A Year of Circumscribed Living | By Iqbal Ahmed

It was a terrifying proclamation. In the second week of March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a pandemic. Initially there was both fear and confusion at many workplaces until, three days after the spring equinox, the UK government decided to impose a lockdown and many of us heaved a sigh of relief.

However, our sense of relief proved to be short-lived because the full impact of the pandemic soon began to dawn upon us. A year later, it is hard to find a family that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic. I lost a close relative in Kashmir to the disease. My stable job of 20 years in the hospitality industry disappeared into thin air after the first lockdown. And the third lockdown appears to be dragging on forever.

I bumped into my barber on the street a few days ago and told him that I badly needed a haircut. He said that we should be grateful that we had so far survived the pandemic and worry less about how we look with our overgrown hair. I thought he had a point.

Even though I was able to finish writing a book last year, it still seems that I have lived a sterile life in 2020 because of the nature of the lockdowns. When my mother heard about the pandemic, she thought the end of the world was nigh. Not having seen each other for two years, she wanted me to travel to Kashmir just before the first lockdown to spend time with the family. When an Irish friend in London heard the news of the breakthrough in the search for a vaccine she wept, knowing that she would be able to travel to Ireland to see her mother again in the not too distant future. I also shed a few tears of joy when I got vaccinated a couple of weeks ago. My mother received her first jab a few days later in Kashmir and it will be possible to see her once travel restrictions are lifted.

What a humdrum existence it has been in a year without travel. How the so-called ‘road warriors’ (the industry’s wry designation of travelling businessmen) desire to be back on the road. It might be a long road to full economic recovery but the green shoots of spring can already be seen.

Some commentators are comparing this pandemic with World War II. But we shouldn’t equate the present restrictions even with a military lockdown, let alone with a period in our history when countries across the globe were ravaged and devastated on an unimaginable scale. And to call this crisis unprecedented is inaccurate. Perhaps we should have taken comfort from history, which teaches us that all previous pandemics have eventually come to an end.

The only thing that the last year has taught us is that good times don’t last forever – and neither do the bad times for that matter. Nonetheless, it has been a humbling experience for mankind in the face of nature. 2020 is the year we would like to forget but its impact will stay with us for years to come. Many people are envisioning a kinder world after their own brush with death, and in that respect their experiences will have a positive impact on our world. Let us hope that kindness is no longer regarded as a weakness.

It is the travel and hospitality industry that has been hardest hit during the pandemic. Despite many people managing to save some money by not travelling or eating out during the last year, we seem to have lived a poorer life. The old adage that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer rings very true at such a time as this. I am an inveterate traveller yet I haven’t taken a train ride out of London, let alone boarded a plane, for a year. My memories of the last ten years are inextricably coloured by the places I have visited and therefore 2020 already draws a blank.

Vision 2020 was used as an aspirational slogan by some marketing guru a few years ago to denote an economic goal for a developing country. In fact, it is difficult to be clear-sighted about the future. As Jonathan Swift understood, ‘vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.’ There are just a handful of people in our world who had seen this pandemic coming. I recently read an article by Malcom Gladwell about the Spanish Flu that was published in The New Yorker more than 20 years ago, and it comes across as completely contemporary.

We are still in the grip of the pandemic. There hasn’t been an equitable distribution of vaccines in the world. But it is impossible any more to have a contagious disease raging in a distant city like Manaus in Brazil and the rest of the world not be affected by it.

Travel and hospitality are intertwined. When we start travelling again, we will need hotels and restaurants in order to experience different cultures. Even if we travel out of our cities and towns just to go to the seaside or for a walk in the mountains, we’ll still need hotels and restaurants. A few years ago I travelled with some friends to Zanskar in the Himalayas and we pitched our tent near a mountain stream. It sounds idyllic but it was terribly cold. It was therefore wonderful to move on and enjoy the comfort and amenities of a hotel in Kargil on the way to Srinagar.

How I would love, once the Covid crisis is over, to travel again through Suru Valley to Zanskar and stay in that same hotel.

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