I used to keep a diary, just for myself. I wrote down what I was thinking and feeling, not with any purpose in mind, but for the sake of recording my thoughts as time went by. The other evening it occurred to me to restart it. I had the idea of recalling my personal recollections and thoughts about the events of 2020, which has been pretty momentous for so many people. I opened the diary and went back to the last entry in it.
It dated from June 2019, and recorded that we had returned from a short trip to Mull, Iona, Staffa and the Treshnish Islands the previous evening. There was a garbled and almost inaudible message on our phone from brother-in-law David, about his COPD and hospital, and his sodium levels being low. This started alarm bells ringing with me, as I know that low sodium levels can be a sign of cancer. I recalled his previous diagnosis of pancreatitis and the subsequent removal of his gall bladder. I suspected pancreatic cancer.
Jane phoned him that morning, and discovered that he was actually still in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. We drove in to see him, and he did not look good. For the remainder of June, and for the whole of July and August, we visited him in ERI and later in St John’s, Livingston, where he died on the 28th of August from cholangiocarcinoma – cancer of the bile duct. I put the diary on the shelf and somehow never got round to looking at it until now.
So 2019 was a traumatic year for us, but that was on a personal level. We had no idea of the upheavals that 2020 would bring, and on an international scale.
Having worked in scientific institutions for 30 years, I’ve always kept up-to-date with developments in science. My PhD in in the Department of Information Science at Strathclyde was a study of the communication process in science, so it had me researching epistemology – the study of knowledge itself, knowledge creation and knowledge transfer. I had come across the work of an epidemiologist who described parallels between knowledge models and epidemiological models, so it was natural that I would still follow developments in epidemiology, even 30 years after gaining my PhD.
It was in January 2020 that I first read reports of a previously unknown virus which had led to the rapid spread of a disease in a province of China. As the year went on, news reports of the virus itself – SARS-Co-V2, and its related disease, Covid-19 – would become ubiquitous.
In February the city of Wuhan, where the virus had first been recognised, described, categorised and sequenced, was subject to a form of city-wide (later region-wide) quarantine. The word ‘lockdown’ was introduced, disseminated and bandied about by commentators. Pockets of infection were popping up in other Chinese cities, so internal transport was shut down, and the first international spread was acknowledged. At the end of the month, our long ago booked holiday in Tenerife looked close to cancellation when an Italian family staying at the hotel we were due to go to developed the illness, and the hotel was quarantined. Jet2 changed our destination to a different destination on the island and a different hotel. We debated it, and on the balance of probabilities decided to go ahead. It was fine; the hotel was excellent, and we enjoyed our break in the sun, the first trip since our Mull trip the previous June.
We arrived home in the early hours of the 10th of March, the day after Italy declared its first lockdown. I was infuriated on hearing the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser talking about herd immunity. The guy obviously doesn’t understand epidemiology. For herd immunity to work effectively, somewhere between 60 and 80% of the population would have to be infected. For the UK that would work out at around 45 to 60 million. The mortality from covid-19 is between 1 and 2%, so that would imply, taking the lowest of both figures, a death toll of at least 450,000. Simple arithmetic. No politician could possibly find that number ‘acceptable’, and eventually, they decided against that strategy (but the guy is still in his job). Johnson, that inept Upper-Class Twit of the Decade, dithered, but was forced into declaring a UK-wide lockdown from 23rd March.
Everything closed, apart from shops selling essentials. Near the beginning I said I’d do all the shopping, and for a couple of weeks I did. Then Jane tried it – we were supposed to shop alone – and it freaked her out. So I kept on doing the shopping, until we were allowed to shop together as a household. That was better. Now it’s fine. I’ve never considered having groceries delivered.
We walked together, a lot, down by the sea or inland. It was great. More than great, it was wonderful. The spring flowers were opening, the resident birds were establishing territories, and the weather was good. There was hardly any traffic noise, because there was hardly any traffic. The air smelled good for the same reason. The skies were spectacular, because there were very few aircraft polluting the atmosphere. Best of all, the golf course was closed, so we could walk along the shore at the edge of the rough, without having to keep out of the way of golfers. We watched the shore birds, the waders, ducks and swans. We found a previously unvisited wood, its floor strewn with wild garlic and primroses.
The gym closed, but I had my allotment, so I had my permitted exercise there. The ground had never been so thoroughly prepared before, and I could still buy vegetable seeds locally. May was wonderful, warm and sunny, although June was cooler. In July the first easing of the pandemic rules took place, and for the first time I realised, as did many others living in Scotland, that our nation could do things differently from the way things were done in Englandshire, and that the outcomes were better. Our First Minister was someone I felt I could trust and respect, unlike Boris the Balloon and his incompetent, dishonest, corrupt and crooked cabinet colleagues. In my view they are arrogant, stupid, uncaring, unscrupulous, and mendacious, a government vile and rotten to the core.
July was when Nicola said we should wear masks, and that made a lot of sense to me. Naturally Dumbo Johnson was late to the party, but even he, with his useless advisors, eventually joined in.
Further lockdown easing took place, and then the inevitable second wave started in September. Lockdown levels were introduced, and they’ve fluctuated back and forth since then. In late October we had our own sobering close shave. One of our friends had invited us to join her for coffee at a café in Midlothian, at a time when that was permitted, subject to distancing, masks and hand cleaning. We had a very pleasant hour with her, catching up on news. That was on a Thursday. By Saturday our friend had developed a cough, and she was advised to go for a covid test. The positive result came through the following day, and she phoned us to tell us, and to say that she had reported us as two of her contacts. On the Monday the NHS Scotland app on my phone alerted us, and said we had to isolate for 14 days from the date of contact. So we stayed at home, taking our temperatures daily. They remained normal, and we did not develop symptoms. We regarded it as a lucky escape. Our friend has recovered.
By December all four administrations agreed a five-day Christmas break from the most stringent rules, and that was a stupid decision, soon rescinded as infectivity levels soared. As Christmas neared, rates increased in our own county of East Lothian as a result of people breaking the rules by travelling in to Edinburgh for Christmas shopping. The Christmas break was reduced to one day – Christmas Day itself, which meant our planned family get-together on the 23rd had to be cancelled. Our son came through on Christmas Day to join us for lunch, but he couldn’t stay, as he was due to prepare the Christmas lunch for his own family.
So it was mostly just the two of us, as it has been all year. We have supported each other, made each other laugh, kept ourselves going. And we’ve talked. All the time. I can’t remember a time when we’ve talked to each other so much. Oh, it’s not always lovey-dovey and cheerful – we have had the occasional falling-out, but in nearly 55 years of married life we’ve learned the best ways of dealing with that. We’ll get through this, and we have the vaccinations to look forward to. And since we’re both over 75, we’ll be vaccinated earlier than most.
I am acutely aware that it’s been easier for us to get through 2020 because we’re a couple, and because we’re both healthy and reasonably fit. Many of our friends and neighbours live on their own, and I can appreciate how hard it is for them to face their fears and insecurities in isolation. I am very sympathetic. Also, both our sons and their partners are working, and dealing with the complications that brings. As pensioners, we don’t have these pressures.
But still, there are very real risks associated with the virus, particularly for the elderly, like us. There is a chance that we might not both make it unscathed. We mitigate these risks by being as careful as we can be. We stick to the rules, because they seem to us to be appropriate and sensible. But that might not be enough. I worry about the consequences if one or other, or both of us, become seriously ill. But I don’t dwell on it.
Here’s to 2021 being a better year.