‘The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.’
It was at some point during the first UK lockdown that I read The Machine Stops, a dystopian story published by E M Forster in 1909. In what was an uncharacteristic work of fiction for the Edwardian novelist, Forster hit on an accurate description of life for many in 2020, a society composed of people living separately and fearful of the outside world. ‘In each room there sat a human being, eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas,’ he wrote, describing the hive of underground chambers where everyone lived. His heroine Vashti has the physical characteristics of someone who spends her life inside: ‘a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus’. She conducts her lectures on music remotely, maintaining a network of global contacts via something that sounds remarkably like the internet.
At the beginning of 2020 I couldn’t possibly have predicted how prescient this would sound. In January, The Guardian ran a piece about how China was pioneering lockdown as a response to the emergence of Covid-19: ‘While sweeping measures are typical of China’s communist government, large-scale quarantines are rare around the world, even in deadly epidemics, because of concerns about infringing on people’s liberties, and the effectiveness of such measures is unclear.’
The lockdown of ten cities, including Wuhan, was unprecedented. ‘“To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, told the Associated Press. “It has not been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot at this stage say it will or it will not work.”’ A subsequent interview with the architect of the policy in the UK, Professor Neil Ferguson, revealed that the government’s advisory committee at first dismissed China’s ‘innovative intervention’ of confining communities to their homes as impossible in a liberal Western democracy. ‘It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’
By early April 2020, half the world’s population was under lockdown and, as 2021…