Jimmy Breck-McKye

Developing opinions

The pre-post-COVID chronicles

On the 27th January, 2022, the UK eased back its Coronavirus “plan B” restrictions - such as they were. I was hoping I’d feel something more momentous and freeing. What I’m actually feeling is much more murky and ambiguous. This winter has been tough, and I, I feel like it has changed me.

Some words: I know, objectively, the last three months have been some of the softest restrictions we’ve been under, anyone’s been under.

As seasons go, it was nowhere as tough as two years ago, when the world came to a standstill; it was nowhere as tough as one year ago, when the virus tore through our hospitals and care homes; it was nowhere as wretched and painful and pitiless as last Christmas, which I spent alone. But - for me - I found myself far more drained, more dispirited and even disturbed. This time I couldn’t see path back to normal.

At the time the first lockdowns broke out, April 2020, I treated it as a bargain, a trade, a compromise made with the world, the kind of thing you narrate to give yourself some agency when you’re really under compulsion. “I will give up my job and my friends and my freedom”, I said to the world, tightening my chest, “and you will give us time to invent a vaccine”. The world obliged. “I will give up this year, I will give up on touching any other person”, chest raising again, “and you will give us time to vaccinate”. And so it went.

This Christmas was different. We weren’t staying home to make new medicine, distribute jabs, or get “on top” of Coronavirus (what was that ever supposed to mean?). It wasn’t a deal we were making with the world, something we could rationalise as a choice. Omicron came, it killed, we stayed at home, to banish the nth variant of x variants, until the nth + 1 comes along, and it suffocates us again.

But what was I really after? I’ve spent two years pining for a “return to normal”, meaning that I hoped the world of 2022 would be the same as the world of 2019. But… that couldn’t ever be so, coronavirus or no. Things change.

There’s a saying that being critical is, fundamentally, being disappointed people weren’t who you wanted them to be - which underlines quite nicely how absurd it really is. Obviously, living under the pandemic has been awful. Screamingly, pitilessly, nail-rendingly awful, the kind of awful that every so often just leaves me reeling and agape at all we’ve taken in these 24 months. But I’ve also carried a share of disappointment and even anger simply that the world has changed, that it couldn’t be like the version of the pre-pandemic world I carried in my head. A world of infinite freedoms, rich social life and personal fulfilment.

Looking back… I might have overrated that. Where was I in 2019? For one thing, I was a workaholic. I don’t mean ‘spends too long on presentations when he could be watching The Witcher‘. I mean, I had a problem: using work and career to regulate my emotional state, which is really a kind of (socially acceptable) dependency. I want to write about this at length elsewhere, and how destructive it is, because it feels like doing the right thing.

But in 2019 I was overworked, obese, I rarely dated, I didn’t take care of myself, my sleep was awful, I relied on work drinks to prop up my social life, I bought stuff - objects, clothes, holidays - to try and make peace with how unhappy I was. And then I look where I am now, what I’ve gained over the pandemic:

  • I might not go for drinks every Friday now, but I have a small circle of meaningful friendships. Some people I can only talk to online, because they’re shielding - but I know I can rely on them.
  • I’ve lost a huge amount of weight, about 16kg (two and a half stone). I look better and I feel great. Most importantly, I’ve cut several risk factors for diabetes: this is life-changing stuff. I can look at myself in the mirror without cringeing.
  • I dated someone last year… briefly. It wasn’t a long relationship and it ended abruptly - but I didn’t sit around doing nothing. I didn’t let work get in the way. I did things.
  • I moved into a home I like. One that doesn’t feel like a compromise, in a place I like, a community I could settle in.
  • I can run! Yeah, I know, running is the most vanilla of pandemic hobbies, even more painfully virtuous than baking, but it’s my thing now. I did my first 10k a few months ago; the last one I did in 51 minutes.

Am I really sure I want to roll the world back to 2019? That was two and a half years ago. Things change. I changed.

There’s a larger point about the pandemic. You know, before COVID hit, movies taught us the biggest threat in an apocalypse would be the masses going feral; rioting and anarchy; that the moment the norms of the world dissolve, humanity’s bestial instinct would tear up the tenuous veneer of civilisation. just you watch. Actually, in this apocalypse, it was the opposite.

But the problem this time, were the people wishing the world “back to normal”. Plugging their ears and “doing their own research” in favour of living their lives exactly as they always had done. The people who yanked folk back into the office and smouldered with anger to think someone might be working from home (obviously a skiver). The biggest danger in COVID-19, after the virus itself, were the people who desparately wanted to believe it was still 2019.

Nostalgia is an intoxicant. It’s fun to visit once in a while but if you live that way 24/7 it distorts your view of what’s good about today, what we can gain from change. I’ve spent all this time howling in pain and disappointment that life has been stopped and I’ve forgotten to take stock.

I am cautious about 2022. I think it will take time for us to emerge again. I think it will be hard to risk disappointment. I think we will try impersonating the people we were three years ago only to realise we’re not quite them any more, and we don’t quite want what they did. The healthiest thing is to embrace that.