The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

The blog that's full of discussion, advice, travel and ramblings!

Tag: Covid-19

100+ Days of my Lockdown Journey

100+ Days of Lockdown

We in the UK have been in Lockdown for well over 100 days now. I look back at the emotional rollercoaster of my personal journey through Lockdown, from riding the busiest time in work to struggling with work-life balance to where I am right now. I’m sure we’ve all had our own unique journeys through this historical period, here are my musings of mine.

A prelude to lockdown

“Yep! Go ahead book them, we need to get this sorted ASAP” I muse to Hannah, our Admin for the department. It had been an incredibly pressured and busy week, somehow the task of finding flights and booking them had fallen onto my young academic shoulders. It had been hurried and less than ideal preparation for an international field trip for many reasons outside of our control. Still, we had managed to get things in place. We were excited, if not a little stressed about having our first international field course to the Netherlands with our MSc Students. When I gave the go-ahead to spend a substantial amount of money on flights, Covid-19 wasn’t even named. Back then in early February, it was a new virus in China. Oh, another one of those viruses I thought to myself.

We’d been here before, SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Ebola, we know the drill.

Somewhere else gets a virus, everyone panics about imminent doom, it barely reaches our shores and eventually they get on top of it, and it all goes away. Nievity. Nievity on a vast global scale. I guess that outdated view of the world was our downfall, we, at least in the UK have had so many false dawns of pandemics that in our collective minds it became something that really did not concern us.

I distinctly remember being in A-Level Biology during the Bird Flu crisis, I remember our teacher talking about social distancing, football matches being cancelled and restaurants closing. It was scary as she mentioned if it got out of hand, that’s precisely what would happen to us. We talked about it at length one lesson about disaster management, nothing more back then in my mind as a perfect hypothetical scenario. Of course, it never came to much in the UK and we moved on.

As the weeks went by I noticed news coverage dedicated to this new virus was growing, Wuhan was in Lockdown, conspiracy theories of biological weapons and labs were rife, governments on the sly blaming other governments. The wet food market was closed, racist undertones in tweets emerged along the lines of “serves them right for eating bats”. But again, as the death count rose in China, it was still the same story as the others, it’s over there not here. As our field trip got closer, the cases started to rapidly spread and eventually the sit up and take notice, was the Lockdown in Lombardy, Italy. I had travelled to that stunning location only a few months before for the Italian Grand Prix, spending many days on Lake Como marvelling at the view and sipping intense, authentic Italian Espresso as immaculate Ferrari’s darted in and out of traffic and everyone was dressed to impress.

The images of such a location were transformed into a ghost town, a town that from my memory was so full of life was nothing more than an empty shell, the images of flash cars and people replaced with the horror images of ventilators and people dying alone in corridors. This was serious.

Part of my original blasé attitude was down to my Father, a senior paramedic of close to 40 years, trained in triage and to deal with the worst possible cases when he was a bronze commander. “Don’t worry, it’s blown out of proportion, it’s just awful flu” was what he was told at the start of the pandemic. Then they had another meeting as soon as Italy went into full Lockdown. My Father is someone who doesn’t show his emotions much, but this was now gravely serious, sitting down in the living room after the latest meeting things had rapidly changed. “This is going to be a disaster” are the words I most remember. The virus was no longer just flu, it was deadly. The NHS was woefully underprepared due to poor management and procurement of PPE. We still had some stores of PPE from the Ebola outbreak, so we were good for now, but that wouldn’t last. Hearing the worst from someone in the know is terrifying, especially as I watch the UK walk blindly into this pandemic. This was no longer a distant virus on someone else’s shores, it was rolling in, rapidly and taking as many as it could with it.

“Okay, we desperately need a Plan B guys” I let our team know that while we can still travel in the UK, the situation in Italy was dire, the information coming from my Dad was even worse, talk of lockdowns being official, death tolls skyrocketing. Under 48 hours to departure time a blanket email comes from the Vice-Chancellor,

all travel on University business is cancelled with immediate effect.

We were one of the first universities in the UK to make such a landmark call. I was due to fly to Canada in a few months to lead a workshop and meet up with my family in Canada, people I desperately miss was now taken away from me. A field trip I had planned so much for and to be cancelled with less than 48 hours notice. As the UK had not banned travel yet, we lost a lot of money, something I felt a lot of responsibility for, but who would have known that this would happen?

Within 48 hours the team had developed from scratch a fantastic virtual online trip to replace what would have happened, an accurate measure of the dedication we as academics go through to make sure our students get the best experience. If you were to look at it, you’d be mistaken for thinking it had taken months to make. It was beyond amazing and a true testament to the skill of those I feel so very honoured to call my colleagues.

As the weeks progressed, it became clear that Lockdown was inevitable, that university would close. We would be shifting to online learning. Fortunately, as a department, we were in the best place possible. Part of my PhD was on online learning, and it was a significant player in me getting this position for the new MSc FRAME course, which was mostly delivered entirely online since October. As a department, we had months of experience of delivering lectures and pastoral care remotely through Microsoft Teams. At the time, an odd things to do, outsiders. Little did we know how vital those few months were as a department learning and adapting to online learning.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to us when the notification of needing to be out by a specific time and no one knew when we would go back, but it did. A University without students in it, unprecedented. I was nervous, my job is temporary, contract due for renewal in the summer I surely felt this would be the last time I would be in my office. I was scared about job security, afraid about my family working in the NHS on the frontlines, scared myself for catching it and ending up as a statistic.

I had spent over 18 hours working on a document, along with my closest FRAME colleagues documenting everything we’ve learned about online delivery, I made Youtube tutorials, a comprehensive report. A day later, our department had everything they had to know, I ran MS Teams tutorials with others in the department. Within 24 hours of notification of Lockdown, we were the only department to complete a full day of teaching online, not one single lesson was cancelled. Something that apparently by some, wasn’t a possible feat until Easter. Again, the absolute testimony to the professionalism, adaptability and student-focused mindset that all in Team GID have.

All of my office in one box.

We had a final meeting, we said our goodbyes to one another, the weight of my box of all of my office things in my arms. I didn’t know if and when I’ll be back, or if I’ll see these people in person again. I loaded my things up in the car on a grey, dull day and drove home.

Lockdown

That’s it, Lockdown officially enforced in the UK. Never in my generation or many generations before me had this ever occurred before. That hypothetical scenario we played out at A-Level was now a reality. Enforced staying at home, only essential shops open, air travel stopped, football cancelled. A new world had dawned.

At first, I was too preoccupied with getting into a rhythm of working from home. Something I absolutely detested the thought of. Home and Work-life are two separate things, and I always believed the two should rarely mix. I am an over-thinker, always thinking of things to improve and therefore work is never too far from my mind. However, on a less than ideal day in the office, I can physically leave that space, jump in my car for my drive home music blasting, and then I’m home, 37 miles away from the office, I can switch off.

Now, my commute was two steps from my bed to my desk. No escape. This very laptop which was once a symbol of expression and leisure where I would write my novels and my blogs and edit my pictures was now a symbol of work and stress.

In the first few weeks of Lockdown, it was scary but peaceful. Shops were quiet although wearing gloves and a mask was a new thing. Roads were blissfully traffic-free on my bike rides, the weather was glorious as I would spend my days off on 5-mile hikes to the local nature reserve making the most of my one pass a day to leave the house. You can read my musing about the start of lockdown here: Covid-19: We are living in the pages of future history books

Then it all went south, rapidly. My mental health and physical health took a nosedive, really struggling to cope with working from home, all while the pressure increased as the workload which started off small exploded into full overdrive.

Working from home had gone from a leisurely pace to a full-on mad dash within a few days.

Lockdown came at the worst possible time for me, as my first year in the role, becoming assessment officer it is your job to ensure all the marks are correct for the end of module boards so students can get their degrees. A job that takes numerous people weeks of looking over computer screens and print outs to get right. Now, it was to be done remotely, with 500 checks and procedures to do, all the while delivering online learning to your students, answering 50 emails a day, being asked to do impossible things in unimaginable time scales, we know you’re busy but get this done asap became the new norm, and having meeting after meeting. On the worst day of Lockdown, I worked 21 hours. If I didn’t, things that needed to get done would not have happened. For close to two months, I worked 6 days a week (I get paid in my contract for 3!).

I don’t think any of us had ever worked as hard as this before. By the time it came to MAB I was borking in the shower every morning from stress, I felt exhausted, Ill, I still feel dodgy to this day, stress does some bad things to the body which takes a while to recover from. Not to mention the added stress of my mum being rushed into hospital, desperately ill and being told to expect the worst (thankfully after nearly a week in hospital she survived and is well on the mend!). I found new levels of stress that week!

After the worst of days i took myself off to the beach and had a complete mindset change

Then just like that, the academic year was over. My first academic year had gone in the blink of an eye and what a crazy year it had been. All of a sudden, the email chatter died down, the MABs were done, we as a Team had worked to new levels. I know I am not the only one who worked stupid hours to ensure our students got the best experiences and that we delivered on our requirements. I had grown so much closer to my colleagues in those few months than I had in any of the months before. So much support and guidance from them. I looked forward to that 30 mins to an hour lunch club Teams call between us all.

I cannot stress enough how much I cherished the support and those moments as a team, some light relief in a soup of chaos.

I could not be more proud of the effort, dedication and support the whole of GID has put into lectures from Lockdown. We have worked as a fantastic and united team, every single one of us going above and beyond. People won’t see that, SMT won’t see it, Students don’t see it, but we know what we’ve done. During Lockdown, I managed to complete my first year, complete the MABs successfully, been apart of the FRAME team to get CiWEM Accreditation for many years to come, became Chair of the Ethics Committee and was nominated by my students for the Most Inspiring Lecturer of the year award. I am truly blessed. These experiences have made me more robust, and I know with this team behind me next year will be a breeze!

More time for walks and hikes

“Sometimes to reset your brain and recharge your soul, you need to climb up a mountain and be in nature”

Negatives and Benefits of lockdown life

In Lockdown I’ve missed birthdays of friends, I had my own quiet lockdown birthday turning 28. I’m used to spending my birthdays abroad but instead at home, although my family did everything to make it as unique as they could. I missed the birth of my best friends first child, I missed graduations and dear friends getting new jobs, all those moments missed. As stressful as it has been at times, there have been some real benefits to lockdown life, not least, the fantastic weather we’ve had! For the first time, I have a Tan! Even on the busiest and stressful of days, I made sure to spend some moments outside in the garden, admiring the blue sky, marvelling at the birds. Before life got crazy and since the term has ended, I’ve been on walks in nature, drinking it into my soul. From climbing mountains on my first day of leave to twitching owls in the evening to riding my bike and getting back into that again to recently taking up Yoga to get in shape and to shift the stress and crisp fuelled lockdown body.

Iron Men
Garden Squirrel
Evening Barn Owl

Who knows when we’ll be back in the office? It changes weekly, August, September, January, Never? I’ve gotten into a good routine now of working set hours again, I no longer hate working from home (perhaps that’s Stockholm syndrome) in fact, I quite enjoy it. No longer the need for 5.30 a.m alarm calls and hour-long drive commutes. I’m saving a fortune on petrol which is helping me save for a deposit on a house. Walking downstairs, my Nespresso machine is right there, perfect coffee on tap, every time. When the workday is done, I don’t have to wait an hour to have food or to do something after the drive. I can close the laptop and head out on the bike or drive the 15 minutes to the beach to destress.

I’ve gotten into a pattern, a routine, a working life balance now that I appreciate, that works for me but by god has it taken a long time to get to this place.

We’ve all had our challenges in Lockdown, some at the start, some in the middle, some at the end. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a lot of support from others during this time. Those who haven’t bothered with you, you now know who you can rely on when the going gets tough. There is a collective we’re all in this together, we all share in each others pain and suffering as well as the little highs and wins along the way. It’s also okay to be productive one day and procrastinate the next. We’re not working from home, we’re living at work during a global pandemic.

Perhaps at the start of Lockdown, I was too harsh on myself, too much of that overachiever mentality of having to do everything perfectly and to standard. It’s a global pandemic, perhaps doing just enough is the new perfect?

While Lockdown slowly lifts, it will still be on for a while. I won’t venture to pubs or restaurants anytime soon. There will be a second wave, especially in winter, as the drum beats of that get louder just like they did before Lockdown. I won’t be ignoring those signs this time! I still hope that Emma and I can get to Iceland after our numerous cancelled trips this year, I hope we can in November. As a year without travel for me is unprecedented, but I guess it has helped my carbon footprint.

Hope for a brighter future

I expect to be in Lockdown again and working from home to be the new normal. I’ve gone to the edge and back, and now I know the limits. I’m confident that I can survive this new normal, I hope you can too. I had two weeks off to recharge, and I’ve been back at it for a few weeks now, preparing for the new term and year ahead, both in-person and virtually.

To all my readers, I wish you safety and the best of health, and hopefully, soon my blogs will be filled with travel and adventures again. Until then, stay safe.

Tony

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

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.