A columnist confronts the pandemic
It has been a year since the pandemic started to affect Western societies. Here is how one columnist coped as the months unfolded.
February/March: In the beginning, all was confusion. In the early stages, a “last days of Saigon” feel pervaded the city centre. The trains and offices became steadily less crowded; more and more shops closed for lack of staff. Parents turned into hunter-gatherers, desperately foraging in the supermarket aisles for the last supplies of pasta. Successful scavengers’ trolleys overflowed with rolls of toilet paper. People were braced for dystopia.
Office workers hastily caught up on the disaster-recovery plans they had previously ignored and were grateful if they were able to get a good broadband connection. Bartleby remembered that he had left all his research back at the office and made a sheepish return to a near-empty building. Heading back out with a rucksack of books and papers, he felt like a very nerdish barbarian participating in the sack of Rome.
April: Some individuals were still struggling to master Zoom etiquette. Faced with an editorial meeting on a bank holiday, Bartleby combined it with a soothing river walk. At some point, his phone (while still in his pocket) became unmuted, meaning that his heavy trudge, and heavy breathing, was audible to every other participant on the call. In blissful ignorance, he returned home to a blizzard of emails, tweets and WhatsApp messages telling him to shut up. Sure enough, “you’re on mute” and “please mute yourself” became the breakout phrases of 2020.
May: Perhaps the best month of the lockdown. The British weather was good, with the sunniest spring on record, making it possible to work in the garden. The novelty of working from home had yet to wear off, and the absence of the daily commute was still a blessing.
June: A “Groundhog Day” syndrome had set in. Every day seemed the same; weekends lost their meaning. The main dilemma for the month was whether to cancel the summer holiday, or to hold on in the hope that the decline in COVID-19 cases was permanent. The prospect of any break in routine seemed absurdly alluring.
July: Foreign holiday cancelled. Start to fantasise about ways of shortening Zoom meetings. How about a countdown clock, like the ones on television game shows, as speakers approach the one-minute mark, with a loud buzzer at the end? Hint to all participants: when the person chairing the meeting asks, “Does anyone else have any comments?”, the correct answer is invariably “No”.
August: Rain ruins short domestic holiday. Restaurants reopen and Britons recreate the feasts of Bacchanalia. “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we get locked down” seems to be the (prescient) motto. Meetings no shorter on return to work. More extreme measures clearly required: a mild electric shock for those who speak for more than two minutes? Or the “raise hand” button could be converted into a “thumbs down” function. If more than half the participants press it, the speaker is cut off.
September: Just as The Economist organises weekly in-person gatherings so staff can start the process of returning to work, cases begin to rise. Tip for readers: if Bartleby is invited to a summer party in 2021, it is a sign of the impending apocalypse.
October: Head back to now-empty office to pick up more books. Feel like archaeologist analysing ancient civilisation. In this era, humans sat in glass booths so they could be observed at all times. They also gathered in “meeting rooms” to take part in religious ceremonies conducted by a priest known as the “manager”, who recited a long list of meaningless tasks penitents must undertake.
November: British government imposes new national lockdown on November 5th. From this year on, the date will no longer be commemorated as “Guy Fawkes night” but as “Boris Johnson day”. All citizens will celebrate by wearing masks, washing their hands obsessively and avoiding their neighbours.
December: The house has lights, and a tree. But the real meaning of Christmas now becomes clear: no more Zoom meetings for at least a week. Not just silent nights, but silent days as well.
January: The vaccines are on their way to save us. Perhaps at some point in 2021, Bartleby will be back on the London underground, crammed in like a sardine while waiting for the platform to clear at Earl’s Court. Suddenly, social isolation doesn’t seem so bad after all.