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  • K O Jones

Not Giving a Damn in Rotterdam

Originally published March 20

Stuck at home under lockdown, with nothing but Houseparty and Zoom for company, I want to go back to a time before Coronavirus. A time when my greatest fear was boredom. And crowds were, well, glorious.

It’s Friday morning 11th July 2019.

I’m on my way to the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam. Covid-19 doesn’t even have a name yet, though presumably it’s giving a Chinese bat and his winged friends a serious headache.

I arrive at St Pancras to find tightly packed queues of people folded in on themselves. Am I worried? No. I simply insert myself in the scrum. The fact that flu-containing particles can travel six feet is of zero concern.

Naturally I miss my train, (who knew you had to get there an hour advance). So I join the dunces queue to get another ticket, leaning against a metal barrier. Viruses can live on metal for up to nine days, but I’m clueless.

The next train is five hours later so I wait in a café, unaware viruses can infect 40-60% of a building in two to four hours. Then I board the train to Rotterdam, equally ignorant of the fact that touching a handrail on a train is ‘like shaking hands with 10,000 people’.

Finally, alone at my hotel I collapse on my bed and log into the wifi on my phone, touching it for the thousandth time that day (2617 is the average apparently).They say viruses can live two to three days on phones. But I do I bother blitzing it with antibacterial spray? No. I’m a pig.

The next morning I tap in my pin code into the local cash machine, tucked somewhat decoratively behind a windmill.

In the UK there are 128 machines per 100,000 adults. Assuming we each use a machine once a week, if 1.9% of the population have had the virus as some sources claim in early April, that means at least six people with the virus have used it in the past 72 hours.

I pass over thirty pre-handled Euros to a nice lady in the paper shop for a travel pass.

Poor woman. Paper currency plays host to hundreds of species of microorganisms including microbes from mouths, DNA from pets and viruses and vaginal bacteria. In China, money from high risk areas is being taken out of circulation and destroyed. Will we bother? We're not testing people coming in through Heathrow and Gatwick, so I very much doubt it.

But I don’t care. I hop on the local bus. More rails; fingers touching my face with gay abandon. In the movie Contagion an epidemiologist played by Kate Winslet explains, “The average person touches their face 2,000 to 3,000 times a day, 3-5 times a minute.” She's right. I only have to slip on a pair of plastic gloves in the supermarket to develop an irresistible urge to scratch my nose.

The bus cruises sedately past miles of oil plants. Past water inlets with flocks of grey seagulls rising in lazy formation against a greyer sky.

The lack of face masks and protective equipment for the NHS isn’t on my mental landscape. I’m on my way to hear Rag ‘n’ Bone Man sing ‘Human’:

“I'm just a man, I do what I can. Don't put the blame on me.”

How prescient those words seem right now. Blame is in the air - even though the World Health Organisation say Covid-19 isn’t airborne.

I enter the Ahoy venue. It’s a lot like Excel but with a seventies Lego vibe.

I make a bee line for the food stalls near the entrance, inhaling the aroma of burgers, falafel and warm crepes drizzled with common-or-garden noroviruses. The innocent, day-on-the-loo kind. Happy days.

As I sit in Congo Square devouring a frozen yogurt, I study the crowd, there for jazz, R&B and soul. For a change I’m in the company of grown-ups. Jazz attracts the over 50s, an age when the mortality rate takes a sudden jump to 1.4%. Though most people are mostly in their thirties. The lucky 0.1 percenters.

The sun is shining; the subsidised Heineken flowing; all I have to do is work out how to get from one act to the next using my fold out map on a tiny card sized cardboard wallet. Yet another surface for coronavirus to hitch a 24 hour ride.

As I wait for Rag ‘n’ Bone Man to take the stage, along with hundreds of others who’ve staked out their spots near the front, a group of twenty somethings push through the crowd. Unable to proceed any further they push in front of me. Close enough to get me pregnant.

Do I do anything? No, I simply shuffle to one side. Selfishness isn’t dangerous in 2019, merely an inconvenience.

Rag ‘n’ Bone Man appears. His voice is like a whiskey soaked blues singer from the Mississippi but with a twang of Wetherspoons on a wet Wednesday. Transcendent.

Next up is Anita Baker. On my map she’s in the MAAS auditorium, but I don’t need to work out my bearings, just follow the crowd as we make our way up a labyrinth of stairs. Up, across, then down, shuffling one tiny step at a time. I could sneeze and infect a thousand people, my spittle (or ‘aerosol’ as the scientists put it) travelling at 100 miles per hour up to 200 feet. Gesundheit!

Interestingly most cultures have an expression that follows a sneeze. In the UK we say ‘Bless you’. The Italians ‘Salute’. The Chinese don't say anything.

I arrive to find Ms Baker already in full flow:

“You can reach me by railway…You can reach me on an airplane.”

How true. The coronavirus enters the body through your nose, mouth or eyes, hitching a ride on the cells in your airway, and multiplying before your cells finally break down and die. So yes, they can reach us anywhere. Even as far as posh boys in number 10.

In fact viruses rain down on us every day from the sky. In 2018 scientists confirmed that millions of the little blighters rise into the atmosphere, traveling — in some instances for thousands of miles — before falling back down to the surface.

Luckily most are harmless. There are trillions of them in our bodies that are actually quite useful. Some found in the mouth, nose, and digestive track, kill unwanted bacteria.

Scientists are even experimenting with ones that can target cancer cells in the brain and kill them.

Only yesterday, as I sat on a park bench overlooking the Thames, social distancing, no less than five runners jogged past me, not two feet away. While four men sat nearby having a picnic. Possibly unaware that 40-50% of us can have the virus and show no symptoms.

Sadly there is no virus that kills off stupid cells.

Even in ordinary circumstances, the average person infected with Covid-19 can infect three people a day, which left unchecked by social distancing can multiply exponentially to a staggering 59,000 in 10-easy-steps.

Meanwhile I’m stuck at home, going crazy, hooked on G&T. And the Ahoy venue is gearing up as a temporary hospital with 680 beds.

The first patients are due mid-April.


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