Sunday National, 10th January 2021.
What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned from this pandemic? During the last ten months, this column has talked a lot about political lessons of this crisis, but today I’m thinking in more personal terms.
A New Year is meant to be a new turn of the wheel, but the turn from 2020 into 2021 has ground painfully slowly for many of us. January and February can always seem like dead space in the year, winter without the promise of a holiday, dark but with the Christmas lights torn down. I don’t need to tell any of you that the start of 2021 has not been especially propitious.
The sense of gathering doom in late December has been more than realised in the weeks which have followed. London has declared a state of emergency. NHS footage shows gaunt medical professionals tending to gaunter patients as demand for beds outstrips ready supply. The dead list grows and grows. Even as the vaccines begin to circulate through the most vulnerable populations, nobody is sighing “free at last” right now. The next few weeks show every signs of being extremely difficult for the NHS and for families affected by this murderous virus.
For the rest of us, the interminable greyness of lockdown endures. In Scotland’s central belt – stuck in tiers 3 or 4 since the early autumn – the restrictions have seemed endless. Justified, but endless. Life is still circular. The shops shuttered yesterday are shuttered today. Tomorrow has every promise of looking a lot like today. Next week seems likely to resemble this one – though perhaps rain will displace the recent snow.
Only the city’s cafes and bin men seem to be doing a roaring trade, filling up and sweeping out pyramids of coffee cups from the city’s frozen parks. If you survey this grey world with a grey eye – I don’t blame any of you who find this way of living soul-destroying.
Maybe I’ve just grown into the groove of it all. Maybe Covid and its associated regulations had now fully institutionalised me. Maybe it is natural stoicism – but I’m now feeling a strange kind of zen about the life we find ourselves living.
I appreciate this outlook may seem Quixotic and even misplaced right now. With hospitalisations now exceeding their April peak, and a new national lockdown paralyzing people’s lives, with parents trying to work from home and home-educate their children, as ice patrols the pavements and the snow falls, and singletons stretch into their tenth month talking mostly to themselves – this doesn’t exactly look like a hopeful vista for many people. It isn’t one.
But with a new year, you traditionally make resolutions to mend your ways and curtail your vices. In comes the exercise, out goes the booze. I’ve not lost the place enough to commit to their either of those innovations in my life – but I have been thinking about the lessons of the last nine months and the forced pause it has represented for almost all of us. And there are, I think, valuable lessons worth learning.
During the long months of last year, it seemed like tempting fate to think about the “after” of Covid-19. My motto eventually became: plan nothing, and you can’t be disappointed. I seemed to have the devil’s own luck. You couldn’t even contemplate a wee day trip to Edinburgh before the legal borders came clanking down. But the “after” is – very slowly – becoming more visible.
We should never forget that many people – far too many people – will not come through this pandemic. The medical, economic and social harms of this pandemic and the lockdowns associated with it speak for themselves, in weekly tallies and annual comparisons, in families bereaved, lives muted, careers ended and hardships endured. I don’t want to diminish the significance any of that.
But crises are also opportunities – and not only for smash and grab capitalists to win plum contracts from their pals in the UK government I don’t think I can be alone in this pandemic, finding myself reappraising a few things personally and politically. I’ve been reminded a lot of Thomas Paine famous observation: that “what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” This pandemic has made me think seriously about the things – big and small – I’ve taken for granted.
I’ve been surprised about what I’ve missed most during these long months. Spontaneity has largely disappeared from my life, and it has left an unexpected hollow. You might accidentally bump into a friend or acquaintance as you take your daily trundle around your neighbourhood, but there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Everything now is organised, intentional, coordinated. There’s no browsing, no unexpected encounters, no impromptu changes of plan, no dynamo evenings which come from nowhere, no repartee, no random blethers and no new friends and acquaintances. I’ve learned I’m more extroverted by character than I previously assumed.
While you can get knackered by constant interaction with others, for me, it transpires there is such a thing as too much time on one’s own and that I enjoy other people more than I previously realised. The same is true for memories of things I can’t do now. You could pine for them, I suppose. Wince at their absence. Depress yourself. But I am finding the greyness of our current life and times has given all of these happy recollections a greater vividness. Looking back, the holiday blues seem bluer, the greens greener. I can remember the sun on my skin, the cicadas are singing warmly as the evening falls into convivial clash of noises and smells, and laughter in a foreign language.
Re-setting the table in your imagination, you can throw yourself back onto that sunny terrace, with wine the bottle and good food on the table, and value the experience – perhaps more – the second time knowing that the square is now deserted, the restaurant shut, and the sky overcast. I’m not sure I fully appreciated these experiences till the opportunity to experience them was snatched away. Complacently, I didn’t think about how fortunate I have been. I ken noo.
Emerging from Covid’s long shadow will be a challenge for many people, and the challenges will be different. We’re shaped by our experiences. You can’t be bottled up for a year of anxiety – wary of social boundaries, conscious of social space – and charge back into the throng wholly unaffected. Many folk will struggle to shrug off the learned behaviours and elevated consciousness this lurgy has worked into almost all of our minds. Some will face serious challenges in leaving it behind them.
But others, I suspect will approach life with a renewed zest, less inclined to let opportunities flow by them, more active, less passive, conscious now of what it means to be tucked away in a box for months on end, stymied. Having lived through this pandemic, I hope to keep tighter hold of the sense of the dearness of things than once I did. Having learned these lessons, which of us can afford to be jaded?
This pandemic has confronted us all, time and again, with the roads not taken and the opportunities forgone, with the consequences of action and inaction. The lessons are political, but they’re personal too. There’s no point being glum about it now. All you can do is mend your ways once you have the opportunity to do so.