Lecturer in Creative Futures, Lancaster University
Lecturer in Creative Futures, Lancaster University
The sun is shining outside and I can hear the birds singing. No traffic. In the background, my gas fire purrs, and my two dogs stretch their long limbs beneath its warmth. Despite the spring warmth outside, I am freezing. My chest rattles, and I cough up some more junk. I’ve felt like I was drowning from the inside out for most of the last month. But, have I had Covid 19?
I’ve been self-isolating since March 14th. I think it was on that day that one of my neighbours, who I’d never met, dropped a brief note through the door. ‘Maybe I’ve read too much Sci-Fi’, it began, ‘but I’ve a feeling the next few weeks could get really bad. Here are my contact details’.
I had made the decision to go into work - Lancaster University - on the 13th March; it was an important meeting about an upcoming event that was due to be cancelled due to the pandemic. I went because I didn’t think the symptoms I’d been experiencing since the day before corresponded with the virus, but I feel foolish and guilty about that now. I know I won’t be alone in that. A lot of us will have contagion guilt.
The following week was the last week of term and we all struggled to get our teaching sorted online in the melee of trying to source food, check our families and friends were OK and protecting themselves, and, in my case, breathe. I forgot about the note through my door. I was taking blast after blast on my inhaler, coughing through online meetings I took mostly in bed, or on the sofa. I just had a combination of norovirus and flu, surely.
It is one of the stupidities of academic life that we never know when to stop. I go into work ill all the time; I work from home when I’m too ill to go in - but I still work. When I look back at that last week of term now, I am astonished – yet again - at my own ability to compartmentalise. I was ill, but hey ho! We crack on. Since then I have had plenty of time to evaluate my behaviour and question why I didn’t stop, even when I couldn’t really breathe.
Part of it was that on 23 March I was invited by the Head of Futures at DEFRA, someone I’d worked with before, to join an advisory futures group to help them strategise in the wake of the pandemic. That work has helped me to feel less powerless and anxious, while I sit at home in self-isolation. It is perhaps an illusion of agency, but even illusions have their performative power.
The question of how to source food began to preoccupy me around the same time as the invitation from DEFRA. I’d managed to get what I now suspect was one of the last delivery slots before it all came crashing down. Reluctantly, feeling like I was making myself uncomfortably vulnerable, I found my way to the WhatsApp group started by the author of that note through the door.
I have lived alone in this street for nearly 4 years, and I have made friends, a select few. But the group was overwhelming. I quickly had offers from people eager to shop for me, to pick up prescriptions. We have a weekly sing-song in the street after the NHS applause and we recently all stood in the street to sing happy birthday to one our neighbours’ children who was turning 10. People had put happy birthday posters in their windows; I played flute with a friend. It is one of the bizarraties of lock-down that I haven’t been touched by another human since March 12th, but I feel more part of my community than I ever have.
This Bank Holiday weekend consisted of me seeking advice from NHS 111 and finally getting to see a doctor on Easter Monday. The cough hasn’t gone and I was worried about pneumonia, which I had about 10 years ago. The doctor I spoke to on the phone called my cough ‘a bit fruity’, which made me laugh. We need to see you, he said. Every health worker I’ve spoken to I have thanked profusely at the end of the call. ‘We’re all so grateful for everything you’ve done and are doing…’ Some respond warmly, others brush it off with self-deprecation.
The GP administrator rang me from her home number in Kendal, from where she read me the official government guidelines about where I was to go and what I was to do. I was prepared for a drive-in surgery where I should queue in my car; I was to arrive precisely on time; there would be a tent, into which I would drive and where I would be examined in my car. I was to wear loose clothing. I was not to get out of my car.
Needless to say everything was different from the official government guidance, and the farcical bureaucratic mix-up was a warm, human reminder of life before. ‘We haven’t quite got our protocols sorted yet…’, came the doctors’ sheepish response to my apologetic explanations about why I had waited in my car, while they waited inside. The humorous mix-up contrasted starkly with the sight of the two doctors in PPE, in a tent lit by UV so that parts of their outfits and shields glowed eerily.
I do not have pneumonia, thankfully. However, I am taking it easier. For me, the rhythm of lock-down is different, as if it’s asking us to find a different rhythm to our day, one that is based less on externally imposed time-frames, if we’re lucky, and more on questions of our bodies’ and minds’ needs: sunshine, sleep, food, and…work. But in that order.
The academic life can be peripatetic, and isolating. I have moved from job to job, city to city and country to country in pursuit of this career. This has made me an incredibly independent and self-reliant person. Which is a good thing. But the sense of community I have experienced is like nothing I have ever known. Like anyone with a conscience, I struggle with appreciating the good things to have come out of such devastation and suffering. Nevertheless, it is vital to do so. In a way, it is helping us all, as a global community, to be able to re-assess what we value, and what we can do without – and what absolutely has to change. I believe fervently that this is the first step on the pathway to a future transformed for the better.