Somehow, I’ve ended up in the exact same place, the exact same spot even, that I was this time last year. I’m sitting on my aged, leather sofa, catching up on poorly made British soap operas, drinking hot mint tea with honey, and planning a summer that I hope COVID-19 will allow. By no means did I anticipate one year ago that the virus would still be dictating my academic, professional, and social life—I don’t think anyone truly did either. But, whether I like it or not, 12 months have passed, during which birthdays have been celebrated over Zoom, sites of learning and education have periodically been closed, hospitals and health care sectors have faced strains like no other, and countless lives have been mourned. Maybe it was wishful thinking that convinced me it would all be over by the start of the new year. But maybe it was the constant, deafening, and frankly mood-crushing stream of news that made it harder to maintain this optimism. Maybe it was the tiredness I would see in my mother’s eyes and hear in her voice when she returned home from working, nurse’s uniform in hand, that made it harder for me to ignore the virus’s power. Or maybe it was finally the realization that I was starting the second half of my sophomore year within the four walls of my Birmingham bedroom that made me accept that this—this place, this way of life, this reality—was how it would be for a while longer.
When I talk about being in the same place, I mean the city where I had grown up, back in the house in which I didn’t think I’d spend more than three months at a time, and, most importantly, back in a place where it felt like I was furthest away from all that I hoped to achieve and experience. I remember the frantic flight home last year from Wesleyan vividly. It was March 21, a week or so after the University had announced the sudden closure of campus. The only available flight was at 6 a.m. and departed from JFK, which, on that early morning, was barely recognizable. Masks were just beginning to become the norm; some passengers were wearing two, whilst others appeared worryingly oblivious to a ruthless pandemic that lay on the horizon. The flight, though shorter than usual, consisted of an unbearable six hours of film watching, music listening, mask wearing, and constant hand sanitizing as I sat alone within my own row of seats.
I finally made it back to the U.K. after almost an entire day of traveling. As I sunk into my bed with exhaustion, I had a strange feeling of relief, as if I had just made it before it was too late, as if I had been in a race and I had won by margins. I learned in the two days that followed that this was one of my most accurate premonitions. On March 23, the U.K. Prime Minister announced the first (of three) nationwide lockdowns. The suggestion was that strict stay at home rules—working from home if possible, exercising locally outside for up to one hour per day, only leaving the house for essential reasons, and no mixing of households—would be in place for a minimum of three weeks, at which point the government would reassess how COVID-19 was faring within the country. Having spent the last four months in another rigid lockdown, three weeks now sounds like a luxury. But a lockdown of this length proved in many ways to be impossible, as rates of infection soared, hospitalizations surged, and our NHS (National Health Service) began to buckle under the immense weight of the coronavirus.
In the weeks, months, and the incredibly strange and difficult year that followed, my days began to morph into a collection of home workouts, tedious online classes, and, regrettably, many walks to the post office as I returned another set of impulsive lockdown purchases. However, this loose and mundane routine gave me something modern life rarely gives you: time. And not just time, an undetermined amount of time. Initially, I was overwhelmed, frustrated and most of all unsettled by this. For the previous three months, I had been finally working out “how to do college.” I was working multiple jobs, I was tutoring French, I was singing in my a cappella group, and, of course, I was partying in true Wesleyan style. In other words, I was in what I can only describe as full-on performance mode, something off of which I have always thrived. Suddenly, I was forced to an abrupt stop, I was no longer performing as it were, and in one fell swoop, COVID-19 had left me stranded and unsure of where to go next. It had pressed pause on what everyone tells you are the best years of your life, and yet I wasn’t in any rush to fast-forward to the day when I would be able to carry on having this alleged life-changing experience.
I won’t lie. It took me a good amount of time—longer than I expected, anyway—to move past these feelings. I had to take a step back and realize that not only were my grievances minute in comparison to the crushing devastation and tremendous hardship that the virus was imposing worldwide, but they were also futile. Why? For the simple reason that COVID-19 was calling the shots. No matter how much I got upset about having three quarters of a freshman year, it wasn’t going to change the fact that I wouldn’t get those lost months back. No matter how much I dwelled over what my second semester could have been like or what my friends were doing without me on the other side of the world, it wasn’t going to change the fact that I was here and they were there. No matter how much I hoped that the world had seen the worst of COVID-19, it wasn’t going to change the fact that we were all under its rule, its grip, and its control.
It became more and more clear that the only thing to do was to make the most out of the time that had unexpectedly been handed to me. Of course, that was easier said than done, especially when you have the entirety of Netflix at your disposal, an endless stream of social media to spend hours scrolling through, and a nearby sofa or bed tempting you back to it. But once I made the shift from staying in my pyjamas no later than 11 a.m., or returned to eating three meals a day, or limited the amount of time I spent glued to a screen, I gave myself the best opportunity to truly maximize the copious amount of time that I now had to fill. I had time to write, time to spend with my mum and late dog Rascal, time to rejuvenate my appreciation for the country I called home, time to focus on my studies, time to pursue what I was passionate about, and even time to find a boyfriend—all in the midst of a global pandemic.
Whilst I was busy doing all of this, the country too was using time to its advantage. It was pioneering vaccines in Oxford, vaccines that would go on to protect millions of people. It was formulating roadmaps out of lockdown that would allow for schools to reopen, the economy to rebuild itself, and for human connections to resume. It was standing up against racism, violence towards women, and most recently, potential infringements on the very right to protest. Perhaps, most importantly, it was rallying together to fight the virus, by caring for those who had fallen victim to COVID-19 and showing appreciation, commendation, and admiration to those keeping the country going. That is not to say that it was all smooth sailing. The U.K.’s death toll stands at 126,713, thousands of businesses have been forced to close their doors, the government’s at times unclear and ever-changing advice has left us all confused, and as much as we may be over the worst of it, we are far from over it altogether.
Having spent time in both the U.K and the U.S. during the pandemic, I believe that this is the case across the world. In other words, I see that there is a lot which perhaps merits celebration, but simultaneously a lot that needs to be done if we are ever to experience any kind of normality again. When I returned to Wesleyan’s campus in the fall of 2020, it was in part a much-needed break from my life in the U.K.. That said, I look back on the semester with mixed emotions. Happiness when I was able to reunite with friends who I have grown to see as family. Comfort as I walked across Foss, got a meal at Usdan or saw the campus in its full autumnal bloom. Frustration as I spent the majority of my day confined to the seat at my desk, eating dinners alone whilst on FaceTime to my boyfriend. Worry as I constantly feared contracting the virus, dealing with a new travel ban or a cancelled flight and becoming stuck indefinitely in a country whose COVID-19 response was dangerously lax, insufficient, and evidently no match at all against a mounting death rate.
Nevertheless, I think it is worth recognizing where we may be now as countries and as a global community. That is, a hell of a lot closer to regaining our former lives. That is, a hell of a lot closer to waving a long-overdue goodbye to COVID-19. That is, a hell of a lot closer to moving forward in an attempt to rectify our mistakes, repair the mental and physical damage that this unprecedented pandemic has inflicted upon us, and ensure that if anything like this should ever happen again, we are better prepared, better equipped, and better informed to defeat it.
Looking back on the time that has elapsed between my setting foot on English soil last March and now, I’ve written more articles than I can remember, challenged myself in my classes, pursued opportunities that, if it weren’t for COVID-19, I never would have, and, to top it all off, I’m now in an extremely happy and long-term relationship. As for the U.K., this week saw the first easing of what should be its final lockdown, as outdoor sports resumed and groups of six people or two households were able to meet outside. The U.K. is returning to life as we once knew it, and, slowly but surely, other parts of the world are following suit. However, anything can happen—COVID-19 has repeatedly shown that to be the unfortunate case. For now, though, I’m going to try not to focus too much on what could happen. Instead, I’m going to focus on what has happened and, indeed, what is happening now. I may be writing this from the downstairs of my suburban English home, whilst my mother sleeps upstairs, recovering from a cycle of 14-hour hospital shifts, but I know that a lot has changed over the past year—even if my location hasn’t.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.