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Life during COVID has me wondering about the future of my fractured country

Commentary: The UK seems unable to decide what kind of country it wants to be.

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This past week marked an anniversary in the UK that we've hardly been celebrating. It's been exactly one year since the country first entered lockdown.

Of course, my country isn't the only one to endure COVID-19 restrictions. Talking daily with my colleagues in the US, I've discovered many shared experiences and similarities in what it's felt like to ride out this pandemic bundled away in our homes over the past 12 months. But there are differences too -- things that are unique to living through lockdown here. 

In the UK, COVID-19 arrived in an already momentous post-Brexit landscape. The pandemic was a late, unwelcome guest to a party that had already dissolved into chaos and fighting. People and businesses alike are trying to find their feet in a new world outside of Europe (the UK officially left the EU on Dec. 31), but the country's national identity has been in flux since the 2016 Brexit referendum. COVID has hardly served to unite us in the face of this uncertain future.

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Rainbows were displayed in windows across the country.

ChrisHepburn/Getty

The only thing we can agree on is that we all love our National Health Service, the NHS. Children put paintings of rainbows in their windows to thank health care workers, which is cheering. But beyond that, we can't even agree how to show appreciation for them. Some people stand on their doorsteps and clap, but others say this is an empty gesture, lacking in meaningful material support at a time NHS staff have been stretched to the breaking point. There have been more than 126,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the UK, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource center.

There's little consensus to be found anywhere, not on the big issues, nor on the small. The friction between leaders, between north and south and even among neighbors, friends and families is palpable at all times. Looming ever larger is the question of whether the UK can stay together as one unit, or whether parts of the country should make a break for independence as they've been threatening to do for years. It's a debate I've inadvertently found myself caught up in, as the circumstances and rules that affect my life have diverged from those of my closest friends and family.

Daily life in lockdown

The change in day-to-day life in the UK over the past year has been dictated largely by individual circumstances and where exactly in the country you live. My partner and I moved to Edinburgh from London at the end of January 2020, a life decision made before the pandemic hit. It goes without saying we didn't get much of a chance to make friends and feel out the social scene of our new home.

Edinburgh landscape

Edinburgh is home now.

Katie Collins/CNET

Right now my life is slow. I leave the house to walk, run or fetch groceries or takeaway coffee from a service hatch, but that's about the extent of what I'm allowed to do. Winter was immensely dark and drawn out, bitterly cold at times, and the sun sometimes went days without breaking though gray skies -- it doesn't help when it sets at 3.30 p.m. Thankfully we are past the worst of it. The sea of pink blossoms in Edinburgh's meadows is beginning to bloom. 

It hasn't all been like this. Last summer, we took trips across Scotland to admire its wild scenery and sat out in Edinburgh's plaza-like Grassmarket drinking beer in the evenings, which at peak season don't get dark until just before 10 p.m. Our parents and friends visited from England. We could have dined inside at restaurants if we'd wanted to, but we chose not to. It was a freedom of a sort.

But in late October as COVID-19 case numbers began to rise again, a tiers system was introduced in Scotland -- different from a similar but not identical one in England -- that inflicted escalating levels of restrictions in different regions, depending on local infection rates. Most difficult for us, we were told not to leave the city. We waited on weekly updates for the news that we could drive into the hills for some fresh air or see someone we cared about. It was news that never came. Five months later, we still haven't been allowed to leave Edinburgh.

The resulting cycle of getting my hopes up and quickly having them dashed was much harder to deal with emotionally than simply being in an ongoing state of lockdown with no expectations of an end.

More bad news came on the Saturday before Christmas, a holiday we'd long been reassured would go ahead. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British people to change our plans. Christmas, a bright spot in a long, dark winter, was canceled. Top-tier restrictions were reimposed on Dec. 26, and the New Year kicked off with a return to full lockdown due to the emergence of a new British strain, earning the UK the nickname "plague island."

The stay-at-home order is still in place in Scotland for now, but spring is bringing shifts here and there that promise a summer of greater freedoms. Schools are open in person, and in Scotland, two adults from one household are allowed to meet with two adults from another household in an outdoor public space in their local area (oh, the possibilities!).

I expect it to be at least another month until we can leave the city again. Edinburgh is home now, and I wouldn't change that for anything, but it's not where our people are. I'm looking forward most to the time I'm able to drive two hours south into England to play with my nephew on the beach, having watched him transform from baby to toddler through a screen.

The cracks in the UK begin to show

Travel restrictions between Scotland and England have been one of the strangest and wooliest restrictions to emerge during the pandemic.

Among the pre-Christmas bombshell announcements was that the "border" between Scotland and England would be "closed." In reality, this means nothing, because there is no border. There are simply signposts on otherwise unremarkable stretches of road, much like crossing between US states. There have been few reports of vehicles being stopped and turned back, just a vague threat that there would be more police around than usual. Trains have still been running, planes still flying.

But even without checkpoints, the fractures in the UK's geography and its psyche have become ever more pronounced as the pandemic has drawn on. The devolved nations -- Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland -- have largely trodden their own path through the crisis, in some cases strengthening their ongoing bids for independence. Though Scotland voted no in a 2014 referendum on declaring independence from the UK, the later Brexit referendum (in which Scotland voted to stay in the EU) helped raise proposals for another one. COVID has done more of the same.

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Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leads pro-independence party, the SNP.

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A regional approach to political decision-making makes sense in theory -- it means that not all of the UK is unduly punished for a local outbreak. In reality, it's been an often jarring experience to see others flaunting their freedoms while your own are curtailed. The minutiae of who's allowed to do what, when, is hard to keep track of and easily breeds resentment and frustration. 

Meanwhile in the political arena, the grandstanding and fingerpointing by leaders over who has handled the pandemic best and who messed up the worst, and trying to establish which decisions are politically or scientifically motivated, has disguised bigger issues. The fact, for example, that vulnerable people all over the UK are struggling and being left behind by the pandemic for a whole host of reasons. Or the question of why the UK, a relatively small country, with a population of 67 million, has one of the world's highest death tolls.

The politicization of COVID is not helping to provide British citizens a clearer vision of what to expect from the future of their country, or at least a vision they can be confident in. The feeling is one of walking on unendingly unstable ground, something that's been a constant since the Brexit referendum. 

I'm fortunate enough that everything in my personal life is, in contrast, on a nice, steady path. But I can't wrap my head around what post-COVID Britain looks like right now, any more than I can fathom what post-Brexit Britain is supposed to be.

It seems that until we collectively decide whether our component parts can heal the damage that Brexit and COVID have wrought, or whether to make a clean break for it, we will continue to live on in this state of flux, just as we've continued to push on through the various interminable lockdowns for the past 12 months.

One year on, nothing about this situation feels novel in the way it did last March. The rainbows in the windows are sun-bleached and faded now. I watch my memories of the before times slipping further away in my rearview mirror with the realization that, when the time comes, there'll be a lot of starting over to do if we're to reclaim common ground and find a way forward that is genuinely beneficial to us all.