“We’re allowed to play but we’ve got to be careful about the Coronavirus. It started in somewhere called China. A boy ate a bat and got ill. One time at school I vomited in the classroom.”
The playground in Tooting Gardens is currently teeming with 5-year-old epidemiologists. It’s a sunny mid-March afternoon, I’ve just had news of another two contract cancellations, and I’m babysitting. I watch M. as she chattily gathers new friends in her habitual carefree manner, at the same time keeping half an eye on my phone as the latest daily updates on the impending COVID-19 catastrophe filter through.
Sitting there, it feels eerily like the dream sequence in Terminator 2, where Sarah Connor imagines herself screaming a warning at a similarly frivolous playground, unheeded and too late as a nuclear attack arrives and obliterates them all.
On closer examination, that’s not quite what this is. A history-changing devastation is about to hit us, seemingly inevitably claiming millions of lives worldwide. Round here they’ve dubbed it the Thanos Virus. And yet, as far as we can see up to now at least, SARS-CoV-2 has a far less egalitarian approach to the souls it chooses to snap away. Whatever the latest measure of the overall mortality rate, it is clearly heavily skewed towards older people, leaving the under-19s almost entirely unscathed. An Angel of Death which passes over the children.
All lives are valuable, of course they are. In the UK the debate rages about the logic of keeping open or closing schools. The received wisdom in other countries seems to be to shut them now, and deal with the consequences as we go along. Every argument in favour of that has validity, as far as I can see.
But this whole thing is a hideous, planetary-wide Kobyashi Maru test. There is no right answer, no winning outcome. Merely a card deck of atrocities to be dealt out. A population must consent to be governed, as any teacher who has stood in front of a class of Year 10s knows better than anyone. Telling 7 million teenagers to stay indoors for 4 months sounds a lovely, straightforward idea in theory. The practice, I suspect, would be rather different.
And really, who could blame them? For years these same kids have been begging those with wealth and power to act on their behalf, to secure their futures and the future of humanity itself, most obviously on climate change, but also on social inequality, job security, house prices, quality of healthcare, and so on – to be told that they don’t understand the real world, it’s not possible, how could we afford it, calm down and stop being hysterical. Now that their own lives are on the line, those very same adults are making, in an instant and at any cost, many of those previously-impossible changes, and demanding immense sacrifices of every member of society, as usual disproportionately for their own benefit.
Sending a child to their room for a couple of hours is a punishment. At other times, get outdoors we tell them, you need to live a full and healthy childhood. Now they’re being asked to put that childhood on hold, for weeks, months, who knows how long. It’s not an insignificant sacrifice. Before we feel shocked at any apparent teenage nonchalance about what they’ve tagged the “Boomer Remover”, we might pause to take a broader view while standing in their shoes.
For those of us who are slightly less invincible than the average teenager, an antidote to the incomprehensible stress of all this can be found during an hour or two being lectured by some 5-year-olds.
“Do we need to be scared of the Coronavirus?”
I reply to M. and her new friends that they need to take care and wash their hands properly, but that as children they’re very safe and they don’t need to worry. Just for once, it’s nice to be able to say that without it being a white lie.