‘‘You must stay at home!’’ announced Boris Johnson in March 2020 on national television, marking the start of a 16-month nationwide lockdown. And on the 19th of July, the PM declared the lifting of all legal restrictions pertaining to the lockdown. What happened between the intervening 16 months is indeed an incredible period in my life as I shielded in southeast London for most of that time.
An aerial view of a deserted Central London reveals a breathtaking architecture of both old and modern, but devoid of the usual buzzing with people and commerce; the city is lifeless and uncharacteristically a ghost town. London has always prided itself for being the greatest city on earth. It is cosmopolitan, full of culture and activity. It is a magnet for the world’s wealthiest and brightest.
As life under lockdown became the norm, reports of infection and death rates dominated the news. The nation’s health service was stretched to its limits. Phrases like ‘stay at home’ and ‘work from home’ became common. Britain’s significant black and brown frontline medical staff became more visible as the wider public took note of it. Politics and science clashed in the most spectacular of ways—politicians not in favour of a continued lockdown salivated for hasty lifting of restrictions while science recommended otherwise. The clash turned ideological with newer phrases coming up like ‘woke’, ‘cancel culture’, ‘anti-vaxxer’ appearing more on daily news and discussions.
With the UK being one of the hardest hit nations in the world, Boris Johnson seemed unscathed as the Covid crisis stirred unrest in other nations. His electoral popularity stood firm as the Labour opposition struggled to get a space to breathe. National crisis usually brings trouble and strife for government and opportunities for the opposition; an anxious and disillusioned public is most likely to vote for a change of government. But none of these seemed to threaten the popularity of the Johnson administration. A recent by-election in Hartlepool, a traditionally Labour stronghold voted Conservative. How did Johnson pull this off despite presiding over one of the developed world’s highest death rates, a complete meltdown in testing, and contradictory public messaging? I think it remains a mystery.
Political commentators attribute this to the skilful but dark deployment of culture wars. The left-wing media has a different approach to solving Labour’s electoral woes—replace Keith Stammer with a more appealing leader who can expose the government’s Covid crisis mismanagement more forcefully. In other words, an opposition leader who can criticise the government more sharply and provide the nation with an alternative vision of governance and direction.
Despite a rocky start, Britain’s mass vaccination campaign has been hailed a success. With most of the adult population vaccinated; hope returned. Outdoor businesses opened; later indoor ones followed. Mandatory masking and social distancing rules were ended. Most air travel restrictions were also lifted as many people scrambled to book for summer holidays. The rise of new vaccine-resistant variants risks the return of normalcy. The Delta variant cases continue to surge and rip through local communities, a frustrating development that continues to cloud outlook. If Johnson’s gamble pays off and cases continue to fall, a strange era in British politics could be coming to a close.
While coping with the impact of Covid-dominated public life, other events not related to it gave the nation a moment of soul-searching. Most notable of them was the issue of race. First sparked by a spill-over of the global anti-racist movement from across the Atlantic, it gradually gained a local flavour particularly after the Euro 2020 cup where England was the host nation. The England team started out poorly but improved as they qualified for the knock-out stages and into semi-final and final games.
England qualified for the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years. The historic performance was arguably powered by England’s largely black members of the squad, aided by a calm but great coach, Gareth Southgate. Sports has always been a microcosm of society. Racial politics dominated early into the tournament as England fans booed their national team for taking the knee. Taking the knee was a remarkably potent answer by Southgate to racist fans and politicians who were long in the fringes of national political debate but now found themselves at the centre of action.
As Raheem Sterling, who captured the nation’s imagination, repeatedly scored for England; Wembley erupted in joy. Football excitement gripped the nation reaching fever pitch as England qualified for the final game. The games brought a rare but brief happiness to a nation battered by Covid. The final game against Italy became unfortunately historic for other reasons. Following a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes, three of England’s black players—Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka—missed penalties making England lose to Italy on home soil.
The devastating England defeat sparked a torrent of online racial abuse. Many asked if non-white England players are only accepted when victorious and vilified when defeated, particularly if their individual performance contributed to the loss. Is a conditional acceptance of black and brown athletes the norm in Europe now? As I watched England players fight off tears in the agony of defeat, an inconsolable Bukayo Saka sank into the arms of his fellow England players who comforted him, I was heartbroken and so was England.