Like many of us, I take in the news and feel it dragging me into a pit of doom. The hits have come one after another; unforgiving extremist politics, me-first economics, mass extinctions; Trump; Johnson; melting ice sheets; refugee crises; austerity… and now, Coronavirus. It all feels like a vortex dragging us downwards and leaving behind a pervasive sense of fear and confusion. This in itself is dangerous as fear can be corosive. Where will this all end?
What if, along with all the bad, this might yet be a passage towards positive transformation?
The grand correction
This song came to mind, with its dark humour and selfishness (derailed in the last verse by something more outward looking)
But perhaps we are seeing the start of a correction in western civilisation?
We have said it before- the song was written in response to the stock market crash, which seems to have resulted in business as usual for those who continued to get richer and austerity for those with very little.
Likewise, the looming fears around climate change have seemed to paralyse governments, rather than vitalise them. We all know instinctively that we need to live more simply, consume less, change our additction to long haul flights and dirty energy use, but instead we find ourselves making tokenistic gestures – expensive eco-friendly cleaning products and a few less plastic bags – whilst changing nothing that really matters, because what difference does it really make if we change but no-one else does, right?
But then came coronavirus.
We still wait to see what the deadly implications of COVID-19 will turn out to be, but it has already done something remarkable; it has led to mass behaviour change. Our airports are empty. Our national football obsession has been set aside. People are allowing themselves to work towards a goal that is bigger than the individual- even if that goal is ultimately driven by individual self preservation.
One short term result is that our air is cleaner. (Look at the impact in China of the lockdown.)
Perhaps such changes will be short-lived, but then again, we know that we can do it now. Corrections to mass behaviour at economic and ecological levels are possible.
In 2007, Canadian author wrote this book, in which she laid out the impact of economic shocks had become the means by which power was meditated, often in an opportunistic and manipulative way by governments and power brokers.
Here is the author talking about this stuff in more detail;
What Klein has highlighted is the way that ‘shocks’ create fear, and that fear then creates opportunities for venture capitalists- using crisis to create policies that take power away from populations and put it increasingly into corporate hands.
However- and this is where the hope comes from – coronavirus feels like a different kind of shock. It’s effect is being felt by rich and poor alike. In fact, rich whitemen in the fifties and sixties, at the height of their earning capacity and personal power, might be the most vulnerable of all. It feels more like the kind of shock of total war.
It is for us all to be aware of Klein’s warnings about shock doctrines, but remember that out of great crisis emerged the unity of the Blitz and the emergence of the NHS in the UK and the development of a welfare state.
To reframe the words of Milton Freidman; “Only a crisis, real or percieved, allows the possibility of real change’.
Coronavirus has arrived a time when public trust in both politicians and the media is perhaps at an all time low. Both in the UK we have elected known and proven liars. It no longer matters that they lie because we expect them to. The manipulation of truth for political/financial gain has been normalised.
But look at what is happening to Trump at the moment in the US. He has tried to lie and bluster his way through the crisis, but the virus may yet show him to be the self-serving bafoon that he has always been.
In the face of a global pandemic, truth matters again. Not truth of the nuanced, compare-and-contrast kind. Neither of the ‘Oooo this is interesting’ clickbait conspiracy theory kind.
We have to look again towards scientific, objective truth, because what else will give us the tools we need to manage our responses to a virus that cares nothing for political creed, religion or skin colour?
We have become used to negative reporting about our NHS but it is possible that this might yet prove to be it’s finest hour. Contrast the patchy and sometimes entirely absent health care available in the richest country in the world, the US, where access to medical help is entirely dependent on your level of wealth.
More than individual medical treatment, perhaps Coronavirus also highlights the fact that the health of a nation is often about prevention and public health initiatives. It is about good housing, nutrution and sanitary systems. It is about benfits and social care supports. Perhaps rich Americans (and others) will become infected becuase poor Americans (and others) had access to such inadequate health and social care. How might this shift the debate on the ‘morality’ of ‘something for nothing’ public health care? Can they really continue to rely on health care systems driven primarily by private profit?
Here in the UK we face different questions about the investment we make in our own systems after ten years of austerity. This is not just about Boris’s fabled 40 new hospitals, but also about social care and how we support general health and wellbeing. The magic money tree has been found after all, and perhaps it might have fruit yet for the picking.
(There is a much wider discussion to be had here about the nature of economic systems and how we borrow to invest in order to promote the common good, but here is not the place for it. If you are interested in reading more about this, go to the New Economics Foundation pages, here.)
Politics of unity, not polarity
We have locked ourselves into echo chambers where we often only hear one side of a nuanced story. Good/bad black/white polarities never work in the long run. All human activity has to be subject to compromise and political democracy does not work without it. This is perhaps the single most important thing to learn from the Brexit mess.
Trump is trying to apply the blame game to the fight against Coronavirus. It is a ‘foreign’ virus. Close the borders. Build a wall. It is not working as the ‘numbers’ make a mockery of him. Meanwhile the adults in the room have to start talking to one another.
In the UK, we have largely avoided any show of political division of the response to the virus. Perhaps this will yet come- perhaps it might NEED to come, but it feels as if people are coming together, not being forced apart.
It is hard to escape the fact that in large parts of the world, even the worst case scenario for Coronavirus (3 per cent death rate of those infected) would be dwarfed by much greater health and social care problems. Remember that people are still dying of starvation and diseases caused directly by malnutrition and poverty. Then there are the other outbreaks in Africa; Ebola, Measles, Lassa fever.
Are these deaths less important? Given that the COVID-19 is being imported into Africa from the West (eg new cases spread from Italy) rather than the old traditional fears of the dark heart of Africa giving us AIDS and Ebola?
Perhaps the blatant inequality might give us pause for thought…
You might wonder at my attitude to death, given the above. Perhaps you might think I am downplaying the seriousness of Coronavirus.
But I have elderly relatives, and a sister whose immune system puts her in a high risk group. I am a man in my mid fifties so perhaps I too might be a victim. It is confronting, concerning and worrying on many levels. I don’t mean to pretend otherwise.
But I do feel that our attitude to death, in the cold light of post-virus panic, might have to change. We live as if death is another country that we are never likely to visit. We regard our health systems as insurance policies against death, as if it is our individual right to live for ever. But we all die. This may seem a shocking statement, which in itself tells a story.
Let not the fear of death rob us of the opportunity to live a good life.