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View from Vitalia: Free rhubarb for techno-savvy self-isolators

Technology makes our daily routine during the pandemic bearable and even enjoyable at times.

"Hello, dog walkers, bike riders, exercisers, strollers and all fellow-isolators! Please help yourself to the rhubarb and enjoy cooking it at home! Be safe and well!”

Such was the handwritten sign on a makeshift billboard in one of my Hertfordshire hometown’s quiet and leafy streets, made even quieter by the pandemic. Right underneath the billboard, there was a capacious cardboard box, half-full of freshly cut pink rhubarb stalks, asking (almost audibly) to be picked up and put in a crumble. On the ground right next to the box, stood a small bottle with an anti-bacterial hand gel, thoughtfully provided by the anonymous rhubarb grower.

Like in all extreme scenarios, both our best and our worst qualities have been exposed and brought to surface by the ongoing pandemic. Nowhere else it is as evident as in ubiquitous food queues. Of course, they are nothing like the ones of my Soviet childhood and youth which were many times longer and much, much louder, with no safe distance whatsoever between the permanently disappointed queuers (absence of gaps between the people made the queue look a lot shorter). Yet the psychology and the technology of queuing are pretty much the same.

The main thing of course is to establish rapport with the guard at the entrance who regulates the queue’s progress and admits the lucky customers into the shop – one by one. In the USSR, that role was played by an invariably buxom and loud-mouthed saleswoman, whose role inside the shop was almost dictatorial. God help those hapless queuers who were unlucky enough to have caused her displeasure or even minor irritation, by their behaviour, or simply by the way they looked at her: they would be abused and thrown out of the queue – not by the saleswoman herself, but by their own queue neighbours and queue comrades, who only a minute earlier were cracking provocative jokes and sharing stories of their family lives and shopping adventures.

A friend of mine told me how he was hit on the head with a bread loaf by a Moscow bakery saleswoman, who thought that he was being too choosy by having asked her to give him a different loaf in exchange for the one he had been offered. You would think the queue would protect him: tear the fat loaf-shaped loaf-brandishing prodavshchitsa (saleswoman) into pieces and make sandwiches out of her? Nothing of the kind! All the queuers came out in support of the behind-the-counter dragon and pushed my poor friend out of the bakery – bread-less.

The guard who lets people inside supermarkets in coronavirus-ridden Britain is normally an amicable type, whose lexicon consists of just two exclamations: “Cheers!” and “No worries!” The other day, I was observing with disbelief how on approaching him my fellow-queuers would look up from their smartphones and start giggling obsequiously to leave him in no doubt of their loyalty and good intentions. At that point, the guard for them represented the system – the ultimate power, capable of either letting them inside the consumer heaven, full of eggs, booze and toilet paper, or deny them entry at a whim.

With awe, I was noticing that – against my will – at the sight of the guard, my own lips would curve into a kind of a distorted grin, similar to the one my fellow Brits routinely put on when spotting a dog or a baby.

True, old habits die hard.  When inside the epidemic-affected shop, my 30-year-old Soviet ways and gut feelings proved very useful: they told me exactly where to grab off the shelf the last available packet of pasta or a tin of soup and then run away, holding it tightly, so that it couldn’t be snatched away by other shoppers.

My biggest fear, resulting from the pandemic, is not of what it’s going to do to Britain’s economy. It is what effect it’s going to have on the Brits’ human dignity and their sense of liberty, both of which inevitably get affected by the draconian, even if absolutely necessary under the circumstances, freedom-restricting methods of crowd control, for a state, by its very nature, is generally prone to totalitarianism and dictatorship: you give it an inch (of your freedom) – it grabs a mile.  The examples of police drones chasing an unsuspecting elderly couple walking their dog in an empty field, or of local council officials encouraging cottage dwellers to inform on their rebellious neighbours who dared leave their houses more than once a day, are plain scary. I am not trying to moralise here, but 35 years of life in the world’s largest and nastiest totalitarian state give me a valid reason to worry. And although this may sound a bit pathetic to you, I will never stop repeating that there’s only one thing that is worse than a deadly disease and even than death itself - the loss of freedom!

… Looking up from my computer screen, I stare out of the window at the deserted streets of my beautiful town and squint at the piercing, almost sticky, sunlight – the way it always feels  (to me at least) in abandoned and empty spaces  – like it did in Pripyat, the ‘dead city’ near Chernobyl, which I visited shortly after the fourth reactor explosion in 1986, with trees and buildings but no people... Sorry, but I cannot help associations with Pripyat, for there’s a certain apocalyptic feel about this light, this deafening silence, with no cars on the roads and no planes in the sky; the stillness, which at times is so intense that it makes my teeth ache.

It is not all so grim of course. Despite the nagging apocalyptic feel and the terrifying casualty figures, the signs of a new life (or is it the good old one?) are everywhere; one only needs to be optimistic enough to keep noticing them.

And it’s not just free rhubarb for grabs in an empty road. It is the unusual proliferation of birds, including the ever-so-hardworking woodpeckers and ever-so-tireless blackbirds, whose morning and evening chorus above our empty villages and towns is louder and more life-inspiring than ever (I can’t wait for the forthcoming arrival of our skies’ ultimate singers – nightingales); it is the foolhardy hedgehogs rolling across the deserted roads and getting flattened occasionally by the  rare passing cars (don’t they get their tyres punctured by such encounters?); and the muntjac deer, those illegal migrants of the animal world, that keep appearing regularly and fearlessly on our doorsteps – all of which make it so easy to forget about the omnipresence of the crafty and invisible killer.

It is like a perverted version of paradise, devised by the devil, a hell’s heaven of sorts.

Is Nature trying to demonstrate to the world that it does not need us humans at all and would do much better without us being around?

But who would then tell the world how beautiful it actually is? 

… There’s nowhere one can hide from the predominantly bad news, and how can we hide when it is us who are the news now, when we are making history while hoping not to become it ourselves?

News used to be something distant and irrelevant – something they keep yap-yapping about on the BBC World Service. It used to originate mostly from ‘Africa, Asia and Latin America’ – too far away to worry about. Now we – together with the rest of the world – are right in the news epicentre (an unfortunate term to use at the time of an epidemic). Alongside ‘Asia, Africa and Latin America’, we are the news ourselves! And, alas, mostly bad news so far.

They used to say that a pandemic gets really serious when the people you know can be found among the dead. The first person I knew who died of the coronavirus was Eddie Large, the comedian. I interviewed him (together with his stage partner Syd Little, who is still alive) for Radio 4 in Blackpool in 1996. He passed away the other day, and the fact that he was one of the country’s most loved comedians, somehow made his death even more of a tragedy. At the times of trouble, we need comedians more than ever.

In general, it is amazing how well the country seems to be functioning under all those new restrictions: shops are full of goods; shoppers do ‘mind the (two-metre) gap’ when queuing; near-empty buses and trains keep running regularly. The only organisation that had let me down so far was the Royal Mail, or ‘snail mail’, as it is affectionately known. The envelope with important documents which I tried to send to London twice (!) failed to arrive. “We can guarantee next day delivery,” a Royal Mail clerk reassured me as I was posting the envelope ‘special delivery’ after the one sent by the ‘normal’ first-class snail mail failed to reach the addressee. The ‘special delivery’ missive was never delivered, ‘specially’ or otherwise, either on the ‘next day’, or a week later, so I had no choice but to scan the documents and send them by email. And, of course, they were received immediately!

Again, new technology triumphed over the rustic old ways. Being rather conservative by nature, I had to succumb to the amazing digital onslaught which helped us (and still does) not just to stay abreast of all the latest coronavirus developments, discouraging as they continue to be, but – more importantly – it allowed us to beat the sheer tedium of the isolation by staying connected with our colleagues, friends and loved ones, even if my older-generation mentality and my inhibited (by age?) leisure-time imagination have so far stretched digitally no further than:

  1. A virtual drinks party (on WhatsApp – I’ve only discovered Zoom very recently, sorry) with my son and his girlfriend – that was fun: we were even able to virtually clink our real wine-glasses with real wine in them (trying hard not to crack the screen).
  2. A virtual birthday party for my university friend Slava, who now lives in Florida, which went swimmingly in everything but the time difference making it a tad too early in the day for my friend to celebrate his birthday in a proper Russian style – you know what I mean; but even WhatsApp, with its amazing ability to nullify distances is so far unable to get rid of the time zones, it seems.
  3. With the discovery of Zoom (thanks to my E&T colleagues: we now hold our editorial meetings on it), I was able to endure several sessions of … wait for it… virtual Buddhist meditation, organised by the London Buddhist Society (of which I am a member) and by our local Triratna Buddhist Sangha (group). And whereas you may be inclined to think that meditation is a highly personal, even intimate, solitary occupation, let me assure you that it always works best in the company of others!

I am now tempted to try a Netflix party, where several friends in different cities and countries will be watching the same movie simultaneously and could have drinks and exchange comments as they do so. The main problem here is agreeing on which movie to watch. The larger the party, the harder it will be to agree. It is difficult enough to reach common ground here even with my wife, who always insists on watching 'The Voice' on one of the terrestrial channels, when I cannot wait to enjoy the latest episode of 'Better Call Saul' on Netflix.

But those minor disagreements can be easily overcome. The main thing, however, is that the latest digital technology makes our forced isolation and self-isolation not simply bearable, but – if you forgive me – at times, enjoyable too.

I want therefore to suggest that the recipients of the next round of the all-nation applause – alongside the heroic NHS staff, the devoted pharmacists and the selfless rhubarb growers – be our no-less-heroic, no-less-devoted and no-less-selfless IT professionals, who (even if not risking their lives like the former) have given us the joy of hearing each other’s voices and looking at each other’s faces at the time of one of the biggest disasters in our planet’s history.  

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