After the Lockdown is Lifted : Back to the Old Ways?

May 01, 2020, 12:04 PM GMT+0

All the pressure is on the government to ease the lockdown or at the very least to give some indication of how and when it might do so. That pressure is what the Prime Minister tried to respond to on his return to the daily Downing Street briefings on Thursday. It’s clear he’s in no hurry. But even those who share his caution and want the pandemic suppressed before he makes any move to relax the restraints are as keen as anyone else to see the back of them. The issue then will be: what sort of world do we want to live in once the lockdown is over? Do we simply want to return to business as usual? Or does the experience of living under Covid-19 suggest that that might not be such a good idea?

People are creatures of habit. Most of us get used to the way we live, many may even like it, and few want it to be disturbed. So when a major disruption like the coronavirus turns up out of the blue, most people’s initial response is to want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible and resume the life they have known. When the disrupter brings as much hardship and suffering as the pandemic has, this feeling is all the stronger.

But as time goes on (and we’ve now been locked down for well over a month) other sentiments begin to emerge. Some people, the lucky ones, start rather guiltily to admit that in some respects they’re rather enjoying themselves. Of course it’s dreadful, they’ll say, what is happening; but as for themselves, they’ve found that having so much more time on their hands has been actually rather welcome. Jobs have got done; books have been read; paying more attention to the old lady down the road has at last been made possible. To some it’s all felt a bit like a holiday. It’s all come at a terrible price, of course, but still… .

It’s not just individuals who can make a case that Covid-19 has not been without a silver lining. Society as a whole could make the same case in myriad ways. Take the very world in which we live and breathe. Carbon emissions, the engine of climate change, have gone into free-fall and we’ve just enjoyed a record number of days in which no coal has needed to be burned in order to provide us with enough energy. Air pollution the world over has evaporated leaving cities usually mired in toxic air for once tolerable for children to play outside in.

Or there’s the effect the lockdown has had on the way we work. Plenty of work has got done without the need for what had previously seemed a regrettable but unavoidable cost: the crammed, cramped, unhealthy, daily commutes. It turns out meetings can happen without our needing to leave home, let alone get on a plane to attend one in New York, as used to seem essential. Indeed meetings themselves, that we used to be told were vital (I once worked at the BBC) now seem, (how shall I put it?) overrated.

Then there’s the re-flourishing of the sense of community. It’s not just Captain Tom Moore, the hundred laps of his garden and the thirty million quid (and rising) he’s raised for NHS charities. It’s the huge growth of the cottage industry of garment-makers, the ‘ordinary members of the public’ who’ve got out their sewing machines to rustle up the scrubs, the face masks, the laundry bags the NHS ‘troops’ so desperately need. It’s back to Dunkirk and ‘make do and mend’. Even at street level the change is palpable. The need to keep our distance has made us notice each other again, made us politer, more respectful, more friendly.

I could go on with any number of other examples of how the crisis, however dreadful, has brought benefits. But you get the picture: you can add your own.

In the light of all this an obvious question arises: when, eventually, we’re not forced to live like this because the virus will no longer be around to act as enforcer, do we want to give up all these benefits by blindly going back to the way we used to live before Covid struck? Do we want to forego those benefits when we won’t have to pay the exorbitant price we are currently paying to enjoy them, the price of thousands and thousands of people losing their lives? Do we really want to start the engine up again of a world in which children die from air pollution, the climate resumes its remorseless heating up, our personal lives are consigned once again to the treadmill of commuting, working and consuming, and the relit candle of community is snuffed out because none of us has any time any more to keep it lit? These are questions that are at least worth asking.

The answers will probably depend on who answers them. If you’re someone who has already done all right, is pretty comfortable and hasn’t in any case much liked the look of the way the world has been going in recent years, your answer will probably be: ‘Yes: we shouldn’t rush back to the way we were. This slower, kinder, greener way of life has a lot going for it.’ If, on the other hand, you’re someone who’s under pressure, who’s got young kids that are needy, has a lot of bills to pay and hasn’t really had the time, quite honestly, to pay much attention to how the world at large may or may not have been going in recent years, the answer will probably be: ‘No: I want to get back to the way we used to live because that offered me the best way to solve my problems and get on, and for my kids to get on too. Hard work and earning money is the only way.’

At this point the economists are likely to put in their penn’orth. The price of these so-called ‘benefits’, they might protest, can’t been measured solely or even primarily in terms of the awful numbers of people dying. The ‘real’ price has been the collapse of the economy. That’s what’s ‘paid’ for the lovely clean air, the fall in carbon emissions, the absence of congestion on the Tube and all the rest of it. And that is a massive price which we simply can’t afford to sustain. An economy operating at a quarter less the size than it used to do will be (at least) a quarter less rich. Before we run away with the idea that we could simply build a new sort of world incorporating those benefits we have enjoyed during the lockdown, they’d warn, just remember that that there are now vast bills to pay. Our only way of paying them will be to turn on again the engines of growth as strongly as we can. Resuming our ‘bad old ways’ (if that’s how they are to be denigrated) is our only way.

To which a simple reply might be: but that’s not sustainable either. Had the Covid-19 pandemic not broken out this spring it’s probable that one of the things that would have been dominating the headlines instead would have been the latest protests of Extinction Rebellion (XR) which were due around now but had to be cancelled like everything else. XR would have been saying, even without Covid, that life as usual is unsustainable and that climate change, polluted air and all the other things from which we have had a temporary reprieve, prove it so.

To some the pandemic and the way we are running the economy of the world are far from being unconnected. Many years ago the scientist, James Lovelock, came up with the idea that the Earth is a self-regulating ecological system with its own mechanisms for sustaining its equilibrium. He called it Gaia. Many people dismissed it as a fanciful, even mystical notion, but it is an idea that has not only persisted but become increasingly respected. Some would see the virus as one of those equilibrating mechanisms. Our penchant for economic growth at any price, they would argue, has disrupted the Earth's ecology and the virus is a response that attempts to restore it, and in producing clean air and cutting carbon emissions, for example, it is doing just that.

Whether you regard such a notion as literally true or just metaphorically so doesn’t much matter. The point is that the virus has given us a glimpse of how we might live very differently and perhaps more in tune with the Earth’s ecology. The question is: do we want to? Another question is: will we?

Let us know your views.

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