Bonnie Greer reflects on living in central London during Covid protests and explains what lies behind the manhandling of chief medical officer Chris Whitty
If you appear on TV, even from time to time as I do, one of the facts of life is this: people will come up to you on the street. Most just do a double-take; or a whisper to a friend, but then there are those who even ask for your phone number.
Most are nice, well-meaning people who make you think that maybe you have done something useful, that being on the telly means something. And then there are the others.
They fall into five types:
a) Can I have your phone number? I need to speak with you.
b) I saw you on TV and I don’t agree with what you said.
c) Wow, you’re short/tall/old/young/ugly/pretty.
d) Can I have a selfie?
e) I was taught by you/used to go to school with you; can we meet up in East Outer Limits, where I live?
These are harmless people, decent fellow human beings who exist in the ebb and flow of life, just like you. And then there are still others: random folks who blame you for the troubles of the world.
Now, there is a new type of people, a growing force: Pandemic People.
The PPs have been formed by the tragedy of Covid-19’s assault on our species. Before that, they must have been ordinary folks, not prone to accosting a stranger, not open to verbal threats and assaults, especially literally.
The recent incident with the chief medical officer, Chis Whitty, was scary stuff. Around where I live in central London, there are now protest marches every Saturday. Like something from images of the Middle Ages, people march up and down, protesting various causes, sometimes merging together in one long march as a howl of humanity.
With helicopters flying overhead and coppers flooding the streets, trying to be cool, Saturday has become a Market Of The People, a kind of St. Vitus Dance in this pandemic of our own kind.
This is not unusual plague behaviour and, throughout European history, we have seen populations tilt towards the edge and sometimes over. Arguably, the long reach of the Black Death started the Protestant revolution, which changed history.
You can read the revolt in The Decameron. Boccaccio rips into 14th century Italian culture, ruled by the church and its own folly and repression. It is beautiful because it is on the edge, and we know these young people and we recognise them.
We too have fled to the hills of our own imaginations and inner selves, and even if Luther did not post a thesis on the cathedral door, many of us are doing so now.
Maybe we have a Boccaccio too, but they have yet to rise from the mire, and here we are: streaming and dreaming and coming up to people on the street who are actually strangers, but that we imagine we know because they exist on a device in our hand.
We live behind masks, and so do our little children. A friend of mine burst into tears and cried all day because I gently reminded her not to touch the cute little baby who came into the restaurant, carried by her mother.
But how do you tell an Italian woman not to fawn over a beautiful child? It is not possible. And so she is depressed during her manager’s shift and there is nothing that can be done but to get through the day in this big, broken, metropolis that is London.
What happened to the chief medical officer for England, just walking through the park, probably deep in thought, was appalling. The excuse from the guys who violated his space was that they had seen him on telly and wanted a selfie. The man was physically manhandled and he was scared. No wonder. We are in hard times.
Sometimes people will call my name and most of the time they are great. But a few times now, there are those who have: “seen you on the telly. You work for the BBC/Sky News/…” and before I say that I do not, the shouting begins. I have been called “traitor” and since I was once a tri-national, now down to being a dual one, I think for a millisecond, “what national entity am I a traitor to?”
This is not funny, but I make a joke. This is dangerous, but I keep it light. Most folks are just venting, but that is most folks.
That we have no real leaders, no leadership, is a lament that we all share. But actually, we do not have any leaders, or the ones that we do have do not have prominence. For better or worse, we humans are a herd species and we need to be shown the way, given a bit of direction.
Pandemic behaviour has existed throughout history and, like the Decameron, can produce greatness. But our age is dominated by algorithms built to stimulate the conflict parts of our brain and so we have to stay conscious of how we are being shaped; constructed; built.
Chris Whitty must now go through the world being intensely aware that he is not just speaking to a camera, but to human beings who are projecting on him; forming a view.
Most of us do nothing. Most of us get on with it. But there are the handful who do not, cannot, and we have to understand: that in this rare time, bad things can happen.
The effects of Covid-19, what we will learn, will take decades to see; assemble, and make useful.
But right now we can be careful; mindful. The guy who shouted at me? Well, we wound up having a brief, socially distant conversation and then I could see him.
He told me that he had lost a business. Created by his grandfather.