In the 24 hours since last I wrote to you, brothers and sisters, America has passed a new and shattering milestone. Four thousand and fifty two Americans have died from coronavirus, almost a thousand more than died at the battle of Gettysburg and well over a thousand more than died on 11 September 2001.
Meanwhile at Porton Down, England, a scant 11 miles from where I sit typing this, a puzzling new variant of coronavirus is being studied. The variant, which is sweeping the southeast of England, is said to be 76% more contagious than the standard pathogen most familiar to the rest of the world. As a consequence, Europe is shutting its doors to Britain, and the remarkable island that brought Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton to the world is now once again famous for another inhabitant — a new bug a thousand times smaller than a grain of rice.
The coronavirus has ravaged Britain with the same rapacity as it has America, killing and infecting to date the same proportion of its population. But this new variant may be a game changer. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered radical measures for London and the surrounding areas, what is being called here an unprecedented “Tier 4” set of rules: you cannot leave your house unless you have a valid excuse, you cannot mix with other people, including over Christmas.
While it’s true that this new variant is as equally deadly as the one now touring the United States, in a way it’s more deadly, because it spreads more rapidly and hence more people will get it. It all makes the wait for the vaccine all the more harrowing. It’s a little like Quint’s description of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis from the movie Jaws. We’re all in the water waiting for the PBY to pick us up. Meanwhile more sharks have appeared.
Britain’s handling of the virus has been not unlike America’s. As in America, we are infected with a Conservative government and, for that reason, the people who love money are in charge of the most important decisions governing policy. The irony is that greed is its own worst enemy, and if only we had taken steps to insure the long term good early, as with South Korea and New Zealand, the worst of this nightmare could now be behind us. Now it’s just beginning.
Will Britain be able to isolate this new strain of coronavirus from the rest of the world? Almost certainly not. A virus that spreads this rapidly will almost certainly get out. In any case, by the time it does an even faster-spreading variant could possibly spring up elsewhere. All of which makes the triumvirate of precautions all the more vital: wear a mask, maintain social distancing and wash your hands. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.