2020: a pandemic year

I will not deny the realities of what a formal exit from the European Union next year could mean. For me Brexit is such a fear-inducing word that my stomach gets knotted very quickly, and hard, whenever it pops up in my head. I’m not interested anymore in repeating what marvellous things the EU has done for us; the only fruit borne so far from that debate is a growing polarisation of views, rather than a consensus. Anyway, 2016 was a long time ago.

So for sanity’s sake, let’s agree that this is how we live now. Our lives haven’t been placed on hold. How could they be, when we’re still alive and breathing? We’ve just changed. I think of COVID-19 as Nature’s way of telling us that what we were doing before was not sustainable.

The face of an exhausted ICU nurse. Source

But end it will. All pandemics do. Let’s not bank on the vaccines eradicating COVID-19 altogether though. They won’t.

While I’m grateful for the enormous investment in their research, development and phased trials, and of course their miraculously fast turnaround, the vaccines are unlikely to make you immune for longer than six months at best. There is still much to learn about COVID-19, and the alarming rise in cases of “long COVID” suggests a far more complicated virus than many of us realise.

We must be patient. I anticipate at least some of us continuing to use masks, hand-washing and social distancing well beyond 2021.

I know some people will struggle to accept that. Change is hard. But if we are to evolve and endure as a species, we have to adapt. COVID-19 won’t go away just because a new year is beginning.

I can perfectly understand the desire for all of this to be over. I myself have had a shit year. After months of caring for my children 24/7 all by myself without a break in the first lockdown – including hoist transfers for my oldest several times a day – and perpetual chasing of negligent social services, I collapsed from exhaustion and had to agree for two kids under 12 to travel in a taxi at night on their own to a colleague with no specialist care training, just so I could visit A&E.

This was me on Facebook Live in May 2020: exhausted, scared, angry and tearful after eight weeks of shielding, and total abandonment by social services. I would continue to shield 24/7 for another two months. Source (in BSL).

Once established that I had no underlying medical conditions, I had no choice but to go back to caring. Ten months on, despite a new social worker, we still have no specialist care package in place, and there is no emergency overnight respite available. I am relieved that at least, since the summer my kids have been able to go back to school and resume regular contact with their father.

Nevertheless, there is a case for hope and positivity. Always. By that I don’t mean suppressing the negativity so the positivity shines through – that’s actually very unhealthy for our inner equilibrium. Rather, we need a balanced perspective, to weigh up the facts and realities that’s happening now with the possibilities of the future.

Only then can we gain clarity on the best actions to take for our protection. All that talk in the media of the horrors threatening to engulf our lives may be a political means of disenfranchising us, which would help explain the burgeoning mental health crisis that’s also being aggravated by the pandemic. Humanity is surely much better than this.

I have been thinking in recent days about Japan in the Edo period of 1603-1868, when it cut itself off from the rest of the world and enjoyed two centuries of “splendid isolation”.

In reality, it wasn’t all that splendid. Like many other countries at that time, Japan had an empire and a strict class hierarchy set by its shōgunate (basically an authoritarian government with the highest political and military powers, making the emperor a mere figurehead of the ruling classes). It was a way of ensuring political and economic stability long before democracy existed, so social mobility would have been unheard of.

But here’s where things get interesting. Peasants were ranked above artisans in this stratified hierarchy because as farmers, they produced the most important commodity: food. As producers of non-essential goods, artisans were deemed less important. Together the two groups comprised the highest of the three-tiered commoner classes, with the merchants taking up the bottom tier. They weren’t in the lowest ranks: those belonged to the underclass, or the “untouchables.”

Nevertheless, these 17th and 18th century artisans are responsible for the elevation of the kosodo, later known as the kimono, into a highly prized work of art with almost no foreign influence. A simpler, more utilitarian version had already been in use for thousands of years before that. But it was in the Edo period that this evolved into an intricately embroidered, unisex garment that told others what social rank you were through motif, style, fabric, technique and colour. Thus over time – along with origami, sushi and the haiku – the kosodo helped establish a home-grown, timeless cultural aesthetic, displaying a level of skill, innovation and craftsmanship that is uniquely Japanese, and was built from nothing.

 19th century wedding kimono, Edo period, Japan. Source

Why do I mention this? As we move into 2021, we are standing on the cusp of forming a new cultural identity. In cutting ties with the EU and no empire to speak of, the four nations of the United Kingdom is at risk of an internal split that could diminish our place in the world. Scottish independence is on the cards, while Northern Ireland faces uncertainty in future relations with Éire (the Republic of Ireland). Less clear is what Wales will do next: they don’t seem to practise as much autonomy.

My main interest is how England will change in light of this. Unlike Scotland or Ireland, the English don’t have a particularly strong national identity. I think we’re too arrogant, having spent forever colonising other countries, forcing our language on them and appropriating their cultures instead of forging our own. As a result – outside of an outstanding arts tradition rooted in Shakespeare – the biggest impression the world seems to have of the English today are football hooligans brandishing St George’s flags and beer bellies; expats turning lobster-red in Spain; quaint cricket villages and tearooms, or titled landowners in tweed suits with obscene wealth and privilege who enjoy bloodsports. Then there’s the many of us, like me, who are just a bit embarrassed to be English.

Cartoon by Neil Bennett

Japan’s “splendid isolation” was a response to the near-constant social unrest and civil war that had plagued them in the previous two centuries. We have not had as much persistent chaos as they did, and we certainly haven’t had a civil war in hundreds of years. In fact, as a member of the European project – starting with the Council of Europe, initiated by Winston Churchill in 1946, and later the EU itself – we’ve enjoyed the longest peacetime across the continent for 70 years. Regardless, the impending “divorce” represents a break with the past, just as joining the EU was.

Of course there will be adversity and hardship. The coming months, years even, are highly likely to be catastrophic given the gross incompetency of the UK government. That’s to be expected. Colossal lack of planning leads to colossal failure. Pulling out of a 450-million strong continental union means losing all the benefits accumulated over the years that entails – and none of the Cabinet has demonstrated skill, foresight or care in developing post-Brexit strategies or contingencies. Basically, we have to start from zero.

However, unlike Edo-era Japan, we have the advantage of a parliamentary democracy, voting rights, and a remarkable track record of direct action by workers, women, disabled people, the Deaf Community, Black people, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ groups and people of various faiths that have led to the labour, human and equality rights that we enjoy today. While these are not sacrosanct – right now, they face possible dissolution – they do give us the impetus to know where we stand, and what to keep fighting for.

BLM protestor Patrick Hutchinson, carrying an alleged counter-protestor to safety in the most iconic image of 2020. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

In 2020 the greatest heroes, for me, were the NHS, teachers, supermarket staff and other key workers who went above and beyond the call of duty in their dedication to serving the public; the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors, who boosted awareness of longstanding systemic racism and white privilege amidst pandemic restrictions, and led to the formation of Black Deaf UK; the outstanding Black British talent who capitalised on the BLM movement to showcase themselves – among them Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film anthology, Diversity’s heartrending Britain’s Got Talent dance, and Michaela Coel’s taboo-busting I May Destroy You drama; the Deaf Community – led by Lynn Stewart-Taylor – who spawned the #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign in protest at the government’s failure to provide BSL interpreters in live COVID-19 briefings. (In a delicious twist none of us could have foretold at the end of 2019, they have now sued the government.)

All of those people surely count as the best of British. I’d love to see them helping to establish a template for a new, more diverse and progressive English culture that better reflects us as a contemporary nation. They are the people who give me hope.

In the meantime, I remain proud to be an European. Happy New Year.