The End of This Road

Stuart Anderson-Davis on swapping America for lockdown London, as tensions reach boiling point on both sides of the Atlantic

“Yeah, I had the virus. Well, I’m pretty certain I had it: I mean, I didn’t get the antibody test or anything, but I reckon it was Corona…”

These are not words you want to hear from cabin crew when boarding a flight right now. They are even more anxiety-inducing when delivered by a strapping “air-host” (?), looming over you in an airtight cabin without a face mask.

Being British, I nodded stoically and allowed him and his trolley on their merry way. But inside, my heart sank with the realisation that this journey – the one we had been dreading since first hearing the word “coronavirus” – had somehow become yet more nauseatingly stressful. And let me tell you, when you’re flying from New York City to London – one boiling hot COVID hotspot to another, frying pan to fire – tensions are already pretty high.

It soon became clear that British Airways had decided face masks were an optional extra for their employees. But perish the thought that our national carrier wasn’t taking the whole pandemic thing seriously. Oh no! So concerned is the airline about safety that they have stopped serving any alcoholic beverages on their flights – lest any passenger take the edge off the situation with a Jacob’s Creek miniature. While a more cynical person might view this inconsistent approach to COVID-19 as penny-pinching prohibition, I’m sure BA executives are only “following the science”…

But I get ahead of myself. First, let’s rewind to mid-March and my last dispatch from Princeton, New Jersey. That report ended with a question: what would happen next to this quaint little college town, now that most students had been sent home and we few Remainers were “locked down” in expectation of the virus’ arrival from nearby New York City?

Police enforce social distancing rules at Domino Park in Brooklyn. Photography Jordan Gale

Well, fortunately Princeton has thus far been spared the worst of this plague. The foresight and decisiveness shown by the university saved lives – removing students from shared dormitories and communal dining halls just in time to avert disaster. The wider state of New Jersey was far less fortunate, registering the 2nd highest death toll in the United States – exceeded only by neighbouring New York state. We were marooned in our comparative oasis for nearly three months – juxtaposing our own state of tedium with the harrowing tales of FaceTime farewells coming from up the road.

But through these months of virus-dodging there built a growing sense of dread about what lay ahead: namely, our imminent return to London. We had been following events closely on both sides of the Atlantic – watching aghast at the “hold my beer” competition between Britain and America to enact the world’s most inept response to the crisis. From Trump’s chlorine prescription to Boris’ near-fatal effort to shake as many infected hands as possible, there was little to choose between these two countries – just last year identified as the two best prepared nations to confront this type of outbreak.

But leave we must, and so we packed up our flat and started upon the long journey back to South London. The airport experience was surreal. As anyone who’s been to JFK will know, the place is infamous for two things: pugnacious staff and endless queues. This time, however, we were booked on one of only four flights on the departures board – roaming around the ghost terminal without a shop assistant or policeman in sight.

The flight was chaotic. In addition to mask-less staff, British Airways had designated “free seating” on the plane: euphemistic jargon for an absolute bloody free-for-all. We had  strangers sat in the rows behind, in front and to the side. When the lady in front reclined her seat her face was barely 2 inches away – never mind 2 metres. At least every passenger had voluntarily deigned to wear a face mask, while one lady stole the show with a full Chernobyl hazmat suit. I shall never forget her look of abject panic as she finally relented to bowel pressure and headed for the bathroom.

Bournemouth, England, over the Bank Holiday weekend. Photography Finnbarr Webster

Finally, mercifully, we landed at an equally deserted Heathrow. Here, surely, would be state-of-the-art health checks, clear guidance for embarking passengers and the ubiquitous face mask? Instead, we found communal sanitiser and a cryptic warning to “Stay Alert” against an invisible, airborne virus. We breezed through immigration with barely a glance and certainly no questions about our health, where we were going or what we were going to do. Welcome to Lockdown Britain!

Driving through the sunny streets of London-town we were struck by just how normal everything looked. There were only a few people in masks, while others were happily popping into shops, hopping on buses and enjoying convivial picnics in the park. Maybe things weren’t so bad here after all? The next two weeks of (voluntarily) lying low passed in a blur of Netflix and meet-n-greets from the balcony. Starved of social interaction, we lost ourselves in the saga of Dominic Cummings. We marvelled at the Government’s sacrifice of its last vestiges of control and trust at the altar of Dom the Magnificent: doyen of the three-word-slogan and Bozzer’s ideological dynamo.

Cummings and his lockdown busting antics have inspired perhaps the most forensically analysed car journey since OJ took a white Ford Bronco down the freeway back in 1995. Without going over it all again, the key point – blindingly obvious to the 3.7 million people who tuned in live to his press conference – is that Cummings broke the rules set out for the whole country. Any attempt to convince the public otherwise swiftly descended into farce, with the nadir coming as Michael Gove tried to convince us he too had tested his eyesight by going for a drive and seeing what happened. 

As the Washington maxim goes, “it’s the cover up that gets you”. Well, this Keystone Cops effort was so transparently bullshit that it achieved only the complete collapse of public trust in the government – never ideal, but particularly unfortunate during a public health emergency. Last weekend’s return to our nation’s parks of 11-a-side football matches, birthday parties and genial booze ups revealed that for many people the whole affair had been, quite understandably, the last straw.

Potentially even more damaging from a long-term perspective was this Government’s desperate attempts to shift the news agenda away from Cummings and his inexplicable survival. As someone who has worked in politics and media relations, I guarantee you that the decision to accelerate the “unlocking” process – including sending thousands of children back to school and launching a half-baked “Test & Trace” programme – came, at least in part, from a desperation to “change the narrative”. Who knows what damage those cynical decisions will wreak in the coming weeks.

One reason the Cummings saga struck so deep a nerve is that it played into suspicions that were already deeply embedded: a sense that there will always be some people who consider themselves above the rules, and that these rules will always be rigged in their favour. Studies showed that the British public’s trust in their institutions and elites was already at rock bottom before the pandemic – jaded by grade-one scandals like MP’s expenses fraud and the 2008 Financial Crisis. When viewed in this context, it’s a miracle the British people obeyed the government for as long as they did.

In the USA, the unprecedented reaction to the killing of George Floyd seems to play into this same phenomenon: a (much more serious) event that brings home the fact that something is very, very wrong. This tragic death brings home the deadly consequences of racism and hate politics, laying bare the stark realities faced by millions of black people living in America and elsewhere – including in Britain. It is surely no coincidence that the sheer scale of outrage at this killing comes in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed over 100,000 American lives – leaving black people, yet again, disproportionately impacted.

Photography Warrick Page

The horrifying footage of Floyd’s death was the fuse that lit the American tinderbox and has rightly sparked outrage across the globe. Of course, the pitiful and pitiless behaviour of the current President is fuelling this grief and fury. But far more than that, this reaction is driven by four centuries of structural racism, mass incarceration and gross mistreatment inflicted on black Americans – encompassing racism from its most explicit to its most subtle forms.

George Floyd’s killing has led to long overdue soul-searching (or, at least, it should have) about our own beliefs and behaviour – tied to an expectation that everyone must “do more”. But for all the heartfelt expressions of solidarity, many doubt whether the USA can practically implement the radical reforms needed to truly heal its racial and societal divisions. Indeed, the forecast for the months ahead looks stormier with each passing day – with pandemic and protests lining the path to November’s general election.

So what happens next? Well, we now inhabit a world that is socially and economically shattered. For sure, there’s a collective resolution that things cannot “go back to the way they were”, but this slogan means very different things to different people. For Trump, this brave new world means doubling down on “America First”: shutting borders, removing foreigners, escalating tensions and relentlessly searching for scapegoats. For others, there is a more hopeful vision that the trials of 2020 will deliver the rationale and resolve to build a more progressive, just and equal world.

This positive sense of endeavour was the dominant theme of Princeton University (virtual) graduation ceremony this week: a clarion call for students to go into the world and use their skills for good. The challenge has never been so daunting. Every time the world convulses there is a seemingly undeniable demand for change: 1918, never another war; 1945, a new world order and collaborative approach; 1989, an end to tyranny; 2008, building a responsible financial system that works for everyone.

Some things got better, some got worse. Some didn’t really change at all. But if the events of the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that real change – tangible, enduring support for the most persecuted and vulnerable – cannot come soon enough.