Although Iris missed living in London while she was living in Oxford, she hadn’t really felt ready to return there from so soon. However, the Biotech Lab was one of the first businesses to shut down when Sheep Fever struck the nation. And now she was effectively evicted from the city along with everyone else who didn’t have an actual job in the city and didn’t have the good fortune to have been born there. The authorities could only extend the charity of quarantine to a limited number of people.
Sheep Fever was such an innocent sounding name for the devastating pandemic whose progress across the world from the Republic of North America to Europe, Africa and Asia had been tracked with such anxiety by the English government and the world’s media. The other name by which it was known—White Death—was a melodramatic echo of the ancient mediaeval plague that expressed rather better the dread and horror evoked by mention of the disease. It was an especially nasty disease that had very little to do with sheep beyond having originated in agricultural land where few humans lived but was still home to unfussy livestock such as sheep and goat. Amongst the symptoms were high temperatures, coughing fits, sickness and diarrhoea. The time in which it took to die was interminable. Despite the frantic efforts of pharmaceutical companies all over the globe, no cure for it had yet been found.
Although the English government was happy to dispense well-meaning but not especially helpful advice, it had no grand plan to avert the worst affects of the White Death as it spread across the Midlands and Home Counties. Like everyone else nowadays, when Iris ventured outdoors she always wore a surgical mask around her mouth or held a handkerchief to her face. She wore gloves in public places and conspicuously avoided shaking hands. The most common means by which White Death was spread was by touching a surface on which someone had coughed or vomited.
The Government of National Unity was definitely in its element in discovering novel ways in which to restrict the freedom of movement of the populace. The Kingdom’s border controls were tightened yet further. Tourists were only permitted into the country if they’d booked to stay at an approved hotel. Any lorry transporting goods into England was obliged to leave them at the dock or airport for English workers to carry onwards to their destination. The railway tunnel between England and France was now bricked up to prevent anyone bringing the disease in from the continent, even though it was actually more widespread in England than anywhere else in Northern Europe.
Draconian restrictions to free movement were imposed across the whole of England, although Greater London had somehow escaped the worst. This was mostly thanks to the improvised defences and barbed wire that had been raised around the inner circumference of the M25 motorway. As a resident of Uxbridge, Iris benefitted from this extra security. The London Borough of Hillingdon had effectively imposed martial law on its council tax payers. No one could walk far before being stopped by a quarantine officer and having their eyes scrutinised for the small white spots in the pupil that was the earliest sign of infection. There were several occasions when Iris witnessed the haste in which those suspected of infection were escorted away by nurses in white uniforms for further examination.
Iris’ attitude towards such a stringent policy was mixed. There was a very high death rate from White Death. Barely one in twenty victims survived once infected. Although she had a great deal of sympathy towards the victims of the plague and, of course, their family and friends, she was secretly pleased to see them dragged off to a place where they were less likely to pass on the disease.
On the whole, it was actually rather boring to live in the midst of the White Death. Because they were forbidden from commuting, most people were unable to get to their usual place of work. Only essential vehicles were allowed to travel from one London borough to another. The exhaustive checks required when getting on or getting off public transport resulted in more time being dedicated to such business than was actually spent travelling. Nonetheless, getting to work was the least of Iris’ concerns. She was unemployed and had to live off what was left of her savings. Even if she had a job in Central London, where most of the opportunities were, she’d never be able to get there to earn a salary. Iris initially relied on the basic food and provisions made available as emergency aid, but as the weeks became months and the White Death kept its grip on the country such generosity became more than either the London Borough of Hillingdon or the English government could any longer afford.
“It makes sense though, doesn’t it?” said Iris’s housemate, Eustace, as they queued outside the labour exchange. “There are jobs to be done and we’re able to do them. The roads aren’t gonna get cleaned by themselves.”
“Or the bodies burnt in the incinerators,” gloomily remarked Yolanda, who’d been dossing down on the sofa in the shared house ever since she’d been evicted from Leyton Buzzard. “Or the barbed wire fences guarded. Or the sick and dying sorted from those who’re gonna live.”
“That’s all true,” Eustace agreed. “It’s all gotta be done. And, anyway, what else would we be doing now? I mean, what I ought to be doing is working at my desk in Holborn, but with so many businesses suspended during the crisis, what else can I do? And we get to do our bit to help our country in its time of need.”
Iris felt a bit weary as she listened to her housemate echo the propaganda being broadcast on Fox News UK and, with noticeably less enthusiasm, the EBC. It wasn’t that she disagreed with the essential message that the best way to get through the White Death was for people to work together for the common good. What troubled her more was how the government had somehow made the crisis fit its xenophobic, business-friendly, insular agenda. Not only had the barriers between nations been strengthened, but every possible way to monitor, interfere and marshal the population was being applied. And ultimately to what end? And to what extent was it simply to keep Sheep Fever at bay?
Those already protected from the vagaries of the greater world by their wealth—sheltered in gated communities and escorted in chauffeur-driven cars—suffered far less than most of the population. Those suffering the most lived in districts once noted for their ethnic diversity, such as Brixton, Bradford and Southall. These were the most rigidly quarantined districts and where there was most opportunity to deport people to distant nations that many didn’t know even existed. Iris was lucky not to live in such a borough just as she was to be white, middle class and university-educated, but she was also aware that there was a small minority for whom this crisis was little more than an inconvenience. And it was to uphold the rights of this privileged minority that the government was at its most active.
The jobs that the Labour Exchange assigned to Iris were really no worse than those she’d been given when she worked on the Work Experience Programme in East London. She was far more fortunate than those allotted the decidedly more risky jobs. Iris’ most frequent assignment was to organise the distribution of fruit and vegetables from the borough’s borders to the supermarkets and grocery stores that sold them to people who, like Iris, had earned sufficient work credits to be exchanged for food, clothing and other necessities. Eustace and Yolanda were most often assigned to distribute batteries to those who had no privately installed source of electrical power.
Most people needed to earn a living by whatever means they could during the crisis. Only a few of those who lived in Uxbridge had places of work within walking distance of their homes, so they mostly had to exchange their labour for work credits. Whether consciously or not, it was apparent that the local government was discriminating against some and showed preference to others. Those who were black or brown or had difficult-to-pronounce names were those most likely to be allocated jobs which Iris, despite her burgeoning social conscience, was pleased to have been excused from.
The White Death was no joke. Those who had the closest contact with the people and places where it had struck were inevitably those most at risk of contracting it and then becoming part of the statistical 95% whose fate was to die in a crowded hospital ward after several agonising weeks of suffering. And it was precisely to such places as hospitals, crematoria, border defences and quarantine zones that people like Juanita Mendez, Tammy Zenawi and Bobby Nidal were assigned. No statistics were issued of the relative proportion of those so assigned who subsequently fell victim to White Death.
The countless public service announcements issued by the government emphasised a very curious kind of Englishness that was as alien to Iris as it was to the majority of Uxbridge’s residents. The bulldog spirit invoked to confront the crisis was resplendent with references to the music of Edgar Elgar, cream teas, warm beer, cricket pitches and old-fashioned tea-shops. The implied message was that an alternative England that might include dance music, mosques and skateboard parks was no longer wanted.
All the same, the White Death’s tight grip on England’s throat couldn’t last forever. Nevertheless, despite the many assurances from the government and the many apparent breakthroughs, no cure was ever found for the disease. Sheep Fever remained incurable to the end. It was still a disease from which only one in twenty people were likely to survive. The news stories became less about the search for the killer cure and more an account of how science and medicine, even in China and Russia, but most certainly in England and America, had at last met its match.
Iris was no disinterested observer with regard to this particular news story. Her study at university and her research in biotechnology had given her experience and expertise in the rather older disciplines that three centuries earlier had resulted in the first ever inoculations against smallpox in England. The microscopic entities that infected every human being on the planet had ever since been evolving at a rate that now surpassed human ingenuity in finding a cure. Before the advent of the White Death, every bacterial or viral mutation had been countered, usually at great expense, by an antidote that subjugated the menace to little more than a few hundred unfortunate deaths and yet another government-backed investment in the pharmaceutical industry.
The pace of evolution had now overtaken human science and human material resources. The ultimate defeat of the Sheep Fever pandemic resulted more from the ancient policy of separating the infected from those not yet infected and of allowing the virus die with its host. From Ipswich to Penzance, from Carlisle to the Isle of Wight, and from Shanghai via Nashville to Stockholm, this was a plague whose demise simply illustrated the prosaic fact that no parasite that kills its hosts can continue to spread when there are no new hosts to which it can spread.
It was several more weeks after the White Death pandemic had subsided that the Metropolitan Line could reopen and the makeshift crematoria alongside the Uxbridge canals could at last close down. It was also a time of fresh employment opportunity though not necessarily of the type for which Iris was best suited. There was much that needed to be done and there was a shortage of people able to do it. In London, as in all the world’s great cities that had suffered the most from White Death, such as New York, Paris and Johannesburg, there was the inevitable sharp bounce back from the poverty and fear that had been associated with the plague.
Like most of her friends, Iris wondered whether a government that had profited so much during a crisis where small minds and small horizons could flourish was really best suited to engage with a period of new hope, new expectations and new opportunities. But for now she was just pleased that she could at last travel by underground train into the city centre to work in an office or restaurant and that she no longer had to walk around all day with a strip of cloth strapped over her mouth.