I made a conscious decision in March to not try and articulate the reality, implications or opinions I have on being in the midst of a global pandemic. Honestly, everything is saturated with this. Of course it is. Everything was saturated with this before it truly hit European territory. My mind was saturated with this long before it reached Italy and I was constantly anxious, yet feeling ridiculous, as there seemed no tangible reason to be. When the Western world was faced with the reality of what was to occur, writing and comment on the ‘novel Coronavirus’ became white noise, and there appeared no reason to contribute to the avalanche of thoughts, opinions or news that was filling the feeds of the tiny computer I keep on my person at all times.
We, in the UK, are now eight weeks into lockdown and I am unable to make sense of it anymore. I feel a great affinity with the writer who said ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.’ Eight weeks in I’ve realised I have to write about my experience otherwise I will continue to misunderstand my own thoughts and persist in launching myself along that ever familiar downward spiral that will ultimately lead to my insanity. I challenged myself to think of when limitations may have been put on my freedom prior to this and thought instantly; well never, I’ve never been in prison. Yet if I think about this with more complexity, with more layers than the one I have assigned, by adding some colours to that black and white image I have constructed then I come to realise that there are limitations put on our freedom every day. Childhood often saw me being sent to my room and as a teenager I was forbidden from going out if I demonstrated bad behaviour. A restriction on our personal freedom is traditionally a punishment, the sentence so effective through removing the element of choice. Considering this fact helps me to see how this has subtly transferred into my adult life. Money and employment are factors that put restrictions on our lives every day yet are simply accepted. We are however told that these are choices we make. I made choices about the roles I worked in but they were circumstantial, not what I would do if I could do anything, and I was always badly paid. Working hours are decided for you, and in my case holiday allowance was given on my employer’s terms (I don’t think this is unusual) and working in the service industry meant that even using the toilet wasn’t something I could decide for myself. A substantially inadequate minimum wage threshold means that thousands of people across the UK have restrictions put on their choices every day without it being deemed unfair by society. The blame is shifted to the individual; they do not work hard enough, skilled enough, often enough to deserve access to what those with money do. So restriction for me is aligned with punishment, dealt by those in control, just in varying degrees.
My ‘new normal’ started a bit earlier than everyone else’s. My contract expired in January and since then I have been navigating the world of Universal Credit with absolutely no grace, patience or ease at all. For the first time in my life I had no daily commitments. I had routine but it was dictated by choice. The appointments I regularly kept would not involve serious repercussions if I were to go AWOL for a week or two. I was struggling with my mental health, my need to sleep and consistent anxiety whilst trying to keep up with social events and hoping that my job centre appointments where I told them in all earnestness honestly? I just want to write books would be sufficient and go unquestioned. Surprisingly, it was going quite well. At the beginning of March I was finally accepting that when I have to fill out the employment box in questionnaires and tick the box labelled ‘benefits’ it didn’t indicate anything about me as a person. It is the result of a bad set of circumstances, not a reflection of my work ethic, intelligence or ability to motivate myself. I was getting down to writing my first novel – like any good English Literature graduate – and adjusting to living back at my childhood home on a permanent basis for the first time in around eight years. I was accepting a slower way of life, dictated first and foremost by my own choices, punctuated by visits with my partner and friends; things I could look forward to.
So, on the 23rd of March when our government mandated lockdown finally came into effect it seemed like there was not going to be much personal impact and that it was sensible. As someone who had been panicking about a pandemic since the end of January I felt some sense of relief. All those anxious what if’s started to fade as I realised we were now in the worst-case scenario and that it was hopefully safer. Prior to an official lockdown the members of my immediate household and my other half had been practicing a degree of social distancing as sensible precaution anyway and I am in that camp that thinks our government was too late to act on the obvious events unfolding in a continent that – Brexit or no Brexit – we still belong to. I initially approached social distancing with a degree of humour (regularly employing the phrase get back when out and about in supermarkets) not because I did not acknowledge the seriousness of the situation but rather that I knew just how grave it was and any shreds of normality were greatly appreciated, even if just for a millisecond. As the weeks have faded by these coping mechanisms have begun to wane. March turned to April, turned to May and the daily death count rose, and rose. And rose. It began to become plainly clear that as a nation we were unprepared, our government disorganised and our National Health System overwhelmed and undervalued. We needed to stay at home to give the NHS the slightest fighting chance and I, along with everyone else I know, knew that this was a good enough reason.
I have got through many of these weeks by knowing that there are worse things that could happen. I am lucky. I am lucky I do not have to navigate re-entering a potentially unsafe workplace, I am lucky I live with two close family members, I am lucky I have a garden, I am lucky I am able to walk several different countryside routes from my doorstep. I am lucky I have a wealth of books; I am lucky I have a loving partner and close friends who I stay in touch with daily. I am lucky that although worried about the shape the world will take when all this is over I have things I am looking forward to. I am lucky I have grandparents who, although isolating, have each other. I am lucky that I still managed to celebrate my birthday with friends and family from afar and I have the technology to do this. I have learned spectacularly more about the wealth of gratitude that can be found in simplicity, but this doesn’t mean that it is straightforward. I still struggle, like so many others, with the lack of choices we currently have in our day to day.
As we begin to look towards our ninth restricted week as a nation the simplicity of the ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ (a slogan I didn’t need to research to type, I just knew off the top of my head) has been replaced by something that begins with ‘Stay Alert’. I can’t comprehend this. My upbringing and family circumstances mean I come from a background that has always relied on me being alert. A lot of my anxiety stems from hyper vigilance, yet I have always been unable to control uncontrollable events. A global illness isn’t something tangible that we are able to see and avoid. Staying alert seems akin to just being aware; my awareness isn’t something that will protect my family, loved ones or our health service. What was something I was able to accept – the clarity of the stay at home message – is now instead replaced with feelings of confusion and anger at a government whom I did not vote for which is collapsing under its own denial. Our counterparts on the continent have suffered long and intense lockdown periods (and lower death counts), which are now being extremely cautiously eased out of with clear-cut definitions on what activities are and are not allowed. The tragedies across Italy and Spain could have been warnings for the UK; the effects of locking down their nations examples to be imitated. We however continue drifting further into a self-imposed sea of hopelessness. We are a nation that (apparently) wishes to leave the European Union, in part to have greater control over our borders yet did not close them, did not finally use our island status to our advantage when faced with a tragedy of this scale. Google searches for the definition of irony have risen exponentially.
Boris Johnson’s national address last Sunday was farcical, proven instantly through Matt Lucas’ highly accurate and highly amusing satire of its existence. Addressing the nation before presenting in the Commons demonstrated the lack of communication and clarity between even the four nations, never mind between the public and those in authority. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland assuredly stood by the stay at home message that has proven so effective for the last two months, indicating that they would continue facing the losses the economy was already taking as opposed to risking a potentially more serious second wave of infections, closures and lockdowns. The English approach to encourage a return to work for those who cannot work from home fills me with rage. It is an approach laden with disregard for those who belong to certain classes or ethnic groups and sums up exactly how the Tory Party feels about the people who belong to them. (For more on this see anything Owen Jones has written in the past week.) It also demonstrates exactly what those in power believe to be important; the financial stability of this country for those who’s interests lie in this area.
I don’t know why this surprises me. I consistently vote against these people and all they stand for so why did I expect a different approach to easing our way out of a national tragedy? Maybe my exposure to the left wing press and occasional good news stories of community spirit, or glimmers of hope from a recovering natural world clouded my judgement. Maybe I have become naïve. Maybe, contrary to popular belief, I am an optimist and do try and look for the best in people. Or maybe I just believed that it would only be human, following so much loss, so much grief and so much pain to prioritise how we can socially recover from this. How we can nurture our relationships and comfort one another following collective trauma. No matter how well people say they’re doing, no matter what their social media feed says, no matter how many loaves of banana bread they’ve baked, we as a nation have been in survival mode. We have been threatened and it is only natural to want to try and survive, not necessarily thrive. Being able to be productive is an added bonus. I have found that all activities I have been occupying myself with have been underlined with a general feeling of anxiousness as we are faced with such uncertainty. If, as we are being lead to believe, we are at a point where we can begin to make certain allowances towards our freedom then shouldn’t we be engaging in activities that are good for our mental health and for our souls, not rushing back to save something that benefits a handful of wealthy individuals.
I didn’t used to believe in the simple things, I have learned to appreciate them over the last four years of my life. Through the past eight weeks it has been solidified for me; it honestly is the simple things that matter. It is waking up every morning grateful just to be. It is laughing at your mum talking to the cats. It is your sister giving you a hug when everything gets too much. It is your brother telling you he loves you at the end of every phone call. It is your grandparents looking as if they are about to present an alternative news broadcast every time they Facetime. It is your dad learning how to Whatsapp so he can stay in touch. It is planning all the meals you’ll cook with your boyfriend when all this is over. It is being unable to explain just how excited you are to be allowed to fall asleep next to your other half and knowing that you’ll never take that for granted. It is your mates ringing just to see how you are. In my experience, it is always other people that make my life so wonderful. People are not disposable. I hope that when we finally enter our brave new world that my clapping outside the front door every Thursday can be transferred into a deserved and decent pay rise for those in our society who have selflessly cared for others not just through this pandemic, but every day. I hope that we realise as a society who we truly need in order to function. How our reliance does in fact depend on those people who are so often undervalued; those who work in supermarkets, warehouses, care homes, education, the bin-men, post-men and delivery drivers who literally keep our worlds turning. When I was faced with personal grief I found that the only thing I could do was turn the results into something positive. I wouldn’t be the person I am and have the relationships I have today if I hadn’t experienced that trauma, and although it was at great personal cost I am happier today than I was five years ago. I truly hope that although we have experienced something so devastatingly sad we are able to collectively and compassionately recover into a kinder, fairer and healthier society.