- the true story of one postgrad’s experience of life in lockdown –
Z was a PhD student, a little older than many but not yet placeable as a ‘mature’
student. He was a white man, (mostly) heterosexual, and physically able, quite
athletic even. He had grown up in council estates, and though they didn’t suffer the
levels of crime you might see in Rio, Cape Town, or LA, he did once see a chalk
body outline behind some police tape. Strange, actually, as he couldn’t recall any
other local murder scene having this. And you can’t help but have a nosy can you?
Perhaps the officer that day spent most of their training watching Kojak.
In any case, by British standards at least, he and his family were undoubtedly on the
poor side, no stranger to the always fun childhood game ‘hide from the bill collector’.
He didn’t have access to the internet until 19 years old, something he often wonders
about the impact of – nothing made him uncomfortable quite like social media.
Moreover, this was not one of those stories where the poor family makes up in love
and decency what they lack in money, à la the Weasleys, but one where he
developed serious mental health and behavioural problems, à la, well, real life. In
fairness, his family all loved him, it was just that his dad seemed to have a monthly
cycle where he would fly into an uncontrollable violent rage. At present, he hadn’t
spoken to his dad for a while.
He last went to school on his 14 th birthday, then spent Year 10 attending a place that
described itself as a ‘young person’s centre and school’. In that order, he assumed. It
was at this point he developed a strong drive to do some good in the world, literally
telling himself it didn’t matter if he was happy, so long as others might be. It might’ve
been a noble cause, were it not so self-destructive. He thrust himself into politics,
and lived fast, albeit was under no impression this was in a ‘cool’ way. One day, still
firmly a teenager, he called some local characters ‘Nazis’, a comment which earned
him a severe beating. Luckily, the following day, they apologised, and offered him
some low-quality heroin. He politely declined.
Still, saving the world was a stressful task, ill-suited to sobriety. Come 20 years old, a
brief relationship and breakup with disturbingly deceitful and occasionally violent
girlfriend proved the catalyst for this lifestyle to crash. Nevertheless, after some dark
months, he began to bumble through life, even finish his Undergraduate degree,
before new personal trials led him, in his mid-20s, to finally try and sort himself out.
And, incredibly, he did! Or, more accurately, he found a way to come to terms with
some of his past, and improve his ‘resilience’ in the face of new trials. Now here he
was, the start of 2020, in the beautiful city of York, studying for a funded PhD! What’s
more, he was living with the most wonderful girlfriend he could possibly ask for, and
had some dear friends and family. Things weren’t perfect mind. He had struggled a
little with the PhD, was hardly a bastion of self-belief, and the PhD funding had an
uncomfortable asterisk – he may have to study for a fourth year, but would receive
no additional funding if this happened. In fact, just to kick you when you’re down, he
would have to pay the university 300 odd quid to access the library in this
Nevertheless, between him and his girlfriend, they had managed to comfortably
prepare for this. She worked at a supermarket, but with few hours and little potential
for overtime or promotions. He, however, had started cycling to Uni, and got himself
work using that bike to deliver takeaways. It meant his girlfriend would have to take
on the vast majority of the housework, but, luckily, she was more than happy to do
so despite the slightly uncomfortable old-fashionedness of it. It proved to be the
perfect supplement to their income, completely flexible, and largely stress free, thus
allowing them to save for the potential fourth year, whist enjoying more disposable
income than they’d ever had before. Aye, all things considered, 2020 looked a pretty
darn decent prospect…
Until 12 th march, that virus was little more than background noise. After all, the media
always made it sound like everything was awful, and we’d had MERS, SARS, Zika,
etc, so what was the difference? Even that tourist in York, way back in February,
hadn’t appeared to spread it, and Boris was saying life should carry on as normal.
On the 12 th March, Z attended a small conference, at which, on arrival, he was
shepherded into a bathroom to wash his hands. It was at this point, alone in a
strange toilet, he first started to realise that life may seriously change. During the
day, he noticed a tickle develop in his throat, though he wasn’t sure if it was the
small, warm, airtight room they’d been in. At the end of the day, Boris announced
that anyone with a continuous cough should self-isolate for seven days.
Well what the bloomin’ Nora was a ‘continuous’ cough?! NHS online informed him it
was a cough that lasted for ‘6 or 7 weeks’ – obviously, this was NOT what Boris
meant. He searched high and low, but found no answer. In the end, he mostly self-
isolated for the week, including no delivering work (or money in its place), but
admittedly made a couple of exceptions. On the seventh day, the BBC released a
statement describing a continuous cough, which made it clear that, in the
governments eyes at least, he hadn’t needed to self-isolate at all. Bugger.
In the meantime, his girlfriend was working at the supermarket, and things were
getting a little crazy. The stories were true – she put out an entire shelf of toilet roll,
only for it to be gone within hours. In early March, he had sent a draft research ethics
form to his supervisors, yet he was increasingly aware some of that work may have
to be binned. His supervision was cancelled, and his planned trip to visit his
Grandma on the 21 st looked increasingly unlikely. Though the pubs and cafes were
open, he did not go. Nevertheless, the national trust had proudly exclaimed their
outdoor gardens would remain open, and he texted a friend about visiting Goddard
house. On the 21 st , Instead of visiting grandma, he went for a walk around the West
campus. It was lovely and quiet, and he and his girlfriend saw the black swan,
Longboi, and ALL the Barnacles. They cycled home through town, a slight detour
just to see the old place, at which point his girlfriend commented on how many
people were there. “Aye”, he said abstractly.
By the next day, he realised the abstract ‘aye’ he’d uttered did not encapsulate the
full gravity of the situation. The national trust quickly backtracked and closed their
gardens. Though it was not yet official policy, he started to text everyone who
ordered a takeaway to inform them he’d leave the order on the doorstep. Come
Monday, he was doing takeaway deliveries again, and things were getting intense.
Takeaways, whilst waiting inside the restaurant, were still allowed at this point. A
crowd was building, so he stood in the seating area, where he could maintain a 2-
metre distance from others. It was, of course, a very sensible idea, yet the
supervising staff of the restaurant asked him to move back into the crowd as “no-one
is allowed in the seating area”. With increasing frustration, he pointed out that the
whole point of the closure was to facilitate social distancing, a difficult thing to
maintain if they all had to stand in a small area. To his regret, though, he eventually
acquiesced, and though he knew he was right, he even apologised. After all, the
nature of the gig economy meant they could effectively fire him a in a second, and in
fairness, the supervisor, like so many, him included, was in the process of learning
FAST. On his way out, he walked past a bloke sat right on top of some mock police
tape clearly stating that the seating area should not be used.
That evening, Monday 23 rd , it happened. Lockdown. Stay at home, protect the NHS,
save lives. Wow. Just weeks ago, the prospect seemed unthinkable. By this point it
seemed inevitable. And it was pretty unequivocally true. The case and death counts
were nothing on what it would become, but this wasn’t a couple of tourists who
recovered without a hitch anymore. Shops closed. Offices went online. Sport,
whether to watch or partake in, was cancelled. Supermarkets introduced strict new
guidelines. His delivery work all but disappeared as the restaurants at his favoured
workplace all closed. Still, the supermarkets were open, and they had his university
income. The research he’d proposed the other week might be an issue, but he had
plenty of other work before that. The evening of Thursday 26 th , he received an email
from one of his supervisors. It noted that he would not be able to do the research he
had proposed, and that he was recommending his students take a leave of absence.
Well now they were worried. They couldn’t afford for him to take time off without pay.
True, they’d saved something for the potential fourth year, but it wasn’t that much,
and what if he had to do this and the fourth year? There was nothing for it, he’d have
to assume he was no longer a student from this very moment. He had worked in
social care before going back to University, and he saw a couple of articles
requesting emergency staff, so he contacted them. In the meantime, he attempted to
do the delivery work full time, but from his unfavoured city centre location. Town was
a strange sight, eerie in its inhabitation almost solely by people doing the same job
as him. Saturday afternoon, on the shambles, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Happily,
there were few cars about, a boon to a nervous cyclist with a bulky bag on his back.
The work had tired him though, more than he expected. Sunday evening, he sat
down to play some FIFA with a friend, but he was tired and cold. He called it a night
early, said goodbye, took off his headphones. He went to bed, shivering, feverish,
and with a cough coming on.
It was a tough night, but by the following afternoon, he was feeling better, and as it
turned out, that was as bad as he was going to get. His girlfriend never even felt a
thing! Still, there was no uncertainty this time – 7 days isolation for him, and 14 for
her. Which meant no delivery income, although, thankfully, the supermarket was
paying full wages. Even more of a relief, though, was another message from his
supervisor, telling him he could forget the leave of absence if he can’t afford it, we’ll
cross that bridge when it comes. The main income was saved! For now at least. And
so began the new normal – life in lockdown.
Self-isolation was no picnic. Not least because picnics were banned. He coughed a
fair bit for a few days, but never found out if it was Covid. They used up the food they
had in, then did a rather expensive shop via Deliveroo. Desperate to do something
helpful, he suggested he completely change his PhD, but his supervisors talked him
out of it. He also had his first experience of zoom. It was with a fairly large group,
and it was quickly evident that where you would normally chat in intermingling
pockets of people, things were now very much one at a time. Worse, one lad was
intensely worried about the whole thing. He was a good guy, but pretty intense at the
best of times. On this occasion, he appeared to lose control, and one or two others
were more than happy to go with it. Z and his girlfriend sat in silence for over an
hour, politely listening, then went to bed miserable. It was an awful evening, but they
couldn’t blame him. Thousands were about to die.
Whatever happened, they wanted to know they’d done their best. They barely ever
argued, yet they furiously debated the safest way to purchase food. His girlfriend
made face masks from pillowcases. They only left the house for work. They read
endless articles on how it was most likely to spread. Nevertheless, life in lockdown
started to become the new normal. Shopping and the clap on a Thursday. He liked
the clap. He saw their neighbours from the comfort of their bedroom window, and it
gave him a sense of community. He also thought that, while the veneration of NHS
workers had annoyed him in the past – they were ordinary people who deserved
better pay, not self-sacrificing angels – both them, and key workers such as his own
girlfriend, were undoubtedly in a position of risk.
He got on with his University work in the day, then popped out on his bike to see if
any takeaway orders were forthcoming. He became phenomenally grateful for their
garden, and thought about how awful this would’ve been anytime in the last 15 years
in which he’d not had a garden. Having said that, it was very small, and when he and
his girlfriend played catch with a tennis ball, it quickly ended up in next doors garden,
and his attempt at going for a side-to-side jog left him very dizzy. Still, someone had
a left a big old plant pot that was perfect for weightlifting, so he amused himself by
adopting a gym-bro voice and telling his girlfriend he was going out to do 20 plant-
pots. The face-chats improved too, and he and his friends developed new weekly
traditions such as constructing their own pub quizzes, or watching old football
matches on the TV.
But these weren’t normal times. He checked the case and death counts daily. His
brother had a cough, isolated, then was ok. His sister’s boyfriend had a fever, they
both isolated, then both ok. His mum was furloughed, and lived alone with no
internet. His Grandma was effectively in a care home. He also started to struggle
with his University work. From the outset, he knew this could be a challenging
section of the work, and now he had the added bonus of severe limitations to his
academic support. His supervisor took weeks to respond, and while he understood
why, and did not blame them, it left him in limbo. He was stuck at home, facing a wall
he couldn’t climb, and it was incredibly demoralising. To make it worse, he began to
suffer problems with his ears. This had long been a problem, normally sorted with
relative ease at the doctors. Except he couldn’t go to the doctors. His hearing
declined, and he became disorientated and annoyed. Even his friend who he’d
played FIFA with suffered a broken Xbox. Life was frustrating.
And yet, these problems passed. He ended up a few weeks behind schedule with
the PhD, but he did, eventually, work out how to do what he needed to do (he
thinks). He also managed to sort out his ears! It took two (telephone) doctors’
appointments, and four purchases of ear gear, but he could hear again! His friend
even settled into an Xbox free lockdown. And again, he settled down to life in
lockdown. He played on his console. Enjoyed his face-chats. Ordered beers from
Trembling Madness. Clapped on a Thursday. He and his partner even allowed
themselves an occasional walk in the local area, in which several gooselings 1 had
been born, and they fed them oats and watched them grow up. Aye, there was a
horrendous thing happening, but he felt settled and certain of his role. Perhaps this
was what older people meant when they talked of wartime spirit? There was plenty
of crime during WWII, as well as the obvious death and destruction, yet they spoke
of a sense of togetherness. Similarly, despite the ‘covidiots’, the (somewhat ironic)
stupidity on VE day, and the greater likeliness of death among BAME and poor
people, he felt some of that spirit. At least, he knew what he was doing, where he
stood. Then Boris changed the advice from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’, and
everything began to change again.
1 As far as he and his girlfriend were concerned, this is the correct spelling.
At first, little changed. The number of cases and deaths had barely begun to drop,
and people scorned the mixed message Boris had sent. Then came Cummings, and
with it a new excuse for breaking lockdown – if he can do that, I can do this. And he
became increasingly anxious. The weather was gorgeous, as it had been all
lockdown, and people did seem to be congregating again. Not en masse, but still.
Then it was announced that schools were going back. His mum worked in a school.
She was closing in on retirement age, and had started to struggle with her near 4
hours a day bus commute even before lockdown. Moreover, ‘track and trace’ was
little more than a glint in Matt Hancock’s eye, and cases, though dropping, were far
from negligible, particularly in her area. Luckily, the local council stepped in, and her
return to work was delayed, leaving her home alone once more, but safe.
It was around this time that George Floyd was murdered, and where before he was
anxious but hopeful, he was now downright terrified and miserable. Thousands of
people in one spot had seemed unthinkable just days earlier, and he hadn’t spoken
to friends or family in person for months, yet there it was. People who had
vehemently demanded we stay at home were now taking to the streets. And most
worrying of all, for a morally justifiable cause. Even the media seemed to be
encouraging it. As for him, he was deeply conflicted.
Toppling statues of slave traders was a striking and effective method of protest as far
as he was concerned, and while he abhorred violence, it did not change the
message. Black people are disproportionately poorer, and he knew what it was to be
poor, so understood this aspect of ‘systemic’ racism with little difficulty. ‘Individual’
racism most definitely existed too. In the poorer white communities he’d grown up in
it was, at times, quite stark. He accepted that, while his politics were vehemently
anti-racist, he had nevertheless been a part of the problem on some occasions. Last
but not least, he saw the police as human beings, often schooled in hard-nosed
approaches that forget to see the human behind the suspect. And when this is
combined with racism, bad things happen.
So why was he conflicted? Covid-19. No matter what some celebrities said, this was
the real pandemic. Racism is terrible too, but different. A social-structural problem,
rooted in ignorance and inequality. Protesters said they hoped those who suggested
a ‘second wave’ may come from the protests were as critical of the beach goers and
VE day revellers. He was, and had seen plenty of criticism of these things.
Protesters said they were more likely to die at the hands of the police than covid-19.
The stats strongly suggested they were wrong, no matter how they might feel.
Protesters said they were risking their lives to fight racism, but that wasn’t quite right.
They were risking other people’s lives too.
Maybe it wouldn’t cause a second wave. Maybe it wouldn’t even result in a single
additional death. Maybe the scourge of racism might finally be tackled and
consigned to history. It might even come with some poverty easing measures that
would help poor white communities too. Maybe other prejudices and inequalities
would disappear along with these measures. Maybe the schools and beaches would
open up without a hitch too. And the economy would thrive as newly de-
impoverished people went out in throes to cafes and community gatherings. Maybe
they’d abandon their cars, and the environment would thrive. Maybe endangered
species would flourish, people’s mental health would improve in their new egalitarian
and caring environment, and the police would be defunded due to a simple lack of
Maybe, just maybe, he’d get offered £40 to write his irrelevant and increasingly
hysterical thoughts down.
At the time of writing, the protests and lockdown easing measures are ongoing, and
it is too soon to know what effect they will have. The undeniably decreasing numbers
of cases and deaths feel like they have a gigantic Asterix beside them, and he was
anxiously awaiting whether they would still be declining in two weeks. Yet whatever
happens, the risk had been taken, and this affected him more deeply than any other
aspect of the coronavirus crisis. He had never thought of academia or the liberal-left
political spectrum uncritically, yet this felt like a profound break, and he wondered
whether he could possibly have a future in academic settings. But then, he hardly fit
into a centrist or right-wing political perspective either. He felt a level of
disenfranchisement and disillusionment he’d not experienced before. He may have
given up his desperate and unforgiving attempts to save the world by himself all
those years ago, but he hadn’t felt quite so separate from the world in a long time.
How much of this feeling was because he had been in lockdown so long? Did this
still count as ‘lockdown’ anyway? He didn’t know. The clap for key workers had
finished, and even the weather had turned crap. Still, at least the people he loved
were all still alive. For now. There was no question, that was something to be
grateful for. But he felt tired. So very sick and tired.