Undercover Economist

What happens when you smash your own face in, in the middle of a pandemic?

My initial instinct, after hitting the road face first, was to call out to assure my wife that I was fine. My second instinct, as I looked at the rapidly spreading puddle of blood, was that perhaps I wasn’t.

Reader, you can deduce that whatever I did, it was not enough to stop me writing this week’s column. It was spectacular, though. Having your bike chain snap as you stand up in the saddle is not an experience I recommend. Absorbing the impact of the tarmac with your mouth is a strategy that I cannot endorse. Next time I’ll try to land on my backside.

Fortunately, that was not the only lesson I learnt. First, I was reminded that people really do look out for each other in a crisis. The coronavirus lockdown awkwardness of tense people avoiding each other on the street evaporated in an instant when I was sprawled face down in the middle of the road. One woman ran out of her house with tissues and water. An elderly fellow ambled over, proffering hand sanitiser and asking what he could do. Friends with bandages and medical degrees were at my side in minutes — I was cycling through my own neighbourhood — but even once the professionals were on the scene, everyone who passed stopped to offer help. Social distancing matters and the coronavirus is a scary thing. But when a poor soul is covered in his own blood, no one passes by on the other side.

Second, I learnt how impressively a healthcare system can perform when there’s some slack. Given that the UK’s NHS is focused on the twin challenges of treating Covid-19 cases and preventing the spread of the virus, I assumed that dental work would be out of the question. Not a bit of it. At half past eight on a Saturday evening, just a few hours after the accident, I walked into a near-deserted dental surgery, rubbed alcohol gel all over my grazed hands — ouch — filled in a form, paid a few pounds and settled in for a couple of X-rays and a temporary filling. (The damage, it turns out, is permanent but trivial.)

A tetanus jab on Monday at my local doctor’s surgery was even easier to arrange. Astonishingly easy, in fact. No mystery as to why: no one goes to see a doctor right now unless they really need treatment; some people are failing to see a doctor even then. As a result, the parts of the health service with which I interacted had plenty of slack. There was no waiting for an appointment, and ­everything was running to time — more like a restaurant than the NHS I grew up with.

In the short term, it will be impossible to maintain that slack. In the long term, we might decide to regain it. When the NHS reopens, all the postponed procedures must be crammed in; some patients will have acquired more severe and complex conditions for lack of treatment. It will be tough for staff and patients alike. But years from now, I hope we will not lose the memory of a healthcare system with both the flexibility and the spare capacity to see patients promptly. Such extra capacity costs money, of course. But we may find that it is worth the extra expense, even in the good times. It is efficient to stretch a healthcare system to capacity, but the strain imposes countless small costs, from long queues to stressed staff to appointments that are sometimes too brief to do the job. If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that spare capacity can be invaluable when a crisis hits.

The third lesson is one that I have to relearn in every personal crisis: you can change your plans, even those that seem set in stone. It is frustrating to have to delay work, upsetting to cancel long-anticipated pleasures and embarrassing to call others to explain that they will be inconvenienced because I fell off my bike and led with my chin. I am always a little too slow to accept the inevitable, and usually need others — a friend, a colleague, or my wife — to start prying open my iron grip on an obsolete ­schedule.

My own pratfall, bloody though it was, is of course trivial compared with a deadly global pandemic. But the lockdowns are tripping us all up just the same. Our work, our social lives, our holiday plans — all are sprawling on the deck. I see myself and others struggling to let go of our fond aspirations and comfortable habits and, instead, crossing our fingers and hoping things will be back to normal soon. And perhaps they will, but that seems less likely by the day. So we will all have to keep rethinking and adapting. Those people who are quickest to adjust, whether by temperament or sheer happenstance, are the most likely to ­flourish.

The final lesson is the simplest, the most familiar, the most banal — and yet somehow never redundant. I learnt, again, to count my blessings: medically trained friends who sprint to the rescue; NHS staff on duty and happy to help despite the risks; the fact that I didn’t break my jaw. And I am grateful that I work not on television, but in print and radio. Now, more than ever, I have the face for it.

 

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 15 May 2020.

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