‘Aren’t you meant to be in quarantine?’ the man in the cloakroom queue asks. I sense that his enquiry is motivated more by concern about his wellbeing than mine. ‘Don’t worry! I’ve not got the coronavirus,’ I try to reassure him cheerily. That’ll teach me to talk about my health on the Today programme. I mentioned on air that I’d taken a precautionary test after returning from holiday in south-east Asia with a cough. Soon afterwards my guide in Phnom Penh sent a message to ask how the rest of my trip had gone. Pleased and somewhat puzzled by her solicitousness, I quickly realised that she had heard about my test and wondered whether I — or rather, she — was all right. As the rousing overture to Fidelio begins, I look around at those packed into the Opera House and start to count up the number of people I could have infected. As well as those at Covent Garden there are all the people I travelled with on the Tube. There’s the BBC staff and guests at Broadcasting House that morning. And those at the BBC’s Westminster studios the day before when I recorded my podcast. My anxiety is rising by the minute. What about the folk I met at a dozen or more places in Vietnam and Cambodia? The number of my ‘contacts’ is now in the hundreds — and perhaps thousands. My God, I conclude, I’m a superspreader. My guilt grows steadily until the first notes of Beethoven’s spine-tingling quartet bring me to my senses. I got the all-clear. I’m not ill. This virus may not have infected my body — but it has certainly infected my mind.
Stories abound of how virus anxiety is changing our behaviour. Hugging — the greeting of choice in media-land — is out. Kissing — whether on one or two cheeks — even more so. What about handshaking? Already interdit in France. When the man from Public Health England comes into our green room, my fellow presenter Mishal Husain greets him and asks whether they should shake hands. He says they can, but when reminded on air of this breach of strict hygiene best practice, he blushes ever so slightly. I tease Mishal that his defences had dropped as he wanted to boast to his friends that he’d shaken her hand. She looks at me witheringly. At our church the ‘sign of peace’ has been replaced by the crossing of your chest and a friendly smile. Like fist-bumping and elbow-touching, I can’t see it lasting.
There is one thing Covid-19 has changed for the better. It’s persuaded No. 10 that Today’s seven million listeners do deserve to hear from a cabinet minister. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was the first to appear since the election. The ministerial boycott has actually been welcomed by many, who say it’s made for a better listen. To be fair to politicians, I think that is a comment on us as much as them. People had grown weary of tetchy and unproductive standoffs between presenters who felt their questions were being ignored and ministers who felt frustrated they weren’t being given a chance to get their message across. It will always be a vital part of our role to hold to account those with power — in government, business or anywhere in public life. What the last few weeks have reminded us, though, is that this is far from the only function of an interview. There is a role for conversation as well as confrontation; enquiry not just cross-examination; explanation instead of disputation. After three years of bitter political divisions, there is a need, indeed a yearning, for light as well as heat.
Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields and Pol Pot’s notorious S21 security prison — where the Khmer Rouge’s victims began their journey towards beatings, torture, savagery and death — was a sobering reminder of what can happen if, God help us, we stop believing in the need to understand one another and to appreciate our common humanity. Like visiting Nazi concentration camps, it forces you to confront the barbarity man is capable of, and it was made all the more real when our guides spoke of the relatives they lost. So, too, the images of the victims of Agent Orange in Saigon’s War Remnants Museum and the medieval mantraps set for American GIs by the Vietcong. Re-reading Graham Greene’s brilliant novel The Quiet American is a reminder that some did see the disaster coming.
Nick Robinson is a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.