When the sun started shining, earlier in the month, I couldn’t decide whether it made lockdown harder or easier to bear. To begin with, the answer seemed obvious: even people who don’t have a garden or a balcony could still get to a park for their daily exercise, and those that had to self-isolate could open the windows, and let the spring scents of cut grass and dusty tarmac transport them somewhere else. Yet as the days passed, and the sun kept shining, I started to resent confinement more and more. I wanted to get out of London: I wanted to go to the beach or go for a walk without wondering if I was running out of time. I wanted to enjoy the uncomplicated pleasure of the early summer heatwave, and I had to remind myself that even in normal times – if by normal, we mean ‘non-Covid’ – that isn’t possible anymore: the days when anything to do with the weather seemed uncomplicated are gone. I can’t remember when I started checking the date, and wondering whether it was normal for it to be so hot in April, or for May to pass without a drop of rain, but I know it has become so instinctive I hardly notice myself it anymore.
The uncomfortable feeling that the weather isn’t behaving as it should is particularly strong this year, for only six weeks have passed since we were besieged by rain of the kind that is normally described as ‘Biblical’. The flooding started in October, in the North of England, and soon spread to other places: Storm Dennis, the 13th named storm to hit the British Isles in the winter, swept through southern England and Wales in the middle of February – which would prove the wettest since records began in 1766. Yet the water had hardly gone down before another of the age-old threats recorded in Genesis took its place: the plague came, and the floods were forgotten.
They always are – there is usually flooding in the winter, and often in the summer, as well, and yet it still seems to take people by surprise: ‘floods are forgotten – until the next one occurs,’ Peter Ackroyd said of the Thames, which has flooded throughout its history, and will flood even more regularly in the coming years. When my book, The Great Flood: Travels through a Sodden Landscape, came out last October, people treated me as if I was some kind of seer: they weren’t insensitive enough to say well, it’s great for you, but they did say, half-seriously, ‘How did you know?’ – as if there was anything remotely improbable about the floods. That amnesia was one of the reasons I had decided to write the book: I was fascinated by our ability to ignore climate change, though we could all see it happening, in real time, and in tangible ways.
I didn’t – and still don’t – exclude myself from blame. The changes weren’t gradual: I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t noticed them. I didn’t need the statistics to confirm what my senses told me: the wet spring days I grew up with are now so rare that every time I open the front door to the fresh, cool smell of a world rinsed by rain, I feel like I am seven years old again. This year’s swing from February floods to April heatwave was particularly extreme, but the pattern has been set for years: so why haven’t I been demanding action? That’s why I was so relieved and excited by the arrival of Extinction Rebellion – above all, by the first of its three demands, which asserts the need for honesty and transparency as the starting-point: people need to be constantly reminded of the scale of the threat we face, if we are to overcome the natural instinct to carry on as normal.
I don’t know whether we will react to the coronavirus in the same way, and attempt to put it behind us as fast as we can. For the time being, we don’t have the luxury of being able to ignore it, though the pressure to resume our old ways of life is growing all the time. Some of that is understandable: there are aspects of lockdown that no-one will miss. I don’t want to think how long it might be before I see family or friends again. I’m lucky, because I live with my wife and children: that creates moments of tensions, of course, but I wouldn’t want to be without the warmth and intimacy of family life. Those who are ill, and those who are looking after them, are worst affected by the pandemic; but I also feel for people who live alone, unable to kiss or hug or touch anyone at all – and I worry that the habit of distancing will become engrained again, recreating the emotional and physical barriers that used to be an integral part of English life.
But perhaps good things will come out of it as well. Already, some of them are apparent – at least to those not affected by illness or unemployment or struggling to get enough to eat: for some, at least, there is a gentler, less frenzied pace of life, and for everyone, there are reductions in emissions and improvements in air quality, which show how easy it to shut off our polluting economy, if we want to. Perhaps even more significant changes will follow.
One thing is clear: containing the pandemic in both the developed and the developing world will require global cooperation of a kind we have rarely seen before. Applying the lessons learnt in South Korea and Germany and elsewhere is only the start: it will also require a massive redistribution of resources. It sounds unreasonably idealistic to say that a kinder, fairer world may emerge from the pandemic – but it may be one of the consequences of bringing it to an end. If it spreads through refugee camps or war zones in the Middle East, or densely crowded cities in India or Pakistan, then it will be back here before we know it. Covid anywhere is Covid everywhere, people say: you can’t fix it in one place and not another, and by revealing the interconnected nature of the world, it might define a mindset and a means of cooperation that will help in the fight against climate change, which ultimately poses a much greater threat to our occupation of the planet.
Edward Platt was born in 1968 and lives in London. His first book, Leadville, won a Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. He is also the author of The Great Flood: Travels through a Sodden Landscape, which explores the way floods have shaped the physical landscape of Britain, and The City of Abraham, a journey through Hebron, the only place in the West Bank where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side. He is a regular contributor to various magazines and newspapers.