Reflections on the Pandemic

Like most people I was taken rather by surprise at the speed with which the pandemic struck last February/March. I became aware that there was an emerging problem while we were away on holiday during January and February last year, but never thought it would sweep over us as it did. This kind of sudden up-ending of all our usual patterns of life, of events just dislocating everything is a novel and unwelcome experience for the vast majority of us. The most recent parallel I can think of in this country’s history is the actual impact of war gathering pace in 1940 as we came under the very real threat of invasion. There aren’t so many of us around now who really remember those days and how it all felt.

Equally, I don’t think many of us realised back last March quite how long this could go on for. And I suspect there are many who still don’t realise how long it might continue impacting on our lives to one extent or another, vaccine or not. Consideration of the three waves of the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-20 might have given us some hints, but maybe we shouldn’t dwell on that too much.

Oddly enough, my initial reaction to the March ‘lockdown’ was a kind of relaxed relief, a sort of ‘never-neverish’ feeling. Certain responsibilities just seemed to fly away, for example no meetings, no minutes to write. Working from home for a time meant getting up a bit later, not clocking up quite so many hours (and only asking to be paid for the hours I actually did, incidentally). Outside was different, however. People in the street became a potential threat of infection to be given a wide berth by crossing the road or walking in the middle of the road, supermarket shopping became a rather nervous affair, at least for a time.

As the months rolled by it began to dawn on me that we needed to start thinking about how we were going to re-open our churches when the time came. As the government has discovered, shutting everything is the easy bit. How to get it back up and running without increasing the risk of infections running out of control is much harder (and I don’t think we’ve cracked that one yet). So, I began thinking about what we would have to do to be ready for Kingsdown to re-start services and to allow our various lettings back in. It was, I confess tedious work sorting out how to seat people in a socially-distanced fashion, marking up the floors to help people maintain a 2m distance, thinking through how things would have to work, what we could and could not do and so on. I can also confess feeling like throwing in the towel when the requirement to wear face masks in church was announced. However, it got done and we were able to re-open, for a little while at least. Even though just now in the middle of the second wave does not feel like the moment to re-open, at least the plans are in place.

Alongside all this is the question of what the longer term impacts on our churches and congregations will be. To what extent will our church communities fragment as time goes by? Having been forced out of the habit of physically going to church Sunday by Sunday will all of us want to return? Will at least some of us find that seeking other sources of ‘spiritual sustenance’ do just as well? What will the longer term impact be on church finances? Most of our churches depend heavily on lettings income to stay financially viable. How many of our hirers will come back? At least some of them seem to have been able to carry on very well online and may decide they just don’t need to rent space in the way they used to. It is, of course too soon to answer these questions, but we will all have to face up to them during the course of the next year or two.

In a broader sense, what are we to make of it all? Although I firmly believe that finding ‘meaning’ is vitally important for us as people, I am ill-inclined to ascribe some cosmic purpose or meaning to the pandemic. This kind of event happens periodically. Not so many years ago, we had the MERS and SARS pandemics, although these had little impact on the UK. Further back there was the Spanish flu epidemic that killed around 250,000 people in this country, not to mention the great plague pandemics starting in the 1340’s that killed 30% or more of populations or even further back the ‘plague of Justinian’ in the 540’s. Periodic pandemics are part of the natural order of things.

The pandemic does, however pose questions for our societies, how we live and what we value. Climate change does the same, only more so. Some of these questions were discussed in last year’s Reith Lectures given by Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England under the title ‘How we get what we value’. (Click here to find the lectures on BBC Sounds.) One of the key themes in these lectures was how we have allowed market and financial values to dominate our society to the detriment and even exclusion of human values. For example, during the first lockdown, we became aware of how much we depend on certain people to keep our societies going. In that context, health care staff – doctors and nurses are obvious, but hospitals also depend on their cleaners and porters and many elderly on social care workers. We all depend on the refuse collectors, the post and delivery people, warehouse workers, shop workers, transport workers and so on. Many of these people are poorly paid despite the key roles they play in our society. Should we not value them more and look after them better? Will we remember when doing so works through to the prices we pay or the level of taxation necessary?

Similarly, the domination of market and financial values has caused us to undervalue the world around us. Trees, for instance have no market or financial value except as timber however much carbon they may absorb from the atmosphere. As regards ensuring our healthcare systems are robust enough to withstand the uncertain but inevitable possibility of a serious pandemic our governments have been distinctly lacking in foresight. Perhaps the current pandemic will cause us to re-think some of these things. While I am by no means certain that we will, climate change poses a far greater risk and one which might just cause us to do some serious re-thinking.

So, how has the pandemic impacted on me personally? Happily, none of us has been infected, so far at least although it is a bit of a constant worry. Life has certainly been quieter than it would have been. We haven’t done the trips out we would have done, gone to the concerts and museums we would have gone to or visited the friends we would have visited. We did spend a few days in Derbyshire during the summer, postponed from May and a week in Rhodes (planned the previous December otherwise we wouldn’t have thought of going). We were fully expecting not to go since we thought it highly likely Rhodes would be put on the ‘quarantine’ list, but it never was so, with some trepidation, off we went. And a good week we had of it. At the time we were quite possibly safer there than here. Since then we have largely hunkered down. I have continued in the Circuit Office while Sue has been volunteering at the Foodbank and Rita working at a local nursery.  Apart from that we have been generally ‘keeping out of the way’ as far as possible.

Given the restrictions, things can be a bit tedious at times, but we are very thankful that as pensioners, our income has been unaffected and we have ample space around us and are together as a family. We do feel very much for people whose income has been drastically reduced as a result of the pandemic as well as those who are isolated on their own, or who live with their children in small flats with very little space.

At the start of the first lockdown it was suggested we use the time to try something new, so I decided to take up the chromatic harmonica. I had been toying with the idea of a ‘breath’ instrument for a little while to exercise my lungs. In 2019 I was diagnosed as having something called bronchiectasis which sounds a bit like some sort of dinosaur but means I have some acquired damage in my right lung, probably from an infection many years ago. Whilst I might have thought of the recorder or something, it also needed to be an instrument that doesn’t require much use of the fingers (that’s another story). The harmonica seemed a good idea since it’s small and fairly quiet, unlike the trombone or the bugle for instance. It’s good fun and quite satisfying musically. It also amuses me that I have gone from playing the pipe organ to playing the mouth organ, from the very large to the very small. Having started the chromatic harmonica I’ve achieved at least one ambition - working out and playing the ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ theme tune, which rather reminds me of Saturday teatimes when I was a boy.

We now have the hope of the vaccine roll-out and the possibility of being able to resume some sort of semblance of ‘normal’ life albeit with continuing caution and restrictions. In the meantime, we just have to be patient or, as my mother might have said, “We just gotta get on with it”.