I was in denial. Two weeks ago, I thought it is just bad flu. More people die of influenza every year and we don’t panic over that, this coronavirus will pass. But at the beginning of last week, my thinking started to change
I’m self-employed and work largely from home on my laptop. I go out dancing most evenings. I love social dancing and five nights a week is typical for me; Argentine tango, swing-jazz and salsa, among others. In the course of the week March 9-13, everything I usually attend is cancelled, save for one salsa class and a scaled-down milonga (Argentine tango social).
Choose your weapon: coronavirus or knife?
Monday, March 9: Monday mornings I’m in a physio class at the gym but in my first, tactical move, I cry off. Tuesday night, my usual dance event is cancelled and I toy with going to my local for a pint but I’ve got beer in the fridge, so I stay home. Next morning, I read that someone was stabbed outside the pub last night. I joke that social-distancing to dodge the coronavirus saved me from a knife fight. London, eh?
Wednesday, there are just four students in the salsa class, including me, but the gym where it is housed and the streets of Shoreditch that surround it, are as busy as usual. Thursday, I join friends in a pub in Covent Garden before going to my favourite milonga, Tango Terra. I’m annoyed because my regular dance buddies have all cried-off and when I get to the milonga, it is a lot smaller than usual. I skulk off and rejoin my non-dancing friends in the pub.
First symptoms and a diagnosis
Friday morning I wake with a headache and bad guts and phone the 111 HNS helpline and describe my symptoms. They ask me of my social activities and contacts and then diagnose a hangover. Transpires it was the stroppy Malbec I’d necked the night before.
Saturday, I have dinner with my friend, Geny, in a restaurant in Lee Green. It is very busy, we wait for a table. There is no indication that anyone is concerned about the pandemic, this feels like a normal Saturday night.
Sunday, March 15: I’m in Covent Garden to see my friend, Nathan, and his band playing their usual pub gig at the Two Brewers. I live in South East London where it is traditional that trains don’t run on weekends, so I get the bus that drops me at the Aldwych and I walk through the market. It is deserted, like a scene from a dystopian future movie.
I take a couple of photos of Seven Dials and Monmouth Street with no cars and no people in them. It occurs to me that if you are a budget film-maker, you could shoot your zombie apocalypse street scenes on the fly.
There’s a war on, you know
The pub is usually very busy, but there are barely a dozen in this night. At chucking-out time, my friends and I hug and kiss each other in defiance of the virus-dodging guidelines and say we’ll keep in touch.
It is weird.
Ordinarily, we know when we’ll meet again. ‘Are you going on Tuesday?’ ‘No, but I’ll see you on Thursday as usual.’ Kamila and I hug and then we look at each other and shrug our shoulders, ‘well, I’ll see you then,’ I say and it feels like an unfinished line from a movie, ‘…when this bloody war is over.’
I’m walking down St Martin’s Lane towards Charing Cross station and there is just one other figure, walking towards me on the same side of the road. As we pass, he nods to me and says; ‘evening’. A total stranger greets me on the streets of London. This is the end of days.
My physio class is still happening on Monday morning but I message and say I’m not going. I have WhatsApp conversations with Italian friends, one back in the UK, the others in Milan and under lockdown. They tell me of the dark scenes unfolding in their country and warn me to take great care, the UK is going to end up in the same place.
The looting has started
Tuesday, St Patrick’s Day, March 17: I go out in the afternoon to the convenience store across the road from my flat and there is a huge queue for the tills and not much of the basics left on the shelves. I go in the Sainsbury’s Local and overhear the staff on the manned-tills discussing people leaving without paying. Looting, but not of the American variety where you back your truck through the shop doors, this is the English sort where you pretend to pay at the self-service tills and then stroll out nonchalantly.
The video cameras that Sainsbury’s installed to catch people weighing avocados as carrots on the self-service tills aren’t much use when the culprits are wearing face masks. I shed no tears. Despite the low wages subsidised by government tax credits, Sainsbury’s still finds it preferable to dodge the expense of wages and income tax by eliminating staff altogether. I only use the supermarkets under duress and I’ll queue for a manned till rather than use an automated one on point of principle.
I bag a few things, then set off for the street market in Lewisham. I walk, rather than take the bus, for the exercise and because I am now thinking about reducing my contact with other people. I take stock in the evening. I’ll need to do a little more shopping tomorrow, then I will be able to hunker down in my flat for a couple of weeks.
Reporting from the front
Wednesday, March 18: I’m out to the convenience store at 7:30am and again, there are thin pickings and big queues. I head down to Lewisham and take a look in the Sainsbury’s store in the shopping centre. It is chaos. There is a colossal queue for the self-service tills and there is as much product scattered on the floor as on the shelves. Outside, people are queuing in the street to get into Superdrug. I feel like a foreign correspondent in a war zone.
Wednesday evening and I’ve got pans of food cooking on the stove which I will portion out into Tupperware and freeze. A pot of my own passata is on the go and I realise I have no fresh basil. I cross the road to the convenience store and find that fresh basil is one of the few things still in supply in the produce section. I would join the queue but my single packet of basil seems ridiculous amongst the cargo-like hauls of my fellow shoppers. So I supplement it with a bottle of Merlot. I dodge the Malbec. I’m getting the hang of this risk management.
Back in my flat, I do one last stock check. If I eat frugally, I reckon I have enough food for two weeks. I also have three and a half bottles of whiskey and a trumpet.