Covid-19: We are living in the pages of future history books

by Anthony D. Cliffe

The gentle and ever-present hum of the tyres beneath me, steadfast and unwavering unlike my legs and laboured breathing. Breathe. Hold for two seconds. Release. My eyes focusing on the only two meters of tarmac in front of me, I don’t dare look up. Look up, and the game is up, the voice inside your head would switch from encouragement to defeat. One step at a time and this will all be over eventually. Finally, the top of the hill appears, the cadence increases, the burn in the legs decrease as your velocity picks up. The hum grows louder as does the click of the sprockets as you freewheel downhill. The wind rushes across your face, it’s coolness tickling the newly formed sweat on your brow. You feel temporarily weightless, your body absorbs the jolts and the knocks as you rattle over the uneven road surface. You’re flying.

By the time you pull the brakes and you come to a stop at the end of a hill, it makes all that effort of the climb worth it. I smile to myself, the sun beating down on a big stupid grin that now crosses my face…before it returns to normal. That didn’t last long at all. I click back into the pedals, one big push and away I go again, head down, the hum, the steady breathing. Cycling goes on, as does life.

For that split second hurtling down the hill today, I forgot what was going on in the world. For those few brief minutes of weightlessness, the rush of air, the quietness of the chatter inside my head. Normal. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill that brief paradise of solitude and quiet was replaced by the realisation of the chaos in the world today. Normal…what is normal anymore? The set up is the same, the sun is shining, the flowers are blossoming, the sky is blue as it always is, the fields are lush and swaying in the gentle breeze. Normal.

Except it isn’t. The finer details are no longer present.

The blue azure spring sky is crystal clear, not a cloud nor a vapour trail insight. No crisscrossing of people travelling to new destinations on holidays, no business people at 30,000 feet planning their strategy meetings, no families waiting at the airport to greet loved ones. An empty sky.

A shrill call of a Buzzard I can hear above the wind as I slowed down to a stop next to a large open field. I watch it circle, it’s wings spread, another call, effortlessly floating in the sky, it swoops down behind a tree, and I lose sight of it. I guess life goes on for everything else. It hits me how quiet it is, no distant humdrum of traffic, no beeping floating across the air, the air is cleaner, it smells different today.

Other than the long-empty winding road that sweeps before me, rising and falling, snaking in-between the large oak trees and green fields that are waking up from their winter sleep. There is no sign of human life anywhere. By the time I rose up another hill and into the usual busy market town, sure the cars are parked outside houses, the bunting flutters quietly in the breeze between shops in the cobbled high street, signs of life but no people to be seen.

It was Erie today. Cycling in a lockdown while fantastic due to no cars, was oddly satisfying and terrifying at the same time. We live in unprecedented times. Scary unprecedented times. I have family working on the front lines of this horrific global pandemic, each time they leave the door I fear they may get it, with underlying health issues it’s not all rosy if they do.

Queuing outside supermarkets and people are masked up, standing two meters apart, the new normal. I find myself holding my breath like I used to do as a kid when I walked past someone. I’m 27 and I’ve reverted back to a child who holds their breath to not catch a disease. Marking on the floor denote where you can stand, lines separate people in the aisle, every person you see you’re wary of. Do they have it? You look down at your hands which are starting to crack from all the washing and hand gels you’re subjecting them to. A cracking of skin trying to hold It together like you are inside. There is little optimism in the air. I see the eyes of the elderly who wonder if every step out the house is their last. A deadly enemy no one can see. I’m frightened by it, deeply so. For a number of reasons.

I’m frightened of what I’ve witnessed, people hoarding and looking out for themselves. People stealing milk from doorsteps and fighting over toilet paper in shops. A civilised society is so evidently fragile and how quick we are like animals to revert to our basic instinct to secure our own survival first.

Never in my lifetime have I ever had such freedom taken away from me. To be told to only leave your house for essential shopping or one form of exercise is something my brain is still trying to process. Never did I ever think that such a fundamental right and something we very much take for granted would be taken away. At least with cycling that one exercise can get me out for a few hours a day.

I’m frightened for my job, one that is unlikely to be renewed in this new financial crisis world. With my temp contract up in August and with it already dubious due to budgetary constraints pre Covid-19, I’m less optimistic than ever it will continue. Work itself, while I mostly teach online anyway to my Masters’ students, the shift to online teaching for all classes was not much a change of way of life for me, job wise. I guess I’m one of the very few academics who were prepared having taught this way since October. While some have been less than appreciative of my offer for help and expertise, others have gladly been very welcoming. When the pressure is on true characters emerge.

However, I am frightened of what this pandemic means for Academia. For me, Academia cannot solely be conducted behind a computer screen. I have built great relationships with my Masters students online having never really met them all in person (and probably at this rate never will) but nothing replaces Academia in a physical setting. Academia is not about the delivery of learning via lectures be that onsite or in the virtual realm. The heart of Academia is the quiet words of encouragement you can give a struggling student at the end of a lecture or the Adhoc advice you give about stats or careers advice in your office. It’s the passing conversations with colleagues in the corridor or over a hot cup of coffee in the breakroom where you can release your stresses of a hectic and pressured environment. It’s the gossip that goes on behind closed doors or the plans and projects you discuss with often misplaced optimism in this current Higher Ed system.

Academia and University without staff or students in it is not Academia. Trying to work from home when you’re used to a busy and social office life is hard. I’ve been impressed by some aspects of how Academia has handled this crisis, and I’ve also been profoundly appalled and apoplectic about it at other times. The concept of Academia running on “Good Will” is safe to say mine has been severely tested as of late, where at times I wonder why I’m in this job.

As a planner, this uncertainty kills me every day.

Holidays have been cancelled that I’ve saved up for months, conferences which would have boosted my academic job potential gone to the wayside. Family overseas I so desperately couldn’t wait to be reunited with on hold. It sucks but small sacrifices we all have to make to ensure we get through this in one piece.

I’ve volunteered to head to the front line to do my bit if I’m required. Hospital logistics. To transport medical supplies between hospitals, GPs and Pharmacies and to deliver medicine to the vulnerable. I’m nowhere near as on the front lines as my Sister working in a Pharmacy or my Dad, a senior Paramedic but I want to do my bit. I’m a Doctor but not that type of Doctor, but it’s good to give back while you can.

It’s not lost on me that we are whether we like it or not, living through one of the world’s key moments in history. We are writing the pages of the history books as we speak. An unprecedented global crisis. Make no mistake that the world has fundamentally changed. It can never go back to the way it was. Our lives have irreversibly changed. Whether for good or for bad, we won’t know until the dust settles and the new world order rights itself. For the better, it might see more people work from home, which reduces pollution, cars on the road, more flexible learning and therefore better work-life balance, child care etc. For the worse, global monopolies, a deepening polarisation of the have and the have nots, a faction of looking out for yourself, a worldwide pandemic of selfishness.

What we knew as normal is no more.

When this curse of Covid-19 is gone (which won’t be for another year at a minimum), when we can finally leave our homes whenever we want, when the markers on the floor have long been pulled up, when we can hug our friends without fear of passing on invisible microbes, when we get out of this. When just like at the start of this pieces, the slog up the mountain is complete. We can embrace a new world, take stock and enjoy that feeling of joy of racing down a hillside. Smile more, love more, tell people you care about that you do care. Look up more often at that blue sky, take notice of the birds and the way the wind tussles the green grass. Look up from your phone and live in the now. You never know what you have until it’s gone.

We will reach the other side of this, but like that ride today, things will be familiar, but the little details will be different. A new world is upon us.

I’d like to wish all of my readers good health. Stay indoors where you can stay safe. To our NHS and careworkers, you have my utmost respect and gratitude for what you do. To my loved ones, know that I care deeply about you, my friends I cherish you.

May we all stay safe, may we all reach the top of this climb together, keep looking that 2 meters ahead of you, keep pushing, don’t give up, one day soon we will feel the rush of that air over our faces again, the rush of freedom in a brave new world.