On Saturday evening, Christians will prepare for an Easter unlike any other. With every church closed, from St Paul’s Cathedral to the meanest country chapel, Anglican worshippers will be directed to a website where lay leaders, priests and bishops will hold a ‘virtual vigil’ ending at dawn on Easter Sunday. In Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in England and Wales, a deacon will sing the great Easter proclamation known as the Exsultet.
As I write, Boris Johnson is in intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital, battling with coronavirus. For someone with such an unwavering belief in his own destiny, this must be profoundly difficult. He is a man who’s beaten the odds over and over: to become mayor of London in a Labour city, to lead the Leave campaign to victory in the teeth of overwhelming opposition, to become prime minister in spite of all his personal baggage, and then to win the largest Conservative majority since 1987.
There is an ancient Celtic prayer that is as relevant today as it was all those centuries ago:
Be Thou between me and all things grisly,
Be Thou before me in all things mean,
Be Thou between me and all things gruesome
Coming darkly towards me.
We live in a grisly time and don’t quite know what to do with the gruesomeness of it. This little prayer, whose origin is sometime between the 5th and 9th century, has that sense of foreboding that we are feeling in these dark days too.
Less than three weeks after Andy Burnham was elected mayor of Greater Manchester three years ago, the city was hit by the terrorist attack that claimed 22 lives at an Ariana Grande concert. Now Burnham is facing a very different sort of crisis as corona-virus sweeps through the north-west. Manchester is about two weeks behind London in the epidemic curve.
We had first met in his office to talk about the city and its politics.
In these strange times, people naturally turn to the past for orientation: Londoners recall the spirit of the Blitz, while citizens of St Petersburg look back to the Nazis’ Siege of Leningrad to remind themselves what they can overcome. But tales of suffering and heroism take us only so far. Humour is just as important. It punctures the sense of pervasive anxiety and shines a light into unfamiliar and dark places.
Here, too, the past can serve as a guide.
The American economist and historian Robert Higgs noted long ago that during the 20th century the various wars, and the various declared equivalents of war, such as against drugs and viruses, regularly led to permanent expansions of state power. Power is the ability to coerce physically, war being the pre-eminent coercion. There has to be some reason that citizens of the UK and US are coerced to pay about 40 per cent of GDP for the wars and other activities of the state, whereas a century ago they paid about 10 per cent.
I hear it said now and again that Covid-19 is just a nasty winter bug, nothing more than a new form of flu. From what I’ve seen in New York’s intensive care units in the past few days, I can assure you this is not true. Last month I was still doing my usual job, treating patients with sleep disorders. But my training — and for many years my work — was in critical care medicine. As the coronavirus crisis developed, it was clear to me that I was needed back in the hospital, so I volunteered before the call came.
What’s the best way to keep in shape during the lockdown? That’s the First World problem I’ve been using to distract me during these strange, distressing times. My wife and teenage children are doing online workouts, but that looks far too tiring. Instead, I’m walking round Britain — in my back garden.
I got the idea from a walking trail called Walk the Planets, in Ruislip Woods, not far from where I live. It’s a round trip of about two miles, which doubles as a tour of the solar system.