It’s been an odd thing to be in London over the past 5 months. The anxiety and fear that were on the rise in February and early March really took hold once the country was ordered into a profound national lockdown. Watching the daily case and death numbers was a little overwhelming. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in London checking out the numbers in my borough and thinking that my little neighbourhood might not have been the best place to be. At one time, London was not doing well at all with COVID19. The UK is far from over the crisis, but the numbers of confirmed cases is down from the peak and the number of deaths each week, while still shockingly high, is also down from the staggering numbers of April. It doesn’t look to me, or anyone I interact with at any length, like we can afford to just go back to pre-COVID19 life. The virus is still there. It’s still easily transmitted. It’s still potentially deadly for anyone, but particularly for older people and those with some underlying health condition. I don’t think I’m in a particularly vulnerable category, but I really don’t want to be responsible for spreading the virus to someone who is. So I remain pretty cautious when I go out. I wear a mask indoors and sanitise my hands whenever I enter a shop. My kids stick close to the house, though they’ve started to venture out to have socially distanced meetings with their friends. I’ve just ordered some customised face masks for all of us. I have one with a picture of the kids and our dog. I got them masks with pictures of the dog. It won’t make the masks cool, and it certainly won’t make them more comfortable, but it might just make them feel a little more fun.
Like many people, I am somewhat bewildered by the behaviour of those around me as we ease up from the restrictions. I can’t say life in my neighbourhood is entirely back to normal, but it’s pretty close. The restaurants are open again and they seem to stay pretty busy in the evenings. The shops have stopped policing the number of people who can enter at one time so carefully so there’s no more queuing to get in to the local grocery store, but it’s got more people in it. So far, I seem to be one of a pretty small minority wearing a mask, but that should change next week when it becomes mandatory to wear masks in shops in England. I don’t like to be illiberal about these things, but the public health consequences of not preventing the spread of COVID19 are pretty serious so I’m afraid I am one of those who supports making indoor face coverings compulsory.
I went in to the office for the first time since the 4th of March this week. I flew out to New York on 4 March and then went straight to Pakistan from there without going in to the office. By the time I returned from Pakistan, my university had decided people like me were a risk to everyone else so we had to self-isolate for a few weeks before returning to the office. A week after I began self-isolating, the whole country had to follow suit. So I have had a marginally longer period of quarantine/isolation than most people. At least I did manage to get a few international trips in before I had to endure a form of house arrest.
Returning to the office was good, but also very strange. It seems unlikely that the office can return to its previous occupancy levels in 2020. We can start to go back again, but we don’t want to see an outbreak in London and I have heard some worrying news about the rise in the R number in London— so that’s a possibility. For now, I think going in to the office occasionally (via bicycle) is enough. Those who need to work there for some reason can do so, but we continue to encourage and enable anyone who can work from home, to do so. We have deferred the start date of our academic year to January 2020 and hope to be able to resume in person teaching by then. If we can’t, then we’ll have to make some decisions about how we can best sustain the rates of activity of the past few months.
It’s been hard work for everyone. It’s tiring communicating online for multiple hours in a day. It’s exhausting not maintaining good working hours. AKU has always been a little tricky with respect to time zones, because we are a global university that operates across several time zones, but it was easier to do when we had ‘office’ time and ‘home’ time. Once ‘office’ and ‘home’ merged, it became too easy to let the boundaries slip and find ourselves working a few extra hours around the usual working times and, even worse, not really seeing much difference between weekends and weekdays. My son, whose school offered him the chance to take his predicted grades and be done back in April, appears to have even forgotten how to keep track of what day it is. His sleep patterns seem to rotate around the usual 24 hour cycle so sometimes he wakes and sleeps when I do, and then he seems to shift little by little into a nocturnal creature.
So coming out of lockdown is largely good (I think), but it remains an uncertain exercise. I don’t know what will happen in the coming months. We may get put back into lockdown, like Leicester. We may see a rise in deaths and our NHS could get overwhelmed. For now, despite the availability of restaurants and pubs, I’m afraid I’m going to pretty much follow the pattern I’ve been living since mid March. I will go shopping for necessities and will walk the dog. I will add the occasional trip to the office and have started to visit friends in back gardens. But I’m not yet feeling the urge to go book a West End show or cinema screening. I don’t have plans to go to the pub and my favourite cafes will have to wait a little longer.
If I were a groundhog, I suppose I would be accused of seeing my shadow and creeping back into my little hole. So be it. I really do want people around me to stay safe and until I’m given much better assurances about how I can do that while mixing with large crowds, I’m just going to have to stay a little less connected and take less advantage of this great bustling world capital. I must admit, it would be easier to do if I didn’t see so many other people apparently seizing the day and enjoying all the things I love to do!