Looking back on things I guess it was about November 2019 when the Corona Virus started to catch my attention. The story itself seemed distant, yet another one of those weird viruses the Asians seem prone to, nothing there to suggest this would be any different to any of the others, after all they had dealt with SARS so I fully expected it to be a filler item on the news when nothing else was going on in the World.
Christmas 2019 I was in Madrid, Spanish news tends to carry more foreign news, so it featured more prominently, Wuhan now entered my thoughts, still distant but now of more concern as more and reports came in on how the virus was raging through China.
I can’t really focus on any key moments upon my return to the UK in January, I do remember cases starting to occur but still I felt that although there would be a few scares, the virus would be isolated, and life would return to normal. Yet as the month progressed so did the virus, my journey to work on the Tube becoming ever-more troubling, this was a time when we were still being told to wash our hands, the message did not re-assure, most of us had a modicum of knowledge about the spread of infectious disease, I don’t think any Londoner ever believed a dollop of hand gel was going to cut it. Even so I remember getting on a Piccadilly Line train full of passengers from Heathrow and a German visitor expressing surprise to me that no one was wearing face coverings, ‘that’s ‘cos we’re tough’ I kidded myself.
I remember my last few days at work, hand gels abounded in the loos, we were encouraged to social distance in the office, the Tube journeys were becoming very tense affairs indeed, The Corona virus had crept into my Monday night five-a-side game, players were briefed on the FA guidelines – not that I was ever one to enjoy too many goal celebrations. I just looked forward to my return to Madrid in early March – even though friends and family were warning me that Spain was in a bad way. I don’t know why, I just shut it out, something in me just refused to accept the reality of what was happening.
In a way my trip to Spain gave a false sense of normality, a hassle-free flight, a quick exit and a taxi into Madrid. As the cab neared my destination, I checked things out through the window, people were out and about in the bars and restaurants but fewer than you would normally see.
It was in Spain reality set in, I arrived on a Tuesday, I watched a developed sophisticated society with a World class healthcare system collapse in less than a week. On the Wednesday I went to the supermarket to buy groceries for a relative (and beer for myself), social distancing much more evident than I remember in London, there had been no panic buying like in London but it all felt eerie, the people like me now worried and apprehensive about what lay before us. Corona virus (the COVID name was to come) dominated the news, there was nothing else, the Spanish health service was overwhelmed, horror stories from Italy – a country a week or so ahead of that awful pandemic curve were now front and centre in our minds.
Madrid went into a lockdown far more severe than the one imposed on the UK, from being able to pop out for a beer and meal on the Tuesday by Friday President Sanchez had declared a State of Alarm (not emergency since the Cortes had not had time to pass the necessary laws), by Saturday the streets were clear, I still went out for a nervous run, the parks and play areas were being taped up and secured by Council workers, by Sunday that was it, no one was allowed out – and the Police meant business.
Fortunately for me I had one day of it – my flight back to London was on the Sunday evening. The friends and family I left behind had three months of what was essentially house arrest in front of them There had been a rush to get out of Spain if you could, some of my fellow travellers had spent considerable sums taking convoluted journeys to get back home, we were all scared now, we all knew we faced flying on a packed plane not knowing if the person next to us had the virus but having no choice. The flight was awful, one passenger lost control of himself, his panic affecting others, to add to our misery our plane developed a defect, we remained on the plane still in Madrid for four hours – all the while painfully aware of the thought – this is how the virus does its work. A very real darkness closed in on my mind, this is it, this is the end of days. I remember sending out a defiant tweet on Twitter, ‘remember those science fiction films we all watched as a kid? Well you are in one now, make sure you are the hero of your story’. I guess I was really speaking to myself.
I finally got home (virus free), pubs were still open – but with fewer customers, it was the pattern I had seen in Madrid, I tried warning people what was coming, few appreciated what I was telling them – but it happened, on 23rd March 2020 Boris Johnson placed the U.K. into lockdown.
I remember the night of the 23rd so very clearly, it had been a truly beautiful day, I live in Ealing a part of London on the flightpath to Heathrow. There were scarcely any planes or cars, a tranquillity descended, I am a keen astronomer, as I gazed up I could not remember ever seeing the skies over London so clear, Venus shone so very brightly, Venus, Morning Star a name shared with a fallen angel now sending his signal to mankind, luckily I had the foresight to protect myself from his sulphurous designs by way of the slab of beer I had ordered in a few days before.
Trying to condense three months of lockdown into something that is smaller than a telephone book is not possible so I will just mention some themes and memories. I remember the first few visits to the supermarket, many goods were scarce, hoarding was still evident, but I recall queuing behind a pensioner, the conveyor for the till consisted solely of tins of cat food. An overwhelming sadness hit me, I just wanted to hug her (which was clearly forbidden), when all around us was collapsing her sole thought was for her beloved cat, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had spent her last penny on her life companion.
In a way she was a metaphor for what I saw more widely, far from turning into savages people found the better angels of their hearts, we reached out to each-other, we forgave past trespasses to tell long lost friends and family we cared for them. We clapped the people who kept society functioning, we reconnected with nature, we smiled at strangers (and they smiled back), we learned that we were not the self-centred material obsessed individuals we had been led to believe we were, far from it, I saw a great nobility and compassion in the people of this country, they were magnificent, I am so very proud of them.
One year on and at last there is hope, the vaccination programme has been an outstanding success even though I expect a few bumps ahead it is something we can be proud of. Restrictions will probably remain for a few months yet but shortly I can enjoy a few socially distanced drinks with neighbours (Gins by the Bins as it is known in Ealing). As to the question how will I emerge from the pandemic – a hunk, a chunk or a drunk? I can relate that I did manage to lose weight, mainly due to all the additional walking I do these days, I drink no more (but sadly no less) than I did before.
So, what do I want to see carried to the future? I said throughout I would never judge a Government too harshly over genuine mistakes made under such extreme circumstances, I don’t envy any national leader right now. Yet there are things that I want to see addressed for the future. I was never a fan of the NHS and the pandemic has reinforced my views, this was an organisation that prepared for a global pandemic having more Diversity Managers than ventilators, an organisation where 20% of infections happened to people in hospitals, an organisation that knowingly sent infected people back in to Care Homes for the bizarre decision to free up beds. Whilst the front-line staff were magnificent the NHS itself is simply not up to the task.
I also consider the future role of a media and in particular the BBC, like many I have mainly worked from home, quite quickly I learned to switch off the news throughout the day, I would catch the headlines in the morning and last thing at night but beyond that I simply could not suffer it. In the early days all too many self-styled journalists revealed themselves as little more than political activists using the news as a platform to push their views. All too many seemed to take a perverse pleasure in panicking a nation at a time when calm voices were needed. When hysteria bored them they turned to a constant drip, drip that British people are racist – a view I find out odds with the fact that millions of foreigners live on this island quite happily many of whom have been provided for by the furlough scheme paid for by British taxpayers. The narrative is one sided and pernicious. There is only one race, the Human Race.
There are a couple of other themes, their unusual interest in pushing the narrative that the Union is finished, personally I disagree, but I do wonder why they have a certainty in their position then I do, after all both are speculative views. But I will put that to one side for the most troubling aspect. I have painted a broad brush picture of my experience over the year but the one constant thought has been this, why have the Chinese Communist Party been given such a free ride? – At the end of the day they caused this shit show, I want some answers, not more trivial distractions from Oprah Winfrey.