Journal of the Plague Year – Part 1

“Isn’t it odd? You talk about millions dying in India and China, and it has no impact at all…”

Survivors episode 1 – The Fourth Horseman, 1975

It started slowly, like it always does. A new report about an outbreak of a new disease, somewhere remote from where I was. Nothing new, nothing unusual – we’d seen it before, with Ebola and SARS and countless others. Distant tragedies that had no real impact other than a bit of humanitarian hand wringing until the outbreaks inevitably flared and burned out. A story I’d seen a dozen times before.

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Except this one was different. This outbreak didn’t burn itself out. Most of the world turned, indifferent to yet another Chinese epidemic, concerning itself with its own petty interests – Brexit, the Oscars, whether we were being too mean to each other on social media… And all the while the new disease spread, seemingly unstoppably. The news began to feature it more and more, as China instituted ever more draconian containment measures. But surely they would contain it… wouldn’t they? In the mean time, our attention wandered, to the antics of Donald Trump, forthcoming football tournaments, the Olympics, and our own everyday concerns.

And then the first cases started being reported in other countries.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve spent a lot of your time watching the same post-apocalyptic plague dramas that I have. Survivors, The Omega Man, The Stand, 28 Days Later… The opening title sequence of the original, 1975 version of Survivors, with its montage of a clumsy Chinese scientist juxtaposed with planes taking off and landing all over the world, looks oddly prophetic now.

As does this news graphic from the later, 2008 remake of the series.

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Of course, this isn’t fiction. But like so many of the characters in those dramas, I missed what was going on because I had my own issues to worry about. My mum had just died, on February 29th, of the cancer that had been lurking in her for a couple of years. When it hit, it hit fast; I got a phone call from my brother on Wednesday telling me that if I wanted to see her before she went, I had to come back to the UK now. Two weeks before she’d been chatty and seemingly normal. By that Saturday, my brother and I were holding her hands as she gently, unknowingly, slipped away.

It was overwhelming, too much to take in. I’d never even seen a dead body before; now I’d actually seen someone die, and what was worse, it was my mum. I felt like I’d been gut punched, alternating between numbness and unstoppable tears. She died at home, and as the undertakers reverently carried her small, diminished body down the stairs on a stretcher, her face covered with a burgundy sheet, it all seemed so unreal. So terrible.

And so it was that, as the virus began its lengthy world tour, I barely even noticed. My grief was so overwhelming it occupied my head to the exclusion of everything else. The season finale of Doctor Who passed without comment – I still haven’t reviewed it, because my head was in a very strange place that Sunday night and I’m still not sure what I think of it. Meanwhile, unnoticed by me, new coronavirus cases started to appear in Asia and Europe. Italy seemed to be hardest hit. I read it in The Guardian and didn’t really take it in.

There didn’t seem much point in staying in the UK. The funeral would be a couple of weeks away, and I didn’t want to be sitting twiddling my thumbs at my brother’s house with nothing else to occupy my mind. I wanted to get back home to Barcelona, and back to teaching; something to keep me busy. Something I enjoyed.

By now, the virus was starting to become the star of the news. In my conversation classes, it was all the students wanted to talk about. A week later, John Oliver dedicated most of an episode of Last Week Tonight to its spread, and I was pleased that it gave me enough material to cover four different lessons. I was starting to become aware that this was a bigger story than SARS, or swine flu, or bird flu. But still, nothing we couldn’t cope with. A few hundred miles away, Italy was quarantining large areas of Lombardy.

The second week after I got back, people were starting to get nervous. Increasingly, the news was all about the outbreak. Cruise ships were put in quarantine, floating breeding grounds for the virus virtually guaranteed to increase its spread. In Australia, people were fighting over the last packs of toilet roll in supermarkets. In America, people were asking whether you could defend yourself against the virus by avoiding Chinese food and/or gargling with bleach. Madness. But still, far away.

Until it wasn’t. Until the first cases starting being reported not just in Spain, but right here in Catalonia. In Barcelona. On my doorstep.

I still had other things on my mind, though. My mum’s funeral had been confirmed for March 20, my hardworking brother putting in all the organisational work. I’d promised to write the eulogy, and was mulling ideas over in my head. I carried on teaching, half my mind on the writing and the funeral. Not far away, Italy closed all its schools and went into total lockdown.

Work started to dry up for me, and by now I couldn’t help but notice. I regularly teach at a big pharmaceutical company, three classes a week. That week, the first was cancelled, the second only half-attended, and the third cancelled. An email came in saying that they’d suspended all English classes until further notice. In Iran, mass graves were starting to be dug.

I have (had?) a regular conversation class on Thursday afternoons, a gregarious bunch of mostly retired men and women who’d been using the school to practise conversational English for years longer than I’ve been here. Often, one or two of them would be absent – they all have busy lives. That week, for the first time ever, they were all absent. I waited the mandated time of half the 90 minute class length before giving up and going home. In the UK, Boris Johnson was assuring the populace that everything would be fine as long as you washed your hands for the length of time it took to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.

As I left, I asked whether the school would be going on to online teaching, given the turn of events in Italy. Our Director of Studies often looks harassed and overworked, but the level of that day was a new extreme. She didn’t know, but more information would follow. Eventually. In China, the death toll reached quadruple figures.

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By now, the sickness the virus caused had acquired a name – COVID-19. That sounded suitably apocalyptic – a bit like the lethal ‘MM-88’ from 1980 Japanese classic Virus (Fukkatsu No Hi in its home country). I could hardly ignore it any more. More and more people on the streets of Barcelona were wearing masks. Toilet paper and pasta had become surprisingly hard to get hold of. The outbreak of the disease here may have been in its infancy, but the outbreak of hysteria was already in full swing. In Hong Kong, flights were grounded, and airports idle.

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Friday is (was?) a quiet day for me, though. No class until 16:00, for three hours, then a quiet night before my rather annoying Saturday morning class which meant I couldn’t have a lie in. The virus was on my mind, sure, but not as much as the end of term exams I had to plan for those classes. I was poring over some course books half-heartedly when my phone rang – it was Elena, the receptionist at one of our campuses. She seemed distracted, her English deserting her a bit, and my muy basico espanol not able to follow. Eventually she seemed to realise who she was speaking to, and apologised for calling by mistake. In Geneva, the World Health Organisation officially classified the outbreak as a pandemic.

Back at the apartment, I completed some work on the first draft of my mum’s eulogy, tears stinging my eyes. Then I headed for Paral-lel Metro station, course books stowed neatly in my tote bag, ready for the late afternoon class. In the US, Donald Trump was denying all knowledge that there had ever been a pandemic preparation division of HHS, and even if there had been, its closure was nothing to do with him.

I arrived to a strangely deserted campus, and was greeted by our other Director of Studies, who looked even more harassed than his counterpart at my other, more regular campus. He was surprised to see me; I was surprised at the complete absence of any students. Virtually hopping with frantic, panicky energy, he told me that Elena’s call actually hadn’t been a mistake – she just hadn’t realised I had a class there. Except I didn’t, not any more. The school had received notification that the Spanish government was going to declare a State of Emergency the next day. Classes – and life – would be suspended for the foreseeable future.

More information would follow. It was a phrase I was starting to get used to, one meaning, “we don’t actually have any information to give you yet”. Reeling somewhat, I decided to go and visit my good friend Freya, as she lived nearby. She hadn’t seen me since my mum’s death, and had been so supportive on social media. It seemed like the perfect time to call on her. Outside, Barcelona’s bars and cafes were starting to close.

Freya, it transpired, had already known about the impending State of Emergency – friend of a friend, that sort of thing. She informed me that, apparently, the army might soon be on the streets. With nothing else to do, we chatted, laughed, and had a few beers. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die. In the street below, Gracia’s posh boutiques were already shuttered up.

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On the way back to my place in Raval, the Metro was curiously quiet for 7pm on a Friday. Normally I’d have my face shoved into somebody’s armpit; today I actually managed to get a seat without hovering like a vulture. It was a taste of things to come. Mild hysteria gripping me, I popped into the local supermarket for some toilet roll, as I knew we only had half a one left. Four supermarkets later, I actually found some. Raval is an area justifiably noted for its street crime; but I’ve never felt so paranoid as I did walking through its increasingly empty streets openly clutching a multipack of Dia own brand twin-ply bog roll.

Back home, I messaged Tom, thinking it might be nice to meet up while we still could. But he had his own problems; his school was shifting to online teaching, and he had lots of work. I passed the time watching Survivors (the 2008 version). It would be the last time I’d want to watch something about a pandemic for a while.

I’d had a longstanding dinner invite with my friend Patrick, a colleague of Tom’s, so I trotted over there at 9 o’clock and shared a truly excellent curry he’d made. We whiled away the evening chatting about all the stuff that always interests us – music, literature, ancient history… and yet the conversation kept circling back to that pesky virus. After an enjoyable eveing, I sauntered home through oddly empty streets – usually Raval is teeming at 1am on a Saturday. Not any more.

And now, here I am, locked down in my apartment. All those apocalyptic stories I cherished in my youth were coming uncomfortably true. I was still processing my mum’s death, and the world was in the grip of what felt like the Black Plague. It doesn’t do wonders for your mental health.

This is the first of (hopefully) several posts detailing what it’s like to live in this brave new world of handwashing, face masks and coughing into your elbow. It’s a scary world out there, and all of this is just beginning. Daniel Defoe had the advantage of distance when he wrote Journal of the Plague Years (it was written 55 years after the event), but I have the advantage of being right in the middle of it. So look forward to more writings – it’s not like I have anything else to do…