Adam Bird

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Sunday, 5 April 2020

In Unprecedented Times

Rainbow

At the end of every year when the clock strikes midnight, a thousand hopes and dreams nestle in the heart as you look forward to the forthcoming twelve months. Holidays, birthdays, plans, milestones and expectations that the year ahead matches the desires that have been joyously painted in the imagination. But as Big Ben struck midnight at the end of 2019, who on earth would have imagined the reality of what the new year had in store, not just for me, but for every person on this earth?

This blog was always intended to be a kind of digital keepsake of things that we had done as a family as well as a creative outlet for my writing. But as the years have gone by the habit has worn off and the blog posts have dried up. Appearing less frequently as social media has grown and memories are shared easier and quicker as single snapshots of moments rather than long drawn out waffle of words. But with the world undergoing a global pandemic, this post is an opportunity to record a small personal snapshot of events for posterity.

I grew up with anecdotal tales of the second world war and have been to visit the Great War battlefields of France and Belgium, witnessing the aftermath of what I consider to be ‘history’, Our lives have been fortunate in that we’ve generally lived outside of anything of true global historical importance. Events of September 11th 2001 are probably the closest we got, but we sat and watched as voyeurs rather than active participants. Events in-between; wars, disasters, recessions and even Brexit appear insignificant when measured against the truly historical events on a global scale.

Working for a tour operator that runs escorted tour holidays to the Far East and specialises in trips to China thanks to the origins of the business owner, the Covid-19 virus started impacting on my day-to-day much earlier than most.

Strangely, looking back, it may well have been even earlier than that, albeit under a different name. When I was in China at the back-end of last year, my sister sent me a message jokingly warning me not to get the plague after reading a headline in the Times newspaper. The headline was an eerie foresight of what was yet to come.

As January ended, the development team and office in China had been locked-down and staff forced to isolate themselves through fear of spreading what was now clearly a highly contagious and dangerous disease. A promising start to the year for the business took a nose-dive as the scale of the issues unfolded and China started to put measures in place to close down and isolate. A colleague of mine from the Xi’an office had travelled half-way across China to spend time with his wife's family at Chinese New Year and was locked-down unable to leave and forced to spend fourteen weeks in self-isolation with his mother-in-law. No matter how bad things were going to get here, I knew that there was always someone worse off.

There was an alarming sense of inevitability that the virus would reach our shores and as it reached Italy it was always a case of not if, but when. Days started to take on a surreal feel as the morning trains got quieter and the daily stand-up bulletins in the office grew sombre and plans put into place for how the business was to remain operational under lock-down conditions.

We were divided into two teams; team A and team B. One team would work out of the office whilst the other team would work from home, alternating until told otherwise. As it happened, myself included, team B only worked out of the office for a day before Boris Johnson came on the television and changed our normal for the foreseeable future.

There was something about watching Boris that felt otherworldly. LIke watching an apocalyptic disaster movie from Hollywood as day after day things we knew, civil liberties we enjoyed were taken away one by one. Criticisms grew about things that were put in place, or things that weren’t put into place. Watching Italy close down caused alarm and dissenting voices, “why weren’t we doing the same things?”. But Boris and his team of clever looking scientists told us via simple graphical illustrations and layman scientific terms that we had to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. Our time would come, now was not the time. The days passed quickly and so did the information we were given.

Despite all of the advice and all of the preparation the general public, instead of lockdown went into meltdown. Supermarkets were emptied and the great toilet roll emergency unravelled. Australia’s unique supply problem went viral and it became our problem not theirs. Online booking slots for food deliveries sold out and mild panic/hysteria ensued causing another round of memes across the internet which was struggling to cope with the number of meme worthy subjects which was accelerating faster than people could keep up and read them.

I was quite looking forward to working from home. I don’t normally like working from home as I get bored and am too close to the fridge for my liking. But having Stephanie at home conjured thoughts of office romances and making the most of the kids being at school, but that fantasy was short lived as news of the dreaded school closures came once again from Downing Street and ashen faced parents across the country shared my horror, a collective slow-motioned W... T... F... as the reality and terror slowly dawned upon us.

But as the schools began to close and we worried ourselves with how we’d simultaneously home school our children and work from home full-time my office threw me a lifeline. I was offered the opportunity to take three months leave or redundancy. Which, yeah would have solved our childcare issues, but at the same time caused a hell of a panic financially. This news was delivered to us on the same day as the Chancellor's expected announcement to help businesses through this crisis. So not only was this news not great, it was not great timing as it meant a change of policy the following Monday. Instead of the previous two options on the table, we’d all be furloughed instead, adding yet another word to the lexicon of recent words that none of us will forget in a hurry; unprecedented, furlough, self-isolation, social-distancing to name but a few.

As March turned into April, I faced the reality of a minimum of four weeks leave that was expected to last eight, but might be as long as twelve. Whilst the financial institutions put into place allowances for the unprecedented nature of the economy, there still lie so many unanswered questions as to how the furlough scheme would work in reality. But rather than worry too much about it, I took the positives out of a bad situation. Decided that this would instead be a unique opportunity to spend time with the children, homeschool them and spend quality time with them that otherwise we’d never have been afforded. I signed-up and volunteered for the GoodSAM scheme and wrote to the local MP volunteering for the local government initiatives, wanting to try and give something back to the government who had done everything to support workers like me who had been furloughed for the duration.

We had two days left of term and after the first day I was exhausted, feeling like I’d taught Hayden and Phoebe everything I had ever learnt myself and wondering just what the hell we’d do after the Easter break. The office came to the rescue once again, I received a call only half-way through the second day of furlough, which was unexpected to say the least. I was told to come back to work and my furlough period had been temporarily terminated.

All the financial worries had been eased for a month, as there is every possibility that they could furlough me as quickly as they pulled me out. But all the planning for the children has been thrown into disarray as we’ve now got to go back to the original question of how we both work full-time whilst simultaneously home-schooling three children. I had accepted the fact that I would be out of work and relished it, but now it is back to the original plan of grinning and bearing it, doing what we can without expecting miracles. All thoughts of volunteering will need to be shelved until such time as I can make myself available again.

I can’t complain though, not really. Okay so the situation hasn’t exactly been handled in the best possible way, but I’ve got to remain fortunate in that I am able to work when there are hundreds of thousands of people with uncertain futures. A record of events for the purpose of historical context is allowed to contain truths and cannot be polished over - irrespective whether people like it or not. But issues of work weren't the sole purpose of writing this, the purpose of this post was to celebrate family and record how we’ve coped in times of unprecedented historical upheaval.

It is important to count our blessings at times like these, especially when the health of ourselves and loved ones is under such jeopardy. The stories we’ve heard, first-hand or via the media of loss and the pain of people unable to grief or communicate with those that have been hospitalised. It puts everything into context. We have counted our blessings and pray that we continue to do so.

The children, we’ve got to give them so much credit. It is easy to focus on the minutiae of our day-to-day. Moaning because the house is in a mess, or the children have got toys out and not put them away. But the children have had their routines taken from beneath them. The dancing clubs, the swimming lessons, rugby and football, friends and school friends. You wouldn’t really know it though with how the children have been. Whilst us parents have been reaching for the beer or the wine and making time somehow go quicker, the children have been keeping themselves amused for the most part and dealing with it all much better than us!

It is still incredibly early days, three weeks in lock-down conditions more or less with the prospect of at least another four at the very least. It may well get worse before it can get better with people still not quite understanding the concept of social-isolation who knows what the future holds. A future that is preserved for us by a breed of hero that has always been there, but just never appreciated in the same way as they’ve been these past few weeks - our amazing NHS.

We were in tears during the first week of isolation, when standing on our doorstep, the neighbours out on theirs and clapping in support of the greatest health service in the world. Steph and the kids could hear the fog-horns from the ships on the River Thames and the outpouring of thanks was visible as all up our road as people stood clapping and making a racket in support.Which ultimately, is the real thing we need to remember when all of this is over. Whilst at times we’ve never been so alone, we’ve also never been so united. By doing as we are told by those who are running our country, we are collectively coming together for the greater good. To defeat an invisible enemy and to support those who are on the front-line fighting on our behalf.

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