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The Year of Living Distantly: The Stuff that Happens Somewhere Else

Christina Patterson explores how she is coming to terms with our terrible new reality – and the snatches of beauty within it.

A man walks along a passageway at London’s Oxford Street Underground station the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the UK in a Coronavirus lockdown on 23 March 2020
The Stuff that Happens Somewhere Else

Christina Patterson explores how she is coming to terms with our terrible new reality – and the snatches of beauty within it.

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I’m looking out at sheep. Most are picking at the grass. Some are basking in the sun that has just burst through the clouds. A speckled brown lamb scratches its stomach before skipping towards its mother and sinking into the warmth of her body and her milk. All is well. The sun is shining, and in this beautiful place all is well. But last night I dreamt that the field had been replaced by a morgue.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been unable to sleep. Most of the time, I’ve felt sick and numb. I’ve felt as if I’ve been living in a disaster movie, but one no one around me can see. On the rare occasions that I’ve left my flat, I’ve seen people laughing and chatting and felt tears spring into my eyes. “Don’t you know?” I’ve wanted to yell. “Don’t you realise what’s about to happen?” I’ve looked at the people carrying bags of shopping or sitting in cafes and thought: will you die? Will you? Will you?

We all die, of course. I know that more than most. My sister died suddenly when she was 41 and my brother died suddenly last summer. He was 57. Both my parents are dead and I’ve had cancer twice. I am, in fact, waiting for the results of a mammogram now. So, trust me, I know a thing or two about what it’s like to lose a loved one and what it’s like to lie awake at night in a cold sweat and with your heart in a vice-like grip, just praying, hoping, begging for the chance to keep living.

While I was worrying, the British Government apparently wasn’t. Three-and-a-half weeks ago, on the day I wrote a blog about the existential and economic catastrophe that was about to hit us, our Health Secretary – for reasons known only to him and our Prime Minister’s scruffy Svengali Dominic Cummings – was still refusing to appear on any of the main channels of our national broadcaster.

The following day, Boris Johnson announced that he would chair a COBRA meeting three days later. The night after, I was reviewing the papers on Sky News with a commentator who said, in effect, that it was a big fuss about not very much and everyone should calm down.

Keep calm and carry on. The great British way. Johnson certainly seemed fairly calm when he finally presented Britain’s approach to the Coronavirus – which turned out to be excitingly different to everyone else’s. None of that boring WHO stuff about testing and tracking, and anyway it was too late for that.

It’s this that has been keeping me awake at night – knowing that our Government’s first strategy involved allowing around half a million people to die. Mostly, we were reassured, they would be old people and those with “underlying health conditions” – though no one bothered to point out that 43% of the adult population have a long-term health condition, which is 20 million people. 

Now it has changed that strategy, thank God, from one of “mitigation” and “herd immunity” to one of “suppression”. But, there are no good options here. You either let the virus “let rip”, as our Prime Minister put it, and “take it on the chin” – at the cost of a few hundred thousand lives – or you lock people up until a vaccine can be found, which could be 18 months, two years or never. And you watch industries die, millions lose their jobs and people unravel as they pace around their tiny flats and go crazy. 

As I said, there are no good options here. 

So here we are. 2020, the year of the Coronavirus. The year that changed the world. And it’s not going back to normal.

Until a vaccine is found, if a vaccine is found, anyone with an “underlying health condition” or over 70 – or those close to them – will be in a state of terror about touching the wrong door knob or shopping basket, scratching their nose at the wrong time, hearing a cough and wondering if they will be next for the trolley in the hospital corridor or the mortuary that’s overflowing.

That, of course, is assuming we still have homes and can eat. I’m freelance. For as long as this lasts, I’m going to earn a fraction of what I earned before. Freelancers are among five million self-employed people in this country and are all desperate about how they’re going to stay alive and pay the bills. Add to that the café and pub workers, the hotel staff, the flight attendants, the arts and cultural workers who don’t know if they’ll ever work again. Even if “social distancing” is temporarily relaxed, it may well continue, in some form, until a vaccine is found, and these industries will not be sustainable. The US is currently looking at unemployment levels of 20%. The last time it was that high was in the Great Depression.

I’ve reported on Ebola and interviewed one boy who had lost all 17 members of his family. I’ve been to the Zaatari refugee camp and interviewed Syrian refugees who have lost everything. This is stuff we think happens to other people, in other countries. Well, it’s happening to us now. It’s happening to the whole, wide, beautiful and now traumatised world.  

I’m lucky. I’ve left my flat in Hackney, where the hospital is already overflowing, and moved into my partner’s home in Northamptonshire, surrounded by fields and sheep. It’s bucolic, but my heart is still pounding, most of the time. At night, I lie awake in a state of red, raw terror. After a few hours’ snatched sleep, I wake and think it can’t be true, this terrible, new reality can’t be true. But it is. And we will all have to cling on to any beauty we can find, and to anyone we love, in any form our isolation allows, to stay sane and get through it.

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