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After All: The case of Covid-enhanced and ‘Elon’-shielded phobophobia

Image credit: Alamy

Our columnist, writing before the latest lockdown, finds some of the pandemic-related gadgets, apps and regulations frustrating and ineffective in equal measure.

Until very recently, of all 555 medically described phobias – from ailurophobia (fear of cats) through soceraphobia (fear of parents-in-law) to pantophobia (fear of everything) and phobophobia (fear of phobias themselves) – I used to suffer from just two: acrophobia (fear of heights) and aviaphobia (fear of flying). On board a plane in the pre-Covid-19 epoch, when people were still flying happily and in large numbers, those would often merge into one ‘acroaviaphobia’ (my own neologism).

That phobia was triggered in 1999, during a posting in the USA. While in Alaska, I was keen to do some Kodiak-bear watching, and so boarded a four-seat Cessna 206 hydroplane for a 40-minute flight to the shores of Fraser Lake in the depths of the bear-infested Alaskan wilderness. Apart from the pilot, there were two more passengers on board: a young honeymooning couple from Philadelphia.

“Can your hydroplane land on the ground?” the overexcited husband asked the pilot shortly after take-off.

“Yes, it can. But only once,” was the reply.

It was the best joke I had heard during all my travels in America. I was laughing so much I forgot to touch wood, and our Cessna came very close to a splashy crash when landing (‘watering’?) on the lake.

‘Acroaviaphobia’ aside, the arrival of Covid-19 brought about some brand new and, until recently, highly improbable fears.

The first is what I call ‘firstthinginthemorningradio-phobia’ (sorry for this lexicological monster). Yes, since the start of the pandemic, I get panicky about switching on my bedside digital radio each morning simply because the news oozing out of it is so relentlessly grim that it always makes me want to go back to sleep and never wake up again. Or, better, to pick up my compact DB radio and smash it against the wall.

My other new/old fear – particularly dangerous at the time of a pandemic – can be described as ‘facemask-wearingphobia’, i.e. being irrationally scared of wearing a face covering. This one, however, has a plausible explanation: the only time I have worn a mask prior to the current Covid-19 outbreak was during my one-day visit to the still highly contaminated site of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, just a couple of years after the explosion.

I travelled there with a Channel 4 TV crew to make a documentary. At the entrance to the 10km interior (heavily contaminated) zone, we were offered sets of baggy ‘protective’ clothing, which were merely pre-used battle fatigues. We were also given some flimsy white face masks called lepestok (petal) “to protect our lungs against radiation”. The guide then cheerfully informed us that within the 10km exclusion zone, the level of radiation was (on average) a thousand times higher than the accepted maximum, which made me think that the only outfit that could provide proper protection was probably a complete set of medieval knight’s armour, lined with lead.

So, wearing a face mask reminds me of that hot summer day when we were wandering – uninsured! – among the ruins of the ‘dead’ city of Pripyat, depopulated after the catastrophe, and could almost feel the invisible mortal enemy in the air we had to breathe.

My third Covid-19-triggered technophobia is brand new: ‘Someofthepandemicrelated-appsphobia’.

So far, I have downloaded two Covid-19-related apps to my phone. The first, a hugely belated ‘NHS’ Covid-19 track-and-trace app, which uses BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). It calculates the distance between yourself and a potential carrier who may have tested positive for the virus and comes up with a risk-scoring algorithm.

In general, I do not mind using it at all; my main concern, and yes, fear (read: phobia), being that I appear to be the only person in the country to keep aiming my phone at the QR code when entering a building. Most people simply ignore it, which, to my mind, undermines the validity of the whole tracking exercise. No surprise then that, according to data made public at the time of writing, the app’s effectiveness in uncovering new cases of the virus and its carriers does not exceed the hoped-for 60 per cent; in some areas, it is as low as 7 per cent!

My other digital bugbear is ‘Round’, an app for ordering food and drinks at pubs and restaurants. I had to download it to my increasingly submissive phone in an empty London pub, on approaching the bar and ordering (through my face mask) a glass of South African Chenin Blanc.

“I can’t accept a verbal order,” the barman told me through his own face shield and explained that I had to download the Round app to my phone and use it to order the drink. “Such are our new safety rules.”

“Wait a sec,” I mumbled through my ‘Elon’ (as I sometimes euphemistically refer to my feared face covering – pace Elon Musk). “But I have already ordered the wine, and the distance between us is safe, so what’s the problem?”

“We no longer accept verbal orders,” he shrugged.

It took me about 20 minutes to find and download the app to my phone. The internet signal in the pub was not brilliant, and progress was slow. I was feeling increasingly stressed and angry. The last (metaphorical) drop came when I was asked to create an online account to pay for my would-be drink.

“I’ve had enough!” I cried, and headed for the door. The barman, who didn’t want to lose a rare customer, caught up with me near the exit, took off his plastic face shield and, having breached all distancing regulations, whispered into my face: “Okay, mate, don’t fret... I’ll make an exception for you this time round. You can pay over the counter.”

“No worries, mate,” I replied. “You must stick to the rules. And, frankly, I am worried that if and when my wine does materialise, you will make me drink it with my face mask on!”

Having said that, I adjusted my ‘Elon’ and went out into the near-deserted tier-two London street.

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