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The world ain’t so bad after all

Ed Grayson discusses what the pandemic has taught us about society, human nature, and what can fulfil us as individuals.

The issues facing many of us as we begin 2022 revolve around distance and separation from loved ones. Stories abound of families separated as a grandparent falls ill, unable to say their goodbyes to those they love. Online funerals, numbers limited, prevent, yet again, those very important and very final goodbyes. And of course, this is happening all the while those ‘business meetings’ at Downing Street rage on. And Omicron’s now a big deal by the way. Certainly, it would appear, at first glance, that the situation is all rather gloomy.

The pandemic has, for all of us, manifestly altered our lives. Isolation has caused calls to mental health helplines to skyrocket, nearly doubling over the past two years. It is unbelievable to think that we are approaching the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the March lockdowns in 2020. There is a certain difference in colour when I think of the memory of the January prior, receiving my Oxford offer, and dreaming of a summer travelling around Europe with my friends; instead, I was confined to my room, anxiously prepping for a Biology exam that I was told I might have to sit, never getting the closure from a school I so loved, and never passing through a rite of passage that all before me had gone through. 

Thus, on entering university in the autumn of 2021, there was a great deal of unease amongst the matriculating class of 2020. School, it seemed, had not finished. Certainly, I felt as if one day I would be back in my Politics A-Level class sitting next to the resident flat-earther reading Mr Farmery’s classical PowerPoints. One of my best friends told me that, mid-way through our first Michaelmas term at Oxford, she felt the same too, but also as if ‘no one knew the real her’. I too was feeling rather out of sorts, a shadow of my former self. 

A central agent of this change has been the transition to much activity online. Though I’m not the massive clubbing-type to the great disappointment of my friends, my freshers was stuck behind a desk, alone in my room. Naturally, I say this with a great deal of hindsight, but perhaps I would actually have rather enjoyed my friends pulling me out of bed at 10pm to go out in my pyjamas … an event which did, I must shamefully admit, happen come the end of the year.  

It is a revealing point: that come Trinity term, restaurants, bars, and social areas were re-opening, and crucially, that people were drawn in this direction. As England challenged for its first ever European Championships in June and July, it was as if COVID had become an urban myth, thousands lining the streets. Certainly, come the beginning of our second Michaelmas term, there was a sense of optimism about the new academic year. The pandemic was a thing of the past; and even when we realised it wasn’t, it was the social interaction that we craved, the personal connections formed that couldn’t be fostered behind a screen. And I finally went clubbing, but only the once. 

As I speak to this years’ freshers as Hilary term begins, I’m glad to hear not only that they had a good Michaelmas but that they’re all back for their second term of the year. I personally did not fare so well alone in the winter months in lockdown, absent from Oxford in Hilary; the photos of my beautifully shaved head resembling a certain Wallace of Wallace & Gromit, as my friends chose to see it, will certainly testify to this. 

What the pandemic has revealed is our fundamental need for personal connection and interaction. Although it may have altered the practice of interaction, it has not led to a manifest change in people’s hearts. People crave interaction, and people need it to function at a very chemical and biological level. I imagine that in years to come the records we leave behind will be fiercely studied by anthropologists and sociologists alike, looking to understand what drives people, and what connects them. The pandemic has revealed the fundamental inter-connectedness of people, and that the world in which we live is one in which we are all a part, one in which we are all valued, and one in which we all have a responsibility to look after each other. Indeed, a great by-product of isolation has been friends increasingly ‘checking-up’ on each other, particularly amongst men, when perhaps it would have been a sign of weakness to do so. The pandemic has been a very uniform, blanket-level experience that has shed light on the real ties that exist between people. 

This has been corroborated when talking to many of my teammates in the various sports teams I’m a part of. The way they have opened up to me about their troubles, but also of the support they have received, is indicative of this awareness of the value of our friends and of our relationships. I’m far from predicting the end of the materialist and commercialist climate in which we’ve seen grow in the last 75 years; I’m just trying to say that the world really ain’t that bad after all, and that people do, fundamentally, care about each other. 

Therefore, I write this piece looking back on both my own experiences of the pandemic years through an oddly romantic hue. We have witnessed an immense period of change that has revealed not only so much about our society but also so much about ourselves. It is easy to imagine that the pandemic will force a changing way of life, but this presupposes a lack of human agency that certainly hasn’t been corroborated as the pandemic has begun to ease. Over lockdown, Netflix was perhaps the nation’s most popular pastime, and I began another binge of Friends for perhaps the 6th time in my short nineteen years (certainly not the nation’s most popular pastime). But did you see how many people turned out to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home? If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that people love the cinema, or perhaps it’s Andrew Garfield’s rugged handsomeness; but even more so, that people coming out of a time of isolation and fragmentation, have realised how much they loved the world in which they used to live. The return of fans to the cinema – and also to the football I might add – has highlighted what we truly love by their absence; and as a by-product shown that perhaps the pandemic won’t be as devastating in the longue durée. Despite the sorrow and the agony we have all experienced in the last two years, a silver lining can nonetheless be found. The pandemic will pass, and life will return to normal; but this, I hope, will be a normality in which we appreciate those around us, and look for the good in society and in others which the pandemic has so evidently revealed. 

Roksana96 via Pixabay

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