Life on pause is becoming glorified solitary confinement

Life on pause is becoming glorified solitary confinement

by Linda Holt
article from Friday 5, February, 2021

I HAVE NEVER felt so out of kilter with the world, or so demoralised. In the summer, as the shock of the initial lockdown was wearing off, and we were becoming accustomed to living with a varying menu of restrictions, I was one of many who compared our new world to that of a dystopian novel.

This observation was slightly flippant, because life under Covid then didn't feel quite real or permanent. At some point normal service would be resumed: Covid, and all the extraordinary measures and attitudes and behaviours it had precipitated, were really nothing more than an unhappy interlude to be endured as best we could. Short term pain, yes, but no long term loss.

Back in the summer I was cheered by what I saw as people's resistance to the panoply of petty restrictions, their illogical variance within and without the UK and the wobbliness of politicians being "guided by the science". Wobbly, too, was "the science" itself; key aspects of it were being questioned by prominent scientists like Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan, and lockdown ideology challenged by an international alliance of academics and medics in the Great Barrington Declaration. 

Our political leaders peppered regular doses of scare-mongering with promises that Covid would soon be beaten. Scotland had almost "eliminated" it, according to Nicola Sturgeon. When numbers began to rise again, testing and tracing was supposed to save us all; then the phone app; then paying people to self-isolate; then the autumn lockdown levels; then the post-Christmas full lockdown. The ultimate hope, of course, was a vaccine, which when it arrived was hailed by politicians, press and the man in the street as nothing less than a second coming. 

Now vaccines, turning up like buses after a desperate wait, are turning out to be chimerical saviours. There are multiple doubts about their efficacy – to stop illness, to stop asymptomatic transmission and, above all, to counter future mutations. Hence the warnings from government scientific advisors and leaders that restrictions like face masks and social distancing will continue to be necessary, that another lockdown is likely next winter, and that overseas holidays may well be banned for the rest of the year.

In retrospect, the belief that Covid was a temporary blip seems self-indulgent. It was a perhaps necessary delusion which has served our political leaders well, and which the social psychologists who advise them have surely recommended. 

We cannot eliminate Covid-19 unless we absolutely seal our borders forever, which is impossible for a country like Scotland in the globalised 21st-century, however much Devi Sridhar and Nicola Sturgeon might like to flirt with the fantasy. Covid will continue to circulate and mutate as an endemic virus, as other coronaviruses, and indeed the flu, do. 

So far, so rational. What makes me despair is that I see no acknowledgement of this fact: that we have to live with Covid, and that we need to recover the social, educational, economic and political freedoms we enjoyed before March 2020 as an absolute matter of life-and-death urgency. I don't see any public recognition by Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon of the realities of Covid. Even more dispiritingly, I see the population at large buying into the prospect of endless confinement. Although massive health, social and economic harms proliferate, these costs are dismissed as sadly necessary. Polls consistently show a majority favouring harsher restrictions.

Of course, it is too soon to have final definitive data on the total harms created by the last ten months of restrictions. However, the effects are likely to be grave, exacerbating issues such as domestic violence and child abuse, cancer deaths, suicides, alcoholism and addiction, mental health problems, stalled child development and academic performance, job losses, bankruptcies and other metrics of economic decline. 

What we do have is personal experience. There has been little place for it in the mainstream media, given its obsession with the latest Covid data, leaders' and scientific advisors' pronouncements and an obligation "not to let the side down". The only personal experiences given prominence in the media act as cautionary tales: the ghastliness of bereavement, serious illness and long Covid, or the experience of working in hospitals overrun with Covid patients. Just as social media has provided an essential platform for alternative scientific and political views on Covid and lockdown policies, so it has emerged as a platform for personal testimony. One more formalised medium is the podcast Corona Stories, created by Christine Padgham and Sylvia Anderson, in which they interview ordinary people whose lives have been affected by the virus.

My experience is two-fold, as a private citizen and as a councillor. As the former, I am acutely aware that I am extremely fortunate in terms of health, wealth and family. I am not cooped up in a small flat with small children clamouring for attention whilst I desperately try to do my job from home and keep the wolf from the door. 

My eldest daughter was in her second year at Oxford when Covid struck. One of the first people to self-isolate in March because she had sung in a choir where there had been one of the first outbreaks, she came home as soon as her self-isolation ended and did not return to university until October. She struggled with the social isolation at home and being unable to sing; I struggled knowing what she was missing – the only summer term as an undergraduate without exams when Oxford can be truly magical – and knowing that she would never have that chance again. Travel plans for the summer – including taking up a hard-won place on a prestigious creative writing course in the US – turned to dust.

During much of last term she was in a bubble in her accommodation at college, social life and face-to-face teaching radically curtailed. Her choirs rehearsed in smaller socially-distanced groups, and the usually packed candle-lit Christmas service was online only. Now she is halfway through a wrecked third and final year. The return to accommodation this term was postponed repeatedly and eventually cancelled, with her college sending out panicked emails telling any students who were thinking of returning without permission that they would be turned away. It's odds on that the summer term won't be cancelled as well like last year. Already arrangements have been made for an all-online exam season. My daughter and her friends - whether trapped in Oxford or elsewhere - are gutted and helpless. 

She is in the process of applying for a postgraduate year in Oxford, in part to make up for what she missed in her second and third years. But she wonders now what the point is – will it just be more of the same? Why shell out £15k to spend a year writing a few essays in her bedroom in Fife? How will she have the adventures and love affairs, the rapt political and intellectual conversations and awakenings we were free to enjoy at university? The future, her future, looks as blacked-out by Covid as the besmirched faces of the actors in the notorious Scottish Government tv advert.

I realise, of course, that my daughter is in a fantastically privileged position, although privilege is no guarantee of mental health. Perhaps I feel her loss more keenly because my memory of my own university days is closer and fonder than my school days, but the same point applies to young people of all ages: this is precious time and experience they have lost and cannot replace. It matters much more than what my husband and I have lost over the last year. 

Time – and lost opportunities for social connection – also acquire a particular poignancy at the other end of the age spectrum. My constituents have relayed the most harrowing stories of relatives confined in care homes, denied family visits and medical care because GPs may not visit care homes, however ill the resident. In one case, a resident died alone after being left on the floor of their room for hours. In another case, after a family insisted on treatment, the police had to manhandle a malnourished dementia patient with a severe urinary infection into a car and to hospital. The pain of being unable to be with loved ones and ensure they are properly cared for when they are towards the end of their lives is almost unbearable.

Since March we have lived in the passive limbo of a permanent present, always on tenterhooks for the latest announcement, waiting for the politicians to deliver us from Covid. Barred from congregating together socially, politically and even religiously, barred from travelling, we are in glorified solitary confinement. Social media offer outlets, but in so far as they act as ghettoised echo chambers, they are safe dead ends for impulses towards political engagement or action. Ironically, perhaps, an excerpt of a video interview with Tony Benn has gone viral on social media. In it he says: 

"There are two ways in which people are controlled - firstly frighten people, then demoralise them. An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern."

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in the coming Holyrood elections. lindaholt.org.uk 

Photo of empty punts in Oxford by Sara Price from Pixabay

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