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Kyriakos Falekkos – Class of 1977

2020 Hindsight.

They say hindsight is always 20-20 and what a year 2020 has been in providing me with precisely that perspective.  In my 3 score and more years, I have never experienced a year that has flown by so quickly and yet in many ways, not quickly enough. It feels like Christmas was the day before yesterday and then lockdown happened. Today it is August. Tomorrow I wish for New Year’s Eve 2021 to arrive post-haste with the all familiar but no longer taken for granted promises of new beginnings, new hopes and new growth.

For billions of us, the lockdown was a new life experience and for me it was one that I will not readily try to forget.  As with all new experiences, through the lens of hindsight, I can now see some positive outcomes and even some personal growth. At the time these felt rare. By late March, a dark grey, endlessly bleak cloud of uncertainty and dread had arrived and was hanging over us like the sword of Damocles.

Just before the lockdown, I had flown to the Netherlands, to visit my partner Irene. A couple of days after arriving, a lockdown was declared in the UK and in the Netherlands. In order to stay safe and avoid infection, we were to stay at home, indoors, in our family bubble, until further notice. It felt like we had just been handed a custodial sentence “at Her Majesty’s pleasure”, as they say in the UK.

One of the early actions we decided on at home was to delegate the daily chores and set up routines. We felt that a good daily structure was going to be an important way to handle the upcoming few months. We made an inventory of all our food and household supplies and set up online shopping accounts with the major supermarkets. We also set up a rota of household activities such as cooking, laundry, cleaning and trash duty. We felt organised, optimistic and safe.

Irene could work from home. Her work meetings were scheduled online and were carried out over Skype, Microsoft Teams and over the phone. The children were having their university college lessons online too. Lectures and tutorials were organised at predetermined times, Assignments were emailed and even exams were written online. This was the new normal. Attending college, going to work or even going shopping now carried a dangerous threat to your health, a concept that was as perplexing as it was disturbing to all of us. I remember wondering if this is what being in a war felt like. At least during a war, you can see your enemy and hear the bombs falling, not so with a virus.

My dental practice in London was closed for face to face appointments. Only 1 member of staff would go in to the practice daily on rotation to answer the phones. If the caller needed dental advice or treatment, their dentist would be contacted and informed. I had arranged for the dentists to have remote access to the records system at the practice. They could log on to the system, review the records and call the patient by telephone or video to offer advice and further remote treatment. I could manage most of the administration from abroad.  Staff meetings also took place through video conferencing, another new experience for us at work. I had read about remote outback medicine and remote outback schooling in Australia and I often thought that this is what it must feel like.

At home, we all tried to keep our waking hours and sleep patterns as normal as before.  Every day morphed into the next and every day was related to coronavirus, the numbers, the countries, the deaths. One day, while compiling an email, I asked Irene what the date was.  “The 48th of Corona month” she quipped. To make weekends feel different, we decided that Saturdays were to be an experimental cooking day and Sundays an experimental baking day. Saturday and Sunday dishes were planned all week and new adventurous recipes were tried out. Even our disasters and failures were fun. We understood well that for now, we were in a very fortunate and privileged enough position not to have to contend with Covid-19 infection, starvation and financial insecurity.

We also arranged, or rather, we evolved, daily and weekly time slots to have regular contact with family and friends to compare notes with and to monitor their well being. Video and phone calls were made across the world, to family and friends in South Africa, UK, Australia, Sweden, Greece, Cyprus and America. Different countries had different approaches to the pandemic and we all shared our ideas, information and experiences with each other.  Although it was difficult to be separated by so much distance, we felt united and loved. And yes, some colleagues and friends did come down with the dreaded disease, one in particular to within an inch of his life.

Personally, the lockdown exposed me to a trove of new experiences. It was new for all of us at home to spend all of our time continuously with one another in one place. We established a convivial family harmony and tried to have regular discussions about our observations and feelings. With nowhere to go and no one else to see, it was also very claustrophobic.  As a result, squabbles, although rare, could be more intense too. We resolved these disputes with honesty and respect. We all needed space to cope with the incarceration in our own way. It felt so surreal and dreamlike.

To create my own space, I developed a habit of having my early morning coffee on the balcony of Irene’s apartment. I soon discovered that I now had the time to watch the seasons unfurl, day by day, from the same daily vantage point. I appreciated seeing the end of the cold, damp northern European winter in ever increasing degrees of Celsius. Birds that would fly by and perch in trees daily to mark their territories, I learnt to recognise by their individual markings and by their songs and calls. Spring arrived with an explosion of colour and fragrances.  With very little traffic outside and the streets eerily quiet, the skies seemed bluer, deeper and clearer than I had seen them before and we could hear the now all too regular ambulance sirens from further and further away. The air felt purer too and easier to breathe. How ironic, in the time of a lung disease, I thought.

Socialising was conducted exclusively online and in that department another surprising but charming discovery proved to be the Marist Brothers Linmeyer Banter Group on WhatsApp. We shared jokes, word puzzles, stories, our lives, our divergent opinions and our local news and photos with a variety of sparkling and unique characters that populate the group. I am old enough to remember an old American TV series called “Cheers”, a comedy series based in a pub with regular attenders. Our MBL Alumni WhatsApp group felt a bit like that. Just like in the show, you could almost hear people shouting “Nooooorm!” when someone checked in to make a comment or to greet the group. It proved to be wonderfully supportive for me. I would check in regularly to have a chat or to read the previous comments and banter. We set up a WhatsApp group for MBL Alumni who were dentists and were now located in different countries across the world to discuss the common issues we faced as professionals. I felt connected to others who shared a common education and Marist Brothers values. I never imagined that I would find this school camaraderie again so much later in my life.

At home I was delighted to discover that we all enjoyed cooking and experimenting with food.  We learnt how to make pizza from scratch, home-made pies, pastries, cakes and even biltong. Other new activities included how to shop online, washing and decontaminating the shopping before packing it away and how the shelf life of foods actually had a meaning. Almost daily we followed the news and read articles in scientific journals about subjects that we had never had much previous knowledge of: epidemiology, virology, immunity, statistics, behavioural science and public health. As a leisure activity, I played online scrabble with strangers and friends across the planet as I marvelled with newfound awe at the reach and range of the internet.

I spent time pondering what life must have been like for those who were locked down in the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I tried to imagine a lockdown without TV, internet, Skype, Zoom, Netflix, online gaming, online schooling or shopping, and without easy communications or access to the latest news of family and friends. And here we were, more than a century later, advantaged and entertained, yet many people complained about how difficult and boring it was being stuck at home for 2 to 3 months.

As always happens with any new phenomenon, the lockdown brought with it a whole thesaurus of new words and jargon that now flow effortlessly off my tongue as if I had always used them:  coronavirus, Covid-19, ventilators, lockdown, Zoom, Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions or NPIs, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the Johns Hopkins University, exponential graphs,  epidemiologists, furlough, social distancing, contact tracing, the difference between mild, severe and critical Covid-19, long haulers to name a few.

My profession too had new words and concepts to learn: Type IIR, FFP2/FFP3 masks, respirators, aerosols, droplets, Aerosol Generating Procedures (AGPs), fallow time, room air changes, fit-testing, all as familiar to us now as if we had learned them at university all those years ago.

Most of all, I learnt how to value time and how to value a slow paced life. To have the time to spend with the people I love without having to rush out to work, or to a meeting, or to catch the train, the bus or to drive in the traffic; to have time to do things that I never thought I would want to learn or have the time to do; time to take a step back from the phrenetic pace of my life to just live in the moment. All this became possible because during lockdown other distractions had ceased.  Even though at the beginning of the lockdown I thought that I would struggle with the changes in my life that it would bring, I feel grateful for that same time now.

One of the most common new phrases to be heard in almost every online camera meeting everywhere is “We can’t hear you, your microphone is muted! Un-mute yourself!”

In many ways, I wish 2020’s microphone was muted and remained so for the whole year. Sometimes, I wished for the year to hurry up and end. But then again, I am reminded of a quote that I read recently. “Every adversity carries with it the seed of equal or greater benefit”. Perhaps the pan-global event of 2020 carries with it the seeds that will help us recognise that we are a connected and unified world after all.

Written by

Kyriakos Falekkos (1977)