Ghost Town Manchester

Covid-19: The View from UK

By Neil Seepujak

My street is a ghost town. After a week of good weather — relative to rain-soaked Manchester – low clouds have descended again and the only activity outside is the occasional delivery van. I am working from a makeshift office in my bedroom, my wife is working next door, my son is having his afternoon nap, and the only sounds now are the twittering of magpies on the roof of the house opposite. It is 3 pm.

We have noticed a resurgence of the sounds of nature, as if Manchester could return to a feral state in a matter of weeks, overwriting centuries of industry and pollution. One project we had been putting off was to try to re-wild the garden; attract bees and butterflies, and our bird feeders are full. While much of the country was buying up toilet paper, we got bird seed, compost and vegetable seeds. In a few months with luck we should have lettuce, radish and broccoli. I have started brewing my own beer again, and tonight I will learn to make Masala Dosa using the mix that has been in my kitchen cupboard for a year.

If this sounds a little too idyllic, it is. One of the other frequent sounds are police and ambulance sirens. I can spin this reality as anything, a poetic return to nature, the worrying descent into dystopia, or perhaps the most horrific of all, the sheer tedium of house arrest. How did we get to this? Lenin said that “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen”. Apt indeed.

Most people who read the news, I think, could see this coming. The speed, at which it became apparent that the UK response was woeful, appears to have produced a public reaction that forced them to impose this lockdown. The laissez-faire rhetoric from Boris Johnson, speaking of letting everything carry on as normal, was quickly exposed as irresponsible; more laissez-mourir than any actual strategy. The worst of British “stiff-upper-lip”. But measures in place now are largely being respected, with some shocking exceptions.

So, to return to my street, it is quiet. My neighbours number among them sole business people: a self-employed accountant, a taxi driver and a driving instructor. All with precarious sources of income, all with children of school age, all having to shut down operations.

My household is fortunate: we are two salaried workers not in danger of losing income, and our son is too young for us to have to explain much about what is happening. Both our employers were very quick to act, instigating home working.

Our typical days consist of working in three-hour segments while the other partner looks after our son. He is 2 years old, and we have taken this opportunity to potty-train him. His nursery is closed to all except the children of key workers such as nurses and doctors. We are allowed out once a day to exercise, and have a park nearby – although we have to be careful as people still play sports there. It is a challenge keeping a little boy occupied and interested in an activity within four walls, without falling into the trap of endless cartoons.

If I am honest, I would say the biggest strain is holding the family relationships together, and shielding our son from lasting emotional upheaval due to isolation from other children – or picking up on our stress. We have used Facebook to alleviate this, to try to have as many video calls with his grandparents who he is very close to and loves spending time with.

Once he has gone to bed, it’s typically on to Netflix, glass of wine, a book. Apps like Zoom, and Houseparty have enabled us to keep up a semblance of a social life. My wife’s choir meet up this way, our local comedy club broadcast a live show, and we had a meet-up with friends. The technology has been really vital – I have a real horror of any interruption to the internet. “First-world problems”? Perhaps.

For contrast, my close family includes a front-line consultant doctor. She is a true hero. And a delivery driver. Absolutely key. We are not on the frontline. We are getting by. We have food. We are relatively fortunate.

Neil Seepujak is married with one son, and lives in Manchester. He is an official of the trade union, PCS, that represents the majority of workers in the UK Civil Service, thousands of which are still having to work in offices during Covid-19.

* Published in print edition on 1 April 2020

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