At 8.30 pm on Monday 23rd, March 2020 GMT many in the kingdom sat, people spread across the nations, people in the islands, people displaced further afield. They waited to be addressed, to gain a greater understanding and to receive instruction. Most knew it would be serious as they had been following, some obsessively, the news of their neighbours and seen the havoc, despair and the daily routine of usual life disappear. They had also watched, read and heard of fortitude and selfless determination.
Last month, it seemed to a large proportion of people unimaginable that the fate of their home could mirror that of other, far-away places. Those who tried to reason and highlight were often labelled negative and alarmist, the sort of people whose personal risk-management strategies erred on the side of paranoia. The Cassandras continued to bubble away trying to tell all who would listen. Few understood why. The official reports appeared only to give the bare bones of sensible advice, surely all took those precautions anyway? “It’s common sense”, “It will be no worse than the seasonal complaints for most of us”, “These events have happened since the beginning of time, it is nature’s way”.
The nations were in the aftermath of disaster after weeks of flooding and storms. Lives, homes and livelihoods had all been washed adrift but as is the way of floods, not all were affected. The public services, already spread thinly and mainly there to act as short-term crisis management, were occupied to resume the accepted official status-quo, to mop-up and to help rebuild. During this time many affected by this couldn’t absorb or access the new, critical warnings as their lives had been functioning minute by minute, day by day.
Other groups of people who too lived life as a daily survival challenge also missed vital information. Their priorities lay in trying to feed, clothe and find shelter for themselves whilst coping with deep buried tests to their existence. There were those who missed the news, those who were too busy, those who had to work under precarious employment conditions to try and keep their households intact; they all had more pressing problems to address.
Most, however, could not imagine that “they would let it happen”. “Not to us, we will be protected by them”, “the NHS can’t be that underfunded, it must be how it’s managed”.
This month, a changing message began to leak out, day by day, advisor by advisor. The people thought about planning; so many felt it necessary to buy as much medicine, food, cleaning products and personal hygiene items they could. They said it was “just in case” but those unable to shop struggled with the lack of essentials, couldn’t get a slot for delivery even if they were able to use internet and had the hardware to place orders. Pharmacists had no stock. Crucial medicines couldn’t be found which in turn added a greater strain on the people and the health service.
The first official missives directed the people to “wash your hands for twenty seconds”, “keep away from others”, “protect the elderly; keep them at home” and as an afterthought “protect the vulnerable too”. The elderly and the vulnerable were told they must stay at home for twelve weeks and “self-isolate” save trips to exercise or get supplies. Still the people were confused, many felt fine and that it was imperative to carry on in this new normal as they had mouths to feed and homes to pay for. They probably wouldn’t get very sick anyway so surely going out and about would keep a routine and the worry at bay. They couldn’t conceive that their actions could endanger the lives of others or place the health service in serious jeopardy.
The populace began to receive daily briefings from those who make decisions. The broadcasting service which the people had previously been told was unnecessary responded in a manner to ensure people now had access to more regular information and programmes of a diverse nature as “it keeps the spirit up”. The regular official broadcasts were dynamic; each day brought new directives, some contradictory, some hastily changed by morning, some incomplete and some sensible. More restrictions to freedom were applied with stern suggestions made as to how the people should live.
As days passed, the people were urged to only buy what was imperative, many questioned how they could know what was imperative. “How long for?”, “What will run out?” they wondered. More confusion occurred when those who could work from home were told to do that. Many couldn’t or wouldn’t, some management couldn’t conceive that their workers needed to adapt and stay at home.
The first big chastisement was delivered. After days of assurances that schools and childcare facilities would remain open, they were now ordered to close; the children were to be taught at home by their families. The bewildered inhabitants of the kingdom were told they couldn’t socialise but could practice social distancing instead at a distance of two metres apart. Leisure facilities, hotels, restaurants, pubs and cafes must close and people must not congregate. Only people who needed to be in a workplace should go to work, key workers should go to work but the rest should work at home. Many jobs were lost.
Key workers were holding the countries together and more were needed desperately. Some who had lost their living overnight began to consider a new way to survive. The problem was that key worker was a term nobody understood. They assumed doctors would be important but all of a sudden, the nurses, carers, emergency services, cleaners, specific retail staff, warehouse operatives and similar had their merit in society abruptly elevated. Previously they weren’t considered key, and often struggled financially and faced the value judgements of others
Much of the population relied on people to do tasks such as childcare and household management whilst they worked but the people they relied on now had to stay indoors as they were elderly and vulnerable. The core economy of grandparents, the elderly, the sick and the disabled crashed immediately and the people were unsure how they could work at home and teach their children whilst tackling all the other chores around their homes. Some had very small living spaces without gardens and balconies and fretted how they would be able to bear it.
The morning after this announcement many places in the nations woke to glorious sunshine. Spring had lifted the shroud of anxiety for those who saw the sun. The last directive had said that it was fine, no, good to exercise and open spaces would be accessible. If the people practiced social distancing then all would be fine. Many had not had an opportunity to make the most of their free time for several months as winter had been unusually wet and windy. Mothering Sunday also was celebrated this weekend. The result was that a large number of the population went to places for their recreation and exercise, children played and parents distracted themselves from the, now always, present threat being discussed and deconstructed in every way. “Stay safe” they cheerfully said to the friends, acquaintances and the people they didn’t normally notice. Park cafes opened for the customers to take away what they could, shops opened but noticed that people didn’t want a wide-range of goods and produce. Consumers now had very specific shopping needs.
Monday began and the key workers went to work alongside people whose employers considered their employees to be key. The numbers of workers travelling to work had reduced but many still classed their employment as critical or the people who ran the businesses they were employed to work in did. Their children were sent to the designated schools and nurseries open for the children of those key workers who couldn’t provide childcare at home. “What choice do we have?” they said. If they didn’t have a car those travelling to work had to use public transport which was now running reduced services. It was cramped and impossible to attempt social distancing. If anyone coughed or look sick, people shuddered. They thought they’d better wash their hands again, just in case.
A group of people were used to being isolated and feeling invisible, they often perceived they had to hide their difficulties or only divulge what was necessary. Some already spent more time isolated at home than the workers, some could work a little, others tried to use their time when they could, to make their lives feel more worthwhile by engaging in activities, despite the turmoil it could cause. They too were trying to make sense of the chaos, separate fact from fiction and understand the information they were given. In this cluster of people, some noticed they were having more engagement from friendly people than usual. Some eagerly welcomed this contact born out of many more bodies at home displaced from the daily grind of commuting and work. Others felt astounded that these people, the people who usually were fortunate to live in the standard, accepted way of the kingdom, hadn’t understood what it would feel like to be uprooted from their normal and stuck indoors. They wanted to give the newly housebound and sick some of the suggestions they had been given. “You must try yoga, it’s a miracle”, “my aunt was housebound and CBT sorted it out”, “exercise cures all”, “change your outlook, change your life, be positive and grateful for what you have”, “Have you tried a juicing diet, it’s good for energy”, “I’d get one of those candles from Gwyneth Paltrow and meditate, what are they called? Ah yes, the light at the end of the tunnel I think” and “you should try to work, it gets you out of the house and will make you far happier”. The people who had spent life isolated before the crisis hoped desperately that it would be clear from now that their lifestyle had never been one of choice.
These people were worried too, as they needed extra help and support. Whatever the information announcements said they knew that their health care and social care was already precarious, and now they couldn’t see how they could make their arrangements work. The nation where the overall seat of power lay had different ways of organising health and social care to the other nations but official announcements didn’t direct people to information in their home nation, only theirs. The people of this group saw the visible signs of how they would succumb to the tragedy the other countries had tried to warn of if preventative action was delayed.
Some pondered over how it now seemed unreasonable to the recently sick and unemployed to live on the usual sick money and the usual money allocated to people out of work. After all, they had previously been told they were lucky to have even that and often had to spend great energy challenging and explaining why they needed it. They also wondered how the others would cope with the deliberately designed five week wait without money or with the loans they would take, which would make the residual payments difficult or impossible to run their houses or pay their bills. They noticed that the information broadcasts only dealt with the new system for the sick, disabled and unemployed but not the old system which many of them still used. They heard the anguish from the workers who didn’t have an employer and worked for themselves, the people in unstable employment and all who hadn’t counted for help either. They reflected on the people who couldn’t understand the language of the information briefings and the people who the rest of society shunned who possibly hadn’t be told of the grave situation beginning to unfold.
In the meantime, the people who had lives that differed to the gold standard thought about how to be practical, how they would safely feed themselves, practice good hygiene alone, keep warm or get dressed. How will they stay alive without the food deliveries, the medication and the help they needed?
Then came the big announcement. The first big chastisement hadn’t been effective. The healthcare system was groaning under the strain and it was predicted to get far worse. The people were all to stay at home for most of the time. There were exceptions laid out for those who had to look after the vulnerable and for key workers. The people could leave their houses once a day for exercise, they could leave to get essential supplies. The announcement was an order with consequence for non-compliance.
For many there was a growing realisation that there weren’t groups of people anymore, them and us really didn’t apply. There should never have been a social divide or avoidable fear and avoidable hardship like this. People offered to help others without being designated key workers and anyone who felt they could make a positive contribution did. People consulted with people about what they needed or wanted, they shared what they had. They recognised that they would need similar support should their circumstances change. Many wanted to make sure anyone disadvantaged was helped and a new core economy sprang to life. The difference this time, they said, was that this economy would be driven by compassion, not consumer markets.
Sarah-Jane Waters, Cardiff