Well then, where to start. Where to start a first diary post after a 9-month hiatus. Where to start to a diary post of humdrum happenings and inconsequential musings of life as a freelance editor and partner in a small educational business, when everything around is in flux, thanks to COVID-19. Where to start to lock down a plan of what to write about, when locked down by pandemic.
Perhaps a good place to start is to consider why I began writing these occasional diary posts in the first place. Three years back in the spring of 2017 – which seems an absolute eon ago given the pre-corona autumn is but a distant memory – in my previous life as panjandrum for Nature Microbiology and this growing blog community, I was considering ways to continue to further break down the barriers between editor and researcher. To demythologize the view of my fellow editors as gatekeepers only, and to bring some of the richness of the personal connections made during conferences and lab visits, to a broader audience. And to have a bit of fun while doing it. We tried a bunch of things that worked well but sadly didn’t stick (micro-interviews anyone??). However, intermittently diarizing my life seemed to strike a chord. I tried to write in a manner slightly different to that normally seen in the strictures of the scientific literature, a little more literary and hopefully not (always) too pretentious. For a while I documented travels, working life and events major and minor in family life. You can make your own mind up about the value of those posts. I heard from some that appreciated them greatly, and heard about others that felt they had no place in a scientific blog community and should be struck from the internet. For me, the posts grew to become a catharsis that helped bring to order my thinking about ongoing events and my role in them.
It is perhaps not a surprise then that after a week of initially self-imposed and now government-mandated isolation and home-schooling for the Jermy family, I find the urge to reach for the keyboard and being my therapy once more. Apologies in advance for imposing my treatment upon you!
First an acknowledgement. There are people dying in increasingly horrendous numbers owing to COVID-19, and others around the world fighting to try and stop this happening, to keep people alive, safe and fed. Front-line health care workers, research scientists, politicians, civil servants, police, army, cleaners, shop workers, logistics operatives, delivery drivers, volunteers and many more besides. Heroes all. This work is crucial and admirable and I hope that once this pandemic is brought to heel, we take a sober look at how we can better value these groups and their vital contributions to society.
That the majority of people won’t fall into these categories, however, doesn’t mean that the impact of COVID-19 on their daily life should simply be ignored. Everyone is allowed to have and express an emotional response to on-going events, even if ones main contribution is staying at home at trying to keep some semblance of normal life moving forward.
As a homeworker, lockdown for me is fundamentally paradoxical. It is both entirely normal and yet existentially abnormal at the same time. Terrifying and tedious in equal measure. Under regular circumstances I work from a newly converted and nicely appointed office, only rarely travel anywhere, and get to see plenty of my family. For example, Mrs Jermy spends her days at a desk at the opposite corner of what used to be our en-bloc garage and we regularly alternate working with childcare of (not now quite so) minor and minimus as we struggle to grow our two businesses. Little has changed then. This is what has happened for the last week, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And yet a feeling lurks that everything has changed also, at least for the time-being. Gone is the school run, morning swims, lunchtime games of squash, mini-rugby for minor and minimus. Yet as a grump who has essentially been socially distancing himself from people most his adult life, the current constraints coincide with an up-welling desire to keep in touch far more frequently with family and a close circle friends. Social distancing is having the opposite effect on this antisocial. Instant messaging, video calls, even Twitter (!!) have become more important. Smart devices and social media have intruded into our lives so far in such a short space of time, and yet during this period of social isolation they are proving their worth.
As I type this in a quiet corner of Essex, the metaphorical and physical weather are also paradoxical. Dark clouds loom on the horizon as the impact of COVID-19 increases across the UK and world. And yet we are drenched in the most glorious sunshine, birds sing in the trees and blossom bursts to life around our garden. Fear and hope entwined. We must adhere to entreaties to stay at home and away from others, while spring beckons us to come out from hibernation and revel in being outdoors with others. It’s almost cruel, but to be kind to our communities and those aforementioned heroes, we have to deny our nature, deny nature and stay put.
Conflicting feelings also arise on the health front, with the duality of wanting to be infected and get SARS-CoV-2 done, intermingled with a strong desire not to want to risk it should the outcome not be a favourable one. We isolated early owing to cold symptoms in minor and minimus a little over a week ago and they both developed a mild fever a few days later. Ever the scientist, I began a record of the timeline of symptoms and after four days without contact with the world, Mrs Jermy developed an intermittent cough and felt unwell. Fortunately by the following day symptoms abated, and I have had nothing more than a tickle at the back of the throat. Has SARS-CoV-2 paid our house a visit? Who knows. I suspect not, but we might have been among the lucky group. When serological tests become available in the coming weeks, we can get our answer.
One problem with having a small business built around helping students revise for their exams, we learned in the last week, is that when exams are cancelled entirely owing to pandemic (as they were in the UK last Wednesday), you very quickly find yourself without any business. A decision is made in a room 25 miles away, and our company loses perhaps 75% of its income for the financial year. Cancelling the exams is the right call to make of course, but in a tempestuous twenty four hours, Mrs Jermy and I stared into the abyss, looking likely to lose everything. Friends are put on notice that they will likely not also be our colleagues for much longer. All non-essential expenditure is instantly cancelled. New budgets are drawn up, as we pivot to put as much energy as possible into what was otherwise mostly my side-line business. The gloom begins to envelope us as we reel from the blow, but we are knocked down only, not out. The sun still rises the following morning and so must we, a grim determination to dust ourselves down and get on with it. A day is devoted to reaching out to existing and potential clients for the side-line before a late evening email, entirely unrelated to the days outreach efforts, offers a lifeline. A contract for a big project of work helping to tackle COVID-19 over the coming months is agreed and the dark clouds recede a little. We’re back in the fight. A text message from Mrs Jermy senior: “You might not agree, but I would say that this is a prayer answered”. My response: “Thank you for saying that prayer mum”.
Despite a roller coaster week, we remain very firmly in the lucky camp, I am well aware. We have a home, family and friends, and our health. At a time many others are losing everything, these are things to be noted and cherished.
While locked down, a friend is inspiring others in their social network by listing three positive things at the end of each day, no matter how trying it has been. Naturally a bit of a grump, as noted above, this is not normally my thing to engage with. I am going to give it a go however, but only after grumping about three things first.
- People using COVID-19 to further their preferred political/economic/moral crusade. Yes, these issues are important, but the virus doesn’t care. Right now perhaps we should focus on what unites us in our communities rather than what divides us, and giving as many resources as we can to tackling this pandemic and emerging the other side with as much normality as possible.
- Yes, publishing papers on the vital viral research on SARS-CoV-2 epidemiology, pathogenesis and developing antivirals and vaccines is important. However, many publishers attempts to convey relevance during this crisis seem a pretty unedifying attempt to grab as high a percentage of COVID-19 papers as possible. In the time of bioRxiv and medRxiv and rapid peer review by social media, whether a manuscript is selected and published by any given journal in a matter of days seems highly unlikely to impact the trajectory of the current pandemic in a noticeable way. Of course COVID-19 is impacting the entire planet, including editorial offices in Europe and the US, but do please consider the measures being put in place for COVID-19 manuscripts, and whether they are equally valid for other diseases, infectious or otherwise, especially those that do not normally hit so close to home.
- The only thing worse, I tell the grandparents of minor and minimus, than not being able to spend any time with them for the foreseeable future, is having to spend ALL of your time with them. Both have been absolutely brilliant to be fair, and this is actually a golden opportunity for me and Mrs Jermy to spend a lot of quality time with them, but the noise, and the mess, and trying to cajole them into learning anything… It is safe to say that I have not discovered a latent talent for primary school teaching or nursery care. As noted universally by newly home-schooling parents over the past week, we should pay those that do far more!
- I do not know what it is like where you live, but round our way people seem to be pulling together, following the rules and contributing where they can. A local-led scheme springs up essentially overnight delivering flyers to every house in the neighbourhood to make sure that anyone stuck in their home without sufficient provisions or with other needs can call a team of volunteers. Neighbours, friends and family are messaging each other again. Perhaps, when we see the back of COVID-19, one part of the legacy will see resurgence of a sense community.
- Witnessing how rapidly scientists and engineers are changing tack and retooling to give something to the pandemic effort is truly inspiring. Whether developing tests, volunteering to work in a clinic, engineering urgent solutions to keep patients alive and healthcare workers safe, tracking viral movement and evolution, advising governments and a myriad of other contributions – just wow, WOW!
- The sunshine and perfect blue sky in the UK this week make it very difficult to not let a slither of optimism in. Yes, there are troubling and challenging times ahead for certain, and heartache and grief for many. But this pandemic will be brought under control by the collected contribution of many millions of people worldwide.
Stay safe, stay well and stay in touch.