COVID-19: 'The Virus holding up a mirror to our society’
During the past month, Coronavirus has shifted the very way in which we live our lives. Never before has Britain ordered its shops, theatres, cinemas and (god forbid) pubs to be closed. In this time of great uncertainty, when the country feels like it’s in a poorly made episode of Black Mirror, we have all packed up our sociable busy lives and moved inside: Skype calls for work meetings, exams taken online, virtual dates and drinks with friends. As well as proving to us how essential the internet is in all of our lives, this period has also pointed out a number of other interesting things about our culture and the way we live. As our lives have turned inside out and society has re-shaped itself into the new normal, we come to see aspects of our culture that have been lurking under the surface, as well as those that have been born of our new circumstances.
For many Brits, the shock factor of Coronavirus has hit us hard. Completely fictional and definitely not very British; this is surely something reserved for films starring Matt Damon or apocalyptic musings round a fireside. A trip to this shop (in your allotted daily walk) and you will hear muted whispers of ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ or ‘it’s absolute madness’. And indeed, this is something that doesn’t happen: it isn’t ordinary. The many Brits huddled round their television screens watching Boris declare ‘we are on lockdown’ sent jaws smacking to the ground across the nation, not because we didn't expect it, but because it’s so very different to what we’re used to. This however, is partly the problem. It’s the ‘it’ll never happen to us’ mentality. It is the same problem that allows us to view conflict on screen from the comfort of our television screens with little more than a glance; it is the same problem that
allows us to shun refugees from our border barking ‘why don’t they go back to their own country!’; it is the same problem that allowed us to colonise half the world and declare it ‘educational’. It is our and many other Nations' tendency to view something as the ‘other’ and therefore something that won't happen to us. So something like this happening here, the conflict being brought home, has been a wake up call for us all. For once the terrible thing we hear about on the news is happening in our own country. Will this make us more humble? More willing to see other nations problems as our own? More willing to accept and understand the troubles of refugees? Time will only tell.
Back to Basics
As we have shifted to this lockdown version of our lives, we have been unable to enjoy the usual activities we enjoy as part of 21st century living; going to the cinema, a trip round the shops, pints in the sun or a meal out with friends and family. As life slows down and we strip back our everyday lives, we realise just how much we rely on these commodities in order to fill up our days. . Only now, sitting on the couch and staring for the thousandth time into the tree across the road, does it dawn on us that modern living is actually pretty damn indulgent. Why, I have asked myself, do most things I enjoy involve money? Sitting there in the new normal, while we wish we could get our hair done, or wish we could just buy that new Garnier face mask, we ask ourselves, what the hell even is there to do now? In fact, what I have come to realise, there are quite a lot of things to do, but even if you’re doing nothing, that’s ok too. A quick glance online and you will see people around the UK doing creative and practical activities that they might not have done during their pre-covid day-to-day life'; people doing arts and crafts, starting virtual book clubs, doing home workouts or starting online courses in topics they have always wanted to learn about. Mostly without spending a penny.
A family of six in Kent went full Von Trapp, becoming internet sensations overnight by doing a remixed version of ‘One Day More’ the famous Les Mis classic. There has also been an enjoyable amount of memes, enough banana bread to feed the five thousand from budding bakers, lots of Netflix and a couple of shaved heads. So, what can we take from this? As well as pointing out the sheer importance of the arts and exercise in our society in order to keep people happy and entertained, it also shows our intense adaptability and creativity. When we are collectively forced not to go out and spend money, we do actually find other stuff to do. Conversely, this time has also pointed out there is a lot to be learnt in stillness; adapting from our busy bustling lives and finding peace in being more static. To aid this, numerous meditation apps such as ‘Headspace’ have released free services during the pandemic, as well as yoga instructors, in order to help others practise mindfulness. With all this change of lifestyle, what will happen when this is over? With risk of sounding philosophical, will this bring us back to basics? Back in touch with what it means to be, essentially, human? Will it change the way we live our lives post-virus? I think it just might.
The Grass is Greener on the other side?
Lockdown’s ripple effect has meant impacts have been far and wide reaching. Since modern life as we know it has essentially been put on pause, the lack of demand for office lights to be turned on, factories to be churning out goods, and people to be hurrying to work in cars has seen a staggering drop in emissions and therefore pollution levels. In China, where the outbreak began, carbon emissions fell by over 25% during the outbreak. In New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, blue skies have replaced clouds as their AQI ( air quality index) levels have dropped from somewhere in the mid hundreds to just 20. In Venice, water is running clearer and bluer and nature is making a triumphant return, as more species of plants swarm the water as well as animals such as swans and even Dolphins. These incredible worldwide effects show the huge impact less pollution could have
on our planet and shines a light on the increasingly mounting problem of climate change. It raises questions about how if climate change had as much airtime and attention as Coronavirus, how much could we have already achieved in tackling it? Isn’t Climate Change, after all, as big of an issue as Coronavirus? Well in the short term no, but in the long term the damage will be almost irreparable and have a huge impact on our society. During Coronavirus we have realised how reliant we are on the systems and technology that keep our planet running. Climate catastrophe would inevitably mean these systems would shut down again and our lives would be upturned in much the same way, but for much longer. If anything we need to use this time as a warning, both to what could happen, and what we could do to prevent it.
A Collective Consciousness
Perhaps one of the most palpable cultural shifts felt by many is a reawakening of moralistic ways of thinking. The nature of the virus means it affects many people differently and some people much worse than others. This means as well as thinking and worrying about our own health, we have to worry about others and how we, just by going to the shop, could affect them. In our capitalist ‘do it for yourself’ society of self made millionaires, leaderboards and leagues and mugs in gift shops selling slogans such as ‘Be The Best You Can Be’, we are being asked to think of others on a daily basis. Suddenly you find you’re asking yourself a million questions ‘should I be doing this?’; feeling like you’re under constant self scrutiny, and wondering if you’re ‘doing the right thing’. But this newfound self-awareness is surely a positive thing? The type of self-awareness where you move past each other in some sort of weird dance in the supermarket to avoid breaking social distancing and give each other that half amused, half sad smile. Afterwards you might think, would we have smiled at each other before this all happened? This atmosphere of solidarity has developed a kind of collective consciousness for us all. Not since the war ( which was before many of our lifetimes) has our country been so united under one common umbrella. With this has come some amazing acts
of kindness, and mind-blowing bravery from our NHS staff (as well as other key workers) who are putting their lives at risk day in and day out. All over the UK there has been altruistic acts; a pub owner in Greater Manchester offering his rooms out to those self-isolating, an artist in Leeds donating his paintings to NHS staff, chefs around the country delivering food to hospitals, and schools delivering free school dinners to vulnerable families and offering childcare to those in need. Similarly, penpal programmes have been set up around the country, and the NHS have paused their recruitment of Volunteers to process the 750,000 that have already applied. Among this incredible kindness and bravery, the pandemic has also revealed the selfish side of human nature. The many images surfacing online of people stockpiling toilet roll, hand sanitiser and surface cleaner has become a reality in our shops, where these essentials have been off the shelves for a number of people who are most in need. Some members of the public are refusing to social distance, with police shutting down parties and gatherings such as an 18th birthday of 25 people shut down in London last week. Perhaps seedier than this, is money making schemes disguised as altruism such as the ‘5 for 5K’ challenge started by Virgin, where members of the public started to realise that a percentage of their £5 donation towards the NHS was going into the corporate giants pocket.
In this way, almost like a weird social experiment that we never signed up to be part of, Coronavirus has shown the best and worst of human nature, and of society. Every one of us, and our country, is under the spotlight. So what happens next, and what does this mean for the future? Will this newfound altruism bring about a United Kingdom? Fractured as we are with the polarising 2019 election and Brexit? Will we be more carbon efficient or more accepting of different refugees as a nation? Perhaps, but perhaps not. We can’t predict the future after all. What we can take from this is to learn on an individual basis; things we can change about our own lives and actions. Perhaps this make a bigger change than we think.