COVID-19 disrupted everything… I don’t think there has been any aspect of life that hasn’t been touched by the virus and our attempts to control it.
Thinking back to the early days, I remember the expectant fear I felt – waiting and knowing it was only a matter of time before the Coronavirus hit the UK too. We watched the relentless march of the virus across the map as country by country started reporting cases. Hospitals started to fill and then overfill. People started dying by the thousands. At the time of this writing, the global death toll is almost 425,000.
For those people who could – and I’m conscious that they (we) are a privileged group – they went inside and shut their doors on the outside world. Streets emptied, businesses closed – uncertain whether they would ever reopen. Governments began to pay people’s wages. The stock market fell, soared and is falling again. And still the number of cases continues to climb.
And although we are collectively experiencing the same catastrophic event, we are not experiencing it in the same way.
Sounds obvious when I type it, but it took a conversation with Dr. Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, for me to remember that.
Our 3-day online festival SHINEfest: Lessons from Lockdown brought together more than 40 guest speakers from around the world to talk about what they were learning from the crisis and how we could emerge stronger, more resilient, more empathetic.
We heard how people were connecting with strangers and recognising a shared humanity, reconnecting with friends and family (albeit digitally), finding solace in nature, enjoying the quiet and finding joy in a slower pace of life that was more hands-on (ie. gardening, cooking, home DIY).
I wanted to put together an upbeat article that looked at how people can maintain some of these life changes as we emerge from lockdown restrictions. When the doors reopen on the world, instead of rushing out and resuming the frantic pace and consumer crush, what can we do to recalibrate our interaction with society and with each other, with ourselves and with the planet?
But Jennifer reminded me that the question primarily applies to people of a certain socioeconomic status.
‘It annoys me when people talk about how this has been some golden opportunity to reconnect with some idea of a simpler and easier life – it comes from a position of privilege with a complete ignorance of how ‘the other half’ lives.
‘Not everyone is isolating in a reasonably sized house with a garden in which family members can easily find their own space,’ Jennifer said. ‘It can be incredibly stressful for people in a small shared flat – particularly younger people and those who are still having to go out to essential jobs or flat-share with someone who is still working.
‘Some people, particularly recent immigrants and refugees, for example, may not have decent cooking facilities in rented accommodation and may have been dependent on local cafes for a decent hot meal or on their children getting school dinners. Not everyone has a good laptop and internet connection that allows their child to follow online schooling…Many people are really struggling with the restrictions this it putting on their life and finances.’
The mental and physical toll of lockdown
One of the actions Jennifer took in the early days of the pandemic was to set up and moderate the reddit forum r/COVID19_support for people struggling emotionally with the crisis. She spoke about a few of the themes she was seeing on the site.
‘Firstly, people have difficultly processing all the information available,’ Jennifer said. ‘Particularly as the media tends to play up and sensationalise the risks, whereas government sources provide raw data without always providing context, and academic reports may be difficult for non-academics to penetrate. So one thing we try to do is help people navigate all the information and different viewpoints and have a better understanding of the realistic risks to themselves.’
Whether they were terrified to leave the house or accept an online grocery shop or parcels through the post, many people have been paralysed by fear throughout the past few months. And with restrictions lifting, they be too afraid to come out of their houses.
One fear I’ve had that Jennifer also mentioned is the fear of infecting loved ones. My in-laws have recently moved to a new town and have been finding lockdown incredibly difficult. I want to visit, but wouldn’t know how to forgive myself if I passed the virus on to them unknowingly.
‘Another theme is definitely fear of the unknown,’ said Jennifer. ‘Particularly from younger users and those who would have been starting or graduating college/university. They feel their lives have been put on hold and they don’t know where or how they will restart or if things will ever go back to normal. Older users are often dealing with this uncertainty better – they probably know by now that life doesn’t always go exactly to plan whereas younger users haven’t had to get over setbacks before. Wanting to talk to people about what the future might hold and how to deal with it is a common theme.’
The change we should be focusing on
We know that the virus had a disproportionate impact on Black and ethnic minority groups. We know that the financial fallout from the economic recession will hit low-income people more – those on zero-hour contracts and who work in the gig economy. We also know that those are the groups most vulnerable to climate change. This is what systemic failure looks like. So what should we be thinking about as we emerge?
‘I would hope one thing it will encourage people to do is try to put themselves in others’ shoes,’ Jennifer said. ‘To think about what it was like for the supermarket checkout staff who served you, the Amazon delivery driver who bought you parcels, the care home staff who camped in the grounds away from their families to avoid infecting the residents.
‘I hope it will also make people reconsider what we really need – we’ve survived three months without most of the worthless consumer goods that take up space on the high streets, without buying a new top on Friday that’s worn once and thrown away on Monday. We don’t need to go back to that.
‘So if we can make changes around a drop in consumer waste and caring more about our neighbours and environment, that would be worthwhile.’
Dr Sherilyn MacGregor spoke with us about the potential of a Feminist Green Deal to form the basis of a recovery. And her point was that before the crisis, advocates for a New Green Deal wanted a ‘just transition to a post-carbon society’. Now people are calling for a ‘just recovery’ out of this.
We may not need the fancy tech solutions previously touted; we may need to look at the care sector and industries that focus on health and wellbeing. These are already ‘low-carbon activities and jobs that make society run…they’ve always been poorly paid and low value’. This could be a moment to shift to properly valuing those activities and people.
It’s a point echoed by Jennifer. ‘The disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on some ethnic and socioeconomic groups must not be ignored – the vulnerabilities of their jobs, their housing, the condition of the environments they live in have been brutally exposed.’
Any policy changes that are put in place now will have lasting effects so we need to ensure they are build a positive and inclusive future.
Resisting the call of ‘business as usual’
Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote a two article series on how governments and corporations with a stake in business-as-usual are going to be putting pressure on people to get back to the normal patterns of consumption and frenetic pace that marked pre-COVID life. One of our guest speakers, Sam Conniff referenced the ‘shop for Britain’ campaign that is coming… So I put the question to Jennifer: How can we resist the pull of ‘normal life’ if we truly want change?
‘Some of this is going to be about having the strength to say “no”:
- No, I don’t need to fly to Spain, I can have a great holiday in the UK, putting money into the local economy and minding my carbon footprint.
- No, I don’t need to buy an entire new wardrobe for a week away.
- No, I don’t need to go back to having a coffee in a disposable cup every morning.
‘But also looking at what might replace this in the economy. If we’ve had a chance to reconnect with nature and/or take things more slowly, can that be translated into new jobs? Smaller classrooms with more time for teachers to spend on each child? Gardeners who can keep our gardens under control when we don’t have time to anymore? Cycle shops and cycle repairs?
‘How can we make a better world out of this? It’s not all about money, but people still need jobs – we need to look for a way to build an economy that’s not based on consumer waste, but perhaps on recycling and repairing or on making better quality goods in the first place.’
Moving from individual to societal change
Personal change is one thing. But I asked Jennifer, once we’ve started to get a handle on how to align our actions with our values, how do we start to link that to wider societal change?
‘The key thing is to ensure that whatever we do works for everyone,’ Jennifer said. ‘Not just the privileged middle class who have sailed through the pandemic relatively untouched.
‘Where inequality has been exposed, look at how we can make society more equitable – more secure jobs and better paid jobs so that people’s lives are less precarious and more conducive to being generally healthy and happy.
‘What happened to make some people desperately unhappy and frightened during the pandemic – what left them feeling hopeless? Even if there are more serious underlying issues with mental illness, what pushed them over the edge, and what can we do to ease those pressures?
‘I remember one person who posted on r/COVID19_support basically ranting about how sick they were of people suggesting that yoga was some kind of magic bullet. When you’re in a two bedroom flat where there literally isn’t room to do the sun salutation, you have kids screaming at each other and you’re worried about having to travel on a crowded bus to your job on a supermarket checkout where 200 potentially infected people pass by you each day, of course telling you that yoga can help is going to make you mad.
‘What I hope is that we take note of that, and think about what it’s like to be that person, and how we can make their life better, rather than hoping we’ve still got time to decorate cupcakes.’
So this isn’t the article I meant to write, full of tips on connecting the changes you want to make to your values and personal identity, or how to use James Clear’s Atomic Habits to create and sustain change. Though all of that is reasonable and valuable. But it feels more in keeping with the spirit of SHINEfest.
We aren’t all experiencing this crisis in the same way, so it’s up to those of us who have come through it relatively unscathed to reach out a hand and help those who are struggling. Let’s start there.