Journal of the Virus Year: Chapter 6

From backseat Covid-19 observer to engagement

It is Wednesday, I think. Probably 11 days into lock-down during the coronavirus Estado de Alarma (State of Emergency) in Spain and I’m taking a quick lunch break. I don’t know quite how the transition happened because I don’t even remember having breakfast this morning…

Yesterday I was working out another way of organising funny things on this blog, to amuse people in Spain and UK stuck at home. Since I did my parody celebrity chef act I began to think about my days writing one-act comedies in the late 1970s (absurdist drama and community theatre).

And then this crisis suddenly reminded me of another one. I remembered how the HIV-AIDS pandemic arrived. Just like this one: first a gradual rumour of people who “might” be in the local hospital and the “had” it…! Then a lot of people were suddenly dying. I was a live-in volunteer worker in a self-contained flat in a MIND group home and two of our clients had serious drug issues, so I went on my first training course in virology to see what the dangers were of HIV for my clients. I learned all about immune systems and lymph nodes and the effects of stress or alcohol on resistance, and how some people “living with HIV” (“Don’t call them ‘patients’ please!”) could fight the virus more successfully than others, but many died.

Apart from the haemophiliacs, there was a kind of widespread unspoken feeling that the virus was a moral judgement on certain behaviours, and there were some extraordinary utterances from the usual suspects writing for the Daily Mail and even some sections of the Church. As if the virus had arrived to destroy things that made them feel uncomfortable or insecure, and the deaths of people whose lifestyle was different to theirs might be a kind of confirmation of their moral superiority. Already working as a mental health volunteer, I began to explore adding a few hours a week here too: and it was good for “networking”, the great new buzzword as it was then.

In 1985 an increasingly competent volunteer army began to meet the AIDS crisis with a programme of training and well-produced high quality medical information and social care. There was little financial assistance from the Conservative government at the time; for it was simply minority communities fighting for the lives of their loved ones: the gay community, haemophiliacs, injecting drug-users: all were the target for HIV and there were no medical fixes. That’s right: no cure, and no votes for politicians in even bothering to look concerned about the crisis. The main AIDS charity was the The Terrence Higgins Trust and it was calling for volunteers.

From volunteer to national conference secretary

I had no special skills: I knew nothing about it all. I was at that time simply a young man working on various artistic projects and acting as technical assistant to a famous architectural enamelling artist, doing what they not call “gig” work. We had done projects for the IBM headquarters on the South Bank and a few enamelled lift doors for flashy new financial buildings in the city, and it was now quiet. My boss was at her studio in New York with its own technical assistant. So I volunteered for THT and began a steep learning curve. Within a year I was running the Terrence Higgins Trust national conference, which launched on the same day the government did the press briefing of their “DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE” publicity campaign: without any consultation whatsoever with us, the main experienced community group with all the information!

In the 1980s AIDS crisis the first THT office was a small upstairs double room above a garage in a cobbled mews off Grays Inn Road, by Mount Pleasant post office. At the start – we only had one proper computer in the office and I was given it: to spend two weeks just typing in postal addresses for a mail shot (snail mail) and this was where I first touched a computer keyboard! An IBM with a big floppy disk…

I will write about this later in more detail (when I have some spare time again, for it has all changed today) and I’ll make some comparison with the present community response to the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis. I will also come back to Daniel Defoe, which I promised last week and never found time.

But for now, simply this: something changed and I woke up today thinking, “Producing silly blogposts for the entertainment of people in lock-down – with my usual talking donkeys, or drawing upon my community theatre days as a comedy xenophobic paella chef – may be fun for me and a help to some people, but don’t I have a better job to do?”

How to apply the networking skills?

You see, the AIDS crisis taught us about the true value of community networking and it somehow took me all of eleven days since the lock-down to see I should be doing something better. I didn’t really have breakfast I don’t think (I can only remember a cup of tea…) And suddenly I am spending the whole morning discussing with my friend the ex-mayor of Finestrat – who is a working doctor in Benidorm – a plan for developing an information network for anglophone residents (a phrase I now prefer after Brexit and as I aspire to Spanish nationality) ; and then drawing up a plan with another friend who is a police inspector in Benidorm; and messaging dozens of contacts who live, like me, in the more isolated country and mountain places around the villages of Finestrat, Orxeta and Sella. And by lunch time, which is now, and delayed by an hour (cottage pie in oven) I have various translations to do, sent from Benidorm police and I am fully engaged with the fight against Covid-19 coronavirus.

There will be funny donkey blogposts at some point but I may be gone for a little while – and the next blog in this series Journal of the Virus Year might even have some practical experience worth sharing with readers..

Stay safe and wish me lunch. Yes, it’s ready to eat now. So am I. I have not been so busy since I left teaching exactly two years ago on what was this year the First Sunday of Lent. And Lent does invite some special charitable effort for the community, doesn’t it? Good. The churches may all be shut but Lent is back on track.

There is work do do now: there’s a change of mood. It has gone from a tsunami on the horizon to the stage when cars start being washed away. I remember watching a video of that Japanese tsunami, when I was teaching Geography, and it showed people standing watching the waters rise. They could not think it was going to be anything serious. A minute later, they were swept away. The way some people are approaching COVID19-Coronavirus is just the same!


3 thoughts on “Journal of the Virus Year: Chapter 6

  1. In your soul you’ve always been a fighter for a worthy cause, so it’s good to see that your skills and experience on that score are being appreciated. Good lunch, Gareth! M xx

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  2. Thanks, Maggie, much appreciated. Of course, you were living just down the road in Hornsey in those days when I was working flat-out at Terrence Higgins Trust. It’s just occurred to me also, thinking of you in that context, that we were both going to different churches on either side of the railway line. You remember I was banned from Holy Trinity when the congregation found out I was working with people with AIDS? I’ve just remembered that. It was awful! (Father Lunn said, “It’s your fault for being open about what you’re doing!”) At least I’m working from home this time so nobody can be so rude!

    Do you want to be included in the Whatsapp group? It’s for local people, and there will be a lot of local things for local people… Gosh that sounds like “League of Gentlemen” doesn’t it? 🙂 …But there will be sound general advice as well. I’m putting Alys and her mother on the Whatsapp group and a few other friends in UK, but there simply won’t be time to add loads more to it. That might change later. We’ll see how it goes.

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  3. It is interesting to be reminded that you were banned from Holy Trinity Church when the congregation found out that you were working with people with AIDS, because, I don’t know if you are aware, but there have been distressing news stories here of health workers being suddenly evicted from their homes due to their potentially coming into contact with patients with the Corona virus.

    Liked by 1 person

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