It’s Saturday 11th April 2020 and I’m waiting outside a restaurant in Clifton and he says to me ‘excuse me, do you want to go for a coffee with me some time?’ He’s another Deliveroo rider and he’s wearing lycra. I panic briefly and unwanted attention from men wasn’t something I’ve been preparing for in this new reality, in fact I thought the complete shutdown of society might make men cool it a bit in terms of that kind of behaviour. I find my first excuse and what I thought is quite a reasonable one, ‘um, where? Everywhere’s closed, and we’re not really allowed to do that’. He’s got an answer. ‘In my country we don’t obey the rules’. He’s from Poland. I’m lost for a minute and I take his number, that ends 007, ‘like James Bond’, he says. I cycle away as quickly as possible and hope I never bump into him again.
My evening had started with doubling up a curry to Southville and a pizza to Leigh Woods up the hill from Avon Gorge to the edge of Ashton Court and I cycle back to Clifton along the Suspension Bridge and look out over Bristol to Dundry Hill and beyond. I’m trying to vary the podcasts I listen to so I’m not consuming too much news while there’s not much good to hear about the world. I wonder if the media might have behaved differently in order to reduce social panic and avoid playing into general anxiety and fear during this crisis. Newspapers and news agencies are trying to stay afloat as much as anyone else and that often means sensationalising or appealing to the lowest common denominator yet they also have to balance this with a responsibility to encourage socially responsible behaviour and convey public health messages. The British press can’t be trusted with this delicate tightrope walk and a few weeks ago ran with stories blaming China for a cover-up and EU negotiators with infecting our ministers and dear leader BJ with the virus sticking to its tried and tested line of blaming foreigners for something that British government had plenty of time to plan in advance and which it abjectly failed to do. This article looks at way in which the UK government willfully ignored warnings coming from Wuhan in January this year and deliberately played down the risks for around two months when instead it could have been preparing in order to avoid what has become a far more damaging lockdown and resulting economic crash. Maybe a lockdown couldn’t have been avoided, I’m not an expert, but I’m fairly sure that two months of dithering and relying on British spirit to see us through hasn’t helped matters. Despite dire warnings from Chinese doctors of the severity of the crisis, a British coronavirus action plan wasn’t drawn up until 3rd March. British exceptionalism has infected public discourse in such a damaging way in recent years (or since forever) that until 13th March it was assumed that the hardy British herd could become immune without consequence. So while the press as well as the government had a responsibility to proactively warn publics of an upcoming public health threat, I get an email today from Al-Jazeera with the subject heading Getting ready for the next pandemic and that seems unreasonable. One at time, surely? Or maybe just one in a lifetime?
‘I’m just worried about my mum, man, she’s 60’, I overhear someone saying on Stokes Croft as I cycle past Poco on the way up to Gloucester Road. ‘Yeah I hear you’ comes the reply. I talk with my friend R about his parents not taking the risks of infection seriously. ‘She told me she had to go to the shop for mozzarella and I was like, Mum, mozzarella is not essential! And then she asked me if she could stay at home and smoke a spliff and I said, yeah ok, but will it make you feel better?’ Seems like the older generation are chilling out while we panic about them going out too often. My own mother is fine as long as she can still go to her allotment. I listen to news on the radio of the slow and undignified implosion of US politics. The other day I watched the film Contagion, an eerie 2011 Hollywood take on a deadly virus that spreads from bats to pigs via Chinese chefs to humans, and then quickly across the globe, leading to the breakdown of society and widespread panic and looting followed by morbid competition over access to a vaccine. There’s quite a bit in the film that seems familiar, particularly the social distancing and recriminations. However, there’s one glaring flaw at the centre of the film that is not just ridiculous but reveals something telling about the US cultural psyche. Despite the fictional virus MEV-1 originating in the Macau, China via an unhygienic chef, patient zero is somehow a blonde American woman played by Gwyneth Paltrow. You don’t have to be a statistician to work out that the chances of an American on a business trip being the first one to catch a virus that originates in China is slim to impossible. Yet more than this, it highlights the inability of the Hollywood imagination to put someone else at the centre of the story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche spoke about the dangers of a single story, about what kinds of prejudices and stereotypes dominate when all you hear about a place is a single narrative, in her example the single narrative of Africa as poverty and disease-ridden and in need of aid. If this is the only story you hear of Africa, the only cognitive mode you develop in response is necessarily paternalistic and reductive, because you haven’t received narratives to develop a three-dimensional picture. Similarly, if (US) Americans have only ever seen themselves as the centre of the world, as the protagonists of the global drama, then they may exhibit a lack of empathy required to develop an openness to solidarity.
This is the danger of exceptionalism meeting the singular story. Witness the recent diversion of face masks meant for Germany to the US under an obscure military law. Or Trump’s attempt to procure a vaccine from a German company for exclusive use in the US. This kind of behaviour is not new or indeed, sadly, exceptional, just look at the WTO’s drug patenting regime that make it difficult for poor countries to gain access to life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs or other life-saving medication to protect the profits of US and Swiss pharmaceutical companies. Somehow people still look to the US for some form of moral or political leadership even if just in otherwise empty rhetoric, at a time of crisis, but there’s no Kennedy in the White House. Instead its populism as usual, and blame the experts like Fauci, the WHO and of course, the Chinese, despite evidence that more index cases in the US came from Europe than from China. The chief vulture wanted the economy to be back up and running by Easter, to see packed churches on Easter weekend, and is still weighing up a grim calculation of GDP versus the lives of citizens to push for an early end to lockdown. The voices coming from Trump and the wider US corporate cult prove that it would literally rather kill off the country’s grandparents in order to protect share prices. If there’s anything good that could come out of this bleak debate cutting through US politics at the moment, and the tussle between the White House and the states, it’s the realisation if anyone needed it that US-led neoliberal capitalism is profoundly broken. Not only does it continue to rely on the sweat of the lowest paid to shoulder the risk of exposure to the virus in the country’s Amazon warehouses, supermarkets and streets, but it has its eye more on the stock market than the death rates and the mass graves and the morgues.
And Easter came and went and there were no packed churches but there were empty streets in Bristol. The Suspension Bridge was just for cyclists tonight. I take the magic roll to Cotham and noodles to Redland and Henleaze and back down Gloucester road and that’s about it for tonight. The night may have started on a romantically complicated note but it ends with my preferred outcome of a solitary cycle around the Bearpit, through town, across Castle Park, and home.