A month in coronavirus captivity

I rarely write personally on this blog. That said, I have used this medium to relay some very personal news in the past, and it currently feels like the right place to reflect on these first few weeks of coronavirus lockdown. I also thought that it would be interesting to share some of the photographs that I have been taking in the limited amount of time that I have been out of my house during this period, one of which has been selected by the BBC as one of its series Your pictures of Scotland for 24th April to 1st May 2020.

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Until mid-March 2020, at work I was attending all the meetings and supervisions associated with my role; teaching; running my research group; examining PhDs; travelling on business; co-authoring conference papers and journal article manuscripts; helping with the development of grant proposals; preparing for the third RIVAL event on 19th March; interviewing PhD studentship candidates; contributing towards REF2021 planning; looking forward to seeing my PhD student Iris Buunk back in Edinburgh for her viva voce examination on 31st; and battling my perennial email backlog.

In my personal life I was enjoying the usual social whirl of seeing friends, eating out, visiting galleries, going to gigs and the theatre, hosting parties in my flat, charity shop shopping, and playing board games with anyone who would indulge my competitive spirit. I was also sharing with my two sisters responsibility for the care of my widowed mother, either here in Edinburgh or in Northumberland. I was looking forward to celebrating the birthday of a friend who was marking a significant age milestone just a few days after my own birthday at the end of March, as well as the Easter holidays with a trip planned to Malvern for a games convention, and then onwards to the Cotswolds to stay with old friends from undergraduate days at the University of Birmingham. A long-overdue get-together with two of my best friends who live in Cardiff and on the Isle of Man was almost upon us, recheduled from March 2018 due to the Beast from the East (and yes, we think we are doomed never to meet again). Further in the future, I was gearing up for my summer holiday cycling through the Outer Hebrides.

This all changed with the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, my last day in the office was Thursday 11th March. By the time that I returned to work the following week (after a long weekend away in the Yorkshire Dales – I’m so glad we got away when we did), my colleagues had already started converting the face-to-face appointments in their calendars to online meetings, and cancelling/postponing events. Those with teaching responsibilities had embarked on the mammoth task of transforming content designed for in-person delivery to materials that could substitute for the classroom experience. Suddenly meeting dynamics switched a gear as we got to grips with regular video-conferencing, especially now that there were more voices to be heard whenever we were gathered together – simply because more people than usual are available at meeting times.

Edinburgh Napier University closed

Edinburgh Napier University is closed

I count myself lucky that I have a good home office environment, and that I am very used to working off-campus, be this in my flat in Edinburgh, at other university campuses around the world, at conferences, or when travelling – I often say that my third office is a second class carriage on an LNER train. So, apart from regretting leaving a textbook in my office on campus and wishing that I had kept at home a file of press cuttings about our Workforce Mapping project from 2014/15 rather than at Merchiston, I have largely been able to get on with ‘business as usual’ since being confined to working at home.

Iris’ PhD viva on 31st March went particularly well, conducted by video conferencing with participants in Edinburgh (exam chair and internal examiner), Dundee (external examiner) and Slovenia (candidate). The examination was expertly chaired and the examiners kindly accommodating of the unusual conditions. Iris gave a great performance and will be awarded her PhD subject to the completion of minor corrections. For two reasons it was somewhat fitting that Iris’ viva be conducted in this manner. First her thesis is all about the affordances of online social platforms for tacit knowledge sharing. Second, Iris’ formal relationship with us at Napier started with a Skype interview for a PhD studentship in 2014. My only regret about the online viva experience is that it was not possible for us to celebrate Iris’ achievement in person on 31st March. We will make up for this when she returns to Edinburgh for her graduation ceremony, hopefully in the autumn (now that our summer ceremonies have already been cancelled). To learn more about Iris’ viva experience, please see her blog post Online viva voce in a time of turmoil on The Knowledge Explorer. Some of the preliminary findings from her PhD have already been published in the Journal of Librarianship and Information Science in 2020 (Tacit knowledge sharing in online environments: locating ‘Ba’ within a platform for public sector professionals) and the Proceedings of the 18th European Conference on Knowledge Management in 2017 (Skills in sight: how social media affordances increase network awareness).

Iris, Buunk, PhD

Iris Buunk celebrates her PhD viva success

While I have managed to replicate my patterns of working with a reasonable degree of success over the past few weeks, my social life is very, very different. Like many people I have swapped face-to-face contact with friends and family for phone calls and online interactions. I have found that this is no substitute for the physical activity that it has replaced.

My birthday in the first week of full lockdown was quite bizarre. I think that the last time I spent it with so few people was the day that I was born, not far from where I am typing now, on a snowy day at the end of the harsh winter of 1963. Our most successful online socialising has been around games of Settlers of Catan with my nephew and his girlfriend over Skype. Because so much time playing Catan is spent peering at the board and your hand of cards, you can easily forget that your opponents aren’t in the room. As illustration, when we left the kitchen table half way through a game at 8pm a fortnight ago to go out on to the street to show our support for the NHS and key workers, I couldn’t understand why the other two had stayed indoors – until it dawned on me that they weren’t phyically with us, but in their own flat half a mile up the road. This lack of real-life socialising has had a beneficial effect on my health in that my alcohol consumption has reduced significantly (proving that I am a social drinker) and I have dropped a couple of pounds in weight, most likely because we cannot eat anywhere but at home.

I have to admit, however, that at the beginning of this enforced confinement my mental health suffered. I am naturally a very sociable, out-going person so the limits on social interactions represented a kind of ‘extrovert torture’ at the start of the lockdown period. I felt trapped, afraid, and permanently distracted by the news. The afternoon media updates from the UK government with daily death statistics reminded me of the Falklands war updates (like this one), even though I never saw any of these in 1982 because I was a student in Paris at the time. (It’s interesting to see that my PhD graduate Dr John Mowbray has also drawn some comparisons between the current period and the Falklands war in respect of crisis meetings as part of his postdoctoral research work at the University of Glasgow on Margaret Thatcher’s appointment diaries.) I also exhibited some physical symptoms of stress at the start of the lockdown period, suffering from the same type of headache and insomnia mentioned at the end of my blog post on my breast cancer diagnosis in spring 2018.

By 8th April, however, I began to feel a bit better. A few days earlier I came to the conclusion that a couple of factors were at the root of my dip in mood. The main one was a lack of daylight. I live in a basement flat, and I only ventured outdoors once in the first two weeks of lockdown. Another factor was too much time spent staring at the screen on video conference calls, with my poor brain struggling to resolve mind-body dissonance (as discussed in a Twitter thread initiated by INSEAD’s Professor Gianpiero Petriglieri on 4th April. See also ‘Ways to combat ‘Zoom fatigue’ from Harvard Business Review.) So, I switched from indoor exercise on my static bike to morning walks through the city on weekdays, and to bike rides outdoors at the weekends. I also substituted some video conference sessions with phone calls, and tried not to stare too much at the screen when in online meetings. I now feel so much better acclimatised to the current pandemic restrictions.

I have really enjoyed my morning walks. They have taken me all over the city to several places that I have never explored before (and to others I know well – including the route that I followed back and forth to radiotherapy appointments in 2018), and provided some great opportunities to record a seemingly-deserted Edinburgh.

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I am sure that many of the experiences that I am noting here are familiar to others. However, I have to say that I think that the media have tended to assume that most people are affected in the same way. I have been screaming at the radio every time there is a mention of ‘so much extra time on our hands’ with a call to all to Marie Condo their houses/write novels/landscape their gardens/complete major craft/redecorating projects etc, without any acknowledgement that for some people the pandemic has created huge amounts of extra work (likely to go unpaid) alongside unexpected additional responsibilities that need to be fitted into an already crammed schedule, such as teaching children at home. I worry that some academics feel that they should be using this period to up their productivity, especially in terms of paper and grant writing. I feel strongly that this should be discouraged as counter-productive. I have been saying to my immediate colleagues that the main priority as far as I am concerned is for us all to get through this crisis unscathed: avoid infection ourselves, stay sane, and not lose anyone dear to us. My other rant at the media is directed at the use of war-related vocabulary in their reporting. With the exception of references to NHS workers ‘on the front line’, I feel this is inappropriate. The roots of this crisis do not lie in political ambition, we are not at risk of invasion by a foreign power, nobody is shooting at us, there are no bombs dropping on us from overhead, and no intellectual will be imprisoned or eliminated as an enemy of the state (a fear expressed by one of my husband’s relations in a personal diary in January 1940).

I am fortunate to belong to a privileged group of people likely to be least affected by the coronavirus and its fall-out. I am also reassured to know those close to me are being well looked after, including my isolated 80 year-old widowed mother who has benefited greatly from community efforts to look after the elderly. That said, I do have family members and friends who have been infected (thankfully all have recovered without a need to be hospitalised) and I harbour fears for my medic and key worker friends and family. Depending on how long this crisis lasts, I may revisit the themes discussed here in a future blog post and reflect on the changes in the intervening period.

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