Early January 2020, my son’s entry on Facebook reads: “Third of January and so far we have had air-strikes on prominent Iranian bases, general further destabilizing in the Middle East, apocalyptic fires in Australia, a potential terrorist stabbing in Paris, ethical veganism now a philosophical belief and the introduction of a fake steak bake by Greggs! Going to be an eventful year.” Little did he know…
Looking back over the past few months the feeling I still get is one of disbelief. How on earth has this happened? Every year there seems to have been one threat or another that the world has had to fight against. Viruses are not new, and it seems that we were, at last, winning the fight every time yet another threat surfaced. Zika, a mosquito-borne infection is by and large contained. SARS and MERS, both similar viruses to Covid-19, caused a lot of problems in some countries but never really got off the ground to invade most of the rest of the world. And this is what we thought would happen with this new Covid-19. Just another virus, right. That it could be contained in a small area and eventually eradicated. How wrong that information turned out to be. Unlike the more recent ones, this little brute is very difficult to diagnose that many cases often went unreported.
In February 2020 the world began to sit up and take note. Rumours began to circulate that the Covid-19 (short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) epidemic playing out in China was about to spread across the world and turn into a pandemic. Fast-forward to March and the rumours refused to subside. Sitting in a cosy pub one Saturday lunchtime, a drink in hand and a roaring fire a few feet away, everything seemed idyllic. The murmur of voices from neighbouring tables usually lulled us all into a false sense of security. But this time conversations seemed to have taken on a new quality. A sense of quiet panic pervaded the warm air. One young man to the right of me said that he’d just taken his parents to the supermarket to pick up a month’s worth of food. He was worried because the government was talking about people in certain vulnerable groups – those over 70, or with underlying health problems – being forced to self-isolate for at least 12 weeks. I recoiled in horror as his voice drifted over to our table. John is 79, and I am 72, so this put us in that category. We certainly didn’t relish having to self-isolate for 12 weeks. My daughter-in-law, who had joined us with our son and three daughters, patted my arm reassuringly and said “I’m sure it won’t come to that”.
But none of us knew what this new threat might mean. Speculation was rife, tinged with a little fear for what was to come. I had heard just that morning that people had been spending huge amounts of money in the supermarkets and filling their trolleys with as many goods as they could find. It brought to mind those horror films we had seen on our TV screens over the years. Pandemic, Outbreak, The Living Dead. Oh God, were we about to be overrun by such scenes in reality? And we needed to be ready. If Wuhan was anything to go by, we will all be stuck indoors without access to basic shops for a very long time.
Over the next few weeks most discussions swirled around the virus. At our local Bowls club, on the buses, during our weekly cards meetings. A few of our friends were returning early from their cruises because some of the cruise ships had been infected. Both John and I hoped they hadn’t brought it home with them. At first we didn’t let this worry us, although we live in a very busy part of the UK, with a train station not a mile away, and a major hospital on an easy bus route. All year round our region welcomes tourists from all over the world. They keep our shops busy, our hotels full and our public transport on the move. They use the trains to and from London, catch the same buses we do, and spend money like there’s no tomorrow.
For some reason, here in the UK – I do not know about in other countries – toilet paper was high on the list of people’s priorities. The mind boggles as to why these might feature more than other things. Little was known about the virus yet – I had visions of people bent over in agonizing poses while sat on the toilet with an attack of diarrhoea. Joining an overcrowded supermarket the week before Lockdown was to be enforced, the rumour of empty toilet roll shelves was confirmed. Other things were missing from the shelves – pasta, rice, flour.
On 24th March we were officially in Lockdown. It was soon became evident that we were in for the long haul. Almost overnight, shops shut their doors; businesses arranged for their employees to work from home where possible; doors slammed shut – and stayed shut. A quiet hush permeated the air where once the general murmur of busy traffic and overhead planes had held court. Now, only the occasional piercing wail of an ambulance’s siren could be heard in the distance.
Visits to my mother and sister who live in a block of flats a short distance from us was now out of the question. Even if I had wanted to visit them, the building was like a fortress. Busy signs appeared around the perimeter forbidding anybody but those who lived there from entering. Besides, the last thing we wanted to do was put my 95-year-old mother in danger. I set up a plan with my sister, who is our mothers fulltime carer, so that we could try skyping. But the experiment wasn’t a success. My mother is almost blind so although she could hear me, she can’t see me very well. She soon gave up and insisted that she wanted to get back to watching “Golden Girls” on the tele.
A few days into the Lockdown, a neighbour stopped John as they were both putting the bins out. “You shouldn’t be doing that. You need to stay indoors”. John asked him why “Because of your age. Don’t you know everybody over 70 is in danger of becoming very ill if they catch the virus?” Another neighbour had slipped a note through our door with her phone number, asking if she could do any shopping for us. Their concern, while touching, was a shock to us, because we were suddenly seeing ourselves through other people’s eyes. In 2013 we had cycled over almost 600 miles from Bayonne in France to Santiago in Spain. And every year we would spend a few weeks either cycling in the New Forest in the south of England, or in France revisiting old haunts. We had never thought of ourselves as either old or vulnerable.
Not quite into the first two weeks and John was ill. A few days later I went down with what I thought was a nasty bout of flu. Except that flu will usually have you too sick to get out of bed. This was different. We both spent nights sweating profusely. Added to this, I was freezing cold, but thought nothing of it because I’ve always felt the cold, no matter how warm it is indoors. My delirious mind worked through the symptoms of Covid-19 – could this be it? We weren’t showing the typical symptoms of a sore throat and high temperature. But we were both coughing uncontrollably. John did not mention having aching muscles but perhaps that was because I was doing enough complaining for the both of us. I wondered if we had caught the virus. And if so, where.
I remembered that the week before Lockdown John had insisted on going down to the bowling club. We discussed him using the car rather than public transport. It was raining lightly so cycling wasn’t really an option. But, as I stood at the window watching him leave the house, he walked straight passed the car and headed for the bus-stop. He’s never been good at listening to me, that man. While sitting on the bus a woman sat in the seat behind him had begun coughing loudly. He decided to go upstairs (it was a double-decker bus) and as he was climbing the steps he heard the woman remarking, to nobody in particular, that perhaps he was afraid of catching the virus. We agreed that it was probably just a badly thought-out stab at a joke. At that stage, it did all seem like a huge universal joke being played out on humanity. None of us had really appreciated the seriousness of what was about to happen.
We spent the next few days trying to get through each hour. I was afraid to spend too much time in bed because we had heard that lying down could make breathing more difficult. Sitting huddled up and nursing copious cups of tea and hot water seemed preferable. My eyes felt weird, taking on a quality of their own, almost as if I’d been staring endlessly at a four inch screen with a black background. Focusing was a battle. I put this feeling down to hayfever which has always plagued me around this time of the year. That is, until John mentioned that he had the same problem. I idly wondered how we would have coped if we had young children to look after.
The worst thing was the fear – a feeling which could not be suppressed by talk of a 98% recovery rate. Indeed, at my lowest point I contemplated writing letters to our children, remembering that it has been some time since I have told any of them just how much I love and appreciate them.
Another worry was our food supply. Now that we were in enforced isolation for real, shopping was going to be a problem. We had at least three week’s of food, but that would soon go. I have always recoiled from online shopping, yet this was exactly what we needed to be thinking about. I was already registered with a local supermarket, although I have rarely used their service. I tried to contact them, rather in hope than expectation. Of course, there was no reply. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, I got through! The young man on the other end sounded bored and disinterested. He told me that if I wasn’t on the government’s list of “vulnerable people” then I couldn’t register. I explained that we were self-isolating and both over 70. “Well, if you’re not on the government’s list, all I can do is point you to a link on our website”. In frustration, I decided we’d just not bother.
But the following day I did register through the link he had given me and eventually managed to persuade them that we were a “needy case”. The aggravation of seeking online delivery did not end there. Filling the virtual basket with goodies took some hours. And then booking a delivery slot proved almost impossible. I took to checking the site as soon as I was out of bed and miracle of miracles I found a few days with available slots. I checked my cart then realised that many of the items (flour, eggs, toilet rolls, fresh fruit and vegetables) were no longer showing. I was reminded of the “Little Britain” TV series, “the computer says no”.
Our three grown children took turns phoning to check up on us. We thought it best to keep quiet about our own personal battle, knowing that they had enough to worry about themselves. Never before had we realised how easy it used to be to simply pick up the phone, invite ourselves over to theirs, or invite them to visit us. Now that this privilege had been so rudely snatched away from us, we craved even more to be near them, touch them, cuddle them, spend hours talking about everything and nothing. But now it seemed the only way we could show our love for them was to keep away. We were relieved to hear that our youngest son was to be furloughed so that he would at least be receiving 80% of his monthly salary from the government scheme. Our daughter was also furloughed although her husband had to carry on working. Our oldest son worried us because he’s self-employed and, like so many in the same position, his work dried up almost overnight. But he’s extremely resourceful and found things to keep himself busy until the government scheme set up to help was in play.
Listening to the daily reports on deaths was hard. Our medical staff worked so hard to try and keep people alive, while knowing that not all could be saved. They were battling against an unknown enemy and themselves being put in danger. In the meantime, we were fighting our own private struggle. It never occurred to either of us to phone the doctor, but just get through it. Besides, we’d simply be told to self-isolate and contact them if either of us got worse. Although tests were available, they were only for Key Workers. There must have been hundreds of people in the same boat as us and it was likely that most of us would get through the illness without needing the services of the hospitals. I desperately clung to rumours that people who have had the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis wouldn’t get a bad case. Something both of us had many years ago.
Days turned into weeks and soon we were both feeling more like our old selves. There were still times when one of us would feel pretty rotten and weak. But now that we were both feeling stronger, the new-found freedom was greedily snatched. The rules for Lockdown allowed us to leave the house once a day (if we were no longer self-isolating), either for exercise, food shopping or getting medical supplies.
We found a comfortable routine of combining a walk with a visit to our local supermarket, just a mile away. We soon had to revise these plans because it became clear that no matter what time of day we arrived at the supermarket, there was always a long queue. Mid-mornings were the worst, as queues appeared as if by magic. We have never enjoyed queuing, especially now, and will only do it when strictly necessary.
We belong to a cycling club but, of course, could no longer get together in groups. Besides, our usual cafes and pub stops were all closed. Furious discussions between members of the group online had been ongoing for weeks. Some of us couldn’t see the harm in getting out for a ride. Others argued that we might spread, or catch, the virus if we left home. Then we started hearing rumours of cyclists coming across signs in a few villages demanding that they stay away – some even came across nails and tacks placed in their path.
We decided to get out on our bikes for the first time since we had been ill. But as I bent down to tie up the laces of my cycling shoes, my head began to spin and I clutched at a nearby chair. I felt like I was in a washing machine working through its spin cycle. I staggered up the stairs towards the bedroom where I collapsed in a heap onto the bed. No bike ride for me today then. After checking that I was ok, John reluctantly agreed that he would go. There was no sense in us both missing out. It was only the following morning that the dizziness subsided. If I needed a reminder that I had not long been quite ill, I certainly got it in spades.
We started watching the nightly reports of daily deaths caused by this insipid virus, and recoiled with horror. Obviously the virus was still spreading. It soon became clear that people in our Care Homes were dying from Covid-19. We clung to the scraps of good news interspersed amongst the bad news. Many of our most eminent scientists were working on developing a vaccine. Surely, by the end of the year there would be one in circulation. We could only hope.
The Federation Federale de Cycling Tourisme e-mailed us. Apparently the event which we had hoped to enjoy this year was postponed until 2021. The Semaine Federale is an annual week-long celebration of cycling organised by the FFCT, the French equivalent of Cycling UK. Held in a different region every year, we were thrilled to discover that this year it would take place in the north of France – a ferry-ride away. Registration had opened online on 15th January. By 16th January we received confirmation of our booking. Now our money had been reimbursed and we will have to go through the same process next year if we intend to go. We were surprised that we did not need to even ask for the money back. This was not the case with our ferry tickets and insurance policy. First the ferry company, then the insurance company said they were not prepared to refund the money but suggested Credit Notes instead. In a way, we understand because if everybody had asked for their money back these companies are unlikely to survive.
Apart from the occasional ride now, I managed to persuade John to join me in an exercise video for a “Two Mile Walk” that I had found on Youtube. I had used this video constantly during the long cold, windy days when my other half would be out on his bike. I love the discipline of following the instructor as she puts us through a regime of knee lifts, kicks, side steps, and so much more. All in the privacy of your own home.
Thoughts turned to my sister who is also our mother’s carer. The appointment for an anti-inflammatory injection for one of her feet which constantly causes pain had been cancelled because of the virus. This, coupled with having to cope with my mother, who needs full-time care, had made her very depressed during the first few weeks of the Lockdown. Before this, I visited almost daily, sometimes helping with our mother, or just being there for long chats and card playing. But all this disappeared overnight once we were expected to follow the rules and keep away from each other. I felt guilty as well because my sister had to keep reminding our mother why I had stopped going round. It is very frustrating for us all and I felt impotent because there is nothing I could do. Only when one of the residents in the building asked my sister if she would like to help with sewing “scrubs” and masks, did she manage to put her depression behind her. The change in her was almost instantaneous. We donated some money towards the material that had to be purchased for the scrubs and masks. As a thank you, my sister made masks for both of us.
Into Week 6 of the Lockdown and I was thrilled to have an excuse to go for a walk to pick up the masks. Standing at her window, my sister threw a bag with the masks in and I deftly caught it. We talked for a while because I was desperate to know how she and mum were coping. Our mother was still spending most of her days in bed or sat in front of the television watching her favourite channel “Challenge”. They both seemed to have accepted the situation.
Our daughter phoned to tell us that her husband had the virus. As he has diabetes we were naturally very concerned for his welfare. Everyone in the house was having to self-isolate for two weeks along with him.
We have family living in South Africa. It has been horrendous there. Their Lockdown was much more stringent than ours. Family living there told us that the sale of cigarettes and alcohol was banned so people became expert at perfecting the craft of moonshine. Pineapples, a necessary staple for making a cheap, tasty drink, disappeared from the shelves almost overnight. The sale of cigarettes had simply gone underground – people desperate enough to get their hands on them were paying ten times the usual price.
Part-way through May we were told that the UK might have an antibody test available soon. In my haste, I phoned our local surgery but was told that they have not been informed about supplying tests for their patients. I knew it was a forlorn hope but somehow I felt that if I could prove that I now had antibodies to the virus, I could take off some of the burden my sister was carrying in caring for our mother.
The virus does not stop other illnesses from carrying on with their carefree destruction. If anything, it was stopping people from seeking help for other conditions. We were touched personally. At the beginning of week 8 the whole family was sent into a spiral of grief at hearing that my brother’s second daughter had just died. She had been bravely fighting cancer for about eight months. After the Lockdown in Canada began her chemo was put on hold and she was told to stay at home for as long as possible. She shared a house with her parents, husband and 12-year-old son. Consequently, without treatment, she was rushed into hospital at the beginning of May. After chemo to help with the pain, she was told that she should go home to be with her family. My brother and his wife were contacted by her specialist who broke the news that their daughter only had about three to four weeks left. Sadly, she did not even manage to get that. Some four days after being admitted, her husband was by her side when she took her last breath. Sadly, my brother and his wife, both in their late 70s, were unable to visit her in the hospital, because of the Lockdown and the danger visiting the hospital might have put them both in.
Shortly after the very sad news of my niece’s death, my daughter confirmed that her husband was over the worst of his illness. Only one of their five children still living with them had caught the virus, and she was soon on the road to recovery.
Deaths from Covid-19 here in the UK were slowly coming down although, at the time of writing, there are still too many people becoming infected. The authorities seem to have realised, at last, that people’s patience was beginning to fray and the police were finding it difficult to keep control. Aware of a possible backlash by the public, the government relaxed some of the rules and at last the amount of time spent on exercise and getting outdoors was extended. In the early weeks of the Lockdown we had only been allowed to use the car if absolutely necessary, but the easing of these rules meant that we could travel more freely. The weather had been steadily improving and of course, given this very welcome freedom, everyone wanted to get out and about. I was not surprised to see reports on the News each night of crowded beaches and overrun beauty spots.
Into June and I phoned our surgery again to ask about an antibody test. Again I was told that the government has not directed them to carry out testing yet. We could, however, buy a private test from a few selected pharmacists. But at £70 a time, we decided to wait. Besides, the urgency of knowing whether we had had the virus or not seemed to have melted. Restrictions are constantly easing and we are slowly getting back to normal. There have been no new cases in our own county for a while now. One morning, our youngest son turned up with his three daughters and we all sat in the front garden, keeping social distancing of course, and had a delightful half-hour all talking ten to the dozen.
These days, I wake up in the morning and ask myself if it had all been a nightmare. Foggy recollection would give way to resigned acceptance that this is the reality. Right here, right now. It is true, and we are still living through it. We still can’t hop onto an overcrowded bus, or walk straight into a supermarket without having to queue and wait our turn. No spending a happy half-hour sitting down to a cup of coffee before the shopping spree. No visiting the library and walking out with numerous books, sometimes returned without having been read.
I know we still have a long way to go and there are still issues that need addressing. The response to this monumental catastrophe here in the UK, as in most parts of the world, has been very badly handled. But these are unprecedented times and in my opinion, nobody really has the answers. We have a “new normal”, although we have yet to know and understand just what this is, to embrace before we can move forward.