The Pandemic Paradox: Reflecting On A Year In Lockdown

Reflecting on a year in lockdown, our Digital Editor Madeline Reid explores the 'pandemic paradox' and why the UK roadmap to return to pre-lockdown life is as anxiety-fuelling as it is exciting.

This article has been adapted from an article originally published on the BRICKS community newsletter. Gain access to exclusive content, early access to print covers and tickets to future events, talks & more with our Friday newsletters and join our 30 day free trial.

I first started quarantining on the 16th of March 2020. I lived with friends, one of whom had just had her final presentation for her degree certificate cancelled due to two actors catching COVID-19 during rehearsals, and another had just been signed off work for what we naively assumed would be a couple of weeks. Still, with two household members considered ‘high risk’ and with new uncertainty creeping in, we made the decision to stay indoors. We’ve been here ever since.

One month before, in what quickly felt like a memory of some alternate reality, I took my flatmate with me to London Fashion Week as a birthday surprise, slyly requesting two tickets to each show and sneaking through backdoors to watch runways we’d been denied entry to. BRICKS had just hosted a panel opening the British Fashion Council event, we were still riding the high of a triumphant issue launch (and my first), and receiving new requests to collaborate coming from every direction. Our series of successes distracted me during this weekend from the increasingly-loud whispers of an unknown virus plaguing East Asia, as benches reserved for Chinese buying and editorial teams were left empty.

A few weeks later, we hosted a launch party to celebrate. Impulsively, I invited a boy I’d recently started chatting to from Tinder who was just about to leave the country. We danced surrounded by my closest friends and magazine contributors, pressing our sweaty bodies together as Ashnikko and ShyGirl remixes pumped through speakers surrounding a neon-hued dancefloor, and when I took him home with me at the end of the night, I had no idea this would be the last time I’d share a kiss with a relative stranger. 

When I took him home with me at the end of the night, I had no idea this would be the last time I’d share a kiss with a relative stranger. 

One week later lockdown had commenced, we were facing legal fines upon leaving our homes for innocuous trips to the shops and the boy from Tinder had escaped home to Australia. We stayed in touch for a while, and I thought of him often as weeks of lockdown became months. I didn’t know what was more torturous – having him send me selfies from the beach as he relaxed in close contact with his friends while I remained within the confines of my dilapidated London flat, or ending it and saving myself from the postcard-perfect picture updates, only to spend my evenings battling off anxiety-fuelled speculations of how he was enjoying his transatlantic freedom. 

After a few months, our communication demoted from daily phone calls to infrequent Instagram story replies to nothing at all, and not long after he formally debuted a new girlfriend to his Instagram feed. I muted his updates from my phone, careful of the effects social media can have on our mental health, especially while the pandemic’s effect disproportionately affected the UK versus other countries, but I struggled to put the negging thought to rest – if things had worked out differently, could that have been me?

It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘what if’s and ‘what could have been’s of quarantine, the comparisons of this time last year and what may have become of that conversation, or that job interview, or that date, if things had not taken the abrupt demise that inevitably plagued our last year. I especially struggled with this notion during the UK’s second national lockdown last Winter. I cried because of the weight of it all – because each day I received a ‘BBC Breaking News’ notification reporting we’d hit a new record for daily death rates, because of the medical staff who were pleading for more PPE, because I so badly wanted to see my friends and family. I felt anger at the politicians who continuously failed to protect the country’s most vulnerable, I felt fear at the economic repercussions of their decisions that are beyond most of our comprehension, and guilty that I felt so awful while being lucky enough not to experience the personal effects of COVID-19, or have had to attend a Zoom funeral.

As each day rolled closer to the end of 2020, I felt increasingly lost. My depressed, creatively drained, touch-starved, takeaway-shovelling, lumpy existence resented each second that we remained indoors, as my flat’s ceiling leak finally caved in and Christmas bubble plans were cancelled. As someone who has always heavily relied on social outings and regularly ensured there was a big night out, boozy park brunch, holiday abroad, visit home, weekend trip to the coast, day at the museum or family event to go to – it felt like there was nothing to look forward to anymore. I’d officially lost my excitement for life. I entered 2021 holding onto the faint silver lining that, at the very least, we could hope for normality again before the end of this new year.

My depressed, creatively drained, touch-starved, takeaway-shovelling, lumpy existence resented each second that we remained indoors, as my flat’s ceiling leak finally caved in and Christmas bubble plans were cancelled.

And yet, as Boris Johnson announced the UK’s new roadmap out of restricted living, I was surprised to be met with anxiety as opposed to excitement. After spending a year berating lockdown and its exclusively-negative impact on my life, why did I suddenly feel nervous at the thought of life without it?

As it turns out, fewer than one in five members of the British public think now is the right time to reopen schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums. And yet, almost half of Britons feel anxious about remaining in lockdown too, citing a lack of job security and financial support as their biggest concerns. This ‘pandemic paradox’ of sorts has reminded me that, while the lockdown has prevented much of life from continuing, by default the restrictions have also eased the stresses that plagued our life before February of last year. For those living in London, the forcibly slower existence has been a breath of fresh air compared to the speed the metropolis is known for operating at.

As society’s gears ground to a halt, it exposed the systemic inequality of that society – who could afford to sit this out, who had a decent home to isolate in, and who had to fight on the frontline while remaining on the breadline. It revealed how reliant we’ve all become on consuming content and culture relentlessly in order to be visible and viable members of society, regardless of whether or not we could afford to do so – not just in terms of the monetary cost but the cost to our mental wellbeing. 

This ‘pandemic paradox’ of sorts has reminded me that, while the lockdown has prevented much of life from continuing, by default the restrictions have also eased the stresses that plagued our life before February of last year.

So as we contemplate the end of lockdown, I find myself questioning whether it’s even possible to go back, or if I’d even want to. Like moving on from any phase or relationship, it’s so much easier to remember all the good bits and erase the financial, social and societal stresses that came with pre-lockdown life. But after a cry, and usually a glass of wine and a firm-but-kind talking-to from a close friend, we come to realise that he could only cook three meals and never washed his sheets, and we were actually better off without him, anyway.

That’s not to say that we’d be better off without ‘normal’ life back, but rather that we don’t need to carry the stresses of our past lives into this new phase. Many of us have spent the lockdown (some intentionally, some begrudgingly) getting better acquainted with our emotions and mental health for getting through the day-to-day, but this learning will continue with us into our new ‘old’ lives and has the potential to revolutionise how we conduct ourselves and structure our time. More thoughtful, hopefully, not only of others – anything from personal space, understanding work vs personal life boundaries, and generally being more empathetic when it comes to mental health and personal tragedies –  but also for ourselves, how long and hard we work, when to say no to things, and the importance of taking time to put our feet up and take the rest we now better understand our bodies need.

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