"The Times They Are A-Changin"

With Apologies to Bob Dylan

“The Times They Are A-changin” was Bob Dylan’s prescient song released in 1964. But, although he exhorted us all to get ready, there was no hint of a life-threatening virus being the catalyst.

Nor can the producers of a range offlavoured fizzy soft drinks, launched in the 1970s, under the harmless brand name ‘Corona’, have imagined that it would one day become the prefix to a deadly respiratory virus, or the makers of a Mexican beer which they call ‘Corona Extra.’ Would you want to drink a beer that reminded you of COVID19?

It’s hard to grasp that it has only been just over three months since China identified the Coronavirus which has spread worldwide, with many thousands dying, and many more predicted to do so. Borders have been closed, some countries have imposed curfews, and most are in lockdown. Highstreets are deserted, shops shuttered, with emptied windows save for the occasional unclothed mannequin. It’s eerily quiet, like Christmas morning without the excitement. Discarded surgical gloves and masks have replaced the usual litter of plastic bags and beer cans. There’s hardly an aircraft in the sky and there is no other topic of conversation.

How do we deal with these dramatically changing times?

Every afflicted country will find its own formula. Fortunately, we British are a resourceful people and, although the pandemic has still some way to run, numerous coping mechanisms have emerged and been shared courtesy of 21 St century technology. We invite friends and family to ‘face time’, carry on conversations via ‘WhatsApp’, and share screens with multiple people courtesy of ‘Zoom’. Maybe this crisis will also save the Post Office as people begin writing letters again.

We endlessly share video clips, cartoons and jokes with one another.

‘Did you hear the one about John Travolta testing negative for the coronavirus? It turns out it was just Saturday Night Fever. ‘

‘Prediction: There will be a minor baby boom in 9 months, and then one day in 2033, we shall witness the rise of THE QUARANTEENS.’

‘If you need 144 rolls of toilet paper for a 14 day quarantine you probably should have been seeing a doctor long before COVIDI 9. ‘

‘I washed my hands so much due to COVID19 that my exam notes from 1995 re-surfaced.’

We’ve had to get used to a whole new vocabulary: ‘self-isolating’, ‘social distancing’

‘lockdown’. And Government messages have been stripped down to their bare minimum. ‘Wash your hands’, ‘two metres apart’, ‘whatever it takes’, ‘Ring I I I ‘, ‘help protect your home’, Stay at home’, ‘Protect the NHS,’ ‘Save lives.’ The acronym PPE used to denote a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics. Nowadays it’s more likely to refer to the

Personal Protective Equipment so needed by NHS staff.

Fast forward to a future conversation between parent and teenager:

“You’re not going out in that, surely?”

“Why not? It’s my personal protective equipment.’

No doubt there will be more edicts as we struggle to cope with isolation, loss ofjobs and reduced income and the enervating prospect of no end in sight. The creatives will be hard pushed to come up with strap lines as good as some of the jingoistic slogans coined in the Il World War — ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, or ‘Dig for Britain’. We’ve found protective ways of greeting one another (this before Prime Minister ‘Bulldog’ Boris forbade us from leaving our houses or being in touching contact with anyone outside our household) by just offering an elbow or foot. Or, in the case of Prince Charles, practising ‘namaste’ which involves bowing slightly and joining hands in a prayer-like gesture. Hard to imagine how these strictures must be impacting fledgling romances.

And, of course, we’ve become obsessed with news. At first there was a sense, when the first casualties in China were reported, of ‘over there and out of sight’. No-one, not even the scientists, understood why the virus was spreading so rapidly. We struggled to understand nightly graphs showing ‘v ‘shapes, peaks and flattening curves. We were troubled by a suggestion that the Government was about to sanction ‘herding’ which, roughly translated, meant that people would be allowed to catch the virus naturally, thus strengthening the nation’s immune system. We were unhappy when anyone over seventy was told to selfisolate, meaning no contact with precious grandchildren, even though so many pensioners are fit and healthy.

But, however depressing the news, we can’t stop watching, reading and listening. 27 million of us tuned in to Boris Johnson as, hands clenched, he took us into the unchartered waters of having to ‘stay at home’. The backdrop to his announcements of an expanse of pale wood, two union jacks and a simple lectern was no doubt deliberately chosen for its blandness. Many reporters and specialists, now self-isolating at home, have yet to get around to

‘dressing’ their background sets. We’re fascinated by the choice of books on the shelves behind the interviewees, the wilting Ficus plant or the cat that strolls into vision or the phone that rings or, as has happened on many occasions, the child who wants to know what Mummy or Daddy is doing. As a result, we remember the biography on Stalin and the trophies on the shelves, but not necessarily what the person was saying.

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Despite the confusion and uncertainty, a generosity of spirit is beginning to emerge. Young people have banded together to form local volunteer corps, dropping notes through letter boxes offering to deliver medicines or groceries, post letters, walk dogs or make regular, friendly phone calls to anyone who is staying at home to protect themselves and others. One group ended their leaflet with ‘let’s only spread kindness!’

On an even larger philanthropic scale, over 700,000 people have signed up to volunteer with the NHS after a recruitment drive to help the vulnerable amid the Corona crisis. Stephen Powis, NHS England Medical Director, said there had been ‘outbreaks of altruism’.

On the other hand, the crisis seen-is to have spawned an army of snake oil salesmen, fake news perpetrators and conspiracy theorists, whilst at the same time unleashing an atavistic selfish need to unnecessarily stock pile food, especially dried pasta and tinned tomatoes. As for the lavatory paper siege, this is one for the psychologists.

Our e-mail boxes are cluttered with offers of ‘fool proof masks, guaranteed sanitizers, jumbo virus beating garlic bulbs, defence immunity treatments, and bankcruptcy advice.

Divorce lawyers are likely to be kept busy in the coming months representing clients claiming ‘incompatibility’ or ‘boredom’ as justifiable causes for a split occasioned, perhaps for the first time, by having been forced to live and work together 24/7.

Isolation is not a state in which most people would wish to find themselves. Nor, if we’re honest, do we really like having time on our hands. Despite the fact that it’s a 21 st century grumble to be ‘time poor’, it’s not a state, like imposed isolation, we would seek. But now it’s upon us, especially the over 70s who feel robbed of their desire to help their families and society, we should use this involuntary lacuna well and not allow ourselves to get lost in a fog of lethargy.

A simple and non-challenging way to cope with this sudden blank timetable is to dig out that ‘to do’ list that we promise ourselves every January to look at, but never do.

Start with a simple task like sorting the medicine cabinet. Those twelve- year old- half empty bottles of Calpol; the Elastoplasts that have fused with their peel back protective sheet; the half finished box of pills, the treatment for which you have forgotten, the accumulation of fourteen emery boards, or the three plastic bottles of PizBuin, none of which contain more than a dribble of lotion . Throw them out, clean the shelves, and order your favourite moisturiser on line.

Your storage shelves will also benefit from rigorous de-selection. Starting with the obvious, cans whose lids have ominously swollen, the packet of dried herbs whose aromas faded many moons ago or the forgotten bag of lima beans, obviously bought before ‘sell by’ dates were introduced. All can be discarded with no attendant guilt.

Take a long hard look at your address book. You’ll probably find at least three service garages you no longer use, an elliptical first name, followed by a number, neither of which you recognise and, of course, the inevitable triple entries; friends whose house moves you have followed, but failed to change. This gift of time will also give you the opportunity to winnow out the people you no longer wish to be there. That sense of empowerment will, if only temporarily, help you forget your incarceration.

By now the ‘sorting’ virus will have become as virulent as Covid19 and you might find yourself tackling the sewing box, unravelling twisted cotton threads, sorting buttons by colour or size, or even putting dropped pins back into their box. Some people recommend colour co-ordinating your bookshelves.

If you’ve reached this stage of obsessive time-filling, it’s a signal to move onto bigger things. There’s always that half finished novel languishing in an old laptop or the unused Spanish language tapes that sit beside it. If you ‘re lucky enough to have a garden, enjoy re-planning it to give pleasure all year round. And the simplest, most satisfying activity of all, reading. Dust off old favourites, tackle Proust or take advantage of Amazon’s 99p Kindle offers. Let music back into your life. Turn up the hi-fi and dance to your old favourites, while the bread you’ve made bakes in the oven.

These projects will certainly keep you mentally engaged, but may not be of much help with prolonged isolation. The most difficult but, in the end, most rewarding step is to let go of your keyboard and pick up your phone and talk to someone. You won’t be able to the first few days of your isolation as the mind tries to grapple with the enormity of what is happening. But gradually you will re-surface and then the shared experiences will begin. We will probably never know the precise number of people who stood at their windows or balconies or outside their front doors at 8.00 pm one recent Thursday and clapped in unison to show their gratitude for all those on the front line fighting to conquer this invisible enemy.

But no-one will forget so doing.

We’re gradually finding a routine to get us through ‘lock down.’ A walk at a particular time, replying to e-mails another, essential shopping another. You could hear the nation exhale with relief when ‘off licences’ were included in the list of shops allowed to stay open.

For now we manage. Will we ever return to our previous way of life? Or will this experience enable us to accept that the heady race towards globalisation is not necessarily in our best interests? Do we really need to travel by air so much? Could working from home prove to be effective as well as helping to save our planet? Could societies benefit from a less materialistic world?

Could governments learn from the crisis and re-prioritise a country’s needs?

In only three months our air is cleaner, we take more exercise, we care about our families and neighbours more, and there is a greater sense of belonging and sharing.

Maybe this has been nature’s wake up call and we will as a result find ways to save our precious world.

Imagine what Bob Dylan’s lyrics for “Times They are a-changin” might read if he was writing today:

Don’t gather ’round, people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the virus

Around you has grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll feel as mad as a loon

If your time is worth savin’ You had better start isolatin’

Or you’ll sink like a goon

For the times they are a-changin’

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Buy Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean in paperback, eBook or audio formats from any of the links below.

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