Hulking fat chavs pushing shopping trolleys full of lavatory paper back to their Nissan Micras. I can’t think of a better image to sum up the coronavirus crisis right now. I saw a bunch of them outside my local branch of Morrisons on Sunday morning, their expressions uniformly defiant and smug. One family had at least ten multipacks in their trolley — and nothing else. Surely one cannot live on toilet tissue alone, no matter how agreeably scented it might be? I assumed they were part of the panic-buying crowd, although having seen the size of their arses it may well be that this was simply their requisite amount for a single day of copious wiping.
I had driven to the supermarket in time for its opening, at 10 a.m. All I needed were a few breakfast rolls and some cigarettes. There and back in half an hour — it’s usually deserted first thing Sunday. Not this Sunday, though. There were vast queues outside the front doors and the car park was full. As soon as the doors opened they stampeded — if you can stampede in a sort of wheezing waddle — towards the stacks of bog roll, pausing only to loot any remaining paracetamol from the medicine counter. Official injunctions not to be selfish work only with people who are not, er, selfish. But it is a long time since we had a communitarian ethos — for 40 years at least it has been a singularly individualistic and grasping ethos, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the greed of the bog-roll fetishists.
Perhaps this bout of misfortune will tilt us all in a different direction. That sounds, on the face of it, counter-intuitive, given that we are all self-isolating. I, too, am self-isolating — but then I have been for the past two decades. The only difference now is that I don’t have to invent excuses for not meeting with people. Thinking back, I seem to have spent the best part of my life this century trying to wriggle out of appointments, dates, dinners and so on in London and all too often would end up traipsing into that hideous maw of a city out of a sense of guilt or duty.
I wonder how many people feel the same way as me, a certain relief that we don’t have to pretend any more? How many months of your life have been spent in fatuous meetings convened by some self-aggrandising berk and which result in nothing? The pace of our daily existence — unless you are working in the NHS, or a bog-roll factory, I suppose — has slowed almost to a halt, and we are probably a lot better off for it.
Healthier, too, given that this virus has done in weeks what Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion monkeys could have hoped to achieve in 50 years. Pollution in the major cities of Europe has dropped hugely since the crisis began, most visibly and obviously over Milan. My suspicion is that the number of flights we take this year will roughly halve. If this virus persists as long as some of the gleefully baleful experts predict, global warming will have been all but solved. When it’s all over, would you want to return to the way you lived before, all that eternal scurrying about all over the place — all that freneticism? And, be honest here, wouldn’t you prefer there always to be one metre between yourself and Other People, regardless of what Covid-19 is up to? I think of one metre as an absolute minimum. If they’re Liberal Democrats, it’s five.
With the empty roads and the emptying skies, the shunning of restaurants in favour of eating in, a certain distance and formality in relationships with other people, it feels a little as if we have been transported back to the time when social conservatives such as me were always accused of hankering for — the 1950s. Good, frankly. And with it has come a new regard for what had previously been considered, by the progressives, untenable beliefs. I think it would be fair to say that nobody, right now, is terribly much in favour of untrammelled and uncontrolled mass immigration? Globalisation has had one or two of its inherent flaws exposed, and its effective cessation has shown that history does not march ineluctably ‘forwards’ in step with progressive ideas. Suddenly people who were hitherto somewhat agin the concept have noticed that national borders are actually quite useful things to have, and alongside that rapid realisation has come a new affection for that most de trop of concepts, the nation state.
Even if you have just experienced your first slight ticklish cough as a portend of misery to come, there must have been some consolation in hearing Angela Merkel — once a cheerleader for no borders anywhere, for total and unrestricted free movement — announce that Germany’s borders with France, Switzerland and (oh the irony) Austria were to close forthwith. The calamitous influx of economic migrants into Europe, and especially Germany, was perhaps the first occasion on which Frau Merkel began to realise that her worldview (imposed upon the rest of Europe) was deeply flawed. That was a few years back now. Now it’s: nobody in. Einfahrt verboten! Meanwhile those cumbersome institutions in which the liberal left puts its faith have been predictably sclerotic in their reactions, the European Commission and the Schengen group lagging way behind decisions already taken at national level. It could not be otherwise: nation states know best how to deal with problems which affect them in a unique manner.
I do not underestimate the economic damage this crisis will cause, the misery of lost jobs and the still greater misery of death visited too early upon too many of us. But it sometimes takes a crisis to help us grope towards the realisation that we may have been on the wrong track all along. Intimations of impending mortality will impose a certain humility upon us all. But also a certain awakening.
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