From the vantage point of a remote Portuguese hill village, life in faraway cities seems either quirky or crazed. The Celtic inhabitants—my neighbours—have managed to weather (or not noticed) the coming of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. Self-sufficient farmers, their days are circumscribed by their small plots of land and time indoors.
With the coming of Covid, their life has once again changed—well, not at all. It takes an ex-Brit a few years to acclimatize to the outlook of a free and independent people and begin, once more, to think clearly. But I feel it’s now time I countered the cheerless views from abroad, which paint the pandemic as a great trial or deprivation, and lay bare its greatest boon.
Moaning about lockdown is like Karl Marx complaining about being stuck in the British Museum for hours on end. Newton, you’ll recall, did his best work while quarantining from the Plague at home. Einstein, too, came up with the odd revolutionary theory while confined in a poky patent office in Berne. Boethius achieved The Consolation of Philosophy during his one year of imprisonment. The Latin poet Ovid wasn’t deterred from his craft by banishment from civilized society, nor Galileo by house arrest.
Whose fault, then, if you squander this gift of free time from Boris and don’t investigate that vast storehouse of knowledge whose portal is the opened lid of a laptop? No prudent person would elect to stay home in their imagination too, favouring popular culture and the nightly news, and not apply themselves to some of life’s great riddles—an investigation that may as well begin with Covid itself.
True, you won’t find mainstream media sites are allies in your quest for truth, since they act upon your assumption that they are to be trusted, and they in turn trust governing bodies like the WHO because it is trustworthy, and it trusts the experts, who are to be trusted because they’re experts, and they in turn trust the obviously brilliant algorithms fed into their computer just before lunch.
When it comes to Covid this is like panicking when Pedro, my nearest neighbour, says his uncle told him that his cousin had said he’d seen some wolf prints in the mountains and calculated it was likely that vast numbers roamed up there and could sweep down anytime and wreak havoc. Moreover, to then refuse to listen to any opinions to the contrary is like the NHS censoring ‘fake news’: it’s to assume I’m right.
Pompous certitude may win respect. Better though to go with openness, discernment and persistence in this inquiry, and thus grant Covid the power to turn the unconscious sleepwalker into an awakened soul; to become one’s own investigative journalist.
It’s been known for a long time that doctors’ surgeries and hospitals are hazardous places to be. Like me you probably have stories to tell about a misdiagnosis, and medication that led to worse problems. Well, the same thing happens on a more serious scale — but dead people don’t tend to share their grievances.
Safer, you might conclude, to stay away from doctors altogether. And this, interestingly, is just what a new Covid-inspired NHS policy could achieve.
During the crisis, 1.5 million people were sternly warned to stay away from A&E and GP surgeries, and instead seek consolation in online services such as symptom checkers. Meanwhile, offloading all patients “medically fit to leave” and rededicating hospital wards to theoretical patients instead, brought about a revolution in hospital administration, freeing up beds, decreasing the workload of doctors and nursing staff, and providing more time for creative pursuits.
Simple extrapolation tells me that such streamlining is going a long way towards an ideal — an entirely patient-free facility.
In our grandparents’ day seeking outside help for anything less than a broken neck was scorned. One’s grandmother had most home remedies to hand, and could promptly deal with aches and pains, colds and flu, bouts of diarrhea, a gashed arm or a sprained ankle.
Back then mumps and measles were less a reason for alarm, more a sobering reminder of the touch-and-go element to life, a time for reflection on the vicissitudes of existence, and—for bookworm youngsters like Pedro’s son Bruno—the long-sought excuse to escape school and catch up on some ‘serious’ reading. In other words, to lock down.
The doctor who was summoned in those halcyon days made do not with Big Pharma’s cornucopia of drugs, but with a small black bag. He may for effect have retrieved from this a stethoscope or an ‘ahh’ stick. What he really relied on was, “You’ll be right as rain in a few days” — the single most effective placebo ever devised. He was right of course; a basic knowledge of the body, faith in pre-80s nutrition, and elementary logic told him there wasn’t much to worry about.
I don’t mean to sound blasé. I’m sure vaccines have their place. They don’t usually lead to death, brain damage, loss of vision, or some surprising new allergy. But don’t they take us ever further from that rugged independence and fearless fatalism our grandparents espoused?
Covid needs to be seen for what it is: the catalyst for a return to that earlier and healthier way of being; a world where we value thinking for ourselves, view life with a sense of proportion, trust in the body’s own immune system and its reliance on fresh air, sunshine, germs — and, yes, viruses — and reclaim the almost-forgotten understanding that we live with risk and that people always die in the end no matter what you do.
The NHS can be congratulated, for it is moving intuitively towards that older ideal, recommending that you don’t front up unless you are suffering from:
- Severe breathing problems – e.g. being unable to talk normally or turning blue
- Chest pain – e.g. like a tight band or heavy weight in or around the chest
- Stroke – with common symptoms including drooping face and one-sided limb weakness
- Severe injury or heavy bleeding that cannot be stopped
- Fitting or being unconscious
Good old-fashioned emergencies! And reading between the lines, you can see the NHS is hinting that Covid, too, is not an emergency, since viruses that almost no one dies from and that rarely cause any health problems, aren’t. In this bold foray into matters of verity, high school maths, simple reasoning and common sense will prove sufficient. And you’ll have the satisfaction of defeating the best that Imperial College has to offer.
Virtually harmless, Covid does have some odd characteristics. For instance, Public Health England have long been aware that any people who die, if they ever tested positive for Covid-19, must have died from it. That makes sense. I had a cat once who upset a jug of water. Weeks later the basement flooded. I remember thinking at the time, That bloody cat!
Covid could even be a conscious entity, capable of responding to our knowledge of it. As with Schrödinger’s quantum cat in a box, which only becomes dead once you lift the lid to take a look, ‘Corona Cat’ has been prowling around for more than a year, yet it only began its reign of terror after we started taking it seriously and decided to lock down.
Pedro says his son Bruno developed a mastery of lockdown by the time he was six. Covid is not unlike the nasty flu that suddenly took hold on a Sunday evening just when Maria came to tuck him in, and was confirmed by Bruno the next morning about the time he was due to dress for school. Of course it was a ruse, an elaborate scam which any parent has the grace to indulge once in a while.
Perhaps the British government is in this very position, aware it’s a scam of the sort kids might concoct, but if people believe it, what can they do? A look of concern and a hand held to the forehead seems appropriate. But once you discount the childish hype and the lack of critical evidence, there’s really no reason for you to stay home.
In Bruno’s case, support often comes in the form of his favourite aunt. Her smothering concern is enough to make him fear he is sick, and even leave the whole household feeling weak and vulnerable. As with our own ‘Auntie Beeb’, who consistently follows the official narrative of Covid and finds it troubling if someone doesn’t, it is not clear whether she is just easily duped or has her own agender.
Either way, the new normal isn’t at all bad. Plenty to eat and drink, pocket money accruing. I now see why Bruno remained singularly unimpressed by my account of the fuss over Galileo’s confinement, or Napoleon’s gripe at twice being given an island to live on, or the need to escape the admittedly pleasant Stalag Luft III. Perhaps The Man in the Iron Mask would make him sit up.
When it comes to face masks, Corona Cat must be deemed especially cunning, because he responds to our beliefs vis-à-vis the efficacy of these puny coverings. We can say one day that they don’t work and the next that they do, and be confident he will play by our rules.
All masks obstruct normal breathing and are nearly useless at containing viruses, because viruses are small. Very small. If you’ve ever kept chickens, like old José from the next quinta opines, you appreciate the neat relationship between chickens and chicken wire. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been assailed by a swarm of midges, your first thought isn’t, where did I leave that roll of chicken wire?
Wisdom comes in many guises in these parts. Ever-cheerful and childlike Tiago, who loves everything to do with nature, sums up most things in a word. I don’t expect ever to see him with more on his head than a cap, since he doesn’t kit up even when grape spraying. When I showed him Macron and Merkel, ludicrous in masks, he nodded and said, “Dodos.”
He was right: a dim-witted extinct species come back to roost in the seats of power. But I must have looked downcast, for Tiago went to find, and then wordlessly offered me, a familiar plant with tiny red flowers. Perhaps he considers it a cure for depression, or the virus, I don’t know. But it got me thinking.
Donald Trump seems no more blessed with the marks of maturity. But could that be a ruse? Is he a latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel, whose vain and shallow exterior hides an astuteness we could all learn from?
At each stage of Covid lunacy the US president courageously defied orthodoxy, first pointing to its low risk to most people; then questioning its true nature (“I’m not sure anyone knows what it is.”); its seriousness, likening it to seasonal flu; its longevity (“It will go away”); suggesting a tried-and true remedy, hydroxychloroquine, known to work; challenging the need for lockdown; for face masks (refusing to wear one because they are ridiculous and demeaning); and so on. All these reasonable, often factual, declarations were deemed an outrageous repudiation of the science.
“Trust in science,” Secretary-General Guterres advises. I used to trust my vet Catarina’s scientific judgement on dietary recommendations, until her waiting room filled up with expensive commercial cat biscuits for “every type of cat, including yours.” Luckily, I remembered there was only one domestic cat, Felis catus, and it eats meat.
The very worst is the cynical and deliberate manipulation of the public by democratic governments, which hide their movements from scrutiny to gain what they seek. All trust evaporates.
The polymath Jacob Bronowski summed up this corruption of knowledge more than forty years ago:
[To be] in love with the aristocracy of intellect…is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation that we know. If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power… And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.”
The Ascent of Man (p. 435)
Happily, there are still genuine experts to be found (beyond the borders of my village), scientists who pursue a more noble tradition, committed to the truth, ever humane, and much better at wielding figures — here, here, here, and here in fact.
The UK government recently urged a cautious return to work. If the same thing happened here it would undoubtedly cause a change in behaviour in many villagers, though not in regard to the ‘work’ element. Having never varied their routine of being out and about from sunrise till nightfall, they would be furtively scanning the overgrown verges, on the lookout for a plague of cobras, or perhaps for Pedro’s wolves.
Concern that people in Britain were not jumping at the opportunity to return to work has led to speculation that life at home is too cushy, or that they are afraid to go back. No, it is because people value freedom. And while the madness of mask wearing and physical distancing lasts, along with attendant penalties or shaming for non-compliance, the only true freedom resides in people’s homes.
Homes made comfortable, often beautiful, with their money and hard work; abodes that have become psychological supports; havens of relative sanity where they can find peace from an oppressive government seemingly bent on control and heedless of the harm inflicted; places in which they still feel human.
And if even some time has been spent circumventing the extraordinary dumbing-down policy of mainstream media, in fathoming the ways of deceit and propaganda, in understanding the tragedy of a science co-opted, and how corruption and greed can transform an already duplicitous elite into the enemies of humanity, then the long days at home, deprived of many of the joys and consolations of life, may just have been worthwhile.
For it is to begin to discern, in a gathering gloom, the ruination not just of freedom but of humanity itself. The momentum is set. The world of big business and the world of science draw ever closer. The minds that inhabit these spheres are set to merge. Then, an ever-declining consideration for the welfare of humanity will be matched to an ever-declining comprehension of what it is to be human. Before this fatal moment arrives, the wellsprings of Google’s vast data centres still flow.
Before they are sealed off, it is well to listen to the last voices to be raised in defense of a world we once all believed in.
You will have realized by now that Covid research is merely the beginning of something much bigger. To follow Corona Cat’s trail is like setting off in search of Pedro’s wolves. You’ll find nothing of substance, but all along the twisting paths you’ll encounter people who believe they’re around, and testify to their ferocity. Your own account of the dearth of evidence provokes no interest.
In the end, communicating is a potential source of embarrassment — the more so if your interlocutors are otherwise intelligent and level-headed — and so getting to know where the trails lead and how they interconnect becomes the objective. Your discovery of the greatest scam in a century is exactly balanced by their discovery of a conspiracy theorist in their midst.
Yesterday I was observing António’s sheep and goats, which graze the roadside banks below craggy terrace walls. You’ll recall that in the biblical parable the two species are separated. The sheep go to heaven and the goats to hell.
This is not the happiest animal metaphor in my view. Sheep follow mindlessly. Goats, on the other hand, think for themselves and know what’s what. Which is why António introduces one or two into the flock as guides to take the rest in the right direction, help them find the best fodder, and bring them home when it’s time.
No doubt the sheep, heads down, accepting what comes their way, believe they are pretty cool. But it’s the goats who have scaled the walls.
John Griffin is a philosopher, artist and farmer, currently living in Portugal. His books include On the Origin of Beauty and Javali with Oranges.
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