How to become a hermit ... or not?


 Towards the end of January) I came back from Cape Town.  I'd been there for some weeks, but had packed in a whole lot of adventure.
     All this happened in January and I had reluctantly returned to grey wet London. Weeks of rain and cold were to follow.  But I didn't mind, the memory of my adventures kept cheering me through the worst month of the year in the UK - February.
   I can't remember when it first started to appear in the news - about the virus outbreak in the province of  Wuhan - never heard of it, I thought. Who had?  After a few days, I looked it up on the map of China.  My ex-husband (we'd stayed good friends) had lived on the south coast of China for a year, teaching English and both our daughters had gone to visit him there in Guangdong, an hour on the ferry to Hong Kong.  No, it was quite a distance away from where they'd lived - Wuhan.  I looked it up in Wikipedia and was astonished to discover the city itself had a population bigger than London's 9 million ... this tiny speck on the map I'd never heard of.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, People's Republic of China. It is the largest city in Hubei and the most populous city in Central China, with a population of over 11 million, the ninth most populous Chinese city, and one of the nine National Central Cities of China

 A long, long way away from here, from London.  And then I began to think about the secrecy of the Chinese government, they would not be giving the Western media correct figures, would they?  They'd grossly under-report the spread and the deaths wouldn't they? A small finger of fear started somewhere in my gut.
     As each day passed more news leaked out about the speed and rapidity of the virus's spread.  Suddenly they were building vast hospitals …  to fit thousands.
     Many people I know barely watch the news, are not interested in what's happening outside their own back yard - it's too depressing they say.  But I'm a news addict.  I like to know what's going on in the world.  I watched not just the parochial BBC, but Sky and RT and sometimes Algeciras.   Was it going to spread out of China?  Were their measures of containment enough?  The whole of Wuhan's 11 million population was in lockdown.  Draconian measures were brought in by the
            Then there was the cruise ship docked in Japan - The Diamond Princess containing 800 people - many Brits and Americans.  They had several confirmed cases of Covid19 (the new term they began to use to call the virus) on board.  We had daily bulletins from a very nice Brit and his wife - both in their 70s.  They'd been told they had to stay in their rooms 'in quarantine' for 14 days and although they weren't happy about it they seemed …  phlegmatic, in true British style.  When would they be able to come home? A week passed and suddenly the toll of those infected had become worrying. And then our Brit couple tested positive.  In spite of their quarantine. It eventually emerged, that the cleaning and delivering of food onboard the ship had been carried out by untrained staff who had had no instruction about how to prevent the spread of infection.  They'd been unwittingly carrying the virus from room to room.  The Diamond Princess .

In a way, that story is a metaphor for how the virus has been spread  - through ignorance, people ignoring, not listening or oblivious to safeguarding behaviours. First Italy then Spain and France were hit by the virus spreading rapidly forcing drastic measures by their governments.

   Around this time, my daughter, who works in a university told me that one of the staff had just got back from a holiday in China.  He'd walked off the aeroplane (along with a whole load of others one can assume, a whole plane full of people).  They'd been unchallenged at Heathrow and all gone off to their separate parts of the UK … What! He'd rung HR in the university, from his home next day. 'Should I self isolate for 2 weeks and work from home' he asked. 'Absolutely not,' they said.  'You must come into work'.
     By now some people in the UK were beginning to understand the nature of the threat. When this guy got in to work, various offices banned the poor man from entering their offices for 14 days.
     However, we only had a small number of confirmed cases here in the UK at that point. Perhaps the UK would be spared? Funny to think of that now.  Suddenly it started to spread here and the first thing that happened was the lack of masks and protective equipment for the health workers became clear.  The government started giving daily briefings. Toilet paper became a scarce commodity in the big stores ( but not in my local Turkish corner shop). I saw a woman in Iceland with two shopping bags full of 18 pack toilet rolls.   I got a hair cut and a pedicure (getting my priorities right) as in spite of denials I knew, as the daily death toll grew in the UK, we would be locked down soon like Italy, France and Spain.
      The rate that infection has spread and the numbers dying has been horrifying. And suddenly there we were - the UK with the highest number of deaths in Europe.  It was hard to believe.

    They put together (at great cost) a hospital for 4000 in the Excel Centre, London, naming it the Nightingale Hospital.  Many businesses, in the wartime spirit, switched to making PPEs (protective masks and gowns for the NHS) as there weren't enough.

       After that, our prime minister tested positive and then ended up in Intensive Care  - that was scary - when the leader of the country has succumbed to the sickness.  He recovered fortunately and was soon back at the helm.  How's that working do you think?  I'll keep quiet at this point. I'm glad he recovered but I didn't vote for him.

     The mere mention of restrictions ending seemed to open the floodgates - certainly in North London - there appeared to be nearly as many cars on the road as there ever were suddenly.  What happened to Stay Home and Save Lives?  Gradually week by week the restrictions have lifted,, now bars and restaurants are open, hairdressers but not alternative health practitioners yet  - so you can get your eyebrows done with someone breathing on your face (masked of course) but not` have a back massage ... ???

     Now I'm going to turn to myself as an example of someone who's been told to self-isolate... no person-to-person physical contact as in 'lovely to see you.  Give me a hug etc'. Since the middle of April this started,  before the lockdown. The emotional roller coaster has come and gone in phases.  Phase One:  I was horrified, I was worried about my mental health, how would I manage? To some extent you get used to anything.  But it's been a roller coaster and as time wears on my positive thinking self-talk wears thin too.

    Phase Two:  Many of us got organised and adapted.  My phone was quite busy - WhatsApp messages, quizzes, experimental music, then there was Zoom. What a revelation Zoom became for all of us.  I joined my Buddhist community regularly - meditation, talks, discussions.  We started clapping on a Thursday night for the amazing work being done by our NHS staff.

    One Sunday night I joined a big group discussion on Zoom from Meetup - divided into groups of 4, each person to have 5 mins to talk about their favourite holiday destination.  It was good fun. I learnt about Singapore, Vietnam and the Isle of White. I talked about Cape Town.

    My writer's group, Greenacre Writers had frequent short meetings at 9 a.m. on Zoom to set daily writing goals.  Often we don't get to our goals at all, but sometimes we do. Sometimes we just talked about our isolation and anxiety and fear.  I had a whole week of writer's block and then it broke and I wrote 2 new chapters for my current book in a few days.  Part of it is thinking - who would finish my book if C19 struck me?  No one that's who.  So I better finish it asap. But the group gradually dwindled to two of us as life got in the way for the others.

    At the start of it, I was panicking at the thought of having to stay home.  After a few days of couch potatoing and eating pizza, chips, chocolate and cream desserts, washed down by glasses of various alcohols (I'm not really much of a drinker), I'm back on salads, doing long walks every day and cooking with lots of vegetables - soups and stews and curries and stir-fries. I keep remembering how lucky I am - I have a home, heating, food and a small income.

    So many people in the 'informal economy' as they call it, had no means to pay their rent and bills. Unless you're emptying bins or working for the NHS you won't be working.

     I've been meditating daily using the Insight Timer app, listening to Ted Talks on You Tube and following Walk it Strong exercise (Jessica Smith TV) videos (if I don't go out). I found not listening to the news in the morning did help to maintain positive mental states - it takes effort and commitment to change this habit - but the news was so depressing  ... it was not worth the misery and sadness.
      Then I have three 60+ solo female neighbours. We had brief phone conversations or texted each other (two are technophobes … sigh) or I ring their doorbell, they come to the door, I retreat to the pavement (it's 2 metres +) and we'd have a catch-up chat.

     Self-isolating didn't mean barricading the front door, didn't mean becoming a total hermit. It meant working at maintaining your mental as well as your physical state. Exercise and meditation are fairly key to this.  You could exercise indoors via all the YouTube options or being careful to maintain social distancing, go out for a walk to the park.
     If I did any shopping - small shops in my area had everything when supermarkets had empty shelves -  I had to check out their maintenance of social distancing by customers - and learnt to avoid the ones where it was not being observed.  Tesco and Sainsbury's had long single file queues when they did get their supply chains working, - one person at a time being let in.  There were several schemes in my area for helping people who can't go out with their shopping. It' became impossible to join Online home delivery food supermarkets for a while.  And there was a two-week wait for delivery even if you did at one stage. Although that levelled out as distribution and supplies became better organised.

There are two guys across the street who did shopping for the solo people in lockdown, both were working from home.  Heroes of our cul-de-sac.  If I did buy something or it got delivered,  it got sponged down with disinfectant and water when it reached my home, before being unpacked.

   Phase Three: My organisation and enthusiasm to get writing done waned somewhat at this later phase of lockdown, I had bouts of upset and irritability, I felt trapped a lot and was not getting enough writing done.  As lockdown restrictions are lifted, there's a temptation to rush out, and throw away caution - which is mad really - we've got through 3 months of lockdown - it's still out there this deadly infection, people are still dying.
     What else can we do?  Donate to St Mungo's homeless charity. Offer to volunteer for the NHS if you have the skills and good health.
    In these times all we can do is work at keeping our own mental states positive and do what we can to help our communities and the NHS staff.  I got dressed too, every day, in clean neat clothes and made myself presentable, for my own sake and I think it cheers up other people if you look nice (I mean online for all those Zoom meetings).
      They say there's going to be a second spike so perhaps we'll be better prepared next time? All the shops and hairdressers and bars seem to have perspex screens now to protect staff or customers.  Masks must be worn on all public transport.
       When Boris lifted the rule about recreational travel and urged everyone to use their own cars,  I drove down to central London one evening with my stepson and walked on the Victoria Embankment as darkness was falling.

We crossed the pedestrian bridge over the Thames and walked past the Royal Festival Hall, then back to Westminster Bridge along the South Bank  Then we crossed a near-empty Westminster Bridge to see Big Ben obscured by scaffolding. We turned right on the other side, back past Embankment Station to where I'd parked the car.  The roads were empty.  Very few people were about.  We walked up to the Strand and dived into the entrance area of The Savoy \Hotel to escape a homeless man shouting at us.  The hotel was eerily silent and the doors were all shut and locked.

    That was 3 weeks ago now and things are nearly back to the way they were - I dare not say 'normal' as it feels like things will never be 'normal' again. We've all been changed by this experience, we'll never take life for granted again . . . will we?

    Meanwhile in America things are getting worse, while in the rest of the world numbers of C19 infections drop, there they're still growing. And Nero plays the violin while the country burns.... know what I mean?

    I shall carry on writing -  isolated people read books and we all love a good story don't we? And in the long winter months to come, when isolation may return, ... I aim to finish my second memoir by Xmas.  I'll dream about my adventures in South Africa and the blue skies and sunshine in Cape Town - that's what my next blog will be about ...

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