This year will be forever known as The Lost Year. A time when the entire world stuttered to a lockdown and a disoriented human race simultaneously sat in their houses and wondered if they had been inexplicably cast as extras in some dystopian movie…
On March 11th 2020, the World Health Organisation announced Covid-19 as a global pandemic and every one of us - rich, poor, famous, old, unemployed, prisoner, prime minister - stopped and took stock. As with any major crisis, our lives can never be the same again. You cannot erase what has happened, the mark it has left, the changes it will enforce, the heartbreak it might cause. There is the life Before and now, After. And each one of us will be impelled to rethink how we want to step forward, and what and who do we want to bring with us. Personally, I now know I can manage without expensive gym memberships, and I couldn’t care less if I never ate a Taster Menu again. But I do want to continue sharing conversations with my neighbours over the garden fence and I’d love to regularly give every single one of my friends a ten minute cuddle.
When the world eventually looks back at this time of loss, we will recognise that plenty of wonderful things came out of this global emergency too. Endless paintings of rainbows appeared in windows, created by children to thank the previously overlooked key workers, strangers positioned stones on pathways with messages telling any finder to ‘Stay Safe’, confined families joined together to sing songs on social media to entertain the other confined millions who craved something silly to laugh at.
Our city skies swapped aeroplanes for birdsong, while reports from China claimed emission reductions had saved the lives of thousands of heart and lung sufferers. In Stockport someone dressed up as Spiderman and ran through the streets of Greater Manchester with the simple aim of cheering up isolated kids - his action inspired a Princess Belle, Batman, Mr Incredible and Wonder Woman elsewhere. And how about our 99-year-old army veteran who walked 100 laps of his garden to raise £20 million (and counting) for the NHS?
Just the other day, a friend told me about a grandmother who desperately missed her grandchildren and recorded a story for them on her smartphone so it could be played at bedtime. Other people have sent beautiful hand-written letters to distant lovers, while parcels of prized food items (chocolate, yeast for baking, bananas, tinned tomatoes) have been left on doorsteps for relatives.
Ah yes, food. It has taken on gargantuan importance. What will we queue for, what new recipe shall we try now we have all this time, how often will we open and close the fridge throughout the day? Folks joke about whether they will join Weight Watchers or AA when this is all over. But worry not, the online yoga classes, Joe Wicks sessions and Couch to 5k app will sort out those problems. You might just have to wear elasticated waistbands while you’re doing them.
But not all dilemmas can be dispelled at the click of a home page. Some families are destitute. If the lockdown continues, the Government warns us that the UK economy could shrink by 35 per cent. Jobs have been lost, businesses have collapsed and incomes are reliant on a universal credit system, which only offers a short-term solution. There may be a whole generation of job seekers who find their uni degree defunct. And as food banks plead for supplies, the children of zero hours workers will feel the gnaw of hunger in their bellies.
With the loneliness, boredom and stress of confinement comes a plethora of mental health issues - depression, suicide, and domestic abuse cases have increased significantly. As we are all forced to face our own mortality, people are dying alone in the ICU, and funerals are being conducted online to reduce the risk of passing the infection on.
How can we not feel humbled by the endurance of our health services? Boris praised the two nurses who never left his side for 48 hours while he struggled through his worst. Millions, often with tears in their eyes, clap every week in the hope that the sound might drift towards the worn-out souls of our medics to remind them we are sorry for not sanctioning their worth before. And how could we convalesce afterwards without the deliveries of necessary food by drivers who get paid less in a year than a so-called Influencer (touting a new mascara) might earn in a week?
Yet, while death is breathing down our neck, there is also an acute sense of knowing what really matters and what we might want from our After life. And through this shared experience there may be a shared resolution to endorse change. History has shown us that disasters often radically reset the way forward – after the 1918 flu epidemic health services across Europe grew, and after the Second World War came the welfare state.
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from this experience is that tech is our saviour. It has kept us connected, entertained, informed, and enabled an entire labour force to work from home. Even though the naysayers declared it could never be done, complex systems were set up in days and millions of us turned our kitchen table into a professional hub. Bosses have realised that remote working can be time efficient, reaching a wide talent pool regardless of location while also supporting diversity (female leaders tend to favour the flexibility). Workers are claiming it improves the balance of their lives (no commute, more time with family, a chance to enjoy other activities like exercise), while some are saying they are even dreading giving up this new-found relaxed version of working when the lockdown is eventually lifted.
But perhaps a more subtle and meaningful factor of this experience is the significance of communal emotion. People are asking each other, ‘Are you ok?’ They are genuinely interested if someone is scared, lonely, upset. They want to share with them that they feel the same. Executives, who previously might never have admitted to being vulnerable are openly discussing how traumatised they have been by this experience and its consequences. Suddenly, we are recognising that people need emotional support, and if businesses are to thrive after Covid-19 has done its worst, it will be because this sense of solidarity and understanding is in place.
None of us can claim that a wondrous new world will evolve from this global catastrophe, but perhaps this is our chance to do something better. It’s people we have missed. It’s people who add value. It’s people who can empower a more adaptable, resilient and happier ever After. It’s time to take more care of them.