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The year of the impossible

The first article I wrote for 2020 appeared on January 2. The title was ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Party Like It’s 2099’. The allusion to Prince aside, the article had been inspired by the thoughts of British futurist Ray Hammond. Looking ahead to 2040, one of his predictions had to do with virtual and augmented reality. Travellers would never actually have to leave home. They could experience hotels, attractions, restaurants and so on courtesy of augmented reality.

Hammond didn’t see this alternative reality replacing physical travel and tourism. Quite the contrary, as it would increase the demand for the real thing, but he had inadvertently set a theme not for future decades but for the here and now, one that was lurking just around the corner of the New Year. Life was to become virtual because there was danger lurking around every corner. While hotels, restaurants, travel weren’t replaced, they were – for a time – simply eliminated. Futurism doesn’t deal with the impossible, because scenarios are possible – more than just possible, and a scenario that any futurist worth his or her salt could contemplate was what was about to become reality.

On February 9, the Balearic health ministry confirmed that a British citizen resident in Mallorca had been admitted to Son Espases Hospital with coronavirus. He had been at a French ski resort and had contact between January 25 and 29 with a person who had tested positive for what was being referred to as “the Wuhan coronavirus”.

This was the second case in the whole of Spain, the first having been that of a German citizen on the island of La Gomera in the Canaries. At the time of the confirmation in Mallorca, it was being reported that 812 people had died in China as a result of coronavirus and that over 37,000 people in the whole world were infected. A few days ago, the number of cases worldwide was over 80 million. The deaths stood at almost 1.8 million.

It was not impossible but it had nevertheless seemed impossible, and at the time of that confirmation it appeared as if governments were denying the possible; denying in fact the high probability. The virus was still somehow “over there”. China, the world’s second economic power, had shut borders, was building hospitals at record speed, was confining citizens to their homes. Could you imagine something like that happening here? It wasn’t long before there was no need for imagination.

As things were to turn out, it became clear that governments had been fully aware of the high probability. In mid-January, the Spanish government had started to prepare. The regions were being informed that health services could be “transferred almost entirely”. What this meant was that the Spanish government would centralise command of public health. Which is what it did on March 14. There was not just centralisation of health. The ministries of health, transport, interior and defence were now running the whole country.

The state of alarm sounded alarming because that was exactly what the situation was. It was more than alarming, it was frightening not just because of the health risk but also because governments were acting in ways that ran counter to democratic principles. Freedoms of movement and of association (in its broadest sense) were, out of paramount necessity, being denied. The state of alarm, the lockdowns, the confinements – call them what you will – were not tools that any democratic government would wish to utilise. But they had to, and there were those who damned them. The year of the impossible bred virtual existence and it also cultivated the counter-virus culture – the “control” by governments, the conspiracies, the New World Order, the rantings and ramblings by the close-to certifiable.

Blame had to be sought, and so blame was duly attached. China headed the list of candidates, the paranoia and xenophobia stoked by political leaders who proved to be wholly ill-suited for a crisis of such magnitude – Trump, most obviously. In Spain, a great deal of blame was heaped on the International Women’s Day rallies on March 8. This, it has to be said, wasn’t without some justification, even if politically the capital was ratcheted up by Vox in particular.

The Spanish government, as it was to prove only six days later, could have prevented the rallies rather than leaving decisions to its regional delegations. In Madrid, some 100,000 people took part. The health authorities claimed that this would have had only a marginal impact on transmission. Maybe they were right, but with hindsight a mistake was admitted. There were others, such as a lack of protective equipment. While there was equivocation about the use of masks; the fact that it took weeks for them to become widely available must surely have influenced advice and then order.

The year of the impossible, yet all too possible, all too real as 2020 presented us with the ultimate reality – mortality. And it wasn’t virtual.

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