In a series of editorials where leading writers are free to say what they want under a pen name, Little Bird writes about how COVID-19 has many of us living in a digital parallel world. 

For 120,067 people in the UK, and those who know and love them, Covid-19 is very real indeed. For 16,060 of those, it is already a tragedy. However, for about 67 million people in the country, who have not been directly affected, it is the most disruptive event to take place in our lifetime, but with a cause that we are unable to perceive first-hand.

This is a rough total and does not take account of all the frontline workers who have to risk their health looking after those who suffer from the disease. However, it is fair to say at this stage, that nearly 99 per cent of the population, or 90 per cent with a generous margin for error, is not suffering directly from COVID-19.

Thanks to this invisible threat, and under pressure from the Government, we have come to accept extraordinary restrictions on our basic freedoms. This time last year, these would have seemed unthinkable but, with some newsworthy exceptions, most of us now stay in our homes, forego foreign travel, queue two metres apart down the street, refuse to shake hands, keep away from older relatives and adopt a whole load of other odd new habits, affecting myriad aspects of our lives.

We do this because we read and hear information that says we should, and we believe that it is for our safety and the good of our fellow citizens. This information is almost entirely secondhand, though. Look out of your window and you will likely see an empty street or landscape with no signs of danger or disease other than its emptiness. There are no bodies piled up. There is no moaning drifting over your fence from the pain of infected neighbours. There are no wagons clanking around to pick up the dead. This is not the Black Death, and thank goodness for that.

Even those who suffer from it find it difficult to identify. The symptoms, if you have them, are fairly generic and not always dramatic. It is also believed that a significant percentage of the infected carry the virus and do not show it at all (asymptomatic). It is a subtle operator, acting under cover and moving unseen from victim to victim, rarely showing its face. This is what makes it so difficult, in fact. There are more contagious diseases and there are diseases with higher fatality rates, but this has an optimal (from its own perspective) combination of the two, thanks to its inconspicuous quality at an early stage of infection.

Given its elusive nature and the specific impact it has on society, it seems oddly tailor-made for an age in which we operate virtually, at a distance, through screens, via multimedia, from our desks and sofas, based on received knowledge. Not only do we get most of the evidence of COVID-19’s existence this way, but it also forces us to live in an increasingly virtual world as a means of continuing to manage many aspects of our lives.

With millions working from home, unable to do little more than go for a walk and the occasional bit of grocery shopping, the proportion of our lives spent online has grown enormously. Meetings are held there. Conversations with relatives and friends take place there. We listen to others play music from their homes there. We watch live theatre performances and attend virtual parties there. In fact, most of our interaction with the outside world takes place there. As a measure of this, UK data usage is up 50 per cent since lockdown began.

This can leave us feeling with a pervasive sense of unreality. There is something less real about a video-conference than shaking hands with someone and sitting across the table from them. Watching Grandma on Zoom is not as meaningful as dropping round for a cup of tea. Having a virtual beer with your mate is amusing but lacks the warmth of going to the pub together.

We are imprisoned by an invisible jailor and spend much of our waking hours in a parallel digital universe. Coming as this does in an era in which the digital revolution has left us uncertain about the truth, the sudden loss of much concrete experience from our lives, and its replacement with mere pixels, leaves us strangely adrift.

None of this is to belittle the significance of the pandemic. It is an extremely serious matter which will have material long-term consequences. No doubt as numbers rise, and more of us are affected, some of this unreality will ebb away, too. For the time being, though, COVID-19 seems to have been perfectly scripted for the digital age, reinforcing that pervasive sense which many share that we are somehow in a movie. Our mooring to reality was already under strain. With this pandemic, the current that tugs at us seems to have got even stronger.

By Little Bird 

* All details correct at the time of going to press.