Jacob Charles Wilson

Letter from Isolation

I've been inside for several weeks now. My isolation began when one of my housemates, a service worker, fell ill after working at a large event. She secluded herself in her room and the rest of us continued living around her. We cleaned more frequently, we avoided the shared spaces, we left plates of food outside her door and picked up used glasses and cutlery, and we watched and waited for symptoms of our own.

Watching and waiting is all we can do. Viral infection demands self-surveillance. But in the absence of thermometers, swab samples, medical tests—technologies of the twentieth, let alone twenty-first, century—I'm limited to assaying the emissions and humours by simple observation and reasonable assumption: Was that cough a little dry? Is that pain new? Is this worse or better? More phlegmatic or choleric? It's a pre-modern epistemology, perhaps I should take up astrology?

Unlike some, I haven't yet been asked to account for my infrequent trips outside of the home, but I find myself mentally preparing reports:

When I left the house to pick up one kilogramme of flour I passed five people, three of whom presented symptoms (coughing). At no point did I stand closer than two metres to any person other than my girlfriend (we are in isolation together). During my period outside of the house I touched four door handles, more than normal but fewer than necessary.

Life during a pandemic is strange. There are novel experiences but on the whole it comprises the exacerbation of existing crises and entrenched behaviours: underfunding, precarity, homelessness, domestic violence, racism, power grabs. The British response of herd immunity, the individualised calculation of risk, and isolation of the self is a symptom of the degraded social and financial provision of the past decade. The sudden awareness of these crises is merely the cortex of neoliberalism bursting into activity milliseconds before its death.

What should be clear is that this individualised self-surveillance and advice won't stop transmission. People will work even when they're sick, a decade of welfare cuts and of disparaging 'scroungers' has seen to that. Even worse, I read the other day that up to a third of all cases may be asymptomatic. Only a medical test will confirm these cases, and well… in these circumstances all I can go on is statistical-reckoning, that given my exposure, location, and demographic I have probably already been infected, though noticed nothing.

I've been staving off hypochondria by going for walks, relishing every moment spent amongst the world outside my four walls. Yesterday, I walked up the windswept mound of Blackheath to take in the view across the city. Standing there, slowly, and then suddenly, I noticed the empty sky above me—pure cerulean, not a single vapour trail in sight. As I said, there are novel experiences and this was one. It was beautiful, and yet I was troubled, how unobservant had I been?