A great many people will be breathing a sigh of relief that 2020 is finally over.
Of course, a calendar year is nothing more than a way of marking the passage of time, it isn’t sentient and has no agency of its own. Nor does its end mark a barrier beyond which the pandemic and the political decisions which exacerbated it cannot pass; they absolutely can and will. Despite all that, 2020 was without doubt one of the strangest and most difficult in living memory and nobody should be begrudged a moment to be glad it is over and hope things will get better.
Speaking personally, the year has delivered one significant positive. After several years of living in Pontypridd, South Wales and working in Bootle, just north of Liverpool, I’ve had ten months without an exhausting four-and-a-half-hour weekly commute and am on the cusp of being formally transferred to Cardiff. This means acclimatising to a new team in work and a new union branch, but it also means I get to actually come home to my wife every single night even once the pandemic and permanent home working are over.
The price of this, of course, was Covid. I’m incredibly fortunate not just in having a job that allows working from home, but also in not having suffered the symptoms of the virus. My wife wasn’t so lucky, and even after she pulled through, we’re still getting to grips with what long Covid means for her health, in particular how it will impact on other conditions. A great many other people will be figuring out the same thing, and it’s almost certain that support and recognition of the condition will be as much of a struggle as the condition itself.
The UK has an appalling record when it comes to the treatment of disabled people. Prior to the pandemic, that was most keenly felt in the impact of austerity and public service and benefit cuts, though groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and others have put up an impressive resistance through direct action. With the virus reaping havoc across the country and the world, they have borne the double brunt of callous political decisions and callous discourse from Covid-denialists, lockdown sceptics, conspiracy theorists and their tangled web of fellow travellers.
It is through a policy of equal parts neglect and conscious disregard that we saw deaths rocket in care homes even before the summer’s efforts to prematurely force things back to normal. We now know for certain, though it was hardly unforeseeable, that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and the insistence on in-person school and university education in particular were significant vectors for transmission. (On the latter front, it was heartening to see rent strikes and protests flare up by university students rebelling against being dragged to halls of residence so profits could be extracted from them and then effectively imprisoned in opposition to the normalcy promised.) Disabled people, being more at risk from the virus, bore the brunt of this – not least those in the service industry and other key workers who could not work from home and for whom the furlough scheme fell far short of a proper safety net, even if they weren’t excluded by the way it was applied and/or the failings of their employer.
Because, of course, disabled people are an active part of our society. The conspiracists who insist there aren’t that many deaths if you exclude those without underlying conditions not only ignore that one in four people in the UK have an underlying condition, and the majority of these are manageable, but effectively place less importance on someone’s death if they are disabled. Even if you look at their go-to excuse – that they advocate shielding the vulnerable whilst everyone else gets on with their lives – it displays their ignorance about how many disabled people there are and how embedded they are in wider society. “Let everyone else get on with it” thus quickly becomes either a call to isolate the vulnerable from their carers, their support bubbles, their families and their jobs (most likely with inadequate financial support) or to also isolate so many people that you’ve effectively got a national lockdown anyway – just with exceptions for a bunch of selfish, callous arseholes with few family and friends.
This is without even getting into the fact that those advocating such guff utterly ignore the government’s mismanagement which has limited and undermined lockdowns at every point. Instead, they rail against a fictional tyranny whilst people in the real world die.
It is undoubtedly true that lockdowns and the pandemic have had a toll on people’s mental health. I’ve felt it as keenly as anybody, with difficulty sleeping and fatigue, particularly as winter shattered my resolve to go out for a walk and exercise every day and my discipline with regular writing has fallen apart. Here, again, we find that a callous minority weaponise something that they otherwise don’t care about. There’s no call for more lenient sickness policies by employers to support mental health, a lightening of workloads and an increase of leisure time, just a return to the very normalcy that has seen mental health problems increase so that a quarter of the population experience them.
All of which seems to set a very sour note on which to enter 2021. As an antidote, there is absolutely hope, but this is one that lays entirely in our hands. The calendar year lacks agency, but we don’t – we can see things get better if we are willing to fight to make it happen.
I’m also going to release not one but two novels in the coming year, which I’ll write more about in a separate post not dominated by a rant on the pandemic, so things are looking up already!