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The Year of Living Distantly: The Cost of Love

John Lubbock describes his enforced separation from his wife during the COVID-19 pandemic, which he believes lays bare once more the hostile environment the UK has cultivated.

Piazza XV April in Milan on 17 March 2020
The Year of Living Distantly
The Cost of Love

John Lubbock describes his enforced separation from his wife during the COVID-19 pandemic, which he believes lays bare once more the hostile environment the UK has cultivated.

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I haven’t seen my wife for four weeks and I have no idea when I will be able to see her again. We are told by the Government that couples should not see each other or move in together for the duration of the crisis. I don’t have that choice. 

We met at the Coronet Theatre in Elephant and Castle in 2013. She was visiting London for the first time from Istanbul, where I’d been six months earlier for training with human rights activists from the Middle East. Our meeting happened to occur in the middle of the Gezi Park Protests – a wave of civil unrest in Turkey – and we hit it off, talking about music and Turkish politics.

I went to live in Istanbul with her for five months in 2014-2015, working as a journalist and making my first documentary film. In 2016, she went to study in Rome and, a year later, she started working in Milan. Since then, I have been travelling to Italy almost every month to stay for a week or two before returning to London. It has not been ideal. After I left my job this January, I had planned to move to Milan to see if I could find work there. I can’t get there now.

My wife lives and works in Italy but is not an EU citizen, so she does not have the right to move to the UK unless we apply for her settlement visa, which will take months and cost thousands of pounds. An initial settlement visa now costs £1,524 and needs to be renewed after two-and-a-half years. You also need to pay £624 per year as an NHS surcharge. After five years, she can apply for ‘indefinite leave to remain’, which currently costs £2,389. In total, going through this process (not counting any lawyers fees or other costs) will set you back £8,557. These fees are largely targeted at people from diaspora groups who might marry someone from their country of origin, as the Government seeks to appease those in the press who constantly demand lower levels of immigration. They also target the poor. You cannot marry someone from abroad unless you are rich enough. A British citizen must have a salary of at least £18,600 (or £60,000 in savings) to marry someone from outside the EU.

So, having fallen in love with someone who happens to be from Turkey (the country of 76 million people, who Vote Leave said would be moving to your street when they joined the EU), I must pay the UK Government a ransom to be able to have a normal relationship. It also means that, in times of global crisis, I’m utterly cut off from my partner and she is cut off both from me and from her family in Turkey. Her sister is a doctor and on the frontline treating COVID-19 patients there.

I knew at the start that it wouldn’t be logistically easy to have a relationship with someone from outside the EU, but I didn’t think that after six years I would still be unable to live with my partner. I am very lucky that I am able to survive financially while unemployed because I still live at my family home in London, but this is also a necessity caused by the capital’s housing crisis and the stagnation of wages throughout the economy.

I would like to know that, some day, I’ll be able to live together with my partner, in the same apartment in the same city. As the days become an undifferentiated soup of time, that prospect seems further away than ever. I worry about how she is doing in Milan all alone in her apartment, worrying about when she will be able to see me or her family next. We live in an atomised society and, right now, I feel like we are all very small atoms, very far apart. 

I’m hopeful that this will be little more than a boring inconvenience in which I aim to keep my sanity intact. I know that, for many people, doing that will be much harder, if not impossible. I’m thinking of the families squashed into cramped apartments who will get into arguments, the people living in violent domestic situations, the people on the breadline, the newly unemployed, the refugees awaiting immigration decisions. The Coronavirus is “deepening the consequences of inequality,” according to the New York Times.

I have consumed quite a large amount of cheap wine since this began. I’m not entirely sure what else you’re supposed to do after nine pm. Once life returns to something like normal, there will be a lot of pent up energy to let out. The Government might be riding high in the opinion polls – without the bothersome issue of any kind of functional opposition to hamper its PR campaign – but I believe that its popularity will be tested if it becomes clear that the NHS has been broken by austerity and if this leads to avoidable deaths. It seems unbelievable to me that the public could let off the very people who have underfunded the NHS for a decade.

It is often remarked that Britain is not a particularly rebellious nation, so it will be interesting to see what happens when the lid is lifted from our present confinement and people are able to party and protest once again. It seems likely that there will be many more people unemployed, a recession, and a Government with a huge economic and social burden to deal with. 

I personally feel a deep sense of resentment that I should be punished for marrying someone from another country. This Hostile Environment which I experience in a limited form is suffered far more cruelly by anybody without the melanin deficiency necessary for white privilege. I’d like to think that this crisis is helping to give people a wider perspective about what is important in life – but I also remember that Boris Johnson still thinks he can get a trade deal with the EU by the end of 2020.

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