Feeling like Alice

Lockdown, social distancing, R-value. Mask, hand-sanitiser, curfew. Tier, zone, furlough, Zoom. Coronavirus, Covid-19. Twelve terms that twelve months ago were almost entirely absent from our vocabulary. But now they are daily currency of practically every exchange and scarcely a day goes by without hearing, reading or using nearly all of them. So embedded are they in our lexicon, so ingrained in our psyche, so crucial to our mood and activities, our hopes and worries that it has become hard to imagine a time or a life without them.

But it really was only a year ago – just 365 normal earth-days, not a light year, not in another universe – that some began to hear the faint chime of an alarm bell from somewhere deep in China where a new ’flu-like virus that had something to do with bats had started to take hold. It was just another minor foreign news story back then, though, along with a train crash in one distant country or a freak snowstorm in another; all very unfortunate for those involved, of course, and we all shook our heads, sighed and tutted. But ultimately it seemed like just more inconsequential grist churning through the mill of 24-hour global news. We turned the page, we scrolled on by.

And in any event, we all had far more pressing matters on our minds. For us it was, the timescale for constructing our long-awaited terrace, our plans for a much-needed holiday in Croatia when my teaching year finished, and where to take the two sets of friends who had already booked in for spring-time visits. And as for the news, it was the pain of Brexit, the loss of our precious EU citizenship and our disgust with the UK’s contemptuous and contemptible government that troubled us more. That and the onward march of the far-right in Italian politics, along with the growth of the corresponding ‘Sardines against Salvini’ movement whose members had crammed themselves into Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore in peaceful protest against the far-right leader’s ugly rhetoric. It was really beginning to gather pace, in fact, but suddenly ‘politics as usual’ screeched to a halt.

For the virus was here. Here in Europe, here in Italy. No one knew how, no one knew when. But it was here. No longer in faraway China, but in Lombardy, the country’s richest, most efficient – and most populous region. But no one knew what to do, not even when it started to spread, not even when people started to die. In fact, with that first outbreak occurring in the almost teutonically hardworking and orderly north – the engine room of the economy – the country’s first response was little more than an echo of the UK’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan of World War II. Indeed, Bergamo, effectively the epidemic’s Ground Zero, even briefly adopted the hashtag bergamononsiferma (Bergamo doesn’t stop), complete with promotional video, in order to show that the economic engine wasn’t going to stop just because of some pesky virus. But that early stoicism and defiance were soon unmasked as complacency and unpreparedness, by which time, of course, it was too late. The virus hadn’t stopped either.

Exactly a year ago schools in Le Marche closed. A week later they closed across the whole country. And a week after that, with new infections and fatalities rising exponentially, Italy entered total lockdown, imprisoning its people in their own homes and closing its borders for almost three months. The first country in Europe to do so. A pariah state. A death state. In the heart of Europe. In the 21st century. It felt unreal.

Just as the virus overwhelmed its victims, so unreality overwhelmed reality, which soon became a dystopian version of Through the Looking Glass: you could still recognise your own reflection, tense and drawn though it had become, but everything else was now back to front. Like a latter-day Alice stepping through the mirror, we had entered an alternative world where soldiers shifting truckloads of coffins, spectral figures in hazmat suits, and deserted town centres were in while hugs and handshakes, going to work, school or, indeed, anywhere were out. The unimaginable became normal; normal became nostalgia. Habit became history; fear became fact.

And so here we are, one year on, still in this grim alternative reality as another winter softens into another spring – just as it did last year, when the world turned back to front. So could it be, as the time of rebirth and regrowth comes round once more, as the advent of not one but several vaccines brings signs of recovery and renewal, and as the wheel of life comes full circle, that we will at last have the chance to step back through the mirror, gradually delete those ghastly twelve terms from our vocabulary and once more experience the world the right way round…?

Image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org – illustration by John Tenniel

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