Well that escalated quickly. Five weeks ago today I was watching a musical in the West End. There were government posters on the tube telling me to wash my hands. I have OCD: I’ve got this. Some people were beginning to panic. M&S had restricted hand wipes to two packs per customer. I felt like people were overreacting. Known cases of coronavirus in the UK were only in triple figures and seemed to be mostly in people who had been infected in another country. Clearly something needed to be done to stop it spreading, but the risk to any one person was small.
Four weeks ago the whole of Italy had been put into lockdown. It sounded draconian but sensible, to prevent the virus from spreading to the entire country. Pictures of the deserted streets and canals of Venice reinforced that something shocking and unthinkable was happening. But it was happening Somewhere Else.
Three and a half weeks ago I met a friend for coffee. Community transmission of coronavirus in the UK was underway. The government had announced the day before that an instruction for everyone over 70 to self-isolate would be made within weeks. My friend and I kept some distance between us. She left to pack her desk to begin working from home: that sounded like a good idea. Town was quieter than usual. I sat in Costa, where there were only four other customers. I pulled up the TV news on my phone. Boris Johnson was giving a press conference advising against non-essential travel and contact with others. Pubs, clubs and theatres should be avoided. People should work from home if they could. The seemingly unthinkable was happening, and it was happening here. People bought toilet rolls. Lots of them.
Three weeks ago I started to feel a bit ill. I thought it was probably anxiety. A bit hot. Headache. Coughing a bit.
Two and a half weeks ago Boris made a TV broadcast which looked and sounded chillingly like it had been lifted straight from the script of an apocalypse movie. “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction — you must stay at home.” He went on, “You should not be meeting friends. If your friends ask you to meet, you should say no.” Shops selling non-essentials closed. Schools closed. I went into full-on mental health management mode: if I was to get out of this as well as I went into it, it wasn’t just coronavirus I needed to be protecting myself against. Definitely hot. Definitely coughing.
Two weeks ago coffee with friends on Zoom became the new normal. Half the population seemed to be doing online yoga and learning a new language. Presumably to cling on to any idea that the new normal was indeed, normal. The UK death toll reached four figures. Physically felt really rough. Mentally seemed to be the best I’d been doing in years: on some kind of mission that was working to cope with a crisis but a lot hadn’t sunk in yet.
A week and a half ago my mum had been getting more ill day on day. Hot. Headache. Dry cough. Then we both started to feel better. Relief. Could have just been a winter bug. But balance of probability?
A week ago my mental health had started to go downhill a bit. Nothing serious but not in crisis autopilot any more. The enormity of what we’re all facing hit hard. How do you get your head around that? I made biscuits that were as hard as concrete. I haven’t made biscuits since I was a child. There are no biscuit shortages in supermarkets. But baking biscuits felt like the right thing to do in a global health and economic crisis.
A day ago the UK hospital death toll from Covid-19 was at 7,097. Boris was on his fourth day in intensive care. It was clear that it was unclear if Dominic Raab was actually running the country or just babysitting the cabinet. My neighbours delivered milk and chatted from half the width of the street away. The new normal is not normal.
The last five weeks feel like six months. The last two weeks like two months. And no one’s got a bloody clue what day it is today. “You’re not working from home,” said a quote I saw online the other day, “you’re locked in your house during a global pandemic, trying to get some work done.” Important point well made. We’re all going through a collective trauma. Some of us directly affected less than others. But all affected in some way and all facing a looming danger to our lives and those of our loved ones. Give yourself time to absorb everything that’s happened in the last five weeks. Accept that it’s okay if you can’t absorb it. Not being able to get your head around a world that’s changed so much so quickly is something that’s normal. Anxiety is a perfectly healthy response to the world being flipped upside down. Challenge the idea that you “should” be doing anything. Yoga can help, but it’s not a requirement. Make those biscuits but don’t feel like you should reinvent yourself as a domestic quarantine goddess. There’s no reason you should turn your dining room into a fully decked-out remote classroom and try to replicate a school day. Just keep yourself and your loved ones safe and cared for. “Managing your mental health during a global pandemic” was never on the curriculum, but right now it’s the best lesson you can teach.
And wash your hands.