Comfort and Coronavirus

The internet has been filled with blog posts reminding us of the importance of self-care during the Covid-19 crisis. But what does comfort actually mean, both historically and today? Ruth Barton, one of our PhD students, explores.

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What does “comfort” mean to you? A cup of tea? A cuddle? Or something more complicated? (Image: Annie Spratt, Unsplash.)

At the time of writing, it has been just over eleven weeks since I began my PhD at the University of Northampton and nine since the start of the lockdown measures which saw severe restrictions placed upon pretty much every aspect of our lives. For the first couple of weeks I was in a constant state of fear and panic (from both the PhD and the pandemic if I am completely honest) but once I realised that this was not sustainable or healthy I started to think about what, if anything, I could take comfort from during these uncertain times (It also ties rather nicely in with my PhD project which is looking at eighteenth and nineteenth century elite comfort).

For me initially the most important thing was that the people I care about were safe. My elderly father had already, at the start of March, made the decision to self-isolate by ending his weekly trips to the supermarket and his jazz club, and the daily visits which my brother and I have both made to him for the last eleven years soon morphed into an evening Skype call, and our Sunday morning chats over coffee, cherished by all three of us, replaced by a group video call. So, even before lockdown I was comforted to a certain extent by the fact that my close family were safe, and we had done as much as we could to make sure that it continued that way.

I was also safe in the knowledge that measures had been put in place which meant that both my team at work and I were able to work from home. Whilst this can create its own problems, we have all adapted well and are managing our workloads despite the drastic change in our working practices. Again, knowing that the people I care about (I consider them my work family) and responsible for were safe at home was a huge relief.

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In the eighteenth century, the family unit was pivotal in providing comfort. (Image: Adriaan De Lelie, Jan van Loon and His Family, 1786
Amsterdam: Museum van Loon.) 

This, in the early days, was enough. But prolonged physical separation from the people I care about affords little comfort, no matter how many times I try to convince myself that a video call to my Dad is just as good as seeing him in person or that a quick group chat with my team is an adequate replacement for the daily interaction that we would normally enjoy. In my master’s dissertation on elite family emotions that I completed last year, I argued that the family unit was pivotal in providing emotional comfort, that the physical proximity of family and kin was a source of both comfort and contentment. This, I believe, remains relevant yet at a time when it is sorely needed, it is cruelly denied to so many of us.

So, in what else could I find potential comfort? In early March, naively, I pinned my hopes on the scientific advisors to the Government. But as the weeks turned into months and the number of deaths increased exponentially, this vague hope turned into a numb feeling of disbelief and growing despair.

And so, I wondered, what do others find comfort in? Could those same things help me? However, the more I searched the less comforted I became:

  • the weekly ‘clap for carers’ which started out as a thank you to key workers, increasingly felt almost like tacit approval of failed Government policy.
  • the focus on fundraising efforts in aid of the NHS only highlighted to me the desperate state that our inadequately funded health service must be in if it was required to rely on the exertions of an elderly war veteran to raise much needed funds.
  • the jingoistic, flag-waving ‘celebrations’ of VE Day and the subsequent public displays of dancing and singing did nothing to assuage my feelings of unease.
  • the Queen, who was described on Twitter by the comedian Adil Ray as ‘a remarkable person’ who ‘genuinely shows leadership and provides comfort in the most challenging of times’, I must confess, has thus far failed to provide me with any solace.

Despite all this, I do appreciate how incredibly lucky I am and I certainly do not take this for granted, so I try to look to the little things for comfort and when I have the occasional wobble they often help.

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The comfort of listening to music. (Image: Elice Moore, Unsplash.)

I take pleasure from a new daily routine that allows me to have music playing all day whilst I work, that now no longer involves a tedious drive to and from the office and which means I can wave to my neighbours throughout the day when I see them out of my window. Lockdown has also given me the opportunity, which I have never had, to spend a lot more time with my partner. Pre-pandemic, during  the week I left the house at 6.30am and usually arrived home 12 hours later, now we have breakfast, lunch and dinner together which is something in our 27 years together we have rarely been able to do other than at weekends and during holidays (and it is also rather lovely to discover that he does still enjoy my company after all these years).

And as we take these first tentative (and yes, scary) steps out of lockdown I will hold onto these small pleasures and I hope that I will continue to gain comfort from them as and when life slowly regains some semblance of normality.

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