Lucy Ashton:
After the Lockdown Lifts

Austria’s lockdown has lifted. The chances of infection just now are extremely low, the virus is a phantom. We should trust that. But as I cycled down Mariahilfer Strasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, I didn’t feel very trusting. There were people everywhere, some masked, most not, no one keeping much of a distance. And long queues for the banks and larger shops.

Daftly, in hindsight, I had chosen to go to a small shop and exchange two presents that didn’t fit my boys. They were bought way back in early March and I thought I wouldn’t have much chance to exchange them if I waited longer. Inside the shop, hands sanitised, my unease did not abate. The shop assistant started rifling through drawers showing me sizes that would fit – all ugly – pressing me to decide.

Slow down I inwardly mouthed. Another drawer. Am I allowed to touch, what is the etiquette now? She’s too close, I thought. My mask was itching, I was hot from the ride, confused by the exposure and demands of a stranger. I took the first things that looked reasonable and got out.

I shan’t go shopping like that again for some time.

How is this supposed to work? Being out of lock down but maintaining physical distance. Looking at the people on the street, they don’t appear unsettled by the phantom. The spell of the virus seems broken and everyone has gone back to normal. The city has filled up, work is beginning, our guard is dropping and distancing practices are dissolving – inevitably – as we become more familiar with people-in-the-flesh again. The virus has gone away, and yet, it hasn’t.  We are waiting. In limbo time.

When case numbers start increasing again (and there won’t be much warning as COVID 19 is so contagious) will we still be sufficiently afraid or has the danger of the virus become too mundane? Fear plays a big part in getting us to stick to the rules, particularly in countries that prefer their citizens to self-regulate rather than be coerced. How do you maintain sufficient fear in people? It was already a struggle in this first wave.

In lockdown, we were aware of the world outside, following the rules set by it, but not really a part of it. War analogies were everywhere, it was probably the best analogy going, so let’s accept it – we were/are at war. But the last six weeks has never sounded like a war. Wars are loud, they make their presence felt. You can hear the danger, you can probably smell and see the danger, survival instincts are a reflex. But in the microworld of our homes, the danger from this war was silent, nebulous, we rather had to suspend our disbelief for it to be there at all.

In the first weeks of lockdown, I talked about the danger disconnect with a friend in the UK, a medic, a lung specialist in fact. I know her from three years we shared in a sub-Saharan nation; there she worked in one of the country’s main hospitals – a place forever running out of everything, including disinfectant and water. The medics did what they could, with or without PPE, with or without the necessary tools or medication. What I want to tell you is that my friend is a tough one, sharp, dedicated, not easily daunted.

When we talked she had just finished her first week on a corona ward in a major UK hospital. She’s a research medic so it took her awhile to get back to the frontline. “Before I started,” she said, “I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I mean how bad could this virus be, compared to what I’d seen in Southern Africa?”

“Lucy,” she said “you just can’t imagine it. It is hell. It is like nothing else I’ve seen. We don’t know what we are doing. So many die.”

The difficulties were numerous. Patient’s symptoms were so different. Their numbers – heart rate, oxygen saturation etc – made no sense, doctors couldn’t trust them. And the virus was unpredictable. My friend thought someone was quite well, she was on the verge of sending them home and then boom, they crashed. Or she had a patient who was really sick, she couldn’t imagine that they could ever recover, and then hey, they bounced back. There were just no rules. “We’re not used to that as doctors,” she said. “Normally you have a disease, you know what it will do, and we’ve learnt over years how best to handle it, you know how you can likely save someone. There are guidelines, procedures, parameters. We have none of those. The public just don’t understand that. “

Part of the reason we didn’t get that, was because we didn’t really see this mayhem. Our typical portal to reality-beyond-our-experience is news reporting. But TV crews and journalists always struggle to access ICU’s, hospital management worry about accidents and consent, doctors worry about distractions, errors, germs, relatives worry about anonymity. Everyone worries about dignity and intrusion.

Even when the cameras do get in – either news crews or medics posting video on Twitter – we still can’t really comprehend the chaos. To the outsider, the lines of beds, an inert body-like form connected to a lot of plastic, looks very under control. Soberingly alien perhaps, but there is no drama to see. The violence is raging inside those inert forms, a war only the medics can intuit from the readouts flashing on their machines.

We did though, most of us, finally accept the danger we couldn’t see. We accepted we were at war and got used to our confinement. Public space was hazardous.

Now in a ceasefire with the virus, we must juggle a taut ambiguity. We need to suspend our disbelief (again). Trust. Accept it is safe out there, that we should return to work, (and save the economy?). But, all the time, we must hold our fear in reserve, nurture it, so it can pull us back indoors when we need to shelter again.

The still spiralling death tolls in the worst affected countries will not be enough to scare us again. Numbers long ago became too overwhelming for us to heed. The still frequent ambulance sirens on the street? My twins point them out to me and mimic them as they go by, yet the warning they carried has long dulled.

This week, two things bothered me.  In an interview an American oncologist described how her 80 something relative (still a practicing doctor) had a slight cough. She called him and found he was also sleeping more than usual. “Go to hospital now,” she said. “But it’s just a slight cough”, he protested. “No, I think you are hypoxic,” she said, low oxygen levels in the blood, a COVID symptom, cause sleepiness.

He had COVID of course, but the affecting bit was that this oncologist who has spent much of her career helping people prepare for death, didn’t warn her relative and his wife that this could be the last time they see each other. “I can’t believe I forgot to warn them, to say – I know it’s just a little cough, but take some time to speak to each other, because if it is COVID you’ll be immediately separated and isolated. You might not see each other again.”   There’s something in the abruptness of the isolation, and her sense of failing, that got to me.

And there was a video. It was not about what you could see, it was its implication that had power. The footage was a disused corridor in an Italian hospital. Piled up to the ceiling were small, white plastic bags, like the ones used in office bins. They were labelled. In the bags were the last effects of all those who had died of COVID 19 in that place. No one had been allowed to come and pick up them up, so there they sat.

I plan to pretty much maintain a lockdown lifestyle for as long as I can.

Sensitivity and response to different stories and images vary across an audience, but there are some universalities and shared emotions for most of us. What prods have reminded you recently COVID is something to fear? Will you write and tell me? I’m serious. My wariness will soon wear off, I’ll need reminding, and so will many others. In normal times I try to challenge, dismantle or overcome fear, in general I think people are too afraid. I find myself in an uncomfortable position suggesting stoking fear, but I acknowledge it has its uses. And now is one of them. In the scenario where we either self-regulate or allow governments to use ever more power to drive us inside, it would be better if we scare ourselves.

Lucy Ashton is a freelance journalist and documentary producer based in Vienna. From October to December 2019 he was a  Milena Jesenská Visiting Fellow at the IWM.

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