26 March 2021
This week saw the anniversary of the first COVID lockdown in the UK. Here are a few notes I’ve made over the past twelve months — a little disjointed, perhaps, but all with a pandemic thread running through them.
A year ago, I began taking walks. I’m lucky: from our house I can get out into the open countryside in just a few minutes, usually without encountering anyone. If I do see someone coming along the pavement, one of us will cross the road or find space to step aside and allow the other to pass, at which point we always nod in greeting or thanks. I walk as frequently as I can, usually every other morning. Thanks to the lockdown, I’ve explored the surrounding fields and woods for the first time since we moved here three and a half years ago. I’ve seen it all; if there’s a public footpath within an hour’s walk, I’ve been there.
I take photographs, sometimes, of the tracks and paths ahead of me, leading through fields, along streams, over bridges. When I started taking the photos, I wondered if I’d see in them evidence of the impact of the pandemic, occasional small details of how radically life has changed. ‘No entry’ signs, shut-down pubs, neglected farms. But really, there has been nothing; everything appears as it always has. Although, in that observation, I suppose I’m revealing a typical human blind spot. If not for the pandemic, I wouldn’t be here. The change in the landscape is me.
In July last year, after the easing of the first lockdown, I drove into London to pick up a few things from the office. It was the first time in months I’d been into the city or any built-up area. It struck me how much worse it must’ve been for people in large towns and cities, how much more acute the sense of isolation. Constant reminders in the urban landscape of how everything has changed. Surrounded by people, but seeing no-one. I read somewhere of the crisis: we’re all in this struggle together, but each of us is doing it alone. And in the media, there’s just one news story, everything bends to it, and this, too, adds to the feeling of isolation.
Imagine you’re a peasant in medieval Europe. It’s an unusually hot spring morning and you’ve taken shelter in the small church in your village. After the bright sunlight, the church interior is almost entirely dark. There are a few narrow windows which provide little light, and some candles. The nave is silent and cold, but you feel comforted: you’re sheltering here not only from the heat but also from the plague. Scores have died already, and the disease will not be satisfied until half the village is gone. But you’re safe here: the angels will protect you. You look up at them now, just visible in the altarpiece above your head. The flickering of the candlelight makes them look like they are moving, and to you, there is no difference between the illusion of that motion and the real movements of living beings. I want you to try hard to imagine that. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to comprehend how radically different your view of the world would have been. Today we recognise the difference between the representation of the thing and the thing itself, but in the Middle Ages, there was a fluid relationship between the two. Paintings and the stories they told were not ‘realistic’, they were part of reality, interwoven into people’s lives and the world around them. It seems absurd, impossible to imagine, but really it’s not that much of a leap. Even today, the boundaries between flickering images and what they represent are blurred.
The history of vaccination can be written as a story of fear and fake news. The story usually starts with Edward Jenner, who, in 1796, infected a young boy with pus from a cowpox sore to see if it would protect him from smallpox. Smallpox was a deadly disease that had killed millions; cowpox is a much milder illness. Jenner had heard that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox but, through their work, were widely exposed to cowpox. Had cowpox given them immunity to smallpox? After infecting the boy, he spent months repeatedly exposing him to smallpox, to no ill effect. The boy remained healthy. Jenner’s arguably cruel persecution of a child became the celebrated genesis of modern vaccination. Smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people over a period of centuries, but by the end of the 20th century it had been eradicated — the first and only time a human disease has been entirely defeated.
The word vaccination itself is a celebration of Jenner’s story — it comes from vacca, Latin for cow. But before vaccination, we had variolation — a form of smallpox inoculation that had already existed, in various forms, for hundreds of years. Whereas vaccination used low-risk cowpox, variolation would expose people to deadly smallpox itself in a way that, supposedly, gave you a mild case of the disease from which you emerged possibly damaged, but, crucially, immune from future infection. It could, however, still result in your death. Added to this, variolated subjects were a high infection risk to others — inoculating someone this way meant potentially causing an outbreak of the disease in a previously healthy community. Vaccination avoided these risks.
You’d imagine, given its clear advantages, vaccination would have replaced the old style of inoculation virtually overnight. Instead, people were suspicious of the new method and resisted the change, and the two competing treatments were used concurrently for decades. Despite the evidence, and the horrors of the alternatives, there were concerns about the vaccine’s safety. Vaccine scepticism was widespread. It worried many that the treatment originated in cows: James Gillray’s famous satirical cartoon (‘The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!’) shows Jenner’s patients sprouting cow parts from their arms, necks, faces. Parents refused to vaccinate their children, even though the young were more at risk from smallpox than adults. Newspapers helped fuel people’s fears. Although scientists argued vaccination’s case — not only was it less risky than variolation, it was also more effective — for a long time, their words had no effect on political or public opinion. Again and again, personal freedom and individual choice trumped the greater good. In a parliamentary debate over a proposed ban of variolation, one speaker opposing the motion declared: ‘The liberty of doing wrong was still left among the privileges of free-born Englishmen’.