– a coronavirus watcher in the time of planet death.
09 March 2020
I’m currently reading Doris Lessing’s masterpiece, one of, a story about the end of an era, perhaps of civilisation. Part of her genius is that it happens in a very ordinary manner, change happens, people change gradually or quickly depending on need, society dies. The real drama, the events which cause the people to flee, passing through the neighbourhood where the narrator lives, cause food supplies to fail, electricity to be cut- off, happen off-stage. We don’t see it, we don’t know what it is, but we live its effects.
The book is some forty-five years old but perhaps more relevant than ever, another sign of Lessing’s genius. Of course, we have much more information available to us, via the internet, than Lessing would have expected but she recognised the human need to know, or try to know, and references several times the gatherings, the gossip, the passing of information, the communication and who’s to say that the quality of the information being passed today is significantly better with the internet at our disposal.
We live in the time of Corvid19, a coronavirus, exposing human frailty, human connectivity and human bravery as it scythes its way across the globe.
All against the backdrop of a dying planet.
We know what the coronavirus is, thanks to modern medicine and science and how it spreads. We will eventually have a vaccine, though that is likely to be next year and much longer before it becomes available to all. But the virus’s invisibility, its ability to survive on surfaces and in the environment, waiting for some human to pick it up, transfer it to their mouth or nose and provide a host for it to multiply and cause illness and worse, makes it the stuff of nightmares. It is so easy to imagine what pandemics were like in days when people felt they were an act of God, or worse, and no cures or preventative strategies were available.
The need for such an imagination is almost rendered redundant by the pronouncements of some who still don’t believe in science.
As we sit in our homes and offices and listen, watch and read about the impacts of the virus across the globe, we know but we still don’t really understand until it comes closer to home, affects someone we know or love, affects ourselves. Even imagining a fortnights voluntary quarantine is difficult for us, to imagine cities essentially closing down is the stuff of fiction but so it was to Italy a short few weeks ago, to China a couple of months ago and so on and on.
The impacts on the production of food, of goods, the impacts on poverty, on those who were poor before, are all difficult to measure – the markets though, the stock markets who are attributed with a super-human ability to react to economic news, good or bad, with changes in share prices of companies; they consider it bad. Consumerism is a significant casualty, the fall-off in production of goods being mirrored by a drop-off in purchases, the latter obscuring the significance of the former. Tourism has collapsed in many places usually thronged with sightseers. Airports sit almost empty. The actions of governments and companies overriding short-term economic demands is undoubtedly a shock to the stock markets – struggling to come to terms that such decisions could be contemplated, never mind implemented.
Humans have adapted, changed their behaviour, so abruptly, so significantly because they do not want to get sick, to die, to pass on the virus to loved ones. So many are aware of those who depend on them to look after them, to provide for them, that they are not willing to take any chances. We are seeing impacts that if written about a few months ago would have been printed in the fiction section of the weekend newspapers. Governments are aware that if we do not slow the spread of the virus then all health systems will be over-run, people will be dying without care, sick people will be unable to get medical attention.
In ‘The Memoirs ..’, Lessing’s heroine records renewing the lease on her flat for another seven years, even though “of course I knew that we didn’t have anything like that time left”, and had endless discussions about replacing the curtains and the best material to use. And yet, like those tourists cancelling their holidays, those governments closing off cities, those companies shutting down factories, the heroine states, “Real decisions, necessary ones, such as that electricity would have to be given up altogether, were likely to be made with a minimum of discussion; they were forced on us – it was that summer that I arranged for my electricity to be disconnected”.
The virus-like gases we release on our planet, carbon dioxide, methane and others, are slightly reduced by this curtailment of human activity. Less travel, less economic activity, less consumerism, means a little less pressure on our ecosystem, means our planet may live a little longer. Like the coronavirus, we don’t see these gases, don’t directly measure their effects. If it wasn’t for science we might not know how to solve our planet Earth’s ill-health. For many of us the current implications are not hugely significant, do not impact on our daily lives, more storms, warmer winters, hotter summers, but for many, like the coronavirus, these are life threatening. Livelihoods, homes, lives have all been taken.
The last book I read, ‘Climate Justice’ by our previous president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, tells the story of some of those affected, whose lives are being destroyed by the climate crisis. If you want to have some understanding of what is happening in parts of the world today and what is coming for all of us, read this book.
Can we make the same efforts to save the planet as we are to saving lives in this corvid19 crisis?
Will our efforts be enough in either case?
As an over-60 male with an impaired immune system my interests in the human virus are immediate and personal but when i think of my children and grandchildren and all their contemporaries struggling to live during the dying throes of our planet, i know we need to act decisively for planet Earth.
Lessing’s heroine describes a family, the Ryans, the poor Ryans, before the collapse of society, living in poverty and squalor with no possessions, no jobs, scrounging food and pleasures whenever opportunity offered itself and how society looked down on them and belittled them while offering them a little help, an occasional hand-out. The collapse of society made this family, and how they lived, the norm; poverty and hunger spread everywhere; consumerism was reduced to the essentials, food, water, heat, clothes. Robinson’s book describes some of the Ryans of our planet, people and societies made poor by climate crisis, by the man-made changes to our climate and its seasons and of course, the poor are made poorer, those living close to nature suffer most when nature suffers. Lessing’s book warns us, even if science didn’t, that their present is our future, their poverty and breakdown of society is our inheritance.
So we must act now, its already too late for many.
And if you still doubt – read this Italian doctor’s account,
Namaste, my friends.