The time of seclusion and loss

I think it’s only now, with the benefit of two years of processing, that I’m really able to think and write about covid and the lockdowns of March 2020 onwards. And it’s only now that I have started to feel like life has really resumed, that I’m able to just go out and do things: see art, go to talks, listen to live music. In the last few months, something has resumed. It’s not my old life, but it is something.

There was that amazingly strange moment in time when everyone was effectively housebound, confined in a way which no British population in history had been before. You couldn’t drive anywhere unless it was to get to essential work, or to shop – and if you did shop, only one person from a household was allowed to go unless there were extenuating circumstances. You could leave the house to exercise, for as long as you wanted, but only meeting the people within your household. Friends and strangers alike had to be kept at a distance. If someone was coming your way, you crossed the road to avoid them.

Before lockdown there was a period when everyone knew it was coming but everyone wanted to believe that washing your hands for 20 seconds was the solution. It hit us early. On the 13th March – naturally a Friday – one of our friends came from London for a visit. By Sunday, he was sick enough for us to have to drive him home, with rumours swirling that London would enter a lockdown which might see no one able to come in or out of it.

By Wednesday 18th March I was sick too. A minor cough, but what made me know it was covid was the exhaustion. It took me 30 minutes to write a five line email to my manager at work, telling her I thought I had covid, because I barely had the strength to type. Then Kim was sick. There were no tests available: the few PCR tests were going to hospitals. If you got sick, you just had to wait and hope it didn’t get bad enough for you to need an ambulance, breathing apparatus, intubation, critical care.

And the following Monday, 23rd March 2020, everyone was ordered to stay in their homes.

In lockdown, one weekend we walked from our home up on Tyler Hill in Canterbury down to one of the city centre parks because we had heard a rumour that there was a stall still selling takeaway coffee due to some kind of loophole in the regulations. A two mile walk to get a cappuccino. I almost cried – it was the first time in weeks that I had felt that somehow, perhaps, things might get better.

Lockdown has affected everything. I look at the fashions of the young people at university – kids who spent nearly two crucial years barely able to socialise with their friends except online – and they wear the kind of clothes that everyone adopts when they don’t have to leave the house: baggy sportswear, shapeless and comfortable, with none of the effort or styling which usually moulds your appearance at that age. It’s a bland conformity driven not by the surrounding culture but by a lack of surrounding culture. Humans are social animals: when that sociability turns into something which might kill them, they suffer.

And everyone I know has suffered in one way or another. Social bonds, prematurely loosened to the point of breakage. Friendships that took a hiatus during lockdown and have never returned. Mental health which means you struggle around strangers, or desperately seek the company of someone, anyone, while finding company strangely unrewarding.

No one feels like they did. And I don’t know anyone who feels they used the experience of lockdown and changed for the better. I know plenty of people for whom that was an intention: lockdown as a time to stop, a time to reinvent themselves, a time to study and take the time to read. But I don’t know anyone who came out of it more healthy or wise than they went into it.

I worry about kids. I know it’s possible to recover from badly disrupted schooling and from mental health issues in childhood (I went through it) but this is different. This was a mass trauma and I think we are, as always underestimating quite what an effect it will have both on individuals and our whole society. Children are more resilient than the mythologisers of childhood innocence would believe, but they are also more vulnerable than the stiff-upper-lip brigade fantasise about.

Covid isn’t over. While the rhetoric of “learning to live with covid” has been used as an ideological figleaf for a government policy of ignoring it and pretending it didn’t happen the truth is that we **do ** have to learn to live with it. It’s not going away and the wise course of action would be to put as many mitigations in place to prevent future outbreaks as possible. Better ventilation in buildings, encouraging wearing masks (as the Japanese always have) when you feel even slightly under the weather, and of course a consistent public campaign of booster vaccination could all play a part in ensuring that we never have to go through a lockdown again.

Our current government, which made a policy platform out of ignoring the consequences of Brexit are of course uniquely unsuited to doing any of this. They are born chancers, riding gamblers’ luck with our futures and our lives. They would rather believe something will come along to make covid go away entirely – or that they can do nothing and it will be someone else’s problem if and when it returns in strength.

I said earlier that only now has my old life resumed, but that does not mean I am unchanged. I’m in worse physical shape than I was pre-lockdown (and I wasn’t in great shape then). Perhaps connected to having had two bouts of covid, I came out of it with significantly higher blood pressure than I went in, and weighing a fair chunk more. Lack of mobility when I work from home means that, unless I deliberately exercise, my average steps per day hovers down at the 4,000 level rather than over 10,000, which was where it was “in the before times”.

My mental health suffered too, in ways which it’s hard to put my finger on. I am more anxious (and I was no stranger to anxiety). But I have also become more aware of my own needs in terms of people. Far from being the one who didn’t need a lot of people around him to, it turns out that I do, that I love being around people and function best when I am. Who would have predicted that I am, in fact, a thoroughly social animal – a perfect exemplar of how most of my fellow humans are?

It also radicalised me. Covid, and the government’s response to it, exposed the middle ground of politics for what it always was: a comforting lie, something that I wanted to believe was true because I always like to believe everyone has people’s best interests at heart. During lockdown, the capitalists and their cronies came out of the woodwork in droves to dip their snouts in the trough of government money, with chancers (or “entrepreneurs”, in Toryspeak) appearing to sell us billions of pounds of useless PPE, growing fat on margins. Profiteering shits of the kind which appear in any disaster, but which our “third way” centralist politics pretended had gone away.

Health workers who were clapped in the streets, then denied a decent wage once it was “all over”. Bus and train staff who were lauded as “key workers” in the pandemic and made to risk their lives so that people could continue to do vital work, only to be told they were greedy when they dared to ask for their salaries to rise in line with inflation.

The old histories always made out that great men make the times. But that’s nonsense. The times make us, and they also show us a little bit of what we really are. We have to live through whatever life throws at us, and the events around us shape us to a far greater degree than we like to admit. Covid, those two years of seclusion and loss, are going to be with us for a very long time. The only thing we can do to make it all more tolerable is to tell our stories, and hope for change.

Ian Betteridge @ianbetteridge