It felt as if everybody had hunkered down for a long argument premised on the idea that the vaccine was years away. “It is a distant dream, therefore we should learn to live with death,” was one side of it, the other side being: “Or maybe we could learn to live with this completely different way of living?” I wasn’t expecting either to win in a hurry, but still less was I expecting the vaccine to actually arrive, not as a trial, or a hope, but as 800,000 vials, all containing something that apparently works.
And this has hurled us so fast into a different argument that even two people on the same (metaphorical) podium cannot agree. The prime minister is promising a maskless nirvana just around the corner, where we all hug and kiss like it’s 2019. England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, is counselling that people may still want to take precautions for many months, even years, to come. People who miss the office are already doing that thing where their tie very subtly matches their socks. People who hated the office are pronouncing it dead. How normal you predict 2021 will be depends heavily on what you would prefer “normal” to look like. As time unfurls, I suspect that it will rearrange itself around the preferences of experts, purely because they make more noise.
The permanent changes will be around all the things we genuinely didn’t know, or had not thought about. I remember Carl Heneghan, who further into the crisis became better known as a lockdown sceptic, explaining about respiratory illnesses: how you really should not visit anyone elderly if you had a trace of one. How, bearing that in mind, when you were as fit as a flea, you should make a point of visiting, to offset the times you shouldn’t. It was obvious once he said it, but it had never occurred to me.
And it was not until the appalling death rates among bus drivers came to light that I ever considered just how often those with a public-facing job must fall ill. I knew about primary school teachers, because children are vermin, and I knew about MPs because they never stop going on about their handshake-related colds, but I had never thought about cashiers.
Hopefully, what this pandemic will leave in its wake is not a neurotic fear of this particular virus, but the ambient behavioural impact of having finally clocked that all infections are worse for some people than they are for you.