When coronavirus was being taken seriously in China but wasn’t yet a major concern here, a friend of my brother’s came to stay with him from Shanghai to go to a wedding in London. The friend did consider calling off the trip in case his flight home got cancelled but decided that it was worth the risk.
Upon his return to Shanghai he called my brother to tell him that he had tested positive for coronavirus (in China they don’t mess around with testing: as you enter the country you get your passport stamped and you get a coronavirus test) and he was now in hospital. He reckoned he had picked it up at the wedding, where there were hundreds of people packed into an enclosed space. And he had then returned from the wedding and spent several days sharing a living space with my brother.
My brother phoned me to tell me, starting the conversation with “I think the chances are pretty high that I have coronavirus”.
Until that point, we had been hearing about the growing number of cases, but it always seemed like something that would happen to other people. Hearing that a family member might have it was like being knocked over by a train. Even though you hear that most people survive it and if you’re young and healthy you’ll probably be OK, in that moment, you start picturing the worst.
He hadn’t had any symptoms, but he said that symptoms usually take a few days to appear, so he was going to watch carefully in the next few days and avoid contact with other people. I asked if he had told our mother yet and he said no.
When I got home, my mother seemed cheerful, from which I surmised that he still hadn’t told her. I knew that she would notice that I was shaken over something and would want to know what was wrong, so I texted him to ask if he was planning to tell her.
“I could,” he replied, “although there’s not much she or anyone else can do other than tell me to stay at home. So maybe not.”
Shortly after that, though, he did phone and tell her. It was as if all the air had suddenly been sucked out of her. She went absolutely flat. We had a chat about practical matters and decided that I would take him some medicines to boost his immune system, a thermometer, some home-cooked meals and a selection of snacks.
He had said he was going to go for a run, in case he wasn’t able to go running again for a while, so I said I would just leave the things at his flat, but when I poked my head in to leave them just inside the door, he was still there, having a video call with a friend in Switzerland who is a human encyclopedia and one of the most exhausting people I know.
I texted him afterwards to ask how the Swiss friend was.
“He’s fine, thanks,” he replied. “He gave me a full rundown of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it impacted the Swiss military in Graubenden Canton.”
My mother had had an extensive programme of home-improvement activities planned for the day but after the phone call from my brother she no longer felt like doing any of it. However, she did make a start on some of it a bit later and next thing she was on an absolute roll (she kept summoning me to pull boxes out of cupboards and crawl into shelves to repaper them and turn items of furniture upside down to have their feet painted), and a couple of hours later she had cheered up a bit.
To our enormous relief, my brother didn’t develop any symptoms. (His friend in China got ill but recovered, thankfully. He said that his symptoms weren’t very severe but that it was scary even so because he had no way of knowing how bad it was going to get.)
He worked one day from home, but by the next day he was back in the office because he was so worried about being fired for being unproductive. (To be fair, the issue wasn’t only having distractions at home. He’s an architect, and they use monstrous computer programmes that send your common domestic laptop cowering into a corner, and there was only so much progress he could make when every time he clicked the mouse he had to wait five minutes for the programme to react.) Fortunately only one other person was also working at the office, though, so it was easy enough for them to keep a distance from each other.
That evening, 23 March, new lockdown measures were announced. A couple of hours later, the office manager called my brother in a panic saying that the landlord was closing the building and the servers were switched off so nobody would be able to log on remotely in the morning. My brother was the only one who lived anywhere near the office, so was there any chance that he could go in quickly and switch on the servers?
My brother was already in bed – and had taken a sleeping pill – but he got up and cycled down to the office to switch on the servers.
As it happened, in the morning people were still having trouble logging on, so he went back and found the office open anyway. So he stayed to work there on his own. He also rescued Frank the plant to take it home and water it during the lockdown.
That evening he told us that one of his colleagues – aged 42, fit and healthy – had fallen ill with the virus and was in intensive care.
My mother has been worried sick about my brother’s job prospects. Because he’s a contractor, he can be dismissed the moment he is surplus to requirements, and given that all non-essential construction has been ordered to stop, his project may be put on hold, which makes becoming surplus to requirements a very real possibility.
He sent us a message the other day saying “The recruitment agent who placed me here has just called to say that he has had a chat with the boss, and she was extolling my virtues. So it seems that the 5 hours I spent carrying boxes for her rather than doing my work was a good move. She said they’ll make sure there’s enough work to keep me there.”