, three weeks ago, shrieking with drunken delight. Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?

Our top-floor one-bedroom terraced flat is just off the high street of an increasingly trendy North London suburb that will likely reach full gentrification in the next five years. Or might have done, in the alternative future of three weeks ago.

It felt good to unpack our suitcases and burrow for rumpled summer clothes. To line up the espresso cups on the shelf just right, to hang our first posters on well-worn walls.

Even signing up for water and power bills felt less like a chore and more like accomplished homemaking.

It felt good. Well-earned after four nomadic months of house-sitting for Mormons and neurotic Glaswegian spinsters, stuffing our things into sticky AirBnBs, calling on the generosity of family friends. Four days here, a week or so there.

I moved to London at the end of October, after years of telling people I was going to. It was hard - the coffee was shit and the wine even worse.

But I got a job and everything was flushed with the glow of the big and the new and the bright. It was starting, after all that wandering and pleading, to feel like the right decision.

Then it was January, I was cold all the time and had to wake up at 5am to get on the Tube to work and there was a mystery illness killing people in China.

It was February: I was still cold but the sky was getting lighter in the morning. The illness had a name.

I wrote headline after headline about the coronavirus making its way to Britain, each sentence heaving with anticipation: the NHS would be "overwhelmed" in a "deadly" pandemic with martial law "inevitable!".

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

Readers cared until they didn't.

It was early March, coronavirus was here but its death toll was single-digit and elderly. A tragedy, but one I could easily push to one side.

The government clearly felt the same.

Despite having two entire months to observe and prepare as things got worse in China and then in Italy, the Conservative government (swaggering with the weight of its enormous parliamentary majority won in the distant memory of December) found itself scrambling together a last-minute plan for mandatory social distancing with incoherent exceptions and definitions that got redefined daily.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson  arrives at a news conference addressing the government's response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, at 10 Downing Street.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at a news conference addressing the government's response to the novel coronavirus Covid-19 outbreak, at 10 Downing Street. Photo: AFP

It's late March and we're only allowed out once a day to get food or medicine or to exercise alone, with no explanation of how this will possibly be monitored.

Only 'key workers' are allowed to leave home, a sensible-sounding policy until everyone realised no one knew who counts as a 'key worker'. Locksmiths? The Tube is as rammed as ever and there are fights outside pharmacies about who was first in line for the last pack of paracetamol.

Each day at 5.12pm (a scheduled failure of punctuality to suggest furious workings behind the scenes) we're treated to a gurning performance from a bloated paradox of a Prime Minister who wants to be both a grave-faced wartime leader and a chummy pub regular and is failing at both.

I try not to dwell on the horrific information the British government must have received in the last few days to force them to reverse their previous plan of mass murder by "herd immunity".

A lifetime of hypochondria isn't helping. My ability to think myself into a fever is proving debilitating as my temperature peaks into surely dangerous heights every time I get a BBC notification.

When I was ten I became hysterical at the prospect of bird flu, with all its talk of masks and rationing and having to stay inside. Now every cough, every tremor in a breath, every twinge in a muscle has me imagining a chain of events that might once have seemed irrational.

What if I picked up coronavirus during that risky walk in Clissold Park after we'd been inside for three days? What if the supply chains are disrupted and not even bran flakes and banana milk are left on the Tesco shelves? What if the internet cuts out and the outside world - quarantined, ever more alienated - becomes another feverish imagining?

What if I give the virus to my asthmatic husband and he gets sick and dies, and then I die?

A web of magical thinking has always anchored me in the certainty that if I imagine the very worst possibility, if I let it consume my every waking moment until I'm a nerve-stripped wreck, it won't happen.

I can feel that unearned confidence slipping now. It could all happen because it is all happening. There are no rules and no one knows what they're doing and almost everyone I care about is on an island in a different hemisphere with a leader who doesn't mind overreacting if it stops people dying.

Like many young New Zealanders including my parents before me, I moved to London because it felt like the next logical step.

Ambitious with no patriotism to speak of, I wanted to live in a proper country in a part of the world that mattered. I still do, and I don't regret leaving.

But I can't suppress the fear that maybe it was the worst thing I ever did.

* Sophie Bateman is a New Zealand journalist currently based in London.

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