Susan Downie, 57, is a UK-based West Australian.
Easter Saturday, Week 3.
On March 23, PM Boris Johnson addressed the nation and explained that some of the most stringent and draconian measures would be put in place the following day to attempt to counter the rising spread of coronavirus and to protect the public, especially the elderly and the vulnerable in the community.
We are required to stay at home, unless for essential shopping or trips for medical reasons. Boris Johnson stressed the need for “social distancing” between people, which in the UK means keeping a distance of two metres away from others.
As an expatriate Australian arriving in the early 1990s, I have called Britain my home for almost thirty years. I left to travel and work for a year, encouraged by the new Europe unfolding after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I shared a flat in London with other friends from Perth and eventually got married and had two children, now young adults. I worked in social care settings in London and Sussex with young adults and people with learning disabilities and moved to the seaside, to the freewheeling city of Brighton , an hour from London by train, on the Sussex coast.
It is not so easy to survive now in Central Brighton for those on a low income. The rents are extremely high and there is a major housing shortage. It is a student town of two universities. Deprived and homeless people are common in the city centre and on most days you are approached for small change in the town centre. Begging is common outside supermarkets and throughout the main areas of town. The homeless and vulnerable street people have largely been taken off the street and housed during this crisis into hostels and hotels in the city, although, it being Brighton, this has taken some time. Policing is by consent in Britain and there is a remarkable tolerance in this city of very wayward behaviour that would not be allowed in Perth, for example.
This last winter has been a tough one for me. It has rained non stop for months until recently. I have never really got used to endless grey skies day after day, despite decades living in this damp climate. I am not in the best of health now, having diabetes type two which is exasperating at times and although I follow a very healthy diet, I find keeping my blood sugars stable very challenging. I have developed minor heart disease and diabetic retinoopathy, both a result of the disease. There are a lot of tablets and daily injections. However, the most worrying health problem I have is severe asthma which plagues every winter season.
This last winter just gone, I developed a vicious chest infection which progressed into attacks of asthma of such severity I thought I would be hospitalized. Thanks to good care from my local GP, I improved in late February/early March, just as the first cases of COVID 19 were beginning to appear across Brighton. A businessman from Hove had travelled home across the globe from a conference in Singapore, stopping for a skiing holiday in France and then back to Brighton. Public Health England did contract tracing and found two contacts were locum GPs in the city and both of them tested positive. Surgeries began to close, as did many of the schools and nurseries. Testing and contact tracing was rolled out across the city and the reality of an epidemic began to draw nearer.
Brighton was described as “the epicentre of the coronavirus in the UK”. The news filled our screen nightly and social media platforms had nothing else to talk about. A horrible panic began to take hold. Many people started calling for a lockdown. Various friends and contacts began to get infected, especially those who worked for the NHS as nurses, doctors and health care assisants and those who worked with the elderly in care settings. Many families began self isolating at home. I stopped going out unless necessary as there were too many people coughing in the supermarkets and not practising social distancing. It would take many more weeks until they began to be responsible.
Around this time, early March, the panic buying and stockpiling began. Shoppers started putting a lot of extra tins of tomatoes, tins of soups, alcohol wipes, hand sanitiser, dried pasta and of course, and large rolls of loo roll into the trolleys. I witnessed an elderly woman put ten six pint bottles of milk into her trolley. People laughed at her but nobody said anything. Then the following week came reports of all the formula milk disappearing off the shelves and the non stop buying of toilet rolls. We all saw the footage of women in a Sydney supermarket fighting over toilet rolls and thought this wouldn’t happen here! Then came reports of nasty encounters and people taking stuff out of stranger’s trolleys in supermarkets around town.
By this stage I was only going out for absolute essentials. I had already been preparing as I had been watching the situation in Italy. The daily briefings from Downing Street hinted we would soon be living under similar conditions to those in northern Italy and eventually the whole of Italy was in lockdown . My very last outside purchase and outing was to collect a thermometer. I set off with a pair of yellow rubber gloves and wrapped a scarf tightly around my nose and mouth, as I had not ordered a mask which many were already wearing and none were available. I collected my other medications – and that was the last time I went out, Thursday March the 19. Schools shut the following day apart for children of key workers, including NHS staff, teachers, essential workers and those children classed as vulnerable. Provision was made to get vouchers to children for free school meals, and lunches are delivered to their homes in some cases.
I am very fortunate to be included in the group the Government has earmarked as “vulnerable” due to my severe respiratory disease. Being one of the the 1. 5 million is a great honour. To be included as part of the group the UK Government is shielding is something I am truly grateful for. It has taken a while to roll out but this means I have a priority pass for supermarket slots re deliveries online and this is free service. I did my first online order, not an easy task for me as my eyes aren’t that great due to diabetic retinopathy. I was pleased to manage it. I usually walk everywhere and am dedicated to very old fashioned ways of paying bills, usually with a payment card in a newsagent. All of this has had to change and maybe I am a new convert to online banking, who knows?
One of the most difficult things is being dependent on my 20 year old daughter, who lives in a bedsit about 20 minutes walk away with her boyfriend. She has been helping me every day and we are in touch online and by phone. She collects my weekly shopping and brings it to the flat. . She tells me what is happening in the streets and how various supermarkets are now following the social distancing requirements and which ones do them the best. I worried terribly that someone will cough or sneeze in her direction and she will pick up the virus on one her trips for me, but now the online deliveries are sorted, she won’t need to do that anymore. She and her brother a year younger are my absolute world in this country. My all.
I am a passionate home cook and a few years ago got a a Diploma of Professional Cookery, so I make all of our meals from scratch and am pleased to be able to have this occupation, especially baking. Various friends who are alone occasionally come by and collect a sourdough loaf and yesterday I swopped a granary sourdough loaf and was pleased to receive a Chocolate Orange as an Easter present and a bottle of HP sauce, always welcome with bacon and eggs.
It is a beautiful spring, the birds are very noisy now and fresh breezes blow across the city. I have a small balcony out onto the street and nip out there for moments at a time to water my plants. I am hoping to get some donations of herbs soon, as I always replenish them at this time of year. The trees are beginning to get their leaves again, always a momentous time of year in this country I now call home. At first I watched far too much news, being a news junkie and obsessive media watcher. I had done this as a fervid Remainer in the Brexit campaign and thought this would be the same.
Then at 6am one day, listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme began to make me have the cold sweats as the rising infection rate and daily death toll were read out. The panic and anxiety rose and rose and now I try and limit the bad news. I do read the papers online but I have to escape into fiction and I have a huge library of fiction and history to explore.
Life has actually improved in the past week, as we had no hot water for three weeks due to our immersion heater breaking down. The delays meant it was weeks until the part came in. Living in a very busy part of the city, we are surrounded by live music venues I would have enjoyed a lot when younger. Not now. I am thankful they have shut and for now do not have to hear their music and the drunken punters who frequent them leaving. The hated building site opposite has also closed, a blessing after over five years of construction opposite my bedroom window. The only noises are the odd person walking home and the cries of seagulls wheeling on the night air above the train station.
Lots of friends and contacts are developing symptoms and self isolating at home. Some have been very sick and needed oxygen and are still recuperating at home weeks later. I have been rung by my doctor and told to stay in completely for 12 weeks. Until it is reviewed, that is what I must do. I am grateful I have a comfortable flat, a helpful daughter and friends I can call upon if necessary. So here I stay, behind the walls for now, while a beautiful spring unfolds and the virus wreaks its destructive toll upon our populace, heading towards the peak in the near future. I dream often of Australia and feel my heart stretching out to my friends and family there. Please. Be safe. Please. Do not succumb. Please be there. Till we see each other again.