Pandemic perspectives: an unfulfilled first year

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As the Lunar New Year approaches, I can still vividly recall the preceding cycle of festivities: that was when the news of a highly communicable disease started circulating in my city. Having experienced a grave epidemic in the city 17 years ago, Hong Kongers are skilled at combating such intangible enemies. It was not long until everyone began hoarding masks, disinfectants, hand sanitiser and toilet rolls, all in preparation for the decade’s greatest threat yet: coronavirus.

My mother once said to me, “I feel naked without a mask outdoors.” This sums up the degree of vigilance Hong Kongers upheld against coronavirus. In the heat of the pandemic last summer, before masks were mandatory, anyone appearing in public without a mask would already be cast disapproving glares from pedestrians alike. I recall boarding the subway train once and seeing a woman without a mask on – needless to say, no one dared stay within a one metre radius from her.

Arriving in Durham, I wondered if I had travelled to an alternate universe where a global pandemic wasn’t taking place

Arranging get-togethers with my friends became a hassle. Having been robbed of a proper graduation and graduation trip, we were desperate for some form of closure to our youth before we all carried on with our studies in different parts of the world. With indoor gatherings of more than two banned, many had to resort to picnics or hikes. Picnics, in particular, became the unspoken go-to social activity, with some of my friends (who used to resent the outdoors) even investing in picnic mats due to its frequency of use. Perhaps this was a silver lining, since what little nature Hong Kong could offer was finally in the limelight.

I suppose all of this supplied the culture shock (an understatement) I experienced when I arrived at Durham in the fall. Despite recording around 7,000 cases a day back in September, barely anyone was wearing a mask outdoors. I wondered if I had merely travelled to another country, or a whole alternate universe where a global pandemic wasn’t taking place. As face coverings were only mandatory indoors, some people would simply remove their face coverings the second they left shops. The lack of awareness left me stunned, and I was so cautious in my first few weeks here that I even wore a mask in our flat kitchen.

Michaelmas term was not how I imagined my university experience to kick off, to say the least. It was devoid of the vivacity of college formals, the thrill of engaging with clubs and societies and the promise of a more enriched social life. Instead, I was only legally allowed to socialise with my household members, thus housekeeping or bedroom maintenance visits became something to anticipate – even just the prospect of meeting someone new became remarkably rare. Sure, I attended a few in-person practicals and tutorials, but in a socially distanced setting where you practically had to shout across the room to participate in a discussion, acquainting myself with my coursemates was only limited to small talk prior to and after these sessions.

The prospect of meeting someone new became remarkably rare

With the lack of certainty about how Epiphany term would roll out, I made the decision to stay in Durham over Christmas. Though it meant being 5,904 miles away from my family and friends, I was eager to experience my first (hopefully) white Christmas. The first snow of this winter came on Christmas Eve, and it was a reminder that, despite the gruelling circumstances, life still goes on. As the town basked itself in the warmth of string lights and festive displays, it almost felt as if everything was back to normal again (as if I know what ‘normal’ Durham is like). Note ‘almost’, as the Christmas tree stood forlornly in market square overlooking the empty, echoing streets.

As the third national lockdown continues, it seems that social distancing rules have been more strictly enforced than ever before. While the dystopian nature of shopping one person at a time and keeping a two metre distance from everyone is somewhat depressing, at least it means we are all playing our part at stopping the spread of coronavirus, regardless of how seemingly inconsequential. I hope that the pandemic will not plague this n­­­ew year for longer than it should, for all the obvious reasons, and also that I will get to experience Durham in its full glory.

Illustration by Adeline Zhao.

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