This week, I caved. I bought a box of face masks, delivered next day by Amazon (which for now at least seems to be resisting the urge to add an idiot surcharge to its panic-buy producs). I know that, in protecting you from coronavirus, wearing a face mask on your commute is basically useless. I also know that, if used improperly, they can actually increase your odds of contracting the disease. And yet here I am, awaiting the arrival of 20 of the things. I'm just glad I resisted the urge to get the ones with a plastic visor.
I'm not normally the kind of man to be panicked by a pandemic. I'm not a hypochondriac, nor a germophobe. I don't hallucinate deadly bacteria dancing across my keyboard, like I've stepped into some post-apocalyptic Dettol ad. In fact, I've got so much misplaced confidence in the rigours of my immune system that, in more normal times, I'd be comfortable licking the handrails on public escalators, if you asked me nicely enough and had a breath mint to hand. I once fished a three-day old prawn curry out of a bin because I thought that, actually, it would probably be fine if I microwaved it (spoiler: it wasn't).
But these aren't normal times and I no longer feel normal about the world around me. Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, has had a novel impact on the way that I, and all the other normally level-headed people I know, think about threat. Unlike SARs or swine flu or bird flu or BSE – or any of the myriad other international health scares that inspire 'Old Testament predicts CORONAGEDDON' headlines in the Daily Express – this one has precipitated a kind of thrumming anxiety that's impossible to switch off, ignore or reason with.
Perhaps it's because this post-Brexit, post-Trump world is one in which anxiety is the norm. In which the president's nuclear brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran has nudged the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than ever before. In which Russia and Saudi Arabia commit extrajudicial murder on foreign soil with no repercussions. In which governments still seem more concerned about protecting coal industry jobs than stopping our planet from setting on fire. Everything is grim all the time at the moment. Coronavirus – with its Hollywood transmission speeds and entire-country-on-quarantine response requirements – has dragged that background fear into the light. "If you thought you were scared before, then take a look at this."
My response, much as try to restrain it, has been to let animal panic tear toothily into logic. Every time someone on a train coughs, or sneezes, or brushes my hand with theirs while reaching for the door opening button, I wish a slow, drawn-out death upon them because THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT THEY'VE JUST SENTENCED ME TO. In my mind, every sniffle is yet another step on the path to Racoon City, even though I know (because I've Googled, twice today) that a runny nose is not a coronavirus symptom.
I also know that, even if I don't show any symptoms, that I'll be self-isolating within the fortnight. The process has already begun – I've cancelled plans, stopped going into the office, quit the gym (the latter wisely, after erupting at some poor, almost definitely corona-free man who had the gall to touch one of my weights, which I then bathed in so much disinfectant it became impossible to pick up). I'm afraid of strangers, of colleagues, of friends and family. After reading about someone who gave coronavirus to their dog, I'm now suspicious of mine, in case he's been leaving the house at night and licking the patients at Lewisham Hospital.
The reality is that I'm fine, and that even if I'm not fine, I'll still be fine, since I'm lucky enough to be comparatively young, comparatively healthy and to live in a comparatively prepared, medically advanced country. It's the at-risk that I should be worried about, yet here I am, holed up at home, in a fortress built from bulk-bought risotto rice and loo roll and surgical masks (I lied, I did get the ones with the special plastic shield), spraying disinfectant at my cat every time he tries to creep his way inside. It's lonely in here, and at the moment, it's a hell of a lot more poisonous than the world it's supposed to be protecting me from.
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