COVID-19 and the meaning of life

Updated: May 30, 2021

We are living through exceptional times. Hopefully we are emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has had far-reaching consequences for people throughout the world, including each and every one of us in and around Hillingdon, and our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours.

Looking to the future, what will we have learnt? The joy of resuming social interactions does not alter that for many who have lost loved ones the pandemic has been a time of sorrow. For more people again, lockdown measures brought economic and social hardship that has been difficult to bear. Meanwhile, others experienced surprising positives, where respite from frenetic work environments and freedom from the yoke of the commute produced greater happiness. The lockdowns also cleared time for thought. Several figures in and around Hillingdon share their changes in outlook.

A time for reflection

Paul Hullyer, Vicar of Pinner Parish Church, considers a period of disruption to church life, while in some respects also time for reflection and more contemplative relationships:

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in closed churches for the first time since the thirteenth century, and the suspension of public worship across lockdowns one and two. As Pinner Parish Church is normally open every day of the year, this was difficult for both the congregation and the local community to bear. Since re-opening, the church has reverted to a place of quiet and a space for prayer and contemplation, and has been well used. That clergy were told not to enter their churches even to pray in the first lockdown was especially difficult to bear, and many clergy ignored the ‘guidance’ given to us. To keep the daily rhythm of prayer sustained in such a time of global crisis was, for many of us, at the heart of our priestly vocation.

I hope that people have been drawn, if not to faith, then to a more contemplative attitude to the business of living, and especially our relationships with one another and with our innate ability to bridge societal gaps, or chasms, through personal interaction. The Christian faith is an incarnational one, and I do hope that society will not just automatically revert to the tendency previously shown of vicarious relationship through the constant use of social media and technology. Also, hopefully a betterment in our relationship with the planet.

Can humanity stop climate change disaster?

David Keys, a journalist and political campaigner, has worked from his Eastcote home throughout the pandemic. David reflects on a test of mankind's ability to coordinate action in response to shared challenges:

"Perhaps what has perturbed me the most are the implications for humanity's ability to deal with even greater challenges – particularly climate change. Although the pandemic led to truly heroic actions by doctors, nurses, key workers and of course scientists, the key tiny section of the population which really shapes the future (i.e. the politicians) on the whole spectacularly failed to cover themselves in glory."

"So, because dealing with climate change will need rapid and decisive political action (and because climate change is a much less immediate life-and-death issue), it is conceivable that politicians in Britain and elsewhere will perform even worse in the war against global warming than they have in the war against COVID-19. That is a very depressing prospect.

Unfortunately a substantial percentage of the public is, tragically, perhaps not sufficiently interested in our planet's future to invest in keeping themselves adequately informed. The reality is sadly therefore that politicians can underperform, often with disastrous consequences. There are times when some members of the public are not inclined to inform themselves sufficiently to stop the politicians underperforming!

That has to an extent been the case in the current pandemic, and that may well be the key factor that leads to further pandemic problems and which is quite likely to lead to climate change disaster – a potential catastrophe which may make COVID-19 look like a gentle walk in the park. Sadly, I don't think I'm being pessimistic – just realistic."

Taking responsibility

Dr Vik Shah is a dentist in Northwood Drawing on what he has observed in the pandemic, he hopes that this may serve as a wake-up call for people to look seriously at how we affect the world around us:

'Will dentistry ever be green again?’ is a question asked in the most recent British dental journal. Efforts to protect the dental care team and those who have felt it safe to attend their dental appointments produced a fantastic increase in the use of disposable PPE and other items. Twenty years of dedication to reducing waste in my profession was lost within a year.

Humans may be to blame for bringing this upon themselves. I hope that we learn from each catastrophe and the COVID-19 pandemic is no different. I hope there will be sufficient numbers amongst us who take on board that there is a possibility that we humans were responsible for the recent pandemic, and that different decisions could have averted it. Taking responsibility is how we will make the best of things. That would be a start.

Feeling overwhelmed

Jean Dent, a retired librarian living in Northwood Hills, feels fortunate to have weathered the pandemic, but shares David and Vik’s concerns regarding our ability to address global issues:

My good luck ran on through the last 16 months. Being retired I had no need to worry about furlough or redundancy. My family has remained well with no lives or jobs lost. I am able to reconsider what activities I take up again when lockdown ends, having had time to reflect on priorities.

But I do worry more now about the world. When I was young we knew only what we were told had happened, apart from local affairs. Now we know what happens in the farthest flung places we had hardly heard of years ago. Shining a spotlight on atrocities can only help stop them, so this is a good thing, but it’s hard to read about or see. The pandemic has exacerbated the differences in expectations of the world’s population. Too much information leaves me feeling resigned to being unable to change anything. What can I do about someone being shot in Hong Kong, detained illegally in Myanmar or China, or dying en masse in India?

I think the world is at the mercy of climate change. Reactions to the pandemic show how little countries can rely on each other when push comes to shove. Leaders have not always shown much sense, nor populations much inclination to do the sensible thing. But we literally are all in this together, leaders included. There is plenty of happiness and joy in the world, and there are some hugely talented people. Were I religious, I would pray. In practical terms we have to rely on ingenious people to solve the biggest problems, while for most of us we really must keep calm and carry on.

Strengthened perseverance

The pandemic turned the modern world upside down and interrupted the rhythm of life in a way not seen in living memory. Jaymin Shah is a neighbour of Jean’s who was preparing for his A-levels in spring 2020. Life seems less certain for him today than before, but he is determined to embrace the challenges in life – perhaps playing his part in addressing the concerns raised by Jean:

The uncertainty following the cancellation of A-levels made things seem impossible at the time. As a consequence of this unprecedented circumstance, I was awarded my qualifications without actually sitting an exam. Revising for autumn ‘resits’ with the pandemic ongoing was stressful but motivating. My plans to study medicine are back on track, but prior to this, my life seemed set on a clear path. I have been reminded that the future holds uncertainty that nobody can prepare for.

As many have, I have also suffered tremendous loss this past year, which has only stressed the importance of building strong, valued relationships. Importantly, the pandemic has tested my perseverance to pursue my goals in life and this strengthened drive I have acquired is something that I will carry forward after the pandemic as I go on to study at university. The realisation that challenges in life are inevitable has truly become apparent and I will endeavour to face these challenges head on.”

Making the best of it

As a society we face many challenges. Perhaps in 2020 we were ripe for new thinking and renewed motivation to address them.

The United Kingdom saw a steep decline in religious belief in the second half of the twentieth century, offset by widespread adoption of an outlook that saw the road to a progressively better world through the combination of democratic government, free-market economics and liberal society. Then we had the end of the cold war, relative calm in Northern Ireland, and an apparently stable economy. As the 1990s drew to a close there was a degree of collective confidence: whatever the future held, things would get better – and we could actually measure progress in the form of economic growth figures.

Recent times had been less confident even before COVID-19. The fleeting certainties of the 1990s were battered by high-profile terrorist events, intractable wars, financial crises, and the fracturing of UK politics over our relationship with the wider world, mirrored by similar schisms in the politics of other developed countries, including notably the United States of America.

Hopefully we are emerging from the pandemic restrictions for good. We may recover some of the old certainties, but our outlook will have changed. In this Hillingdon survey, all of our contributors have a strengthened sense of the need for us to make the best of the shared challenges we face. They are cautious about the future – especially regarding climate change – but if our contributors are representative of society as a whole, then our eyes are open to the problems ahead. Good may come when we pull together on the things that matter.