Diary of the Chinese Pestilence

Day 14.         Of the unrepentant Chinese Virus          Monday March 30th 2020

1,228 deaths in the UK so far, 260 on Saturday alone.

The big question is, how did we manage before the word ‘vulnerable’ and terms, ‘front line’ and ‘Underlying conditions,’ came into modern parlance? They are now about every second word heard from the BBC.

‘Go on, it’ll do you good to get out a bit.’ ‘I suppose so, but I’d rather not.’ The voices in my head were arguing about the Monday shopping excursion for me and D, my elderly neighbour who’s house-bound. I was rushing over to see her as I usually get her list before I go out to a painting group at 9am. Suddenly realised there was no longer any need to rush at all, as I wasn’t going anywhere.

I was pleased to see her; the first person I’ve spoken to face to face since last Monday. She was pleased to see me. Her relatives are all ‘self-isolating,’ and no longer visit.  

I have to visit the shops but this crisis has given me something like ‘shopping-phobia.’ Feel irked that a friend has somehow got an online delivery slot. How did she do it when no one else can? It preys on my mind and I felt glad when Sir Malcolm Walker, ‘Boss of Iceland’ as Justin Webb of Radio 4 calls him, says that too many able- bodied people are shopping on line. He said the slots are going to them rather than the people who really need them.

I have to go out and my distress is more about hoarders and empty shelves than fear of the virus. Daniel Defoe, writing in 1722, remembering the Gt. Plague, had no doubt about the dangers of shopping during an epidemic:

The Infection came into the houses of the Citizens, by means of their Servants, who, they were obliged to send up and down the streets for Necessaries, for food or physick, to Bakehouses,  Brew-houses, Shops, etc, who going through the streets and markets it was impossible that they would not meet with distempered people, who conveyed the fatal breath into them, and they brought it home to their families. The necessity of going out to buy provisions, was in a great Measure the Ruin of the whole City.’

I arrived to find the car park almost empty and no queue. Inside the shelves of fresh produce were cornucopic. I trundled around shopping for D first; she follows a strict 1950s diet and doesn’t touch anything fresh; orange squash, yes, lots of it there, tins of rice pudding, yes, tinned ham, yes back on the shelves at last, Horlicks, yes, and I now know where to find it. Staff rarely know what or where it is. Mouthwash, yes, but still no loo rolls, Dettol, cleaning cloths, or organic meat, not that she ever touches that.

Plenty of her favourite ‘ready meals,’ custard and toffees. For me a few treats too, cider, (an obesity/alcoholism epidemic is surely on its way) and some squirty cream for me and the cats.  

Felt like spinning my trolley for joy; nearly back to normal in our supermarkets, until the hoarders use up what they’ve got in their chest freezers and slink out again. I am generally as happy as a wasp in a cake factory at the moment,  but also a bit of a nervous wreck it seems, as I felt wobbly taking part in the strange Gavotte we must now all perform around the supermarket aisles; when people stood back for me or gestured their thanks as I stood back for them I felt almost tearful. In the 1990s I wrote an article about dating in supermarkets, now it’s more like people acting out a murder mystery.  

It was worrying to see many of the staff stacking shelves, working close together, chatting away as if it was three weeks ago. Sights like that trigger a constant low-level anxiety. I think I remain on the right side of stable but someone mentioned bluebells the other day and I thought they said buboes. Looking at the shop-workers in a huddle, I tried to put out of my mind what Defoe saw:

 ‘An abundance of unsound people to the markets, sometimes  man or woman dropt down dead in the very markets, for many people know nothing of it until the inward Gangreen had affected their Vitals and they died in a few moments;  many died frequently, suddaninly in the street, others had time to go to the next stall, or to any door or porch, and just sit down and die.’

Of course, nothing dropped today apart from one box of eggs from my fumbling fingers and only one was broken. Got home to wash my keys, front door, outside of car boot and all door knobs, and discovered that I’d forgotten D’s damn Rich Tea biscuits.

Later today someone from my History Group is going to inculcate me into the magic of using Zoom. It seems that everyone, young and old now has to be able to do it; we’ll all be much more tech savvy when this thing is over.  

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3 Comments on Diary of the Chinese Pestilence

  1. Coronavirus is causing mass fear, but is the response worse than the virus itself? Let’s look at annual mortality statistics for the UK and USA. In recent years around 600 thousand and 2.8 million died in these nations respectively. Divide by 52 for a weekly average and you get roughly 12 thousand and 54 thousand deaths per week. At current levels, coronavirus is the cause of death in around 1500 per week in the UK, and 18000 Americans. These figures are rising, but when you compare these figures with a bad winter flu epidemic, they appear less stark.

    The US government is bracing for over 100 thousand coronavirus deaths, while the NHS England medical director suggested that a toll of 20 thousand would be a ‘good result’. This will be a very bad flu year, and hospitals have been overwhelmed by the surge in admissions, many patients needing intensive care. Rightly, the British government has converted two large buildings into hospitals for Covid-19 cases. But for perspective, the seasonal influenza of 2014-2015 killed 28330 in England. In the 2017-2018 winter in the USA, for example, 45 million caught the illness and 61000 died.

    Permission of Niall McCrae

    • I think you are saying that no more people are dying than in any other year. In fact fewer are dying than in 2014-15.
      But in that case why are so many extra doctors, nurses, hospital beds etc needed?
      Am I missing something?

      • As I understand, seasonal flu is very well studied, has a resistance in the general population as a result of previous epidemics, and seems to have both a much lower transmission rate, and lower mortality than covid. We also have an effective vaccination for people for whom it could be more serious.

        Unchecked, covid could infect many more as few have developed an immunity to it yet, leading to much higher absolute numbers of deaths. The highest yearly figure in England might be 28000+, but the same source gives last season’s toll as only 1,692. I don’t think comparing the fatalities in the early stages of this pandemic with the highest recorded figure is a very valid or useful perspective. We’ll see what the final numbers are, bearing in mind that seasonal flu is allowed to spread completely unchecked, while we have the most extreme isolation measures for covid.

        Spanish flu, at a time when global travel was negligible compared to today, killed 1%-2% of the world’s population. That would be around 100 million today.