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Surviving a global pandemic

A year ago this week, I was in Havana, Cuba, training EAP teachers for the British Council. And a year ago this week, I realised that the world as I knew it was about to get very different.

The start of a good year

I woke up on 1 January 2020 on holiday in the south of France. My son, Adam, was studying in France for a year, and my husband Tom, daughter Sophie, and Sophie’s boyfriend Ben all travelled to Paris and Nice to visit him.

At that point, we knew there was some kind of virus in Wuhan, but no one could have predicted how it would spread around the world in such a short time, and how devastating it would become. We had a fantastic holiday, and we had no idea what lay ahead.

I was home in Canada for two weeks, then back in Europe later in January; I spent three weeks in the UK, mostly in my hometown in Warwickshire. I went to a couple of professional events, caught up with old friends, went shopping, and reacquainted myself with my favourite pubs and restaurants. Adam visited me; we ate in Giraffe (always his favourite as a child), and we did a walking tour of street art in London’s East End. I had a bottle of hand sanitizer in my bag, but that’s all.

I was optimistic and looking forward to a great year. Apart from my upcoming Cuba project, I had made plans to teach pre-sessional EAP at the University of Warwick – just down the road from where I grew up – for the third time. I was also looking forward to five, possibly six, conferences later in the year. It all seems a long, long time ago now.

And then the world fell apart

On Saturday 7 March, I flew to Havana. Changing planes in Houston, I found a message from a friend in England: there was a case in nearby Coventry. In Ontario, where I live, there were a couple of cases but nothing overly alarming. That was all about to change.

On Thursday 12 March, I came back to my hotel after a day of training; I was enjoying this project, and my trainees were so appreciative. That day, Tom had learned that his job was going online, and Adam had found out that his university in France was closing. Until that day, COVID-19 – as it was now called – had not had much of an impact on us as a family. Suddenly the priority became getting Adam home safely, stocking up on food and figuring out how we were going to get through this. Everything had changed in a week, but we were still talking about it being over by the summer.

I finished my training and flew back to Toronto two days later on 14 March (my birthday). This time, I flew through Newark. A few people were wearing masks, but other than that, it all looked very normal. I immediately entered two weeks of isolation. As someone with asthma, I was at increased risk; in 2016, a bout with ‘normal’ seasonal flu had put me in the ICU for a week, so my family didn’t want me to take any chances. My birthday present, a painting course, was cancelled. Adam came home three days later. Sophie’s university closed, as did Ben’s; suddenly, we had five hungry adults in the house. We still do.

In the space of three weeks, the various conferences (read: CPD/networking/marketing opportunities) that I was looking forward to all disappeared. The cancellation of the IATEFL conference in Manchester had happened on my last day in Havana. I was disappointed but also relieved. As Voices editor, I would have wanted to be there; with my respiratory issues, I would have been taking a chance. The cancellation of the Editors Canada conference in Montreal was understandable but also disappointing; I had been really looking forward to that one and had already chosen my sessions. I also thought it would be very unlikely that my plan to teach pre-sessional EAP at Warwick in the summer would come to fruition. Suddenly the rest of the year looked bleak.

I was worried – about my kids’ summer plans; about my friends all over Europe, including the UK, Italy and Spain; about the falling stock market and depletion of my retirement savings. I was also angry: this was supposed to be a great year, and now it was crumbling in front of me. I became despondent. Time passed very, very slowly; I was shocked to realise in mid-May that I had been in Cuba only two months earlier. Like many people, I wasted a lot of time at the beginning, lying around glued to the latest developments on my laptop. I didn’t want to learn a new language, clean out my cupboards or start an exercise plan, and I was irritated by things I saw online that said I should. I wanted to watch the news and sleep.

I watched the daily updates from Downing Street. I watched YouTube videos of parody songs. On the anniversary of VE Day in May, I watched Katherine Jenkins singing ‘Jerusalem’ to an empty Royal Albert Hall and the British people belting out ‘We’ll meet again’ in the street. People still hoped it would soon be over – but by this time many countries had suffered terrible loss of life.

From mid-March to mid-June, I think I left my house fewer than half a dozen times. At one point, around the beginning of June, I realised that I hadn’t driven a car in three months. I stopped blogging; there was nothing to blog about. I still had work to do, but I had no motivation to do it.

Picking up the pieces

Eventually, I faced up to the fact that I needed to make the best of this ghastly situation. My family were all healthy (our region of Canada has suffered less than many places), and we were fine financially; I didn’t want this to get the better of me psychologically. It became very clear to me that my identity is very closely connected with my work; when things looked uncertain, I started to doubt everything. Clearly, I needed to get back to work.

My goal at the beginning of 2020 had been to streamline my career to focus only on English for Academic Purposes (EAP) materials development and editing/proofreading. And that’s exactly what I did. When I look back at the past year, I realise that, from a professional perspective, it wasn’t that bad.

In terms of writing, I was absolutely thrilled to take on a new coursebook writing project with a major publisher. I can’t say too much about this yet, but this alone would have rescued my year. This has occupied much of my time since last summer. I’ve also been working on two other writing projects: a writing guide, which I hope to self-publish, and a self-study course in how to teach EAP for Language Fuel in New Zealand. I’m now looking ahead to a couple of other projects for later this year; again, no details yet, but there is writing work out there.

The other half of my business is editing. I haven’t done as much editing in the last year as I had hoped, but this is largely because I’ve been so busy writing. I finished editing my tenth and final issue of IATEFL Conference Selections last year, and I renewed my contract with IATEFL’s Voices magazine for another two years. The July/August 2020 issue of Voices featured a number of ELT professionals around the world and their resilience in dealing with the crisis – their courage and ingenuity are impressive. I was buoyed by the great feedback I got for that issue.

I also edited some interesting dissertations and journal articles. One was a piece about how Saudi Arabian teachers are coping with online education. Another was a manuscript on the topic of African American schoolchildren. This was at the exact time of the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests, and it was a real eye-opener. This is why I love copy editing.

In terms of teaching, my Warwick course was delivered online. I didn’t get to spend the summer in my hometown, but I did teach EAP. I had two absolutely delightful classes of mostly postgraduate students from Latin America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. We made it work, and while I would love to have taught them in person, it wasn’t so bad. I’m not sure what is going to happen this year, but at some point I’m sure I’ll be back at Warwick.

On a personal note, I became quite reclusive for most of the spring and summer, but I am anyway; that isn’t new. Like many people, I ordered paints and canvases online and started making art. I rearranged a few things in my house and created an art room. When things were a bit better last autumn, I took a drawing course at the local art school. Tom and I also talked a lot about downsizing to a much smaller home and living a simpler life, and we even came very close to putting a downpayment on a condo. We realised that buying and selling during a global crisis may not be the best idea, so we’ve decided to stay where we are for now and do some renos around here. We have a window company coming on Thursday to give us an estimate.

I am proud of the way my kids have handled this. Both have been studying online for a year, and they are thoroughly tired of it. They’re both resourceful, and both made the most of last summer when jobs were scarce. Adam has been volunteering at the local art gallery since he was 14, and last summer he was hired to develop online programming for children. Sophie did two marketing/social media internships, both online, and got university credit for them as well as great experience. Both are graduating this year, and sadly, there will be no in-person graduation ceremony. It isn’t as much fun to graduate on Zoom, but they made it.

And finally…

A year later, there are signs of hope. If the government of Ontario is to be believed, everyone in the province will have had their first dose of vaccine by the end of June. I hope my kids will be able to start their post-graduate programs in September in person. I am allowing myself to think about a UK trip in January and a holiday later in 2022.

The world changed last March, and the misery continues. No one expected it to last this long. As I write this, well over 2 million people around the world have lost their lives. For many families, life will never be the same again. I am aware that I have come out of the last year lightly: no one in my family got sick, I kept my business going, and I ended up having a good work year. The fact that I’m tired of Zoom is really nothing.

But I can’t wait for it to be over.


Tania Pattison is an editor and proofreader specialising in English language teaching, education and related subjects. When not editing, she is an EAP textbook writer, curriculum designer and occasional university/college teacher.

Photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay


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