EXCLUSIVE: CFJ chronicles the flooring sector's trials and tribulations as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds

It helps, if you’re in a war, to be able to see your enemy, but we didn’t see this one coming. It threatened to knock the floor out from under our feet. How we got from there to here – and where we go now. A special report by CFJ editor, David Strydom

RUSSIAN revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once said: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’ He died nearly a century ago, but his words still hold true, and never more so than at this very moment in time.

Because if anything was ever said to have come hurtling out of nowhere, changing everything in a heartbeat, completely disrupting all we hold dear – our health, the health of our loved ones, our peace of mind – this was it.

We never saw it coming the way you usually notice trouble on the horizon. There were rumours, of course, but we didn’t pay much heed. Another virus circulating in Asia? Must be Chinese whispers. We’d heard about these viruses before, and they hadn’t caused us problems. In truth, there were three times the number of outbreaks in the ‘90s as there were in the ‘40s, but somehow they always seemed to fizzle out before reaching our borders. Remember the alarms over Sars and Mers and bird flu? Had they come to anything? No. So stop fretting, and carry on living. It’ll pass, we told ourselves. It’ll be okay.

But it wasn’t okay. This time the virus had managed a devilish balance – it was sufficiently virulent to kill without being too deadly, which meant it kept its hosts alive long enough for them to pass it onto new hosts. And as it slowly killed off the elderly, the afflicted and even those deemed safe, we knew we had a fight on our hands. A fight to the death.

This year has already seen once-in-a-lifetime records fall faster than any of us will ever see again. We thought we’d seen it all after the 2008 financial crisis, when stock markets plummeted like a broken elevator in a skyscraper. Except, at least a broken elevator eventually hits rock bottom. This time, the FTSE100 and the Dow Jones seemed to be in freefall with no ground zero in sight.

Everything after that became just another number. Soon, our brains went numb, mostly to protect us from facts we couldn’t change. By the end of June, it was predicted, economic output would have shrunk 30% and two million people would have lost their jobs. We were facing the worst recession since the Great Frost of 1709. To put that in historical perspective: Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch and granddaughter of the beheaded Charles I, was still on the throne, England was embroiled in the War of Spanish Succession, America was a colony and there were more than two centuries to run before World War I and the Spanish Flu.

Early this year in the US, the situation was even worse than it was in Europe as more than 20 million jobs – and a decade of employment growth - went down the toilet in a matter of weeks, along with Donald Trump’s enviable economic record.

How could this have happened? We thought that with our sophisticated technologies and supposedly superior environmental values, we were far too advanced to succumb to the likes of the Spanish Flu, a supposedly one-off relic from the 20th century. But it was actually our advancement, our drive for ever-greater global connectedness at any cost, that helped Covid-19 spread and prosper. Jets with human cargo packed in like sardines in a tin kept taking off long after they should’ve been grounded. Western governments, woefully inexperienced at grappling with potent viral outbreaks, dithered and delayed and hoped for the best.

As for the origins of Covid-19 – did we really want to know the truth when that would mean confronting China on its awful ‘wet’ markets?

How long would this outbreak last? we wanted to know. Was the world as we knew it about to implode? And how many trolleys of toilet rolls was it possible to jam in a bunker?

We like to imagine that a century ago, the world was a different place. World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the Treaty of Versailles – which gave a certain Adolf Hitler a leg up the career ladder – belonged in a different era. When the Russian Revolution flared in 1917, Vladimir Lenin became head of the government of Soviet Russia. It seemed everything bad and violent happened back then and couldn’t possibly happen now. How wrong we were.

About 10 years ago, I was sitting in the back of my boss’s car on the M25, heading for a trade exhibition at the NEC in Birmingham, when it started snowing. It was early April and snow had been predicted only very late the previous evening, so most people kept to their travel plans. Surely a little spring snowstorm couldn’t cause that much chaos?

As it happens, the blizzard was short-lived but frenzied, and in the ensuing mayhem, the car started to skid and slide. Several other cars alongside us started to run into trouble – and at speed. I looked out the back window and distinctly remember seeing one car slam into another and start to spin across the motorway in slow motion towards us. I quickly turned around. That car never hit us, but at that moment, we ran into the car in front of us, bringing our journey to an abrupt halt.

The reason I recall this anecdote is because that brief moment in time – not more than 10 seconds – was terrifying. The situation, and therefore my life, was utterly out of my control. At times like those, time stretches out endlessly, turning a moment of horror into a silent movie. The brain freezes, paralysed by the subconscious realisation that this could be the end. It wasn’t, of course, or I wouldn’t be here writing this.

Maybe there are other times in my life when I’ve felt that sensation, but blacked it from memory. Nobody wants to hold onto negative experiences, but sometimes they’re too vivid to forget. This crisis felt a lot like that. Nobody will forget this, but neither do they want to dwell on how it feels to lose control of your fate.

That said, let’s not get carried away with wartime comparisons: Britain lost 450,000 people over six dark years in World War II, and by the time it was over in 1945, the country had been so badly ravaged it took years to recover. Covid-19 can’t rival human conflict for sheer devastation.

Nonetheless, Lenin was right when he said there are decades where nothing happens. It’s just that the 2020s clearly aren’t going to be one of them.

* Over the next few weeks and months, CFJ will continue to bring you the Covid-19 crisis as it unfolds. We'll have interviews with some of the biggest names in the industry, as well as those humble floorlayers who make the sector so special