Lockdown Log, Day 8

0503035793fb06814e02c53b71461ed731 March 2020. The last day of a month that has become increasingly unusual as the days passed. And as lockdown began on Tuesday 24 March (or, to be precise, was announced at 21.20 on the previous evening) this is also the first day of week two.

Like most people, I am a creature of habit and have found that the only way to reliably do something I know I should do but would rather avoid – take exercise, for example – is to make it as ingrained a habit as cleaning my teeth. During this season of enforced social isolation we are all being encouraged to maintain a sense of normality by creating new routines, scheduling our hours and resisting any temptation to succumb to a succession of duvet days. For me, some things are changing and some – perhaps most – are staying the same. I have worked from home for almost three decades and although that routine would normally be punctuated by the various social or charity activities I have become increasingly involved with while embracing semi-retirement, it means that there has been no huge readjustment to make. Apart from a few brief years post-uni and pre-children, life has never revolved around a daily commute, a shared office or chat during tea breaks. So, although I cannot now attend weekly choral society rehearsals or home-group Bible studies, fortnightly writing group meetings or monthly gatherings of my church’s leadership team, all except the first of these are finding ways to convene online get-togethers and so my social contact has changed rather than ceased. I do miss the tea and snacks that generally form a part of such evenings, but much of life is continuing as normal.

But what of other habits and how will they be affected, renewed or perhaps newly established at this time? I finally began a daily exercise habit a few years ago, and traipse down our garden before breakfast each morning to notch up four kilometres on an exercise bicycle. It would be extremely tedious and I would have abandoned it very rapidly had I not discovered that I could read a book while pedalling. The additional fifteen minutes or so every day – that is over seven hours a month – has added considerably to the time I spend reading for pleasure as opposed to ‘for work’ and for the first time ever I read an average of a book each week during 2019. Something I have avoided for years became bearable because it could be combined with a source of enjoyment – and that can apply elsewhere as well. I am not a huge fan of ironing but it is the only time, apart from when driving, that I switch on the radio. Job done, and the repertoire of music that I can recognise and sometimes even name is expanded thanks to Classic fm.

Other habits are less productive but may still have benefits. I have to be honest here and confess that while I may spend hours at my study desk on an average day, by no means all of that time is spent working. However, when I am proofreading a book, probably working with paper and pen rather than screen and keyboard, I still take time out every so often to check social media, monitor emails or relax with a cuppa and a few games of online Scorpion Solitaire; nevertheless, the hours genuinely spent working can still add up to an average office day. At other times – and this is much more the norm now than a few years ago – more often than not a day will largely consist of a range of predominantly online activities. With involvement in a number of organisations, just working through a day’s inbox of emails can extend well into late morning. For the rest, I might be checking over articles that friends or colleagues are writing for magazines or websites; compiling a newsletter; putting together church accounts; or attempting to write something myself, either for our local writing group, for our local churches’ magazine, for this blog or as part of a bigger writing project – although this latter has lain neglected for over a year.

The present restrictions mean that what would be a half or full day in London for a meeting may now be an hour or two over Zoom, and already there are suggestions that having got used to new ways of doing things – ways that are more inclusive for people living far from the capital or with other restrictions on their time or finances – we may well adopt some of these ideas beyond the time of Covid-19. Time will tell, but I am sure there will be new habits that prove to be useful in the long term. However, there are some of our lockdown habits that will have to be unlearned: crossing the road to avoid people coming towards you down the pavement might have been considered rude a few weeks ago, now it is among the things many people are doing almost without thinking as they are out getting their daily exercise; and pausing when the doorbell goes to allow the delivery person to retreat to a safe distance is sensible now but not great in the normal run of things if the expected parcel then gets taken away again.

I have not yet decided – and perhaps the start of week two is too early – whether I should have a daily timetable to remind me to do certain things every day over the coming weeks or months but I do note that already there are two things on my mental ‘to-do’ list that I have not got around to today, so perhaps it won’t be long.

Lockdown Log, Day 6

29 March 2020. Today we should have been leaving on an extended trip, initially to visit our son in New Zealand. We would have been flying from the UK and following almost in reverse the route taken by the coronavirus in its journey from China to Europe and beyond. Our first stop was due to be a couple of days in Singapore and then on to Auckland, returning from New Zealand partly by train from Beijing across China and through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia to Moscow, from where we planned to also take trains across Europe and back home. The first indication that this was going to be impossible came in late January with the closure of the land border between northern China and Kazakhstan and over the last two months our travel plans have shrunk stage by stage until everything was finally put on hold until next year.

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However, the enjoyment we would undoubtedly have had from seeing new places is not completely denied to us, even as we are restricted to occasional food-shopping excursions or isolated outdoor exercise. We have become, at least partially, armchair tourists instead; thanks to modern technology we can take virtual tours of gardens, museums, art galleries and heritage sites around the world and can also maintain contact with family and friends, seeing them in their homes as they adapt to a new pattern of living, wherever they may be. How very much harder it must have been when previous devastating disease outbreaks occurred, long before telephones were widely available: receiving a letter that all was well – or that someone had been taken ill – would always have been accompanied by the dread that things could have changed for the worse while the letter was on its way. And even further back in history, during the eleven centuries or more when outbreaks of the bubonic plague periodically swept through Europe, there was none of the reassurance we can find in knowing that experienced and talented scientists, technicians and doctors are working tirelessly to understand, treat and ultimately prevent this virus from causing as much illness and death as it might otherwise do. I am grateful, too, that the protective clothing and equipment that we all hope to see being made more widely available to front-line medical staff looks more like something astronauts might wear than the rather terrifying costumes of the seventeenth-century plague doctors.

Plague doctor

It might be tempting to think that some of the things that have made our world seem to be a smaller place in modern times – high-speed travel and global trade, for example – have contributed to the spread of this current pandemic but history suggests otherwise: that the extent of spread is actually nothing new and that even many hundreds of years ago, although it may have taken longer, a disease could still cross the globe. Illness and its causes know no national borders. What is undoubtedly new is the speed and extent of the response that nations have been able to mount, and it is with admiration and awe that we see on our television screens a number of huge conference centres up and down the UK being transformed into new hospitals, and armies of volunteers being recruited to help out with caring for the most vulnerable in our communities. We are learning to be thankful for such massive things and not to take our privileges in the global north for granted. My late father would have been ninety-six years old yesterday, and although he died some years ago his life had been extended by major and successful emergency surgery years earlier, when he suffered an aortic aneurysm. I have a good friend celebrating her ninety-third birthday in the coming week and a dearly loved family friend will be ninety-two the following week. They all lived through hardship and saw the pain and death caused by war but they have all in different ways benefited hugely from the National Health Service in this country.

Now, as the world is battling against an invisible enemy, whatever our initial disappointment at not travelling to visit family on the other side of the globe this spring – or at missing the funeral of a relative who died peacefully of old age recently – these seem rather small things compared to the sacrifices being made on behalf of us all by those whose work puts them at greater risk: not only the doctors and nurses but the hospital cleaners, the supermarket checkout staff, the pharmacists, the postal workers, the bin men and many others. Thank you to all of them.

 

Lockdown Log, Day 4

27 March 2020. With the promise of sunshine again today it was great to get a load of laundry out on the line and blowing in the breeze. It may be chilly outside but that is one more day when I don’t need to use the dryer or have wet washing draped around indoors. A small thing to be pleased about but aren’t we all learning just how important it is to count our blessings in these unusual times?

Prompted by an idea put out by one public-spirited and grateful lady, thousands and thousands of people up and down the country came out yesterday evening at 8pm UK time to stand on their doorsteps, at their gates or by open windows to applaud the work of NHS staff and other key people who are persevering with vital and life-saving work despite exhaustion, under-resourcing and fear for their own contacts. It was a moving experience to see and hear the support and appreciation being offered for the work of people whom we usually take for granted. As the applause and cheering died down there was an occasional firework heard in the distance – even in hard times we can celebrate all that is good.

I didn’t write a blog yesterday, and I am fairly sure that as time goes on it will become something occasional rather than daily, although I shall be trying to keep up the daily gratitude thoughts – and even have a few lined up for the days ahead. However, I did spend some time pondering on the whole ‘herd immunity’ thing. It had been suggested that this was one way in which the Covid-19 virus could be tackled: if the virus keeps spreading then eventually so many people will have been infected and, if they survive, become immune that the outbreak will subside on its own as the virus finds it harder and harder to find a susceptible host. However, this strategy would have had some very serious drawbacks: there would be a massive load on the medical services at the height of such an unrestrained spread – a load that would almost certainly lead to a lower survival rate among those who needed hospitalisation; and the theory assumes that infection by the virus would lead to immunity, but this has not yet been proven and, although it is probable, no one knows how truly effective such immunity would be or how long it would last. So, the strategy adopted by those countries that are affected has almost always been to follow the other two possibilities available. First, to impose extraordinary restrictions on free movement and gathering in order to interrupt the transmission of the disease. Ideally this would be accompanied by widespread testing, although that is not yet available in most places. Second, and following on from this, is the development of an effective vaccine, and there are research departments all over the world working very hard to make this a reality. It is to be hoped that the weight of public opinion – and the patently obvious need – would prevail over the avarice of some pharmaceutical companies (and perhaps some national governments) and that, when developed, this vaccine would be made globally available at low cost.

That was a bit of a digression into technicalities, and what I was actually thinking about yesterday was something I am calling a very different sort of ‘herd immunity’: the idea that some specific groups in the population seem to have that their ‘herd’ will simply not be affected by this pandemic. This has been seen with groups of young people gathering to take advantage of the good weather by holding barbecues or outdoor parties, despite the advice – now instructions – to practise social distancing. It has been even more disturbingly illustrated by groups of youths deliberately coughing at people while claiming to be infected; elderly people and police officers have been cruelly targeted in this way. While such behaviour is reprehensible I found myself wondering why anyone would do this, and I suspect that what may be involved is a false bravado born of deep-seated fear, coupled with the sort of peer pressure that draws susceptible young people into activity they would normally have nothing to do with. These are the same sort of ‘symptoms’ that may result in young people shop-lifting in order to be initiated into a group, or carrying a knife on the streets because that’s what their gang all do. These are rebellious youngsters for whom the whole idea of conforming to rules – especially rules laid down by their elders and those in positions of authority – is anathema. If this is so, then I wonder how long it will be before the inevitable happens and there will be a young person who was involved in this but who then succumbs to the virus; it is to be hoped that – as with knife crime – someone from their own peer group will have the courage to speak out and confront the senselessness. And, to counteract the publicity given to these horrible occurrences, we should see more stories in the media about the massive amount of good that young people are doing, stepping up and sharing responsibility for looking out for friends, neighbours and elderly relatives. Let’s not join in with anything that stereotypes any particular group in the population as ‘failing’, letting people down or acting selfishly, because it simply isn’t true. Remember all those key workers we applauded yesterday evening: they come from every age group, region, income bracket, political persuasion, ethnicity, religion and background – and we need and should value them all.

Lockdown Log, Day 2

56e3a921b7a7f.image25 March 2020 and another lovely, blue-sky day – although the forecast is for things to get decidedly chillier over the next few days. On waking today my first thoughts about gratitude were around the avalanche of news and information that is swamping our screens at present: I feel very privileged and grateful to have had a really good grounding in science at school and to have ended up studying a biological science to postgraduate level. One fortunate result is that I am not phased by the terminology used, but it could have been very different – when it came to what were then O-level options I rather wanted to take needlework and domestic science but I will always be glad that my teachers knew better. However, I can appreciate that for many people the news is currently presenting them with a whole array of stuff that they are unfamiliar with and that it is therefore doubly difficult to feel safe in these uncertain times.

There is information overload – even a whimsical nostalgia for the days not so long ago when all we ever seemed to hear about was Brexit! Reports today from one very reputable newspaper suggest that epidemiological studies at a university research department outside the capital have come up with quite a different view on the likely pattern of the spread of coronavirus in the UK over coming months from that from Imperial College in London – and it is the latter that has been very influential in shaping the government’s approach. So, who are we to believe now that experts are back in vogue? Well, that is where a science background also comes in useful, because I understand that all science is effectively ‘provisional’ – it can be top-notch research data but there may nevertheless be even better theories and answers next week, or tomorrow. It is neither surprising nor disturbing that the experts differ at present, although as time goes on and the models are refined we might expect that the conclusions being drawn would converge.

A question that has occurred to a number of us in the climate movement is whether there is any linkage between climate change and the virus pandemic. At present no one knows for sure, but there are suspicions and an expert on environment and health from Harvard University in the US has said the following: ‘If you wanted to do something to prevent disease emergence, first of all we need to seriously reconsider how we do business with the biosphere. We can’t simply pretend that we can extract things and put species in assortments that they’ve never been in before, and hope that somehow doesn’t lead to disease emergence. And another good thing to do would be to prevent climate change because it changes how we relate to other species.’ (Dr Aaron Bernstein, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11032020/coronavirus-harvard-doctor-climate-change-public-health?fbclid=IwAR1FfVMfQR6Vs00hJZX_VyCDgX604qbzk0GH8LnOfaGxx4Gl3_yq6GDMvWw). The full interview is well worth reading if you are interested in this sort of thing. And if, like me, science fascinates and intrigues you – perhaps if it is something that helps you make sense of the world – then you might also enjoy, as I have done, watching the online YouTube interviews with eminent scientists from a variety of fields whose conversations with Dr Ruth Valerio were carried out in conjunction with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2020, Saying Yes To Life (SPCK). There is much in these that sounds completely up to the minute and yet they were made before we had heard of Covid-19.

There is much to be thankful for in the big picture and also much closer to home: today I saw a pair of beautiful peacock butterflies in the garden – and on my way to do some essential shopping I was able to deliver a jar of frogspawn onto the doorstep of a friend who has just dug a new pond.

Lockdown Log, Day 1

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It is Tuesday 24 March 2020, and the first day under ‘lockdown’ conditions. My writing buddy, Liz, is keeping a diary of these strange times and yesterday I read a brief article in our local churches’ magazine encouraging readers to keep a ‘gratitude journal’, so I thought I would try and do both in one – perhaps the attempt to focus at least in part on all there is to be thankful for will help to keep anxiety at bay as we all get used to enforced isolation.

It is almost beyond comprehension that it is only twelve weeks since the first case of an unexplained influenza-like virus was identified in a region of China and yet now there is a global pandemic and governments from Spain to the US, Iran to New Zealand are enforcing stringent measures to protect their populations – measures never before taken, even in times of world war. In the UK, as of today, we all have to stay at home. We can go out only if shopping, as infrequently as possible, for food or medicines, taking once-a-day exercise by walking, running or cycling, caring for the vulnerable or accessing medical help, or travelling to and from work. And for most people who are not designated ‘key workers’, work now has to be done from home. All non-essential shops are closed, as are all places of worship, all entertainment venues, galleries, museums, cafés, bars and restaurants. Gatherings of more than two people in public are banned – unless this is of people in the same household who either have to shop together or are out for exercise. This is completely unprecedented – and we will surely never forget living in this unusual situation.

The bustle of town-centre life and the crowded streets of cities have hushed and people are beginning to value birdsong and green open spaces. Gardeners are busy in the spring sunshine and we are all finding new ways of keeping in touch with loved ones and our friendship groups. For the first time in the thirty-seven years I have attended my local Baptist church, no Sunday service was held two days ago and, instead, our ministers put together an online resource with a short sermon, an all-age video reflection, some prayers and links to worship songs. It worked well and looks set to be the pattern for what may be months to come. What would otherwise have been face-to-face meetings have already been taking place for a week or so using online platforms such as Skype or Zoom. We are very fortunate indeed to have these technologies at our disposal – nothing remotely like this was available to offer help, comfort, advice or companionship when the last global pandemic swept across the world in the wake of the First World War. Nevertheless, we must not forget those who still do not have access to these ways of keeping in touch and who will value a simple telephone call.

Lying awake in the middle of the night, it would be easy in the absence of a strong faith to succumb to panic: what if a child on the other side of the world falls ill: under normal circumstances we would have been able to book a flight and rush to a bedside – not now. What if our kids struggle to make ends meet when they cannot work: will they share their anxieties or try and shield us from their concerns? How will social isolation affect relationships between those who have to share confinement? Yet we are the very fortunate ones; we are all healthy and are better placed than most to make a full recovery if one or more of us should succumb to the Covid-19 virus in the coming months, and this is a truth to hang on to. When the morning sunshine breaks through the curtains and heralds another day of glorious weather – even in March – I need to remember that a few short weeks ago we were complaining about the apparently ceaseless rain and biting cold wind, and to be thankful that just when we need to feel the warmth of the sun and enjoy the promise of spring seen in drifts of daffodils, the jewel colours of hyacinths, the blooms of magnolia and the green shoots on all the trees, nature delivers.

The cycle of the seasons will continue, and in these very unusual times the planet is being healed of some of the damage that humanity has been inflicting upon it for centuries. Pollution levels are plummeting in some of the places where air quality has been at its worst and emissions of greenhouse gases are falling as travel is restricted; perhaps the world is learning – not without great cost to those severely affected by the virus – that things can be different, that we can be kinder to each other and to the earth that sustains us all, and that making sure every family can be fed and kept well is always going to be more important than corporate growth, national GDP or the popularity ratings of incumbent politicians. This is not the global emergency – climate change – that some of us have been warning about for years and that will still be happening when the current crisis is over, but it is a global emergency and there are signs that the world is waking up to the reality that we are all in this together.