Deputy Viewpoint Editor, Kate Lau, considering the 2003 SARS outbreak, evaluates what the long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic may look like.
A few days ago, I was accosted on South Street by a friendly acquaintance, who seemed entirely too jovial for a rainy Thursday morning. As he approached with lifted arms, Downing Street’s latest earworm (‘Hands. Face. Space.’) chimed in my ears in all its delightfully kitsch glory. In that split second, I felt an old lockdown habit resurface. During the months of ‘stay home, save lives’, I had heartlessly sorted my friends into two categories: those I would brave Hyde Park to see, and those I would not.
This particular friend would have belonged squarely to the latter set, I thought. And an acquaintance, in pandemic terms, may as well be a stranger. Could I in good conscience embrace a stranger, albeit dutifully masked? I quickly stepped back, demurring, having decided to keep a reasonable distance. This was no trivial feat for a habitual hugger, and I felt tremendously decent for my efforts. After our socially-distanced pleasantries, suggested we go for a drink ‘sometime, maybe next week.’
‘Of course,’ I enthused, not at all meaning it. He could keep his hypothetical coronavirus to himself. ‘See you later!’
With every interaction now ubiquitously tainted with risk and social events crippled by capricious regulations, social relationships must be maintained through deliberate effort. This, for many, will mean a tragic denouement to a number of friendships—fledgeling, once-thriving and moribund alike—and perhaps experience ‘chronic loneliness’. But are we to overlook the ideals of community and unity that have arisen from the pandemic? Every time we choose to wear a face mask we do so to protect those around us, who are often strangers. Acts of charity have been on the rise. Neighbourly interaction in London, once unthinkable, is now quotidian. Each nation is united at least by their desire to see the problem of coronavirus solved, if not by their approaches to it.
Though perhaps you are one of the aforementioned chronically lonely, and cannot find consolation in my pretentious rhapsodising on collective responsibility. To that, I will ask you to take comfort in the knowledge that my social circle has undergone a deranged Marie Kondo-esque declutter, and is all the better for it. Yours will likely reanimate itself in due course, and will do so at the same rate that global cooperation will disintegrate once bereft of the looming sense of emergency. It will happen when raves are no longer ‘underground’, when a dinner party of seven is no longer illegal, when approaching hot strangers at pubs is once again acceptable and so forth.
In this post-pandemic utopia, when friendships have rejuvenated, the phrase ‘new normal’ is a bygone relic and face masks have fallen out of fashion—what remains? Perhaps the long-term physical effects of COVID-19 come to mind, lung scarring, heart damage and the like. Perhaps you are an aspiring stockbroker, and you think first of economic devastation and soaring property prices. All true enough. But often overlooked is the pandemic’s mental toll, the effects of which may be far less temporary than most would like to believe.
Without incessant coronavirus briefings and neon placards beseeching social distance, most of us will return to our pre-coronavirus existences. We will put our Liberty face masks away, delete the NHS track-and-trace from our phones and resume our weekend jaunts to Europe. But how many will be able to resist looking suspiciously at a train-cougher? How many will reflexively reach for their travel-sized hand sanitiser? How long before we stop seeing other people as potential germ carriers?
Perhaps for you, dear reader, not long at all. But for the fretful and the neurotic, the effects will potentially last a lifetime. The zeitgeist of this pandemic will indubitably be characterised in no small part by anxiety, fostered by the constant awareness of an ongoing crisis. Many will suffer from new depressive and anxious tendencies, with medical professionals particularly susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorders. This will also prove particularly true for young children, who will find themselves with odd ingrained habits they cannot explain, nor remember the origins of.
You see, I speak as a germaphobe of the mild-to-moderate variety, who lived through the first SARS epidemic in Hong Kong (2002-2004)—the long forgotten Mamma Mia! to COVID-19’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. I have no conscious memory of it, having been only three at the time, and thought myself lucky to have been unscathed both by the disease and its accompanying anxieties. However, I have recently come to realise I possess more mementos of SARS than three pink toddler-sized terrycloth masks.
Memory works in peculiar ways. I have retained the knack of dealing with the ads on illegal movie streaming sites, but have forgotten the properties of alkali metals. I can still remember the complex motions for the lock on my first childhood home, but can no longer conjugate the irregular verb volo (Latin: to want). What I will likely never forget, however, is an ingrained perception of the world as pestilence-ridden.
My germophobia, as phobias are wont to do, manifests itself in fickle and irrational ways. I will happily split a bread roll or share a charcuterie board, but resolutely refuse to do the same with an ice cream sundae or a G&T. I won’t take a seat on a Tube platform, but will blithely do the same in the carriage itself. I habitually move away from ill strangers, but take no issue with friends who appear to be suffering from the plague.
I am, however, not alone in my neurosis. With the SARS outbreak persisting in cultural memory, Hong Kong exists perpetually in biohazard-readiness. Pocket hand sanitisers are ubiquitous, while face masks are household staples. The governing bodies in Hong Kong were quick to track, trace, and isolate at the first signs of the novel coronavirus. Firm restrictions were implemented swiftly, and the populace, for the most part, unceremoniously complied.
The point of my ramblings? To urge an abundance of caution. Be attentive in your COVID preventions, but remain vigilant of internalising undue paranoia (re: the Aristotelian golden mean). Know that the current state of affairs is temporary, and when the pandemic is over—leave your germophobia behind.
It’s too late for me, save yourselves.