Twelve months that became our longest year

Unforgettable: Lockdown began a year ago tomorrow… and our lives changed forever.

Will this be the strangest year of our lives? Tomorrow marks twelve months of social distancing in Britain. It seems almost impossible – but could the future be even more bizarre?

One year ago today, life looked very different.

In Britain, office workers were still running for the bus each morning, football fans were still crowding into stadiums and school children were still sitting at their desks.

Then, on 16 March 2020, as coronavirus spread through Europe, Boris Johnson announced the start of social distancing, and everything changed.

The final days of March passed like a whirlwind: schools and restaurants closed, Britons were confined to their homes, the heir to the throne tested positive and the first weekly Clap for Carers rang out across the nation.

By the end of the month, one third of the world’s population was under lockdown. One British newspaper declared the “end of freedom”.

April was similarly apocalyptic. As Boris Johnson was rushed to intensive care, officials worried he was about to become the first British Prime Minister to die in office since Henry Temple in 1865.

Yet as cases fell, the strangeness of the “new normal” shone through. Very rarely would a political adviser’s family outing attract more than a few interested glances. But in May, after days of outrage, Dominic Cummings held a press conference to defend doing just that: his trip to Barnard Castle, he said, was not a breach of lockdown but a necessary journey to “test his eyesight”.

The summer brought a brief respite. Shops reopened. Captain Tom was knighted by the Queen.

But if the summer brought the hope of freedom, the autumn swiftly removed it. A month before the US elections, Donald Trump too was rushed to hospital. In November, much of Europe returned to lockdown. Across the continent, one person was dying of the virus every 17 seconds.

Then, in December, a joyous moment. A grandmother from Coventry was the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine. The jab did not stop the second wave – Britain’s grim death toll reached double that of the Blitz – but in the new year, it slowed the spread of the virus.

Now, even as vaccine nationalism strains tempers across Europe, “normal” looks possible once again.

What a year! Of course, many historians point out it is far from the worst in history. In 536, a disastrous volcanic eruption in Iceland dimmed the sun for a year and a half. World War Two killed millions across the world. Even pandemics are hardly unprecedented: the Black Death wiped out half of all Londoners in 1349.

Nor, with any certainty, can we ever predict what the future will bring. In January, one journalist suggested that 2030 might actually be more calamitous than 2020.

Moreover, some say the strangeness of this year depends on the privilege of having a comfortable “normal”. For 2.4 million children in Syria, not attending school in 2020 was completely expected.

But for most people alive today, no event has had such an impact as Covid-19. Even huge catastrophes, such as 9/11, and political upheavals, like Brexit, rarely define a whole year.

Will this be the strangest year of our lives?

Back to reality?

We should certainly hope so, say some. This pandemic has changed how we live in a way many would have thought impossible just a year ago. It has been undoubtedly bizarre. But if there is a silver lining, it is that as a population we are more prepared to deal with any future crises that may arise. Most of the world’s problems, including climate change, are known about, and thus fixable.

The future could be even weirder, say others. It is foolish to try to make predictions. In the 1950s, teenagers born before World War Two might have said quite confidently they had already lived through the strangest years of their lives. Today, in their old age, they might reconsider. The world is constantly changing – it is impossible to say what tomorrow holds.

You Decide

  1. What is the strangest thing that happened during the past 12 months?
  2. Should we bother trying to predict the future?

Activities

  1. Create a timeline of your own year, starting from the beginning of March 2020. When did you first realise coronavirus was going to affect your everyday life?
  2. Write a short story set in an even stranger year than 2020. It could involve an imaginary year in the future or a real year from the past.

Some People Say...

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930), British author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the lockdowns changed the patterns of human behaviour. Online meetings suddenly replaced face to face interaction. Travel, both local and international, stopped. On April 13th 2020 at 11:45pm, radar readings recorded no aircraft at all over Britain. Without human crowds, people noticed more wildlife – in Venice, the canals were so clear you could see fish swimming around. And in the UK, lockdown saw a sharp increase in the number of UFO sightings.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether coronavirus will have permanent effects on the way we live. Biologist Dr Simon Clarke believes that coronavirus will remain in our collective consciousness on issues such as illness and security. Some people may want to keep masks and social distancing, especially when they are unwell. Others say that humans have a short memory; when restrictions are eased, we will soon return to being our 2019 selves. After all, they are having pool parties in Wuhan.

Word Watch

Heir to the throne
Prince Charles, first in line to the British throne, tested positive for coronavirus in March 2020.
Clap for Carers
The movement to applaud at 8pm every Thursday to pay tribute to health workers was started by Londoner Annemarie Plas and began on 26th March.
Henry Temple
Temple died of a fever two days before his 81st birthday.
Dominic Cummings
Boris Johnson’s Chief Adviser, who was criticised for travelling from London to Durham in late March, left Downing Street in November.
Captain Tom
Centenarian Captain Tom Moore raised £39m for the NHS during the first lockdown by walking 100 laps of his garden. He later became the oldest artist to top the UK’s music charts.
Pfizer vaccine
Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first person to receive the vaccine after it was approved in Britain.
Blitz
The German bombing campaign against the UK during the Second World War, killing more than 43,000 people. The term comes from the German word “blitzkrieg”, meaning “lightning war”.
Vaccine nationalism
A row broke out between Britain and the European Union over supplies of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. So far, more than 23 million people have been vaccinated in the UK.
Calamitous
Ishaan Tharoor argues that climate change, population growth and political unrest could all cause huge problems in the next decade.
Syria
In January, UNICEF warned that after nearly 10 years of war in Syria, half of the country’s children are still deprived of an education.

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