by Sarah Cotes, Diploma student at Durham University
A new government was elected with a landslide. At last, a government and a leader who would save us from all our difficulties. The Prime Minister was the embodiment of what was needed – optimism. Get things done! The people celebrated and rallied to the flag.
The pandemic started in China. Well it would be China wouldn’t it – a government we didn’t approve of and poor animal husbandry which may have given rise to the first cases. We had been through this before without too much disruption. Our Prime Minister, with undaunted optimism, shook hands with the people after we had all learned we should not. He talked of the virus as the hidden enemy to be defeated. In three months, the worst would be over, and the people would be united in admiration of their saviour. But this epidemic, now a pandemic, grew. First it was the warning, the premonition of disaster such as people had not experienced. Closer it came, and we saw Italy overwhelmed. A tsunami, no less. We waited, with trepidation, watching, while other countries locked down. Too late, we locked down too, so that it was then a relief. If locked down, we couldn’t catch it.
Then it was the shock – finding all social contacts cut off overnight. Waking up to realise that there was no course to attend, no pubs, no physical contact with friends or family. No meals out – not out at all for some. It was like a heavy fall of snow – novelty, obliteration of all the usual noise of life and a sense that ‘we’re all in it together’, as our trusted government kept saying. In a snow storm people brighten up, greet each other, smile because ‘we’re all in it together’ and neighbours help each other out. People discovered technology and how much non-verbal communication (mediated by video) added to conversation. Some constructed a virtual social life with engagements, sharing a drink or a meal with friends on video. Television showed people having virtual parties, making music together, doing workouts in the living room while children were home-schooled.
But just as snow turns to slush the cheer evaporated. Television showed daily graphs of the death toll mounting to unimagined levels, and grieving families losing their loved ones, unable to say good-bye. Stress was harder to deal with and became magnified when there was no-one to share it. Older people were desperate to see grandchildren. We were not all in it together or, if we were, some were much deeper in than others. Some had large houses, big gardens, and cars so that public transport could be avoided. Others were cooped up in over-crowded high-rise flats where tensions mounted and there was little green space to absorb it. Domestic abuse rose steeply. We saw our Prime Minister become ill. Saviour, heal thyself. He was saved by the NHS.
Depression grew. People were sleeping badly. A video cannot replace a child on one’s knee or a hug. The cheerfulness with which the lock-down began had evaporated, eroded by the long drawn-out realities of ‘the new normal’ and uncertainties about the future, including jobs and social life. Anger started to grow and with that the conviction that our government was not saving us and had, in fact, contributed to our problems. There was anger that ‘test and trace’ was still not functioning effectively. Anger with individuals close to the government who were perceived to have broken their own rules. With this came reduced willingness to co-operate and the realisation that we had placed our faith in an idol with feet of clay. The rest of the world looked on with astonishment.
People found another saviour with better credentials– the NHS. This organisation had coped heroically against impossible odds. It had real martyrs who had died from infection caught at work. It had its saints, the excellence of whose work was described in hushed tones on the news channels. The people decided a weekly session of worship and praise of their new saviour should be observed and, every Thursday evening, they stood outside their homes clapping and making music for the NHS. Large amounts of money were collected for NHS charities. But NHS staff were not meant to be saints – they feared the people expected too much of them. They would prefer better pay.
So what comes next? People fear another lockdown. The economy is threatened with all the consequences implied. The government has lost our trust. Co-operation is fraying. To whom can the people turn? Some put their faith in the love that they see flourishing in communities where mutual aid is given generously. Some place their hope in a future where perhaps the low paid will be valued for their essential contribution to society and economic benefits will be more equitably distributed. Perhaps this will eventually save us. If only.