Finding certainty in uncertain times

Go onto social media. Pick up a newspaper. Ring a friend. Switch on the news. What are you guaranteed to encounter?

Speculation.

Often quite rampant speculation. In the internet age, we are all epidemiologists and experts in public health; we are all fortune tellers and soothsayers.

How long will these restrictions be in place? Two weeks, six months, eighteen months, forever. We’re flattening the curve; we’re protecting the vulnerable; we’re shielding the NHS; we’re acquiring herd immunity; we’re buying time to find a vaccine.

What further restrictions will be imposed? We won’t be allowed outside at all; the army will be on the streets; there’ll be rationing; we’ll have to eat cats and dogs.

Why has Italy been hit so badly? It has an elderly population; they were already in the middle of a flu epidemic; they have a high proportion of smokers; they’re a tactile culture; they didn’t obey lockdown; they live in multi-generational households; they closed the schools before the workplaces, exposing the vulnerable to the superspreaders.

How many will die in my country? 6000; 20,000; half-a-million; everyone. The death rate is much higher than we’re being told; much lower than we think; 10%; 0.4%. The statistics are different because of how they’re recorded; how many tests have been done; whether they died of coronavirus or with coronavirus. We’re two weeks behind Spain; three weeks behind Italy; ahead of the curve; better.

When will it end? When everyone has acquired herd immunity; when there’s a vaccine; when there’s a proven treatment; when it mutates to become more or less deadly; when we’re all dead from it.

And what will life look like afterwards? It’ll go straight back to normal; it’ll be entirely different; people will care more; people will hate more; we’ll be poorer; richer; safer; more vulnerable.

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

I understand why people are searching for answers – humans hate uncertainty. Uncertainty is dangerous. It’s terrifying. We don’t know how to protect ourselves from the unknown, so we feel vulnerable. People right now are living in a state of continual fear, and they’d rather live with an uncomfortable truth – a deadly but known danger – than endure the unknown.

Trouble is, in a situation like this, there are no answers. We don’t know how long it’s going to last; we don’t know how it’s going to end; we don’t know how many will die or what the world will look like afterwards. Ahead of us and around us is a vast, empty unknown. We’re walking on the edge of an abyss, liable to fall at any moment. How can you not feel anxious at such a time?

If it’s any help, as an autistic guy who spends his life living under the shadow of the unknown, you have to take comfort in the things that are known, and those things you can predict.

Like the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. The sun has risen every day for the past 4.5 billion years; it will continue to rise long after we’re gone. The rhythm of the planets is eternal.

There will be two high tides tomorrow, and two low. The Earth and moon are locked in an endless ballet, and whatever happens with mankind, that will not change. It is immutable.

There will be life in one form or another for countless years to come. Every living thing on the planet has an unbroken chain of lineage extending back 3.5 billion years. Through billions of generations, every single one of your ancestors managed to reach sexual maturity, find a partner and reproduce before they died. Life today is the culmination of billions of survivors. There will be billions more generations to come.

We can’t say anything with such certainty when it comes to coronavirus. We don’t know when it’ll end or how, how bad it’ll be and who’ll survive to come out the other side. But we can say, with absolute certainty, that we will survive, and it won’t last forever.

How do I know this isn’t the end? Because modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. We’ve only had a germ theory of medicine for 150 of those years. We’ve only had antibiotics and antiviral drugs for 80. Yet we’ve survived Russian flu, Spanish flu, Asian flu, the Black Death, smallpox, leprosy, cholera, malaria, polio, meningitis, measles, HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, rabies, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, and syphilis.

I was born in the 1970s. Most of the people reading this will, like me, have lived through the Troubles, the Cold War, the Iranian Embassy Siege, the Falklands, the Poll Tax Riots, shell suits, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, Waco, Diana, Dunblane, Columbine, Y2K, 9/11, the War on Terror, 7/7, SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the Credit Crunch, 2012 hysteria, the Paris Terror Attacks, the knife-crime epidemic and Brexit. We’ve taken all that life has thrown at us, and we can take plenty more.

If you want certainty, there it is. We’re going to survive. We’re going to get through this. It’s the one thing I have no doubt about.

The importance of language

I’m a writer. I believe that language creates the world. That’s why, at times like this, it’s so important to watch our language.

‘We’re stuck at home for the next few weeks’ creates an entirely different mental space than ‘We’re at home for the next few weeks.’

‘I can’t cope’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas ‘I’m finding this hard but will get through it’ gives you strength.

‘I hate my wife and kids’ generates resentment in your chest, while ‘Finding my family difficult at a difficult time is perfectly normal’ keeps your relationships healthy.

And saying, ‘It’s not a problem, I’m enjoying this downtime,’ is better than screaming, ‘Holy shit, it’s the end of the world and we’re all going to die!’

Changing the language you use is a quick and easy way to change your mood and your attitude. Our body tends to believe what we tell it. Smile and it makes you feel good. Stand up straight and lift your chin, it makes you feel confident even when you’re not. Force yourself to breathe slowly and deeply when you’re panicking, it calms your body down because if you’re not hyperventilating, there’s nothing to panic about, is there?

The opposite is also true. Hunch your shoulders and huddle up, you feel edgy, as though you need protection from the world. Frown and you feel bad. Laze about and you lose all motivation to do anything that helps you.

So start telling yourself the reality in which you want to live.

What applies in your own home applies to the world outside. Be careful what you read. Be careful what you listen to. You can’t have a healthy mental space when you fill it with negative words.

A brief survey of headlines is enough to make you die of fear. ‘Killer disease’ is far more terrifying than ‘Covid-19’; ‘chaos’, ‘panic’, ‘tragedy’, ‘death toll’ are much worse than ‘hope’, ‘solidarity’, ‘positivity’, ‘recovery’.

So in this time of crisis, do what I tell my children when they’re moaning and whining: use your words.

And forgive yourself the occasional weakness, outburst, rant or cry – you’re only humsn, after all.

The unexpected upsides of coronavirus

While Covid-19 is a steam roller of awfulness flattening everything in its path, it’s important to remember all the good things that life has to offer. Turning a frown upside down is vital for our mental health in the coming weeks and months, so here are some of the positives to come from social isolation and lockdown.

1. You can finally indulge your hobbies

That book you’ve been meaning to read but never started because it was too big? Now’s your opportunity. The typewriter mocking you from the corner of the room? That novel isn’t going to write itself. And the musical instrument you always wanted to learn? With YouTube videos instructing you in everything, there’s never been a better time.

Or you can sit on Facebook and keep checking coronavirus updates and slowly go insane – the choice is yours.

2. You can create a healthier family life 

Tradition might be a dirty word these days, but there’s definitely something to be said for taking your foot off the gas, slowing things down and actually spending time together as a family. Free from rushing around from here to there, desperately trying to clean that school shirt while shuttling the kids to football and ballet and gymnastics, we can get back to the simpler things, like having fun together, playing games, and family dinners. You might even find that, without the endless stress, you actually like the other members of your household for a change.

Of course, I also think 2020 will have remarkably high rates of domestic violence and divorce, but hey, let’s try and make the most of each other at this time in our lives.

3. You can learn to appreciate ‘the little things’

Humans are programmed not to notice, or appreciate, the familiar and everyday. It’s the reason you stop smelling freshly-baked bread after a few minutes, and why after the novelty has worn off, lottery winners are just as miserable rich as they were poor. Two weeks ago, we were bored with our dull world; today, everything in it that we can no longer do seems so precious – even just the ability to go to the cinema, have coffee with friends, or walk down the street without worrying.

If coronavirus holds a lesson, it’s to learn to appreciate those little things that we take for granted. Consciously acknowledge those things you’re grateful for, like a roof over your head, or personal freedom, and continually remind yourself of it when this is over. Like water to someone dying of thirst, we might find ourselves far happier with the everyday when the restrictions finally lift.

4. Home working lets you re-evaluate your work/life balance

All those times they told you that you couldn’t do your job from home? Turns out you could. Those meetings they said couldn’t be done by email or teleconferencing? Ha! Without the dreaded commute, how much more time would we have in the morning? How much better might our working conditions be? And how many cars would be taken off the road, making everybody happier? Coronavirus might lead to a new model of business that is less likely to drive you to the brink of despair.

And even if it doesn’t, at least you will know which you prefer. After being locked down with your wife and kids, you might even find you never moan about going into work again!

5. Pollution is clearing up rapidly

A lack of cars on the road and planes in the air, and entire economies grinding to a halt, has had the effect of reducing carbon emissions and clearing a lot of the crap floating around in the air. Indeed, given that thousands die each year from the effects of air pollution in cities, some are claiming that in China alone, coronavirus has saved the lives of 4000 children under five and 73,000 adults over seventy.

Of course, it won’t last long, since as soon as this crisis is over we’ll be burning everything twice as fast to make up for lost time, but people can make the most of it while they can. In Venice, for example, a dearth of diesel-spewing tourist boats churning up the canals has reportedly led to a sharp increase in water quality – the water is so clear you can actually see fish swimming in it.

And if nothing else, at least we’re not going to be hearing about Greta Thunberg and the impending doom of climate change for the next few months, and my mental health is already better for it!