Getting on with life is the real battle now

Reports suggest that, even with the lockdown in remission, people in Spain, Italy, Denmark and Austria are proving reluctant to venture out to resume their everyday lives. In northern Italy, the few shops restarting business barely had any customers, while in Denmark, the reopening of schools and day care centres has led to tensions between parents and the authorities.

In the UK too, polling suggests that the vast majority think it would be wrong to loosen lockdown now. A similar, recent poll in the US pointed to people preferring to prioritise social distancing over stimulating the economy. Not so much the “land of the free” as the land of the supposedly safe.

This ought not to come as a surprise. It reflects not so much people enjoying an extended holiday (with 80 per cent of their wages paid for by Government for some) as a deeper, cultural malaise, effectively encouraged and advocated for from the very top of society.

As a slogan, “Stay Home, Save Lives” encourages what, at the time of the Second World War would have been recognised to be a paralysing “deep shelter mentality”. It fails to engage people actively in the collective effort to restore normality. Not just “Keep Calm”, but “Carry On”.

There is a historical parallel. Some 43,000 civilians lost their lives during the aerial bombardment of Britain in 1940 and 1941. One of the first towns to be hit was Ramsgate on the Kent coast, a town that still harboured memories of having been targeted by Zeppelins a generation earlier. On 24 August 1940, some 500 bombs were dropped there in just five minutes. But despite some 1,200 homes being destroyed, just 29 civilians and two soldiers lost their lives.

The reason was an old railway line, built through the cliffs in 1863 but closed from 1926, that had been further excavated and turned into a bomb shelter at the behest of the town’s mayor in 1939. Undoubtedly, this decision saved many hundreds of lives. The tunnels were supplied with electricity and furbished with ventilator shafts. They became a subterranean world, with shops, food outlets, music and even an underground hospital.

What is less known about this superficially heroic story is that by 1941 the Home Office and Ministry of Home Security came to view its existence as a problem. Unlike expectations elsewhere in the country, which emphasised supporting the war effort by facing up to life as normal, the ability of hundreds in Ramsgate to hide away permanently from the reality above them in crowded, unsanitary conditions led to morale described as “almost non-existent”. Fearing they would depress the spirit of the surrounding population, the authorities evicted them.

Far from achieving a sense of security, remaining away from normality for too long can engender a mood of despondency, mistrust and avoidance. Aside from addressing our understanding of the virus that confronts us, as well as the economic ramifications of the choices we make in dealing with this, it may be that one of the greatest challenges governments will face is how they can best work with people to encourage a return to normality after this relatively prolonged period of social isolation, fear and dependence.

The risk otherwise is of a gradual acceptance of the new status quo – suspicion, avoidance and intolerance towards others, an unwillingness to embrace life’s uncertainties, fear of future emergencies, a dystopian, anti-human outlook and narrative, and all too willing acceptance of the curtailment of civil liberties, combined with a paralysing dependence on others, whether scientific experts or governmental authorities.

Unlike the war, the current situation really does require us to avoid others but, given the technologies now available, this need not preclude us from engaging in a national debate about the validity of the measures our governments take, as well as a view as to what ought to come afterwards.

Above all, we need to rapidly regain our sense of purpose and venture out again soon to shape the world according to our intended trajectories. We must remind ourselves that we do not just live our lives, we lead them.

First published at Futures-Diagnosis, 25 April 2020