The first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse was the crowned rider on the white horse bringing pestilence. Now that we have our very own modern ‘crowned’ pestilence in the form of the coronavirus many feel afraid and think that we may be living in the end of days. As we spend our lives locked in our houses watching the news report the grim daily body count of the dead it is difficult not to think “How will this end? Will I get coronavirus? Will I die?”
I don’t know the answers to the first two questions but I do know the answer to the third. The answer, as it always has been, is “Yes; you will die”. I don’t know if it will be through Covid19 or in some freak blender accident but I know it will happen.
This assurance is the only true thing we know. We all know that in the end we all die. Indeed throughout our development as a species it has been the prospect of our death that has guided us. Religious beliefs have looked at this and allowed us to use death to put our lives in context. Religions have helped us live while always and everywhere we are in the presence of death. Our awareness of our death is the defining point of our life – we have to ensure we set our house in order before we shuffle off our mortal coils.
I fear that over the past few generations, in our increasingly secular society, we have lost our familiarity with death. In the UK most deaths no longer occur at home but now most people die in forms of care; hospitals or nursing homes. We now don’t have a connection with our fate. Death is something that happens to other people, something that happens to people far away in the hospice, people far away much older than me.
I noticed when watching an advert on television for life assurance just how distanced we have become. This was one of the many adverts urging the elderly to buy a policy to pay for their funeral costs to spare their family the expense. In this an older man narrates that “if the worst happens I know my family are covered”. Why ‘if‘ rather than the correct ‘when‘? If we can’t even think of death when making an advert for funeral costs we are in a sorry state. These are life assurance policies as we are assured that death will eventually occur.
But in these times of plague this inability to consider death is causing problems. People feel that they should not die. They think if they spend enough money, eat enough healthy food, take enough exercise or pay enough taxes then they should be alright. There is a feeling that death is avoidable if we know what to do. This has lead to our rather wishful and juvenile planning regarding the lockdown.
The function of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve”, to slow the rate of infection progression so that our health care systems would not be overloaded – so that we would have unavoidable and unnecessary deaths due to lack of medical provision. It was never a lockdown to stop the virus in its tracks, it was always known that when it was eased (barring miracles) we would again have to face the virus. But hopefully, by then, we would have prepared adequately so that our health systems were ready and that we had started behaving in ways that would mitigate the virus’s spread.
It was never the plan that we would hunker down and wait for the cavalry in the form of a vaccine or treatment. Even if these occur it is not likely we will see them in the next few years and the personal and social costs of lockdown for this period of time could be even worse then the virus itself. It is inevitable that if no one is producing then a time when no one is consuming must follow. We in the developed West can’t hope that the poor abroad will continue to take the risks to attend fields and stock simply to fill our food supply chains. We should recall that, after the crowned horseman of pestilence came the next three riders- poverty, war and hell – the deaths through poverty and famine could be every bit as horrendous .
No matter how frightened we are, and I’ll admit to a fair degree of fear, we have to find ways to live alongside coronavirus, to find ways of living in the knowledge that there are things that may, at any time, kill us. It will force us to change our behaviour – saving expectantly all year to be packed into a sealed petrie dish and flown across the world (breathing the air recycled through lungs of your 200 fellow passengers) for your two week holiday may no longer seem a great way to live. Many of the long supply chains we have grown to rely upon may start to look like ever present risks. Being more self-reliant in food production, or having strong social care services, may now seem much more important priorities than lower taxes or cheaper costs when we make our political decisions.
There are many things we can do to learn how to cope with the new future. My only real fear is that is we continue with this plan of hiding until it goes away we will miss the opportunities to deal with it. My real fear is that we might ‘return to normal‘ and then we will have to restart the battle all over again.