2020 – when masks hid our smile

The abiding memory of 2020 will be masks. Masks everywhere. Masks that help stop the spread of the virus but which also stop us from showing one of our best emotions – contentment, happiness, humour.

If you asked me what I first saw in Tai (all those years ago!) it was her smile. She has a smile that lights up any room that she is in. Now it hides behind a mask and we are all poorer for that.

In 2020, unless in private, that smile has gone – hidden behind a highwayman cloth that has robbed us of connections and responses that can say so much without ever saying a word.

But it is also the wider connections that we have lost. We stay connected to our home and family environment – that awful word ‘bubble’ keeps re-appearing. But any distant relationships are now online connections, virtual relationships.

I have not seen my son, Alex, for 18 months. And while we can talk online it will never replace the simple sense of wellbeing that you get from being in the same room, simply passing the time with the people that you love.

Back in January 2020 Tai and I flew into England for a family visit. We stopped in lovely, cold, blue-sky London, had a night in Bath and then a week with family in Hope Cove, South Devon.

Hope Cove has always been a part of our family. It is where my mother’s parents are buried; it where my parents did most of their courting and it is where as a family we went for a holiday every year through the 1960s. That was quite an adventure in those days.

The old Cottage Hotel is larger; and still more like a care home; there are more holiday residences. But the scenery is as stunning as it always was. Shippen House where mother used to stay with her parents is still intact and is now a holiday let and that is where we stayed – taking mother there just after her 87th birthday. She will not remember what she did ten minutes ago or who with. But the layout of Shippen House came back to her like it was yesterday that she lived there not some 65 years before.

The weather was glorious; sunny, cold and stormy. The wine was plentiful. We walked, talked and ate. Tai loves it there as well and that makes me happy.

The Wuhan virus still seemed a very long way away.

By early March the virus had taken hold in Italy – there were awful scenes from cities and hospitals in the north. The virus was out in the community. With borders still open across Europe – with no checks on arriving visitors – the spread was inevitable.

Thailand reported the first case outside of China – but, and credit where due, the government was quick to close the Thai borders. Sports events were among those cancelled and postponed. The Thai football league, just four games into the new season, shut down in March. It would not restart until September – and as I write this the League has just played its most recent games behind closed doors.

Our visit to Ranong in March went ahead – but that was going to be the last travel for months.

From my AOB on 11 March

“As coronavirus spreads around the globe, the economic ramifications are only just beginning. The longer it takes, the more aggressive the measures by governments will become and that drags on the economy and risks a meltdown.

If you think that it is bad now….just wait….”

Little did I know…..

By 31 March I was even gloomier:

“My summary to a friend of where we are right now:

It does feel rather like being in a rowing boat, without oars, in the middle of the ocean with a storm approaching and with no idea where land might be. So we are just have to ride out the storm and will see what it all looks like when the storm passes.

It is the pace and sheer scale of change that is boggling. Could anyone have imagined on 1 January that by the end of March schools will be closed, almost all public gatherings will be cancelled, hundreds of millions of people around the world will be out of work, governments will be throwing together some of the largest economic stimulus packages in history, no 2020 Olympics, no 2020 Expo, professional sport on hold; facemasks almost a part of our daily dress, social distancing and self-isolation would be expressions known around the world; and our medical staff around the world would be standing at the front of a fight against a pandemic alongside cleaners, supermarket staff and refuse collectors.”

And at the end of the year that is still pretty well where we are…some 90 million people have been infected – including 1 in every 17 Americans. The numbers of infected, hospitalised and dead are alarming. Yet there are still plenty in denial. The tough call is between protecting the health of the people and the economic well-being of the people. It seems near impossible to have both. Some nations went into full lockdown. Others, like Sweden, tried to continue largely as normal under the assumption that the country’s own citizens would take a collective responsibility. That, in the end did not work. Society seems to so often revert to the lowest possible denominator.

Thailand went into an early lockdown – travel even between provinces was near impossible without quarantine. Some villages cut themselves off completely.

Tai went back to Bangkok on April 11th summonsed into work. There were now just two flights a day from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. It used to be over 60 a day. At that stage Tai was working just two weeks a month with two weeks at home in Chiang Mai.

By mid April the impact on Chiang Mai was beginning to bite hard: the city was mostly shut down with no more than a handful of visitors. With only essential stores and service allowed to open it was a surprise that a number of smaller stores and street vendors were still trying to keep going – who knew that wickerwork baskets were essential items? Shops and restaurants were takeaway only; bars were closed. No alcohol could be sold anywhere for ten days. It was a very different Songkran (Thai New Year).

We were not traveling. For businesses dependent upon tourism, such as Chai Lai Orchid in Mae Wang, this was catastrophic. People tried to help. Businesses muddled through.

By May the Chiang Mai smog had mostly cleared – but there were times in February and March when it was especially unpleasant. We could travel between provinces again. It felt like a major adventure simply to go to Chiang Dao for a night.

And eventually it did start to rain – around the end of May. Much needed. The countryside had turned shades of burned brown.

Tai was now working full time in Bangkok. I started to explore a little more – in part to see just how badly hit was Thailand’s tourism dependent economy and by September to follow my football team at away games.

Mae Hong Son was as attractive as ever but basically closed. Its daily flights from Bangkok and Chiang Mai had ceased to operate. For some months its provincial borders were closed. Thailand’s remotest province was cut off.

Pai was a shadow of its former self. Restaurants and bars closed. The night market was now just a few optimistic stalls. In many ways it was all very attractive – until you understood the economic hardship that came with it.

At the Centara in Hua Hin there were weekend guests as hotels sort to reinvent themselves as Thai rather than international destinations. The protective gloves at the breakfast buffet were a clear sign of how much had changed. But we still basically had the beach to ourselves.

We went to Phuket for three nights. The Slate had re-opened in August and it is a stunning resort on the west side of the island just south of the airport. There were as few as four rooms occupied.

We had a car for a day and drove south down the west coast beaches. Patong was closed, shuttered. The rain did not help. It was more ghost down than the throbbing tourist hub of its recent past.

Phrae was charming; Sukhothai had also reinvented itself for a Loy Krathong festival for Thai visitors; with barely a foreigner in site.

A return to Ayutthaya – there were few visitors even at the weekend. The tour guide in his van told me he had not had a customer since 8am – it was already after 3pm. He also became the reason why taking a tour guide can make a trip so much more enjoyable. I saw sights and temples that I had not seen before and would never have found without him. He was polite and in no hurry at all.

Little gestures of kindness between people have been one of the highlights of this year – we do need eachother and kindness and decency cost so little and provide rewards that are so much greater.

Another visit to Ranong was less enjoyable – a combination of dismal weather and local vandalism. But across the Thai peninsular Surat Thani and Khanom beach were different and enjoyable – and at over 1,500 kms from Chiang Mai this felt like a real trip. Uthai Thani was another province that does not get the attention that is kind people and attractive city deserve.

There were two more away trips with Chiang Mai FC – to Lampang and Udon Thani. Both saw us defeated. But both trips were worthwhile. Lampang is always interesting to explore – especially the old town by the river and the continuing ceramics industries around the town.

I had not been to Udon Thani for 14 years since Asia Pacific Resources days. It feels like a town that has suffered through this pandemic; but with glimmers of optimism and a hardy resilience.

Tai has mostly prospered in Bangkok. The new Kimpton Mai Lai delayed its hotel opening but did open most of its food and beverage outlets. It has done so hugely successfully; in part maybe due to its Lumphini Park location and in part due to the quality and consistency across the range of outlets.

The 6am daily starts cannot be easy but there is a camaraderie in the team there – and Tai’s experience with Emirates and her language skills are a real asset.

Later today, while I am sleeping, at 11pm UK time the Brexit transition period ends and the UK finally – four and 1/2 years after the EU referendum – leaves the European Union. It is a monumental act of national economic self harm. Watching from a distance you cannot help but think that the nation has been hijacked.

Globally China has used the smokescreen created by the pandemic confronting the rest of the world to wipe out any residual concept of one country, two systems in Hong Kong. Any opposition or dissent has been silenced by the draconian Beijing enforced National Security Law. 2020 will be the first year that I have not visited Hong Kong since moving there in 1994. It has been an important part of my life.

Across the middle east the issues that existed at 31 December 2019 and still basically unresolved now. Iran. And the broken GCC. Saudi Arabia talks reform while arresting those who try to lead change.

Ben Phillips, the author of How to Fight Inequality, wrote a short article for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He noted that 2020 was cruellest to those who already had the least. 2020 has been most generous to those who already had the most.

As COVID-19 spread he noted that it became clear that having a low income, being an essential worker or being a member of a marginalised racial minority are “co-morbidities” – factors which make people more likely to die.

Then the pandemic created a hunger crisis, leaving hundreds of millions of already struggling people without the earnings to feed their families.

It created an educational crisis, too. United Nations children’s agency UNICEF found that a third of the world’s schoolchildren – 463 million children globally – had had “no such thing as remote learning” when COVID-19 shuttered their schools.

Soon after discovering viable vaccines exist, we learned that rich countries had pre-booked almost all the initial supply and that outdated rules on “intellectual property” could prevent the mass simultaneous production of vaccines for all in 2021.

We were ill-prepared. Too many countries were poorly-led. Starting with the USA where Donald Trump has been an indelible stain on the Presidency.

But as we end 2020 there is some positive news as we start the new year.

Trump will be gone. Joe Biden becomes President of the USA on 20 January.

There are vaccines out there that work.

There are conscious social movements that can make a difference – from essential workers organising for health and safety and better pay, to the growing international movements for Climate Justice, Black Lives Matter, and the People’s Vaccine.

In Thailand young people are now making themselves heard – demanding a more equitable society and debating previously taboo subjects.

Maybe one of the lessons of 2020 is how to make the world a better place for future generations. Less greed and more care. It sounds like an optimist’s utopia; but after 2020 we need to believe that we can do better.

So as we enter 2021 – just maybe this can be a year of both Hope and Achievement.

Take care, everyone, and take care of eachother.

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