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View from Vitalia: Corona wines versus Coronavirus

Despite the growing sense of entrapment caused by the lockdown and the UK government’s chaotic handling of the pandemic, we should not succumb to pessimism and ennui.

Here’s an old youthful poem of mine (written in Russian, it rhymed of course):

“I’d like to become a cow,

To drive away the seconds with my tail,

To gape sternly at people

And to moo, to moo, to moo.


I’d like to become a bird

To look down at the world

And then, floating in the clouds,

To gobble up a dragonfly.


I’d like to become an elk,

To roll on the grass in the forest,

And to come back home with antlers

On my poor head.


Well, to dream is not harmful at all,

if you have something to dream about.

Life is sometimes miserable:

Just a bed and four stone walls!”


I recalled that little nonsense poem (written under the influence of Edward Lear, whose verses and limericks I used to translate into Russian) the other day and could not help thinking of how evocative it was of my present-day lockdown-generated state of mind. Indeed, the poem turned out doubly prophetic: having not kept my fingers properly crossed (which was hard in the atheistic USSR) while writing it, with time not only did I become part-cow (having been transplanted a bovine heart valve three years ago), but also got stuck in those proverbial four walls for months due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Until last week, that is, when I was finally ‘officially’ allowed to visit a neighbouring Hertfordshire town less than three miles away.

For a professional traveller (read travel writer) like myself who had spent most of the last 30 years on the move, that very short journey after a very long period of forced immobility was tantamount if not quite to Magellan’s round-the-globe sail, then at least to Mark Twain’s first package tour of Europe.

Alas, all shops and cafés in the town were firmly shut, and having nothing better to do and driven by an old dictum of my own invention ‘if everything else fails, read public notices’, I spent some time studying the contents of the latter, most of which were announcing shops’ and cafes’ indefinite closures due to the coronavirus outbreak.

I have always been of the opinion that it is not just a nation’s collective sense of humour (if any), but also its mental state that is reflected in the handwritten and typed announcements in shop windows and on noticeboards.

“Dogs are welcome, humans are tolerated” ran a clearly pre-pandemic note above the entrance of a firmly shut coffee-shop.

Another illustrated poster in a nearby shop window – ‘Hand-washing technique with soap and water’ – was a very visual 12-step explanation of the ‘technology’ of washing one’s hands in minute detail: “Open the tap; put your hands under the stream of water; rub them against each other…” and so on. I thought it was a helpful prop for those who had only just discovered the existence not only of soap and water, but also of their own hands, let alone the elementary hygiene rules.

The hand-written note that made me smile, however, was stuck above the entrance to a small boutique-style cheese shop: “Despite the behaviour of the Prime Minister’s adviser (sic), it is still not allowed to hug and kiss the cheesemonger!” 

It was good to know that the famous self-deprecating British humour did not completely succumb to the pandemic. Not yet. I drove back home with a smile on my face…

Another sure sign of the growing ennui in the society is a sharp reduction in the number of video clips, the so-called memes, taking the mickey out of the pandemic. Several weeks ago, I would receive up to 50 a day on WhatsApp or by email, and some of them were very witty indeed. These days, I get just one or two a day, and even those appear tentative and half-hearted, like perch biting in April, as if technology itself got tired and apathetic with the continuing lockdown. The only meme that arrived yesterday was a photo of a small dog, allegedly pumped up with helium and floating under the ceiling (whereas in fact it was of course just an upside-down picture of the same unsuspecting dog lying on the floor). That didn’t strike me as funny, and I looked with apprehension at my Tibetan Terrier puppy, snoozing peacefully under my desk. You never know what some people can be capable of when in the grips of boredom.

That floating-dog meme reminded me of the latest government pandemic-related decisions, most of which sounded like sad jokes (or memes, if you wish) too. The only difference was that they were all supposed to be dead serious (pun unintended).

Take, for instance,  the 14-day-long quarantine for everyone arriving in the UK from overseas, be they visiting foreign nationals or returning UK citizens, who are all to be subjected to a compulsory self-isolation at their homes or their hotels. It should come into force as of 8 June, and those who breach it will be liable to a hefty fine.

Let’s leave the hotels alone for the moment, albeit it is hard to imagine all foreign visitors booking their hotel accommodation for at least a fortnight (hotel owners themselves will be very pleased, I am sure) and try to imagine how and by whom the home quarantine for the UK citizens can be effectively monitored and imposed. As we all know, the police, who have the authority to impose fines, do not, however, have the right to enter our houses without a warrant, which certainly won’t be provided for such a (relatively) trivial matter as checking whether Mister A or Miss B are stuck at home, or out shopping, or walking in the park. The local and the medical authorities may volunteer to do the checking, but again – one does not have to let them into a house, and the fines they may impose without proper checking can all be successfully disputed in courts.

So, in reality, the enforced 14-day self-isolation for the returning passengers is nothing but an entirely unrealistic (and thoroughly “unimplementable”, in the words of the Ryanair’s bouncy CEO Mike O’Leary) myth, for even the most conscientious and health-conscious citizens will not refrain from coming out for a slow and properly socially distanced walk in the park, if they feel healthy. And why should they??

The much-hyped and long-overdue nationwide introduction of the Covid-19 NHS tracking app promises to become yet another disastrous decision.

To begin with, all the talk about the new tracing app makes it easy to believe that it is already widely in use in the UK, whereas in fact it is so far available only on the Isle of Wight, and, according to some reports, is not that popular even there. When it finally comes to the rest of the UK (reportedly, by the end of June), it is likely to encounter a lot of well-grounded scepticism – not just from those who will be worried about their own privacy and won’t be willing to reveal the details of their daily  movements and locations, but also from those who are not techno-savvy enough to upload and use it (which is not that simple) and those who are (understandably) concerned about hacking attacks, the number of which keeps growing.

If you ask me, the above would probably amount to well over a half of the nation’s mobile phone users who would staunchly refuse to have anything to do with the tracing app. If so, the data gleaned from the phones of the remaining fifty per cent of the population would certainly be insufficient for any effective virus-tracking on a national scale.

But a similar app seemed to have worked in South Korea. Yes, you may object that in their majority South Koreans are much more technologically astute and, being extremely social creatures, are somewhat less worried about their privacy (I spent some time in South Korea not so long ago and can produce examples to support the above statements). Besides, the news is that most of the schools in South Korea had to be closed again (after reopening briefly) due to a new spike of the pandemic in the country which the tracing app was clearly unable to prevent. 

I hope those inside the British government who are responsible for the initial medical advice to the effect that face masks did not make much of a difference to keeping the virus at bay are now feeling very ashamed. The masks are back ‘in fashion’ after the examples of other countries proved their usefulness beyond any shadow of doubt. Take tiny Slovakia, where the masks were made obligatory at all times for everyone (including all the MPs, the president  and the prime minister) by a special government decree at the very onset of the pandemic. It ended up having the smallest number of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe!

We all know which place the UK, despite its brilliant NHS, occupies in that gruesome statistics table – the very last one, or as some home-grown wits prefer to say, the first one from the bottom. Yes, the number of new infections is slowly declining, but it is unclear whether this is happening because of or despite its chaotic handling by our powers-that-be.

And yet… Let us not pump up our dogs with helium, or any other volatile substances! Let us not succumb to depression and look at some other countries where, due to the timely and competent steps, life is quickly returning back to normal; where schools, cafes, restaurants and museums are opening their doors. The other day I received an invite to a proper – real-life, not on Zoom – technology gathering in Paris in September! Much too optimistic? I hope not… And my treasured contacts from the wine-making industry of the Swiss canton Ticino are telling me that the pandemic had failed to shut down the local wineries, vineyards and wine-cellars. On the contrary, the clients’ demand for good wine has gone up and, with many bars and restaurants still closed, the winemakers of all 3869(!) canton vineyards are running a thriving home delivery service! According to my jolly Ticino friends, when faced with a glass or several of the marvellous locally produced Merlot, Bondola or Sauvignon Blanc, the locals are allowed, and even encouraged, to briefly take their face masks off!

A hearty toast to one’s health these days will not be out of place anywhere on our tired and ailing, yet still stubbornly rotating, little planet. I am sure that it won’t be long before Corona Wines – a Spanish-made variety of Tempranillo, mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon – and their mood-enhancing liquid likes will triumph over coronavirus all over the globe.

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