A-Z

Covid-19 in the community

Early days of the pandemic

This section explores how people we spoke to described their very early experiences of the pandemic. This was the period between December 2019 and the first months of lockdown in March and April 2020. This was the time when most people were first hearing about Covid-19 and making sense of how it was going to impact their lives.

Topics covered include: 

  • The pandemic getting closer 
  • Mainstream news and social media
  • Changing plans and cancelling events 

The pandemic getting closer

The news of an outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan province, China emerged in December 2019. By January 2020 most of the people we talked to thought it would only affect people on the ‘other side of the world’.
 
People recalled other experiences of regional outbreaks of other deadly viruses, for example Ebola, SARS or MERS, and remembered they had all been contained. 
 

 

Mandy, who is a practice manager at a GP surgery, recalls other potential outbreaks that had come to nothing.

Mandy, who is a practice manager at a GP surgery, recalls other potential outbreaks that had come to nothing.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Yeah, I can remember when it, it was being bandied about that there was this, this, there was this Covid-19 and it was, it was in [country] and it was coming over. When we think we’ve, we’ve done this before. In all my years, we had the swine flu and we had all this. And I think, in the beginning, none of us thought it was gonna be like this. We didn’t really take it serious. ‘Cos we, we’ve been through this before. There’s been other, there’s been other times when they said, “oooh you’re gonna have swine flu.” I can remember we all had the special masks then, years ago and we all had to have the swine flu injections, and this is you know, gonna have this and remember we were all a bit, all of us, I think, doctors all of us. It’ll come to nothing. And then like you started to sort of get closer and people started to go down and then there who were people dying and you started to see more stuff on the TV. And then, it sort of just hit us, really then. I, to be honest, I think we were all thinking uh, this might be happening here, something might be happening. And all of a sudden then, it was, you need to stop people coming in. Don’t let anybody in. You know, respiratory, you’ve gotta, you’ve gotta wear PPE. Obviously, in the beginning, it was a nightmare ‘cos we didn’t have PPE in the beginning. We were struggling.

 

 

Pooja thought Covid-19 would be contained in a similar way to Ebola – she didn’t think it would affect the UK so dramatically.

Text only
Read below

Pooja thought Covid-19 would be contained in a similar way to Ebola – she didn’t think it would affect the UK so dramatically.

HIDE TEXT
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

And, at that point, I didn’t really think anything of it. I thought, you know, you hear of these sort of things, I’d heard of Ebola and everything like that and thought, yeah, it was of course it was a very serious virus and it was so deadly. There’s so many implications to your health as well as like eventuality of death, but and how contagious it was but because it’s so far away and not in our wildest dreams, like in my wildest dreams anyway, did I ever think it would ever get to this country and affect us in such a way.


 
Mandy hoped and expected that it might be another ‘swine flu’ or ‘bird flu’. Sarita said ‘I did not give it that much of a thought, I will be honest with you. Probably because I had not gone through it.’
 
People recalled how Covid changed from being a distant concern to a personal threat. This threat was increased by awareness of the disease spreading around the world and having a serious impact on countries that were either close neighbours or had health systems like our own (see also The pandemic becomes real). The period after the February school half term holiday was when Shaista felt Covid started getting closer. Some hoped that being in a ‘sophisticated’ society with a good health service would protect us.
 
People who worked in the health sector were made aware of Covid-19 early on, although initially the concern was about people who had recently travelled to Wuhan province in China. Helen, a midwife, remembers seeing workplace posters about being careful around people who had travelled from China. Health care staff perceptions changed as hospital wards started filling up and, very worryingly, personal protective equipment (PPE) became expensive and hard to get hold of.
 
 

Gertrude could see that Covid was getting closer to the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

Text only
Read below

Gertrude could see that Covid was getting closer to the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

HIDE TEXT
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Yes, I first became aware of it when it was in the news, that it was happening somewhere way out there in China and it was like oh it’s something like SARS and it might come but it might not get that close but yeah I was aware of it. And in December, in January actually I had travelled for missionary work. I went to Uganda and we heard about it then as we were doing our missionary work and it was like, it was not spreading and I came back, that was in January and you could hear it was coming closer but it wasn’t, it had not hit home yet, it had not hit England, so but later it did. And we heard a few cases in London and then as it was getting closer there were three cases in [location], I live in [location], so I thought oh [location] is a bit close, it’s a bit close to home, that was a bit scary [laughs]. My son was up [location] he was, he was at uni doing medicine and he kept calling me, mum you’ve got to be careful in the hospital, because I work as a nurse in the hospital, you’ve got to be very careful, but then I said oh no I don’t think it will be that bad, yeah that’s how I first got to learn of it. And it hit [location] and there were a few cases here and there then I thought this thing is definitely coming into the hospital, and yeah.

 

Jessica works in a hospital. She saw Covid increase very rapidly until everyone in her unit was a Covid patient.

Jessica works in a hospital. She saw Covid increase very rapidly until everyone in her unit was a Covid patient.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

And when I came in to work, I remember coming back that first day and thinking, 'OK, it's not terrible.' And our ward of about forty eight patients or so, there were maybe eight cases of Covid, but eight cases of a single diagnosis is incredibly... well it doesn't happen; maybe bog standard pneumonia and that's it, but even then in Intensive Care like ours that's very unusual. And over the course of the subsequent weeks... or in subsequent week, that number just increased and increased and increased; within two weeks suddenly everyone's Covid; every patient had coronavirus.


 
It was not just health and care staff whose work was affected during these early days. Beth worked in a care home and remembered that things went downhill very rapidly as several staff and residents got ill. Jaswinder’s husband works in a supermarket, and she became very worried about his exposure to so many people at work.
 
 

Jaswinder did not expect that the virus would be very harmful but became fearful after lockdown.

Jaswinder did not expect that the virus would be very harmful but became fearful after lockdown.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

At that time we did not know much, and that it would become so massive. Everyone used to say that it is like normal flu virus, like many other such viruses, that has come. In the past well, many things came, came and went away. Like, at the start we took it lightly, right? And expected it would not be very harmful. It will come…We thought science is so advanced. It will do something or another and then it will go away. But then after March when lockdown started, people were going in high numbers You know, the deaths, then we got worried that this is just not like normal flu but there is something is wrong, somewhere.

 

Cat, a student, remembers the difficult decisions that her housemates were making about whether to travel home or risk being stuck.

Cat, a student, remembers the difficult decisions that her housemates were making about whether to travel home or risk being stuck.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I remember there was a distinct sense of panic in the house when it was like, so and so’s aunties bird’s cousin has said that they work with someone who works in blah, blah, blah, and they said that they’re going to close the border tomorrow, do you know what I mean? It was that kind of thing. No one knew what was going on, all of my housemates but one lived in England, so they were worried that they were going to get stuck in Wales. One of my housemates is from India, she was worried about how to get home and it ended up into a last minute like, “I’ve just booked a flight and I’m going,” type thing. No one knew whether we’d be able to come home. I remember it was my, it’s my friend’s birthday the 28th March, 29thMarch oh gosh, she’ll shout at me if I don’t remember but, the end of March, and it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to have like a party like we would normally do, so we went to the SU and had like one last night out, and me and my other friend were getting a little bit nervous about going, because it was like that unknown of, “Oh I’ve heard that so and so has tested positive in Cardiff, and it was in, still in the stages of like, one or two like the first positive cases in the uni or in the city or in Wales even. And we were like “Oh gosh, like can you imagine if we went to the SU and then we ended up getting it and we’d have to stay here for another two weeks plus”. So, it was very much about like, worries about being trapped I think, worries about the restriction of freedom, the kind of unknown quantity of this virus. Didn’t know the affects it was going to have on us, didn’t know how it was going to play out in the future with coming back to uni, all kinds of stuff like that.

 

Paul X, a tour guide, remembers wondering what he would do if tourism stopped and how his livelihood might be affected.

Paul X, a tour guide, remembers wondering what he would do if tourism stopped and how his livelihood might be affected.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

So, I’m not exactly sure when I was first aware of it but I’m going to guess around, well, when whenever it started hitting the mainstream news, I suppose so late January, early February maybe, so probably February more. As I am a full-time professional tourist guide, so I do all sorts of tours for all sorts of people and I do remember on one tour, I think late February, it started to become a thing in Italy and I remember a lot of speculation. Some people were saying, “Oh it will be good because all the Italian tours will be rebooking here instead.” So that sounded yeah, whatever, sounded potentially, you know, on a very personal level, beneficial but nobody really knew. But there was a lot of speculation as well about how things were going to get closed down. I remember having a fear that they might shut.

 

Mainstream news and social media

Most of the people we spoke to got their information about the pandemic from mainstream news and social media. Kashif mainly used social media and didn’t know what to believe at first. People who used mainstream news, such as the BBC, remembered increasingly alarming reports starting in December 2019 and continuing throughout the early months of 2020.
 

 

Karin was not impressed with the way the British media covered the news during this period and called it ‘fear-mongering’.

Karin was not impressed with the way the British media covered the news during this period and called it ‘fear-mongering’.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Yeah I think it was around January or so when people started to say that, yeah there’s a new disease in town so to speak and people who had been like I’m Swedish so I know that people who had been in Italy on a skiing trip they all brought back Covid and, you know, it wasn’t like they were dying or anything so I thought okay, okay it’s just a flu or, or something similar. But then everything got so much more dramatic especially here in England there’s so many more people here so and very good coverage of course, the media went crazy and were you know loving the situation even though it was so horrible it was just oh a party in, on the radio and television, newspapers, magazines, everywhere it wasn’t, you know, it was almost like you know, happy days for the media and that disgusted me slightly because, you know, they make a bigger thing out of something that might not be so big and with that they also frightened a lot of people and especially older people and vulnerable so I was pretty disgusted by the whole thing so that’s how I felt.


 
A few people had very specific and vivid memories of the moment when they first heard about the virus. Laurie remembers hearing an interview with a British student in Wuhan and Noam became interested after seeing a small newspaper item.
 
 

Noam said that a small item in an international Jewish newspaper caught his eye.

Text only
Read below

Noam said that a small item in an international Jewish newspaper caught his eye.

HIDE TEXT
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I remember very clearly. There’s a newspaper that comes out once a week called HaModia, it’s a Jewish newspaper, international and it’s got a, they’ve got a national edition of it. And I just remember seeing on the front page, I don’t usually buy that newspaper at all. But, happened to be that week I bought it. I remember seeing on the front page just a very, very small caption, write up about you know, this city you know, what’s it called, Wuhan where they, you know, they have been reported to the WHO about you know small sort of virus which is going around over there, which you know, they’re warning about, which looks a bit worrying. But, it was a very, very small caption that nobody would bother reading it and for some reason that, that caught my eye and I was thinking, ‘that’s interesting’ something I don’t usually see. And, you know, just dismissed it sort of thing. But it, it caught, that was actually just the very beginning of the outbreak. So, yeah, I saw it right from the very beginning when it was reported and then, you know, just from then just every few weeks seeing it get bigger and bigger and then it just started off as being something which was going on in China. You know, you think that’s miles away and you know, it’s just, it’s just another one of these unfortunate things which goes on out in some far-off country out there and no chance of influencing us. But then you hear that no, ‘cos in Birmingham there has been exposition of selling things which came from China and that’s been cancelled. And so then you see, you know, it’s actually coming a bit closer to home the effect of it.


 
There were very disturbing reports in the media of people of racist abuse and assaults on people who were perceived to be Chinese or East Asian. These reports made some people we spoke to feel fearful of attacks. Lyn, who lives alone, had two experiences of racist abuse early in the pandemic. 
 
 

Lyn had two alarming experiences of racist abuse at the start of the pandemic.

Lyn had two alarming experiences of racist abuse at the start of the pandemic.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Well, when we first heard of the pandemic from China, Wuhan, it was explosion all over the world and it does not help being an Asian person, especially even though you are not from China. You are from Malaysia, as I told you I am a Malaysian, and how it affects the South East Asian community is because of the labelling because, as you can see on television, the media, where Donald Trump says, “Oh, the Chinese virus.” You know, and this affect a lot of people, which is South East Asian, because some people, they can’t tell between a Korean, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipinos, Vietnamese. To some people, all of us looks the same to be Chinese. So this has affected when comes to daily life because I have experienced two xenophobic attacks before I fell ill in April. And one of them was when I was coming up from shopping and this man just walk up to me and say, “Hey, you know you Asian virus. You should not be here. You people are barbaric. You eat bats. You eat dogs.” And I said, “I’m not going to engage with you because please leave me alone.” And he came right in front my face like that, so close, so close that I can feel his breath and I just say, “Sir, just leave me alone.” And, basically, I just took a dash but he kept following me and I, basically, just ran for my life because no matter how big a man is, you will feel the power is stronger than you I am not in a position to challenge him because I am a woman and I live alone. I don’t have many friends nearby in England and most of my friends are living up in Chester, in Wales and that is not helpful. So the second time was when I finished my shift, I was back then working in a mental health rehabilitation centre. I just finished a twelve and a half hour shift supporting person with mental illness and, on my way home, I was sitting in front carriage and this man came up to me and he, basically, he said, “You are not allowed in here. You have to get off the train.” I was shocked because I had done nothing. “You need to get off. You cannot be in the same train with me.” And, luckily, another gentleman was just sitting the opposite side from me and he came up and said, “Sir, you’ve got to move back. You’ve got to leave her alone.”

 

Changing plans and cancelling events

By the first weeks of March 2020, before the first ‘lockdown’ started, many people remembered that they were already thinking about changing their plans to travel or meet others. Cat said it became clear that the planned party for a friend’s birthday at the end of March would not be happening. She went out for a last evening in the Students Union when she was already worried about either getting ill or getting ‘stuck’ due to the need to isolate.
 

 

Shortly before the March lockdown, Sue’s sister decided not to risk coming to a birthday lunch.

Shortly before the March lockdown, Sue’s sister decided not to risk coming to a birthday lunch.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I think when I first heard about Covid or and Coronaviruses as I think it was first sort of, the terminology first used in the media, I just, I didn’t dismiss it but I just thought, ‘Oh it’s..’ and I know something like SARS or MERS, they were serious but they were quite regionalised and didn’t, you know, spread to a worldwide pandemic so I just thought it was a news item that would sort of die away and so on and then when things started, not hotting up a bit politically or whatever but my birthday’s on the 17th March so I, I was going out for a meal for my birthday for lunch and I asked my sister and my brother-in-law if they’d like to come and my sister who had had an operation on her heart at the end of the previous year, 2019 and has had a bad experience. She’s become sort of quite, don’t know what the word is, not paranoid but she’s become a bit very careful. So, she said that she decided that they, they decided they wouldn’t come and then of course on the Monday, the following Monday, which I think was the 20, I can’t remember the 26th or the 27th or something that’s when lockdown was announced.

 

Gwilym weighed up the risks and decided to go ahead with a planned Caribbean cruise in early 2020.

Gwilym weighed up the risks and decided to go ahead with a planned Caribbean cruise in early 2020.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Well, obviously, being in the NHS, you get emails, you know, with updates on likely infections and things and it was in the press, wasn’t it. Especially with cruise ships and things and the way that it was spreading through China, and I mean they had had these breakthrough, breakouts in Italy and ski resort and various places so there was a fair bit of it in the news. And, obviously, these cruise ships being stuck so, you know, because we were going on a cruise, you know, that was obviously something you’d consider but, you know, it was either go or lose your money [laughs]. And you know, we did our risk assessment and thought, you know, in the Caribbean they didn’t seem to have Covid there but, obviously, there were other cruise ships there and maybe people from other countries had taken it there and I don’t know. I mean I heard to I think it was while we were away that it was on the news that there was a couple of cruise ships in the Caribbean that had been refused entry to islands that they’d had a breakout of Covid on the ship. But that wasn’t one of our, you know, wasn’t our ship but two others but whether we’d gone into the same port, I don’t know. Maybe at the same time or different time but, you know, if it spread that way, who knows?

 


 
A few people we talked to said that they were barely aware of Covid-19 until things started to change around the first lockdown.
 
 

Razia has a busy life with small children and doesn’t really watch the news.

Razia has a busy life with small children and doesn’t really watch the news.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

Basically, I kind of heard of something back in January, February time. Didn’t really pay much attention to it because it was happening on the other side of the world. I don’t really watch the news much, to be honest, because I’m always busy with little ones and when I if I do watch, I watch sort of local stuff that’s going to affect my day to day. So it’s not like I didn’t care, I just didn’t know enough about it so I wasn’t going out of my way to follow the story but that was also the time I found out I was pregnant with our third baby. So, when it started spreading and it started becoming, people started talking about it more, I wasn’t still quite sure what it was and that’s when I started looking into it because people were coming to the UK and they were talking about a virus that’s not just like the flu, it’s different and it’s worse. The effect it was having, the fact that places shut down in China and airports, people were talking about closing borders and I was thinking, “What’s going on?”

 

Medhi was preparing for a New Year celebration when a friend told him not to go out.

Medhi was preparing for a New Year celebration when a friend told him not to go out.

SHOW TEXT VERSION
EMBED CODE
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

It was 17th March 2019, and it was nearly Iranian New Year. That day a friend of mine said, “So sorry from this day, today we can’t meet all your family, we should go to other, my house.” I said, “Why what’s happened? “It’s pandemic. The Covid goes up and lots of people die because of Covid.” I said, “What’s Covid?” he said, “Oh it’s a new virus. Nobody knows about this virus but lots of doctor and nurse study and work hard for-, knows about this virus but unfortunately lots of people died of because of this virus so we should stay at home, don’t go out, never, because our government have decided to lockdown.” And I said, “I haven’t heard of this word ‘lockdown’, what’s lockdown?” and he said, “Okay just stay at home, don’t go out.”


 
Several people we talked to said that it was ‘all a bit of a blur’ and were unsure exactly when they heard about the pandemic but by the time the lockdown started in March 2020 there was no doubt that the early days were over, and the next phase was beginning.

 

donate
Previous Page
Next Page