words and numbers

‘What are the numbers today?’ For a while there weren’t any numbers except for the mind-numbing tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands in the rest of the world. We felt nervously safe. Now there are numbers again. More than a hundred a day and our state government is on the verge of panic. The British Government can contemplate reaching 50,000 new cases a day next week, which will probably be a disaster, but then they’ve been vaccinating people, while we’ve been… 

Numbers. How many were infectious while in the community? You search through the figures for that detail, then – more important now – in which communities were they infectious? None up here. Locals worry it’s only a matter of time, though. They acknowledge it with a sort of resigned grin, ‘The tourists will bring it!’

Some people don’t like wearing masks around here, preferring confrontation to compliance. They threaten staff, they complain about social distancing. They used to complain about crowds. There are even shop-owners advancing the idea that the virus is actually spread through vaccination, the equivalent of drunkenness being a by-product of abstinence. They forbid vaccinated people from entering their shops, they warn of the ‘risks to your health’ of wearing a mask. My hairdresser is sceptical, too. ‘Do you actually know anyone who’s had Covid?’ he asks. I have to say no. But then I don’t actually know any Brazilians, either. Is Brazil also a ‘hoax’?

I didn’t want to write about this, so I didn’t. In part because everyone else was writing about it, in part because I couldn’t think of what to say. That didn’t mean it hasn’t dominated my head since March last year. Hooked on doom-scrolling, I confess, just can’t get off the blogs. They’ve been almost continuous since last March. The ABC blog goes to bed every night, but the Guardian blog doesn’t sleep, it simply shifts continents. 

I take breaks from it, a week or two without reading the numbers, without discovering which countries are suddenly experiencing a surge, but then I’m back again, marvelling at the incompetence and stupidity of politicians, (I’m being kind), and wondering at so many people’s sense of entitlement.

I want to refer back to the experience of others – those who lived through wars and pandemics before us, those for whom years of their lives were lost, often ending in tragedy. Is it that past generations had harder lives which made them more resilient, or were they just more accepting of ‘fate’? But asking the question makes me sound old. I have an aunt who is old. Over a hundred and still living in her own home, Auntie P vividly recounts her childhood during the Great Depression – no shoes, sickness in the family, little in the way of food, the thrill of raiding backyard fruit trees for sustenance. Life was never so hard again after that, but she doesn’t forget the experience, nor does she forget the strategies for survival.

We have not needed her strategies for survival, we’ve been lucky. We’re not holed up in a high-rise apartment, we’re not health workers, we’re not stuck without an income. We have space around us, we grow food, we have kind neighbours. Yes, our social world has taken a hit, and we’ve had to resort to Zoom, but those on the other end of the call are always in a worse situation. We can’t travel, but the appetite for travel is not there.

A few years ago, I visited the Lazzaretto Nuovo in Venice, a fifteenth century quarantine station, where people and goods en route to Venice were kept for forty days (una quarantina) until it was clear they were free of the plague. It was an inspiring journey into the past, made more so perhaps, by the feeling that we were special. There were just four of us there with the young enthusiastic tour guide. We ‘had the place to ourselves’.

It prompted the idea for a short story, Il Pugatorio, in which an elderly Venetian priest returning home to die, unexpectedly finds himself stuck in the Lazzaretto Nuovo. With nothing to do except wait and pray, he begins to examine his own life, to form his own ‘last judgement’. I had just started writing this when the pandemic hit. It seemed an ideal opportunity – for here were parallel experiences to that of my Venetian priest. Lockdowns. 

There were those early stories from Italy of how people kept their spirits up, stories of how people ingeniously bent the rules. But very soon my story stalled, overwhelmed with the daily feed of numbers on the blogs the number of those infected, the number of those in hospital, the number of contacts, the number of tests, the number of days people have been suffering in lockdowns. 

Now I am wondering – what if my Venetian priest, Domenico Pasqualigo, is also writing a ‘blog’, a fifteenth century ‘blog’? He might write in a wavering hand on sheets of thin paper, or he might scrawl on the walls of his tiny cell. Writing on the walls of the buildings was typical. Some of it is still there, centuries later, recording the ships, the dates, the numbers. 

Perhaps he doesn’t write on paper or the wall, perhaps it all just happens in the padre’s head, since he is not dealing with the present, (nothing is happening on the Lazzaretto Nuovo), but examining his own past, which has lain there a long time, unexamined. 

Okay, I think I can get back to it now.

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