THE winter’s first snow makes everything in Saint Petersburg seem – well – more Russian. Inside the overheated and under-ventilated classroom, we wrestle with the multiple horrors one encounters when trying to learn the Russian language.
Maria walks in, apologising profusely for being late. For a class in which on any given day about 10 to 20 per cent of the students turn up, being late is still better than most manage to achieve.
In broken Russian she tries to explain her tardiness. Piecing together fragments of her sentences – improperly conjugated verbs here, inventive noun declensions there – we try to do our best to understand. Damn this grammar!
She wanted to see a doctor? And she wants to go to the circus? Nobody can make head nor tail of it. My teacher and I glance at one another, brows furrowed, shoulders shrugging. Lord knows what she’s on about. Maria switches to English, her accent heavily influenced by her native Brazilian-Portuguese.
Ah, she was late because she needed a Covid test. A Covid test? Is she sick? If so, why is she here? She tells us that, in fact, she couldn’t have one because the queue was too long so she’ll be heading back to the clinic after classes end.
In an instant I’m slightly cheesed off. Почему тебе нунжо этот тест? Why do you need the test? I inquire pointedly. She replies, masked up and coughing all the while: ‘Because-ah I went to the-aaah circus. I do not feel-ah eel!’
Okay, so she was speaking about the circus at least – I wasn’t totally off the mark. But I can’t shake the irritation. Oh for God’s sake. If you’re worried enough to take the test, why the hell have you come here?
Let’s be clear: I am not particularly worried about getting ill. Maria, at 66, is more likely (although still very unlikely) to feel the sharp end of Covid than I am. As a robust-enough 30-year-old I’ll take my chances.
It’s been increasingly clear for months that the whole thing is overblown, fit for its own chapter in a revised Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (paging Mr Douglas Murray . . . ) However, the virus still poses a risk to me: to my freedom. Currently, I am lucky enough to be taking classes in person. In Russia, only foreigners learning in small groups are still allowed to avoid the torture of lessons via Zoom. I am grateful for Russian officialdom’s lack of concern for the health of foreigners in this instance. The prospect of stumbling tortuously through a textbook online with my equally linguistically-challenged classmates appears to me a special kind of torture.
Yet, despite claiming she had no symptoms of the dreaded Covid, even a false positive for Maria could result in a fortnight of house arrest for everyone in the class. That is eleven people, mandated to be stuck indoors for a fortnight. A total of 1,848 man-hours (sorry, people-hours) in isolation. All for a disease which is, for the most part, a non-lethal inconvenience. This is clearly bizarre.
In those liberty-soaked days of 2019, the prospect of locking yourself up for two weeks had you come into contact with someone who had had a cold would seem insane, as it surely is.
With this in mind, and knowing the inevitable outcome of a (false?) positive test result, the solution is increasingly clear: don’t get tested in the first place. As is to be entirely predicted, the prevalence of the virus only expands with the extensive rolling out of testing. Whether people are actually becoming ill is an after-thought to authorities which have apparently entirely lost the plot, confusing test results for instances of illness.
(I am also of the belief that the virus was spreading across the world long before it was noticed. Millions of people were freely travelling in and out of Wuhan for weeks on end before governments across the world clamped down. It was only once they began searching for it that they found it everywhere.)
My observation from here in Petrograd is that the people of the United Kingdom have far more readily bought into the Covid scare. I believe they mostly trust the state to be responsible. Yet our good faith has been abused. At this juncture, as with any overbearing, draconian government measure, the only way to defeat it is by non-compliance.
It is only through openly disregarding the illogical demands of the state – mass testing, wearing masks wherever we go – and through leading a normal life – seeing relatives for Christmas and giving them a warm embrace – that these authoritarian, misguided and ultimately mendacious policies can be overcome.
What if we refuse to play ball? What would the government do? Would Matt Hancock come round and forcibly test you, equipped with swab in hand and his now depressingly familiar deathly grimace painted across his face? Perhaps. The stuff of nightmares, I agree.
Naturally, I wouldn’t put it past them to test people against their will at this stage: gotta keep them ‘cases’ up, after all. But imagine the optics. A group of Our NHS workers – gawdbless’em – strapping down an innocent member of the public, forcing a swab into the recesses of his or her nasal cavity. It would all be for their own good, of course. A depressingly large proportion of the population would be behind such measures, dutifully clapping like seals.
Covid has long ceased to be a health scare. It is a threat to our basic freedoms and liberties. What a tragic spectacle we, the British people – self-proclaimed lovers of liberty – have become. Reduced to haggling over a few days’ freedom as and when the government permits it. And this is with a supposedly liberty-loving Prime Minster!
In recent decades, although officially ‘subjects’ of the Crown, it has become more palatable to refer to ourselves as ‘citizens’, giving us the illusion of significant participation in Our Democracy. I think, however, we are due reclassification, given the apparent ease with which our basic liberties are taken away and draconian laws implemented by government fiat under the catch-all of virus-prevention.
Serf – or perhaps peasant – of the Crown strikes me as more apt.