A More Philosophical Approach

I started thinking about this when it was announced shortly after Captain Sir Tom’s death that he’d been on holiday to Barbados in December. For anyone who doesn’t know Captain Tom, he’s the centenarian who raised over £32 million for the NHS. by walking 100 laps of his garden by his one hundredth. He inspired a number of others to start similar fund-raising efforts and was knighted by the Queen. Evidently, one of Captain Tom’s “bucket list” entries was to visit Barbados, and as a way of thanking him for what he’d done, Visit Barbados and British Airways arranged for him to fly there on December 11.

And here’s where it gets difficult. Captain Tom flew back and ended up in hospital, reportedly with bacterial pneumonia, but at some point, he had a positive COVID test, and shortly after it was announced that he had COVID-19, he passed away. We’ll take the sequence at face value, although the timing would be consistent with his having contracted COVID-19 on the trip—and the NHS vaccinates people over age 65 against the normal strains of bacterial pneumonia.  Internet trolls came out and used the trip to “prove” their point that the virus was a hoax, after which anyone who questioned the advisability of the trip was immediately thrown in with the trolls.

On a personal level, of course I’m happy he had his trip. He was 100 years old. It’s not likely that he’d see many more years regardless of what he did. But I wish the family had had the sense to keep it quiet. Why? I know that strictly speaking, they didn’t break rules, since they travelled during the sliver of time between lockdowns, when the UK was in a tier system and Bedfordshire was tier 2, which allowed for international travel. But all the guidelines were still saying to take only essential trips. At the time of their departure, Barbados had an extremely low case rate, so it’s more likely they’d bring the virus in, or contract it in travelling, than that they would catch the virus there:

Still, it would have been nice to see some of the guidelines for distance, etc., being followed. When Captain Tom’s death was announced, the BBC News presenter John Maguire talked about the privilege of having met the man. He made a point of saying that he’d never gotten to shake hands because they were careful to always maintain a social distance, “of course.” Then came this picture, of octogenarian Cliff Richard and the relatively youthful (73) Russ Abbot, both of whom live in Barbados, posing with Captain Tom:

For those of us who have been keeping our distance for most of the year to protect people in this age group, it seemed a little tone-deaf for them not to at least maintain a reasonable distance for the camera. Captain Tom walked to support the NHS, but the NHS has been begging people not to do the very things he and his family did. We next learned that when he died, he was “surrounded by family.” His daughter Hannah, I guess, thought this would be a comfort to all of us, but if I were the family of one of the NHS workers in their fifties and sixties who spent long periods of time in isolation and died in hospital without anyone being able to visit, I don’t think the fact that Captain Tom’s family could somehow get around the rules I had to follow would have comforted me.

If I were a member of Captain Tom’s family, though, I’d have taken the trip when I could, even though I’d have been nervous about being on a plane for 9 hours during the pandemic, and I’d be glad now that we did take that trip. Which brings me to the more general point. I’ve been looking rather closely at numbers and scientific advice for quite a while now. I’ve also been following the advice, as has my husband. It’s disheartening when you follow the guidelines very carefully and other people don’t and you know that you could get out of this mess sooner if people did. Especially now, with the vaccines and the new variants in a race. Right now, there are 33 countries on the UK’s “red list,” which means that anyone travelling from those countries has to quarantine at an airport hotel for ten days at a cost of £1750 ($2500). I assumed, when I heard this, that the United States would be on the list, given the high number of cases in many states. The US already has the three variants the UK is currently worrying about (Kent, South Africa, and Brazil), and now there have been additional home-grown variants found in the increasingly open country. Brazil, which is on the red list, has fewer per capital deaths and cases than the US:

It therefore appears that the US’s exclusion from the list is more political than scientific. Yet many of my friends and family there, aided by even less consistency in the rules than in the UK, are for one reason or another, compelled to do things that will most likely result in an overall increase in infection, even if there are no rules in place to stop them. The thing that’s hardest for a know-it-all like me is that only one of these friends admits that what she’s doing (non-essential travel on an airplane) is skirting the rules. She and her husband are also taking extra precautions as a result, including COVID tests and masks. I can appreciate that, and I can understand her reasons. I may not go on a holiday right now, but if my son needed me, I’d take the risk and get on a plane.

I can also appreciate, although I don’t share it, a fatalistic approach to the virus. It has even occurred to me that since Earth is creaking from the weight of too many people, this virus, which disproportionately targets the old and infirm, a case could be made that it’s nature’s way of reducing the burden. I have a harder time with people not understanding that a lot of the measures are designed to protect the public as a whole rather than specific individuals, so doing something risky or unnecessary is likely to prolong the pandemic and risk other people’s health, not just your own. But I think that I, and a lot of people who have followed the rules for a very long time, are, perhaps naturally, a bit too intolerant of the people who have felt incapable of following the rules. It’s difficult, because the stakes are high. When you go to that bar or sit in that hot tub with a group of people, you are engaging in behavior that is causing the numbers to stay at a level where a lot of things won’t get back to normal for longer. But you probably know that, too, and are only pretending it’s not a risk for the same reason I pretend that my husband caused me to break my diet. We make excuses for our own failings. I won’t change my mind about people who go into food shops or onto trains and refuse to wear masks, because they are directly endangering people who have very little choice about being there. But for the others, as long as you don’t do enough harm to catapult the US onto the UK’s red list, I can just wait to see you until I have the vaccine—if the UK is out of lockdown by then.


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