Generation Covid: Helmsdale
“I thought: ‘This is the Highlands, it’s so rural and we have such a low population, we won’t get it here.’ But now everyone’s got it.” THE FACE visits the far north of Scotland, to investigate the pandemic’s impact in Britain’s remotest corners.
On Saturday 26th February 2022, THE FACE hit the streets in four corners of the UK to talk to 14 – 23 year olds about how their lives have been impacted by the pandemic. Covering all the home nations – Sheffield in England, Belfast in Northern Ireland, Merthyr Tydfil in Wales and Helmsdale in Scotland – each report reveals a different facet of the challenges presented by Covid. Accompanied by a national survey of more than 300 people, these stories mark two years since the UK first went into lockdown on 23rd March 2020. And as you’ll find out, a lot has changed for the UK’s young people in that time.
Helmsdale, in East Sutherland, the Scottish Highlands, is about as far north as you can get in mainland Britain; keep driving for just over an hour and you’ll reach John o’ Groats.
Sitting right on the edge of the North Sea, the community has a population of under 1,000 people, its claim to fame an annual Highland Games and accompanying formal dance which see the village’s population double for its duration.
It’s also home to the Timespan art gallery and cultural centre where, multiple times a week, children and teenagers from the surrounding area meet as part of the venue’s youth club programmes. This Saturday afternoon, 16-year-olds Emily and Natalia are among attendees who have recently returned to in-person meetings after almost two years spent “participating” in the youth club only via Zoom.
Masks are kept on as they talk, but normality is returning to Helmsdale – at least a little.
“It doesn’t feel quite normal. There’s not as much freedom and you have to remember your mask all the time,” says Emily. “But I guess that’s just how we live now. You’ve kind of got to put up with it.”
The girls share this sense of shrugging resignation about the “new normal”. Bits of it are annoying, sure, but they’re taking Covid seriously and will keep following the rules to avoid catching it (again).
“When I had Covid, I had to stay in my room for 14 days because my mum is vulnerable,” says Natalia. “Me and my brother just got food brought to us and we only left to shower and go to the bathroom. It was really weird when we got out. Just being outside and walking around the village felt so weird.”
Emily has had Covid, too, with her family having to isolate three separate times. In fact, the girls reckon, this is the norm for teenagers across the area. In that sense, at least, their experience of the pandemic in one of Britain’s remotest corners wasn’t that different from anywhere else.
“At the start I thought: ‘This is the Highlands, it’s so rural and we have such a low population, we won’t get it here,’” remembers Natalia. “But now everyone’s got it and most people have had it.”
At first, lockdown had its own thrill. Teenagers were staying up until 2am on school nights, messing around and chatting online, although Emily and Natalia were also driven and optimistic about temporary homeschooling.
But as the temporary became more permanent, both girls wound up completing school work from their beds and struggling to motivate themselves. Emily is now in fourth year and Natalia in fifth, the equivalent of Years 11 and 12 in England, and both have exams coming up. Even aside from having had one-eighth of their lifespans put on hold, losing so much in-person schooling over the last two years has been a major blow. And being from the sparsely populated Highlands means attending a school with a huge catchment area that takes in pupils from many miles around.
“School is where I see my friends [from other villages],” Natalia says. “So I just didn’t really get to see anyone. It was really lonely and I lost a lot of motivation.”
Lockdown in the Highlands did have its perks, though. The vast countryside meant walking for miles without bumping into anyone else, and without having to repeat the same routes day after day through busy city streets. But overall, say Emily and Natalia, it was even more isolating.
“There’s not much to do outdoors here,” admits Emily, indignant despite being used to it. “There aren’t really communal places to meet, apart from a kids’ play park that’s really broken down.” Natalia points out of the window to a bridge over a river that she and her friends hung out under, on the few occasions they could meet, amidst broken glass and litter.
At the same time, the issue of rule adherence caused rifts among peers and between generations, say the girls. They feel their age group was unfairly targeted by older people characterising them all as careless rulebreakers.
“They just saw one person not following the rules and stuck it to our whole age group,” remembers Natalia, shaking her head. In fact, say both girls, they were just as angry seeing their fellow teenagers going to parties and posting pictures on social media.
“It was like our own version of those people having parties in Downing Street,” points out Emily. “We had to make sacrifices, but they felt like they were allowed to just do whatever they wanted.”
The pandemic experience has changed them, they think.
“I feel like I’m a more shy person now,” admits Natalia. “If I’m in a large group of people, I’ll be more anxious because I’m not used to it.” She values her friends more though, their time apart having made her realise how much she missed the small things, like “hanging out, doing nothing, just chatting absolute rubbish”. When they did finally reunite at school, it was just like before, but with added appreciation for their friendship.
Emily had never considered herself a big “people person”, but lockdown taught her that she does like socialising and mixing with other people. Only in the absence of doing so did she realise what she was missing.
“Before, when I was consistently in school, I’d get so fed up being around people. But then not getting to be around others, and finding that tough… it really changed my viewpoint on it.”
On the day the girls meet at the youth club, Scotland is a few days away from relaxing its rules on masks and social distancing. As with most pandemic-era legislation, Nicola Sturgeon’s Holyrood government has been firmer and more cautious than Westminster. But the rule changes have been big topics of conversation for the girls and their friends, who think things might be moving too fast.
“I get it’s bad for the economy and people need to get back to work and do things more normally again,” acknowledges Emily. “But if you push the rules out too quickly, people are all just going to get Covid again.”
Neither girl is pleased about masks being made optional in classrooms. While Natalia misses smiling at people, she still feels anxious when she sees someone without a mask. Not everyone shares their view, though.
“When we were talking about it in class, lots of people were really excited about the fact they wouldn’t have to wear a mask,” says Emily. She will keep wearing one, and she thinks others might judge her for it. But she doesn’t really care that much because she’d rather keep herself and others safe.
Anyway, the girls say, they’ve come to quite like wearing their face masks. “They’re just another accessory,” shrugs Emily. At the youth club they’ve been using fabric pens to design their own. Emily’s is “kind of creepy,” with a smile on one side and words like “boop” and “hahaha” on the other.
And there’s another reason she thinks masks are convenient: “I’ve got quite bad anxiety and my mouth twitches sometimes, which is really annoying and it looks really weird. It’s quite awkward because people will just be like ‘why’s your face doing that?’, so not having to think about that is nice.”
And on “bad skin days,” both girls agree, face masks are a saviour.
Natalia and Emily are talking in the youth club’s workshop space, where the walls are adorned with posters and paintings on various topics and causes. Climate change features heavily, and it’s on the girls’ minds, too, as they contemplate their status as “the Covid generation”.
“Obviously the pandemic needs to be worked on, but in a sense climate change is kind of bigger,” Emily points out. “For the pandemic, we can make a vaccine and we will get through it at some point. But climate change has been hundreds and hundreds of years in the making, and if we don’t do something about it, the consequences will be quite a bit more dramatic.”
In her view, more than Covid-19 , it’s this issue which has politicised her generation and which identifies them best. “Even before the pandemic, people I talked to were acting like, when they’re older they’re going to vote, they’re going to care and they’re going to make sure things change.”
Before they get to voting, though, there’s a more immediate legacy to consider, and one which looks uncertain in the pandemic’s aftermath.
“I just think the whole thing was very stressful for people and that’s going to have an effect on our futures,” reflects Emily. Robbed of two years’ socialisation and exploration – be it emotional, geographical, philosophical, the works – she doesn’t feel she has grown or learned as much as she needed to.
So, going on to college or university will be a big shock, both girls think, one far greater than leaving their small, rural community to make their way in the world. Natalia is particularly worried about exams, having only ever sat hers under compromised lockdown conditions.
“It doesn’t feel like I’ve done any exams,” she says with a sigh. “I can’t comprehend that I’ve achieved any grades. I think that’s going to be really difficult.”
Overall, a pandemic coming at such a formative time in their lives has left them in some form of arrested development. A limbo, a rut, stasis, inertia – whatever we might call it, it only means one thing: a generation, stuck. And even now that they are, finally, moving again, who knows how two years spent trapped will affect their future? Not Emily and Natalia.
“It doesn’t feel like we’ve aged much, or at all really,” Emily says. “There’s no new memories made because we’ve just been inside a lot. There’s not been anything in that time. It’s just a gap.”
Both girls were 14 at the outset of the pandemic. Now, with Natalia in her penultimate year at school and Emily in the one below, how do they feel?
“I still just feel like I’m 14,” says Natalia. “I’m going into S6, my final year of school. It does not feel like that whatsoever.”