Cancelled by Covid
Discussing how Coronavirus changed five women's plans, mental health and dreams for the future
By Olivia Otigbah
I first heard about Coronavirus in early February as I was gearing up for a weekend trip to Dublin. Ironically, I had just gotten over an aggressive bout of flu – whether this was Covid-19, we’ll never know.
As we arrived at Edinburgh airport, there was no sense of urgency from staff or other passengers, rather the usual buzz of the airport for our adventures to come.
The trip was great, a weekend of guilt-free Guinness drinking and sightseeing. I’d even received a call from a mentor after a year of rejection emails to say she’d scored me a writing gig in London, my future was finally looking up.
It wasn’t until our journey back from Dublin airport that the reality of the situation began to hit home. A group of four French women were wearing face masks.
Everyone was looking at them judgingly, laughing at how cautious, almost attention-seeking they appeared.
Looking back, our fellow passengers were ahead of their time. I returned home, handed in my notice and had three weeks to start my new life down south.
One Sunday in March after my ‘leaving’ party, in a fragile state, I had an epiphany as I watched Prime Minister Boris Johnson announce plans to deliver his lockdown speech.
“If there are no events, how are you supposed to write about anything,” the devil on my shoulder said.
I quickly emailed the editors of the publication I was supposed to be working for.
Their replies confirmed my worst fears.
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to call back in a few months,” said one.
“To keep our journalists safe and with a ban on any events, we can’t offer you work right now,” said the other.
An emotional wreck, I ran into the office and begged for my job back. Luckily, they obliged.
However, in the UK, the reality for others is much different. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 649,000 people are now registered as unemployed since March.
Furthermore, statistics published by HMRC, report that as of 12th July, 9.4 million jobs have been furloughed at a cost of £28.7 billion.
The polarity of emotions was overwhelming. I was grateful to still have a job but heartbroken to be back at square one.
Everyone is desperate to know when their lives will move forward and through talking to others, I realised I wasn’t alone.
Rachael Higgins, 23, from Falkirk, had a similar experience to my own as she prepared for a life-changing opportunity to work for Coca Cola in London.
“I was meant to start in the middle of February, but the company had a recruitment freeze Because of Coronavirus, the job fell through. In the end, I’ve had to remain at home. I’m still looking for jobs,” Rachael said.
“I was gutted because I’d finished four years of university and been given a huge opportunity. I just felt numb for days, even weeks after because the pandemic has put a stop on my life. I was ready to go and then all of sudden I didn’t have anything to look forward to.”
In lockdown, Rachael and her family received some devasting news but that didn’t stop her from remaining positive and using her spare time to raise awareness for a great cause.
“At the end of April, I lost my Papa to Alzheimer’s and he also contracted Covid. My sister, cousin and I have taken part in a challenge called ‘Running down Dementia’ to raise awareness for Dementia and Alzheimer’s and in memory of my Papa.
“The challenge is to run 300km before the end of August. So far, I’ve run 132km and we’ve raised over £1,000. I’ve also started an Instagram account called ‘Home Office Stationery’ and use this platform to express my creative side,” she added.
Echoing Rachael’s story, Katie Middleton, 26, from Edinburgh was looking forward to graduating from university and starting a new life in Australia.
“I had just finished my fourth year of a politics degree in Glasgow and had moved home to Edinburgh for a month. I was going to take some time off and then fly out of Australia. I was planning to do farm work when I got there so I could get my second-year visa straight away. I was set on moving there,” Katie recalled.
“At the beginning, I was starting to feel a bit down, but I was aware I wasn’t in the worst position. Some of my friends are working on the frontline, people are dying of Coronavirus, people are losing their homes and businesses, so I tried not to focus on what I’d lost.”
Despite a lack of companies hiring during the lockdown, Katie focussed on the silver lining, finding a job in Edinburgh to fill her newfound spare time.
“In the last few weeks, I got a job at a call centre sending test kits out for Covid. It’s good because it means I can save some money for when I do go back to Australia,” Katie said.
Chalon Collingwood (third from left)
Similarly, Chalon Collingwood, 24, from Newcastle, watched as the virus spread from Wuhan, China where she was planning on fulfilling her dream of teaching.
“I was due to fly out to Shanghai for a new teaching job in July. I had it lined up since my graduation last June, so I was looking forward to it. I have worked at a coffee shop for four years now and I’m ready to get out of retail and into teaching,” Chalon said.
“The lockdown itself hasn’t been that hard for me. I’m an introvert so I’ve enjoyed it. I have been able to create art for myself rather than for a project or a client. I’ve also started to brush up on my Mandarin in preparation for my move to Shanghai.”
While some had their travel hopes dashed, Emily Hewitt, 23, had to return to her hometown in West Lothian, two weeks after landing on the idyllic Channel Islands.
“My plan before Coronavirus was to work in a hotel on the Channel Islands, stay there for six months, save money and with that money I wanted to go to work in a foreign country. I was only there for two weeks and the hotel decided to close. We all had to go home,” Emily said.
“At first, I just went with the flow. Nothing was clear but I knew deep down that I wasn’t going back this year. It made me feel a bit lost and helpless but at the same time I wasn’t panicking.”
“I’m very lucky that I have a really good home life and know if anything happened, I know I’ve got family and friends that I can go to. At the same time, I’d just found my freedom, I’d just found my confidence to leave home and meet new people.”
Over in South America, life continued as normal. However, as Kirsten Mcleod, 28, from Edinburgh watched scenes of people panic buying in the UK, she realised she had to return home or risk being stranded.
“I was travelling in South America when Coronavirus started to become a worry,” Kirsten said.
“I waited in Santiago for 10 days to see what would happen. Online it looked awful, people were bulk buying, but in Santiago, it was still very relaxed. The UK went into lockdown and I decided it was best to go home as I’m a nurse and the NHS needed staff.”
Utilising her medical training, Kirsten has been working long days and nights, assisting vulnerable people affected by Coronavirus, she said: “During lockdown, I’ve been volunteering for a charity to get prescriptions and food delivered to those shielding at home. I’ve also been speaking to people suffering from mental health issues and working full-time in the hospital.”
The effects of lockdown have changed life as we knew it little over five months ago. While there’s a sense of disappointment, we’ve all had an unusual amount of time to reflect on what’s important in life and what our hopes are for the future.
At present, the agenda for both the government and society appears to be establishing a ‘new normal’ in the UK. Businesses are slowing reopening and job adverts are starting to appear again, offering a glimmer of hope that everyday life is beginning to return.
As lockdown draws to a close, what are our interviewees' hopes for the future?
“I’m still optimistic that I can do what I planned to do. I’m still going to travel as I want to go to different countries to work and learn about other cultures. The moment I feel safe enough, I’ll be off again,” Emily said.
Waiting until society gets the ‘all clear’, Kirsten is also hopeful she’ll be able to resume globetrotting.
“I hope to go travelling again after the rules have loosened and it’s safe to travel. As of now, it’s still worrying,” Kirsten said.
Rachael is still hopeful that her goal to work in London will become a reality, she said: “My plans for the future haven’t changed I believe at the time the job wasn’t for me but I’ve not given up. I’m going to continue to apply for jobs in Marketing in London because that’s where I want to go,”
Monitoring the circumstances in China, Chalon isn't giving up on her dream of teaching in the country any time soon.
“I’ll never stop wanting to go to China. No matter how long it takes I’ll make it there someday,” Chalon said.
For Katie, extra time in lockdown has caused her to revisit options she’d previously dismissed.
“My plans might have changed. I have revisited the prospect of working in the third sector. Manchester has become more appealing to me and that’s something I wasn’t thinking about before.”
“For anybody whose plans have changed, there is a likelihood we could live until we’re 90 or 100. Just try and remember that even though you may be stuck here for a year, that when you look back, it’ll be such a small segment of your life,” Katie added.