As a systems engineer, he knew how to organize a project, and through the years he assembled an increasingly sophisticated strategy for finding the hard drive. He met with potential investors, and eventually made arrangements with two European businessmen who agreed to support a recovery operation. Howells would get only about a third of the proceeds. He had hoped for a much higher sum; the money was his, after all. He recalls being told, “James, that’s not how it works.” He also consulted with companies that could perform targeted landfill removals. He became increasingly convinced that this was a realistic path. (“They probably move more dirt in one season of ‘Gold Rush: Alaska’ than would be required for this operation,” he told me.) This past January, he obtained a letter from Ontrack testifying that the drive was likely recoverable, and, after the Newport dump manager who’d explained to him the architecture of the landfill retired, Howells enlisted him as an expert.
Earlier this year, as the value of each bitcoin passed thirty-five thousand dollars, and Howells’s holdings exceeded two hundred and eighty million dollars, he made a public offer to give Newport a twenty-five-per-cent cut of the proceeds, which could be earmarked for a COVID-19 relief fund. The city did not accept his offer. “The attitude of the council does not compute, it just does not make sense,” Howells complained to the Guardian. Across the Internet, commenters generally did not take a sympathetic view of Howells’s situation. “Your loss fool,” a poster on the Web site WalesOnline declared. “This is the ultimate definition of a ‘Loser,’ ” another wrote, adding, “Wondering how this guy even survived into adulthood.”
We have been asked to write about the future, the afterlife of the pandemic, but the future can never be told. This at least was the view of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who was commissioned to edit a series of essays for the Guardian in 1921, as the world was rebuilding after the first world war. The future is “fluctuating, vague and uncertain”, he wrote later, at a time when the mass unemployment of the 1930s had upended all confidence, the first stage on a road to international disaster that could, and could not, be foreseen. “The senses in which I am using the term [uncertain],” he said, “is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest 20 years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth-owners in the social system in 1970. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.”
This may always be the case, but the pandemic has brought this truth so brutally into our lives that it threatens to crush the best hopes of the heart, which always look beyond the present. We are being robbed of the illusion that we can predict what will happen in the space of a second, a minute, an hour or a day. From one moment to the next, the pandemic seems to turn and point its finger at anyone, even at those who believed they were safely immune. The distribution of the virus and vaccination programme in different countries has been cruelly unequal, but as long as Covid remains a global presence, waves of increasing severity will be possible anywhere and at any moment in time. The most deadly pandemic of the 20th century, the Spanish flu at the end of the first world war, went through wave after wave and lasted for nearly four years. Across the world, people are desperate to feel they have turned a corner, that an end is in sight, only to be faced with a future that seems to be retreating like a vanishing horizon, a shadow, a blur. Nobody knows, with any degree of confidence, what will happen next. Anyone claiming to do so is a fraud.
Eight months ago, the events that shattered the life of Richard Amoah, a 58-year-old upholsterer from south London, were condensed into a series of succinct, emotionless paragraphs, typed into boxes on an 18-page form, scanned and emailed to a government office in Sheffield. Everyone knows you can’t put a price on happiness, but it is now the Home Office’s job to assess the cost of Amoah’s unhappiness, after a series of disastrous government mistakes left him destitute on the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, for two and a half years.
As they process Amoah’s claim for compensation, staff in Vulcan House, the Home Office’s riverside headquarters in Sheffield, will need to address a number of difficult questions. How should the government compensate someone for carelessly wrecking their life? What is the correct payment for rupturing family bonds? Can the loss of a stable, happy existence be remedied with a methodically quantified pay out?
Amoah is one of at least 13,000 victims of the Windrush scandal, in which retirement-age UK residents who had been born in the Commonwealth and travelled, legally, to Britain as small children, were misclassified as immigration offenders. Hundreds of victims of the scandal were wrongly deported or held in detention centres, and thousands more lost homes, were sacked from their jobs or were denied benefits, pensions and NHS treatment because of the error. As it became clear how much damage had been caused to this cohort, a major compensation scheme was promised. The scheme, which was launched in March 2019, was meant to offer swift payments to anyone affected. Initial estimates by civil servants suggested that anywhere between £200m and £570m would be paid out.