When lockdown began, I was part of a global networking body. To give us a fun challenge to focus on, I tasked my group with having meetings with fellow members from across the world. I posted a request in an international Facebook group and was inundated with replies. Soon I had a diary full of chats with people in all sorts of places. It was enjoyable and an opportunity to learn about different countries and cultures, though we were united by one common issue – COVID. 

It occurred to me that although the world as we knew it had closed, the virtual world was very much open to explore. Of course, it always had been to a certain extent but I didn’t feel the need to investigate it previously.

If you read my interview in issue 18 of SOCIALight online, you may remember that I suffered from ME when I was younger. I follow Action for ME on social media and thought their #YearsInLockdown campaign was genius. It shared stories of those restricted by ill health who endured a similar lack of freedom and choices as people who were now locked down due to the pandemic. As the name of the campaign suggests, those featured had been locked down for several years already; long before COVID was around.

Suddenly lockdown had taken freedoms away, just as ME had stolen years from me and countless others. Home became school, just as mine had, and children couldn’t meet up and socialise with friends. Parents voiced concerns about the implications of a missed childhood, disrupted education and lack of preparations for upcoming exams, as my mum and dad had all those years ago.

During lockdown, society at large was forced to embrace a new, largely housebound world just as those whose health, age or access needs are prevented from undertaking certain daily activities. Whilst most people waited patiently for Boris to give the green light for life to begin its slow road back to normality, the restrictions on some people would continue regardless of what the rules permit and prohibit.  

Although some businesses tragically suffered terrible losses and uncertainty, others were able to pivot and embrace new methods and technology. With that came new opportunities and, in many ways, a more level playing field. 

Though the world as we knew it seemed very much closed, a new virtual world had in fact opened inside our homes. You could explore museums from your living room, be in the front row of the theatre without leaving the house and dance to live streamed music events wearing your pyjamas, if you wished. And I did. Please don’t judge me.

Protecting your bubble

Andy White, an events fundraising assistant and data officer at WheelPower, the national charity for wheelchair sport, had to shield during the pandemic due to his mum’s health. This meant that he was unable to attend in-person activities but was keen to continue his personal development.

With Charity Meetup sessions adapting to take place on Zoom, he was able to join the events virtually and connect with other fundraisers. He told me that he found the opportunity beneficial to his learning and career development, but it also gave him an opportunity to socialise at a time where he was restricted from interacting with people outside of his bubble.

Finding global fame

Though going out-out was not possible, entertainers soon discovered they could increase their reach virtually. Before the pandemic, professional storyteller Gerry Donlon, co-founder of Bards Aloud, used to perform to small groups in pubs and at festivals in his local area. Using Zoom, he instantly more than doubled his audience and grew a following across Canada, the USA, Australia and Europe. 

Worshipping virtually

Religious services and the buildings that house them are steeped in history and tradition, but closures didn’t prevent some of them from serving their communities. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, used an iPad to broadcast from the kitchen of his London flat to a virtual community on the radio, via Facebook and on a website at Easter 2020. 

This particular sermon also offered a rare glimpse into his home, which made me think about how some barriers have come down even though we’ve had to distance ourselves physically from colleagues. 

Making cameo appearances 

Do you remember that infamous time when South Korea expert Robert E Kelly’s children interrupted a live broadcast? That was back in 2017, and I remember seeing the video shared repeatedly on my feeds and timelines because such events were so unfamiliar. With the rise in home working, disturbances from family have become the norm. 

Two similarly adorable moments that made me chuckle were MP Tom Tugendhat’s children gate crashing an interview. His son, Adam, requested face painting and daughter Beatrice told him ‘You’re not allowed’ before both proceeded to bounce on the bed.  Live TV also saw an introduction to MP Jon Ashworth’s daughter Annie, who cheekily popped up from behind her dad to give the nation a wave and a huge, cheeky smile. 

I’ve accidentally ‘met’ countless children and pets online who have joined meetings and events to say hello. Working from home has removed the home/work boundaries and bonded people in a new way. To me, people seem more ‘human’ for it. 

But not everything works virtually 

Let’s not forget though that not everyone is willing or able to adapt to living their lives through computers and smartphones. Some things simply cannot be done online, and this left some of our most vulnerable people even more so. 

The BBC conducted research in June 2021 that concluded the pandemic had a devastating impact on thousands of deaf and disabled people across the UK. Their report talks of disabilities worsening and the cancellation of routine, often vital, medical appointments. It goes on to say how much people with autism struggled with the change and isolation, and access to services people relied on such as carers, speech therapists and respite stopped.  

Age UK reported that nearly two million people over the age of 75 were digitally excluded in the virtual world. The charity called for greater support for those who were offline who found it increasingly difficult to access essential goods and services. They warned that the rapid pace of change left significant numbers of older people behind. Some were physically unable to use a computer and others relied on free Wi-Fi access and computers at libraries and centres which were forced to close. 

For those who have struggled or become isolated, those who have lost businesses built up through hard work and dedication, and those who haven’t been able to access vital services, I can’t wait for the day we can finally say COVID is well and truly behind us. 

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