23 March 2021 marked a year of living under some form of pandemic restrictions in the UK. While it feels like an appropriate moment to reflect on the last twelve months, over this time I have had the strange feeling described by others on podcasts and vlogs of time and space scoping in on each other to the point where we can no longer mark them out clearly in our minds. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months – my phone tells me time is passing, but particularly during the long, dark winter, I wasn’t sure I believed it. My city has shrunk to the 5 km radius around my home – my laptop is no longer a tool I use at university, but university itself; we have been accelerated into a digitopia, I exist only on video.
I don’t know whether it is because we are still under restrictions, but I don’t feel I have enough distance to look back and fully evaluate this time and what it has meant. The clarity of hindsight isn’t available to us as we are still grappling with various limitations and the grief of what has been lost. But, on the occasion of this morbid anniversary, I have been thinking about the milestones that have marked out the last year; it is important to remember that we lived through this time, and we will likely be forever changed by it.
I’m not ashamed to admit that one year ago, I did not imagine that things were going to shake out like this. Cocooned in the university bubble, throughout February and the beginning of March, I listened to the news while brushing my teeth; the reports were becoming increasingly frantic but there was a surreality to it all – I think I was in denial. The exhortations from experts seemed overly dramatic and the pandemic still felt remote. Until suddenly it wasn’t: the university rumour mill started working overtime, the virus was on campus. I looked out of my bedroom and saw cleaners in hazmat suits entering the block opposite. Leaving what I didn’t know at the time would be my last ever dissection room session, I asked my friend if she wanted to grab a quick pint. And so it was, while we tore open a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps so that the foil lay flat on the table, the prime minister announced from our phone screens that we should avoid non-essential travel and entertainment venues. We celebrate firsts, but had I known it at the time, I would have made more of these lasts – I had had my last pint in Bristol, that was the last night I would spend in halls. University moved online and my mum dutifully came to pick me up. I didn’t think to take everything from my room – just the essentials for the holiday, and the textbooks I would need for my Easter holiday revision.
Study commenced from my parents’ front room – my sisters, with whom I had not lived as an adult for more than a week at Christmas, were now home too, and sometimes dropped in for class. They drifted in and out as I learned about the HPA axis and Cushing’s syndrome – in the evenings we entertained each other with board games, baking and bickering as the days turned into weeks and it became clear that this wasn’t all going to be over by the end of the Easter break. We walked – more than we had ever done before, finding new routes and giving everyone a wide berth, or nodding awkwardly in acknowledgement when passersby leapt off narrow pavements to adhere to social distancing. Infection anxiety was rife – everyone was suspect.
And then the stories began to emerge of the people behind the numbers who had lost their lives, many of them healthcare workers. A disproportionate number of the dead were of ethnic minority heritage – suddenly the threat wasn’t abstract, but seemed to have put a target on my parents, both Black, both over 60, both frontline healthcare workers. We adjusted, we accepted that things weren’t going to be back to normal any time soon. We instituted new hygiene protocols – we became zealous about disinfecting door handles. I did my end-of-year exam sitting at the kitchen table – out of the window, the bulbs my mum had planted when my sisters and I first returned home were starting to bloom.
Things opened up, and I met friends to take advantage of the chancellor’s restaurant vouchers (sadly, that scheme did not age well). Online learning flourished; Study Hub was born. Summer gave way to autumn, one sister found a job and left home again, the other made plans to move abroad. Us pre-clinical medical students returned to our various universities for blended learning, where we’ve basically been ever since, hanging onto announcements and missing our friends. The last six months have passed in a kind of blur – a strange mix of too much screen time and lateral flow tests, with a large dose of cabin fever stirred in for good measure. Which takes me back to where I started – time has both marched on and stood still. But a personal turning point came this week when I received my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, ahead of my first hospital placement in June. Masked and distanced, I marvelled at the efficiency of the NHS vaccination machine as I was guided through the centre in a process that took all of 12 minutes from start to finish. Right at the moment I was handed my aftercare leaflet, I realised that it was becoming possible to imagine a future beyond the acute phase of the pandemic; it is starting to feel like this chapter of our lives might be drawing to a close. Make no mistake, we will be living with the impacts of this pandemic for years to come – not least in the delivery of both healthcare and medical education, which are changed forever. But I believe we are at the end of the beginning, and that we all have a stake in the future we build out of the pandemic’s ashes.