“Although this sudden decline in the disease was unexpected, the townspeople were in no hurry to celebrate. The preceding months, though they had increased their desire for liberation, had also taught them prudence and accustomed them to count less and less on a rapid end to the epidemic. However, this new development was the subject of every conversation and, in the depths of people’s hearts, there was a great, unadmitted hope.”
The Plague, 1947, A. Camus
There is an increasingly vocal common hope that in amongst the pain for those who experience illness and loss through Covid-19 and all the associated long-term social, health and economic impacts of lockdown, we will come out of this with a renewed sense of community; with an increased sense of mutual aid, empathy and support for other people in our neighbourhoods and communities. As we emerge from this first phase of the crises, many of us will know people who we did not know before, or be in the habit of providing neighbourly support that will persist beyond lockdown. We will realise that Doris needed support with her shopping long before the pandemic enticed us to her door.
As people have been confined to their homes and neighbourhoods like never before, many have experienced a renewed sense of neighbourhood community, uniting us if not in common experience, then certainly in a common enemy. And the value of those many, many millions of renewed connections, new acts of reciprocity and community organising will leave our civic muscle strengthened in ways that will undoubtedly stand us in good stead for when the next crisis comes. And there is no shortage of evidence which shows how better-connected communities can mobilise and recover better from crises, that they generally experience less crime, better health outcomes. To quote Puttnam: in measurable and well-documented ways, community connectedness makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.
The extent to which this hope and expectation of community strength translates into long-term practice and how (or even whether) this newly grown social capital can be supported and sustained is a live conversation.
Is it possible to craft an agenda for sustaining and supporting the strength of this civic muscle, this renewed sense of “we not me” – or is it inherently ungovernable; with a life of its own? Will we fall into the trap of trying to ‘professionalise’ community life? What do we know about the inequality of the collective Covid effort – whether more time has been spent supporting those who look and sound ‘the same as us’ over those who do not? The need for data, Big Qualitative Data and stories of Covid-19 is critical if we are to understand ourselves as we emerge, blinking, into a different part of the 21st Century.
At the same time as our community spirit has been reawakened, we have been issued with a set of rules about keeping ourselves apart from others, and how to behave when we are forced to be in the company of others. If we follow the 21/90 rule – that it takes 21 days to break a habit and 90 to create one then, as creatures of habit, our distancing from others may become just as – if not more entrenched than – our willingness to go shopping for a neighbour. Which of these will ultimately prove the more powerful in shaping our society?
Compliance in a Crisis – Community in a Recovery
“The story of this [crisis] is just how high the compliance has been. Who would have thought that in a liberal democracy so many people would do what they were told?” – Gus O’Donnell
One of the most surprising things about social distancing and lockdown is just how strong compliance has been; far more than was anticipated by many. And while there is a no doubt there has been non-compliance (almost certainly across all groups, although the wealthier have been able to hide their non-compliance more effectively) by and large, we have complied.
Why is this? Of course, in no small part, it is due to not wanting to catch Covid-19 (Perhaps rather less about passing it on). But it was also the messaging that compliance protects the NHS, with all sorts of other behavioural messaging designed to reinforce these new social norms. It’s the media, particularly radio, reinforcing those norms through shaming transgressions, and seemingly small things, like Netflix starting to stream Contagion to a UK audience – ninety minutes of dystopia, where every door knob and lift button has the power to kill! It’s also about our desire to act. Crises make us want to act; we want to feel useful. And so even those small actions, such as staying two meters apart, are about our intrinsic desire for many of us to feel useful – to be doing something, to be connected to a bigger endeavour – as much as it is about fearing getting sick.
But it’s also worth acknowledging something deeper; about how safe we were feeling as a society prior to Covid-19 – which was not very.
Some months before the last General Election, the Institute for Community Studies showed that the top issue that communities most overwhelmingly cared about was safety. Crime and anti-social behaviour came through strongly, but also the precarious nature of people’s lives; both in terms of type and nature of work, but also more existential feelings of insecurity, generated through Brexit, the changing climate and shifting geo-political sands. It is perhaps also these feelings that drive people towards compliance; compounded by a public health pandemic that made us, more than at any other time, content to be ‘told what to do’. This might seem an obnoxious view to some; but it’s not without some credence. Fearful societies tend to look toward authority.
Those feelings of wanting and needing to feel safe will persist on the long road which stretches out before us. And regardless of the clinical, sociological, material and behavioural reasons behind compliance, the fact is that during these first weeks of what is an unparalleled health crisis, we have complied. And while we can in no way regard ourselves as being ‘all in this together’, we at least know that the rules for non-key workers and those not on the ‘shielded’ list, are currently the same for everyone.
But the adrenalin shot of the immediate crisis is waning, and as the recession reality of shutting down an economy crystallises for many more millions of people, the next wave of rules may become more complex and asymmetrical, unravelling simple notions of universal compliance into something much more complex and contentious. Set amidst a time of eye-watering, but necessary public spending, where the power of government is at an all-time high, the issue of “who gets what” and “who is allowed to do what” could occasion discontent at both a national and neighbourhood level. This will play out in the economy. Which businesses are on the ‘first to re-open list’ and how different workers and professionals are affected by these choices, will be important to watch.
But it is also important when it comes to the relaxation of rules in places of “uncoerced association“, by which I mean parks, playgrounds, places of worship, community halls, etc. When the social distancing rules are relaxed they will – like it or not – be interpreted differently by different people. Some will continue to abide by the rules because they do not believe it to be safe; others will return to social interactions such as hugging, handshaking, standing in close conversation readily, and without fear.
Where those different interpretations intersect will undoubtedly cause more tension between people than we have seen previously. And it is not outside the bounds of possibility that wearing a mask will become the symbol of an individual’s ongoing adherence to social distancing rules. Many at the start of this pandemic railed against the use of the word social distancing; preferring ‘physical distancing’. Maybe the term chosen is more accurate, after all.
But retaining our sense of community and solidarity is the foundation on which serious political choices on how and where to ease lockdown must rest, and rest with the ongoing consent of the people.
As we emerge from lockdown, one important decision will be whether to allow people into parks, beaches, halls – places where people can be, even at a distance from one another, with no distinct purpose. Particularly and criticially for those who have been contained in their homes in poor conditions and have been prohibited the luxury afforded to those with gardens. Arguably, we need some strong signals that places where people can just “be” – places that not associated with shopping or working – are recognised as being the heart of a healthy life – and critical our post-lockdown levels of social cohesion and well-being.
Part Two – To Follow….
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