Expat Chronicles: Coronavirus Editon

A few folks back home have asked what life is like in London in the Age of Coronavirus, so…..

It is currently Friday afternoon, March 20. Life outside still has the appearance of normality, at least compared to much of the rest of the world, which has already gone into full lockdown mode. The schools in London are still open, though that ends today. Beginning Monday, all schools will close. Pubs are open. Stores are open. Malls are open. Restaurants are open. Transit is still operating (although not at full capacity). People are out and about, enjoying the early tease of spring, walking, strolling, jogging, chatting.

A week ago – on Friday, March 13 – you saw a lot more of this kind of thing. Many Londoners were still going into the office. The store shelves weren’t emptying at warp speed. There was no indication from our kids’ school that it would be closing anytime soon. The powers that be urged calm, common sense. The elderly should keep near home, well protected. So should those with medical conditions. But everyone else? Feel free to go about your business – within reason. Don’t venture out to crowded places, but don’t feel like you have to plant yourself at home, either.

Today, the shelves in many stores are empty. The grocery delivery service we’ve used for two years, Ocado, has temporarily shut down its website and mobile app because they don’t have the bandwidth to handle all the orders. Some tube (subway) stops have been shut down. The Premier League and EFL are not playing matches. Theatres have closed their doors. So have many museums. I dropped into a Starbucks this morning during my bike ride to buy a bag of ground coffee to take home. I was one of exactly two customers. One woman was handling the register and the orders. Nobody else was in the place. It’s usually packed that time of day.

A week from now – on Friday, March 27 – who knows what life will be like in London? Will businesses close early, or not open at all? Will we be allowed to leave our homes? Will the streets empty out, as they seem to have done in other cities? Will coronavirus arrive on the next block, or next door, or through our front door? Is it there already?

The message seems to have evolved into this: Prepare for the worst, but by all means Do. Not. Panic. Whenever I’m told not to panic, it always sends me into a bit of a panic. I wasn’t really thinking of panicking – until you told me not to.

There is a sense that the UK is trying to play catch-up now, doing things it might have done awhile back. It waited to close schools and subways. There hasn’t yet been an effort to shut down pubs and malls, or have restaurants provide takeout or delivery-only services. That might come later. I have a sneaking suspicion it will, but what do I know?*

*(Update: as of 6 p.m. Friday, “Cafes, pubs and restaurants must close from Friday night, except for take-away food, to tackle coronavirus, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said.”)

The Brits don’t look too fearful. Concerned, sure. But not necessarily afraid. They tend to keep a stiff upper lip and steely resolve. They tend to hit the pubs in times of duress. Closing down pubs and bars here would be akin to closing down gun shops in the USA.

If you want me bloody pint you’ll have to take it from me cold, dead hands…..

From what I understand, Boris Johnson and other officials, acting on the advice of scientists, decided it would be better to wait it out so they could delay the peak and the flattening of the curve. But lately things seem to have picked up speed, and you wonder why. Did they not have the right data a few weeks ago? Did they have the right data, but misjudged it? Did they have the right data and just decided to gamble that they could outflank it? If the situation was always going to be potentially dire, why not act sooner?

I don’t know the answer. All I know is, Boris Johnson continues to put an upbeat spin on things, saying the country can “turn the tide” on coronavirus in 12 weeks. There’s talk of a massive testing rollout and experimental treatments. It sure sounds good. Whether it’s true or not is almost beside the point at this stage of the game. It’s within the realm of possibility, and that’s about the best you can hope for in a world that seems to have spun off its axis.

I still ride my bike every weekday. Always in the morning, usually about an hour. I do it for exercise, fresh air and soul cleansing. Now it’s taken on a different role, because it’s the best way to get to several different stores safely and efficiently.

We’re trying to stock up on items in the event of a lockdown or, God forbid, a quarantine. We’re not hoarding things ridiculously. Just trying to keep enough food, supplies, medicine and anti-virus weaponry around to take us through a couple of weeks or so. We’re working from home. We have two school-age daughters, and they’ll be home schooling beginning next week. We don’t intend to screw around and get caught short in case the worst happens.

We have a nice neighbor who was taking her two (very) young kids to the store today, on foot, and asked if she could pick up anything for us. I thanked her and said no, we’re in decent shape, then told her if she or her family ever need anything to please not hesitate to ask. That’s something positive to come out of all this: neighbors being neighborly.

Only a few nights ago I took a subway ride to the normally crowded Soho district, about 20 minutes away. I went there to visit a shop that carries something I can’t find anywhere else, and tried my best to practice social distancing. I dressed in my heavy coat, gloves and hat even though it was a fairly warm night by London standards. I avoided touching things. I coughed and sneezed into my elbow if I had to cough or sneeze, which I don’t remember doing.

I kept my distance from people. It was easy enough because the trains were half-full at best and the streets had maybe one-fifth the usual number, and anyway my natural tendency is to keep my distance whenever possible. I’ve been practicing social distancing for the better part of a lifetime.

I went to the shop and then went across the street to an almost empty pub, walked straight to the men’s room, and washed my hands for 25 seconds. I bought a beer to go and strolled outside to find a nice empty place to stand and drink it. You can do that in London, God bless it. I sipped the beer and looked at the sad, lonely streets. Sleepy Londontown.

I set the beer down on some kind of flat utility stand. A woman, maybe homeless, strolled by, grabbed the beer, guzzled it, and walked on without saying a word.

I took that as an omen, and moved along.


  1. My brother is in London, and he’s livid at the attitude of the government. He pulled his kids out of school a few weeks ago, and has been limiting going out.

    Here in South Africa, things only took off this week after our government declared it a national disaster. The panic buying set in, and government quickly implemented measures to prevent profiteering and hoarding…though nobody knows if that will be effecting. Many people are working from home; schools are closed, as are universities. We’re all shifting to virtual spaces as far as possible. The fact that we’re in a long-term energy crisis, though, doesn’t help – because things could get even worse if our electricity provider falls down again (as it has many, many times).

    Shops and restaraunts are still open, though the restrictions have just started to be prescribed. Who knows if we’ll be in total lockdown soon?

    We’re all very conscious of hygeine and touching things (which I already had a jump on…I’ve avoided touching door handles and public stuff as far as possible, and never liked shaking hands).

    We do our best…and my attitude is that that’s all we can do. And avoid panic.

    But there are many positives, too…as I’m sure you’ve noticed (not just in people helping each other). I was particularly inspired by a post written by Kitty O’Meara which went viral recently…and tagged that onto my recent post on the subject.

    Anyway…it’s a giant reset for the world. Let’s hope we all come out of it better, and not simply revert to old ways.

    Keep safe, and may we all take the best out of this and come through it with minimum losses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it’s a mystery to me why they waited to do all these things. You get a false sense of security, so good for your brother for being more vigilant about it. Our hope now is that they didn’t wait too long, but the next few weeks will tell about that.

      You’re right though — all we can do is our best, and it is a giant reset. I hope you and yours stay safe. I’ll take a look at the blog you mentioned. I guess I missed that one in my inbox. Been a hectic few days here.

      Also, I have been enjoying your book. I’m still working my way through it in bits and pieces as I also have a couple of other books I’ve been reading, but you have a very distinct and passionate voice. One good thing about the lockdown is more time to write, so keep at it!


      1. Thanks 😊. It’s ironic, actually, that I have *less* writing time because work is more productive from home. So, while so many have this awesome free time to do as they please, I’m missing out…but it’s a good sign, because it means I still have a job 🙃. The flexibility in working hours is awesome, though.

        And I do hope to write more in this period. Hope it brings the best out of you, too.

        Liked by 1 person

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