from Hove, UK – Brenda Gourley

Brenda Gourley. Retired Vice Chancellor of the Open University, UK, company director; previous Vice-Chancellor of the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa; 2009 named as one of the UK’s most inspiring women in the Women in Public Life awards.

1 April. We have had one death in our extended family. My cousin’s sister-in-law died over the weekend in London. Elderly, in a care home and suffering from Alzheimer’s. Family far away but not recognised anyway. Sad.

I heard today on the news that a doctor in Italy has designed a ventilator that can be downloaded and printed out on a 3D printer. The ingenuity of the human species will always surprise us. As will the idiocy: witness Florida – and Trump.

Cannot shake from my mind the images I am seeing in South Africa of people ignoring the very strict lock-down in place. I don’t even know how such a lock down could possibly work. So many people live in such cramped quarters – if they have quarters at all – and so many don’t have running water and proper toilet facilities and such, how can they respect the instructions they hear on the radio? Many will be suffering from HIV/AIDS and TB and malnutrition and have compromised immune systems. The Economist has an issue dealing with how poor countries simply don’t have the capacity to do what rich countries are doing – and I am haunted by what is likely to happen.

31 March. I am in awe of the number of people here in the UK who have volunteered to work in the NHS during this difficult period. 750,000 and counting! I find that astonishing – and humbling. Doctors have been asked to come out of retirement and over 20,000 have responded. Bearing in mind that, by definition, they will be in a higher risk group than younger people, that is also astonishing. New Intensive Care hospitals have been created in conference centres all over the country. The one in London is said to be the largest in the world. Given the sheer logistical skill involved in doing this in such a short time, I have to take back what I have said about the management of the NHS. While it is true they have been caught on the back foot with ventilators and masks, credit must be given where credit is due.

I don’t know what is happening in South Africa with respect to these kind of facilities except to say that my son has sent me photos of the hospital in Umhlanga Rocks converting their underground parking garage into an intensive care unit.

The contrast with parts of America, notably Florida where my daughter works, is quite stunning. The Governor of Florida, unlike his counterparts in other states, has not called for any kind of lock-down. Life continues as if nothing is wrong. Churches packed this Sunday. Restaurants and shops open; traffic as busy as ever. New York should be a lesson to them – but no notice being taken at all.

30 March. At a time like this, it seems to me that we should exercise considerable personal discipline. The flat should be kept tidy and clean, we should make our beds and dress properly every day – and eat as healthily as we can. I can’t say we are managing to do all this! I seem to have lost my balance in some odd way. Who cares if I wear the same thing every day? Does it really matter if untidiness reigns? Our diet is healthy enough, if somewhat odd. It depends on what food we can get delivered – and that is a random sort of thing. A young neighbour put a note under my door saying he was going out and could he get anything for me? I couldn’t take advantage of him – but I did say chocolate had run out! He declared that to be an ‘essential item’ and left some at the door some hours later. My hero.

The ‘balance’ thing has affected my concentration: reading, music – and TV viewing. I can’t be doing with ‘harrowing’ and I cannot concentrate on heavy themes and dark outcomes. So much for my determination to get through books and music and films I had been putting off until I had the ‘time’! Must do better!

29 March. Best Laid Plans. I find myself counting my blessings as stories from all over the world flood in. For example, I cannot believe that we were lucky enough to sell our house in November last year and lucky again to find such a pleasant apartment – and effect our move before all this horror descended upon us. We still have quite a lot in storage and I was quite determined to have the storage clear by now and all things in order. Another example of ‘best laid plans’. Normally I would be upset at not getting all this done and dusted. Now it doesn’t seem important.  Very little seems important other than our family and friends staying well.  If there is one good thing about this event it is putting in perspective all our other little worries and concerns. Instead of fretting about the strictures under which we are living, I am daily grateful for the comfort we have – and so many others do not.

A group of people I know run a charity that looks after refugees in Brighton and Hove. It finds them accommodation and gives them enough money to sort themselves out until they get on their feet. None of the safety net provisions put in place will help them now and all the casual jobs they were able to find before have evaporated. Charity called Thousand41000.  Crowd funding.  All the events that are usually held to raise money have been cancelled. Charities all over the country are suffering. Contributions have taken a massive dive. Time to pitch in.

28 March. Best Laid Plans: Today I was determined to complete my ‘event of death’ file. Have copy of will on file and letter from solicitor telling me the original on file at her firm. Wanted to contact her to get children’s addresses changed and found that her firm no longer existed! Here I was secure in the fact that we had wills! The fact that our executor would not be able to find the original a minor detail. Shock, horror. Very upset. I have now contacted a solicitor in Brighton and asked if he can prepare a new will for us. Meetings have to be conducted via Skype because we are all on lockdown and I have yet to hear how he proposes we can get them signed and witnessed. Have visions of a meeting in the car park of our block all approaching the documents, one at a time, like some sort of weird dance. We also need an up-to-date power of attorney. I am asked whether we want a ‘financial one’ or a ‘health one’ or both! Who knew?! £450 each.

28 March (cont).  A family member in the United States (who works in a labour and delivery ward) phones me on her way to work several mornings a week. She has been getting steadily more anxious about the lack of protective gear available to her. She is in despair about the rules (or absence thereof) in the hospital which seems detached from the reality of the situation. Right until a few days ago, family and friends were allowed to visit the mother and even attend the birth. That has stopped (after a row) but the husband can still come in and out. He can roam free, go and fetch meals, come back and likely carry the virus wherever he wanders. Unbelievable. Just before she phoned I was sent an article from a Lancet staffer quoting health workers at every level in the NHS at how unprotected they feel. He lays the blame squarely at the door of management and thinks that the whole board of the NHS should resign when the dust settles and the costs are counted. Here we all are applauding the heroism of health workers – quite rightly – but I don’t think we realise quite the extent of that heroism.  We don’t see quite the lengths they are forced to go by the lack of preparedness and lack of careful and sensible management at the hospitals. Easy to say, I suppose. This family member in America tells me they are even threatened with the withdrawal of their licence if they draw a line. Tough stuff. I doubt that would hold up in law. Hard times all around.   

27 March. The Prime Minister, The Minister of Health and the Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government have all got the virus.

According to the guidelines endlessly intoned over the TV we are supposed to keep a two metre distance from anybody if we go out. I am beginning to wonder if anybody at all has any mental picture of what two metres look like. We have seen the Prime Minister giving his daily bulletins on TV;  three podiums in a row occupied often by the very three who now have the virus. I would put money on the fact that those three podiums are not two metres apart. I wonder if they have given the impression to the nation that that is what two metres looks like. My walks in the park have been made stressful by having to constantly dive into the grass, off the pathway, because people seem to think that because we are in a park either the rule doesn’t apply or I am magically two metres away from them – which I am not. I see small groups of people talking to each other in the garden of our block of flats and they are standing apart but not two metres; one metre at the most. Grrrrr.

My son, Ian, in South Africa was telling me about the lock-down there. It went into effect at midnight on Thursday. He sent me photographs of people in one suburb of Durban which had a giant street party on Thursday night complete with a big countdown to midnight like it was New Year’s Eve. Clearly the concept of the virus being among them – and therefore the need for social distancing – has not sunk in.

We live in a block of flats and we have to take our refuse and recycling to a central point in the garage. I won’t go in the lift at all and have to go down two flights of steps to get to garage and enter a pass code in the process. I take Dettol wipes to clean the rails I hold onto to, polish the key pad before I enter the code and I hold the wipe against my hand to lift the lids of the bins. Don’t see any other people doing this.

Read a whole book today and am beginning to feel almost tranquilized by the absence of deadlines and to-do lists (actually I do have a list but time has expanded and I don’t feel compelled).    

26 March. Complete Lockdown. UK now on near complete lockdown for at least three weeks in an attempt to what Jacinda Ardern (love that woman) calls “breaking the chain”. That the government is serious can be deduced from policemen patrolling the park, for one thing.

We went to the pharmacy yesterday and I waited until there was nobody in the queue (having phoned ahead for what we need) and then a woman comes in and stands right next to me. I asked her to stay the two metre away rule and she was quite miffed and stood back a bit but not much. Mmmm.

Ambulance taking somebody away from our block. Could be anything.

Irritated and bemused by the steady stream of advertisements that still come to the post box: clothes (who is buying clothes?), furniture (can’t see people choosing now to go on a decorating binge) , garden plants and other stuff. I suppose if they delivered plants one might buy but not allowed to go to garden centres. Hardly essential goods.

Spent most of the day reading, talking to friends on the phone and playing bridge – and cleaning! Arghhhhh!  We are asked to go out on our balconies or lean out windows or find a safe place where we can all signal our appreciation for health care workers – at 8pm we are going to clap.   

25 March. I had a long phone call with my son in South Africa. From tomorrow the whole country goes into lockdown for three weeks. The military are to go on the streets to enforce this. One does wonder how successful it will be. So many people live in informal settlements/slums and have so few options as they scramble, each day, to survive. There are advertisements on the TV showing people how to wash their hands – and millions don’t have access to running water, or even soap. My son knows a young doctor who works in a hospital in Northern Zululand, a poor area with high unemployment. It transpired yesterday that the doctor in charge of the hospital was unaware of the virus and there is very little he can do even if he was. I despair of what is about to unfold.

I had a long conversation yesterday with someone who says there is a measure of truth (he is doleful about agreeing with Trump) in reckoning that the economic suffering caused by a prolonged shut down might cause more death in the long run than the virus. Trump doesn’t frame the proposition very elegantly. A University of Bristol study calculated that once the GDP drops by 6.4% more people will suffer and die than will suffer and die from the virus. Economic consequences of this pandemic clearly going to be with us for a very long time.

24 March. Today is a lovely day and we went down to the beach in the car and found a mostly deserted spot and gazed at the sea – long one of my favourite things to do. My son and his family went down to the promenade on Sunday (also a nice day (these have been in short supply after a very wet and dreary winter)) and it was positively thronging with people. It was something that was mentioned in the News (“Brighton beachfront packed” with people) – and it was one of the things that acted as a prompt, I gather, to further lock-down instructions. Not thronging today. Sad.

Our cleaner sent us a touching note telling us she would not be coming until further notice and was sorry “to let us down”. I know scorn will be heaped on me when I say we have had a cleaner of some sort all my life (most of which was spent in South Africa). Now it is my job. Getting on with it – without enthusiasm. It is not as if I am wildly busy.  

23 March. Today I learnt that two members of my book club have COVID19 and are in hospital. A close friend of mine is not well and, after talking to a doctor about her symptoms, is advised to quarantine. This means living in a different part of the house from her husband, not sharing a bathroom, separating crockery and cutlery. Not easy.  

We ordered in a big shop about ten days ago and that arrived on time on due date. This week is a different story. Yesterday I spent hours (literally hours) online trying to get one of the supermarkets to deliver. I did try the ‘click and collect’ option that Tesco offer and there were no slots there either. My son, Michael will do whatever shopping we simply have to have but I would hope to avoid that. One wonders how other elderly people are managing. The government exhorting us to use delivery services rings hollow.  We have ensured we have enough medication for about a month. The pharmacy claims it has a delivery service. Have not had to put that to the test yet.

Our main form of exercise has been to walk in the park abutting our block of apartments. There have been so many people in the parks that many have been closed! We have been exhorted not to leave our home for just about anything – but the word ‘exercise’ was mentioned. Think of all the people who have dogs. We overlook the park and I can see there are very few people out walking – which goes against common sense. People do need exercise and, as long as one obeys the rules about staying a metre away from anybody, we  should get a walk. The nice thing about living next to a park is that you see the same people often and they stop for a chat. I had to say to a woman the other day “please stay further away from me” as I backed further and further off the path! She did apologize but it was a bit of a conversation stopper. I don’t really go there for conversation! I notice there is a police car parked in the road overlooking the park. Wonder if it is a coincidence.

22 March. Once upon a time – about a month ago – the Corona virus was a distant prospect, likely to affect us all but not the subject of much focus in the leadership of the country, and only a vague worry on our minds. That has changed beyond all expectations. The Prime Minister has a daily press conference flanked by the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor. For a government which not so long ago derided “experts”, it is a welcome and very visible change – and the daily announcements have radically changed as the scientists have gathered data and information tracking what is happening not just in the UK but in other countries (most notably Italy). As of today, we are being asked and will soon be told (and legislation put in place accordingly) to stay at home unless there is an excellent reason to do otherwise. Over 70s are particularly expected to stay at home. No exceptions.

We are both 76 with underlying health conditions and it is quite clear that if we get the virus, that is us – gone! It has focused the mind. What has changed in our lives?

1. We have a document called ‘In the Event of Death’ and have spent time this week updating it and all our files. One outstanding job is to get a power of attorney to our son. I have a horror of Michael having to deal with all sorts of admin and scrabbling around to find out what he needs to know when the time comes.

2. We are trying to keep up a ‘social life’ of a sort. All the Bridge Clubs are closed so my bridge group found an online platform (there are several; we use Trickster (not a very encouraging name)) and we formed a Whatsapp group where we all stay dialed in for the duration of the game. We can see each other, and we can chat. More sociable than just playing on the computer.

3. We spend a lot of time on Whatsapp (what a blessing that is) talking to family and friends every day. I can’t claim to be at all lonely because we spend so much time like this. It has made me think of people who don’t have someone to talk to and they may very well be right here in the block of flats where we now live. I am framing a note to put in all the letterboxes to people who may be alone and feel like a chat – and giving them my phone number. Michael and family have offered to help those that mention immediate difficulties. I should also join Silver Line which is a charity devoted to just this cause.

4. Reading has ever been my main hobby. I am now tackling the large endeavours – starting with The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. The Book Club is planning our meeting next week to happen via the Zoom app. 

5. I need to renew my interest in music at home now that concerts are cancelled. Even the wonderful Brighton Festival is cancelled. The Observer last Sunday listed books and music which you now have the time to indulge. The Ring Cycle was inevitably on that list. James has dug out our favourites and is playing them. Haven’t yet resorted to singing from the balcony but that time may come.

My main learnings so far have to be how to help as many others as I can, support friends who are sick or on their own, manage anxiety, cope with cabin fever, relax/meditate, exercise discipline in all matters and not be so goal oriented!  There I go with ‘goals’ again.