As things start to return to normal, it is time to take stock of what we have endured.
It is becoming harder and harder to remember a time when coronavirus was not the top news story.
I remember when COVID-19 first came to my attention in December 2019. As it was in China, it seemed only a peripheral issue. Wuhan is so far away that it could not possibly affect us. As we moved into 2020, the virus spread to other Chinese provinces. The virus was making its way west.
It was not until March 2020 that I began to think that COVID-19 would impose on my life. Italy had a serious outbreak on its hands. Suddenly, everything was much closer to home.
At this time, I was studying for a masters degree in Ireland. I was approaching the end of my final teaching term for my MPhil and preparing to start my dissertation. I came back to London for a reading week beginning on March 9. Whispers of COVID-19 were rife. The virus had reached Europe and it was now only a matter of time before it reached the UK. Instead of being trapped in London, I went back to Dublin.
Even back in Dublin, there was the looming presence of COVID-19. I was continuing to work in the library, but there was the constant worry that coronavirus would eventually make its way into the university. And so it did. By Wednesday, March 10, two cases had been recorded. At midday on Thursday, the university sent an email informing students that the campus would be closing at 5 pm that day indefinitely.
I scrambled to get the books I would need for coursework and my dissertation before returning home. It was at this point that I began to consider going home. Panic buying had started. Everyone was preparing for lockdown. I thought I might prefer to be with my family if there was a lockdown. I kept my room, assuming I would be able to return. After all, it would all be over in a month.
I flew home to London on Sunday, March 15. Five days later, England was put into its first lockdown. It was a surreal experience. Overnight the life I had enjoyed before was gone. Adjusting to our new reality took some time. However, we got through it. Since then, we have been in and out of lockdown. Each one brought its own challenges, but again we just stuck it out and came out the other side.
Looking back now, I am reminded of the expression of the First World War. When it began, everyone said, “it would be over by Christmas.” How wrong they were. After four years of bitter and bloody fighting, the number of total deaths was in the tens of millions. The actual number of deaths between 1914 and 1918 remains incalculable.
The pandemic mindset bears a striking similarity. Confronted with the biggest global health crisis in over a century, it was only natural to think, or rather hope, that it would all be over soon. It was comforting to believe that this might be a temporary blip. Within a matter of months, this would all be merely a memory.
Now, nearly 18 months later, I could scarcely have been more wrong. Rather than being a minor interlude, the pandemic changed all of our lives irreparably. Only in the last few days that Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the removal of all COVID-19 restrictions.
The announcement, although expected, was nevertheless strange. After living for so long with restrictions, the prospect of life without them seems alien. In fact, it is quite a scary prospect. The rules, as restrictive as they are, offer an aura of safety. They are ineffective at this moment as cases are now averaging 50,000 each day.
Monday, July 19 will be a watershed moment. We are embarking on the journey of living with COVID-19. Johnson began the pandemic by saying that herd immunity was the way out. Now, he is about to realise his original plan. People will contract COVID-19. Some will die. That is accepted.
To say this all feels strange is an understatement. Up to now, we have had measures in place to protect ourselves. From Monday, we are on our own. For young people especially, this is an unpleasant realisation. We are about to take part in a large scale human experiment. Let people get COVID-19 and see what happens.
Phrasing it this way is blunt and perhaps overly simplistic. However, there is a ring of truth to it. COVID-19 will, of course, be with us for a long time. That is unavoidable. So, it seems cliché to say so, but time will tell whether this was the right call by the government. They say that life is returning to normal. However, as long as the COVID-19 remains a current danger, life can never be entirely normal. We have all learnt that the hard way.
Written by James Hingley
James Hingley is a columnist at DecipherGrey.