Pop quiz, hotshot. Place these events in the correct chronological order: Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, Harry and Meghan quit the royal family, you last took a train without worrying you’d catch the plague. Or perhaps let’s try an easier one. The container ship Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal, thus gumming up the global supply chain for six days: did that happen in 2020, or 2021? While we’re playing, how many national lockdowns have there been, and how long did each last? Are you sure about that?
There are as many ways in which the pandemic has broken things as there are people who’ve lived through it, but one of the strangest must be the way it has destroyed our sense of time. When you’re young, your year is divided up by the seasons in a picture book, or the schedule set by the academic calendar; as an adult, you navigate by where you are in relation to Christmas or an anniversary or that awful boring conference your job sends you to every March. Such things give texture to the year, punctuating time just as the school holidays or lessons about the harvest festival did when you were a kid.
But the decade so far has been deprived of all that, the pandemic flattening out time into one long, beige blur. The normal landmarks have gone, replaced by an indeterminate number of lockdowns, and whether something happened before or after Mark’s birthday matters a lot less when you haven’t seen Mark in… God, can it really be two years? It’s like travelling through a landscape where everything looks the same.
Some years have always had higher billing than others in memory and history books alike. For both national and personal reasons, I will always recall the events of 2012 a lot more strongly than I do the years either side; for obvious reasons, those who lived through them tended to remember 1914 or 1939 a lot more sharply than the years that preceded them, too.
But 2021 feels like something different, not so much in the shadow of 2020 as entirely absorbed by it, and reviewing the events of 2021 is rendered impossible because I’m not entirely convinced that 2021 has even taken place. When I tweeted something to this effect, more than one person replied with a variation of the same joke: that the date was the 671st of March 2020.
Actually, there is one crucial difference between the two years: in 2020, we still had hope. This year, after all, began with the arrival of vaccines – and while it started too with that last, longest and hardest lockdown, it seemed probable that it would end with the pandemic behind us and the best Christmas Walford has ever had. (This, at least, was the promise made by multiple supermarket ad campaigns.) The explosion of the Omicron variant in December put paid to that, and made the months when it felt like this might all be over seem like a dream. We’re all stuck in Groundhog Year.
[See also: What I got right, and what I got wrong, in 2021]
Today we are looking down the barrel of the third year of this pandemic: our relationship with Covid-19 is now long enough that older relatives are starting to drop hints about marriage. Anyone who started a degree in 2019 will have had their entire time at university tainted by it, and almost all of us will feel like we entered it in one age bracket and escaped it in another. For some people, those lost years will always be associated with missed opportunities, things they always hoped or meant to do before a certain age and now know they never will. Time will forever be divided into before and after.
We will all be picking through the psychological effects of this period and its combination of utter boredom and abject terror for a very long time to come. If there is hope, it lies in the possibility that 2021 will be forgotten not merely as an extension of the year that preceded it, but as a prelude to the one to come. Perhaps Omicron won’t be as dangerous as earlier variants: perhaps its arrival marks Covid’s shift from pandemic to endemic, something annoying and inconvenient but not ultimately ruinous. Perhaps 2022 will be the year when we go back to making memories that allow us to mark the passage of time, and invitations will no longer need to conclude, “assuming we’re allowed out!” Perhaps, if we’re very lucky, we’ll even remember it as the year when we can finally use the beautiful phrase “former prime minister Boris Johnson”.
Incidentally, Harry and Meghan quit the royal family in January 2020, the pandemic probably wrecked your chances of travelling without worrying that coming March, the Ever Given/Suez crisis was March 2021, and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this August. Oh, and there have been three national lockdowns in the United Kingdom (this sentence was correct at time of writing).
[See also: Ten crucial questions about the world in 2022]