It’s a year today since we first went into lockdown. Hopefully, we’re now on the way out of it, but, with case numbers rising in a lot of other countries, and the virus being capable of playing nasty tricks such as mutating just in time to muck up Christmas, this nightmare’s a long way from being over. But at least now we’ve got toilet paper, televised football, and takeaways in the park; and everyone involved with the vaccination programme is doing an incredible job and deserves all our heartfelt thanks.
We knew about the Spanish flu. But it’d happened over 100 years ago, and medical knowledge and treatments then were nothing like they are now. And, over the last few years, quite a few strange viruses – SARS, MERS, bird flu, the Zika virus – had appeared in different parts of the world, made headlines for a few weeks, and then never been mentioned again. When one called “coronavirus”, later referred to more specifically as “Covid-19” appeared in a Chinese city called Wuhan, it just seemed like another one of those. Until it didn’t. It’s claimed over 2.7 million lives – we’ll never have an accurate figure, especially as every country seems to record figures differently, but that’s the official figure – and it’s turned all our lives upside down. The chances are that it’s always going to be a big dividing line in our lives, just like the Second World War was for people who lived through it.
Maybe there’ll be permanent changes directly linked to it, like needing an annual vaccination, which in time will just be part of normal life. In all likelihood, there’ll be permanent changes as an indirect result of it. At the moment, we just don’t know – which is extremely frustrating, especially for anxious, over-planning people like me. There is no certainty. Scientists keep coming out with long-term doom and gloom predictions. I’m sure there are some cheerful scientists out there, but none of them ever seem to make it on to TV! Other people are more optimistic. But we just don’t know.
Hopefully the vaccination programme is the way out of this. I fully understand that, with such a big operation, there were bound to be hitches along the way – and Boris was quite right to praise the vaccine-producing organisations, rather than, as certain other people have done, criticise the very people offering hope. But, oh, it’s so annoying that it’s happened just as I was practically at the front of the queue! Some areas were already on to Group 10, and our area looked set to get there any day, and then the goalposts were moved. Can’t be helped, and, as I’ve said, everyone involved with the vaccination programme’s doing an incredible job, but it’s rather frustrating for all those of us still waiting our turn! More uncertainty. Every time we think we’re getting near the finish line with this, something else happens.
And it all came from nowhere. Yes, we’ve seen the pictures of people having fun in the sun over the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1914, little knowing that four years of war lay ahead, but people who followed international politics closely knew that trouble was brewing and, when you look back even as far as the 1890s, you can see that war was almost certainly coming. But you can’t see a pandemic coming. You can see that, say, having unclean water supplies in Victorian cities was asking for trouble, but this? Maybe it was something to do with wet markets, but, until early last year, had you ever even heard of a wet market? I hadn’t, and I’ve been to China.
All those lives gone – every one of them someone’s beloved relative, friend, neighbour, colleague. And probably many more lives lost as a result of delays to medical treatment due to the pressure on health services, or mental deterioration in vulnerable people, especially those in care homes, cut off from their loved ones. Many more people – we don’t know how many – left with long-term physical health issues. And we can’t yet know the extent of the mental health problems caused by the unavoidable restrictions that we’ve been under for so long, and, in particular, the effect on front line workers who’ve had so much to deal with.
Other things have been lost too. People forced to mourn without a “proper” funeral, or the usual mourning rituals of their religion/culture. And time that you can’t get back. People who’ve died without being able to spend their precious last days with loved ones. Time that grandparents and aunts and uncles would have spent with babies and toddlers during their precious early months. The experience of university. Time that children should have spent in school. OK, you hear stories about kids who came to the UK as refugees, not speaking a word of English, and got straight As in their A-levels a few years later, and think that one year of disrupted education might not be a big deal, but it will be to some children. Everyone’s different, and it’s going to be very difficult to sort out the problems that this has caused.
And it’s hit some communities much harder than others. Here in Greater Manchester, we were put under additional restrictions at the end of July, five months before some areas were. Infection rates and death rates in some areas have been much higher than others, for a variety of reasons. Urban areas of North West England, Yorkshire, North East England and South Wales have been particularly badly affected. And the economic effects are going to be much worse in some areas, especially tourist areas, than others, too, and recovery isn’t going to happen overnight.
We don’t know what recovery’s going to be like. We aren’t even at the recovery stage yet. And no-one knows how it’s going to be. Non-essential shops will hopefully be reopening on April 12th, but are we all going to rush to the high streets and the shopping centres? Well, if it’s like last July, when you had to queue outside because only limited numbers were allowed in, you couldn’t use the toilets, and you couldn’t try clothes on, then, quite frankly, no. I did so much walking during Lockdown I that I was desperate for new trainers by the time shops reopened. I went to Sports Direct at Manchester Fort, and found myself having to spend half an hour stood out in the rain before I could even go in. It obviously wasn’t the fault of the shop’s owners or staff, but it wasn’t exactly great. And have we all got used to ordering things online? So many big High Street names have gone since all this started. What does the future hold?
And what about the future for city/town centres in general? Will we carry on WFH? I would love to carry on WFH. It’s saved my sanity (such sanity as I actually possess!) during all this. Being able to go for a walk during the day (not that I’m losing any weight from doing so, bleurgh), instead of being trapped in a depressing office. Not having to listen to other people’s incessant coughing, sneezing, snivelling and shouting. Bliss! Some people think that WFH is the way ahead. I’m not so sure. Some jobs, obviously, just can’t be done from home. With others – well, will bullying, controlling employers be happy to go on like this indefinitely? Decent employers will, but how many of them are there around? There’ve been reports of many employers refusing to give people an hour out of the working day to go and have their vaccinations.
We shall see.
Zoom meetings are surely here to stay, though. Big savings in terms of time and travel costs. There’ll be some people, especially in particular sectors, who want to get back to face-to-face shmoozing, wining and dining, but there’ll be a lot who won’t.
That’s mainly in sectors which haven’t taken a big hit. But some sectors are on their knees. Tourist businesses and shops, as already mentioned. The overseas travel industry. Personal care businesses, and health and fitness businesses. A lot of businesses just won’t make it, or have gone already. The leisure industry in general – how much permanent change is there going to be? Professional sport will bounce back: you can’t recreate the atmosphere of actually being at a live sports event. And, as nice as take-aways are, I think there’ll be a rush back to restaurants, cafes and pubs when they reopen. But, when cinemas and theatres reopen, how will they stand up against Netflix and other watch-at-home services? Have people’s habits changed permanently?
And then there’s foreign travel. Oh, travel, how I miss thee. I had it all planned out for 2020. Iceland booked for July, Japan booked for October, and a Mitteleuropean Christmas market to be booked for December as soon as I got the 20/21 football fixtures. Iceland’s rebooked for this July and Japan’s rebooked for this October, but I’ve pretty much accepted that neither of them are happening. Even if we’re legally allowed to travel, are things going to be open, and do I want these experiences of a lifetime spoilt by stressing about masks and social distancing? But how long is this going to go on? And how long can airlines and travel companies keep going?
Oh, I want to go on a coach tour abroad. I want to go somewhere here: we’ve been banned from even leaving the local area for over five months. I haven’t seen my sister, brother-in-law and nephews since August, and I haven’t seen many other relatives and friends since well before that. I haven’t been to Old Trafford for over a year. I haven’t been to the theatre or the cinema for over a year. National Trust properties are open, but you have to decide a week in advance that you’re going, and book, so it’s not quite the same. I want to be in a crowd. I hate being in crowds, unless it’s at a sports or music event: I get stressed and feel trapped if there are too many people about. But I want to be in one anyway. Without dogs. I am so, so sick of dogs. I walk and walk, because there’s nothing else to do, but, everywhere you walk, there are dogs. So, no, dogs, but I want to be in a crowd. Just briefly. And I want a haircut! I don’t read dystopian novels, but I can’t imagine that there are any which mention not being able to have your hair cut. I get the reason that salons are closed, but I’m sick of it!
Most of all, I want a day out in the Lake District. Hopefully, that’s not far off. But any sort of normality, whatever normality is any more, is a fair way off. Thankfully, we don’t seem to be getting the “third wave” affecting parts of the Continent, and hopefully we won’t. But this is nowhere near over. And, a year ago, whilst we’d had to accept that this was bad, and that life was going to change, we thought it was going to peak over Easter weekend and that the worst would be over by the summer. Yes, I know that the second wave of the Spanish flu was worse than the first. I knew that a year ago, too. But that was over 100 years ago, and medical knowledge and treatments then were nothing like they are now …
There are nice things. WFH is wonderful, as I’ve said: I wish that could last indefinitely. I love being able to go out for a walk every day. I love that I see a lot of the same people, and that we stop to say hello to each other. The park’s like the social centre of the universe at the moment! I like the takeaway cafes .. OK, I don’t like the queues, but I rather like going up to the hatch, and then going off to sit on a park bench. And how could we have got through this without social media? OK, there are the people who post spiteful, political points-scoring stuff, but I’ve learnt to try to ignore that, and to focus on the positive stuff people post, and the kindness that so many people have shown.
But I want my “real” life back. And we don’t know when it’s coming back, and how much of it’s coming back. But at least we’ve still got our lives. 2.7 million people haven’t. That’s a bewildering number. And, whatever could or should have been done differently, this is the fault of a virus, a very nasty, clever, shapeshifting virus, and nature’s stronger than we are. It’s not exactly Ragnarok, but … well, Whig history, onwards and upwards, human and industrial progress, moving forwards … and then something like this happens, and everything changes.