When Richard Maughan contemplates weeks more trapped in his home because of a rise in coronavirus cases in Leicester, he thinks of his childhood in County Mayo, Ireland, and going exactly where he pleased. “Mixing, and mingling, and roaming the fields,” he says with a laugh. “But in these strange times, you keep yourself to yourself. I can’t have contact with anybody.”
Maughan, 40, is shielding because he suffers from leukaemia, as well as severe depression and anxiety. He has been totally alone for months, living with insomnia, without work, and just the lifeline delivery of food parcels from a local support network, Project Hope, to keep him going. He has been unable to see his children, or his partner, who is self-isolating too. “It’s not the same on the phone,” he says. “I feel as if I’m living in the shadows.”
He has too little money, and too much time. He tries to keep himself busy, tending to his indoor plants, “doing all the cleaning I possibly can, even though it doesn’t need doing,” speaking to his sister in Ireland, and trying not to spend more time than he can bear lingering on the news. When he has a panic attack – many times a day when things are bad, and they are bad now – his impulse is to burst out of the front door. “But you can’t go out. Your palms are sweating. You put your head out of your window, gasping for air. And that’s all you can do.”
The best way to keep going is to stay focused on what’s right in front of him. “What little hair I’ve got left, I would be pulling it out if I thought about tomorrow,” he says. “I take it minute by minute. That question – what are we doing tomorrow? What are we doing the next day? That is a tough question for me.”
If Leicester does have to lockdown for longer, it may have company: Covid-19 cases are rising in 36 cities and counties across England.
But for now, and to the dismay of local leaders who are furious at a lack of communication from central government, it may be facing the possibility of further restrictions alone.
Hundreds of vulnerable individuals have already received letters asking them to extend their time shielding. At Project Hope, which is supporting Maughan and many others with food parcels and whatever else they can, the prospect of more restrictions is frightening. “We’ve seen how much people are suffering already,” said Naeem Brisco, the local entrepreneur who founded the group with his wife Aisha. “It’s health but it’s also losing work, getting groceries, the sense this community is suffering in particular – people are literally worried about survival.”
Rukhsana Hussain, a coordinator with the group, fears the inevitable uncertainty will make it all the harder. “It’s just such disheartening news. People have been building up hope – and now they’re wondering: will we ever get back to normal? And what does that look like? Is there even going to be a normal to go back to?”
Leicester’s residents could be forgiven for wondering ‘Why us?’ There is no one answer. But Mezmin Malida, another coordinator with Project Hope, suggests that the city’s demographics make it vulnerable, with a large number of residents for whom English is not a first language, families nearby they are desperate to see, and limited access to public information. The advice that might seem inescapable in Westminster is anything but in North Evington, the city ward most severely affected so far.
“There are so many people we’re helping who I have to update on advice,” Malida says. “Things that are easy to stick to in some places are hard in others. How many households have cars? People haven’t got a big garden. I go every single day and speak to people who haven’t got TV, they can’t afford a licence.”
“I’ve not once seen information distributed in a foreign language,” says Brisco. “When it’s taxes, there’s always information in different languages. Those people have been failed.”
On North Evington’s Green Lane Road on Monday, shoppers queue diligently at 2-metre intervals – but most people sense a retreat.
“People have gone home because they’re afraid,” says Mandeep, waiting outside the bank. “I’m going straight home after this. But I don’t know whether they will stay there when they see the rest of the country celebrating, drinking, doing what they like.”
“It just feels like square one,” says florist Tara Patel, who has reckoned with a grim ledger of losing wedding work and gaining funerals. “We are scraping through. If we have to do it we will do it. But when you see people going to beaches, yes you are frustrated. The priority now is to keep life going.”
For Maughan, too, footage of beachgoers and football fans has been a painful reminder that we are only all in this together up to a point. His hope for the weeks ahead is that the public, in Leicester and beyond, remember “people like me, all over the country, who don’t get to do those things, who are counting on everybody else”.