COVID Self-isolation Diary, Day 14

Today is Day 14, and at 9 a.m. tomorrow I will feel that it's OK to leave self-isolation quarantine. I haven't had symptoms, I'll be fairly confident that I'm not a carrier of the coronavirus and so can't infect anyone.

But I certainly can be infected. The epidemic is still growing in Australia so the danger is actually greater than it was when I went into isolation. I'm in a high-risk group, and this virus does kill. So I'm going to step very carefully indeed while the epidemic lasts. As everyone else should do. No Kaffee-klatsches, no concerts, no court appearances, no cavorting on the bloody beach...

Keeping up morale has sometimes been difficult. An infestation of biting insects appeared in my house, and much as I hate insecticides (given what we are doing to the insect population of the world) I had to use them. The weather has been erratic here, and the news about the epidemic has got steadily worse. As I've said on other days, our ruling classes have been appalling in their incompetence and callousness.

It's still a hell of a lot easier trying to self-isolate in an established suburb of Sydney than in a settlement like the comunidades of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the Cape Flats and Soweto.  Or even New York. I can't see that the virus can be stopped now from spreading through most of the biggest cities of the world. There's a lot of trauma still to come.

I've been fortunate in social support. Family stocked my kitchen, friends and neighbours have brought fresh food to the door, colleagues and friends from as far away as Siberia have sent online encouragement. I'm very grateful to all of them, and to readers who have given me feedback about this blog and made me think it was really worth doing.

Advice to those starting isolation for COVID prevention? Hmm. Expect ups and downs: it won't be all grey monotone.  It takes a while to become consistent in following the prevention rules, e.g. handwashing and not touching your face, but keep working at it. Don't spend hours following COVID horror stories on social media - ten minutes is quite enough. Give yourself a few rules such as exercising at a certain time of day, but don't beat yourself up if you're slack about them. Above all, keep in touch with other people, every day. Do it by phone, by email, by skype, by facebook, by talking through the front door, by waving from the window, by sending smoke signals in Morse code. All these are valid.

And to wind up, COVID Reading. I've gone in for plenty of escapism, like essays about Elvis, and old comic books, and superannuated murder mysteries.  But one gets tired of that. So I've also looked at writing with more protein in it, and I want to finish by mentioning one of those books.

Svetlana Alexievich became famous for a book with an untranslatable title, Boys of Zinc or Zinky Boys or Boys in Zinc. It was a semi-fictionalized oral-history documentary exposing the grassroots experiences of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Vox pop social realism has been done before - Studs Terkel's Division Street America and Working are fine examples - but Alexievich turned it into War and Peace.  A number of other books in the same style, dealing with topics like the Chernobyl disaster and women's experiences of war, made her very unpopular with the regime in Belarus, and won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

The title Boys of Zinc was a reference to the zinc coffins in which dead Soviet soldiers were shipped back from Afghanistan, and also an ironic reference to the regime's heroic rhetoric about Soviet soldiers in WWII as "Men of Steel". To most people in the Anglosphere, WWII means the Battle of Britain and D-Day, with clean-cut democracies triumphing over Hitler through their innate goodness. (It's the Hollywood version, brilliantly taken apart in Paul Fussell's book Wartime.) In cold fact the Nazi regime was defeated by the Red Army and Stalin's dictatorship. It took four ghastly, grinding years of violence and devastation, leaving the Soviet Union with 25 to 30 million people dead.

Not long before Boys of Zinc, in the 1980s, Alexievich published an unusual book of stories from WWII called Last Witnesses. It's just been translated, and I've been reading it. A few pages at a time, which is all that I can bear. It's a collection of memories by Soviet citizens who had been children during WWII. If you ever want to know what a major social catastrophe is like for the vulnerable and powerless, have a look at this.

COVID Self-isolation Diary: Day 13

Friday the thirteenth day, no less... But nothing bad has happened, apart from an epidemic. Today the news went round that the United States has the largest number of cases of coronavirus infection in any country, 85 000. Known cases, that is. At the same time, president Trump's approval rating has gone up. It's good to know the American electorate can recognize forethought and intelligence when they see it.

Australia still has only a modest number of infections, a little over 3000 cases. But there is an acute shortage of test kits (as well as other medical supplies), so that's undoubtedly an under-count. State governments are cautiously thinking of letting some imprisoned people out, to reduce the casualties when the virus gets into the prisons. We can be sure that logic will not be applied to refugees, who are the living (and dying) proof of how tough the national government is on border protection.

Globally, we are now over 500 000 cases of known coronavirus infection, and 24 000 deaths. India has hardly begun counting. Anyone who still thinks this is a media scare, please put your hand up. Thank you, Mr Jones.

With all this unfolding, it's hard to focus on other tasks. I've spent my Day 13 mostly online or on the phone, talking with family and friends, cancelling meetings, and answering queries.

When universities began to send their teaching staff and graduate students off-campus to work at home, there was a wave of cheerful speculation about how much time people would now have to write that thesis, finish that article, compose that grant application. Often in fun, even ironic, but still, it seemed like a possibility.

Apart from the huge increase in childcare when schools closed, and the sudden demand to convert all face-to-face courses to online teaching, this happy idea missed the quality of the time available. When the time is overshadowed by a huge collective threat, and cross-hatched and interrupted with setting up new routines of living, you can't easily churn out high-quality intellectual work.

But some things persuade me we are still, at least partly, in contact with civilization. Yesterday I was listening to a jazz programme on a Sydney radio station when the DJ put on Chet Baker doing "These Foolish Things". Ah.

COVID Self-isolation Diary: Day 12

A grey, damp day, as the last couple of days have been. The garbage collectors, our unsung heroes, pass by with their truck, working in a light rain. Why does wet weather depress the spirits? In Australia, the driest continent, land of droughts and devastating bushfires, we should be singing for joy and dancing in the streets. (At 1.5 metres' distance, of course.)

Like so many others, I've been trying to understand the pattern of response to the novel-coronavirus epidemic by the right-wing governments currently in power through most of the world. Including the most prominent and most analyzed of all, president Trump.

I'm really not interested in the attempts to psycho-analyze Trump. What strikes me about this guy is not his bizarreness but his banality. In most respects he seems fully representative of his milieu. Rich white blokes in the US corporate elite can be expected to be competitive, prejudiced, narrow-minded and deeply selfish. Add a streak of resentment and some media skills, and you get something quite like the current Mr President.

So how can we understand the response of the corporate rich to the epidemic?  They don't care much about its impact on poor people, at home or abroad. They do care a lot about the value of their investments so they don't want Wall Street to tank. They think they are pretty safe and that if necessary their money can make them safer. And perhaps it can; I gather some of the New York rich have retreated already to wealthy enclaves in the hills, shipping supplies up by helicopter.

In an earlier generation the ethos of the ruling class in the rich English-speaking countries included a certain sense of public responsibility. It wasn't uniform, of course, but it was strong enough in the mid-twentieth century to make them accept the class compromises that gave us welfare states. That was the era of FDR and Eisenhower, Attlee and Macmillan, and out here in the periphery, Menzies and Playford. Over a couple of generations, that ethos has eroded and there is very little of it left. The willingness of the current corporate leadership - whether in finance, engineering, transport, manufacturing or fossil fuels directly - to trash the whole planet, knowing what is happening, is clear enough.

So when we look at the delays by right-wing governments in introducing hard measures to stop the epidemic, we certainly see ignorance and incompetence. (For a blow-by-blow narrative of the US case, see:
But we also see a strong motive - to protect Wall Street and the City of London, the share values of corporations and the bonuses of their CEOs, and the way of life for privileged groups that their profits support. Though of course using rhetoric about protecting 'the economy'. What that really meant was shown by the Morrison government in Australia, when it recently appointed a Commission to oversee the national COVID response. You'd expect it to be led by epidemiologists, healthcare, welfare and workforce specialists, wouldn't you?  Not one. Every single member of the Commission's board is a company director. Check it out.

But protecting the corporate economy isn't always straightforward. In fact a striking feature of the political response has been its hesitations and reversals. There are cross-currents and other pressures, including the political survival of the governments themselves. Given the patriarchal culture fostered by these regimes, there's a temptation to throw caution to the winds and opt for a strong-man, decisive-action approach. Johnson has gone farthest down that track. Trump tried it for a while, though he now seems to have veered back to the theme of protecting the economy. Meanwhile the virus itself seems immune to media appeals.

Enough. My Self-Isolation Reading today has included a 1975 book about rock music, Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, which I once found in a 2nd-hand bookshop. It has a wonderful essay about Elvis, that among other things explains why Elvis's early RCA recordings went beyond the Sun ones. And with that subversive thought, I'll sign off.

COVID Self-isolation Diary, Day 11

In the first week of self-isolation there were simple, though sometimes difficult, tasks. The first was getting over the jet-lag. This was familiar, and couldn't be avoided. Energy was low, it was hard to concentrate, and sleepiness came at the wrong times.

The second was adjusting practically to the new situation: getting the housework done, establishing new routines, breaking old habits to avoid a threat outside the house. As it happened, this was familiar too. Many people were obliged by health warnings to stay indoors, sometimes for days on end, during the months of the bushfire crisis and smoke hazard in Australia this summer. It was relevant training.

What was different, of course, was the virus. The third task was coming to terms mentally with the fact of being in an epidemic - a mortal threat to growing numbers of people, including everyone I know and love. Realising that there is no-one who's absolutely safe from an agent as infectious as the novel coronavirus is. And realising that I might be a bearer of the infection (which I hardly realized while I was travelling).  All that involves emotion work, which in one way or another will go on as long as the epidemic does.

For no reason at all - a perfect Waratah
In the second week, things are becoming more complicated. I'm over the jet-lag, have a bit of energy back. But I can't move about the city and get on with purposes that involve other people: libraries, choirs, work, politics. Plotting to overthrow world capitalism on one's own isn't very convincing - you do need a cabal, and cloaks, and a dark cellar to meet in.

Events that I'm looking forward to later in the year are being cancelled one by one, or postponed optimistically to next year. I'm beginning to pick up the threads of writing projects that I can do in isolation, or in semi-isolation after the 14 days for quarantine are over.

But they have to be re-shaped for the new conditions. In my booklet Writing for Research - free to download, folks! Just click on the link at the top of this page, or go to
- I quote the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer saying that "some form of solitude is the condition of creation". True. I've never had the urge to write great works in a crowded café while swigging Calvados and smoking Gauloises. But there can be too much solitude, too.

Like many others I'm also trying to understand the politics that have emerged in the epidemic. On previous days I've commented on the incompetence and mendacity of the right-wing governments, here and abroad, that are making such a mess of this situation. I hadn't got round to the Modi government in India, which the epidemic has caught in the middle of an anti-Muslim pogrom that is becoming as brutal a repression as the Chinese government's efforts in Xinjiang.

But it's the Australian system that I have to think about immediately, and the two main models that Australian politicians follow, the US and the UK. It's now hard to believe that such sustained mismanagement as we've seen from these regimes is simply a matter of confusion and incompetence. There's more to it than that. I'll offer some thoughts in my next posts.
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