By Ed Caesar
By Sunday, March 15th, only thirty-five people in the United Kingdom had died of covid-19. My mother, Janie Caesar, knew one of them. On Monday morning, she sent me a text that read, “Vrons, one of my dearest friends, came to Normandy with us, died last night C Virus . . . distraught. Stay safe darling . . . MD x.” “MD” is my mother’s playful, semi-ironic signature. It stands for “Mother Dearest.”
I didn’t know Vrons—a woman named Veronica Bailey—but I knew that, six decades ago, she and my mother had been contemporaries at an austere convent school in Sussex, in the South of England, and that in recent years they had reconnected. My mother, who is seventy-three and lives in London, is intensely sociable. She has an excruciating habit of talking to strangers on trains. Her chatty, and sometimes indecipherable, e-mails have a wider circulation than some local newspapers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that she would describe at least five hundred people as “close friends.”
Losing Vrons was a blow. The two women enjoyed each other’s company enough that they spent vacations together. In 2018, they went to France with my stepfather, Peter, and visited the Normandy beaches and several Second World War battlefields. I remember seeing a low-quality selfie that they took during the trip. The three of them are on a boat, somewhere in the English Channel. A shadow falls across the portrait; a third of Vrons’s head is missing.The New Yorker’s coronavirus news coverage and analysis are free for all readers.
Vrons suffered from what the U.K. government now terms an underlying health condition: a heart problem. Recently, her situation had deteriorated. Although she and my mother hadn’t seen each other in person for a while, they were in regular contact. On Saturday, my mother received a text from Vrons saying that she had been admitted to a hospital near her home, in Surrey, just outside London, with a cardiovascular complaint, and that she had tested positive for covid-19. “It’s all very scary but they’re trying to look after me,” Vrons wrote. She died on Sunday night.
When I received the news, I felt a pang. I am the youngest of three boys and the one best placed to visit my mother. (My oldest brother is serving overseas, as an Army medic; my other brother, an emergency-room doctor who also advises the Scottish government, is working onerous hours.) I live in Manchester, and under normal circumstances I could have easily gone down to London to see her, or she could have taken the train to see me. We could have hugged, eaten lunch, and irritated each other in familiar and comforting ways. My children, who are seven and four, would have cheered her up.
But these are not normal circumstances. Even if we had ignored the British government’s warning against nonessential travel, we could not have met each other in good conscience. My mother has her own underlying health problems. In the summer of 2017, she was given a diagnosis of Stage 4 ovarian cancer, with a malignant pleural effusion—a terminal condition. The doctor told her that she might not see Christmas that year. She outlasted his dire prediction, but she is now on her fourth round of chemotherapy, and her immune system is weak. A hug from a grandchild infected with covid-19 could do for her what cancer so far has not.
The British government’s current recommendation for people aged seventy and up is to practice strict social distancing. But the elderly, and others in high-risk groups, will shortly be asked to begin twelve weeks of social shielding, or isolation. That’s a long stretch for anyone, but especially in the life of someone for whom time has become precious. It’s also tough for the people separated from ill family members. In the most hopeful scenario, we won’t see my mother until June.
Around the world, people are being asked—or told—to stay home. My family’s story is not unique; it might even be normal. But the edicts to protect the oldest and the most vulnerable amount to an untested social experiment. Nobody knows for sure what the ultimate consequences of drastically reducing personal encounters will be. What happens when a grandparent doesn’t see her grandkids for a while?
There is convincing research suggesting that loneliness is bad for your health. Steve Cole, a professor of medicine, psychiatry, and biobehavioral sciences at U.C.L.A., has done pioneering work on the subject. When we spoke, last week, he told me that humans are intrinsically sociable animals. They need other people like they need food. Starve us of contact, and our cells undergo an inflammatory fight-or-flight reaction—which is good if you’re expecting to be wounded in battle but bad if you need to fight off a virus. When I spoke to Kavita Vedhara, a professor of health psychology at the University of Nottingham, she was more direct. Not only was there a proven link between social isolation and “poor health outcomes”; it was a fact that “lonely people die quicker.”
As the coronavirus crisis unfolded in England, this past week, I wondered whether loneliness was going to be such a big problem. Yes, some people were physically separated from their friends, caregivers, and loved ones. But isolation is not the same as loneliness. Facebook and WhatsApp groups had sprung up, connecting neighbors. (On Thursday, a printed flyer arrived in our mailbox, inviting my wife and me to join our street’s Facebook page.) Communities were organizing check-ins on older people and on others in need. There was an outpouring of generosity and fellow-feeling.
In Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, a man named Tom Long helps to run the Senior Citizens’ Support Group, a charity that organizes exercise classes, trips, and a choir for older locals. When the group was established, a decade ago, its stated purpose was to “stop elderly people being isolated in their own four walls.” The coronavirus has brought the group’s activities to a temporary stop, but Long—who is seventy-six—was busy designing creative workarounds. The next choir rehearsal, on Tuesday, will take place on Zoom. “It’s going to be different,” Long told me, laughing.
Despite this wave of neighborliness, many people I contacted spoke of lost connections. I e-mailed with Ray Gallop, a ninety-old-year-old retired civil servant in rural Wiltshire; he is a widower and lives on his own. Gallop was a keen archer until his ninetieth birthday. Now he likes to read about medieval and Second World War history, not to mention “murder/thriller books,” for “more relaxed reading.” One of his habitual pleasures has been a weekly drink with a younger neighbor, a historian and journalist. The coronavirus put an end to this, at least for now. Gallop wrote, “I am lucky in that I had gotten used to ‘self-isolation’ since Elizabeth, my wife, died two to three years ago.”
Sue Ridley is seventy-five and lives in Essex. She has a respiratory problem called bronchiectasis which puts her at a high risk of severe illness during the outbreak. Her children have told her to take self-isolation seriously, and she is following their advice; she told me that she has played her last game of bridge for a while. For now, Ridley is filling the gaps in her calendar by answering, and making, dozens of calls a day. She feels nurtured by her family and by friends in her local village. But she is frightened. One of her daughters lives in Kenya, with her husband and children. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever see them again,” Ridley told me. “I’m concerned that if I did get the virus, I wouldn’t survive it.”ADVERTISEMENT
At this time, we are understandably preoccupied with thinking about who needs extra help. But we might also think about who might benefit from giving extra help. Vedhara, the University of Nottingham professor, told me that assisting others is not just emotionally satisfying; it yields measurable health benefits. In 1999, the Journal of Health Psychology published the results of a five-year study examining the correlation between volunteerism and mortality rates. Among participants with similar age and health profiles, volunteers had a forty-four-per-cent lower death rate than non-volunteers. Vedhara told me, “In these times, the people who are thinking about friends and family and their community, they absolutely will benefit. Quite opposed from those people who are stockpiling toilet paper.”
Hilary Cottam, the author of “Radical Help,” urges Western nations to transform how they assist those in need. In the book, she documents the often unintentional cruelties of the British welfare state and proposes a new system that centers on person-to-person relationships. The emphasis in Cottam’s work is on the power of networks to improve lives and to release pressure on institutions of last resort, such as hospitals and prisons. To this end, she has developed community-membership organizations, such as Circle, which help older people connect with one another and create new networks of friends and helpers. In the most successful iterations of the Circle scheme, users become real-life friends instead of relying on traditional social services.
In a recent conversation with me, Cottam noted that Britain’s welfare system had been built out of the ashes of the Second World War. She discerns both tragedy and opportunity in our current extraordinary moment. “You can see, with hindsight, how important social infrastructure is,” Cottam said. “I think it’s really incredible how fast people have rushed to take care of each other. We’re seeing how people want to get involved, but they’re never asked. What I really hope happens, as a result of this, is that we have a mass reckoning, and we go forward with strengthened ties.”
Since the covid-19 pandemic began, commentators have expressed concern that current practices of isolation and distancing will deepen insidious trends in modern life: the atomization of society, the demise of in-person conversation, widespread loneliness. I’m more optimistic. There certainly are problems with the ways we live and communicate now—and many studies indicate that loneliness is common in both Britain and America. But perhaps there have always been large numbers of lonely people. There is scant evidence that Western societies are any lonelier than they were fifty years ago (not least because there are no field studies from that era to form the basis of a comparison). Moreover, digital communications may not connect us in the way a bar or a softball team connects us, but they are much better than silence.
I recently spoke to Maureen Holliday, a British woman who is self-isolating in her apartment, near Alicante, in Spain. She had been buoyed by having regular hour-long video conversations with her sister, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. They often used WhatsApp video to talk while eating meals, despite the time difference between them. Such a ritual would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. It struck me as a little miracle.
My mother isn’t coping well with being stuck in the house. She and Peter can’t accept visitors, even though many of their friends have dropped off groceries or other cheering items, such as potted plants. She will have to venture out soon, to go to the hospital for treatment, and the prospect worries her. Most of her communications are online. She likes long video calls, but often spends the first minute or two shouting for Peter, a technophile, to fix the volume, or the lighting, or some other detail, as if he were her butler. It’s often worth making a video call just to witness the arguments that play out between them. Sometimes, when I know my mother is feeling sick in the aftermath of chemotherapy, I make a voice-only call, to spare her any self-consciousness about her appearance.
I called her, voice only, after Vrons died.
“I honestly think without phones and e-mail I’d go stark staring mad,” she said, daring me to make the obvious joke. “I’m missing people.”
At the times when the park near her house tends to be empty, my mother sneaks out for some fresh air, taking care to avoid other walkers and runners. It’s a risk, but I approve of it. It’s the most beautiful spring I can remember. Even in Manchester, where gray skies and rain are the norm, the days have been bright blue, with flamingo-pink blossoms floating off the cherry trees. Exercise is a significant part of my mother’s life. She was a good athlete in her youth, and—until her cancer—an extremely active retiree, who completed many cycling marathons. Walking makes her feel better.
We, her close but distant family, are also trying to make her feel better. Starting tomorrow, when my children will begin a long period without school, my wife will oversee a game that we’re calling the Granny Challenge. My mother will assign the kids a task every morning, over e-mail or FaceTime; at the end of the day, the children will call her, or send a video, and present evidence that the task has been completed. The challenge could be to read a poem, or draw a picture, or help with a household chore.
Sunday is Mother’s Day in the U.K., and my children made cards for their grandmother, as they always do. Rory, my seven-year-old, decorated the front of his card with a picture of a bicycle. Knowing that his granny would be stuck at home for a long time, he wrote a message on the inside: “Hope it’s not too boring. We miss you x.”
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- How people cope and create new customs amid a pandemic.
- What it means to contain and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.
- How much of the world is likely to be quarantined?
- Donald Trump in the time of coronavirus.
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine could be widely available.
- We are all irrational panic shoppers.
- The strange terror of watching the coronavirus take Rome.
- How pandemics change history.
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