Fire is the test of gold. Chemo lessons for the pandemic.
This blog's name was a half-joke I made to a friend which became a mantra. Most people other than my wife and I were highly disturbed by the idea I would need chemo. We didn't have some of the associations that come with chemo and we were reassured by the data about the particular type of cancer. We knew it would be a challenge, but also that it was not going to be anything like as bad as expected.
The point was, chemo is pretty good relative to what people believe.
And so, I joked, it's only chemo. I pretty much knew I wasn't going to die, and I got a lot of upside: time to spend with my wife and children, to read, and to learn resilience. (I also watched a lot of television.)
What's happening now is not only chemo. It's not going to be good relative to what people expect. Relative to what most people still seem to think, it's going to be a whole lot worse. People will die. Young people, people you love and people who should not be dying so soon or so horribly.
Society will struggle to cope with economic inactivity and social isolation. Those people who are only marginally happy will become unhappy. For many, work is a sanctuary no longer available. Those of us with savings feel somewhat comfortable. Many do not.
Death will become more prominent in all our lives. They have found corpses in Chinese apartments opened up after containment. It used to be common that people would die at home. Since the war that has not been the case. We might have to start learning how to deal with death again.
The trolley problem, a moral dilemma about whether to do nothing and see more people killed or do something and see fewer people killed, will be struggled with frequently. Resource allocation might become a question of how we let some people die.
We have not seen an event like this maybe since the war. The permutations of what might go wrong are endless. The UK government is spending 15% of GDP to help us manage. That's more than two NHS budgets. We have not mobilised like this in most people's memory.
Almost certainly we will come out of this and rebound strongly. Probably this is not going to be another Spanish Flu.
But we don't know. We don't fully understand the virus. We can't guarantee the way to solve the problem. We are not sure how long this will last. Estimates vary so much as to be almost useless.
We live in a world of data and fact-checkers. We are epistemologically unsophisticated, thinking that something is right or wrong and can be argued over on that basis.
Welcome to ambiguity. To a market that is dropping like a stone. To the potential for eighteen months of disruption. To not knowing what sort of immunity people who recover will have. To not being able to attend the funeral of family members when they die.
History was something that happened to other people. This is the sort of thing that we thought we were past. Progress had eliminated these worries. Mothers no longer routinely bury their children. Young men no longer go war en masse. Spanish flu couldn't happen here. It's like Bird Flu or SARS. Welcome to history.
People used to anticipate the misery of disease and war. It was normal to suffer several tragic events in your life. Character was shaped accordingly. Sufficient unto those days were the miseries thereof. Fortitude was to tragedy what salt was to meat: a preservative.
This is what we must focus on now. Be ready. Think about the people who you need to be in contact with. The lonely, the elderly, the vulnerable. The ones you might not see again. Make the best use of your time. Come out of this with more resilience, having prioritised the survival, good feeling and wellbeing of the people you can do that for. Prepare mentally for the unexpected, the horrifying, and the new.
Remember, above all, everything is changing. This is a global event. Society will change. Politics will change. Lots of things are going to be old fashioned soon. China is throwing out US journalists. The oil price war has to contend with a major recession. Russia will be looking for opportunities.
The world is suddenly dynamic. Stop being shocked. Start anticipating. Notice your mood, recognise it, and then put it to one side. There are events to be dealt with which will not moderate themselves for you.
The night before D-Day, FDR asked Eleanor how she felt about not knowing what would happen next. “To be nearly sixty and still rebel at uncertainty is ridiculous isn’t it?” she said.
Be like that. Cultivate that attitude.
Prepare for the worst, then be glad if you didn't need to. If we'd all done that six weeks ago, this might be a different situation. Prepare for what's next. It's going to be a new world on the other side. Let's not regret how we get there or find ourselves unready.
Fire is the test of gold, as Seneca said.