It is a strange privilege to be involved in history in such a direct way. My contracting COVID in 2021 feels the equivalent of being hit by shrapnel during WWII or being a slave in classical Athens. This pandemic will come to define our age. We don’t know how yet. History takes time to make itself clear. Anyone claiming to know how the pandemic will change the course of history, well, take him or her with a pinch of salt.
I can’t even begin to say how, if in any way, quarantine will change me. Though I have noticed a psychological predilection to seek out change. My first reaction when I got the email that spelled out that loud, unignorable word DETECTED was firstly, where could I have gotten this from, and, my god, I hope I haven’t passed it on to my family – especially my 4-month-old baby. After that initial wave of guilt and self-laceration came a more rational but still impassioned feeling of: ok, something good has to come from this.
It wasn’t long before I found myself making plans as to how to make the following two weeks bearable. In my mind a bit of alchemy was taking place; the outdoors, work, walks and the rest were being slowly exiled and being replaced by a lifestyle completely restricted to indoors.
I am adaptable by nature. It was easy to put a whole lifetime’s worth of habits aside and dig in; I knew I had a lot of writing to keep me company, editing my current novel Lost in Madrid, reading history, a lot of history, and indulging in my main guilty pleasure playing the PlayStation (I am currently carrying out an Assassin’s Creed marathon which is going hand in hand with my reignited passion for history and also slightly satisfying my wanderlust).
But making time pass as productively as possible was the easy part. Answering the cry of ‘something good has to come from this’ has proved more challenging.
I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis where he said how difficult it was for him to write about the September 11 attacks so soon after the fact. He said a novelist needs historic distance from an event to make sense of it. It is the same with the pandemic and it is the same for me on a personal level.
What good will come out of my quarantine, my own dalliance with history, I cannot yet say. I suspect, however, though I will by no means prophesise, that it will have something to do with the study of history, classics and art.
Guilty pleasures aside, that is how I have kept myself productive throughout quarantine. I’ve been buying books online (though they are taking ages to arrive) about classical art, the Babylonians, the Elgin Marbles and Roman histories. I’ve been watching lots of documentaries by the likes of Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes and finding a lot of online material.
As always when I get immersed into a phase, I need to write about it. I’ve been allowing myself indulge in the fantasy of being a historian or an art historian and writing blogs about classical art and comparisons between the classic and the contemporary.
It is a phase and a field I feel extremely comfortable in. I’ve been passionate about history ever since I was a 13-year-old obsessed with Genghis Khan and Medieval Europe. Now that the interest is resurging like a violent tide I feel overwhelmingly that I don’t want this phase to fizzle away again, I want to capture it and make it permanent. How, without making a radical change? Maybe that’s the good that will come out of quarantine.
As I face my last day in quarantine I find myself having to force myself to readjust to normality. Normality of course being a limited word, as in the outside world, cases in Malta are spiking and restrictive measures have even closed down restaurants. Even so, I have adapted brilliantly to my home routine and returning to what I used to know will take a few days to get used to. I feel like an exile returning from abroad trying to readapt to the country of his birth.
And quarantine has felt like an exile. On two levels. On one level it’s an exile I can live with. Being exiled from Malta is tolerable. As I said I more than compensated for the losses quarantine has imposed on me. But on a different level I have found exile from my family far harder to stomach.
Because my wife and son remained negative I have needed to isolate myself from them the whole time. I’ve felt like a lodger in my own home. Living downstairs, eating at separate times, sleeping on the sofa bed, and, worst of all, being so close to my son without ever being able to pick him up, even when he’s crying, all I could do was make noises at him and waiting for my wife to return from a necessary chore so she can soothe him.
But the brain truly is a brilliant model of plasticity. Now that I’m at the end of quarantine, all I can focus is on is enjoying physical contact with my family again, the past two weeks of dark exile almost as distant a memory as my 13-year-old obsession with Genghis Khan! Perhaps it’s an act of repression that psychologists might claim is unhealthy, but, truly, whatever works.
I still can’t claim to feel the anxiety over COVID that society is feeling en masse. Though of course it is a wildly justifiable and understandable anxiety. Especially for relatives of the vulnerable or businesses forced to shut down. Even so, since my symptoms were so mild – it was basically a cold that lasted a few days – it is tempting to just scream out: what’s all the fuss about, it’s just a cold! And you have to stop your mind indulging in conspiracy theories and saying, this isn’t so bad, it’s the fatalistic media blowing it out of proportion and we should just ignore it and move away.
And you can almost understand people like football fans who go out to celebrate their club’s victories despite restrictions, or people who, before restaurant closures, took themselves out drinking. There is a feeling of, we’ve had enough of this, we want normalcy to return. After all, isn’t this what the West is all about, freedom, freedom, freedom! Shouldn’t we all carry out a revolution against the dictatorship of the pandemic the same way the Americans revolted against their British colonists?
No. When the dust settles, when the symptoms disappear, reason happily returns to one’s thinking. It also makes one appreciate the value of complexity. Society today – mostly stoked by the structure of rampant social media – thinks along a very binary manner. A thing is either good or bad, vile or noble, horrible or wonderful. The way we discuss politics, politicians, policies and ideas is limited. We turn to slogans, to placarding, to black-and-white statements. But things are seldom simple and never binary.
Global government’s response to the pandemic is one such thing. All over the world governments have made mistakes in dealing with the pandemic. Of course they have! This is a novel situation not seen on this scale since the Spanish flu of 1918. This is a revolutionary tragedy in living memory. So of course mistakes have been made, some more fatal than others.
It is a reflection of how much we’ve come to expect from our nanny states. When governments make a mistake we feel like children catching their parents drunk. Despite all the criticisms we are happy to level at our governments, we expect them to be idols of moral purity. When a politician is caught money-laundering or having an affair we are shocked and seemingly question human nature. But our politicians are human, all too human, and are thus susceptible to corruption and mistakes – just as you are, whoever you are reading this.
But it is also a reflection of the success of Western political models and institutions that when something like a global pandemic happens, we are angry at our politicians as if it is all their fault. I hate myself for saying this, but – god help me – I agree with Trump when he called this the Chinese virus. I would never be as crass, but it is important to remember the country that exported this disease and who tried to cover it up in the early days of the outbreak. We are, after all, dealing with a communist state paranoid about its own survival.
Having said all of that, we should be appreciative that governments are leading their countries into a unified response to this outbreak. Things like universal restrictions, wearing masks in public, mass swabbing and contact tracing – can you imagine something like this being achieved during the Black Death or the Spanish flu?
When I was in quarantine I had a number of health professionals calling me, asking about my health and also who I had been in contact with. We’ve come to take that for granted now, but when you think about it, it’s almost magical. And this goes beyond the appreciation I have for ultra-dedicated frontline workers, it is also an appreciation for the system above them. I know it’s not fashionable to say that now, but the system does work.
Tomorrow, when I return into the land of the living – such as it is – I will walk out with a greater appreciation of the freedoms we once took for granted, and how it is those freedoms that make our civilisation great, freedoms which are, after all, fragile and protected by a system which, for saying it is run by human beings, miraculously works.