Adapting to the new normal

A long road ahead, on my long cycle, at Threipmuir reservoir

One of the (many) strange features of the coronavirus outbreak is that in many ways I feel busier than I have ever been. It is almost three weeks since I was last in my office, yet I haven’t had the time to commit my thoughts to writing.

Part of that is because the situation has changed so quickly. I rattled out 600 words on Tuesday 17 March, a day that felt like the tipping point. But I never managed to finish it, and I never published it. I could try to tidy it up now. But the fact is that things have changed so much since then, it would be almost irrelevant. I have salvaged a few snippets for this post.

I also tried to get this post finished last week, and I didn’t manage it.

The past few days have begun to feel more normal. We are getting into the swing of things.

But most of the time, I have just been living from moment to moment, both in work life and home life.

The reason I haven’t been in the office since Friday 13 March is because I had booked the Monday as annual leave to help celebrate my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday. A great time we had too. While we were out, Boris Johnson first asked people to stop going to pubs. We went out with a bang.

Me, Alex and Ana eating ice cream at Cramond

The next morning, the world had changed. Our wonderful flatmate Ana, a PhD student who we have very much enjoyed living with, stayed late that Monday to complete as much lab work as possible, before flying back to Portugal on Tuesday morning. Her rushed departure was a sad moment. It summed up 24 hours when it became clear that normal would not be the same for a very long time.

I am lucky in the circumstances. I have a very good employer, the University of Edinburgh, which is currently playing its role undertaking research into Covid-19 and supplying services supporting NHS clinical activities. My department supports the online learning technology which, almost overnight, became essential to the university’s ability to deliver teaching.

I can count myself lucky that I still have lots of work to do, and that I’m not among the many who have found themselves in the lurch. I don’t have much to complain about, all things considered.

But the coronavirus outbreak is hugely disruptive to us all. This is a life-changing event. Life plans for 2020 have been put on hold. Our trajectories have been changed forever. We’ll be paying for this for the rest of our lives. Now we are told to stay at home, and wait and see what happens.

For me and Alex, this came at a tricky time for us. We are in the middle of a big home improvement project. We are switching the kitchen and study around. We had ripped the old study out and were getting ready to install the new kitchen. The project is now, of course, on hold.

The empty room is not currently suitable to sit in. So just at the time we need to stay at home and work from home, we are down a room — and that room is the study.

On Tuesday 17 March I prepared to work from home, with my work laptop haphazardly perched on a desk in our spare room, which has become my makeshift study. I am surrounded by piles of belongings that I can’t bring myself to get rid of. It’s not an ideal work environment. But still, I remember, I’m one of the luckier ones.

Since then, the challenge has been finding the “new normal”. Making a new routine that works.

At first it seemed like working from home might be an opportunity to be newly productive in new ways.

In reality, I feel simultaneously less productive and more busy than ever. Most of my working hours are now spent in video meetings. These help us feel less isolated, but they are giving me less time to actually complete the actions that I had agreed in those meetings.

Similarly, large parts of my non-working hours are now spent in video calls with friends and family. This feels like the right thing to do. I feel more of a duty to check that people are OK. And seeing people’s faces, even on a heavily compressed and glitchy video, warms the soul.

Zoom parties are the thing now. In addition to my own virtual birthday party, I’ve also attended parties for my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. We’ve also done a pub quiz with friends over a video call.

Me washing the outside of our first-floor window with a mop

The rest of the time is spent doing housework — cooking, cleaning and tidying.

This leaves me with no time for myself. Counter-intuitively, I have watched almost no TV, I haven’t listened to any records, and I haven’t read any books. All those personal projects I imagined doing remain unstarted.

Part of the challenge is the blurring of work space/time with home space/time. I’ve always valued having a both a spatial and temporal gap between home and work. The 30 minute walk to work is my ideal commute. Adding in my lunchtime walk, and the bits and pieces in between, I used to get two hours of exercise every day — just by being at work.

Now, I am limited to one item of state sanctioned exercise per day. I’m trying to make the most of that.

Of course, my fitness goals for 2020 (which were already on shaky ground) have gone out of the window. But for my first day after the ban on going outdoors began, I ran my furthest ever distance — 11.59km. I plan to run three times a week, go for a long cycle once a week, and take a 30–60 minute walk on the other three days.

On my walks, I’m trying to find new routes near home. Thankfully, I live near a wealth of green space, and there are lots of open spaces in new places for me to tick off the list.

I have also entered a virtual 10k with some of my colleagues. There’s a 10k route that goes near some of our homes, so three of us are going to run the same route at the same time, but starting from different locations to maintain social distancing.

I find it imperative that we find ways to remain sociable and active outdoors amid the current restrictions. While the acute need to control the spread of the coronavirus in the short term is clear, we are being asked — at a global level — to modify our behaviour in a way that has never been attempted.

What makes this coronavirus outbreak such a disturbing event is that it takes advantage of human nature in the cruellest ways, by exploiting our sociability and our mobility. We are a fundamentally social species. We are also supposed to be mobile. These features are what makes us human.

We have essentially been asked to stop being human.

On the other hand, this event is also an immense demonstration of human co-operation for the greater good. If we can pull this off, despite the discomfort it causes us in the short term, it will be an incredible show of the resilience of our species.

I am lucky for all the reasons I described above, plus more. For example, I am not among those who have to look after their kids, and have suddenly found themselves being a teacher as well as holding down their regular job from home in these circumstances.

I am also an introvert who likes my own space. Some people might expect someone like me to relish this.

In fact, I find the current restrictions totally unnatural and depressing. I feel progressively more tired every day. I’m not sleeping badly like some are reporting — but I am sleeping for longer. I go to bed earlier, and I feel awful when I wake up. I am getting regular headaches.

But, again, I’m the lucky one. Lucky to only be suffering mild physical discomfort, and feeling some uncertainty about the future.

This coronavirus pandemic is a disaster for humanity. Not just for the loss of lives, but for the loss of livelihoods. The jobs lost. Friends and family distanced. The reasons-for-being destroyed.

People living with domestic abusers are being trapped in their homes. Gay people find themselves having to live with their homophobic parents. Alcoholics can’t attend their meetings. People can’t see their counsellors. Kids growing up now are being conditioned to avoid going outdoors and avoid being with friends. Anecdotally, and judging by the state of supermarket shelves, people are massively using alcohol to cope.

Instructions that health professionals have given us over decades are now invalid. For years, people have been told to make sure they get outdoors, that they get exercise and daylight. For years, some people have been warning us to be wary of too much “screen time”.

Hard-won battles around these areas, gained over decades, have been lost overnight.

Now we must stay at home. Now all of our work is done on a screen. All of our socialising is on a screen. All of our entertainment comes from a screen.

This is not human.

We have also seen the creation of a police state, almost overnight.

In the words of David Allen Green:

Three fundamental freedoms — freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of worship — have all been abolished for six months by a statutory instrument which has been neither scrutinised nor voted on by members of parliament.

Some police forces have, predictably, reacted with zeal. They have launched drones into the skies to take video footage of people going for a socially distant walk in the hills, far away from other people.

They have summonsed people for going to the shop for items that they have arbitrarily designated non-essential (an activity which is not even illegal).

They have set up road checkpoints in the name of checking if someone’s journey is essential.

We now have an unexpected job — to ensure that these fascistic restrictions do not become the norm for good.

In truth, we are embarking on a social experiment. Measures like this on a global scale had never even been thought of before this outbreak. Now they have been implemented within a matter of weeks. No-one knows what the long-term effects will be.

We have to place our trust in the experts guiding the strategy. But reading between the lines, there is little good news on this front.

Most importantly, it is far from guaranteed that the strategy of shutting down society will work. As a BBC News article outlined:

It is clear the current strategy of shutting down large parts of society is not sustainable in the long-term. The social and economic damage would be catastrophic.

What countries need is an “exit strategy” — a way of lifting the restrictions and getting back to normal.

But the coronavirus is not going to disappear.

A vaccine, if it comes, will be 12–18 months away. But it is widely acknowledged that society will have to re-open before then, vaccine or not. The costs — economic and social — of this lockdown are already catastrophic. We will already be paying for it for the rest of our lives. The costs of a 12 or 18 month long shutdown are unthinkable.

Imperial College London’s Neil Ferguson is the academic whose model persuaded the British government to begin its lockdown. He has since told the Times’s Chris Smyth that the risk that a long-term lockdown could be more harmful to people’s health than Covid-19 is a “very valid consideration”. But the government isn’t focusing on that. It is only focusing on the short-term issues around the capacity of the NHS.

Throughout history, people’s reaction to difficult problems has been a simple solution — to introduce authoritarian measures. Throughout history, those authoritarian measures have always proved disastrous.

In fairness to Boris Johnson, I believe he has resisted these authoritarian measures as far as he feels he can. But he is being guided by a set of experts who appear to be focusing on a narrow set of metrics, when no-one knows the full implications.

We are now in an experiment. It’s extraordinary to think that maybe no-one is considering the long-term costs of this experiment. Let’s hope it doesn’t go horribly wrong.

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