Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Guest Post. From the Thornveld: Views on life in the continuing crisis: part two

March 29,2021.

WE’VE just passed 23 March, the day the first UK lockdown began in 2020. The charity Marie Curie named it a ‘Day of Reflection’, and encouraged a minute’s silence at noon and distanced candlelight vigils at 8 pm. Reviewing my own twelve months, I see a satisfactory adaptation to practical matters: full initiation into working from home; shopping – deliveries and in person – sorted; a more extensive exercise programme than pre-lockdown; and other activities slotted in. I’m a busy person.

But there’s a blandness about life, a bit of Groundhog Day vibe, and there’s loads missing – the variety of happenings and stimuli, both planned and unexpected, that existed in the life before have diminished hugely. Social interaction is rarely by chance and largely online. The loss of spontaneity and surprise, and the limitations to human relationships, let alone the uncertainty that comes with a pandemic inevitably have their impact psychologically and emotionally. I notice my heart becomes heavier more easily, and that it requires fewer things these days to make me anxious. I think about my mortality every day – no bad thing, but a new one.

There is a changed quality to human interaction and a big contrast in styles. On the one hand we have frontline workers (NHS, social care, domestic violence helplines … ) who have stepped up to engage big-time and in profound ways with the public they meet, and others (supermarket staff, refuse collectors, bus drivers … ) continuing their usual service to keep things going. On the other, the pandemic has forced us into smaller contexts focused on our own needs and survival in alien circumstances, with not much time for or trust in others. There is a popular opinion that emergence from our current state into whatever evolves will be a difficult process, whether encumbered by over-enthusiasm or timidity, whether approached with an expectation of ‘getting my life back’ or with the daunting prospect navigating that emergence without a loved one.

At one of Marie Curie’s recent online discussions, ‘Are we really in this together?’, speakers highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the disabled and those with learning difficulties, and how Covid-19 and the death of George Floyd have raised awareness of the many facets of racism in the UK. Some communities have suffered more change and are having to make much more adaptation than others, usually the communities already afflicted by ten years of spending cuts. There is talk of learning lessons, having independent reviews and producing reports, received with a heavy dose of scepticism that anything will actually change. We’ve been here before. There is some optimism though that neighbourhood initiatives set up to support those in need during the pandemic will endure, and may even contribute to the development of ‘compassionate cities’.

This one year anniversary gives pause to think about the 126,000+ UK citizens who have died with Covid-19, and the potential number of related bereavements. There is huge concern about possible delayed trauma both for the bereaved and for healthcare workers. The experiences – exceptional and overwhelming – that many have been exposed to will not be assimilated quickly or easily into life narratives, and people will need help. Let’s all reveal and exercise our compassionate parts, and make ourselves available.

Further reading: The Compassionate City Charter — Compassionate Communities UK (compassionate-communitiesuk.co.uk)

Screen Covid patients and NHS staff for post-traumatic stress, expert urges | Mental health | The Guardian

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

I’VE just had two weeks of something that looked oddly like a cold – congestion, tiredness, etc. It made me think, first, that I have been very well this year and that this illness has been out of the ordinary. A fact confirmed by the local hospital that has reported that influenza and gastro-intestinal illnesses have dropped drastically – a side effect of all the social distancing and hand sanitiser.

Second, though, it made me wonder how I had got an infection – given all the social distancing and hand sanitiser, how had I managed to catch an infection from someone else? And if I could catch a cold like this, how had I escaped a Covid infection or how close had I been to getting a Covid infection?

In the last blog I was bemoaning the lack of an approaching light from the end of the tunnel. The roll-out of the vaccine in Europe has been so slow that I wondered when it, the solution to all our current problems, would ever get to me. Politicians were telling us that this is a marathon, the immunisation of the whole population, not a sprint, but they seemed to be missing the point that even a marathon will never be run if it never starts. Slowly, slowly, stop – as fears were raised about the Astra Zeneca vaccine the French government joined other European countries in suspending the delivery of the vaccine. Amid reports that some batches of the vaccine were going out of date and being thrown away, the immunisation programme was halted because a few people encountered blood clotting problems. Statistically, it was within, or less than, the normal number of people who experience these problems but the anti-vax hysteria and scepticism meant that vaccinations had to halt. There was a strong suspicion that politics was being put ahead of science in this case – and cast further doubt on the EU’s ability to cope sensibly and adequately with this emergency.

The irony, for me, was that after wondering when I was going to get the vaccine, I was injected with the Astra Zeneca vaccine just days before its use was suspended, leaving me wondering if I was going to get the second dose! Now normal service has been resumed, so my second dose in June should be OK – unless there is another scare …

And how did I get the jab? We were walking the dogs at 9 am one morning when the doctor phones to ask ‘would you like to be vaccinated?’ Would we!!?? So at 11 am there we were, sleeves rolled up, receiving the vaccine. Not in the designated age group, not using up an opened bottle of vaccine – it was just that our GP was going down her list of patients and we were next to benefit from one of the two bottles of vaccine she gets each week. No orderly progression through the age groups or through the categories of at-risk patients here – this is France and this is the French way!

Cases of Covid are rising in France as I write, with the death rate steady at around 300 a day. The vaccination programme is going slowly, partly because people are reluctant but more because there is not enough vaccine to go around – we seem to be sending a lot of what we manufacture to the UK rather than using it ourselves. Paris is back in lockdown for four weeks and we continue to live with an overnight curfew. The third wave is here – though it is increasingly hard to talk about waves when the viral flood feels continuous.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

IT’S now over a year since the first Covid-19 case (5 March), and death (27 March), were recorded in South Africa. On that second date a severe lockdown was announced and a few observers suggested that ‘life would never be the same again’. I believe them to be correct in spite of optimistic pronouncements about returning ‘normality’, encouraged by vaccination.

We are now at a stage where people should know enough about the risks and their mitigation to make their own decisions. Many will have concluded that social interaction can be deadly and will change their behaviour forever with consequences both for them and society. Of course we have always been vulnerable to other people’s germs (I contracted TB in the 1980s and only found out by chance some years later from an X-ray), but not in modern times anything as virulent as this. Medicine will gradually reduce the danger, but not to the extent of eliminating much significant, recently learned cautionary behaviour.

Initially there was the idea that ‘we’re all in this together’. This lasted, possibly, for one lockdown. There are now clear signs of serious schism. Put simply – perhaps simplistically – there are those who demand that governments protect them from the virus and accuse officialdom of murdering their grannies. In the other corner are people demanding their rights, including hugging their grannies whenever they feel like it. Bridging this divide looks impossible and ultimately it will have political consequences.

Covid-19 has also encouraged authoritarianism and managerialism. Stand in a queue outside a bank and you will be ordered about mindlessly by someone in a uniform. Go to work and you will be hedged around by rules and regulations that are contradictory and applied to suit certain agendas. This is all for your own good; it always is.

And then there are the opportunistic organisations and individuals. Why, for example, can I use my local public library and provincial archives in much the same way as I go shopping? But I am not allowed into the library or even the grounds of the university. All face the same virus and challenges to manage it. I would suggest that working from home is a highly elastic and desirable concept in certain quarters.

Whichever way you turn, freedom and access are becoming more limited. This was already happening before March last year, but disasters whether of public health or finance accelerate and accentuate trends. Similarly, social media abuse and dirty political tactics (in South Africa this pops up as the doctrine of perpetual racial crisis) blossom still further.

It took nearly ten years for the political consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown – right wing populism – to take root. This disaster has been much more devastating, but more urgently managed, so maybe a similar time frame will operate. By that token, before 2030 we can expect to see serious change that at present is confined to the realm of imagination. But it’s unlikely to be encouraging.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg