Isolation Diary, Day 3

More washing and drying, more tidying and sweeping. A woman's work is never done. I feel wearier than I did yesterday. That's probably the jetlag - it takes 7 to 10 days to recover from the full impact of flying the width of the Pacific. I've also had to fumigate my bedroom, dammit, some biting insect seems to have set up house there. It never rains but it pours.

But some of the fog in my head is clearing. I've been thinking about this business of lurking at home while an epidemic rages. Classically, that was done by the 1 per cent, cowering in their castles. Didn't Edgar Allan Poe write a horror story about that? (After consulting Wikipedia: yes, he did. It's called "The Masque of the Red Death".)

Then there's that mediaeval masterpiece, Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. Ten young aristocrats from Florence flee from the bubonic plague to a country villa, carefully taking their servants along to do the work. Here they amuse each other with timeless tales of lust, adultery, comic mishaps, violence, cheating and revenge. Just what the doctor ordered!

But voluntary isolation re COVID-19 isn't quite like that. Not enough castles available, for one thing. More importantly, the logic is reversed. We assume that the infection is (or might be) in each person being isolated. The point is to protect the rest of the population from us.

So in obedience to doctor John Donne's "No man is an island entire of itself", we turn ourselves into temporary islands.

The phrase doesn't come from a sermon, as the Internet seems to think. It comes from a book of meditations that Donne wrote after his own recovery from a life-threatening illness. (If you want to look it up, it's Meditation 17, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.)

Donne was no radical; though he had done some hair-raising things earlier, by that time he had become a dignitary of the established church. Yet here he made a perfect statement of humanist-socialist principle: we are deeply involved in each other's lives and deaths. It's the only principle by which we can get through the COVID-19 epidemic without disaster. Forgive the patriarchal language, and forgive me for quoting again one of the most famous passages in the language:

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.
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