The Christian season of Lent began a few weeks ago.
The British tradition is a Shrove Tuesday gorging on pancakes before going into fasting for 40 days on Ash Wednesday. As a very bad catholic child I used to give up wine gums and then smoking when I was older. Except I used to cheat. I would give up cigarettes but smoke cigars instead. But it’s the thought that counts!
Elsewhere in the world Mardi Gras is the celebration that launches Lent. This year it coincided with the rapid spread of COVID-19.
In the US in a grim irony, there is a rising suspicion among medical experts that the crisis may have been accelerated by Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Just as people were singing dancing, eating and drinking all in packed streets they were unknowingly spreading the virus. It was an epidemiologist’s nightmare.
And then all our voluntary Lenten-fasts became an enforced Lent as Lockdown began.
We were told firmly and rightly – stay indoors, keep your distance, wear masks don’t go to pubs, restaurants, family gatherings – in other words change your lives overnight.
And by and large we have. For a notoriously disobedient country which doesn’t like rules there is a common thread of good old-fashioned common sense running through our society. But not everyone accepted the need to change behaviour.
At the start of the spread of the virus we were warned about the risks but some people were just too stupid, too selfish too unused to putting other people first to heed those warnings. I saw groups in the parks sitting and drinking together. Supermarket shelves were stripped, shoppers fought senselessly over loo-rolls. I chatted to a woman on the till at Sainsburys in Kew who had worked there for many years. She began to “tear-up” as she told me she had never seen such greed, such anger such aggression.
Who were, who are, these people? We must ask ourselves if we are one of them. If so we should be dreadfully ashamed.
One cause of panic is of course fear and we are right to be scared.
I interviewed Dr Salvatore Maggiore at Chiati Hospital in central Italy this week for my Talk Show, The Agenda with Stephen Cole. The death toll in Italy had just surpassed that of China.
Dr Maggiore was pragmatic and articulate about the dangers until I asked, as the UK had just gone into Lockdown how seriously should we be taking the virus? The surgical mask came off, he became animated and extremely serious- there could be no doubt, he said, many, he repeated many of us, are at critical risk and we ALL have to take the lockdown seriously if we are going to survive. He had just come just from several hours on the Intensive Care Unit and his message couldn’t have been more powerful.
Italian society is one with legendarily strong family ties, and one in which physical and emotional closeness are inseparable, so the enforced isolation brought about by the Coronavirus is distressing enough. But Covid-19 has done something more: it has torn the dying from their relatives and friends in a way that is worse than distressing. It is “straziante”, which an Italian dictionary defines as causing “a very acute physical or moral pain, beyond any capacity for tolerance”.
And when the lockdown continues in the UK we all have to be aware of our levels of tolerance. And increase them. This will be very hard for many people who are used to having everything at their fingertips and at any time. They have never gone without.
At the moment of extreme crisis. We need interactions. That’s the sociological way of saying we need the company of our partners, our families, our friends but at that moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact.
Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now deemed dangerous. Anxious people are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness.
We should look out for them and help where we can.
I represent an earlier generation – there was still rationing when I was born, and perhaps because of that background I am sanguine about going without. I’m certainly not panicking. I read one a day of worry is more tiring than a week of work.
It will do us all good to be less selfish, less demanding and hopefully long after Lent 2020 has finished with the Easter celebration.
Words by Stephen Cole