It started in the east this thing as plague, as cholera, had before it. It crept onto our television screens before last Christmas, lost in the news of Brexit posturings and snap general elections. In any case it was not about us. This was distant, sad maybe but it was happening somewhere else, to them and not to those we knew. We carried on with our lives as the insidious wave swept inexorably closer. By January, the infection reached our shores, brought back by travellers returning from overseas.
Then it began. It passed from one to another, reaching out. Survival instinct set in and showed itself in the scramble for toilet rolls, for pasta, for hand sanitiser and soap. We began to be afraid. At first perhaps a salacious, voyeuristic fear, still believing it couldn’t be, wouldn’t be, our friends, our family, ourselves who died. We were told that it was older people, those with underlying health conditions who were at risk but some of us were older, some of us were sick. We grieved for Italy in a way that perhaps we had not for Wuhan. Inexplicable this distinction but we’d holidayed in Italy, we knew people who knew people. It was still not about us but we began to believe that it could be.
Deaths were announced, in other cities, other towns. Deaths of younger people, healthy people. We were not immune. Yet still, for most, the impact was no more than shopping shortages, or small children being sad that the caretaker no longer high-fived them on the way into school. Then school children who had been on half-term skiing trips brought it to our county, our neighbourhood. We watched the lines on the graph rising ever more steeply.
As the number of cases grew, a numbing terror, a paralysing grief for the life we had known, a life we would never know again. By March, people who were able, or whose fear allowed them to do no other, began to hide in their homes. Then this became a requirement. Worried owners fastened the doors on shops and businesses, fearing that it might be a final closure. Children stayed at home, their parents forced into the role of educators, whilst teachers hastened to provide materials to support their pupils at a distance. Other teachers continued to work, foregoing their Easter holidays, risking their health and sometimes their sanity, to provide care for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Mournful teddies peered from windows, hoping to catch the eye of a passing child, out for a fleeting moment, their exercise circumscribed by geography, by expediency. Rainbows of hope adorned fences and walls. Aimlessly they stretched across the smeared window-panes, symbols of an optimism that we did not really feel.
Many feared for their jobs, wondered how the next bills might be paid. Workers were furloughed as the government promised help, throwing money at the problem. For some this was a relief, yet others fell through this hastily cast net. We were told to keep our social distance. Suddenly, everyone understood just how close, how far, two metres might be. We became physically isolated from our families, our friends, our neighbours.
There was a frantic struggle to secure a supermarket delivery, if we did not go out would we be safe? Yet when those deliveries arrived there was the dread that somehow the unseen enemy had crept in unawares on our box of cereal or our tin of beans. People spent hours scanning websites or waiting in telephone queues, trying to get on the ‘vulnerable’ list that would entitle them to priority deliveries. Frenetically, we wiped our groceries, sanitised surfaces and washed our hands. Suddenly, every day was a birthday as we sang the song to ensure we had scrubbed away our infection and our guilt.
Obsessively, we tuned in to the daily government briefings, looking for guidance, looking for hope. We scrolled through social media, reading the horror stories because we could do no other. Seeing the breakfast TV News presenters ‘socially distancing’, sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, brought things home. This was real. This was now. Yes, this was happening to us. It ripped through our care homes, taking our most vulnerable first. Bewildered elderly folk died without the comfort of their families, excluded in a failed attempt to keep the virus at bay.
People spoke of waves of anguish, of incapacitating fear, of inability to concentrate, of not being able to settle or get things done. Here was something that we could not control. There were tales of overburdened hospitals. The aging and the unwell were encouraged to write DNRs so, if they were hospitalised, the decision as to who would, or would not, be given scarce ventilators would be taken out of the hands of the medical professionals. Sobbing health workers appeared on our screens, their skin bruised by goggles and masks, exhaustion etched on their faces and unseen scars branding their minds. They begged for PPE to protect them from this horror. Nightingale hospitals sprung up at amazing speed, designed to help cope with the strain on hospital beds. Retired medical professionals and the nearly qualified were pressed into service.
We lost track of what day it was, like a perpetual bank holiday but our weeks were punctuated by Thursdays, when at 8pm we gathered and we clapped and we cheered. Bells rang and saucepan lids clattered as we thanked those who nursed, who cared, who despaired. We did it for them but we did it for ourselves, buried in our impotence, in our guilt for letting others take the burden.
It was not all bad news. Captain Tom Moore, in his hundredth year, circled his garden on his walking frame. Endlessly walking, lap upon lap. He caught the imagination of a jaded public, of a grieving world seeking the good news story, a reprieve from reports of the soaring death toll. Donations flooded in, over £32 million but why did an old man have to walk and walk and walk again to raise money for a health service that successive governments have bled dry? With the morning came the irrepressible Joe Wicks. We jumped and stretched and let the aching muscles take our minds from darker thoughts for space. Children who would normally receive free school meals were left hungry at home. It took a young footballer, Marcus Rashford, to cajole the government into action, ensuring that our children were fed and another hero of the pandemic emerged.
There were too the villains of the piece. Dominic Cummings drove to Barnard Castle ‘to test his eyesight’, making a nonsense of government restrictions; their exhortation to ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’. Anger fuelled our fear, we were a rudderless ship and emphatically we were not all in this together.
Gradually, resilience and determination begin to surface. We created our own new normal. Interaction circumscribed by our screens, our diaries began to fill with online events. We sported lockdown hair styles of increasing shagginess; some took matters into their own hands and inexpert hair-cuts appeared on our screens. A few took the idea of DIY to extremes and self-administered dental treatment. Those of us fortunate enough to have outside spaces dug the soil and squeezed joy from the nesting birds, the cleaner air and the silence, as traffic dwindled to a trickle. In all this awfulness, the environment was a victor. The birds still sang. Whilst some people baked soughdough bread or learned new crafts, others remained paralysed, fraught by memories a life that was no longer ours. We were told we were past the peak. Children began to return to classrooms.
Summer. Outside our bubble, our safe cocoon, in the heat and the terror, the world went mad. Democracy was thrown to the storm. The compassionate joined in outrage as another black life was lost to intolerance and hate. Then they gathered, coming together in their anger and their fear. The crowds formed because black lives do matter but the seeds of infection lay lurking amongst those desperate throngs, waiting for the unwary.
Small sighs of relief as numbers began to diminish. We donned our masks, the latest fashion accessory and ‘ate out to help out’, supporting the hospitality sector that had been so badly hit. Folk crowded to beaches, to areas that had thus far escaped from the worst impact of the virus. Relief that struggling business were being supported was accompanied by the fear that those city-dwelling tourists that were a life blood were, at the same time, bringing with them disease and death.
With public examinations cancelled, students received their teachers’ predicted grades. Another furore, was this fair, was it just? Schools and colleges opened their doors and gradually, relentlessly, the graphs that we studied so avidly began to rise once again. Universities restricted students to the corridors of their halls of residence in history’s strangest freshers’ week.
November and another lockdown, slightly less restrictive than that of the spring but now it was winter, we were weary, exhausted, drained. Plumbing the depths of our mental reserves, we sighed and reconciled ourselves to the inevitable, yet were mindful that there were those who had nothing left to draw upon. The virus brought not only its own casualties but other victims, those whose physical and mental health had been damaged beyond repair as a by-product of this year.
Then a glimmer at the end of the endless tunnel. News that a vaccine had been approved for use. The oldest amongst us stood by to receive it before the end of the year. The prospect of Christmas shone out, a beacon of hope. We could mix in a limited way, a reward for all that we had endured. The creeping worm of doubt, reverberated from the mouths of the scientists, the medics. Yes, we could but could was not should. We could but they would rather we didn’t. Many planned solitary celebrations that, although sad, would at least be safe. Others clung to the opportunity to see long-estranged family. Getting together would be a salve to their bruised and battered equilibrium.
As we fought back with the administering of the first vaccines, the virus did not lie sleeping. It retaliated with a mutation, more virulent, more terrifying. The promised comforting warmth of Christmas interaction was ripped from us. A necessary but devastating precaution. We dismantled our Christmas plans, unpacked our suitcases and wondered what to do with 24lb turkeys. Daubed ‘Plague Island’, Britain was shunned by its neighbours as Europe closed its borders. Thousands of lorry drivers were stranded on Kent’s roads and there were fears that our food supplies would be compromised. Tiers were tightened and more people were set to enter lockdown once Christmas was over. All this, interlaced with a Brexit deal that nobody, be they leavers or remainers, voted for.
Jupiter and Saturn aligned in what some saw as a welcoming echo of the Christmas star. Would the more superstitious regard it as being more akin to the comets that were in past times harbingers of disaster?
This was the year when every email, every virtual meeting, signed off with ‘take care’ or ‘stay safe’. A fruitless platitude but all that we could utter in our impotence. As 2021 dawns, with the vaccine on the horizon, we hope for better things, believing, trusting, that they could hardly be worse. When this is over, whatever over will mean, will we speak of ‘before’, as earlier generations spoke of ‘before the war’? For us all, whatever happens, 2020 has been a life-changing watershed; we and the world, will never be the same. So ‘take care’, ‘stay safe’, be kind and be hopeful.