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In the Eye of the Storm: A very personal account of the first months of the Pandemic

18 Feb 2022 | Written by By Jacqui Holding

Early in January 2020, my son wrote on his Facebook page: 

“Third of January and so far we have had air-strikes on prominent Iranian bases, general further destabilizing in the Middle East, apocalyptic fires in Australia, a potential terrorist stabbing in Paris, ethical veganism now a philosophical belief and the introduction of a fake steak bake by Greggs! Going to be an eventful year.”

Little did he know…


Sometime in February 2020 rumours began to circulate that the Covid19 epidemic playing out in China was about to spread across the world and turn into a pandemic. Rumours and speculation were rife, tinged with a little fear for what might happen. People flocked to supermarkets and filled their trolleys with as many goodies as they could buy. 

For some reason, here in the UK – I do not know about in other countries – toilet paper sold out before anything else. The mind boggles as to why these might feature more than other things. It was as if we all thought those horror films we had seen in the cinemas and on the telly were about to be played out in reality. And we needed to be ready. If Wuhan was anything to go by, we’d all be stuck indoors without access to basic shops for a very long time.

For the few weeks before the planned Lockdown was to become reality, everybody talked about it; down at the bowls club, on the buses, at our weekly cards meetings. We live in a very busy part of the UK, with a train station not a mile away, and a major hospital on an easy bus route. Many of our neighbours used the station to commute to London. We were also smack bang in the middle of a tourist route with people from all over the world visiting, even during the winter months.

Nonetheless, the reality of the situation we found ourselves in was late in registering with me personally. To be honest, my first thought was “Lockdown? Oh, that’ll be easy”. We are both retired and the past few months had been a whirlwind of long days indoors because of the inclement weather, peppered only with the occasional visit to my mother and sister just half a mile down the road. 

The week before lockdown was to begin, we were all more aware of the situation and the seriousness of it. The chance of catching this invisible virus was becoming more evident. Still, John insisted on going to the bowls club while it was open and I pleaded with him to ride his bike there, or at the very least to use the car. But it had been raining the night before and he decided the bus would get him there quicker. 

John told me later that there hadn’t been many people on the bus, but the last passenger who got on sat behind him and she would occasionally go into a spasm of coughing. He decided to sit at the top of the bus. As he walked up the stairs he heard her saying jokingly “He’s afraid of catching the virus”. We were all at the stage when it was easier to joke about a situation we seemingly had no control over.

On the morning of 24th March 2020 we were officially in Lockdown. We were lucky – our lockdown was not to be as stringent as many. Some cities in Europe, for instance, did not allow their residents to leave their homes for anything but really necessary things like medicine or food.

Both John and I were thrilled to hear that we could all leave our homes for one hour a day to exercise. Being able to get some fresh air was vital to John who never spends a day indoors unless he is ill. We were among the very few households with people over 70 living in our cul-de-sac (John was 79 and I was 72). But it soon became evident to us that our neighbours didn’t think we should be outdoors.

One morning a neighbour stopped John while he was taking the bins out and told him that we needed to stay indoors at all times. Another neighbour had very kindly slipped a note through our door with her phone number stating that she would be happy to do any shopping for us. Their concern came as a bit of a shock to us both. 

It was actually the first time that either of us realised that we were being considered “vulnerable”. Us? In 2013 we had cycled over 500 miles from Bayonne in France to Santiago in Spain. And every year we would spend a few weeks either cycling in the New Forest in the south of England, or in France revisiting old haunts. We had never thought of ourselves as either old or vulnerable, until that moment.

For the first few weeks our three children regularly phoned to check on us. We thought it was funny because they obviously wanted to check that we were behaving ourselves and staying indoors, although none of them said as much. But catching up with them was always heart-warming. They have families of their own and we worried more about them coping with this new regime than about us coping with it. Our eldest was our biggest worry because he is self-employed. Literally within a week of the government saying we needed to go into Lockdown, all of his bookings for his entertainment company for the whole of 2020 had been cancelled. He assured us that they should be able to cope until the scheme to help those who are self-employed has kicked in. 

Our daughter and youngest son were both furloughed so we knew they could cope financially. Our daughter’s husband, who has diabetes and is overweight, had to keep on working because he was considered a key worker.

Our hopes of thinking that we could walk to the supermarket in the morning and pop straight in for food were soon dashed. Like us, people still needed to buy food and the queues outside our local supermarket extended way beyond the premises themselves, no matter what time of day it was. We have never liked queuing, and especially not during a pandemic so we would walk straight past the long lines telling each other that we could manage without for another day.

Turning to online shopping was a challenge and I had to phone our local supermarket to assure them that we were considered in the vulnerable group. Many of the items (flour, eggs, toilet rolls, fresh fruit and vegetables) were sold out. We are pragmatic and took the stance that as long as we received some of the things we had ordered it was better than nothing.

Socially, the bowls club was closed and the cycling club we belong to weren’t able to meet. Online, furious discussions ensued between some of the cyclists in our group who thought it foolhardy to be going outdoors, and others who were as determined as us to keep cycling as long as we were allowed to – bearing in mind that it was just for an hour a day – a mere five miles out from home and five miles back. 

[Pictured above are some of the empty motorways we encountered.]

We heard ugly rumours of cyclists coming across signs in a few villages demanding that they stay away – some even having to negotiate through scattered nails and tacks placed in their path. 

In all honesty, we never experienced any nastiness on our rides, either before the Lockdown or during. Indeed, in these strange times, motorists behaved towards us with more courtesy and gave us a lot more space than they usually would.  

The first Wednesday of the Lockdown, we tentatively got on our bikes to do a 10-mile circuit not too far from home. Riding into a village a driver slowed his car and asked us if we were together. We confirmed that this was the case and he said “I just wanted to let you know there is a police cordon ahead”. Fortunately, they simply waved us through – they were much more interested in the cars than us. 

Of course, visits to my mother and sister who live in a block of flats a short distance from us had to stop. The last thing we wanted was to put my 95-year-old mother in danger. We tried Skyping with them but the experiment wasn’t very successful because my mother is almost blind so although she could hear me, she couldn’t see me. She soon tired and decided to return to her beloved programme, “The Golden Girls” on the telly.

In hindsight, if only our government, knowing a Lockdown was inevitable, had acted with more haste. If only. The second week and John was complaining of feeling dizzy. Nothing else. I felt fine. A few days later he was lying next to me in bed and was burning up. He complained of feeling very rough and said that it was like having something alien on his chest. 

Then I began feeling weak and lethargic and spent a few nights sweating profusely. John did not complain of aching muscles, but that was probably because I complained enough for the two of us. During the day I would shiver uncontrollably and I also felt as though something heavy was sitting on my chest. Of course we both thought it must be the virus.

I was afraid. We are both over 70 – in the danger category then. I spent a lot of the time breathing in very deeply, and holding my breath for as long as possible before letting it out again – if I did have the virus I was going to give it an almighty fight. 

Too afraid to spend too much time lying in bed, we both lolled about on the settee in front of the television. We had few of the recognised symptoms. Neither of us had sore throats or difficulty with breathing, but we did both cough a lot more than usual. I didn’t lose my sense of smell but everything tasted bland. 

Still very early into the pandemic, here in the UK only key workers had access to swabs to check if they had the virus. It never occurred to us to phone the doctor, our attitude was to just get through it. We desperately clung to rumours that people who had had the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis wouldn’t get a bad case. As we had spent some years in Africa we had both had this vaccine back in the 1970s.

The coughing slowly subsided. I seemed to have been left with a mouthful of painful ulcers and arranged to speak to my doctor on the phone. She suggested a course of antibiotics which did the trick fortunately. John certainly seemed to recover quicker than me and was soon off on his bike again. Now we wondered if it had just been a bout of flu rather than the virus. 

But then a setback for me. I decided to join him one morning after being indoors for some weeks, but while I was dressing my head suddenly started spinning. I staggered to the bedroom and collapsed onto the bed. Only the following morning did the dizziness subside. I reluctantly realised that I was trying to do too much too soon. 

But, by week 5 of the lockdown we both felt on top of the world. Although we had heard that our holiday to France (which we had booked back in January) had been cancelled, our money was reimbursed. No arguments, no quibbling. 

Unlike our ferry tickets and insurance policy. First the ferry company, then the insurance company said they were not prepared to refund the money but suggested credit notes instead. In a way, we understood because if everybody had asked for their money back these companies were unlikely to have survived. We agreed and were delighted to see that we had at least two years in which to use them.

On Thursday evenings we began joining our neighbours as we stood outside our respective front doors to clap for key workers. We owed them everything really. For without them nobody would have coped. It was important to show our appreciation. 

I knew that during the first few weeks my sister had found it extremely difficult and she was very lonely. She was very depressed and often, when I spoke to her on the phone, she sounded like she had been crying yet again. It was difficult to cheer her up. 

At the time of the Lockdown, she had been due to get an anti-inflammatory injection to help control the pain in one foot, while she was waiting for an operation to fix the damage from a previous operation. But, of course, her appointment never went ahead. One of the other women in the building where she lived asked for volunteers to make “scrubs” and masks for the local hospitals, and of course my sister jumped at the chance. The change in her over the next few weeks was astonishing, and very pleasing.

By week 6 we had resumed our daily ritual of getting out on the bikes, or going for our customary walks. We’d not be out for more than an hour which was enough for now. More often than not, however, I’d persuade John to join me in an exercise video called “The Two Mile Walk” that I had found on Youtube.

Of course, that’s us in the UK; we have family living in South Africa and it has been horrendous there. Their Lockdown was much more stringent than ours – they couldn’t even buy cigarettes or alcohol. Consequently, pineapples became scarce as people turned to making their own “moonshine”, and a black market selling cigarettes sprang up. Yet deaths were relatively few compared with many countries. 

In the middle of May we heard the exciting news that the UK might have an antibody test available soon. In my haste, I phoned our local surgery but my doctor said I could not have a test because if it showed that I had antibodies I would be tempted not to keep taking the necessary precautions and not enough was known about immunity yet. 

___

It’s 2022 now and we have access to vaccines which are helping to bring down deaths worldwide – although there are still too many deaths even now. 

I, personally, have lost family during this time. My brother-in-law in South Africa could not get access to a vaccine as they were rolled out very late there. He died last year, six weeks after catching the virus. Sadly, he had actually thanked the virus online in the early weeks because he said it forced him to appreciate how fragile and special life was. His death certificate says that he died of an infection caught while in the hospital. But it was, ultimately, the virus that killed him because his body did not recover from the harm it did to him. 

My brother’s second daughter, fighting cancer before the onset of the pandemic, lost her life because treatment was temporarily discontinued. 

Both my husband and I are currently recovering from our second bout of Covid – most probably the Omicron variant. Fully vaccinated, we are getting through it and it definitely isn’t as bad as the first time. Now that we are both feeling better, we are thinking of booking for the cycling event in France later this year. And keeping our fingers crossed.


This personal account by Jacqui was inspired by an article by Chris Guiton called ‘Lockdown life: finding hope in rabbit holes’, which you can read here.

Has Jacqui’s article inspired you to reflect on some recent experiences in your life? We always welcome blog submissions and we will pay you for your work if we decide to publish it. If you have any writing you would like to share with us, you can do so by sending it to: submissions@thejoyclub.com

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