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10Sep

Risky business: the shadow of constant threat is changing us | Sarah Perry

Covid-19 has heightened our perception of danger so that every day is a series of finely balanced calculations. How do we decide which are the risks worth taking, asks Sarah Perry

Last week the nearby primary school, disconsolately quiet since March, opened its doors again. For months I’ve passed its empty playground on the morning walk, and watched black curtains drawn over the windows gather perceptible dust; so it’s pleasant to see them opened to the sight of September, and the gates unlocked, and children marshalled through with new books for the new term. Meanwhile restaurants in town are welcoming diners in, though the waiter wears a metalworker’s visor, as if those diners might very well spit sparks. The salons are open, and are busy; the airports are open, and are not. The thought of all this causes a lightening of my spirits which is quite involuntary, and has little to do with my daily scrutiny of charts of infection and fatality, having its causes more in feeling than in fact. The oppressive sensation of constant risk, which has cast its shadow on the everyday like obstinate cloud cover, is moving away. Unconsciously I think: the risk is fading – it must be – they are opening up the schools! Acts which were once ordinary, and which became for a time as risky as barefoot walking on a mountain ridge, are becoming ordinary again. So it has become necessary to caution myself, and recollect that no cloud cover moves without a wind to shift it, and winds can change, and bring back the old bad weather.

But the risk was low: to begin with. That a new virus had emerged from a marketplace was no great surprise – it had happened before, and would happen again. And in fact the disease it caused was largely a matter of a feverish cough, though certainly it was troubling that a few landed in hospital with gullets prised open by tubing, in due course to die alone or to survive, depleted, as the fates allowed. It was no worse than the flu, said a traveller on the last train I took this year. Well, perhaps: but in 1918 and 19 the flu had killed more than the first world war, and there’d been mass graves, and so on. At any rate the risk was not severe enough to confine the plucky British within doors, but – we understood that certain calculations had been made in Downing Street: we should wash our hands with Pilate’s enthusiasm, if more frequently. Bare facts emerged, were grasped, and slipped out of fingers sore from too much soap. Eighty per cent of cases were mild; the fatality rate was 1.4%, unless it was 2%, or 3.4%; the virus lived cheerfully on clothing and handrails and newspapers for 72 hours (mindful of this, a friend of mine quarantined all post in the porch for three days).

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