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  • Writer's picturepeter grose

What did you do in the pandemic, Daddy?

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

It's only fair to say that Covid-19 hasn’t inconvenienced us all that much, now that we are back in France. We are in lockdown, of course. Here on the island of Oléron that means all bars and restaurants are shut (In France!!), most shops are shut, the cinema has closed, the beaches are closed, we can’t play tennis and we can’t meet up with friends. Having said that, life goes on much as before. We shop twice a week instead of every day, but otherwise home life hasn't visibly altered. We still have our regular Friday afternoon franglais session with our French friends Joscelyne and André (they practise English, we practice French), but now we do it from our two houses on Skype or Facetime. Even my French course now takes place on Skype.

There are horrors. On Saturday we lost a good friend in Sydney, Australia. He’d gone on a cruise to New Zealand aboard the Ruby Princess, and both he and his wife came back with Covid-19. The wife’s symptoms were mild. His weren’t. He lay unconscious in hospital for three days, then died. So it’s deadly serious.

Here in France the horrors are tapering off. But it wouldn’t be France if the lockdown didn’t involve at least one vital piece of paper. This time it has taken the form of an attestation drawn up by the government which you download from the internet. Everybody must complete and sign it every time they leave their house, and carry it with them once they’ve left the front door. The form has to be dated and timed. In it you confirm that your departure is vital to buy food or medicine or go to work if you can’t work from home or to take a maximum of one hour exercise, all within one kilometre of your home. If you leave the house without your attestation you can be stopped by the police and fined. So far no fewer than 530,000 people in France have been stopped and found to be not carrying the right papers.

We live close to a beach, and the authorities are sending low-flying helicopters to report on people breaking the no-beach rule. If they spot someone on the beach, the helicopters radio the police and the gendarmes arrive by car and do the rest. All of this is a major irritant, but it seems to be producing the right result. Hospital admissions are levelling off, as are deaths. So … mustn’t grumble.

There’s even an upside. It is eerily quiet, with few cars on the road and no jet plane noise overhead. We can actually hear birds in full song. I’ve no personal experience of this, but my daughters tell me that the air has miraculously cleared in London and Bristol, and it no longer smells. All this is brought about by fewer cars on the roads. Newspapers are now starting to publish photographs of uncannily clean air in New York, New Delhi, even Los Angeles.

As the newspapers and television pundits switch from how-many-dead-today to pondering how we might get back to some semblance of normality, there is also a consensus emerging that things will never be quite the same again. Let’s look at the upside. How many firms of lawyers and accountants, book publishers, even insurance clerks will want to keep their staff working from home rather than ask them to throw away two hours of their day commuting to and from work? How many companies will calculate that they could do with a smaller, cheaper office if everybody who could work from home did just that? Around the world that would save companies billions of dollars in rent or mortgage interest each year, as well as taking cars off the road and reducing the strain on public transport systems. How many people will see and smell the benefits of fewer cars, and vote for a greener future? All this has yet to play out.

However you can be pretty sure of two things. First, the world will be changed in ways we can’t yet predict. And, if my ears aren’t deceiving me, people are beginning to see the practical benefits of being nice to each other. It’s a bit like a return to good manners. As any serious Darwinian will tell you, good manners and cooperation are a human survival mechanism pure and simple. They’re vital to our survival now, and will be in even bigger demand in the future.

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