Years ago, when my other half was working there for several months, I spent a week in Malawi, in southern Africa. The visit was thrilling and challenging in equal measure: in my short time in the country, I was bombarded with new experiences, new foods, and assumptions and ways of living that were very different from my own.
There was too much to take in and process properly. One thing that struck and stayed with me, however, was the much closer proximity of death to everyday life. In this country of patchy healthcare provision, where an ambulance may or may not come if it is called and simple treatments are beyond the means of many, a lot of people had a very different relationship with risk.
Things that I was used to thinking of as carrying minimal danger could be life-threatening. Cuts and splinters, minor complications in pregnancy, common maladies – all these could spell disaster, even for fit, young adults. If you were unlucky, everyday pastimes could prove fatal.
When coronavirus arrived in the UK and social-distancing measures were introduced in March, I found myself thinking again about that Malawi trip. For the first time that I could remember, that sense of risk lurking in quotidian activities – going to the supermarket, passing someone in the street, running your hand along a metal railing in a park – was folded into British life. Looking out of my window, the empty streets assumed an eerie, menacing air, riddled with threat.
Of course, my previous perception of the safety of everyday life was part illusory. Death has always lurked in the background here. The wonders of modern medicine and the National Health Service notwithstanding, people continue to have a nasty habit of dying now and again. Although many of the maladies that ravaged previous generations can be vaccinated against or treated easily, heart attacks and strokes still swoop in to claim victims, cancer can still strike down a seemingly healthy person in a matter of weeks, suicide is a perennial issue, and there is always the chance that the number 37 bus might knock you down.
All the same, in recent decades, it has been possible for many people in the UK to live well into adulthood without experiencing the loss of someone close to them.
Coronavirus is starting to change that. I don’t yet know anyone personally who has died from it, but the awareness hangs over me like a Damoclean sword that it may well be only a matter of time. For others, there have already been multiple, devastating losses.
And we are among the lucky ones: although the UK death toll is already alarmingly high (and probably conservative, given the problems there have been registering Covid-19 deaths), most young, fit people in this country can be confident that they will receive the best treatment available to give them every chance of beating the disease should they fall seriously ill.
We do not face the desperate situation in places like Nicaragua, where the president disappeared for a month, having claimed the virus was virtually non-existent in the country. Or Belarus, where people have been forced to crowdfund to fight Covid-19 in the face of government denial. Or, indeed, Malawi, where there are fears 50,000 could die because a lockdown is still not in place.
Nevertheless, those of us who live through this crisis will probably be changed by it. It is hard to imagine the blitheness (in regard to matters of health at least) of the early-21st century returning any time soon. It is hard to imagine the somewhat naive societal approach to death persisting once – if – Covid-19 is brought under control. This may not be a bad thing: there were no doubt unhealthy, immature aspects to the British relationship with mortality. Even so, this knowledge will have come at a high cost.