Lockdown diary, day 8

Here we are again. Another Monday. A cold one – the sun was out but a bitterly cold wind made it unappealing to stay outside for longer than was utterly necessary. Because at the moment everything we think is filtered through a coronavirus haze, all I thought was “well, this should be good for making sure that people stay indoors”.

The actual daily routine is pretty uninteresting – older kid reluctantly does some schoolwork and watches hours of Netflix and plays hours of Animal Crossing, younger kid goes to nursery where he’s usually the only kid there (we have tried and it is simply not possible for T to do her still-compulsory university teaching with a highly demanding toddler in the apartment, especially given that she has to teach for several hours at a time), I do some work and talk to colleagues who appear on my computer screen. Maybe I’ll worry a bit about the building’s rubbish bin getting overfilled again due to everyone being at home, as last week the city rubbish collection people left a bunch of bags behind because the bin was overfilled meaning that it was 25% full before the week even started. It’s an exciting life. About the most exciting thing to happen to day was when the police pulled over an elderly person with sirens wailing, I think for driving the wrong way up a one-way street (very easy to do in the maze that is Gersthof). After they had been issued with (and paid) a small on the spot fine they started the car in reverse gear and it immediately shot straight back out into the junction where they revved a lot before they finally getting it to go forward again. Fortunately the cop had already left at this point.

I may have sounded as if I was complaining about the rubbish collectors above. I’m not – they’re working at a tough job for bad pay (but they’re city employees so at least get the benefits of being public sector workers) at a time when all the essential services are under strain. Just another of the everyday heroes who people are starting to notice a little more at the moment – working to keep the city clean is a key part of controlling the spread of infection. Groups of volunteers at the city electricity supplier Wien Energie have moved into power stations for the next weeks, leaving their families and homes behind to live, sleep and work in an isolation area to make sure the lights stay on.

Technical and operational staff at national broadcaster ORF are doing the same thing and isolating themselves to keep the central technical and distribution areas operational, and so are a number of journalists. It’s been extremely fashionable to dump on public service broadcasters as pointless, unnecessary, obsolete and so on – but it’s at times like this that we really understand how important that “public service” part is. The ratings for ORF’s main news bulletins have been absolutely through the roof for the last couple of weeks, as people discover anew that Facebook and Twitter are a terrible place to find accurate information about what’s really going on. ORF, the BBC and so on have their problems for sure, but in times of crisis you’re certainly not going to find objective, accurate coverage of the ongoing situation on fucking Netflix.

Yesterday’s top 10 programmes on ORF. The 19:30 bulletin “Zeit im Bild” and the regional news before it are being watched by a quarter of the population.

There are thousands of unseen heroes in our societies who work with dedication and passion to report and broadcast the news with accuracy and impartiality, who keep the lights on and the streets cleaned and the phones ringing and the taps running and the shelves filled and the packages delivered, who maintain the sewers and make it possible for the rest of us to stay at home in relative comfort. Many of them have lousy pay. Many professionals choose to work in the public sector even if they could make a lot more working for a private company because they see the value in doing a job that provides an important service to society as a whole. We need to appreciate them more. Medical workers and emergency services are getting a lot of praise as well – and it’s absolutely, 100% deserved – but if a few more people took a few moments to consider just how many other people are working almost completely invisibly to allow them to maintain their lifestyle the world would be a more understanding place. Their very invisibility shows us what a good job they do – nobody ever switches on a light in the developed world and is pleasantly surprised to find the electricity is on, but they sure as hell notice when it goes off.

Best wishes to everyone in the UK who has just been told by the country’s shambling mound of a prime minister on the telly that they’re now joining the lockdown club. Look after each other, remember that it’s always okay at least so far to get out for a walk if you really need one, and look after your neighbours. It’s boring, but it’s necessary, and you’ll get used to it.

Lockdown diary, day 7

I haven’t been able to write anything here for the last few days not for terrible health-related reasons but because I was just too wiped out in the evening to do so. When you find yourself having to do a full workload as well as a dose of childcare and a bunch of extra worrying about the world it doesn’t leave much time for relaxation in the evening,

So how do things look after the first full week of isolation? Things seem to be going in the right direction, at least so far. The day-on-day increase in infection numbers has gone from 40% ten days ago to 15.4% today, which is already a major improvement. However, that doesn’t mean we’re going to be out of here soon. The numbers need to get below 10% and stay there, and the current measures have been extended until Easter Monday (13th April). That’s another three weeks, after which if all goes well the measures will hopefully start to gradually relax.

People are doing a good job of sticking to the rules. The police have had to hand out a bunch of fines, mostly to people gathering in large groups in public and refusing to disperse, but mostly things are pretty orderly. Everyone is just getting on with it. It helps that the weather is forecast to be chilly for the next week – this will help to keep the numbers down in the park and make the required (at least 1 metre) separation between people easier to maintain. I’m happy that people are sticking to the rules, because so long as that’s the case the more likely it is that the parks will be allowed to remain open. If the parks have to be closed thanks to a small minority of idiots, those idiots are not going to be popular with the rest of us who cherish the ability to get out and enjoy the park even if it’s just for a half-hour walk.

Thoughts are now starting to turn to what sort of a world will emerge from the end of this crisis. It’s certainly going to look pretty grim from an economic point of view, with possible unemployment rates up to 20% and a long, hard road back to normality not just for the businesses and workers who have been affected but for society as a whole. But that society will be one in which a number of things are suddenly and starkly clear. Millions of people will be alive thanks to modern medicine and enormous scientific effort who would otherwise be dead. COVID-19 will not be conquered by goji berries and detox wraps, but by an unprecedented global scientific and public health effort with decisions made based on hard science or hard data (sorry, Gwyneth Paltrow). People are already learning to appreciate the seemingly miraculous production and supply chains which keep us fed, and the contributions to our daily lives made by the doctors, nurses, carers, paramedics, supermarket staff, postal workers and others who are giving their all to keep society intact. We can now imagine far more clearly how life would be without them because we’ve been forced to do so.

But ultimately, the most important thing which is happening now is the final death of Margaret Thatcher’s famous and much-repeated (although to her credit, actually slightly misquoted) line about there being “no such thing as society”. Anyone who couldn’t see it before must now see that there is indeed such a thing as society. We are seeing that when thousands of people lose their livelihoods through no fault of their own it is important that there is a properly-funded, accessible safety net to ensure they can continue to keep their heads above water with dignity. We are seeing that you cannot cut your way to redemption, that austerity puts lives at risk, that we all need to look out for each other. And we are seeing that the welfare of every member of society contributes to the welfare of society as a whole. The threads that bind us together are far, far stronger than the neoliberal, burn-it-all-down governments of the last decade thought.

As we watch previously “fiscally cautious” governments across the world open the floodgates and drive themselves deeper into the red than ever before in order to have a hope of having an economy worth speaking of when this is all over, the dogma that public borrowing is somehow immoral goes up in smoke. After all, surely they could simply leave things as they are in the knowledge that the free market would wave its magic free market wand when the time was right, no? Turns out that no, that doesn’t work, and that if you insist that it does people end up dead. I’m not sure where it was I read the claim that “just as there are no atheists on a sinking ship, there are no libertarians in a pandemic” (see footnote), but it strikes me as very true. When you’re standing on the top of the ladder you think you got there all by yourself, but as soon as a major societal crisis comes along and the ground underneath it comes to subside it’s straight off to the government for a few bags of cement, especially once it becomes clear that the magical concrete mixer of the free market is not going to intervene to prop it up.

I guess we shall see. Maybe the world will go straight back to its old selfish, mean-spirited political ways, but it would be nice if it didn’t. Oh, and if you haven’t read it, you should read Anthony “The Angry Chef” Warner’s absolutely superb essay on coronavirus, food, and society. It’s where I stole found inspiration for most of the above ideas.

One more thing – some people still seem to be panic-buying toilet paper. What do they intend to do with it all?

Footnote: Except for the wacky American ones who think food only finds its way to your supermarket shelves thanks to the action of an unrestricted free market and that all pharmaceutical development is entirely done by private companies who gain nothing whatsoever from the huge amounts of publicly-funded research done in universities and elsewhere. You know, those ones.