By Caitlin Moran in THE TIMES MAGAZINE, 28 March 2020
The kitchen shelves have neatly stacked supplies. Each sink and basin has a pile of soap next to it. The elderly in-laws have been settled into social isolation – guided, on the phone, on how to access the “From the Archive” section of the BBC’s iPlayer, so they can watch Porridge and old episodes of Parkinson. A wedding has been cancelled; all social engagements have been cancelled. Those who can work from home have started their new routines. The cupboards are full, the calendar is empty, and now all we can do is hunker down and see how we ride it out.
When a global crisis heads towards a family, there are only, really, two things that need to be done. The first is to make every preparation that you can: to do every practical thing to ensure the safety and comfort of those you love. Everyone, I think, has been doing this. No one believes any more that this isn’t going to affect them. Everyone has readied themselves as much as they have power to do so.
The second, however, is just as important, but has so far been less addressed – mentally and emotionally finding a way for everyone to deal with it. Finding the emotional angle or niche that prevents you from becoming overwhelmed with fear and horror.
For myself, I have been lucky. I was raised by parents who absolutely believed that the end of the world as we know it would happen in our lifetime, and who regularly told their terrified children to be ready for it. No, really, that is lucky. The total breakdown of civil society was so regularly discussed that I find the current news reports almost… comforting. It’s just like listening to Mum and Dad again, talking about the best way to triumph in hand-to-hand combat over the last rat carcass, during rather anxious Christmas lunches.
Friends who had similar upbringings report the same thing – likewise, hypochondriacs. The thing we’ve been expecting for so long – a global crisis; a new and unstoppable illness – has finally come to pass, and so at least we don’t have to keep anticipating it any more. In a way, it’s ticked a big old entry off the to-do list. We’re oddly… calm.
However, when I became a parent, I decided not to emulate my parents’ Apocalypse Preparation Vibe, and raised my children to be, eg vaguely hopeful about the future of mankind. As Nancy and I take the dog for a walk, however, I realise the downside to this.
“Everything’s just terrible,” she says, kicking a stone. It’s a beautiful day – but the parkland walk is noticeably emptier than usual, and many people are wearing masks. Every time we walk past friends or couples having conversations, the words you hear are “pandemic”, “shutdown”, “symptoms” and “panic”.
“It’s just an awful time to be young,” she continues, looking as if she’s going to cry. “We were already worried about climate change, and never buying a house or having a proper job – but at least we figured we could work hard at school, get good results and then have fun in the summer. But now the schools are closing; they’re cancelling exams. All the festivals will be cancelled, all the gigs and parties. And I know that sounds spoilt, but it’s just all so sad. There’s not a single thing to look forward to. Everything’s despairing and scary. It’s just going to be a whole year of people dying, and us staying in the house, alone. And when it’s over, every country’s going to be so poor. We’ll be in the middle of a global depression, and I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, and now I’m going to live through it. Everything’s just… ending.”
And this is a conversation happening up and down the country – parents looking at the year and the world their children are becoming adult in, and seeing how petrified and powerless they feel.
“Oh love,” I say, giving her a hug – because you can hug the people you live with, still. “It is all horrible. I can see why you’re scared. But nothing is ever totally bad.”
“This is!” she says. “All the small businesses will collapse, and people will get thrown out of their houses because they can’t pay rent, and doctors and nurses will die just trying to help people…”
“I know,” I say, gently. “I know. But you’ve got to remember that pandemics happen all the time. They’re a regular thing. And we can’t do anything to stop them, and they are awful – but good things can come of them. Everything has mixed consequences. Big global events are like a huge reset button for the world – you lose some things, but gain others.”
“Go on,” she says, quietly.
“Well, let’s start with the little good things first. Dogs can’t get Covid-19. Imagine how much worse it would be if we were worried about the dogs as well.”
She watches Luna sniffing another dog, tail wagging.
“Yes – that is good,” she admits. “If Luna got it, that would be game over for me.”
“And the masks – you quite like your mask, don’t you?”
“Yes!” she says. “I’ve had a huge spot on my chin for weeks, but I don’t have to bother putting concealer on it now, because of the mask. And also, it makes my eyes ‘pop’.”
“And, so far, it seems young people don’t seem to be that affected by it. So your generation might not be able to buy a house – but at least you’re not worried about dying.”
“And I don’t want the old people to die, but I guess, if it is going to happen, then the only good thing is that there will be lots of houses available again…?”
“We take Luna for a walk. ‘Dogs can’t catch it,’ I tell my teen. ‘Good. If she got it that would be game over for me,’ she says
I think about lecturing her on how bleak that sounds – but then think about how bleak everything seems to her, and that it is a fact, albeit an awful one, and we can’t change actual facts, and let it slide.
“Yeah – well, maybe don’t say that in front of Grandad and Grandma, but yes.”
We walk for a bit longer.
“And then there’s the way that events like this change human behaviour,” I continue. “Like, thousands of jobs will be lost in aviation – a lot of airlines will go bust – but it might be that, when this is all over, we permanently change the way we travel. For a while, we’ll have to – there just won’t be that many flights. So levels of pollution will plummet. All those Extinction Rebellion marches you’ve been on – well, the things you were chanting for are happening, right now. We might hit our carbon emissions targets this year and not in 2030. Every piece of bad news has some good news: in China, although a lot of people died from the virus, it’s less than the number that would normally die in that time from air pollution. The skies are clearer there now. In Italy, there are dolphins in the harbour, because the ferries have stopped.”
She looks up, a bit more hopeful. When in doubt, if faced with a sad teenage girl, always throw in something cheerful about dolphins. They almost always make things better.
“In Venice, because all the tourists and cruise liners have gone, the water in the canals is clear for the first time in history,” I continue. “Instagram is full of pictures of fish swimming under the bridges. The swans have come back. The Tube system in Japan is so quiet, deer have started walking down the platforms. Nature’s getting a bit of breathing space. Listen!”
There is very little traffic on the road, so we can hear birdsong. Loud birdsong.
“Global crises change things really quickly. Like, did you see that Mexico was talking about closing its borders to the US – to stop panicking Americans relocating there? A lot of people are suddenly understanding why people become refugees. Everyone who was trashing Tesco last weekend – making sure they had food for their families – suddenly has a bit more understanding about why people get on boats, with their children, to leave cities with empty shops. In America, it might be the thing that finally changes the conversation about free healthcare – even being a billionaire, with the best private healthcare in the world, won’t protect you if your maid, on minimum wage, infects you because she doesn’t have enough money for tests, healthcare or self-isolation. Saying that won’t be a ‘political stance’ any more – it’s just a fact. Every society is only ever as safe as its illest, poorest citizen. I know this all feels like your generation is going to have to deal with a terrible burden of consequences – and you will – but there are also so many things that you all talk about, and wish for, that everyone will be talking about now. You won’t be trying to persuade older generations, in power, to listen to you – because these are the things the whole world is now thinking about.
“And as for fun – I know this summer, this year, is going to be sad and lonely for you.Everyone wants their children to enjoy their teenage years – we didn’t want you isolated and uneducated and feeling like the world is at war with something it can’t even see. But imagine what it will be like when it’s all over. Imagine how amazing it will be when they finally give the all-clear, and people can go out again. The world will explode with joy – there will be street parties and raves, and hugging will come back, and you’ll be dancing to all the new songs that people, even now, are composing in their rooms, which will be the most outrageously life-affirming, catchy songs ever written. It will be the best time ever – like the Roaring Twenties, the Summer of Love, acid house and Britpop combined. Everything has its equal and opposite reaction – and however sad and worried you feel this summer, next summer will be the most exciting and carefree of your life.”
“Yeah – if you can’t get kissed on the day they end social distancing, you really will be hopeless,” she muses. “Everyone’s going to be like that sailor kissing that nurse in that picture.”
We’ve reached home again. Sellotaped to the tree, next to our bins, is a piece of A4 paper: “WhatsApp group for Crouch End,” it reads. “Join for news, jokes and support. Can you help? Do you need help? Let’s stick together.”
“That’s so lovely!” she says, taking a picture of it and putting it on Instagram.
“There is always loveliness, babe,” I say. “And this year, one of our tasks will be to look out for every little bit of it.”
We go into the house, close the door, wash our hands and start the lockdown.