Ten years ago, the World Health Organisation issued a new definition of ‘pandemic’: a disease that infects a large number of people and spreads quickly across the world. These days, once the first of these criteria has been fulfilled, the second is generally just behind. Everything travels faster now: goods, services, diseases and — crucially — fear. As the number of Covid-19 cases rises, so too does the cost of our reaction to it: already as much as $1.
The first piece of advice is to view coronavirus as a blessing. ‘If only there could be something to unite all humans against a common enemy — like a meteorite heading towards earth,’ said my wise older friend Anne some years ago, ‘then all wars would stop.’ I always thought she had a point. Now corona-virus is that common enemy.
And don’t forget we won’t necessarily die — only 2 per cent of us, mainly oldies, will.
I met Joe Biden last month, after one of his town hall events in New Hampshire. His team had turned the music up loud, presumably so that 77-year-old Joe — the gaffe machine from Scranton, Pennsylvania — would not be recorded saying something stupid as he mingled with the fans and reporters. I shook Biden’s hand and — limey hack that I am — asked: ‘Mr Vice President, how, as President, would you approach Brexit Britain and Boris Johnson?’ ‘What?’ he said.
Forgive me, Greta, for I have sinned. It has been five days since my last Waitrose order. I meant to be good and green. To go from Whole Foods to farmers’ market with my canvas bag and eco-conscience. But it was cold and dark and the boys from the supermarket come right to the door. So I filled the bin with plastic wrappers and turtle-trappers and laid waste to my good intentions.
I try, I really do.
A few years ago, I was surprised to open a newspaper and read that the head teacher of a London public school had decided to ban my books from his library. He described the adventures of Alex Rider, which have sold around 20 million- copies worldwide, in terms so derogatory that I have no mind to repeat them. Suffice it to say that the article quite put me off my cornflakes.
But the strange thing was that — once I had got past the sheer offensiveness of his language and a mindset that believed that banning books could ever have good connotations — I was actually quite sympathetic to his wider point of view.
Who do the Conservatives have to thank for helping them win so many seats in the north of England? Tory MPs normally name Boris Johnson, for his different approach to politics. Sometimes Dominic Cummings, too, for applying focus. But there’s one other figure regularly mentioned as a patron saint of Red Wall Tories: Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley. He’s perhaps the most influential politician you’ve never heard of.
During times of contagion, you begin to understand why fascist salutes were once so popular. The foot-tap is replacing the handshake in parts of China. Here in Italy, which has far more cases of coronavirus than any countries except China, Iran and South Korea, a left-wing government is telling Italians not to shake hands. It reminds me of 1922, when Mussolini came to power after the first world war had killed 20 million and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 at least as many again.
I was still digesting my delicious breakfast (kippers, poached eggs and soda bread — all local) when the sad news reached our party of freeloaders (sorry, I mean distinguished international journalists): a force ten gale was blowing in, so tonight’s opening ceremony on the headland by the harbour had been cancelled. ‘Ah well, let’s go and get drunk,’ said my new friend Shane. So we did.
Galway is this year’s European Capital of Culture and, while Brexiteers may welcome their liberation from this perennial EU shindig, if you’re going to stage a state--subsidised arts festival anywhere then Ireland’s liveliest little city is probably the best place, despite the frequently filthy weather.