Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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30 Jun 2020 : More like a Proper Diary Entry

Ever since March 1st I have been trying to write a more self-reflective piece on myself and COVID on the first day of the month. I must admit this does not come easy to me, a man from a fairly working class background and area. It is not what we do really, at least in my age group. The diary site for me has morphed into analytical studies of neoliberalism and COVID and I kind of miss the initial diary entries intended really for my own consumption and therapy. So here goes.

What has really changed for me is the sense of scale of the crisis and my own feeling that there is little that can be said or written that makes any difference to what is taking place. Events are not only massive but are unfolding at really frightening speed. I sense people are being pushed around or buffeted by much greater forces, whether that be pandemic measures, personal losses, loss of income, or government decisions. I just sit here and write or try to keep up with events, and feel more and more that it is just beyond comprehension and analysis. I feel very small, which I guess I am and have always been.

In various conversations with colleagues working in global health many are clearly all expecting this pandemic to be the sole area of focus of our work for many years to come. This penny has dropped for me. With no exaggeration, I expect to be working on COVID for the next 10 years. I know people in biomedicine and public health who have to, or want to, keep on their own track, whether that be maternal health or HIV. Other diseases and health needs have not gone away. I suppose I am either unlucky or lucky enough to know that I will not be able to leave the pandemic alone, it has become to central to my life and work. Like many, this involvement comes at some mental cost, I am just worn out by numbers and deaths, and I am nowhere near a front line service and have not experienced a death of anyone close. So no special pleading from me. But it is a brutalising event if you engage with it and care about global health. I feel knackered and lacking motivation more and more. I am also very stubborn, and idiots like Trump and Johnson make me angry, and being angry makes me work. But being angry is also tiring... and so it goes on.

Thinking back to February when I started my diary (on the 12th) I have been trying to honestly assess two things in recent days. The first bug bear is when I knew that the scale of events would be at the level they are presently at, and the second at what moment I knew that it would change my professional life forever. The honest answer to the first question is that, even though I knew this would be the most serious pandemic since Spanish Flu in late February, and knowing that it was certainly very dangerous international event by mid-February, each month and week has surprised me in terms of how bad things have got. The ability for this pandemic to outstrip expectations or prediction is staggering, and I have seen modellers revise their projections in a much more educated and yet still hostage to fortune fashion. I never honestly expected the levels of political incompetence and lack of care to let things get so out of control. The second honest answer is that I realised COVID would lead to major changes in my work only last week.

Much by accident, I have in the last 20 years worked on global health in terms of its politics and political economy, then stumbling into public health and more recently back to International Relations. Where IR is aloof often to the nitty gritty of everyday lives and health and social outcomes, public health is involved, albeit as what is in my opinion the straight jacket of profound methodological conservatism. And as ugly as it seems to say COVID has coalesced a lot of what I have been involved in, all by accident. It will be depressing area to commit to, but I really now feel COVID is so bound to global capitalism and neoliberalism that I will be impossible to walk away. It is all I want to do and the realisation of committing to working on one thing for a very long time has blown me away.

In other news, I am wishing that the site could have images of where we all are and where we work. It has struck me with the Zoom and Team meetings that I am now working with people in their kitchens and living rooms, so I see people at home. Even with lockdown the whole thing is weirdly intimate, getting these windows on peoples' lives you never had before. Partners or kids waving or saying hello, little temporary communities forming online, all in each others home spaces. These are actually really often really nice events, and at least you can feel part of some community, and even if the focus is inevitably on the pandemic, you still get to share and understand how it is experienced by others. And that is important I guess if you are feeling particularly small.

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