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All kinds of vulnerable: reflections on the past year

While the worst some could imagine was a life without pubs, the worst I could imagine was the loss of my three closest family members. Upon reaching the one-year anniversary of the first lockdown, I have had the chance to reflect on the events of the past year. My experience, one of constant fear for the safety of my family, still haunts me a year on.

As keen as I am to forget the trauma of the last year, I feel a duty to reflect. Living with a vulnerable family during a global pandemic was frightening, to say the least. As the one non-vulnerable person of the family, the weight of responsibility to keep my family safe was suddenly shifted onto my shoulders as I learned of the horrifying effects of the virus on the clinically vulnerable.

I was in my final year of secondary school when the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. Not only had my school year been curtailed by the announcement, but so had an entire chapter of my life. Initially, the effects of Covid were limited to uncertainty about exams and university places, and rushed goodbyes with friends and teachers. There was a mutual anxiety shared by anyone who was in Year 13 during the start of the pandemic. Saddened by the way in which our memories of school life were ending and anxious for how this pandemic would affect our future prospects, our year group felt isolated and lost, unable to find solace in the government’s decisions.

At this point, we were still feeling no active threat to the health of the populace and our minds were crowded with anxieties regarding our own futures. However, as the death toll rapidly rose, worries about my own future dissipated and became altogether insignificant as I became increasingly worried about the welfare and health of my family. Throughout my life I have lived with my mum and my two grandparents — all three of whom qualified as extremely clinically vulnerable. This meant that they were required to shield, for if any of them were to contract Covid, the likelihood of a very serious, if not fatal, outcome was extremely high. Overnight, my entire world shifted — their safety and welfare became my priority.

I found myself having to adapt my fairly self-absorbed way of life to the needs of my family. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was bored or that I was missing out on my final year of school — there were greater things to worry about. Every anxiety I felt about my social life and a wasted summer felt trivial in comparison to my family’s fight for safety and health. This idea reverberated throughout the country as attention was turned away from the missed frivolities and was instead directed towards the key workers and the vulnerable members of society.

Naturally, this priority shift changed and affected my day-to-day routines. The weekly grocery shop required a task force. Fully masked and gloved and on our knees, my mum and I would meticulously disinfect every grocery item that had been delivered before storing it away. As the least vulnerable, I was sent out to the shops draped in PPE, but despite my ridiculous protective attire, I still came back racked with paranoia that I could be bringing the virus home. The fear was constant. Wearing gloves when opening the post, disinfecting the doorbell each time it was rung, and obsessive handwashing became routine in our house. Every simple household task was made more tedious — as the severity of the pandemic heightened, the safety precautions we took only increased. My motivation to protect my family was spurred on by the constant reminder of the prospects that awaited them should they be exposed to the virus. One shocking news headline was enough to make me run around the house with anti-bacterial spray, frantically cleaning doorknobs and handles. My Dettol spray and I grew to be inseparable.

However, it got to a point where such routines took a toll on my mental wellbeing. I found myself drained not only from the constant disinfecting but also from the sheer emotional exhaustion that came from my permanent state of worry. Every day I woke up to what felt like a perpetual anxiety. For a while I had taken comfort in my friends — I rested assured that the whole country was in the same boat experiencing the burdens of lockdown. However, even when restrictions were eased, so long as I was shielding with my family, those positive changes would not apply to me.

This is when it started to dawn on me that the country was moving forward and those in vulnerable households were being left behind. The FOMO set in as social media reminded me that I was now at a loss — I was totally healthy, yet here I was indoors and shielded from the world. There’s a difference between knowing you can’t go out anyway and therefore not going out, and knowing you can go out and still choosing not to. The clinically vulnerable had no choice about staying indoors, but I did: I was living my life every day as if I was vulnerable, but I wasn’t. I was living with restrictions which were entirely self-inflicted. Living with the feeling of I could be out right now was heavy as I kept on reminding myself that the anxiety would be all be worth it once my family came out in good health at the other end.

This anxiety was only amplified by a deep frustration I felt. Those not at medical risk who had been given some aspect of freedom (the freedom to walk and interact with other households) were abusing their liberty, which meant that another spike in Covid cases was triggered. The irresponsible exercising of their freedom brought with it only more restrictions and more days locked inside for those who were shielding. Families like mine were paying the price for other people’s carelessness. I felt a distinct lack of empathy during this time; the doors were open for those not at risk to go out into the world, but the vulnerable were quickly forgotten.

It took a few more months before government advice stated that it was safe for shielding families to go on walks, and this freedom felt overwhelmingly good. Skip a few months forward and my entire family had received their vaccines. The past year has been one of pain, grief and realisation. There has been nothing I regret, and I would do it all again for those I love. I realised the value of family and my ability to de-prioritise my own needs when it comes to protecting loved ones. I have also realised that there were all sorts of vulnerable people throughout the pandemic. Whilst I wasn’t medically vulnerable, the pandemic made me vulnerable to an array of emotions. The loneliness and frustration and exhaustion also contributed to my mental vulnerability. A year on, I look back and think that all of us were in a sense, some kind of vulnerable. Dealing with loss, guilt, grief, anxiety and fear every single day made each person who lived through the pandemic some kind of ‘at risk’. We were all at the mercy of the virus, whether it be medically, emotionally or mentally, and it is this shared vulnerability I take solace in.

Image credit:<a href=”https://www.freepik.com/photos/hand”>Hand photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com</a>

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