RETURNING to the office during covid19

This week I’ve had to commute into the city a couple of days to prepare our office and laboratory space for the return of staff and students. As I waited for the train at 9:45am, deliberately avoiding the usual pre-covid peak hours, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. As the train pulled up and the whoosh of cold air crossed my face I was glad it was winter as the face mask I was wearing was keeping my face warm. I took note of the number of people recommended for my carriage, checked for the area with the least people, found the recommended green stickered spot to sit and began the trip…

I live only a couple of stops from the end of a line. That means that on my commute in to work it’s never hard to find a seat, even before covid, but when I leave work it’s another story. On this day, there was only a peppering of people across the seats as we left our station. As we got closer and closer to the city, stopping at the usually busier stations more and more people got on. They did their best to spread out for the most part but it wasn’t long before we were well over our “capacity” and the number of available “safe” seats were gone and we were sitting next to each other. I kept thinking, how is the government going to police this? How will they decide who does and doesn’t have the right to be on the train today? Is it first in first served, in which case I’ll always win the trip into work because I live at the start of a line. Or is it your job is more important than my job? I figured this is a problem they will find a “solution” for another day, but today I was going to sit on my busy train and head to work to make my workplace safer for us.

Finally getting to work, I got started on preparing everything; putting up signs to remind people about distancing; restocking hand sanitiser, soaps, wipes; disinfecting all our shared surfaces in the lab and shared computers; measuring out the rooms and deciding on our workable and safe capacity for each room. For now we are being incredibly conservative with how many people we want to have in each space. The room may fit 11 people according to the 4m2 rule, but then you add all the desks and shelving and the workable 4m2 for each person shrinks down, and then add the 1.5m rule between each person, and taking into account how the space will likely be used (i.e. people don’t tend to sit in one place whilst working in the lab) we came up with a conservative number of 5 people at a time, to encourage our lab members to be safe. That’s what it is, encouragement. I can’t actually stop people from not doing the right thing, I just have to hope they will do the right thing and potentially feel some pressure to comply as we are a small research group.

At the end of the day, with all the posters hung up, the areas clean and smelling of ethanol, my hands purified to a saintly standard, I was ready to go home. I spoke with my supervisor who knows I have MS and they asked “are you comfortable with the setup and the precautions we have in place?” My answer was instant, “yes, I feel our office and lab are safe places to be, but its the commute I worry about.” We spoke briefly about my experience coming in that morning, and decided that for now we will encourage our lab members to remain working from home but our office and lab spaces will be available to any of our students or staff who want to come in to use them, and that we will keep monitoring and updating as we get more information.

That seems to be what the last 3 months have mostly been; monitoring and updating. No real end date, some guidelines but others that keep changing, a lot of things up in the air. I have been fine with this I guess because I’ve already learnt to be fine with uncertainty as that’s life with MS. Each day I don’t know if I’m going to have a relapse, if my symptoms are going to stop me from doing something, or if nothing will happen. I start each day assuming it’s going to be a good day. Why not, right? I could start it assuming something bad will happen, but then all day I’m expecting something negative. If I focus on it feeling like a good day it inevitably becomes a good day and the uncertainty drops away; it’s still there, I still can’t predict what will happen, but I’m not consumed by it. Instead, I am able to focus on my work, connect with my family, and enjoy the little things.

I’m lucky my job and my supervisor are so understanding and flexible. For some people it’s not like that at all. They have to continue to put themselves at risk hoping that everyone else will do the right thing. I noticed the increased stress among the passengers on public transport, all wondering if someone else is doing the right thing. It culminated in a man screaming at me to get off the bus when I got on as it was over the guidelines of 12 passengers. The bus driver came to my defence as the guidelines aren’t policed but instead I think a reminder that if you don’t need to travel then don’t; but the aggression and fear was real. I’m going to continue to do the best I can; I’ll only travel as necessary, I’ll wear a mask, and I will focus on the positives of helping each other and enjoying every aspect of my life that I can in the face of this pandemic and my MS.

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