Reflecting on 2020 and being cautiously optimistic about 2021: Personal and professional

Reflecting on 2020 and being cautiously optimistic about 2021: Personal and professional

Liam December 28, 2020
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We are optimistic, but we are optimistic in a cautious fashion.

Tom Lantos

Annus horribilis

I don’t think that you need to be the sharpest observer to say that 2020 has been the worst year in living memory. We thought 2009 was bad. Oh, no. Over 80,000 lives lost at the time of writing in this year alone, and 1,777,000 worldwide. Let alone the countless number of those living with long COVID and side-effects such as lung scarring that will remain with them for the rest of their lives, it has been awful on a humanitarian level and on a financial scale.

We did see, though, nature healing. We saw what happens when we stop polluting the planet. Oceans were clearing; CO2 emissions went down astronomically (and indeed we need them to be at this point if we want to hit our target of being carbon neutral by 2040 in Britain).

Governments around the world, except in corrupt and failed states (and the United States), did rise to the challenge and put in place the safety net. We saw a Conservative Chancellor paying people’s bills and extending this until March of next year. Many of us did our part to protect the NHS and save lives.

Physical health

We saw personal health appointments being cancelled due to hospitals having to literally separate themselves. This, my friends, was awful. Its consequences have meant that nearly 400,000 women have missed breast cancer screening and it’s also meant that cancer treatment has been delayed – and treatment for a great deal of other illnesses and diseases. We know that COVID-19 has cost lives directly, but its side-effects of having to take precautionary measures have meant that its true death toll will not be known – possibly ever.

People’s gym routines have been altered. Indeed, those of us who have a tendency not to roam around too much (I have arthritis in both big toes, but I can still do certain things – including weights), have seen ourselves gain weight and weakened our muscles. My back is now so weak that I struggle with walking due to the pain, but I am and I will continue to work on that both this year and in 2021.

There has also been the misconception that GPs aren’t open or that people shouldn’t “burden the NHS”. This means that a lot of people – myself included, especially when I fell down the stairs to my flat – have felt that they shouldn’t seek treatment. When I fell down the stairs, I was a lucky man. My best friend came round and gave me some ibuprofen, and I was told by several people, including him, that I needed to go to hospital I did not want to go because I didn’t want to burden the MIU at Ripley Hospital.

The next day, when I was able to actually walk down stairs (at great pain), I had been convinced. It was only then that the nurse, on expressing confusion as to why my head was only slightly grazed but my knee was the size of a football, asked how I fell, in a very confused way given that my forehead was slightly grazed. She said: “You’re a lucky man… even with the pain you’re in. You should have come yesterday and this is what we are here for, but your knee broke your fall.”

Mental health

Mental health is at an all-time low. This is to be expected: People can’t see each other as much as they were able to as a consequence of requisite and rational lockdown measures; mass unemployment is not just a statistic, but a personal tragedy; those who have existing mental health problems have seen them exacerbated; and suicide is at an all-time high. When you next speak to your friends, please ask them how they’re doing, and then ask them how they’re really doing. You have no idea how much of an impact that this might have.

The enemy is not after your money or your stuff.
He wants your mind, your attitude, your heart, your faith, your peace.
Understand that you are not being attacked over the tangible things in your life: The enemy wants things that you cannot see.

Unknown

I am willing to write about my own experience of a suicide attempt – or, rather, one which I changed my mind about, if only to cement what this year has been like and why you should check in more often with your loved ones.

I felt isolated, hopeless, alone, incapable of communicating my needs and a great deal more. My depression had seen me reach rock bottom. My Autism had meant that, due to the theory of mind issue, I thought I’d communicated needs to others when, in reality, I had not.

I made an attempt on my life in October. After the rational part of my brain “kicked in”, I remembered the advice that I always give to someone who is experiencing suicidal ideation: “Always remember that suicide is not an answer. All it does is wrap up your personal pain and feelings and throw it like a grenade at your loved ones. They will always feel guilty, thinking that they could have stopped it, and they will always have more questions than answers.” So, I got out of the bath and patched myself up the best I could, and sought medical assistance the next day.

I write about this because it gave me a renewed sense of purpose in life. I had known why I do what I do – i.e. marketing and development – for Derbyshire Autism Services for a long time. I do it because I am an Autistic myself, who was diagnosed in adulthood, and I want to improve the lives of Autistic people around Derbyshire. It cemented that this stuff is what I live for.

It also made me appreciate my loved ones more. My best friend, Will, has been incredible during the recovery period and so has my sister, Lauren. My employer, too. I will always remain eternally grateful to them for what they have done.

My GP has been incredibly supportive, too – introducing an additional medication that helps with both anxiety and depression, which sadly are common co-morbidities of Autism. This is because Autistics are the common targets of bullying, because bullies know that it is difficult for us to defend ourselves, and the fact that neurodiversity often means that you are living on a planet that isn’t really made for you.

Work – and taking real pride in this

The charity I worked for had developed a COVID preparedness strategy, long before others were even considering it. I had put in place the technological changes that would be needed if we had to close the office, or worse yet, stop in-community support.

So, I made sure we had Microsoft Teams, that all office staff were using it pre-March, that we had mobile phones, and that our existing phone supplier could switch us over to a remote system via VOIP. All of this was done in preparation.

But, I also moved swiftly on tech to ensure that, should in-community support services had to suspend, we could continue to support people – remotely. And it worked. Around two-thirds of our clients wanted this support model because, otherwise, there would be nobody to help during a time in which they needed our services the most.

We kept going throughout the pandemic in community support until it became unsafe for staff and, crucially, service users.

The CEO, Finance Manager and I secured funding that has seen us be able to go into 2021 in a healthy way. And to achieve this during, not before the pandemic was great indeed.

Nobody lost services as a consequence of our preparedness. And I am so proud of that.

New strains

Britain and South Africa were broadly alone in monitoring for new strains of COVID-19, which is one reason for the panic when we discovered it. There are many who rightly attribute blame to the Government of this country for mistakes made at the start of the pandemic and therefore the preparedness of Britain, but they also do not take into account that the previous Labour administration did not restock PPE when it had the opportunity to. And, don’t get me wrong, Cameron also failed to do so, but we cannot blame governments for everything. If you’ve ever not followed COVID-19 restriction guidance, then you have put someone else’s life at risk. You do not have the right to do that.

It appears that the vaccines have been trialled already for what are the most likely variants of COVID-19. One of the reasons for the mutation is that the body will mutate a virus if it fights it off and make it a great deal more infectious because it wants to help others – i.e. achieve herd immunity. That is the blessing (or in this case, a curse) of the human body’s immunology.

Reasons to be cautiously optimistic about vaccinations

The current vaccine which has MHRA approval is protective against both COVID-19 and the B.17 strain. It was tested across twenty different variants that the virologists thought would be the main mutations. The problem is transportation and cooling. We are seeing the roll-out happen incredibly quickly, and we’ve already vaccinated 500,000 of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

When the Oxford/AstreZeneca vaccine is approved by the MHRA, this will accelerate with speeds that the expectations management of “we won’t be out of the woods until Q3 2021” will be smashed. We’ve ordered enough for a rapid inoculation programme.

I had always objected to ID cards in any way, but if we can find a secure and safe way (such as adding to the NHS COVID app) that someone can demonstrate that they have had the injection, this will – and should, in my opinion – result in things opening more rapidly.

The majority of people in the country will take the vaccine, according to plenty of opinion polls. This will increase until we hit the magic 80% rate.

Reasons to be optimistic about the planet

We’ve seen through tech that existed for years that meetings can take place in offices, without polluting the planet. Here is an extract from my piece on COVID-19: Reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Good changes to ways of working

There is a balance to be struck here, but many people prefer working from home because it gives them greater flexibility and family time. The average commute time in the UK is 59 minutes. Consider all that saved time. Those who can’t afford to live in London and so have had to commute have found themselves getting a very sweet deal indeed: They are still living outside of a heavily-polluted city, with an employer there and having to commute where necessary, but are largely working from home. And those of us who are further up the north of England still save in this respect, freeing up much-needed money to spend to stimulate the economy and, for many of us millennials, save for mortgages.

We saw the announcement – very early in the pandemic – that Twitter will make it an option for those who can work from home a permanent feature of their perks, if they can, and if they want to.

Many people do not want to work from home on a long-term basis because, for example, they live alone. I count myself as someone who might feel lonely on some workdays if that is the case but having the flexibility of choice would be nice. After all, after the pandemic, I will not be as isolated. Even during it, I have a support bubble.

Clearly, tech businesses are best placed to make the move to remote office settings, but it has not been difficult in my workplace because of the readiness that we had put in place.

The future of work

KPMG predicts: “HR must swiftly transition from putting out the fires of the immediate impact of COVID-19 and its aftermath and switch to playing the long game of shaping the workforce of the future for their enterprises. But this switch requires new mindsets, skills and priorities,” said Robert Bolton, Head of Global People and Change Center of Excellence, KPMG International. “Lasting impacts, including the fact that nearly 40 percent of employees will continue to work remotely and perhaps others in a hybrid model of attendance, means that a new reality has to be contended with. The pandemic has presented HR with a significant opportunity to transform not just the function, but the enterprise itself.”

Many businesses are following this trend. At first, we expected to come in and out of lockdown, eventually re-emerging with workplaces changing. Most offices are not doing that, following government advice – and it does not seem that this will necessarily be the case in the long-term. There will be a sea change.

With 40% of employees standing to being given the choice to continue to work from home, carbon emissions are sure to fall: We saw nature itself healing during the height of the pandemic, with less waste being dumped into the oceans, and a reduction in people driving to work, this looks set to continue.

As energy companies are being incentivised to switch to green energy by both the regulatory framework in addition to consumers voting with their wallets, this again brings further good news in that respect. Those who do work from home will have the luxury of being able to choose a green energy supplier.

Personal reasons to be optimistic

I am very optimistic about 2021, because I will enter it in a new job within my existing employer. I will enter it having been persuaded by the natural changes in the planet this year to switch to an EV vehicle and to consume far less red meat. I will enter it knowing that nobody I love has lost their lives to COVID-19. And I will enter it, above all else, knowing that I have work to do: One, on myself – such as shifting lockdown weight; and two – by continuing to work for my excellent employer to provide and enhance life opportunities for Autistics.

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