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.

Love (and Life) in the Time of Coronavirus

Stuart Anderson-Davis reflects on the decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall

“But what am I supposed to do now?!”

I heard this helpless question countless times in the last few days, as emotion-filled scenes of confusion, despair and anger played out across Princeton’s picturesque college campus.

Last week, it was announced that all 5,267 undergraduate students had until the end of Sunday to leave the university. Classes for the remainder of the academic year have been cancelled or will go “remote”, while all university events, sports, performances and gatherings have been outlawed. A formal policy of “social distancing” is in operation, apologetically enforced by the campus police force, who’ve been instructed to break up gatherings of people wherever they find them. Princeton’s students – who come from all over the United States and far beyond – had just a few days to pack up, leave and find somewhere else to live until September. The decisions taken by the university have been brutal, but its leadership believes this is the best approach for protecting students and saving lives.

Regardless of the logic, every student at America’s most competitive university has seen their plans shattered by the coronavirus chaos. It’s not just the impact on their academic careers – although goodness knows how they can be expected to undertake fiendishly difficult exams without physical access to teachers, libraries or classmates. But more than that, it’s the tremendous psychological impact wrought on many by the abrupt end to their student lives. Seniors robbed of their last precious months before entering the “real world”. Athletes no longer able to compete for college glory and professional contracts. Actors and musicians banned from showcasing their skills. Friends and lovers denied those final, gloriously sun-drenched days before dispersing forever.

Of course, the impact of coronavirus on a group of elite students in New Jersey is the least of our concerns at the moment. We’re all facing our personal pandemic demons and, whilst there’s something vaguely reassuring about being “in this together”, our collective embroilment doesn’t make the situation any less disturbing. There’s no escaping the one topic of conversation on everyone’s lips, as people seek answers and reassurances that simply don’t exist. Even our daughter’s nursery class picked up on the morbid mood – insisting on playing endless games of doctors and dollies.

However, Princeton’s course of ruthlessly pre-emptive action has been the exception, not the rule. Indeed, bearing witness to events here affords a different perspective on decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall – bringing into sharp relief the comparative lack of decisiveness and coordination. The leaders of private institutions like Princeton, Harvard and Columbia – afforded near autonomy over their college ‘city states’ – have generally acted proactively (some might say drastically) in advance of coronavirus’ arrival. Indeed, at the time of writing no Princeton student has tested positive for the virus. These places – boasting some of the finest minds in the country and the wealth to act without fixating only on the financial consequences – decided to shut up shop for the year to minimise even the potential for an outbreak.

One cannot help but contrast this extremely cautious attitude with that of the Trump administration, which first sought to play down the threat of COVID-19 (a Democratic “hoax”) before finally lumbering into a glacial and largely ineffective response. You can easily imagine what the professors here make of Trump’s bungling inaction and unwillingness to view the pandemic as a threat to anything other than his beloved stock market. Indeed, it feels like these storied institutions wanted to show the President exactly what decisive, responsible leadership looks like.

And make no mistake about it, the US government’s response has been catastrophic. Since moving here last year I’ve heard countless people remark: “thank God Trump hasn’t faced an actual crisis.” Well, now the most unqualified and dangerous President in American history (every 2020 Democratic candidate™) is facing a peril more hazardous than any financial crisis or terrorist attack. The results have been predictably shambolic. From his administration’s calamitous decision to disband the White House Pandemic Response Team to the chronic lack of testing kits, to the increasingly desperate attempts to pass the buck by stoking anti-Chinese sentiment, the world’s richest country has squandered its preparation time and now looks set for unimaginable casualties.

By contrast, the United Kingdom looks to me (from this distance) to have succumbed to a different national character flaw – this time the insistence that any significant event be viewed exclusively through the lens of the Second World War. The result is that every wannabe Churchill is convinced the best approach is always a “stiff upper lip” and “Keep Calm & Carry On” (every Conservative Party candidate ever™). This has translated to a pandemic response not dissimilar to the commuter stuck in a tube carriage with a noisy person: keep your head down, don’t make eye contact and the problem will eventually go away.

Only a country so determined it wouldn’t be accused of “over-reacting” to a crisis could allow 250,000 people to get boozed at the Cheltenham Races during the biggest public health epidemic in 100 years. Cinemas are open. Concerts are continuing. Markets, bars and restaurants remain entirely open. I mean, it took the actual infection of the Arsenal manager before the Premier League decided it wasn’t a great idea to play a full schedule of matches (in front of packed crowds) last weekend. The Tory government has entirely set the tone for this jaw-droppingly chillaxed strategy and now we have a Prime Minister conceding defeat on containment (possibly not his “Finest Hour”) and condemning grandad to the attic – or the scrapheap.

Of course, COVID-19 was always going to bring catastrophic threat to human life and the impact was always going to be devastating. But it’s equally undeniable that many responses to the pandemic – including those by Britain and the United States, two countries with the financial clout and scientific expertise to do better – have not helped the situation, and may even have made things worse. If the fundamental responsibility of a government is to keep its citizens safe, then too many have failed this test.

So then, a jolly choice for the British expatriate in America. Stick or twist? Stay or go? Try to circumvent Trump’s travel ban with a cheeky flight back via Reykjavík? There’s plenty to consider. On the mundane side, there’s the logistical challenges of getting home when the US could stop you leaving or coming back. In fact, many expats fear that Trump will now seize upon this crisis to tighten immigration restrictions yet further in the long-term. But the greatest concern of all is the fear that by travelling home to see your loved ones, you may well be the one who makes them ill.

Truly, these are the most uncertain of times. As I write, Princeton is its same old beautiful, refined and tranquil self. The sun is shining and all is calm, yet everyone knows what is coming and a sense of helplessness pervades. To introduce the inevitable World War Two analogy (I am British, after all) this seems a little like how I imagine Londoners felt during the ‘Phoney War’. This was the period from September 1939 to May 1940, when war was declared on Nazi Germany and then…nothing much. It was a time of huge tension not because of what was actually happening, but because everyone knew what dangers lay just round the corner. That’s the situation facing most Americans today, as the number of confirmed cases rises, the rumours swirl and a deadly virus advances across its great expanse.

So that takes us to the second big question on every Princeton student’s lips: “What happens next?”