That Was the Year That Was

2020 is a year we are all likely to want to forget, and yet it is likely to be unforgettable. Some can make a little joke about that

For others, such as renowned professor of primary health care Trisha Greenhalgh, frequently in our news feeds, there is nothing remotely funny to celebrate. Her tweet was so poignant it stuck in the mind (but I don’t include the full tweet, which included a photograph, as that seemed too intrusive):

Goodbye Mum.
You died of Covid-19, days before you were due to be vaccinated.
You told them to give the ventilator to someone else.
I said a FaceTime farewell from a hospital car park.
You will have a Zoom funeral.
You are 2020.

Thanks to the devoted, exhausted #NHS staff.
— Trisha Greenhalgh

For all of us, life has been totally upended. It takes time and effort to think of anything good that has come out of this pandemic year. Highpoints for me include

  • During the first lockdown, being able to walk down the middle of what is normally an incessantly busy Huntingdon Road. Walking not on the pavement was a good way to keep 2m+ away from any other walkers, although initially (when we were only allowed to exercise once a day) these were almost as thin on the ground as cars. This road – one of the main arterial roads in Cambridge, passing the historic centre of power at Castle Mound and thence north, a road of great importance through the centuries ­– was busy even when I was an undergraduate. Indeed, it was an even more dangerous road to cycle along then than now. In my undergraduate days there were no such things as cycle lanes, and no M11 or A14 acting as a quasi-bypass. Juggernaut lorries hurtled past us Girtonians, pedalling furiously for a 9am lecture (sixdays a week, I should stress,  for Natural Scientists like myself).
  • Seeing both a fox and a muntjac deer strolling around outside my windows in the College grounds when everywhere was so quiet. The muntjac turned up several times within a week, then was never seen again, presumably because traffic (foot or car) built up again to keep it where it normally lives. Foxes abound in the vicinity, they just don’t usually turn up a few feet from the window, or walk along the garden wall in broad daylight, probably hoping to come across some hapless bird’s nest.IMG_2388
  • The return of the majority of the students in October. Whereas a few had stayed throughout the summer, for a variety of reasons, the College felt incredibly quiet – no doubt contributing to the freedom with which the wildlife strolled around. But it was heartening when there was more of a buzz, despite all the necessary constraints. Who knows what will happen next? We await ‘instructions’ from the Government.

That’s not a great deal to celebrate at a personal level for an entire year, but for me – as for almost all the population I’d presume – it has been a bleak and miserable year, even if not (I’m one of the lucky ones) personally actively distressing. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with all our lives, ending some, shattering others; disrupting a generation of school children’s education, destroying businesses and jobs and wellbeing. Family ties are weakened when you cannot meet, friendships are put on ice. Some loved one’s faces will never be seen again.

You could argue it has been a good year for science – except ‘following the science’ is more a slogan than an instruction in some parts of our politicians’ brains. Nevertheless scientists, from epidemiologists to pharmacists, from modellers to public health experts, have been much in demand by the voracious media wanting to understand what is happening and what is likely to happen next. As Jim Al Khalili recently discussed, many scientists have willingly stepped up to the mark to talk about their work and the underlying concepts that are so important if we are to understand this virus and get it under control. But politicians not only literally have the purse strings, they also have control of what policies get implemented for good or ill. One great scientist, even thousands of them, are not going to solve the problem in the absence of leadership of the sort Jacinda Ardern has demonstrated, and 2021 looks set to start off at least as badly as much of 2020 in the UK.

Will the current generation of schoolchildren all grow up with a burning ambition to be scientists? Many arts and humanities scholars would argue that the Government has been pushing them into STEM for years, but it is possible that COVID19 will instil a desire to understand diseases and wider scientific matters even more effectively. Alternatively, will it encourage students to think more about public health, the burdens that cramped housing put upon the disadvantaged reinforcing inequality in our society, or the policies that would be required to make it conceivable for Test and Trace to work and for all contacted to be able to afford to stay in self-isolation as long as they should? These social issues are equally fundamental if a future virus is not to run rampant in the same way, or ever be allowed to get a good grip in our population in the first place.

On the other hand, perhaps these children and young adults will instead want to turn to hedonism (think 1920s society and its ‘decadence’), to spend all the money they’ve been saving over the past year or simply focus on simple things such as caring, family and friends. But there is a long time to go – deep into 2021 I fear – before anything even starts to settle down. The choices the next generation will make will remain obscure for some time to come. The choices the current political leadership are making, on the other hand, are obvious now and will reverberate for years.


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