This section explores how people we spoke to described their very early experiences of the pandemic. This was the period between December 2019 and the first months of lockdown in March and April 2020. This was the time when most people were first hearing about Covid-19 and making sense of how it was going to impact their lives.
Topics covered include:
- The pandemic getting closer
- Mainstream news and social media
- Changing plans and cancelling events
The pandemic getting closer
The news of an outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan province, China emerged in December 2019. By January 2020 most of the people we talked to thought it would only affect people on the ‘other side of the world’.
People recalled other experiences of regional outbreaks of other deadly viruses, for example Ebola, SARS or MERS, and remembered they had all been contained.
Mandy, who is a practice manager at a GP surgery, recalls other potential outbreaks that had come to nothing.
Pooja thought Covid-19 would be contained in a similar way to Ebola – she didn’t think it would affect the UK so dramatically.
Mandy hoped and expected that it might be another ‘swine flu’ or ‘bird flu’. Sarita said ‘I did not give it that much of a thought, I will be honest with you. Probably because I had not gone through it.’
People recalled how Covid changed from being a distant concern to a personal threat. This threat was increased by awareness of the disease spreading around the world and having a serious impact on countries that were either close neighbours or had health systems like our own (see also The pandemic becomes real). The period after the February school half term holiday was when Shaista felt Covid started getting closer. Some hoped that being in a ‘sophisticated’ society with a good health service would protect us.
People who worked in the health sector were made aware of Covid-19 early on, although initially the concern was about people who had recently travelled to Wuhan province in China. Helen, a midwife, remembers seeing workplace posters about being careful around people who had travelled from China. Health care staff perceptions changed as hospital wards started filling up and, very worryingly, personal protective equipment (PPE) became expensive and hard to get hold of.
Gertrude could see that Covid was getting closer to the hospital where she worked as a nurse.
Jessica works in a hospital. She saw Covid increase very rapidly until everyone in her unit was a Covid patient.
It was not just health and care staff whose work was affected during these early days. Beth worked in a care home and remembered that things went downhill very rapidly as several staff and residents got ill. Jaswinder’s husband works in a supermarket, and she became very worried about his exposure to so many people at work.
Jaswinder did not expect that the virus would be very harmful but became fearful after lockdown.
Cat, a student, remembers the difficult decisions that her housemates were making about whether to travel home or risk being stuck.
Paul X, a tour guide, remembers wondering what he would do if tourism stopped and how his livelihood might be affected.
Mainstream news and social media
Most of the people we spoke to got their information about the pandemic from mainstream news and social media. Kashif mainly used social media and didn’t know what to believe at first. People who used mainstream news, such as the BBC, remembered increasingly alarming reports starting in December 2019 and continuing throughout the early months of 2020.
Karin was not impressed with the way the British media covered the news during this period and called it ‘fear-mongering’.
A few people had very specific and vivid memories of the moment when they first heard about the virus. Laurie remembers hearing an interview with a British student in Wuhan and Noam became interested after seeing a small newspaper item.
There were very disturbing reports in the media of people of racist abuse and assaults on people who were perceived to be Chinese or East Asian. These reports made some people we spoke to feel fearful of attacks. Lyn, who lives alone, had two experiences of racist abuse early in the pandemic.
Lyn had two alarming experiences of racist abuse at the start of the pandemic.
Changing plans and cancelling events
By the first weeks of March 2020, before the first ‘lockdown’ started, many people remembered that they were already thinking about changing their plans to travel or meet others. Cat said it became clear that the planned party for a friend’s birthday at the end of March would not be happening. She went out for a last evening in the Students Union when she was already worried about either getting ill or getting ‘stuck’ due to the need to isolate.
Shortly before the March lockdown, Sue’s sister decided not to risk coming to a birthday lunch.
Gwilym weighed up the risks and decided to go ahead with a planned Caribbean cruise in early 2020.
A few people we talked to said that they were barely aware of Covid-19 until things started to change around the first lockdown.
Razia has a busy life with small children and doesn’t really watch the news.
Medhi was preparing for a New Year celebration when a friend told him not to go out.
Several people we talked to said that it was ‘all a bit of a blur’ and were unsure exactly when they heard about the pandemic but by the time the lockdown started in March 2020 there was no doubt that the early days were over, and the next phase was beginning.