Hope and the coronavirus outbreak (2/2): On going back to ‘normal’

Work with you image - painting by Daniel Balanescu (detail)

Reading time: 11 min.

Sean cleans the streets here. The high street is deserted – no people, no Big Mac boxes or Coke cans – so he spends his mornings going up the canal and down the river and round again. Evidently, the coronavirus lockdown has thrown him off his routine, spinning him out of the town centre and pitching him among the greenery. The crisis has opened up his day to a few new possibilities that just weren’t there a month or so ago.

But while lockdown has stranded some of us, like Sean and me, among the trees, others are stuck in high-rise tower blocks looking out on a scrag of green marked ‘No dogs, no ball games’. Globally the crisis will cut through communities in countries with chronically under-funded health systems and is expected to threaten the livelihoods of more than a billion workers, particularly those in informal sectors. In the main, those who haven’t had much of what they need now have still less, with the harder knocks still to come. We’re not all in this together.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus looks the one in charge with its spiky crown; it’s bowled itself a strike, fracturing and scattering our normal. It’s even caught the rich off guard, so used as they are to escaping a crisis unscathed. The aviation industry, for example, is pleading for help from the taxpayer, never having paid any tax of its own on the fuel it guzzles down. The giants of fast fashion, their profits sewn up in the sweatshops of Bangladesh, are bemoaning their losses and furloughing their workers, again at the taxpayer’s expense.

But the rich are going to be fine. Amazon – another tax exile – is still raking in the dollars, paying its workers the least it can get away with, and pricing our local shops out of business. And although the trash-food industry is stalled for now, McDonald’s and Starbucks are on their way back already, unlike many small cafes and restaurants whose business is real food with a real welcome.

From the Coca-Cola India Facebook page

For the time being, though, and perhaps not for long, the powerful seem to have slipped their grip on our daily lives, at least in much of the UK. The thin comforts of the shopping mall, the fast-food joint – of the whole consumer-corporate, cloned high street – are now less available. Carless roads and grounded planes are letting the city air clear; the birds have claimed it back with springtime songs that are, for once, actually audible. The coronavirus lockdown is giving us an intimation of what the urban environment might feel like in a future less ecologically violent than the present. For a Conservative government that disparages a universal basic income as ‘hard left’ politics, the furlough scheme comes uncomfortably close to it. Meanwhile, the temporary accommodation scheme for street sleepers comes perilously near to accepting that homes for homeless people is not a utopian fantasy after all.

I miss pubs, theatres, cinemas, dance halls – who would want a society without them? – but in their absence I’m having to look to nature and my neighbours for company. And my city, which like most has a shopping centre stuck in its heart, is now a place for random wandering and chance meetings on street corners. I don’t sense the contagious fellow-feeling and common purpose that some say has been emerging, but at least for the moment saying hello to a stranger doesn’t make you a weirdo. Surveys from March that showed a sharp downturn in the public’s mood suggest in April that we’re back to being as contented as we were last summer – and, surprisingly, less stressed – although these statistics hide much variation.

Personally, it’s normal for me to feel solastalgia: an uneasy sense of disconnection with the place I call home. I’m dismayed at what our town centres have become: a thoughtlessly repeating pattern of plastic chain stores and computer-generated ‘regeneration schemes’ swathed in the ceaseless white noise and grey air of a car culture – but decorated with the odd token lollipop tree in a bid to make it all seem more natural. My experience of the lockdown has been the reverse – call it counter-solastalgia – as the sense of alienation has abated and a sense of belonging has grown. I won’t pretend my experience is typical – I live on a boat, for one thing – but it’s not unique either. It’s as if the geography of local value has shifted its centre of gravity from the shopping mall into the side streets and open spaces. We do seem to be a little closer to one another than we were – just no closer than two metres.

The virus has influenced social consciousness, too. As a society we’ve been celebrating essential workers, particularly those who care for our health and especially those who’ve died doing so. I’ve felt and heard an abundance of gratitude, too, for the people who grow and provide our food, deliver the post, and care for elderly people or those who have no home of their own. The meaning of ‘essential work’ seems to be swimming into focus. Next to these essential jobs, I wonder at the vainglorious futility of that tower at Canary Wharf – of its many floors where the lights are on all night in servitude to global capital. I wonder at my own work, too; during this crisis and after it, Sean’s social contribution seems obviously more essential than my own.

The crisis is also exposing a politics of power that’s as impotent as it is ugly. It hasn’t been widely reported, but corona’s prickly projectile has put a hole below the waterline in the world’s most powerful navy. Massive US aircraft carriers, now pits of contagion, are limping uselessly into port. While the US fleet slices through billions of dollars in the name of American dominance, the country’s terminally troubled health system lacks the essentials to care for the covid sick – or indeed for the malnourished millions of a desperately unequal society. America’s people of colour, whose socio-economic conditions substantially increase the risk of death from the virus (and, for that matter, from everything else), have to listen on while their commander-in-chief proposes injecting disinfectant as a cure. The President’s remarks show up, once again, the abject lack of feeling and wilful denial of reason that have come to define his politics. But aren’t those failings also true of America’s entire system of power, as unwilling as it is unable to meet the human security needs of the people it’s supposed to serve? Hasn’t the superpower state always been more preoccupied with warship flotillas – instruments of state and corporate violence – than with the lives of its own citizens? Whose ‘democracy’ is it, really? It’s not a hopeful picture, but these are hopeful questions, and many more people seem to be asking them now.

The same questions are worth asking here, too. The UK has been preoccupied with building its own aircraft carriers in the hope of sustaining the illusion that the US takes Britain seriously as a world power. At a small fraction of the carriers’ £6 billion cost, the government could have stockpiled medical kit for a pandemic. It’s not as if it couldn’t see this coming; the government acknowledged in 2015 that a pandemic was a ‘significant concern’ and claimed, evidently prematurely, to have ‘robust and comprehensive plans’ to deal with one.

But it didn’t prepare, in large part because the UK’s published security ‘strategy’ is essentially a list of white-elephant military projects. The document barely spares a line for the clearly-evidenced risks that pandemics, ecological degradation, and economic inequality pose to people’s lives now and in the years to come. As if to make the same point himself, before the Prime Minister caught the virus he said we’d be ‘pleased to know’ he was ‘shaking hands with everybody’ he met who was infected with it.

Sooner or later, governments and their media outriders will say it’s time to ‘get back to normal’. Here in the UK, I expect a military parade is on the cards, just because it always is. Maybe the Prime Minister will hope to channel Churchill with something about winning a war. A return to work can’t come soon enough for economically deprived families who desperately need to be earning again, but they deserve better than the ‘normal’ they’ll be ushered back into. That normal is a global ecological-economic-political crisis – a headlong rush towards catastrophe, in which the poorest people will be the first to go to the wall. It doesn’t have to turn out that way; the sweeping measures of the lockdown show that countries like ours are capable of big choices, including choices of the kind that our ecological and economic crises demand.

We’re told that the impact of the lockdown is unaffordable by the same people – rich people – who say the impact of climate breakdown and economic injustice are bearable. In truth, the costs of ecological, and possibly economic, breakdown would be orders of magnitude greater. Something else we’ve seen in this lockdown is that big money can be mobilised quickly. As things stand, the general public will be landed with the bill, probably to be paid out in austerity in the years to come. Again, it doesn’t have to turn out that way. $6 trillion or so is stashed away in tax havens around the world; the UK’s richest 1,000 people are worth $771 billion and getting richer – there’s plenty of money in the wrong places. These funds are more than enough to underwrite the lockdown. And faced with the global breakdown dangers that we still face, the idle status of these tax-exempt piles of gold is a huge opportunity cost – it’s this that’s truly unaffordable.

All the same, we cannot yet expect this kind of can-do-will-do politics from this government, or indeed from the political establishment as a whole, which remains preoccupied with preserving the status quo. Some are suggesting that the coronavirus crisis, having stunned the holders of power and strewn it in all directions, has gifted us an opportunity to piece together a new, more humane, status quo. It seems vital, at least, to make the case for moving forward to social and economic arrangements that meet fundamental needs more effectively, rather than shuffling back into the stale, suffocating ways of injustice. But the corporate-military complex, though stalled, is still in charge here. Short of a revolution, McDonald’s plasticky ‘M’ will soon be lit up again and Western militaries will be back to keeping it that way.

And yet, even if the shutters that the virus has opened soon slam closed, for now the light is streaming in. In the first blog in this series, I suggested that the roots of this crisis lie in the way societies are organised; the virus itself is just nature at work, nothing more. But I still have the uncanny, if irrational, feeling that the virus is more than just a virus, as if nature is trying to show us something. At least, the action of the virus is making some pressing questions harder to avoid. Why are societies so keen to identify as democratic so riven with structural injustices? How many other ‘impossible’ policies for justice’ sake might turn out to be possible after all? What is our rightful place in nature because, as the virus proves, it sure isn’t dominion? And now that we’re breathing cleaner air, are we really condemned to return to a way of life that’s now so obviously toxic to the earth, to one another, and to ourselves? All these questions boil down to one: What really matters? Put another way, what are we a society for? This is, I think, the first question of hope.

I think that question is in the zeitgeist now. Sean, for one, has been asking it. He passed by again this morning with his cleaning cart. ‘I don’t think we should go back,’ he says, alluding to the expected return to our pre-corona ways. He accepts that business as usual is on its way back, but ‘everything’ll just be polluted again; the air will be dirty and you won’t see the fish in the river anymore’.

I don’t think this government will worry about what Sean or I think; it hasn’t before. But perhaps it should. It likes to imagine the electorate as workaday people in hapless thrall to predatory consumer marketing, a mostly obsequious press, and the occasional ‘this great nation’ rhetoric. This is bread and circuses politics, as the saying goes. What happens when the neoliberal normal gets interrupted? What happens when we wonder aloud to one another at the harm that our normal’s been causing, and share instead the things that really matter to us? Something happens, something shifts. When all the doors open again, we might choose more carefully which ones we walk through – not McDonald’s, I hope, nor Starbucks, and can we please ditch Amazon as well, starting now?

Although power may soon reassemble the parts of itself that the virus has scattered, my own hope is that the assembly will more jagged and clumsy this time. May cracks, wider than before, let in more light, may we keep our wondering conversations going, and may we be turning them into choices that count.


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