Good news has been in short supply — save the reports of frontline heroism, community kindness and spectacular fundraising efforts — since the planet was struck by this meteorite of contagion, smashing into our world with catastrophic consequences. Our spikey sci-fi nemesis, the coronavirus COVID-19, has taken literally incalculable lives: our death-counting systems cannot keep up, accuracy seems crass, or controversial or unbearable. This global pandemic has taken away freedoms, and expectations of daily living that we took for granted. There may be another significant casualty: the virus seems to be taking much of our former perspective on life down with it.
In the early days of this crisis, we sat in our separate homes prodding — between the Instagram stunts and the video calls and the baking — at this transformed reality as we might tongue-jab an infected tooth, trying to feel our way around the new parameters of pain and loss.
Life, however, soon started prodding back. At the height of lockdown, nature was glorying in the vacuum, surging into the streets we once populated: mountain goats frolicking in Llandudno; Venice’s waters teeming with life; lambs frisking on a roundabout in Wales; boar descending from the Barcelona hills and deer trainspotting in Japan. We have seen Californian turkey trots, stampeding Indian stags and Chilean pumas pacing where we once encountered road rage and traffic fumes.
While science was striving to flatten the curve, the natural world was busy reclaiming space. This global blight that snatches the last gasps from the worst afflicted has, in stark and chastening parallel, been giving this people-battered planet a breather.
Naturally, this is not to herald the coronavirus as a welcome development. Within hours of it hitting the news, trolls proclaimed COVID-19 to be the punishment of a vengeful, disappointed, even homophobic God. Idiocy, of course. Certainly, the marketplace madnesses — did it jump from bats to pangolins to humans? — which may have triggered the viral species leap that sparked this fresh hell have rightly excited condemnation. But while such grotesque practices should clearly be banned, there is less mileage in contemplating karmic payback than looking at the global picture moving forward. This curse of a pandemic might one day be viewed as a last chance to rethink. To reset. To create and abide by a new set of priorities.
What, after all, was life before? Prior to this COVID-19 outbreak, we were increasingly focusing on climate change, while keeping a weather eye on the rise of the Far Right across Europe and beyond. At least we were in our house. Both issues kept me awake at night and, in the days before the virus hit, I was particularly exercised by the response of fellow black British citizens to both. After all, when taken to their logical conclusion, both could present existential threats. Many of African-Caribbean descent were speaking out against the rise of racist ideology on social media and in the press. However, the climate fight was not garnering the same response in many of the diverse areas of society collectively known as ‘the black community’. When I attended my first Extinction Rebellion gathering to speak in Trafalgar Square, while there had been a few people of colour, the crowd had gleamed as white as a night at the Royal Opera House.
Why? Several articles and interviews pondered just that, and I had been building up a head of literary steam, wondering why the black gaze, too, was not set upon staring down this greatest of human threats. Asking around among friends and family, the broad answer was depressing but simple: we were too busy fire-fighting the day-to-day inequalities and injustices, from the tightening cultural grip of the hostile environment to the fallout from the push for Brexit and the Windrush scandal. Against all that daily white noise, fighting for the climate seemed to many to be a Trustafarian’s pastime: poncing around at protests when there were bills to pay and other battles to fight. And which black person with any sense offers to get arrested?
Yet climate change remains the threat to end them all. I had been stewing over how to get more people like me — a person of colour, relatively untested in the ways of activism (unless you count buying a Free Mandela T-shirt and a postal subscription claiming to support the ANC, aged fourteen) — fired up about the climate getting fired up.
Then it happened: coronavirus.
The UK fast became unrecognisable: the country, so recently split by Brexit, stricken but pulling together; experts respected once more; wishing Europe well. In the countries of my parents’ birth: a movement ban in Lagos and, in Jamaica, a covid curfew and an all-island lockdown to keep people safe. Everywhere, health workers strived, people recovered, people died. A disparate world, united in the extraordinary.
A few weeks on, the death toll has soared to its horrific peak; the rate of loss is now slowing. The economy is tanking. That is the price we pay to save lives; still too many have already been lost and still the poorest will fare worst. Even just past the peak, there is much hardship: the pressure on the frontline; the rise in domestic abuse; the increased vulnerability of the homeless; those with physical and mental health issues enduring terrible challenges and privations. But, if we organise well as a society, we have the wherewithal to survive.
Locked down, fearful and reflective, what have we been doing with our time? Re-engaged with our will to survive, what lessons will we take forward from this vast existential challenge?
We could do worse than look up. No planes! Nature has turned the air blue with relief as we have stopped asphyxiating the climate for a short while. Children that we have proven to be — so reckless for so many years with all of our toxic, intoxicating toys — this enforced breaktime should give us pause. In the depths of this human horror, we might have the last gasp of a chance.
As we rebuild the economy, who do we want to prosper? Surely it must be the beleaguered many. Forget footballers’ pay cuts; the prodigiously overpaid sportsmen are far from alone. Before, we were lectured about market forces, told our economy rewards according to demand and reminded that this was what we wanted, wasn’t it? The term inequality barely covers it: the system of financial reward was grossly out of whack, as nature is grossly out of whack. Just ask the bat, or the pangolin.
A bigger question: as we rebuild our world, what do we want to prosper?
Maybe now, after this reminder of our species’ fragility, after beating pans with wooden spoons to applaud the NHS and frontline services that we have starved of cash for years, we will reject what we wanted before and build a new future. One deserved by those we applaud, its benefits spanning the breadth of society, black or white. Perhaps — a dream as clear as the renewed Grand Canal — one that the Earth deserves, rich in goat-frolicking possibilities. Our planet is taking a deep breath while we hold ours, sweating the deaths and the tests and the viral trends and the vaccine trials. What aspirations may seed themselves, as yet tiny but tenacious, in the global body politic during this fever dream, this vast breath-hold?
‘See you on the other side’, we now write at the end of messages, or blurt at the close of our Zoom calls. We know change is here and that more change is coming. If through the pain we can grasp that this global pause could, in the end, become an opportunity — unsought, and agonising, and undeserved, but real — to instigate the changes we must make to preserve our planetary home, then although we will be greatly damaged, we will have learned. And — a disparate world, united in the extraordinary — we will indeed be on the other side.
Rachel Edwards is the author of Darling, described in the national press as ‘the first Brexit thriller’. An alumna of King’s College London, she worked in publishing, won an Arts Council award for her fiction and became a freelance writer for over 12 years until she chose to focus full-time on writing novels. Since Darling was published in May 2018, Rachel has appeared at literary festivals and events around the UK. Her articles have featured in many publications including The Guardian and The Sunday Times and she is a regular guest on BBC radio. She is currently writing her second novel.