Personal musings on the Pandemic and the ‘New Normal’

As the new school year begins, I find myself, for the first time in two and half years, finally travelling again for ‘English in Action’. Until March 2020, as a member of the promotions team for 12 years, my job was visiting the countries we work in Europe. Each year I would expect to spend about 12-16 weeks in the EU between mid-September and June.

My main role was maintaining relationships with the schools that we work with, planning courses over a coffee and/or offering short demonstration lessons to give the students a feel for what we offer. I also visited new schools to introduce our programmes, as well as, attending conferences and working as a judge at language competitions.

I loved my job!

A hire car, the open road and the breathtaking scenery of countries such as Austria, Switzerland, and Germany. I stayed in dozens of lovely hotels and guesthouses and discovered hundreds of cities, towns, and villages. I sampled great regional foods and met like-minded humans. It was a large part of my life until the world underwent a remarkable and radical change.

In March 2020, I was in Linz, Austria, with my wife. We were part of the judging panel for a language competition at the WIFI. This has always been one of my favourite events of the year. We had the pleasure of getting to see some remarkable teenagers, often at least trilingual, displaying their range of English language skills.

For some months already the world had been aware of a highly contagious virus that was causing deaths in China. As with a few other viral outbreaks over the years in that part of the world, it was mostly greeted with little more than concern from a distance.

It wasn’t until Covid 19 ‘The Corona Virus’, started to show up in a region of Italy and many hundreds began to die that we started to take things more seriously. That was too close for comfort!

Some people had already begun ‘panic buying’, correctly predicting what was to come, but also, somewhat unfairly causing huge issues in supply chains. Empty shelves were not an uncommon sight. While most people kept a cool head, some were stripping the supermarket shelves of essential items such as toilet roll, often dozens of packets at a time. For those in the rest of Europe and its recently departed member country, Great Britain, it was clear that this pandemic was heading our way.

Large outbreaks in Spain were next and by the time we were in Linz, it seemed only a matter of time before the closing down of society as we knew it would be upon us.

On the final day of the language competition, the last ‘Normal’ day for us all, there was clearly a sense of concern in the air. We finished the day, said goodbye to friends and colleagues and travelled to the airport with news that Europe was going into lockdown being broadcast on the radio.

We arrived home to the UK which still hadn’t made that decision, but we began self-imposed isolation for fear that we may have been exposed to Covid-19, due to the large number of people we had encountered that week.

On Monday the 23rd of March, our then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that from that day onwards all citizens must stay at home, and on the 26th the lockdown measures legally came into force, bringing about the most draconian and restrictive measures imposed on the UK that most of our had seen in our lifetimes.

It was a frightening and surreal moment sitting in front of the TV, being told that life as we knew it was being put on hold. A million thoughts rushed through my mind, where are my family and friends now? Are they all safe? How long will this last? What’s going to happen to my job? Do we have enough food in the house? Do we actually have enough toilet roll?

The first few days of the lockdown genuinely felt like we were in a doomsday scenario, temporary hospitals were being constructed to deal with the vast number of cases and the fear was palpable. Listening to the daily death count, in the thousands, was truly horrifying.

Personally, navigating the world of online shopping was a challenge as I had never really bought much online before, certainly not food. Supermarket slots were fully booked but we managed to find numerous smaller enterprises that would deliver. We treated each delivery as if it were nuclear waste, handling it with gloves on, washing everything before touching it, not knowing if we were inviting death into the house.

Sadly, the darker side of human nature raised its head too. Prices for something as simple as a jar of coffee could be found online for ten times its normal price. I think it’s fair to say that one online shopping giant was probably rubbing its hands with glee as it watched its sales increase astronomically. Delivery vans seemed to be the only vehicles on the road. Our permitted 1- hour walk per day resembled a post-apocalyptic movie set, with no more than a handful of people wandering our local streets. We crossed the road to avoid each other for fear of infection. Other humans, however nice they looked, became a potential threat to life.

The introduction of the Furlough scheme was quick in its implementation, as the government took drastic measures to ensure that the millions of people who were unable to go about their working lives were financially supported. It was a temporary lifeline for working people and businesses. There are many that didn’t make it through though, and many that only just hung on.

Travel for work was put on hold that March. For a period of that time, there was much uncertainty, but we survived thanks to the furlough scheme and the company becoming creative in our ways of continuing to provide courses. We developed a range of online courses that proved to be very successful, and we maintained relationships with our partners online and adjusted to the new world while we waited for things to open back up again. Thankfully they did, slowly but surely restrictions eased but life had changed, and it took a while longer to get back to just about normal. We wore masks, still got through buckets of hand gel, ‘socially distanced’ and spoke to shop assistants through Perspex shields. Some of this is still a part of everyday life now. We were more mindful of crowded places and wouldn’t visit friends or family if we thought there was a possibility of being unwell. This has become known as “The New Normal”.

The world thankfully now seems a long way forward from the days of vaccines being rushed to market, conspiracy theories abounding. Dystopian scenes of nervous souls lining up 2 meters apart for an injection they hoped might save their lives were commonplace. However, with the passing of time, life hasn’t become the nightmare of an Orwell novel, we have emerged from the worst of it and are all now piecing back together our daily routines and old practices.

When looking back over those most strange of times, from a personal point of view, I can honestly say that some very positive things resulted from those strangest of times and I have carried those into the present day.

I had the opportunity to stop and think, spend more time with my wife and reassess my priorities. I was able to cook more, write and reflect. I became more grateful for the simpler pleasures in life. I reconnected with old friends (even if that happened to be via Zoom). I now regularly play cards online with friends who live around the world, and our friendships are closer today than they have been in many years. We also continue to shop more thoughtfully by supporting local businesses. My working life has moved permanently to my ‘home office’, which I very much enjoy. And, where in the past, the idea of a holiday immediately brought thoughts of flying off somewhere, we have taken time to see more of our own beautiful country.

In the grand scheme of things, for me personally, at least, it has been a time that I cannot wholeheartedly say was all bad.

And now, as we move out of this all-consuming ‘one story’ world, I’m delighted to be back on the road, doing what I most enjoy about my job, meeting people face to face and ‘talking shop’ over a cup of coffee 😊

Life back on the road has been a joy, and long may it continue.

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