In recent days, I have received a number of anxious messages from friends and professional contacts in other parts of the world. How are we managing in the UK? they ask. Am I coping all right? Are things as bad as they sound?
Their concern is understandable. The official UK coronavirus death toll now stands at more than 20,000 (although the numbers of unrecorded deaths and deaths of people suffering from other conditions who have not received or sought the treatment they would usually get because of the pandemic are probably much higher). It’s possible that we could turn out to be the worst affected country in Europe by the time the peak has passed. What’s more, international press reports have been full of questions and criticisms about UK government policy.
These things are, of course, troubling and – for those directly affected by the disease, stripped of their livelihoods or locked down in dangerous, deprived or abusive situations – these are terrible times. All the same, the truth is that, for me, life is not too bad. Things are a little dull and it’s frustrating not to be able to go and do all the things I’d like, but I am lucky to have a comfortable home and a family I love being with. In addition, although childcare issues mean my time for work is squeezed, I am able to continue researching my next book much as I would have done before Covid-19 hit.
While the cumulative effects of what we’re living through are massive and will no doubt change society in many respects for good, my personal, day-to-day experience of this crisis is fairly humdrum. Although the storm may appear to rage furiously from a distance, at the eye in the centre, everything is calm.
All of which can make me struggle to know how to respond to my international friends’ concern. Their consternation provokes in me an odd, tearing sensation that comes from knowing my experience does not match up with what they expect. I am faced with a choice of either talking in general terms about the terrible situation or else contradicting them and downplaying their claims.
The experience reminds me a little of a German exchange I went on in the early 1990s at the age of 12. As part of our introduction to our exchange partners, the teacher at the school in Offenburg asked the British students to stand at the front of the class and answer questions about life in the UK.
There were the usual mentions of red buses and black taxis and the Tower of London. What I hadn’t been expecting, however, was the number of questions about what it was like living with IRA attacks. Were we scared to go out? Was it dangerous in London? Did we feel safe travelling to school?
Standing in that classroom, I realised something shocking: to those shy and polite Gymnasium students who were looking at the UK from the outside, my home country appeared rather different to the reality I believed myself to be living. Sure, I’d heard an explosion once and there had been a hoax call to our school on one occasion that had obliged us all to sit in the playground for a couple of hours while the building was searched for bombs, but other than that the Northern Irish Troubles hadn’t affected my life at all (perhaps my response would have been different if I had grown up in Belfast).
Yet my German peers believed that I must have been profoundly influenced by every event they had seen reported. To them, my classmates and I were personifications of everything they had heard about the UK.
The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded me of this human tendency to project all that we know about a situation onto someone nominally connected to it. When we look at news events or key moments in history, we imagine living every strand of that experience and running the full gamut of emotions such momentous happenings demand.
In reality, however, we individual humans are too tiny and too tied to our specific circumstances to inhabit all aspects of a massive, multi-layered crisis. Tragedy may be striking all around us and the very foundations of society might be trembling, and yet we may be going on quietly with mundane concerns, cooking dinner, pairing socks and writing birthday cards. Just as there were probably people who were bored during the Blitz and Londoners who sat twiddling their thumbs while the bubonic plague ran rife, so there will no doubt be plenty of people in the pandemic’s worst-hit regions who will pass through this period largely untroubled. Collective significance and personal experience are often two very different things.