The sun in the early afternoon is very warm. BBC 3 is playing lieder music and dimly I can hear the toddlers who live next door fussing before their afternoon nap. Outside I see birds and some brazen field mice foraging on the bits I dropped in the garden. It is as if everything were normal. Abnormally normal.
And yet. A stillness hangs in the air. An airplane has just passed by, an ordinary thing here in Central London. And yet. Reading the news has informed me that airlines are massively cutting back their flights, so perhaps this ordinary tearing of the air will become more extraordinary.
The UK’s official government policy has not yet enforced the closures of schools nor workplaces. It is however informing individuals to self-isolate, and this, bit by bit, takes apart the fragile infrastructure of society. As privileged folks like me, with jobs done at a laptop start working at home, stop travelling, the numbers of people circulating around this busy city start to drop.
It would be tempting to think of this time of waiting, this gathering stillness as the defining experience of this time of viral spread.
What is happening now is not the story of this crisis. This is not a narrative of this time, but of several other times. In one sense, what is happening now is the preparation for future viral times. Mutual Assistance groups are forming, loosely, gathering together the well-intentioned. The one I’m following seems largely to generate influence in the here and now by informing the well-intentioned about how much work their neighbours are already doing running food banks, community organizations and support networks – as well as linking up individuals who have been isolated and need someone to run to the pharmacy.
In truth though, these mutual aid networks are not for now. They are building capacity for the time when the real narrative of the pandemic begins: the time when many people are infected, and so many are sick that seeing doctors is impossible. When the privilege of being healthy also embeds the responsibility to care for others – and not by adding to a spreadsheet or getting a prescription but by feeding the hungry, washing the feverish, cleaning the floor. Add to this the terrifying realization that many people who are immuno-compromised may not be with us when we emerge on the other side.
The other time of the virus is far longer, encompassing both the recent past and the longer future. This time of the virus includes its origins in animals whose habitats were encroached upon and who became (like people too) enmeshed in a persistent logic of capitalism that has destroyed the regenerative capacities of the earth’s ecosystem, and perhaps the regenerative capacities of people too. I talked a little bit about this in an interview here – but in my hopeful moments I like to entertain the thought that the practice of a quieter, slower pace of work may begin to set the groundwork for the changes of practice that have been necessary for so long – to assuage the climate crisis and to create the capacity for a society capable of regeneration and survival.
There are darker ends to the narrative of course. A country destroyed. A country in mourning for people it failed to save. Individual sadness, anxiety and grief brought on by social separation. Further distress for the people least capable of sustaining it: people living in refugee camps, recent arrivals who don’t feel at home, people struggling to feed their children or who are experiencing violence at home.
As the sun slants away and the animals flit in and out of view, I feel the change of times.