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A life in three lockdowns

squires-rainbow.jpg"For most people it's their first lockdown," my friend Eva said casually a couple of weeks ago. "It's my third."

Third? Third?!

Eva is Eva Pascoe, whose colorful life story so far includes founding London's first cybercafe in 1994, setting up Cybersalon as a promulgator of ideas and provocations, and running a consultancy for retailers. She drops hints of other activities: mining cryptocurrencies in Scandinavia using renewable energy, for example. I'm fairly sure it's all true.

So: three lockdowns.

Eva's first lockdown was in 1981, when the Communist Party in her home country, Poland, decided to preempt Russian intervention against the Solidarity workers' movement and declared martial law. One night the country's single TV channel went blank; the next morning they woke up to sirens and General Wojciech Jaruzelski banning public gatherings and instituting a countrywide curfew under which no one could leave their house after 6pm. Those restrictions still left everyone going to work every day and, as it turned out crucially, kept the churches open for business.

Her second was in 1987, and was unofficial. On April 26, 1986, her nuclear physics student flatmate noticed that the Geiger counter in his lab at Warsaw's Nuclear Institute was showing extreme - and consistent - levels of radiation. The Russian Communist Party was saying nothing, and the rest of Poland wouldn't find out until four days later, but Chernobyl had blown up. Physicists knew and spread the news by word of mouth. The drills they'd had in Polish schools told them what to do: shelter indoors, close all windows, admit no fresh air. Harder was getting others to trust their warnings at a time without mobile phones and digital cameras to show the Geiger counter's readings.

Those two lockdowns had similarities. First, they were abrupt, arriving overnight with no time to prepare. That posed a particular difficulty in the second lockdown, when outside food couldn't be trusted because of radioactive fallout, and it wasn't clear whether the water in the taps was safe. "As in COVID-19," she wrote in a rough account I asked her to create, "we had to protect against an invisible enemy with no clear knowledge of the surface risks already in the flat, and no ability to be sure when the danger passes." After 14 days, with no sick pay available, they had to re-emerge and go to work. With the Communist Party still suggesting the radiation was mostly harmless, "In the absence of honest government information, many myths about cures for fallout circulated, some looking more promising than others."

Their biggest asset in both lockdowns was the basement tunnels that connect Warsaw's ten-story blocks of flats, each equipped with six to ten entrances leading to separate staircases. A short run through these corridors enabled inhabitants to connect with the hundreds of other people in the same block when it was too dangerous to go outside. Even under martial law, with deaths and thousands of arrests on the streets, mostly of Solidarity activists, those basement corridors enabled parties featuring home-brewed beer and vodka, pickled cabbage, mushrooms, and herring, and "sausages smuggled in from Grandma's house in the countryside". Most important was the vodka.

The goal of martial law was to stop the spread of ideas, in this case, the Polish freedom movement. The connections made in those basement corridors - and the churches - ensured it failed. After 18 months, the lockdown ended because it was unsustainable. Communist rule ended in 1989, as in many other eastern European countries.

Chernobyl's effects were harder to shake. When the government eventually admitted the explosion had taken place, it downplayed the danger, suggesting that vegetables would be safe to eat if scrubbed with hot water, that the level of radiation was about the same as radon - at the time, thought to be safe - and insisted the population should participate in the May 1 Labor Day marches. Eventually, Polish leaders broke ranks, advised people to stay at home and stop eating food from the affected 40% of Poland, and organized supplies of Lugol for young people to try to mitigate the effects of the radioactive iodine Chernobyl had spread. Eva, a few years too old to qualify, calls her Hashimoto's thyroiditis "a lifelong reminder of why we must not blindly trust government health advice during large-scale medical emergencies".

Eva's lessons: always have a month's supply of food stocks; make friends with virologists, as this will not be our last pandemic; buy a gas mask and make sure everyone knows how to put it on. Most important, buy home-brew equipment. "It not only helps to pass time, but alcohol becomes a currency when the value of money disappears."

This lockdown gave us advance notice; if you were paying attention, you could see it forming on the horizon a month out. Anyone who was stocked for a no-deal Brexit was already prepared. But ironically, the thing that provided safety, society, and survival during Eva's first two lockdowns would be lethal if applied in this one, which finds her in a comfortable London house with a partner and two children. Basement tunnels connecting households would be spreading disease and death, not ideas and safety in which to hatch them. Our tunnels are the Internet and social media; our personal connections are strengthening, even with hugs on pause.

Illustrations: Sign posted on the front door of a local shop that had to close temporarily.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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