Voices From Lockdown
26th January 2021
Alan Shackman, a retired engineer, describes his experiences of lockdown
I was vaccinated last week. Many of my contemporaries have now had their coronavirus jab too. Salvation is at hand! Limited salvation at any rate. But are we of a frame of mind to grasp it?
I am an active 71 year old. Although more likely to get seriously ill, we’re generally considered to be the lucky generation. There is some truth in this. After all, I have no work to go to or stay at home for; I have no financial problems so long as pensions continue to be paid; my children have long since left the nest and are responsible for themselves. That, however, is where the luck stops. No work, no money worries, no kids, so – and this is a big ‘so’ – no need to get out of bed in the morning and worse, much worse, no reason to.
The advantages of retirement are obvious. But retirement even at the best of times can create mental health problems. The big downside, certainly for me and many others, is being cut off from daily human contact. There is nowhere I have to be at a certain time because other people are waiting for me, relying on me. Even someone working from home during the pandemic can still feel part of a team even if they are not physically sitting alongside their colleagues every day.
I worked hard to create a post-retirement life. And the key thing about most of the activities I found for myself, some involving voluntary work, some leisure or hobbies, is that they all involved being with people. That is what I miss most under lockdown. All these activities around people are gone, all gone: even the simplest of get togethers for a chat, a coffee or a meal.
Finally, the vaccination has come to the rescue! From mid-February I will have a decent level of protection from the virus. Of course I will continue to socially distance to avoid any risk of passing infections to those who are not yet vaccinated. I will, however, consider it safe to be indoors with a contemporary who has also been vaccinated. The mutual benefit would be enormous and, as I see it, at minimal risk to ourselves and others.
I know this is contentious. It is made so by disagreement on the science amongst public health officials, vaccine developers and researchers. Economists, educationalists and mental health professionals disagree on broader issues. Who should we be guided by? The trouble is that “when everybody’s somebody, no-one’s anybody”. In the face of so much uncertainty everyone must form their own conclusions: must weigh safety – whatever that actually means – against the harm that lack of human contact is doing to us.
My own position is clear. There are few freedoms more basic than the right to invite whom we like into our homes. This is a freedom I willingly give up when it’s for the common good, but what when it ceases to be for the common good? Because that is exactly where we are: socialising indoors between people who have been vaccinated is of minimal risk not just to them but to the community at large. There is no ‘common good’ reason for remaining in isolation.
However, permitting indoor socialising is way down the priority list for relaxing restrictions. Nor do I detect much pressure to change this despite the general recognition that being vaccinated is a game changer. Talking to friends I find that either the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ effect, resignation or sheer weariness is keeping most of us in line. I imagine that come April we will be fobbed off by (and expected to rejoice in) being ‘allowed’ to mix more freely outdoors. But that is a far cry from the real thing, even when high summer is with us.
For how long will the law prohibit socialising indoors? Until the end of April? – certainly. Until the end of May? – almost as certain. End of June, July? To say there are only four more months to endure is optimistic. In fact, I imagine prohibition will be with us for as long as the government believes people will comply – until, to continue the US analogy, there is a sufficient number of bootleggers.
I think this would be a good time for everyone who has been vaccinated, or who expects to be within the next few weeks, to consider to what extent they are going to take advantage of the protection they will have received. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that by mid-February people like me might discreetly, sensitively and in a limited way start taking back our indoor lives.
“I’m alright, Jack.” A frustrated dad describes his experiences of lockdown
I sit here in my nice, big house, drinking my beer. I am spending less money. I am still being paid. I have a job. But, then, I stop and think. And my temporary selfishness and fear are put on the backburner. I think about all the others.
I cannot think of them all. But I know some of them. They are our children, our disabled friends and family and our lonely elderly.
For almost a year now, fear has been ramped up. Perhaps this was inevitable, maybe even forgivable. But we have been so thoroughly scared that we avoid each other as though we were lepers in ancient Jerusalem. A diverse and tolerant society is based on openness and trust. It will take a long time to rebuild that, but I hope it can be done.
Selfishness is harder to forgive. Nearly all the lockdown lovers I have met are comfortably off and will get through this with more money in their pockets. They argue that they do not love lockdown. The way they react when anyone suggests that lockdowns are perhaps not the final word in pandemic suppression policy would tend to suggest otherwise. It is because they are insulated from the real time threats of lockdown that their selfishness is so hard to deal with.
My child is severely disabled. She has complex issues that are both physical and mental. Lockdown has blown apart her routines. All the activities she used to be involved with closed suddenly and, seemingly, on a whim. Once, her school shut with barely any notice. This had a devastating impact on my daughter and our whole family. We found ourselves scrabbling around for any kind of support. Yet this sudden closure was not only supported by the government but actively encouraged.
Emergency carers became a crucial lifeline for our family. These people are rarely recognised and are amongst the lowest paid and most at risk from Covid-19 in our society. They are subject to the gig economy and exposed to illness at the same time.
I hope there will come a point when the teaching union leaders, and the leadership teams in some mainstream and special needs schools, will be held to account for these immensely harmful diktats. When schools close there is a very real risk that some children are not getting fed, many more are not being educated and some may actively be at harm. Headteachers and school leaders take responsibility for safeguarding their pupils. Abdicating this responsibility on the grounds that “you were just following orders” is no defence.
Having to deal with such huge disruptions to her daily routine has led my child to become more violent and much harder to deal with. This puts everyone in my family under strain. Lockdown lovers will no doubt argue that I cannot possibly link this change in her behaviour to lockdown. And there is a sublime beauty in this defence: I can never be totally certain in the way that they demand (despite much of the ropey ‘science’ they espouse). But I would swear on it in a court of law.
Imagine that, overnight, you have your life cancelled. Now, imagine that you have no understanding of how and why this has happened. And now tell me that there is no negative effect. As a parent, and an adult, I have to cope with this somehow. But my child cannot.
As heart-rending as this is, it is only part of the story. I have another child who is, effectively, an only child as their older sibling is not in any fit state to have a loving relationship with them. That tears me to pieces as they used to love, laugh and smile so much together when they were smaller.
Now, thanks to lockdown, my son not only experiences increased stress at home but he cannot see his friends or go out to play himself. Normally, his friends are like his family, they help and support each other, as well as laughing and playing. Denying my son this connection with his friends seems like targeted and deliberate cruelty.
My son’s school has also been cancelled. Online lessons are no substitute for the relationships he had with classmates and teachers. Many families simply do not have the equipment for online classes in the first place. Yes, it really is true that some families cannot afford wifi and do not have any devices other than mobile phones at home.
We have forgotten so many people. When will we remember them? I only hope it is before it is too late.
Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash