On New Year’s Eve, actually New Year’s Day as it had gone midnight, I suddenly felt more than ever the claustrophobia this pandemic has inflicted on us. I wanted to be at a party, I wanted to be able to meet new people, I wanted to be able to idly chatter about the year that had just gone by, and to dance in between conversations, and to carelessly drink beer whilst listening to tunes with a thrumming bass, to pop out into the unseasonable night warmth for a cigarette and more aimless chatter. But, but, but … 2020, 2021, 2022 … We’re now into the third calendar year in which we’ve been imprisoned by this dreadful virus, more people than ever are ill with it, and cases keep rising and will keep rising unless there is a step change on how governments and individuals act.
My perception here and now is that if those who say they are in power had focused their power more intelligently, more constructively, at the very beginning, it would have mitigated against this fourth (I lose count) wave. To celebrate a spurious date in July 2021 as Freedom Day was the height of irresponsibility and stupidity. To stop compulsory mask-wearing was madness. And then I hear today that some politician has said that having secondary school children wearing masks in their classrooms will have a negative impact on their mental health! I think losing a member of their family or friendship circle to covid will have even more of an adverse impact on their mental health. The longer this pandemic goes on unchecked (and it is unchecked, and has been from the very beginning), the more their mental health will suffer, not because of mask-wearing, but because of these cages of isolation the mismanagement of the pandemic has locked us into.
The prime issue here has been that rich countries have made no single concerted and committed effort to ensure that poorer countries have sufficient vaccines to immunise their populations once, never mind three times like we have been. That makes for a vicious circle of reinfections on a global scale, and one which will repeat forever unless something changes. We need to get everyone vaccinated, even if the vaccines only lessen the virus’ effects rather than eliminating the virus itself. But the West has always been singularly selfish and self-centred – it is the West, after all, which calls itself the Developed World, in which charity and altruism wither. And that cascades down to individual attitudes to the virus and to vaccination, where conspiracy theory upon conspiracy theory abound, where anti-vaxers and anti-maskers care about no-one but themselves and their horizontally and vertically challenged minds. If you’ve not yet watched Don’t Look Up, do it now.
Where is the writer’s place in all this? Yes, we need to document the pandemic, we need to criticise governments, need to tell the stories of those who have been ignored and rejected, been left to die by governments which would heap burden after burden on health services they are defunding. But, and this is a big but, do we have to reflect the pandemic in everything we write? Do we have to theme our work so that it reflects the world we are living in right now? Part of me thinks we should, although the other part of me thinks that this would make for a very monotone literary landscape. There’s a conflict here, one I can’t resolve in myself, never mind for others – writers must tell truths others fear to speak, and yet writers are people, too, affected by much more than “just” covid-19, things like love, grief, disillusionment, lack of self-esteem, depression, anxiety, passion, old age, desertion, doubt, loss of faith. And if those read like themes of the pandemic, that’s just the way it is.