BACK in February, one of my British colleagues scoffed at my attempt to buy masks, telling me bluntly that “they don’t work against the coronavirus.”
But attitude and times have changed since then in the United Kingdom.
Just two weeks ago, I looked out from a window and saw two Mat Salleh women wearing masks while walking their dogs.
I knew then that it has become acceptable to do so.
In the earlier days of the outbreak, I was hesitant to wear a face mask in London, especially since there were reports of attacks against east Asians by those who blamed them for “starting” the illness.
Although there is still a generally laid back attitude towards the coronavirus threat, the people here are getting serious about facial masks.
I was at a grocery store a fortnight ago when a 20-something man came in frantically asking for face masks. When the shopkeeper replied in the negative, he rushed out, presumably to continue his quest for the face cover.
As of Saturday, there were 4,313 deaths in Britain.
In other words, some 5.42 out of every 100,000 people here have died of Covid-19. Malaysia’s number stood at 0.168.
(Both countries recorded their first coronavirus cases sometime in late January.)
Britain’s sluggish response to the Covid-19 crisis, plus public apathy, have been much reported here.
A generally lackadaisical attitude towards the virus threat, coupled with misguided policies, have led to the current state of affairs here.
In fact, I was dumbfounded when I read that the British government was initially considering a “herd immunity” strategy where 40 million of the country’s 66 million population would have to be afflicted with Covid-19 in order for society to be immune to it.
(To reach herd immunity, about 60% of the population would need to get ill and become immune, said Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.)
Then, on March 12, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “This is the worst public health crisis in a generation. And it’s going to spread further and I must level with you, level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
But it took him a week after that to announce a three-week lockdown beginning March 23, shutting down pubs, schools, businesses and travel.
I was fortunate that my company had allowed us to work remotely weeks before the lockdown was announced.
My team was even told to each get a 24-inch computer monitor delivered to our homes in order to make work easier.
Having begun working from home since early March, I’ve gotten used to operating in a cramped flatshare in London’s East End.
But some of my friends were unaccustomed to the switch, joking that they are having mild symptoms of cabin fever.
And then of course, it’s all about the Brits and the weather. It was a glorious 20ºC with sunshine yesterday. They joked that it was a pity that they can’t get out of the house.
I noticed that it was exceptionally hard for my British friends, all of whom enjoy socialising during the weekends, to be cooped up at home.
Instead of the usual Friday evening drinks at the pub, we are now spending time in front of the computer screen, with some help from video conferencing apps.
And speaking of pubs, some supermarkets hired their own bouncers to make sure that customers are practising social distancing. There are no temperature checks, though.
Panic buying is largely over. Supermarket shelves are well-stocked. Shops selling alcohol are still open.
The problem is with online delivery for groceries. Most stores, from Tesco to Sainsbury’s, have said that their delivery slots have been fully booked this month.
Such changes in social practices have inspired some confidence.
This is, after all, a country where the Prime Minister and Health Secretary have both failed to follow their own advice on social distancing and had contracted Covid-19.
Even so, the speed in which cases continue to rise paint a bleak future for Britain in the coming weeks.
A YouGov poll on Friday found that 38% of respondents here want a stricter lockdown.
There are long lines outside supermarkets but that is only because the people are practising social distancing now.
Policemen on horseback are patrolling the street where I live.
Yet, there are still those who are flouting lockdown rules. Scores of Londoners were reported to have been caught basking in the sun at various parks over the weekend.
Just yesterday morning when I was out shopping for groceries, I saw a group of teenagers gathering outside a flat, blasting loud music from their speakers.
A frustrated Ken Marsh, who is head of the Metropolitan Police Federation, had pleaded with the public to stay home: “Please, please, please, park your backside on a sofa and don’t get off it.”
Britain’s war against the pandemic isn’t just about the virus but human behaviour.
Adrian Chan is a former journalist with The Star who now works as a forensics and litigation consultant in London. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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