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Going out

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 4, 2021 - 12:00am

It felt important and surprisingly emotional getting my second jab of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine against COVID-19 this week. It takes a couple of weeks for the full protection to take effect but I am reminded of the line repeated by the terrifying Nazi dentist in the movie “Marathon Man” “Is it safe?”

Over the weekend the UK government allowed the first pop concert to be held in Liverpool since the pandemic. 5,000 people crowding into a festival tent with no masks and no social distancing. It was actually disconcerting for me to see pictures of the event which would have been completely normal 16 months ago.

The idea was for the music-lovers to act as guinea pigs for scientists with the government’s Event Research Programme who are researching to find out how mass events can be held safely. All the concert goers had to have a supervised negative COVID test to get in and promise to take a further test on Friday. Ticket holders had to be over 18 and registered with a GP in the Liverpool city region to attend. Contractors from outside the area, including journalists, had to take live COVID tests on Zoom on Saturday to get accredited.

“There were bars selling overpriced pints of Strongbow in paper cups, huge queues for progressively grubby Portaloos and extremely excited young people scarcely able to believe their luck at being out of the house in big groups without being told off by the ‘rule of six’ police,” the Guardian newspaper reported.

Around the venue, researchers with clipboards wandered around making notes. Scientists closely monitored audience movement and interaction, ventilation, duration, catering and alcohol consumption. They are even studying the – ahem – toilet behavior and contents.

“We’ve worked really hard to do everything right behind the scenes – all the testing – to create an atmosphere that didn’t feel sterile and didn’t feel as though you were in a test or a pilot show or an experiment,” managing director Melvin Benn told the BBC. “And we’ve created an atmosphere that people will remember from 2019. People will think, this is what they have been missing.”

Benn and his team succeeded, if the comments of the happy people and artists who were interviewed by journalists are anything to go by.

“It was like reverting back to the way things used to be. We’ve basically been like a caged animal for about two years, haven’t we?”

“It was so crazy being back surrounded by people… It was incredible. To be in the middle of everyone, just moving around, you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.”

“It was nice to be in the moment. You felt alive again. We need more. I’ve missed it a lot.”

“We are ecstatic!”

Many concert goers were apparently students at Liverpool’s universities, most of whom had caught COVID in their first week of term and felt cheated out of university life.

One take-away for the scientists is bound to be that despite safety messages being flashed up on screens like: “BE KIND: if someone wants a bit of space, give them room” and “It’s fine to wear a face mask in the big top if you want to,” almost nobody paid any attention. They were ripping off face-masks as soon as they entered the tent. There was a lot of hugging, shrieking and selfie-taking. As the bands played, the audience “weren’t just shoulder to shoulder, but on each other’s shoulders, arms aloft, cardboard pints flying as the chorus to Common People kicked in,” according to the Guardian.

Some concertgoers admitted they had been anxious about being in a crowd again after so long and the testing process largely proved reassuring.

The concert was the biggest seen in the UK since COVID hit last March and part of a series of pilots including club nights, football matches and snooker tournaments.

Everybody was so happy to be out that the support bands were hailed like megastars. “One step for scousers (Liverpool natives)…” began singer-songwriter Zuzu as she opened to massive applause. “Oh my God, look at youse, I’m going to cry.”

It was an emotional night. By the time the main act Blossoms took to the stage, straight boys in bucket hats were giving each other big sloppy kisses and girls in bikinis were swaying on their boyfriends’ shoulders.

The band last played on March 15 2020, eight days before the UK went into  lockdown. They said they thought they might be out of action for “a few months.” Their accountant told them they had 18 months before they would have to get other jobs. The band described it as “a massive honor” to be a part of what could be post-pandemic history. Winding up their set, the lead singer, Tom Ogden, probably voiced what was in most people’s minds, saying, “It has been a devastating year, but this has been a colossal ray of sunshine.”

There is a lot riding on these pilot experimental projects. Festivals are a huge deal here. Glastonbury is probably the most internationally known event and it’s already been cancelled for 2021, but the fates of lesser known festivals are still to be decided. “That’s huge economically, but it’s huge from an emotional point of view, from a human wellbeing point of view. I’ve seen people break down here with the emotion of seeing people again, and I fear that if we don’t bring that back, that isolation that a lot of people are living through will just become unbearable,” said Benn.

As for newly vaccinated me, the thought of going back to concerts is hugely exciting but still not proved to be safe enough yet. I’ve been to plenty of gigs and parties and don’t feel the need to go crazy at a festival. It’s my kids and their generation that are losing out, and it’s for them that I hold out the hope that the scientists figure out ways that we all get the socializing with friends and families that we all need.

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