/ 20 April 2024

Four years later: The early part of Covid-19 lockdowns was the weirdest of times

The Economy Has Slowed Down During The 21 Day Lockdown Photo Delwyn Verasamy
The lockdown provided us with a prism through which we could look at our crazy lives and simplify them. It was a strange and special time

It was around this time that the grim realities of the hard Covid-19 lock-down set in for many of us. Face masks. No booze. “Family meetings.” Food shortages and the associated social media panic. 

Fears about the health of ageing parents; fears about how soon it would take to throttle the home-from-school kids. Fears about whether your next breath was going to be your last one.

There was a whole new vocabulary to get used to. It spread with viral speed, attacking everything. Think of “social distancing”, and “hand sanitiser”; think of recycled shopping bags and the mixed blessings — often hilarious — of Zoom meetings.

“Can you see me Arnold, I can’t see you!”

“Is this the link? Do I just click? And then I can see you!”

For me, personally, beaches played a small but important part in my Covid-19 story. When I was so fatigued that I was unable to walk across a small beach (the dogs bounded across with ease) I realised that something was up. 

Something was. I was “positive”, an irony I seldom tired — not true, actually — of telling my friends about, because my first vaccination was only days away when I first came down with the plague.

Before I couldn’t cross the beach without pausing for breath, I snuck out and crossed the beach without thinking. In the early stages of lockdown, when I had the beach to myself, I marvelled at everything. How pristine was the beach sand? How clean and litter-free. And, suddenly, how incredibly benign the weather was.

The important thing was that no-one else was crossing the beach. They were taking social distancing to extremes and battening down the hatches, getting Woolies to deliver non-perishables and toilet paper. 

They were breathlessly exchanging banana bread recipes and bartering for booze. They were coming up with ingenious strategies for queue-jumping so they could be first to be vaccinated.

There were no footprints on the beach when I crossed it for the first time, so I experienced a Robinson Crusoe moment. I was the first man. The only man. This was how it was in the beginning, an Edenic moment of calm, peace and plenty.

At this stage of the pandemic we used to pore over our phones, gazing at the animals returning to empty parks and cities with a longing we didn’t know we had. Goats walked like celebrities down the high street in a Welsh village. Fish returned to the canals of Venice, where the water was an indescribable blue, part green, part turquoise. 

With everyone locked indoors, the natural world returned to some kind of happy balance (or so it seemed). The weather stabilised because the carbon emissions and vapour tails and general industrial desecration was no longer happening. 

While the middle-classes were ordering things from Takealot like there was no tomorrow (a very real possibility at the time) even the most brazen of us were wondering if the lockdown didn’t provide us with some lessons for living. Call it a lifestyle change. 

Did it not perhaps provide a countervailing argument to our brazen consumption? A lesson about our reliance on fossil fuels. A lesson about the distant origins of our things.

Part of learning the new Covid-19 vocabulary was beginning to come to terms with the notion of supply chains. The lockdown saw the rise not only of suburban hysteria, but the rise of self-elected suburban authorities. They were usually self-important men with not a fibre of irony or self-deprecation in their being. 

They lectured on the local Whatsapp group, telling us that if such-and-such a gizmo needed to come from China but the factories weren’t producing and the ships weren’t shipping, we might need to do without. 

It gave rise to the important question (even as we were ordering still more things off the internet) of doing without. Could we not mend our shoes? What a novel idea! Or darn our socks? Could we re-coat our frying pans instead of buying new ones? Could we consume less and so throw less away? 

Rather than buying our way out, was there some other way out?

For a pregnant month or two, it seemed as though we could. It seemed as though we might return to some sort of holy equilibrium, where overseas travel was a treat and not a right. And where we could make do with something that was still in good nick but – astonishment, shock, horror – out of fashion? 

The lockdown provided us with a prism through which we could look at our crazy lives and simplify them. It was – and no-one really talks about this anymore – a strange and special time. Although it only happened two and three years ago, so all-consuming is our contemporary amnesia that it’s as though the period never happened at all.

Yesterday I walked across the beach I couldn’t walk across just before it was confirmed that I was Covid-positive back in 2021. There have been storms here in the Cape and weather warnings, the result of global warming that slowed down during the pandemic. 

The sea was a ghastly frothy brown-green you’re not going to take smartphone photos of so you can send to family in Australia. But it was also wild and exhilarating, so good to be on the beach.

The storm had flattened the small plants and succulents on the common, near to the beach. There were bluebottles and dead crabs at the high-water mark. There was also an assortment of litter.

There were energy drink cans, bottle tops, two litre plastic bottles that once contained vile green and orange cool-drinks. The most difficult litter to pick up off the beach are the flecks of broken polystyrene cups. 

They break into pieces, many of them dastardly and small. Getting your hands around them is awkward. As the young (male) joggers thundered up and down the beach, there I was, like the parody of a pensioner, picking up litter and muttering to myself.

As I muttered, I reflected that it didn’t take long for us to — ahem, lock — back into our pre-Covid ways. If anything, we’re travelling more, if only to make up for all the travel opportunities we lost during Covid. Cars seem to be getting bigger, appetites larger still. The credit card is indeed an infernal and frightening little object.

The moment where we might have changed our ways and habits of consumption are long gone. Sort of like a fading footprint on a virgin beach.

This is not surprising, but it is sad. 

In the latter stages of the pandemic, the social discussion moved away from our consumption habits, global warming and the future. It moved towards the vaccine, and its desirability and efficacy. 

We saw the birth of the anti-vaxxing lobby, and the critique of Big Pharma. Some of it was thoughtful, academically sound, and well-argued. But most of it was gobbledegook. The early stages of lockdown saw us worry about the last banana (for the banana bread), while the latter stages saw us worry about the last vaccine. 

The idea meanwhile, as the world’s weather systems spread out of control and the wildfires rage and the ice-caps melt, that we might be the last man – or woman – is long gone. Or is it?