25 personal positives from the pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic is a global tragedy and there is no-doubting many people are suffering immense hardships; be it illness, loss of a loved one, unemployment, and financial uncertainty as well as mental health challenges.
A growing truth of the Covid-19 crisis is that it has been a story of two halves - the virus has disproportionately impacted those with underlying health conditions, those from poorer communities, and ethnic minorities. Once again a crisis has hit the vulnerable hardest and highlighted the vast inequalities in our society.
But for all those suffering heart-breaking hardship, there are also many people - like me, who have either benefited in some indirect way or set out to create positives from these troubled times. Some of these “positives” are simple and accessible to anyone, while some are down to good fortune which I don’t take for granted.
So, as part of Mental Health Week and against the backdrop of great fear and uncertainty I wanted to reflect on some of my personal positives to have come from the pandemic.
Getting out and seeing more of where I live. I’ve always been a fair-weather gym goer and avoid running at all costs. But the introduction of the one hour of daily exercise meant that since the start of lockdown I have gone out on average 4-5 times per week and pounded the streets of my local neighborhood. I’ve lived in the same area of South East London for 8 years and I’ve now traced every single road in my area - in two months I got to see the 80% of my community I’d never bothered to walk down before.
Meeting the neighbours. In those 8 years in central London, apart from the elderly lady upstairs I’d never properly met my neighbours. But on the night of the very first NHS clap, my entire road came alive. I said hello to the Filipino and Mexican families that live next door for the very first time, the young British lady and her Spanish fiancee who’d just bought their first home together downstairs and the family across the road with enough kids and musical instruments to start their own orchestra.
No commuters. Living just 300m from a Zone 2 London station means that Monday-Friday my quiet residential road becomes a glorified parking lot for commuters trying to save on train fares. From 6.30am-9am it’s a rat race - but since lockdown, it’s been gloriously quiet and during our occasional large shop at Sainsbury's you can return and park outside of your own home rather than three streets over.
Appreciating the quiet outdoors. How quiet? Well, every morning rather than the sounds of revving engines, slamming car doors, and the occasional road rage drama - instead I’m now waking up to the sound of the birds. The sound of traffic from the main road is almost completely gone - no hooting, sirens and constant drone of engines. Overhead the sound of planes has dropped to one or two a day.
Raising money for charity. As an avowed non-runner, lockdown and the swell of positive affection towards the NHS and key workers has gotten me off my backside and raising money for good causes. On an almost weekly basis I’ve been challenged by friends and colleagues to complete everything from a 5km run (which nearly was the end of me) to doing 25 press-ups a day for 25 days and more - all to raise money for charities and good causes. In total it’s been a modest £275 to date but it’s been fun, rewarding, sociable, and good for my physical and mental health.
Recognising those worse off. I’m fortunate as someone who is self-employed that I can work from home whenever I choose. I have never taken my employability or flexibility for granted, but as the economic fall-out from Covid-19 causes long-term uncertainty to millions, it has led me to reflect on the hardships of the worst-off in society and adjust my expenditure to support those that I can. Having previously volunteered at a Food Bank, I’ve redoubled my efforts to give generously to food charities and shifted much of my online expenditure away from corporates to supporting local businesses such as the local garden centre, a local leather craftsman and the independent bakery and coffee shop.
Recognition for key workers. Being engaged to a primary school teacher I’ve always been baffled by a general perception amongst many that teaching is somehow easy. I’ve worked in the private sector for a decade now, HE before and while teaching may offer job security and attractive benefits - no one I’ve met in the private sector works harder and delivers more value and commitment than our key workers. As parents began homeschooling their kids it was heartening to see a glimmer of recognition at what a fantastic and challenging job teachers do, how critical delivery drivers are to keeping the country fed, how without sanitation workers our streets would be buried in refuse and of course how without the bravery and commitment of our health and care workers, how many more of us would have lost loved ones.
Reducing food waste. At the start of lockdown when panic buying was at fever pitch we did a stock-take of all the food in our cupboards and fridge. We wanted to ensure we always had food for 7 days of meals and that we avoided buying more than was necessary. The massive benefit is that I’ve guestimated that by planning meals and portions, we’ve reduced our food waste by 80% compared to when we’d regularly return home late after a long day in the office and lazily order a takeaway.
Air quality. It’s been impossible to miss the environmental improvements in central London. Sure the good weather has helped lift mood but so has the clean air and reduction of noise pollution.
Return of wildlife to central London. I’m sure the great weather has had a part to play in this but the garden has never been busier with squirrels, Great, Coal and Blue Tits, blackbirds, sparrows, robins, parakeets, wood pigeons, and foxes. It may not be as dramatic as Cape Leopards returning for the first time in decades to the mountains around my mum's house in South Africa... but London has never looked better.
DIY and jobs around the house. One of the realisations of being a homeowner is that jobs around the house are never complete and that houses basically eat money. One of the pluses of lockdown has been to make the time to finally sort out all the jobs that needed doing - partly because being at home 24/7 means they bugged me more than ever. It started with moving away from working on the kitchen table and building a workspace. We replanted and tidied the garden. Restored an old piece of furniture we’d been promising to do for 10 years. Spring cleaned and donated clothes, and unused items to charity.
Getting more work done. I’ve always said that I work more productively from home where I don’t have the distraction and interruptions that come with working in an office. I live less than 5 miles from my principal office on Fleet St but on average it ends up taking me about 45mins door to door. Yes, I try and check emails on my phone and get work done on the commute but add in the time getting ready and unwinding from the office and you’re looking at at least two hours a day of suboptimal productivity.
Working with smart people to get stuff done. I’m very fortunate to work with some pretty fantastic and talented people. It’s been hugely uplifting to spend even more time than usual working with the most innovative and inspirational people to deliver sustainable social impact post-Covid, build solutions to help the vulnerable and pivot business models to address changing consumer demands.
Forcing the technophobes to embrace change. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in a way previously unimagined - change that would otherwise have taken decades has happened in mere months. On a micro-level, it’s also driven increased productivity amongst senior clients who had often shunned video conferencing in favour of face to face meetings. A few years back I flew 11hrs from London for an afternoon meeting, returning the next morning - a meeting that could have been done on a two-hour call. By the time I touched back down in London, less than 30 hours after originally departing I had a call to say I was needed back on site - I had just enough time to buy a ticket online and buy a change of clothes before getting back on the 11 hour return flight.
More exercise and less junk food. As already mentioned, since lockdown I’ve been getting out and about and walking my local streets - that’s been great for my physical and mental well-being. And so has the reduction of takeaway meals and an increase in health planned meals.
Friends getting to see their children grow up. So while this one doesn’t directly impact me, it was too good to leave out. A half dozen of my close friends are new parents with kids under 6 months. Many of the dads had planned to remain at work and take their shared paternal leave later to enable their wives to return to work. The pandemic has meant they’ve been able to stay at home through their little one’s first few months, bond with the child in a way that would have never been possible, and of course support the new mom around the house.
Not feeling social pressure to go out. One of my biggest mental health challenges with working life has always been the expectation to attend after-hours events, conferences, and social functions. But working 8am-7pm most days and trying to maintain a personal life, between the work socials has often led me to exhaustion and at times has led to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, coffee, and food.
Not feeling the pressure to always look good. Stepping out the front door to go to the office requires work, energy, and money to make yourself look presentable. Lockdown, no haircuts, and the tracksuit lifestyle have had some radical mental health benefits - there’s no need to look your best because no else does. So I’ve stopped doing work video calls and have opted for voice-only meetings and feel zero pressure as a result.
Slowing down. Most of us get 28 days of holiday a year, and even then we’re checking emails or prepping for the next project. So for many, the lockdown has proven to be the first extended break or slow down in pace in their lifetimes. And for everyone who is struggling with the mental health challenges of being locked down, I’m sure there are as many who are feeling mentally refreshed by the new pace.
Making time for self-development. While many of my personal positives are down to being fortunate, taking time for self-development is time anyone can make - and I say that fully conscious of those working double shifts to make ends meet, raising kids in challenging circumstances or struggling to cope. We all have time if we make it. So while I look at photos of friends complaining about being bored, I’ve started to write my second book, written nine blogs, and completed four online courses. And yes, I also found time to watch The Mandalorian, Ozark, and am now on season 3 of Homeland.
Staying in contact with loved ones. While lockdown has meant no physical contact it’s meant more virtual contact than ever before. We’ve had virtual cooking classes with friends and family via the brilliant Yhangry. We’ve had five online pub quizzes with work colleagues and family and we’ve had dozens of virtual wine nights with friends on the Houseparty app.
Saving money by not spending. While many are struggling, those working as normal but from home are likely to have seen some major financial benefits. Last week I completed my annual tax return and estimated saving on travel of £70 a month on petrol and £100 on TFL. On average I was also spending an astronomical £170 a month on store-bought breakfast, coffee and lunches - while I’ve not seen any increase in supermarket costs, partly as we have now almost eradicated our food waste. We’re buying our wine and extras online which is cheaper and being conscious to take advantage of special intro offers. We’re also not spending on restaurants and bars. While to my earlier point of not caring what I look like, I’ve cut out care products such as £5 on hair gel and £5-10 on deodorants and aftershaves. In total I estimate in April vs January 2020 I saved approximately £400 on regular monthly recurring costs.
Saving money by changing utilities. Our current two-year fixed mortgage ends in September so I contacted our broker - he’s secured us a new mortgage saving us £96 per month while also fixing for five years. It had been about five years since I last reviewed our utility providers and found long term deals on gas/ electric that save £24 a month, and a new broadband provider saving £20. I also reviewed a range of direct debits, unused subscriptions, and especially PayPal payments and fees that will save us an extra £40 every single month. In total, these changes should save us about £175
Putting money saved into savings. As Generation Y, I’ve always believed I’ll work until I drop and never really considered getting a pension. But having re-examined my finances I found an app called Plum which I’m using for ISA savings and investments. I’ve also started making small contributions into a pension to optimize pension tax reliefs.
Changing buying habits. A big part of my newfound financial happiness has been not buying crap - and knowing that I can make these changes last. My buying habits have truly changed for a decade, much as they did when they shifted from material purchases to experiential. When I look back at the years 2000-2010 I estimate that 80% of my expendable income went on material items / 20% on experiences. Over the next 10 years, despite becoming a homeowner between 2010-2020 - 20% material items/ 80% experiential. So for the next decade, I’m planning to commit to buying high-quality independent goods and avoid corporate and high street brands. My reduced buying decisions will be based on ethical considerations first and foremost - companies that don’t do good will lose my cash.