Saturday 4 April 2020


You’d have to be living in a cave in some remote spot not to know that we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. There’s really no other news on TV, or my Facebook newsfeed for that matter – except the deliberate light relief kind, like cat videos or music from European balconies.

I’ve felt a wide range of emotions in response to this. A ton of sad ones - compassion for those who are or have been sick, grief for those who have died, and empathy for those who have lost loved ones. Empathy also for those who know that they or their loved ones are at risk, those who are struggling to cope, those whose anxiety is going through the roof, those who find the whole thing just too overwhelming. I’ve sometimes found myself sitting on the couch crying, for instance when my country experienced its first Covid#19 death. I didn’t know the person, or anyone who’s died anywhere, but I cried anyway.

And anger. I’m furious at the hoarders and panic buyers who’ve emptied the supermarket shelves, depriving those of us who can’t afford to do this of things we need. Seriously? Who needs three hundred toilet rolls anyway? I’m especially angry though at the profiteers. How dare you. How dare you make money on the backs of people’s pain, misery and deaths. What kind of amoral pipsqueak are you? And then there are the callous and the don’t-care-I’m-all-right-Jack crowd, who put everyone else at risk. This is not a time for partying, people!

I’m also angry at those so-called leaders who haven’t acted fast enough, and have put more people’s lives at risk as a result. My (admittedly rough) impression is that ‘left-wing’ governments, at least in Western countries, seem to be acting faster and doing more to help ordinary people, whereas right-wing leaders have tried to delay acting, or even reverse some actions too soon, in order to minimise damage to the Holy Grail of ‘The Economy’. The inadequate measures of some governments sometimes seem akin to telling the Titanic’s orchestra to play on as the boat is sinking. I’ve wanted to grab them all by their collars and shake some sense into them.

But my strongest feeling is simply fear. It’s not myself I fear for, but relatives and friends, especially those who are in the ‘high risk’ category. Will they get sick? Will anyone I know die? I fear for my loved ones, especially a close relative who is pregnant with a much-wanted and longed-for baby, as well as my more elderly relatives. Plus no-one knows how long this pandemic will last, will it be over in a few months, or by Christmas? Will we acquire herd immunity, or will the virus mutate again? Will there be further pandemics? When will there be a vaccine? How much should I be scared?

Because nobody knows what the future will hold, even if we beat this thing. Maybe the world will only change in small ways – elbow bumping replacing high-fives, or a shift to more people working at home. Everyone becoming more scrupulous about washing hands. (I can’t help wondering what you were all doing before?!?) Or maybe we’ll become a more scared world, like we did after 9/11, with ‘viral’ becoming a personal insult and cause for social rejection. One big possibility is that we’ll become more callous about allowing the vulnerable – the elderly, disabled, chronically ill and homeless – to be sacrificed in order to ‘manage’ future crises. And many of us autistic and disabled know that we will be among the culled. These are just some of the possibilities.

Alternatively, we could have some kind of social revolution, a shaking up of the world’s complacency. This crisis has made the defects of neo-liberalist capitalism patently obvious. The modern practise of ‘just-in-time’ supply-chains, for instance, with few or no reserves, doesn’t work in a crisis. The profit-at-all-costs mentality and ‘lean, mean’ health services have left many at risk. The crisis has also shown that the real ‘essential people’ of any society aren’t billionaires or politicians, but people like supermarket workers, truck drivers, and medical personnel. Perhaps people will look at our socio-economic system differently after this.

Now, I get that lots of people are having similar reactions and thoughts right now. We’re watching a horror unfolding before our very eyes. ‘Unprecedented’ is a media pop word right now – we’re all in uncharted territory. Feeling sad, angry, frightened and/or overwhelmed is an entirely appropriate set of responses to a pandemic. ‘Quiet terror’, as one commentator called it. There are so many unknowns it’s frightening. Even the scientists and doctors still don’t seem to know that much about how this virus works, and they and governments all around the world are playing catch-up, with fatal consequences. It’s already being said that mental health is going to take a big hit from this.

But I do wonder if it’s going to be even harder for us autistics, not so much because of social isolation (this will vary from one autistic to another), but because of all the uncertainty. My own feeling is that we’re less resilient emotionally, and may take it harder, and come back slower, if at all. I know that a large chunk of my own sense of security has been removed, and I don’t think it will ever return. I already have a very low level of trust in the world, due to my experiences, now I have a new mistrust of Mother Nature as well.

A big part of our trauma is surely going to be how so many of the ‘normal’ things in our lives are either gone or in abeyance. I didn’t realise till now how many of the world’s activities I simply took for granted, even if I didn’t like them much. Something as ordinary as going to the supermarket has become like taking a ticket in a lottery – I never know if what I need will be there or not. What will I go without this week? How will I cope? And of course as for many autistics, fear can lead to catastrophising, where I imagine the worst, and then double and triple it.

My own country moved pretty quickly, more than a week ago, into a complete lockdown, and while I was processing it all, I pretty much fell apart. I’ve done a lot of compulsive watching of TV news, eating junk food, irregular sleep, and much more stimming, while my dreams have been full of earthquakes, violent car accidents and wandering lost in strange places in the dark. It’s been an effort to get myself even a little bit together, to make healthy meals, get to bed earlier - and to do some of my much-neglected housework! I’ve had to cut down my hours of watching TV news, and stayed off Facebook until I felt able to cope with the onslaught.

Because I have a deeper level of fear, which I find hard to describe, but which seems to be a sense of the world fracturing right in front of my eyes. I’ve been floundering, grappling with this sensation of everything falling apart. I guess that’s what an international emergency does to you. An old W B Yeats poem keeps coming to mind, about how ‘the centre cannot hold’, and ‘anarchy is loosed upon the world’. (Yes, I know I’ve probably been reading too much dystopian sci-fi!) As a new order/reality takes shape, and I work out the new rules for it, I hope this fear might ease.

And for all we know, it won’t be like any of this. Maybe there’ll eventually be a vaccine, or life-saving treatments, and life will just go back to what it was. Or something like it. Maybe. Right now, I’m just trying to ride the wave, and take one day at a time. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. And that’s the hardest thing for any autistic.