Plague Diary: Day 985

People count the pandemic as starting from different days. I’m on day 985, which is measured from the day that my office closed. Since then, we’ve had two new Prime Ministers, and I’ve had two new jobs. I’ve moved house three times and had four vaccinations against coronavirus. I’ve still not tested positive for coronavirus and there are currently no restrictions in place.

My friends Cat and Kirsty are over a thousand days into their pandemic. Cat recently published an essay to mark this: One Thousand Days. It’s an angry piece, looking at how many people have been forgotten as the pandemic has continued. Like my friend Sophie, Cat caught the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic and has gone on to suffer long covid. Because Cat and Sophie were not offered tests at the time they were ill, they have never been given a diagnosis of long covid, and are not therefore considered ineligible for long covid treatment.

Cat’s position is made worse by the fact that much of the country has moved on from the pandemic even while him and Kirsty continue to shelter:

In the thousand days that I’ve been stuck here, getting sicker and sicker, losing my ability to function in a world that increasingly excludes me and mine, I have watched people who swore they would strive for a better, more inclusive and kinder world completely abandon people like me. Running off to and organising every no-mask-mandate super-spreader event they could as soon as possible, partying in the middle of a plague. Almost completely abandoning all the creative ways and possibilities we found during lockdown to make the world a better, safer, more inclusive place for disabled and immunocompromised people.

The way in which covid has been forgotten is eerie. Key workers were told they were heroes, but nurses are using foodbanks to survive. One of the few things Matt Hancock got right was in suggesting that covid should make wearing masks a regular things for preventing infecting people with colds and coughs. That does not seem to have happened.

As much as I agree with Cat’s essay, I rarely wear a mask myself, saving it for the most crowded trains. Nobody is masked at work. Wearing a mask is a tradeoff between cost, risk and not standing out in public. (Note that I do make sure to take an LFT before visiting Cat and Kirsty so as not to risk exposing them to the virus).

I read a fascinating twitter thread where @audendum talked about the 1918 pandemic, and how strange they found it that it was mostly ignored in the literature and art of the 1920s. With the current pandemic, @audendum could see a similar gap in contemporary art and storytelling. There seems to be no appetite for reminders of what happened, despite the trauma that needs to be processed; despite the fact that the pandemic is not over for a lot of people.

Pandemic Day 766: Ignoring the coronavirus

We are now 766 days into the pandemic (counting from the day after the government advised against “unnecessary social contact of all kinds” and my office was closed). I’ve not written much about my personal experience of coronavirus recently, but I wanted to make a note of how this current phase feels.

The government recently announced that it was time to get back to normal, and that coronavirus has to be accepted as little more than a bad flu. Testing is no longer free. In shops and trains I’m now often the only person wearing a mask. I even heard from a family member about a teacher who wore a mask to class as they were teaching after testing positive. At the same time, daily deaths continue, with the total for yesterday reaching 646 running around 250 or more (the 646 figure on 21/4 apparently included data from several days over Easter).

The question of how this might end has been there from the start. Despite the Prime Minister’s blithe promises that things would soon be back to normal, it was obvious that any permanent solution depended on preventing transmission of the virus either through ‘zero covid’ strategies or herd immunity.

Both of these options soon became unfeasible – the virus has escaped even the most intolerable and inhumane quarantine regimes. The vaccine, while an impressive scientific achievement, does not provide permanent immunity. For a time it looked as if the government would be bringing out regular vaccines but this seems to no longer be the case, (although further boosters are being provided to the clinically vulnerable).

As far as I know, I’ve not been infected with covid, but with the omicron virus being so transmissible this is inevitable – there was even a case recently of someone catching two variants within three weeks. I had my last booster on Christmas Eve, so my protection from the vaccine is waning. ’Long covid’ is affecting 1.5 million, a number that can only grow. For the more severe cases it proves impossible to work, yet diagnosis and intervention is limited.

It looks as if the current plan is to muddle along for now. People will catch and recatch the virus, with rising cases of long covid. It’s an alarming situation but people seem happy to go along with it, and few wear masks. Eventually, a new, more dangerous variant will emerge, or the toll of long covid will be unignorable. Those problems are being left for the future to deal with.

Faced with an unsolvable pandemic, the government has decided to do nothing, while not being honest about the impact this will have. While mitigating covid is expensive, even the affordable steps have been ignored. We wasted billions on corrupt PPE deals, incompetent testing, and Potemkin Nightingale hospitals, yet spent little on ventilation for spaces like schools and offices.

Since there’s little I can do, I’m getting on with my life like everyone else, albeit with a little caution. There’s a strange feeling that everything’s normal when it isn’t. Welcome to life in the Anthropocene.

The End of the Pandemic? (Day 463)

My friend Laura told me something she’d read about the 1918/9 flu, that people quickly forgot the details of that time. I can already feel some of the details of this pandemic disappearing. It was only re-reading some of my old posts on the topic that I recalled the mood around those early daily briefings, where everyone stopped work at five for them, and I’d watch with a drink in hand.

I don’t want to lose the lessons of the pandemic, or to forget how miserable the winter lockdown of 2021 was. But, at the same time, it does feel like things have turned a corner. I am vaccinated and I have left Brighton. I was so taut and angry and hateful while I was stuck in one place with no escape; now, living in the countryside I feel better, and it’s time to move on. My fear has lifted.

Back in March, Rosy said that I talked and read about the pandemic more than most people. That was one of the problems with facing lockdown in isolation: you couldn’t calibrate normality from the people around you. I assumed everyone was doom scrolling the same as me, following all the angles on the pandemic. I must have been both tedious and triggering for a lot of people.

But it now feels like time to draw a close on my covid journalling. As Dr Manhattan once said, ‘nothing ever ends’ and this pandemic will continue – my second vaccination, the ongoing death toll, the memorials, the inquiries – but it all feels less urgent now.

One thing I don’t want to forget is the awfulness of the government, and the lies it told and the shortcuts it took. Vice magazine has an article listing Every Single Promise Broken By the Tories Over Lockdown and it’s worth reading. It only covers the first year, but it’s quite something. And let’s not forget the blatant headline grabbing lies, when the government proposed ridiculous and implausible ‘moonshots’, later quietly abandoned. Or the ventilator challenge, where the government shunned experienced firms in favour of a PR-friendly approach to well-known companies such as Dyson and JCB.

And on 24/5/21 – over a year after the pandemic started – the government announced a pilot plan to support self isolation. It includes:

a range of initiatives including providing alternative accommodation for people in overcrowded households, social care support such as increasing existing social care support for vulnerable adults and providing ‘buddying’ services for people whose mental health has been affected by lockdown and the variant outbreaks, and language communications support for individuals where English isn’t their first language.

I mean, really? Were these things not obviously needed from the start? I was miserable while locked down in a large comfortable flat, and can only imagine how hard things must have been for many others in worse situations. People’s mental health was shattered by this, and there was no support. Britain appears to have a mental health policy advertisements suggesting you talk to your mates, and that was not good enough.

Then we have the uneven economic effects of what happened. Failures of State pointed out that “One in three low-paid workers was furloughed or lost their jobs compared with one in ten of the higher-paid“. A lot of people have done well financially out of the pandemic, while others have suffered awfully with no support. The effect on university leavers in particular is said to likely be worse than people who graduated during the financial crisis, and many people’s careers never recovered from that.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve wondered what the government’s long-term strategy for dealing with covid is. Now, it looks to be settled on ongoing vaccination and a (so far unstated) acceptable annual death toll. Although there is no discussion into the long-term impacts of long covid, which makes me very uncomfortable. Zero covid might be brutally difficult, but the alternative is hard on the unlucky. There is still little support for hundreds of thousands of people suffering from long covid.

The last 15 months have been strange, hard and surprising. I’ve avoided the coronavirus, but I’ve faced other challenges. Now it’s a good time to tell myself I’m out on the other side, even if that’s not strictly true. New normals, and all that.

I’m currently living a few miles from the Download Festival site. The festival went ahead, despite the restrictions, as an experimental government pilot. Hearing the sound of bands, although quieter than previous years, was great. Slowly, the world is coming back.

Back to Reality (Day 419)

I’ve not posted anything about the pandemic since mid-March, when I marked a year of lockdown. Back then, I was suffering a bad case of the blues, and not doing well with continued confinement.

It’s now almost two months later. The case numbers and deaths are well down. Lockdown restrictions are easing. The vaccine programme is having an effect, even if I can’t book an appointment for myself within 20 miles of home. The tension of the last few months is fading.

I’ve been fortunate with much of the pandemic, but I found myself very withdrawn in the first part of the year. It’s taking time to get back into the flow of life. The last indoor party I went to was in March 2020. I’ve not eaten at a restaurant since October. I can’t remember the last film I saw in a cinema. Along with that, I’ve lost whole aspects of my social life. There are people who I’ve not been in touch with since this started. I’ve missed the small conversations I’d have when seeing people I knew at events; the chance meetings at parties. Gaps have opened up in my life.

(I recently saw my parents for the first time since the Christmas lockdown. They gave me a bag of goodies they’d planned to give me on Boxing Day. The vegan Christmas cake was now out of date).

The biggest change is being back in the office. While it’s a strange experience being in such an empty space, it’s good to have some variety in my life – even if we’re not supposed to talk to colleagues but via Webex video software.

A few weeks back, I had my first proper night out in almost a year. We were in a back garden, rather than a park or the beach. I took an Uber across town and drank cocktails by a firepit that hurled smoke in our faces. It wasn’t normal, not for April, but it felt good. I actually got to chat with a couple of people that I didn’t know well, and took a taxi home after one. That was good.

I don’t put it beyond Johnson’s government to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but I’m starting to feel hopeful that this has an ending. I’ve some friends who have been sheltering since this started who have finally set a date to be reunited with family. That date is months off, but it finally feels plausible.

There are lots of gaps in life right now, but the flip side to that is getting to do things again for the first time. Cinemas, theatre shows, festivals eventually. It’s slowly coming back.

A year of lockdown (Day 366)

March brings covid-anniversaries. It’s a strange time for everyone – our recollections are so personal and so similar to everyone else’s.

While the official lockdown started on March 23rd, my personal lockdown began on March 16th. Initially, as the pandemic spread outside China, I was as relaxed as the government. I thought the economic effects from people’s anxiety would be worse than the virus itself. While the government played down the disease, my employer was bringing in more and more rules. It was obviously a fast-changing situation. I went from joking about the new work-from-home policy on the Friday to taking advantage of it on the Monday. Later that day, the office was closed, and has yet to fully re-open.

Based on the news from China, I was prepared for the disruption to last about three months. I’d read somewhere that the lockdown in Wuhan was about 11 weeks. I figured that, since Britain had more warning, we could manage things better. I’d really not expected to be locked down a year later.

The last year has been hard. While my personal situation is pretty good, my resilience has worn down over the past few months. The last month has felt particularly difficult. My memories of the first lockdown are relatively pleasant. I know that’s probably not true, and that there was definitely anxiety at the time (waking every morning, certain I was in the wrong universe) but it felt like I came through that OK.

We frame our lives through the stories we tell. This has not been an entirely wasted year, and I’d rather remember it as positive. I’ve been forced to confront a lot of things about myself that I ignored in the hubbub of a packed calendar. I’ve managed to see my parents a couple of times, and also got to visit Sheringham and Norwich, as well as time in Shropshire where I climbed a tiny mountain. I hiked the White to Dark trail and did the Brighton and Hove Way in a single day. I spent Halloween in Puzzlewood. I did a lot of hiking on the Downs, and my photos show the arc of spring to summer to autum. I’ve contributed to Bodge magazine and Rituals and Declarations. I continued meeting with the Invisibles group, and ran a seminar at Chichester University. I hosted the Not for the Faint-Hearted writing sessions. I played my way through Death Stranding on the PS4. I won prizes in a 10-word story contest. I’ve improved my writing and released three booklets. Lots of swimming! And now I’m in the process of selling my house and leaving Brighton. The future is bright, and I’d rather remember this as a stage on the way to that.

It’s not been a great time but it’s still been a pretty good year.

Imbolc (Day 322)

Today is Imbolc, the first festival of the Celtic Calendar, which brings a promise of spring. Wikipedia tells me that Celts associated the time with ewes beginning lactation, preparing the way for their lambs. Or, as Katharine May describes it in her book Wintering, “It marks the end of winter, a time when the snow would traditionally melt, and its debris could be cleared away”. This is a time for spring cleaning, for dusting away cobwebs.

Imbolc also comes close to Candlemas, and to Groundhog Day. According to wikipedia again, this year marks the 135th Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and this year Phil the Groundhog will wear a mask, with the ceremony held behind closed doors.

I’d wanted to mark the Celtic Festivals as we dragged ourselves through the pandemic, but January is such a low ebb that it is hard to muster up any feeling of celebration. Gathering with other people is illegal anyway. At least now the incredibly long January is over and it is time for renewal. And I legit completed my todo list yesterday, which feels even better than a spring clean.

Judy Mazonowicz’s article on Celebrating the Goddess at Imbolc in Bodge Issue 1 notes the connection of the day with St Brigid/Bridies, and the making of a traditional Bridie’s Cross. The article suggests visiting a Spring and the photo above is from my dawn visit to St. Anne’s Well gardens.

A year ago today, I visited the Long Man of Wilmington with The Door, in a very different world. It’s hard to believe all the time that has happened since. The days have passed slowly, but the weeks have flown by, with so many different periods to this – the three lockdowns, the long summer, the mess of Christmas. I keep thinking back to the early days, where I thought the economic effects of preventing the virus would outweigh the effect of the virus itself.

The next Celtic festival is the Spring Equinox, on March 20th. By this point, the schools should have reopened (and, I think, shut for the holidays?), so things will be a little less restricted. It’s a Saturday too, so I should think about how to mark the day.

Today also promises an announcement from David Lynch, which I assume is about the new Netflix series. I’m hoping for something that strengthens the connections between Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. But I have faith that Lynch will produce something I need rather than something I want.

Life on Plague Island (Day 321)

As Britain lurched past 100,000 deaths last week, I saw people post an interview with Jacinda Ardern on Twitter, where she talks about making her plan for coronavirus. What’s interesting about that is not her particular approach; shutting down the UK completely would have been hard to justify in early 2020. But Ardern is clear about her aims. Cutting off a country looked drastic, but now I watch with envy as New Zealand has music festivals. Their economy has still taken a hit, but normal life is recovering.

Meanwhile, Britain’s government tries to balance lockdown and the economy, and fails at both. There has been talk about quarantine hotels recently. The policy was trailed in the papers for days before a half-hearted implementation was finally announced. I’m not even sure that these hotels have yet opened. They don’t cover people whose destination is hidden by transfers.

The thing that surprises me is how little anger there is against the government. The polls suggest a solid base of 40% support, which seems ludicrous given the number of mis-steps that have been made. Without acknowledging how weak the response has been so far, there is no way to try a new approach. I find myself waiting for fury; instead, support rallies on the government’s vaccination success. Buoyed by this support, the government has announced a date for reopening schools rather than an actual plan, with the promise that pubs will follow within two months. The newspapers include reference to “Boris” wanting to reunite families at Easter.

It’s no wonder that some people are confused about the difference between guidance, laws, leaks and ministerial statements. Last week, a friend got angry with me recently for not wearing a mask outdoors as a matter of course. I was defensive, and I part of that that is fear. If it’s not safe to be outdoors unmasked, then a lot of things the government implies are safe are actually incredibly dangerous.

The vaccine programme is all we have, and it’s not certain that it will solve Britain’s coronavirus crisis. Countries such as Japan, Thailand, New Zealand and even China seem to have been far more successful than we have been, yet there is no real sense of learning lessons from them.

Obviously, nobody cares all that much about my views on politics. This blog post simply records my feelings of quiet, frustration at the situation we are in. A few months ago, I was hoping we would be out of lockdown by Easter. Now, I’m not even sure we will be out of lockdown by June.

Back in March 2020, the Prime Minister claimed we would turn the tide on coronavirus in 12 weeks.

The Longest January (Day 310)

An abandoned Christmas tree in the park

This is the longest winter I’ve known. Tramping along the seafront had already become boring in April, after a few weeks of lockdown; now it’s much worse. If I could run, it would be better, but all I can do is pace. I’m sure it wasn’t always so dark at 7am – maybe it’s the coffee shops changing their hours, no longer catering for commuters. Everything seems slower, and I sometimes feel like the sea has frozen.

There was an excellent piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot, discussing the government’s lack of a clear plan. No ideas for lifting the lockdown have been published, no targets or objectives. All our attempts to protect the economy through lenient restrictions have failed, with the UK having the world’s worst death rates last week. There is no idea of how and when restrictions will be lifted (although I only hope we prioritise schools over pubs this time). Yesterday, over 1,6000 new deaths were announced. We seem to be stumbling through this, only now adding tests at airports or talking about quarantine hotels. Throughout this, our interventions have been half-hearted.

We’ve been promised that this is the beginning of the end, that the vaccine is going to save us. We seem to have gambled a great deal on one single intervention (and it’s starting to look like this lockdown will continue through Easter, whatever happens). I have no idea what happens if the vaccine doesn’t improve things sufficiently. Nobody talks much about long covid and the risks from that, the possibility of permanent injuries from hospitalisation. And all this, just to attempt opening up for Christmas.

A lot of people around me seem to be finding this lockdown harder than before, even though their situation is better than a lot of people (how on earth are families cooped up in tiny flats coping?). Talking to Tom on Monday, I told him how I’d found the first lockdown a positive experience. He corrected me, told me I had actually hated it. I guess the important thing is how we process these experiences and what we make of them.

A week or so back, I was walking with a friend around St Anne’s Well gardens. It was during the recent cold snap and the ground was icy. My friend slipped on a treacherous patch and fell to the ground. My first response was to step backwards rather than help. It seems as if distancing is becoming instinctual now.

Wintering by Katherine May (Day 301)

As the pandemic shatters my sense of time, I look for new ways to define it. Normally, I track the year by external events – the Brighton Fringe, Christmas parties, birthday parties &c. The usual markers have disappeared, so that things like moon phases and sunrise and tides have become more important. Back in the summer, I became obsessed with the fact that I could see certain planets with my naked eye. (I must have learned about this on my astrophysics degree courses, but there is a difference between facts and knowledge). As the weather has grown cold, I’ve become more aware of the seasons. We are deep in Winter, but the daffodils are growing tall already.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

I’m trying to buy fewer cheap books on Amazon, but Katherine May’s Wintering stood out. It’s an odd and elegant book. The writing is very much in the style of memoir/nature writing and there is an element of the non-fiction quest, where several people are interviewed around a theme. May admits “When I set out to write this book, I fully intended to do more“, travelling the world and interviewing experts. It’s a stronger book for the fact that she didn’t. Instead, this is a more personal book, full of deep wisdom about how wintering affects a person.

I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.

For May, wintering is a metaphor for dark times in life, and May gently draws out the comparison with how we survive winter to how we survive these dark times in our own lives. “Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” It’s a book about how to retreat. As May writes, “I have learned how to winter the hard way. It’s a skillset, of sorts.

There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world… Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there. Winter had begun.

Wintering is the first book I’ve read in 2021, and was the perfect companion at the start of a fearful new year. It’s a reminder that I should take things slow, that these are hard times, but that we will get through them.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.

Recently, the seafront has felt uncomfortably busy. Rather than walk there, I’ve been pacing the parks inland. I’ve taken solo daily exercise walking laps of Hove Recreation Ground. A couple of times recently, I’ve walked with friends around St. Anne’s Well Garden. Much of the ground here is bare, reduced to mud. The squirrels scamper, patting the ground, looking for caches of food. Someone told me that squirrels have little memory for their stores, that they recover them more by chance than instinct. In St Anne’s Well Garden the squirrels are almost tame, and will sometimes walk up to people, walkers without dogs, to see whether by chance they have any food to offer.

But we are brave, and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things.

The Saddest Music in the World (Day 300)

“I’m Kate and I’m playing the saddest music in the world”

Kate St Shields has played some great lockdown DJ sets. On Friday, she broadcast a couple of hours of the saddest music she could find. As well as being sad, the songs were sometimes strange and wonderful, including a moving cover of Imagine by Yoko Ono.

“Maybe if you listen to enough sad music, it will have the opposite effect?”

I was listening in an appartment with my support-bubble friend, waiting for a much-delayed curry. Hearing a DJ play heartbreaking music to a quiet town was intense. A little like being at the end of the world, waiting out the last days. Like being in our own private apocalypse movie.

“Catharsis… in the shape of really sad music”

Kate had been asking on Twitter for the saddest music people knew, and closed with Gavin Bryar’s 25-minute version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Then, as an encore, she played a sad, fragile she’d recorded of If You’re Going to San Francisco. The pandemic bring extraordinary experiences, some of which are, in their own way, wonderful.

In response, below are 14 of the saddest songs that I know: