FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – Coronavirus – The Lost Year
As I sit and ponder where to start with this blog, the First Minister of Wales has announced a further easing of coronavirus restrictions which effectively takes Wales to Level 3 – and an anticipation of life returning to some form of normality. Like people the world over, we (in our house) have started referring to this new way of living as the “new normal”. But is it really a form of normality at all? This is what I will talk about in this musing.
But first I have to press the rewind button and go back to January 2020, when Steve and I wondered what the year ahead would hold for us. We had a huge number of plans – some business and some personal. The optimism of a pending New Year was tainted with Steve’s dire prediction that it would be a hard year. Little did we know how hard. Not two weeks into the New Year and news of the loss of family members and friends started. We received news of the first death on the 15th of January and this continued until the end of December (and beyond), with a pattern of phone calls or emails coming (on average) every two weeks. At the height of this pattern, I lost a beloved Aunty and Uncle, both my Mum’s siblings. With their passing, a generation of the maternal side of my family slipped away. Steve, and my Dad’s side of the family, were also not left unscathed, with my Dad’s youngest brother passing away a few days before Christmas.
With lighter nights and longer days, came news bulletins telling us that a virus was raging through a city in China’s central province, I don’t think any of us really imagined that the ensuing chaos would spread as quickly or as virulently as it did. Friends were returning from long-planned winter breaks, to be greeted in the airport arrivals lounge with notices asking if they had traveled to China, and to use hand sanitiser as liberally as possible before leaving the airport. Still, the extent of what lay ahead was a hazy fog in the back of everyone’s mind. That city in China was just too far away to cause a problem in the UK and mainland Europe. What an under-estimation that turned out to be.
In early March rumours began to circulate about the real danger of the virus spreading out of control. We were told to wash our hands for 20 seconds whilst singing “Happy Birthday”. People started scrubbing, sanitising, and hand creaming as if the world was coming to an end. Then the “Boris bombshell“ came. ‘Stay at home’. Don’t go out unless absolutely essential. ‘Work from home’, and take extra precaution when interacting with people.
Our last event out with about 60 people was on 12th March 2020, then almost overnight on the 16th March my work diary emptied. Meetings and all manner of things were being cancelled, and by the end of the month – Lockdown.
Despite news of family and acquaintances being struck down with the virus, it was still very surreal. It was almost as if the whole country was on holiday. Schools were closed. The weather was fabulous. People in our locality were taking daily walks and all the gardens in the immediate area looked as though some gardening fairy has spread a magical carpet of colour everywhere you looked. Although we live about 5 minutes from one of the main routes into Cardiff, the wind would often carry traffic noise – especially during the rush hour. Within days, traffic noise was replaced by birdsong, and the true beauty of nature and wildlife began to invade every sense.
As we have worked from home for many years, we didn’t expect the stay-at-home rule to have a great impact on our working day, but it did. Steve took to making everyday dress-down Friday! For those of you who know how Steve works, he takes after his Dad. He simply can’t work unless he wears a shirt and tie. No wonder his productivity took a nose-dive in the early days.
Similarly, by this time, James was furloughed from his work, and that almost reinforced the quasi-holiday atmosphere in the house. Very soon, a quick coffee at lunchtime was replaced with a leisurely hour in the garden. The consequence of that however, was that evening meal times were also put out of kilter.
The Thursday communal “clap” became an opportunity to speak (socially distanced) to neighbours, and with that weekly gathering, came the fostering of a real sense of community. The local WhatsApp group became a lifeline in the never-ending quest to find flour! But, more importantly, this sense of community, allowed some our older neighbours (who were suddenly without family support) to find help and friendship from many unexpected quarters.
Throughout the lockdowns, I was able to retain my PA support, but we stopped all other forms of external help. James and Steve took on domestic and gardening chores. Steve cringed when the first lockdown credit card bill arrived – having had to buy in equipment to keep the garden going. James quickly learned that he was never going to be the Vidal Sassoon of home hairdressing, and I took solace from being able to use FaceTime and Zoom to establish a new work pattern, that has continued very successfully for over twelve months.
As the world of work adjusted to using digital technology to keep going, I found that my previously honed digital skills were to become my main asset. I was able to help the Bristol based Flamingo Chicks (of which I continue to be their Patron) reach out to their children at home with video story-telling. I was also able to do video painting tutorials for the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, to encourage youngsters to spend time painting during lockdown, and also to promote the work of the MFPA generally. I have made a great effort to keep in touch with family, friends and acquaintances who might have been isolated or in need of someone to talk to. Particularly if they live on their own.
Along with a number of people from the Cardiff area, I was asked to submit a piece of my art to the Creative Cardiff Project. Ironically, I had started work on a variation of a rainbow-themed piece, which sat really well with the rainbow images that started appearing in windows everywhere. By taking my original rainbow theme and looking at how, despite the frantic efforts of medics to save lives, there was a certain peace pervading our daily lives, I created “Peace and Harmony”. As I think back over the artworks I completed over the last year, I can honestly say that this piece was my most satisfying. It was uploaded to a digital platform along with various other forms of writing, videography and artwork to form a lasting reminder of what people did during the Springtime 2020 lockdown.
I also contributed to the National Museum of Wales “Collecting COVID – Wales 2020” project to create a record being kept by the Museum of what life was like during, what became, our first lockdown.
Inevitably, there was a darker side to the last year, which has really concerned me. That was governmental, and some people’s, reaction to the pandemic.
I know hindsight is a wonderful thing but, as I said earlier in this blog, there was a massive underestimation of what was needed to keep the virus under control. There appeared to be no cohesion to governmental response. Herd immunity or not. Closing borders and monitoring those coming into the country from other countries. Encouraging the general population to “do the right thing”. Nothing seemed to have any consistency.
I cannot see how so many countries failed to see the writing on the wall in January 2020, and why steps leading to lockdown were not taken sooner. Had we been given clearer advice on what to do – not just washing hands, and keep two metres apart – the population would have had a framework within which to operate. Sadly when the Prime Minister fell ill, it seemed to me that the Government was floundering. There was no-one at the helm willing to take the difficult decisions that would have made the difference between life and death.
I also feel it would have helped enormously had the devolved nations in the UK worked together. The hastily introduced Coronavirus regulations differed across the whole country. They were so complex in nature that only the most seasoned of Civil Servants would have been able to fully understand them. This in itself lead to widespread confusion over what could and couldn’t be done. Household mixing and “jollies” to the seaside seemed to be the norm.
Whilst I don’t believe in heavy-handed policing, and I strongly believe in the sanctity of human rights, if police officers themselves appeared to have difficulty in interpreting the rules, how was the average person expected to react. It was all sadly a recipe for chaos, which ensued as we started to ease out of lockdown last summer. I don’t know how it played out along the English/Scottish border, but most certainly along the Welsh/English border, people were criss-crossing the Severn Bridges in both directions with complete disregard for the rules that applied in their own localities. The attitude seemed, at best to boast about it on social media and, at worst, a gun-ho attitude based on paying the summary conviction fine – “if I get caught”. Perhaps ‘ self-policing should have prevailed, as it did with many of us!
I am also not entirely sure that the Shielding advice was thoroughly thought through. As one who chose to shield for personal health and safety reasons, I cringed at the advice being given at the end of shielding that everything was almost back to normal, without the authorities consulting with the very people they tried to protect. As we now know, this lead to a complete U-turn, resulting in further isolation and missed opportunities to support those (outside of hospital) who most needed support. The social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on disabled people in Great Britain has been far greater than that of non-disabled people (ONS).
By my estimation, the whole world got caught out by the speed of the virus transmission. At the very least looking forward, I hope the powers that be, will ensure the almost laughable situation which arose with PPE, will never be repeated, and that situations where PPE was re-directed from one region to another, will never arise again.
I also believe the last year has shown us how those in positions of authority sometimes seem to think they are above the law. Think trips to historic castles, visits to second homes, and trips to visit your mistress. Granted, some of those who got caught out did the right thing immediately. By doing so, they have been able to continue to make a valuable contribution to the analysis of how the virus will continue to impact our lives. However, when an individual, so close to the heart of government, fails to accept the error of his ways, and tries to justify his actions by testing eye-sight, and being concerned about child care; it is little wonder that persuading the country to come together to beat the virus, has been such an uphill struggle.
Another lesson to be learnt is the dissemination of information. Whether at local, regional or national level, I hope those who have the ability to change practices and procedures will take the opportunity of putting measures in place, to make sure that (particularly) vulnerable and at-risk members of our society, receive the information they need to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves, and continue to be able to lead a meaningful life.
As this blog comes on the back on the most recent announcements from Wales’ First Minister, I have to say that the easing of restrictions from the Winter lockdown, have been handled (by national and devolved administrations) far better than the way it was approached over the summer and early autumn of last year.
Now, back to the lighter side. My Dad has become proficient at FaceTime, and our regular twice-weekly FT session with Dad and my two sisters still continue. Oddly, we have probably spent more time talking this way, than we would have with just our daily phone calls. I’ve been keeping screenshots of how we’ve all looked during those calls … When I eventually get round to putting them in some order, it will be an interesting story in the tale of the “lock-down locks”. Hairdressers of the world, and their hair colouring skills, will nevermore be taken for granted … especially in this house!
I’ve developed my art skills, with an online course in Oil Painting. The course only finished last week, and I am now under orders to give Steve some TLC on a Friday evening, after leaving him to his own devices for over two hours during the last nine weeks. Oil medium is certainly very different to my previously favoured acrylic, but it is actually really lovely to see how well oils blend to create different textures and tones.
But what of the future and this “new” normal. I fear the divide between those who have, and those who have not, will widen. Changes in the way our children are educated, have highlighted that access to good quality internet and computer equipment is essential. Changes in working practices will become more apparent, with home-working increasing substantially. That in itself, creates a problem with housing going forward. New home design will have to include a home-office space. Ultimately that will lead to an increase in property prices, with the additional space adding a premium to house prices. The knock-on effect will be that those in their 20’s and 30’s may well find it even harder to save for a deposit on a yearned-for first home. The cost of the pandemic will mean the nation paying for it for many years, in fact, generations to come. An open and honest approach to how things will be funded in the future, will be needed by all who hold our country’s purse strings.
As with so many people, this last year has provided an opportunity to cherish simple things. I can’t say I’m overly keen to go shopping again. Thank goodness for Internet shopping! I’ve got quite used to holding a distanced conversation with the postman and all the other delivery drivers who have knocked on the door with life saving (or just life affirming) supplies. I am looking forward to being able to visit museums and theatres once again. I think we will all be more conscious of the person coughing in the auditorium – not just for the spoilt enjoyment, but because of a suspicion of those around us. That “suspicion” is, sadly, one small price of us forging a new existence.
As a “people” person, I have missed the chance of spending time with family and friends. Over the last year, birthdays and significant occasions have been celebrated differently, but equally as enjoyably. Mine and Steve’s planned joint 60th birthday party, clearly went by the board. However, my sisters and friends did an incredible ‘drive-by’ on my actual birthday which was simply magnificent, and still leaves me chuckling to myself. I have relished the quality time spent with James, and have been able to share the enthusiasm he has for new projects. Furlough gave him the chance to re-evaluate his future, and I am grateful that he has navigated this strangest of times in such a resilient manner.
I’m not sure continental holidays will figure on our agenda any time soon, but you never know. Our planned 2020 (60th) Birthday cruise, got parked just off the coast of Weymouth in a coastal cruise ship carpark – along with the cruising dreams of hundreds of others. It was postponed to this year, but we recently received notice that cruising packages are (for this year) limited to sailing around the British Isles. So I think we’ll give that one a miss!
I genuinely believe that this pandemic will not actually go away and will not be the last pandemic of a similar nature. I hope that lessons will be learnt from this current experience. That when we have the next pandemic, the Governments will react quicker and that society will be more sensible, caring and respectful of those around them.
We need to have the resources in place and tests available for everyone. I am certain that many people could have returned to work and their daily lives, if they knew that they had already had the virus (whether they had symptoms or not). By doing so, this would help the economy and we won’t be facing financial ruin, as I’m afraid will be the current situation.
When it happens again, legislation will have to be made much clearer so there’s no room for ambiguity. It will also have to be policed and enforced. Unlike with the current situation, where people have been asked to stay safe, stay away, stay home and stay well. But too many people totally ignored this, and put their’s and other people’s lives in jeopardy.
Although I don’t feel safe or comfortable enough to go out any time soon, I genuinely hope that life will get back to some kind of normality and that we will be able to enjoy the theatres, museums, hospitality and socialising with our families and friends in the not too distant future.
As the First Minister finished his announcements, I couldn’t help but think back on this “lost” year, and mourn for those who have suffered – whether through bereavement, financially or emotionally. At the same time, I look at what I have managed to achieve on a work and family front, and feel a sense of relief that we made it through.
Above all, the pandemic has taught me to value the things that were so easily, and previously taken for granted. To seize the moment and make the best of every opportunity.
Cherish family and friends and …
… Most importantly NEVER to go grey!