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YOUR STORIES: “How Naive We Were”

19-year-old university student, Gilbert, shares his lockdown experience through July 2021.

I remember first taking an interest in the novel coronavirus early on in January 2020. I saw the footage showing people dropping dead on the streets of China, but it was so far away I thought nothing of it. Then seemingly overnight, the tone shifted in the media when it was found to have spread out of China. This was when I started actually looking at the data, notably the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was a fantastic microcosm of the whole pandemic. Out of 3,700 passengers, only 712 were recorded as having contracted Covid-19, and of them, 14 died. That gave a case fatality rate of 2%. However, this was likely skewed upward because the passengers on the cruise were more elderly than the general population. It also showed that even in a confined environment with no mitigation measures not everyone was susceptible. Only 1 in 5 caught it. Despite it being highly infectious, not everyone got infected – even in what was effectively a floating petri dish. This made me think, “Okay, it’s not as bad as they first feared. It should be under control soon”.

“It was very eerie on the last day – sitting in what was my very last lesson – getting a notification on my phone telling me the prime minister was closing all schools from the end of the day.”

I was fortunate to have gone skiing for a week in the middle of February, just as the virus arrived in Italy and fear levels in the media were ramping up a few notches. My friends and I were still all joking about the virus. In fact, when we arrived, one of the people we were on holiday with had a terrible cough, which – for all we knew – was Covid. But we just carried on as normal because having a cold is perfectly normal and something everyone was used to.. Funnily enough, we were skiing on the border between France and Italy, so we had two lunches in restaurants technically in Northern Italy. Only a few days after our return to the UK, we were told people returning from Italy had to quarantine, which was a bit late given I was already back in school…and had developed a cold. Quite a lot of illness was going around at the time, which was normal for mid-winter. We were typical teenagers, all joking about having ‘the coronavirus’ in exaggerated voices every time a new person got ill. Still, no one actually considered it that dangerous or went for a test because what was the point? No one’s symptoms were any different from a cold!

Throughout February and into March, we had discussions in our maths class about ‘exponential spread’ and the IFR calculations and how to reduce the ‘R number’ to be manageable. We weren’t afraid. No one was. We all had a good grasp of the risks that were becoming ever clearer; it simply wasn’t as dangerous to most people as thought. Despite the media jumping on every case of a healthcare worker getting ill, the fact remained that the people dying were almost all in their 70/80/90s+. I even remember hearing about the centenarians who were surviving Covid.

Then Italy locked down. Suddenly, the talk shifted from not “if” but “when” the UK would lockdown, too. The once rational discussions in maths changed to how long we would need to do it and how many things would need to be shut down to be effective. The only lockdown I wanted was for schools to close for two weeks to delay exams and give me more time to revise! This was my very selfish short-term view even though, at the time, I was sceptical it would achieve much aside from appeasing the ever-increasing number of people terrified by sensationalist media reporting.

Despite the government and scientists emphasising throughout the beginning of March that this was a mild virus for most of the population and herd immunity through infection would be the ultimate endpoint if a vaccine was never produced, fear gripped the nation. Nowhere was this amplified more than schools. In the week or so before lockdown – as testing became more widespread and more people were found to be ‘infected’ – more started staying at home voluntarily, as did teachers (because the unions decided that anyone with any possible risk factor shouldn’t be on-site). It was very eerie on the last day, sitting in what was my very last lesson and getting a notification on my phones telling me the prime minister was closing all schools from the end of the day. 

“I began to realise that I was much more social than I’d ever thought and having it all stripped away meant I didn’t have much left in my life.”

We, of course, did what any responsible teenagers would do when told school was cancelled because of a circulating infectious disease – we went on a pub crawl! Little did we know that would be the last time properly socializing in public for six months. I still remember the embracing, the laughter, the normality – telling each other we’d see them in a few weeks when this had all blown over.

How naive we were.

Honestly, I enjoyed the initial three weeks of lockdown. I liked not having to go to school and being able to take a break from my usual packed schedule. Almost every night of the week (and weekends) I would’ve either been at an orchestra or band rehearsal, having a music lesson or training in Taekwon-Do. I was busy, to say the least! Then overnight, it all came to a screeching halt. This was a welcome reprieve at first, a time to “recharge the batteries”. 

Zoom appeared out of thin air and became the trend, so I, of course, took part in the obligatory Zoom quizzes of the privileged middle class. I was seeing my friends online when I realised, they had a completely different outlook to me. They were genuinely scared of the virus. Given that I only believed it would be three weeks, I didn’t explain to them why they didn’t need to be afraid much and instead just talked about other things.

I wish I could go back and change that now. 

With pretty much nothing to do, I would regularly check the news to see how the pandemic was progressing. It was relentless bad news. Every bulletin gave the case numbers and death numbers devoid of context and told in such a sombre tone that there was never any relief. They promised they would publish recovery figures last year. It is now July 2021, and the UK is one of the only countries in the world which still refuses to publish recovery figures.

A week into April and the data (which I still trusted at the time) showed clear signs of improvement. The NHS had not been overwhelmed, cases weren’t increasing, and deaths looked to peak about April 10th. But then, only a few days later, the lockdown was extended for another 12 weeks despite continuing improvements in the numbers. This was when it started getting tough, as I could not understand why this was happening.

As the weeks passed by, each one flowing into the next, I became increasingly bored out of my mind. I didn’t feel like talking to my friends anymore. Firstly, there simply wasn’t much to talk about and, second, I was on a different wavelength to them as they all supported the restrictions. I lost motivation to keep practising trumpet and piano because I didn’t know when I would get to play them again with other people. Music used to be such a large part of my life, but you have to do it with other people for the full experience. Making music with others; that’s where the joy comes from. I began to realise that I was much more social than I’d ever thought and having it all stripped away meant I didn’t have much left in my life. I understand that I was still in a very privileged position – no financial worries and a loving family around me at all times – but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard or that it was acceptable.

Going almost two months without hugging my grandparents, who I would usually see weekly, was very tough for both me and them. The worst part was when I went over to see them in mid-April but sat at the end of their garden because they were still scared. I was also nervous because it was technically breaking the law to have gone out for a non-essential reason. The laws that were in place criminalising everyday life were nothing short of criminal, in my opinion.

“The act of covering faces and being told you’re a danger to other people has taken a severe toll on my mental health and the mental health of my family.”

Eventually, after a few more weeks, my grandparents reached the end of their tether. Finally able to reassure them that it wouldn’t be dangerous, they let me hug them and go inside again. This was technically illegal, which is insane to think about, but ultimately worth it. It was such a great feeling finally hugging them again, and it probably boosted their spirits even more than mine.

It took a few weeks of convincing to finally meet up with my closest friends when the rules were relaxed in June 2020. It felt odd, like it had been an eternity but simultaneously that no time had passed at all. Life had been on pause for three months, and literally, nothing had happened! I had yet to know anyone who had had Covid, and neither had they. This helped get them thinking that it wasn’t exactly the great plague as advertised on the news. I remember sitting down and showing them the graphs breaking down the ages of deaths, hospitalisations and separating those with underlying conditions (95%) and without. They were completely unaware of this as the news, and scientific briefings refused to put the numbers into context.

Slowly, it seemed like life was going to improve. The weather was getting nicer, there was effectively no Covid in the country, people were going out and about and breaking a few rules meeting with people again. But then they brought in facemasks. We were one of the last major countries to enforce masks. So during what should have been a completely normal summer, we had to cover our faces to go on transport or in shops. I think masks made it much easier to reintroduce restrictions because people were subconsciously reminded that even though we could leave their homes, there was still danger out there.

I was very lucky to get away to Portugal in the summer before the world descended another few levels into insanity. It gave me much needed time to switch off entirely, a luxury I know many others didn’t have. However, it was a struggle going to the beach with outdoor mask compliance so high. This reminded me of the background reality that life was not normal.

Masks have started making me more and more uncomfortable and angering me the longer they have been in place despite not averting any case rises or additional restrictions. They are not normal. They inhibit social interactions and perpetuate fear. They have become a talisman of virtue and divided the world. The act of covering faces and being told you’re a danger to other people has taken a severe toll on my mental health and the mental health of my family.

“I handed my room key back, got in the car and went home, sending them a long email on the journey back explaining why I could not deal with spending even a day in a place so far removed from the normality it should have been.”

With summer ending, I prepared to go to university. I was apprehensive due to the continuing campaign of fear and worry in the media, warning of impending doom in the winter and calling for more restrictions already. I had even taken it upon myself to email one of the physics professors at the university asking for the justification for any measures they were planning to put in place, given the risk to students was close to zero. I was dismayed when the response boiled down to “I’m not an epidemiologist. It’s for the benefit of the wider community”. Firstly, you don’t need to be an epidemiologist to understand the basic data and secondly, if that was the case, why did they never implement any measures in previous flu seasons? It was safe to say I didn’t have high hopes given the level of acceptance for this weird “new normal” – a phrase that turns my stomach!

I had told myself that I would give it a couple of weeks to see how it would be before deciding whether to continue or defer. I stayed about an hour.

When I arrived, I was greeted by masked students outside directing me where to park and of the one-way system to walk in. Already it was off to a bad start. Then I was given the spiel about how I could only socialise within my ‘bubble’ on my corridor, had a seat allocated for meals that wouldn’t change, that masks were required in all indoor spaces, and lectures would be fully online wouldn’t have any lab work. Then there were all the signs on the walls and floor telling you to stay 2m apart from anyone and wear your mask, emphasising there was danger all around. Dystopian was definitely the word to describe it. Additionally, I was told that the student bar would be remaining closed until further notice, all in-person clubs were cancelled, and only a few would be possible virtually. Half of the reason I was going was for the student experience, to meet lots of people and join societies. It was clear this wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Freshers week wasn’t going to be a thing, especially as all the clubs were still closed (although I did hear from people who stayed that they had a lot of parties and broke a lot of the rules the first week, which ultimately led to the university clamping down and becoming much stricter).

Adding to the sheer weirdness, it was also explained that students would be encouraged to take twice-weekly tests to ensure they weren’t infected. I have never understood this obsession with getting tested for an illness when you’re not ill, then accepting that if it comes back positive, you need to spend ten days in isolation, despite not being ill! Never in history has this been done, but now our finest academic institutions were pushing this neurotic behaviour! It was lucky I hadn’t unpacked, so I handed my room key back, got in the car and went home, sending them a long email on the journey back explaining why I could not deal with spending even a day in a place so far removed from the normality it should have been.

It then became even lonelier for me as everyone else chose to go off to university while I stayed at home with no plans and what looked to be a very restricted winter ahead. I was unsure what to do but felt I had to do something to try and change the terrible situation we were in. So I joined Twitter, which provided a lifeline for me. I was able to speak out about how I felt and, even more importantly, find others who thought similarly to me. Connecting with these people certainly helped keep me sane. It also opened up a whole host of new information from around the world. I was almost overloaded reading all of the analyses shared there, all the scientific papers. I had been looking at lots of data since the beginning, but suddenly it seemed there was a thousand times more data to look at further confirming the base case that this wasn’t a world-ending plague. I could understand why so few knew many facts; because lots of it was hidden away and censored. Instead, all reporting relied on manipulating emotions, and they did that very well. I hope that everything I have posted has helped people alleviate their fear and realise there was another way contrary to the prevailing narrative that lockdowns were the only solution.

“There are no two ways about it: millions of people were put under house arrest for a large proportion of a year. I was one of them.”

We then began to see a winter rise in respiratory illness, which was entirely expected. Still, due to the precedent set and the government’s continuous fear campaign, it was very easy for them to reimpose lockdown, first in specific areas of the country and then nationally, only after ‘cancelling Christmas’ at short notice decreased the morale of the country significantly. It was around this time I had one of the most upsetting times of the entire pandemic. My uncle came to wish me a happy birthday in December yet did not want to come close to me. He refused to come in for a cup of tea, which would be a crime in the UK even before the pandemic. We went on a long walk outside instead, where he remained distanced and tried to discuss our different points of view. What I found is that it is very difficult to argue against emotion with facts and logic. In a scared mind, their fear trumps any counter-arguments telling them not to be afraid. It would also mean coming to terms with being manipulated, which no one wants to admit. This painful meeting taught me one thing: ‘socially distanced’ is a disgusting phrase. There is nothing less social than recoiling from someone else. 

As the restrictions continued with everything closed down through the dark and dreary winter months, life got much harder. I would see people online saying, “The government can’t stop me living normally,” which was all well and good, aside from the reality that there wasn’t much I could do to live normally! Sure I’d love to go to the cinema or go to a restaurant, but that’s not a rule you can’t break when they’re closed. My friends were still obedient, and following the rules, so I didn’t even have anyone to meet up with. They were also really struggling, and when I would text them, I could tell they had lost all motivation as well. At least they were at university with a small group of people around them, but aside from that, it was a depressing time for them, especially with all the teaching online. Socialising was essentially banned, even though they weren’t at risk and weren’t putting anyone else at risk, given they were isolated from everyone else anyway!

Now it is summer, and things have improved. It has felt slightly weird as things have been “allowed” again by the government, such as pubs and sports events, because of all the safety theatre. Most people subconsciously know that putting a mask on to walk from the door to your table in a restaurant does nothing, yet still, they do it. It is jarring that so many people now believe they have to do things that are frankly stupid and useless, just because an “expert” says it might save one life. I struggle to live in what is a mad world with no rhyme or reason to it.

There are no two ways about it: millions of people were put under house arrest for a large proportion of a year. I was one of them. At 19, I should have been having the time of my life at university. Instead, my social life was stolen from me. Fun is an essential part of living, and this was taken from all of us, especially the youth. There has been a warped view that having fun is immoral during a pandemic. That, somehow, enjoyment spreads the virus at a higher rate; that if we all suffer, the virus will go away quicker. Clearly, this has not been the case.

I am tentatively looking forward to going to university and being more “free” (despite international travel being more difficult than ever). But I’m still cynical and worried about what the future holds with the precedent set for lockdowns being the right thing to do. I’m afraid that once again, the youth will be thrown under the bus and told to soldier on whilst ignoring the immense harm not being able to socialise does to our mental health. The damage that has already been done has been on an unfathomable scale. It cannot be allowed to happen again.

Gilbert Jackson is a 19-year-old student studying physics at the University of Exeter. You can follow him on Twitter @youth_unheard.

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