Early February 2020, in Covent Garden each evening more and more of the tourists – especially the ones who looked like they were from East Asia – were wearing serious masks. I remember one man on the Central Line wearing a black N95 which looked like a double-D bra cup. Smirking is now regulated.
A former boss recently told me that when she saw me this time last year I was under the weather and wondering aloud if I had Covid. It seems deeply shocking to me now that I carried on as normal, but back then there was no framework to isolate and we were also on strike which made it even harder to stay away on the days we were supposed to work. And that week I had even been summoned to the surgery to queue in close proximity with people older than me for half an hour waiting for a blood pressure check. The norms were strongly to carry on as normal unless you had a fever, a cough or shortness of breath. Months later my borough would become one of those known as the Covid triangle – who knows how many caught it that day. As far as I can tell we’re still on our first wave – it never went away. The only other person at work I know of who lives near me lost his dad.
Between that and working in a massive cosmopolitan organisation with crowds funnelling through corridors on the hour, I’m not surprised I caught it early. On the tube into central London to meet my mum that week I started to feel very ill. Again, I didn’t know what to do – she’s not very mobile and would already be on the train from a town two counties away. The WHO had not yet declared a pandemic (though it turned out they would do so the following day). So I pressed on, breathing shallowly through my nose and touching as little as possible, including my mum whom I put next to me as far as possible away at a large table. I washed carefully and tried not to touch anything. I found it hard to find the energy to cut up the pizza. Fortunately a future study found that Covid is not associated with the Central Line, which though incredibly filthy is also incredibly turbulent.
That night I could barely lift a fork for aches. I crawled up to bed groaning – even took a painkiller – and rose in the morning determined. I only felt slightly ill until evening when the neuralgia struck again. The next morning I felt better, and the aches didn’t return. Then a week later in the shower I ritually raised my cupped hands to my nose to inhale the guilty pleasures of Superdrug B Men charcoal facial scrub (non-recyclable packaging) and smelt… Nothing.
Out of the shower, into bed and onto the net. Only the Daily Express reported the first small German study in which a small sample of Covid convalescents had lost their sense of smell and taste. Today it’s one of the three symptoms recognised by the government, but back then the evidence was embryonic.
This time I took the proper course of action: straight out of bed and into the spare room – that was 18th March 2020. That was the beginning of a long spell of meals being made for me – partly because I was polluted but even weeks later because I couldn’t season anything to taste. Without its aromatics, food became a series of rather unpleasant lumpy, sludgy sensations on the palate. For nights I wept alone with the essential oils you’re supposed to use to train your scent. If you’d asked me would I rather lose my sense of smell or hearing I’d have struggled to decide. My sense of smell is everything to me – and it was Spring for heaven’s sake. Spring is the best it gets. I sent out desperate social media calls hashtagged anosmia.
A rhinologist on Twitter warned me that smell might never come back but must have realised he’d overstepped since he protected his account the next day. He got infected a few weeks later, temporarily lost his smell, but recovered. Back in April 2020 the otorhinolaryngologists were among the first to raise the alarm about Covid-related anosmia, since they were encountering a spike in patients reporting loss of smell and taste, were peering into their throats and consequently were falling sick and dying in higher numbers than other health practitioners. My sense of smell began to return on 25th March, just as I was losing hope.
For this reason I made our reusable face coverings back in April from Matt’s old shirts with a two-layer pattern with a filter pocket and nose wire out of the garage (at this time there were the beginnings of craft supply shortages) even though the evidence supporting community use was and still is thin in contrast with the scale of the plastic waste, which is appalling. Imagine if every person in the UK used one disposable surgical mask each day for a year. It’s over 128,000 tonnes of un-recyclable plastic waste (66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. It’s unconscionable. Yet that summer the Covid waste was everywhere – on verges, in gutters, in hedges, stuffed between tree roots. The UK government waited until 24th July to make face coverings mandatory inside in public places, and for some reason disposable masks are still widely available at a price that doesn’t reflect the environmental cost at all.
Sleeping alone was upsetting but with a silver lining of peace and uninterrupted sleep at what felt like the most precipitous time in our longish lives. My other half has risk factors and we were afraid. We also had a strong hunch that this particular government would fuck things up, and Brexit was rolling onward and would soon be past. Food security experts were worried, though thanks to the logistics people the country got fed. I’ve always been a stockpiler – for me it’s only prudent, equivalent to saving money in the bank or putting into a pension – it allows you to avoid panic buying and I’m surprised that most don’t seem to agree. By the time panic buying arrived, we were only really short of compost and fresh food. The first big ticket item I bought was a dehydrator – I dried many apples, oranges and, when the time came, soft fruit and tomatoes.
I used to walk in the local woods and grassland hardly anybody used because, back then, most of the borough avoided recreational walking unless there was full sun. That dramatically changed – by summer I had to litter pick gas capsules, cans and wrappers, and by mid-winter when it hardly ever wasn’t raining parts of it looked like the Somme and I stopped going because it was too depressing. Now there are desire lines all through the nesting sites because, as many will now admit, humans have a massive sense of entitlement and consider themselves outside and above nature. I began to hand-feed squirrels at the back door, but stopped when Chris Packham brought me to my senses – humans are dangerous and it is important that wild animals maintain a healthy mistrust of humans in general (he was more diplomatic). Now I feed at a distance. I think there are four individuals – Original Squirrel, Nosey, Angry and Skinny.
I had to go out of my way to get enough exercise. We’d go out alone, together or in groups of up to six, but I had been used to marching extra miles on my commute, climbing every escalator and stair and carrying heavy loads of shopping. Sat in back to back Teams Meetings day after day I didn’t develop a bad neck, shoulders or back – instead I developed one painful buttock. In late summer during surprisingly protracted negotiations for work to purchase me a gel cushion since I didn’t want to buy one of those bulky plastic computer chairs, I diagnosed myself with muscle wastage and started NHS Couch To 5k. I never in my life expected to be able to run non-stop for 30 minutes, but Couch to 5k is a great scheme. But as the rain started to fall that winter it became clear I couldn’t continue – I couldn’t leave the path and run in the mire, and I couldn’t be breathing heavily in such proximity to the walkers. The second big ticket item I purchased was a rowing machine – a good one from Waterrower, which arrived before the Christmas break. I haven’t run since. I hate both running and rowing but my buttock is cured.