GENEVA — If your idea of normal is Glasgow or New York City, you might think, Geneva is in lockdown? How can they tell? In our building, a row of nine townhouses, it’s been sweet. Here’s an odd stat: three of the families have three daughters, no sons. There’s just one little boy, suitably timid, and two rabbits. The cleaning lady has a daughter. The children aren’t strong on social distancing. The adults, across garden fences, have celebrated one birthday, one retirement, one discharge from hospital and the memory of one much-loved cat.
The only Covid-19 death in my family has been that of an aunt in a care home near Glasgow, who no longer knew where she was. Even there, her surviving brother had some fun when the local paper published his obituary by mistake. (It takes an Irish sense of humor perhaps, but then that does run in the family.) Our only hardship is not being able to reach out and hug our daughters and granddaughters, though in Switzerland that is easing up. (Current number of confirmed cases, approximately 30,000; 1,800 deaths.)
When the lockdown started in Britain, there was an extraordinary tightening of nuclear bonds: a friend’s son on the last plane back from Japan, the airport empty. A husband back to his wife on the last flight from Toronto. My middle sister’s three adult children relocating to work from home in Linlithgow (Scotland); our younger daughter deciding, rightly, to stick with her health work in London, though we emotionally wanted her here; our elder daughter working at the hospital in Geneva, the nursery still open for children of hospital staff, intensive care not overloaded.
In 2016, I convened a group of experts to discuss a pandemic I had invented, where people were turning into various species of plant. I should explain. For 15 years, I ran the language service at the World Health Organization here in Geneva. For much of that time, my boss was an Australian doctor, Bill Kean, who used to say, quite gleefully, “It’s not a matter of WHETHER there’s going to be another flu pandemic: it’s WHEN.”
Since long before the WHO, I had been writing verse. I began to notice sporadic poems from around the world in which the poets started sprouting roots and shoots. And they weren’t referring to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” It was a literal outbreak, and an interesting “what if?” I decided the index case had to have occurred somewhere extremely remote; I went to Siberia in the winter and wrote it up as conference documents. The experts were mostly from my cohort at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. There’s a report.
It turned out that when a society collapses, it’s really important to know your neighbors. Initial warnings and signs from Italy and China amid the current outbreak suggested that societal collapse was in the cards, and to an extent that has happened. At this point, if you want stats, go to WHO.int; what I’m describing is the world as seen from one little corner. Like writers and painters I know in Milan, Rome and Lisbon, my own routine hasn’t changed much; indeed, we see more of life now that partners and neighbors are working from home.
My wife’s middle sister is a village doctor in central Italy. In March, she was given three masks. That’s all. Over a hundred medics had died in the north of the country. The close-knit family structure put old people too near the young, so that generation was swept away, the people who had rebuilt Italy after the war. The Italian health service had been sapped over decades, so care homes and hospitals couldn’t cope. Like Britain, it seemed to regard the United States health care system as something to emulate. Friends in Rome say things now are under control; in the south, there is a different danger. It seems the mafia has started distributing food parcels there.
So what next?
One thing that is clear about Covid-19 is that it prefers the old, the sick and the poor. In that respect, it is a simple accelerator of regular mortality. For this apprentice oldie (age 63), that’s somewhat reassuring: I don’t want to be predeceased by the young. It seems that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 went for young people especially, who fell to what is now known as cytokine storms, where the immune system overreacts. From onset to death could take less than a day.
One danger we face is that of society doing its own cytokine storm, in which the lockdown brings its own health problems: domestic abuse and depression, certainly; and that’s before we even consider those with no federal support or protection. If we want to emerge from this not as a network of more or less viable associations but as a society and a community of member states, we mustn’t waste a good crisis, particularly since the much deadlier climate crisis isn’t waiting for this to be solved.
Most work still needs people in place, although much can be done remotely. A lot of what we’re deprived of under lockdown we didn’t need. Invest in industries the world can live with! Not forgetting that nothing in human beings can replace the physical presence — which has just become more precious and more rare.
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Peter McCarey worked at the WHO from the Chernobyl disaster until the Ebola outbreak, 2014-2016. He is the author of “Collected Contraptions” (Manchester, Carcanet, 2011) and lives with his family in Geneva.