- Raptor Velocity
- The C-word.
We need to talk about the pandemic.
In Britain, at least, our much-vaunted national resilience has led to a collective repression of the Covid pandemic. We stiff-upper-lipped ourselves into Eating Out to Help Out and then the Pandemic Was Over and now this horrendous global ravaging mostly exists as a strange cultural moment, memorialised solely as that season of Taskmaster where everyone was sitting really far apart.
We don’t ever talk about Covid. We simply mention it as a thing that happened, but, you know, ‘we’re ok’. Instead, we talk around Covid. Covid is a Thing to Blame. It is why a restaurant closed. Covid is a Benchmark. It is the ‘level at which’ things get ‘back’ to. Covid is a series of erratic squiggles on charts and timelines: a thing that happened, until, apparently, it didn’t. Covid itself: the experience of the pandemic, is, at best, blurry. And at worst, a conversation topic that is actively avoided.
I had, by all accounts, a ‘good’ pandemic. I got very badly ill, something that, again, because British, I kept extremely quiet. Aside from that? (As the joke goes, ‘Aside from that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?’) We live in an area of outer London with a lot of green space. My employer was considerate. (Anne’s was trash.) Our very young child was sure there, but he’s great, and, more importantly, he was of an age where he doesn’t remember any of it, and didn’t miss out on anything. We had groceries and a stable internet connection. Our family were on a different continent, but they were careful and stayed healthy. My job was secure and gave me a sense of purpose. I overworked, but… all in all: I was ok.
Well, except when I wasn’t.
There’s a field by our home. Again, we live in a not-wildly-salubrious part of outer London. But it is a very nice field. Big. Grassy.
At one point, when the world was starting to realise how very bad everything was about to become, the government started erecting temporary morgues.
We had one materialise in our very nice field. A vast structure. That uniquely awful species of temporary-permanent architecture that will forever remind me of my high school gymnasium. A gleaming, artificial whiteness that conveys bigness. No Tardis here: this was vast inside and out.
It was there because the people who are meant to take care of us assumed we would die. By the droves. The scores. The countless thousands. They anticipated so many deaths that the ordinary processes by which dead bodies are bagged and tagged and discreetly whisked away would not be able to handle the strain. They expected so many deaths that they needed to build these hideous, monolithic structures. And, more than that, they needed to build them where there was space (check), where they expected the most bodies to happen (check) and - presumably - out of sight (check). That meant our field. Very far from the cameras and cocktail parties. Everyone in our neighbourhood would see it, but that’s ok, because we didn’t matter.
We were expected to die. And die politely. Because, god forbid, our bodies pile up outside of the Palace of Westminster or Chequers or Bond Street or anywhere else where it might accidentally puncture the collective delusion that everything was fine, or, worse yet, demonstrate the tangible consequences of the our leaders’ irresponsibility.
The temporary morgue was promptly whisked away as soon as Covid Was Over, and is another thing we don’t talk about. I still walk by that field. For a while, there was a big brown square, where the grass had died. In an uncharacteristically sensitive touch, the local council rewilded it with native flowers. There is no other plaque or marker.
Despite hundreds of thousands of Britons dying to Covid, there’s no official memorial anywhere. (There was a Commission, which made some recommendations, including, amongst other things, ‘coordinating a day of reflection’. These have since been ‘taken into consideration’.) Instead of acknowledging our loss, we had leaders declaring ‘Mission Accomplished’, with further celebrations following as each squiggly line returns to normal. We’re back in the office! Hooray!
The National Covid Memorial Wall is a guerilla effort. It features 220,000 hearts, each representing someone lost to Covid. It ‘stretches for 500 metres alongside the River Thames’, exactly opposite the Houses of Parliament:
We are so resilient that grieving families have to tack hearts to a wall outside Parliament. This is not a stiff upper lip, it is collective trauma.
What’s perhaps worst of all is that I feel apologetic for writing all this. Covid, as a conversational topic, is unpleasant. I’m also painfully conscious that so many people suffered so much more, and, yet, here I am, grousing about the trauma of unwanted architecture. But that’s also why it is important that I say something. It was horrible, and we shouldn’t forget it. The people we trusted to take care of us: they let us down very, very badly. I don’t want to wallow in or lionise our suffering, but what we went through shouldn’t be hustled away and buried out of sight.
As a result, I have a macabre fascination with the Covid Inquiry. It exists as a space where we can watch people talk about that thing that we don’t talk about. It is triggering as a spectator sport. The leading minds of the country are all taken their turn, alternatively exculpating themselves while censuring everyone else. It is reality television at its finest. Pandemic as pornography, with a celebrity cast.
And, occasionally, we actually get to hear something truly important. Someone actually talks about the pandemic not as an abstract challenge or a political opportunity or a bureaucratic headache or set of squiggly lines, but as a thing that actually happened to people. In this week’s case, that rare moment of meaningfulness goes to, of all people, Michael Gove. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations issued the first apology (that I can recall) from the government:
Boris Johnson is in front of the Inquiry next week, and I am not anticipating the same level of reflection from our former Prime Minister. (Technically he has issued an apology already, if you could his impressively contructed ‘I was technically right to have a boozy party at No 10 while everyone else was dying in solitude, but in hindsight I regret that I was caught’ as some sub-species of apology.)
Gove’s apology has been largely forgotten already; overshadowed by other parts of his testimony. But it feels like - again, to the best of my recollection - the first time that someone in charge shouldered a tiny bit of responsibility for the truth we all know, but have been long denied: they fucked up.
This is, ultimately, a baby step. The Covid Inquiry alone isn’t enough. I don’t know what we actually need, but it is more than a ‘day of reflection’ or another few weeks of televised backstabbing. Every year we have a solemn march to the Cenotaph, to remember those that fell in wars (your reminder that more died in the Influenza epidemic than WWI). The Cenotaph and the Day of Remembrance is not meant to mourn the fallen, but remind us of the consequences of hubris. Maybe we need a Covid Cenotaph, right at the entrance of No 10 Downing Street, with another one at the gates of Parliament. Something really hideous and unavoidable, so that every single day, the people we choose to look after us are reminded of what happens when they fuck about with that responsibility. Fund it by a tax on every predatory company that gleefully profited by selling overpriced or faulty equipment.
But, again, we’re not there yet. Not unless we, ordinary people, talk about it. As as long as Covid is verboten, those who betrayed us go unpunished; future generations will never know what happened or how to avoid it. Unless ordinary people actively discuss how awful it was, and why, we’re still hiding those bodies.
Covid? I was not ok. I am still not ok.
Covid. AI. Capitalism. It has been a little heavy as of late. I solemnly swear that the next few weeks will be lighter fare, including my long-anticipated romance reading challenge round-up, some yearly reading recs, and, uh, I dunno, cat pics or something.
What I’m reading (online):
Nearly 80% of British teenagers have used generative AI (paywalled). I can’t blame them. As I wrote before, I think the unleashed unbiquity of AI is forcing us to reconsider a lot of our stodgy structural sludge. This became painfully clear to me when, reading job applications for a junior position, I clocked that almost all of the cover letters were straight out of ChatGPT. I don’t blame them. When I was 20, my entire dorm used the same cover letter template, and (mostly) remembered to change a few words for each application. Cover letters. Official complaints. Feedback forms. When we demand people use specific keywords and jargon to navigate a system, we then can’t get cranky when folks hack the process. Yes, generative AI is inherently problematic right now, but we can’t ignore the flaws exposed by its use.
Also, teens are using generative AI to make sexually explicit images of their classmates. That is both entirely predictable and deeply disturbing. That’s a whole different [huge and disturbing] species of structural issues being brought to life.
More on AI (sorry) - via Andrew Griffin, who wrote about AI and the apocalypse (the Venn diagram of my favourite buzzwords) for the charmingly unlinkable IndyTech:
The cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades, is available free online. I’ll probably write more about this later, because, y’know, you can’t do a reformative anthology without having real feels about the formative one.
What I’m reading (offline):
Practice Makes Perfect by Sarah Adams. Another Goodreads Choice finalist. I’ve genuinely forgotten this one already. She’s very cute? He has… tattoos? There’s a quirky small town? I’m really sorry, but this has fled my brain entirely.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year by Joanna Boulari. Bridget Jones x What’s Your Number as a Netflix Christmas movie. She’s a mildly disastrous teacher, he’s her hot neighbour. They fake date for Christmas with her zany family. There’s an age gap! She’s a disaster! The family are all VILE! Yet, somehow, quite funny. About half the book is spent on the set-up, which is excessive. The resolution then takes place at a frantic pace, with a sparse few pages dedicated to a year(?) and - what should have been - the big airport-run type finish.
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