In my first article for Public Affairs Cymru, I consider some of the oddities of lockdown life; the impact of lockdown measures on the mental and emotional wellbeing of vulnerable groups; Zoom fatigue; swearing; interior design; and Bruce Springsteen. Yep, you read that right.
One of the stranger perks of lockdown Britain is that I’m increasingly finding myself within earshot of people’s conversations while standing in queues outside supermarkets. In most cases, these conversations go something like “Have you got the list?”, before a head drops, eyes roll and someone mutters “You’re absolutely (insert expletive here) useless”. Silence then descends for a few seconds as tepid steps are taken to the next line of socially-distanced black and yellow tape, the sort usually reserved for large-scale construction projects, before the next earth-shattering question surfaces: “Did you bring the bags?”
The almost-reflex-like haste with which people respond to these rather ordinary questions got me thinking: there’s something quite charming about being unnecessary. Bear with me on this… When people who don’t swear are asked why they refrain from adding all this readymade colour and vibrancy into their lives, their response tends to go something like “It’s just so unnecessary”… As if that’s a reason not to. The unnecessary things we do and say and engage ourselves in are exactly what make life interesting. It’s not necessary to take cute photographs of our pets and put them on our Instagram story. It’s not necessary to be most of the way through a packet of chocolate fingers while writing a Public Affairs Cymru blog (no idea where that one came from). And it’s not necessary to watch YouTube videos of Bruce Springsteen’s 2013 set at the Hard Rock Calling music festival (but let’s face it – our lives are enhanced immeasurably by doing all of these things).
Unnecessary too was the late political commentator Anthony King’s description of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide election win as “like an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on earth”.
All of which serves to demonstrate (in a rather roundabout way, I’ll admit) that there’s something quite wonderful about over-egging the proverbial pudding.
That said, as we enter late-June and look gingerly towards a post-lockdown society, the COVID-19 pandemic is not an example of an issue where we’re likely to look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. By every conceivable measure, society has been radically, and perhaps permanently, altered.
Such has been the unremitting coverage of COVID-19 over recent weeks, the narrative is, encouragingly, beginning to shift to a space where policy professionals, researchers, politicians, public sector organisations, private sector companies and others are beginning to think about some of the positive outcomes that might emerge from the pandemic.
An obvious one is air quality – Air Quality News examined data from the Department for Energy, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which revealed that levels of nitrogen dioxide on 24th March (just one day into lockdown) in some UK cities were only half of what they were on the same day in March 2019. It has long been known that air pollution can contribute to deadly respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, but there have been several stark studies completed since lockdown began that suggest prolonged exposure to toxic air has damaged people’s lungs to the point where it is contributing to COVID-related deaths. It seems almost unfair to call this ‘progress’ given the lockdown and ‘work from home’ measures were introduced on our behalf rather than our conscious efforts bringing about such a welcome change, but nonetheless, everyone can agree that we need capitalise on this.
A less scientific example is the extent to which local communities have come together to support society’s most vulnerable. From the donations of PPE to hospital sites, the army of volunteers that have come together to help people who are shielding with vital but basic amenities like picking up prescriptions, to the fantastic ‘Feed the Heath’ initiative, which raises funds to buy ingredients that are then used by Cardiff’s restaurants to prepare and deliver nutritious meals to frontline workers at the University Hospital of Wales, there’s been a real sense of togetherness over recent weeks.
This is not, however, to overlook the reality that society is experiencing lockdown in very different ways. For some, lockdown has meant an extended period of working from home, an opportunity to spend more time with family, and a chance to work through those 5:30pm emails while sat in the garden with the sort of drink you usually only ever consider having when you’re on holiday. For others, particularly young people, lockdown has meant almost a complete severing of the social ties that play such an important part in keeping us happy and healthy. To cite just one of the many studies on this, UCL’s social study of 90,000 adults in the UK shows that levels of anxiety and depression during lockdown remain highest among young adults. Other particularly affected groups include those with lower household incomes, those living alone and those living with an existing mental health condition.
The drivers for this concerning trend are extensive. Increased social isolation is an obvious one, but it’s likely that the real harm is being caused by the combined effect of reduced access to mental health support services, financial insecurities, employment losses and the loss of coping mechanisms, among others. But even here, there are inequalities in the deficits – for example, job losses are socio-economically patterned; some people live with a physical disability that prevents them from getting outdoors; and not everyone finds it easy to stay digitally connected to friends and family. Even for those of us fortunate enough to ‘have it easy’ when it comes to staying digitally connected, ‘Zoom fatigue’ appears to be something of an emerging pandemic of its own – the necessity to work from home and interact only with colleagues and stakeholders through Zoom, Teams or Skype means it’s becoming increasingly difficult to catch a break from our digital devices, even when we might want to.
Perhaps the most overwhelming concern however is that these inequalities are only recently coming to light. The ceaseless coverage of charts showing the number of cases and the number of deaths, the ‘R’ number, the rapid deployment of field hospitals and the national roll-out of testing programmes has meant that such inequalities have not yet been highlighted to the extent they should.
Personally, I’m massively fortunate insofar as I have not been required to go on furlough and I haven’t had to go through a period of earning a reduced salary, both of which mean I have not had to endure the insecurities around personal finances and/or housing that have impacted the lives of so many – even among the public affairs profession. That said, the day job requires seven to eight hours everyday in front of a laptop screen, and even when I manage to pinch an early finish, the very nature of my role with the Welsh NHS Confederation means I never *quite* disembark the COVID-19 wagon. It’s worth mentioning also that many young people live in small, single-bedroom accommodation (or a rented room in a shared house), which often means there isn’t a designated workspace. This can lead to a situation where one’s eyes are helplessly drawn to the flickering of lights on the work laptop, despite it being well past ordinary work hours, as if that 6:45pm email demands immediate attention and cannot wait til morning. And of course, as soon as you concede to the flickering green light and read said email, the human brain has an annoying habit of making it dance round your skull all evening, even if you convince yourself not to succumb to the pressures and press ‘Reply’. (If this sounds like you, here’s a tip – find yourself a foldable ottoman. One of these will enable you to keep your laptop well out of sight until the following morning, preventing you from constantly monitoring your inbox, leaving you to get on with the more important business of enjoying your time off. See here to see what I’m on about).
And so, what are, in broad terms, the implications of lockdown measures? Well, let’s start by reminding ourselves that good mental health is a national asset in its own right. Moreover, poor mental health is strongly associated with poor physical health. Given the disparities in how different groups are experiencing lockdown and the various impacts such disparities are having on the mental and emotional wellbeing of vulnerable groups therefore, it is reasonable to consider what plans, if any, Governments have in place to rise to the challenges that lockdown measures have manufactured. It is by no means outlandish to say that the unequal impacts of COVID-19 will absolutely lead to a widening of pre-existing health inequalities, as well as affecting people who have not previously experienced poor mental health. Failing to value and invest in mental health during the pandemic risks storing up significant mental and physical health problems – at great human and economic cost.
Callum Hughes is Policy Lead at Public Affairs Cymru and Policy and Public Affairs Officer at The Welsh NHS Confederation.