Cohen’s War: or how I beat Covid-19

Cohen’s War: or how I beat Covid-19

For the JC October 16 2020

The writer, film-maker and psychologist David Cohen is about to send out copies of his latest book to “Boris, Bibi, Trump and the lunatic in Brazil [Bolsonaro]”.

It’s not such a fanciful idea. Each man presides over a country in which the ability to cope with coronavirus appears to have gone out of the window, so a study of Cohen’s slim volume, Surviving Lockdown, Human Nature in Social Isolation, might well improve matters.

The sad thing, talking to Cohen, is to hear him say that he and his editor were worried that the book would be out of date by the time it was published. It was written in a whirlwind five weeks and went to print in late August; Cohen and Lucy Kennedy, his editor, talking in April, thought that the pandemic would be beaten in a matter of months.

Now, he knows better and says that it’s clear we are in it for the long haul. His sprightly guide to living with the lockdown is laced with history, sociology, psychological insights and many bursts of good humour, including a handy guide to some pithy Yiddish terms, and anecdotes like the one about a man whose wife, buying into “our national obsession with loo rolls”, managed to purchase 1,600 rolls of the stuff.

Cohen, born in Haifa to erratic parents, is no stranger to social isolation, as he makes clear in his preface. He writes: “In 1962, under pressure from my father, my mother left me to go to Israel to sell a flat they owned. I was 12. Three weeks later he left to live with his long-standing lover, Avi. I had to conceal from my school that I was on my own, because I was sure I would be sent to an orphanage if they found out”.

Cohen’s father surfaced every Friday to give him money to live on for the coming week. And that would be it until Monday morning when he had to return to school, having spent the weekend frantically trying to organise his life, from preparing meals — even if that just meant opening tins of food — to readying his school uniform, all the time nervous about disclosing his situation to adults.

Just the same, he has dedicated his book to his late mother, the formidable-sounding Dolly Cohen, a “fitness fanatic” and obsessive exerciser who was still able to do the splits at 70. For Dolly, says her son, isolation would have been “a great opportunity to practise every gymnastic exercise ever conceived”. He agrees that exercise is a fundamental part of coping with lockdown.

Weaving practical advice — the importance of lists, the necessity not to degenerate into slob-hood, using the opportunity of enforced isolation to learn something new (hence the Yiddish) — with hugely entertaining digressions about Benedictine monks, hermit popes and the crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, Cohen gently nudges the reader into an awareness of how to live with a global pandemic, and what lessons can be drawn until a vaccine is found.

We learn about previous plagues, from the Black Death, which decimated mediaeval Europe, the 1665 plague year, and the 1918-19 Spanish flu, which did not start in Spain but which tore through the world leaving millions dead — certainly more than those who had died in the First World War.

He didn’t want to write a purely academic book, he says, and so there is a large personal element in it, not just how he himself has responded (he was shielding at the beginning of lockdown), but also how a random group of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances dealt with isolation.

One person, a performance artist, told him: “Before The Virus I was known as a button-pusher… now all that I am, professionally at least, has been erased, put on indefinite hold, skewered by the unforgiving spikes of the corona virus… the internet seems to be the only thing holding the locked-down world together right now, but for live artists Covid-19 is a dangerous economic limbo from which we may never recover”.

Some of Cohen’s group reported being helped by music; others, in families, found that some were out, shopping, walking and cycling every day, while their partners ran an indoor circuit from home office to bed “with an occasional sortie to the kitchen”.

He drew on a previous project, the so-called “irritation diaries”, to look at tensions during lockdown. Forty-two people made lists of things that irritated them, all of which find an even larger echo in lockdown.

Among the things that drove Cohen’s respondents crazy were: “mansplaining”; “the number you are calling knows you are waiting”; “not being able to see round corners”; “burnt saucepans”; and, picked out by many, the one word “politicians”.

The psychologist Cohen suggests dealing with such tensions by asking families to sit down and exchange information about what each person does that irritates, culminating in an irritation score. Less charitable readers might conclude that this is a road to even more infuriating behaviour.

But Cohen has a serious point to make: isolation only exacerbates people’s fears and annoyances, and he looks at a rise in domestic violence and inquiries about divorce. After all, he says, leaving aside the cruelty of domestic violence, very few married people expected to spend all their waking hours together — “even on honeymoon”.

Cohen is keen on imposing structure on the day during lockdown, whether that is achieved from exercise, making lists, keeping diaries, or simply “doing something that interests you. If someone is used to going to an office and the camaraderie they find there, that’s what needs to be replaced”.

However, though he welcomes the technology that enables so much of the workforce to continue, Cohen doesn’t have much patience for Zoom. “It feels ridiculous”, he says, “and it’s no remedy for a missing social link”.

During his research, Cohen says, he was surprised by how many religious congregations, particularly in South Korea, “lied about their meetings, because they were spreading the virus so much”.

And he is mournful about political inability to deal with the pandemic. “If this lot had been fighting Hitler, God help you and me. We would have lost on Day Three. They seem to be completely incapable of organising themselves… science can’t have all the answers, so we must be prepared for the long haul.”

Seems a pity, then, that Boris, Bibi, Trump and Bolsonaro didn’t get to read Cohen’s book at the beginning of the crisis.

Surviving Lockdown: Human Nature in Social Isolation by David Cohen is published by Routledge at £12.99

  • 16 October, 2020