Coronavirus

There was nothing idyllic about lockdown

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The UK has entered a state of Stockholm syndrome. According to Google, this refers to when ‘hostages bond with their captors’ after facing abuse. The public has been quite literally in a state of captivity for months. Told to remain indoors from March, restrictions on our movements and the amount of time we remain indoors has varied considerably.

What is indisputable is that the public is not truly free. The ‘old normal’ before coronavirus has gone and is unlikely to ever return. Why is this the case? Unusually, this has little to do with the government. It is they who have the power to shape legislation and renew it, as has happened with the Coronavirus Act 2020. As Big Brother Watch has rightly argued, the act severely limits civil liberties.

However, the public has far more control than they think. Laws are enforced by professions like judges and the police. If these groups are to succeed, their roles must be enforced based on consent. Society must be willing to obey rules if they are to have any effect. From a purely practical point, there are far more members of the public, each with their minds, ambitions and desires, than there are enforcement agents.

Indeed, it was the philosopher Rousseau who argued that decisions made by those in authority must reflect the ‘general will’. If they don’t, freedom won’t be possible and the oppressed will rebel. How amazing for the government, then, that the public has so bonded to the notion of long term restrictions. A snap YouGov poll from last month found 78% of people support the 10pm curfew, limiting wedding guests and being advised to work at home.

This has been most relevant to Greater Manchester moving into tier three of the government’s new restrictions, requiring most places of hospitality – unless they serve food – to close. This undoubtedly restricts the freedom of individuals to enjoy leisure and maintain their employment security. The consequences of this are severely damaging.

Nonetheless, the threat to liberty from an encroaching state was barely mentioned in the discussion. Instead, Greater Manchester’s civic future turned into a farcical debate between Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and the government. Initially, £90m was asked for, which then became £65m. As the government guaranteed only £60m, no deal was struck, leaving the region in tier three with just £22m.

The economic support that the government provides is vital. Money and financial security have to be available for those outside work, alongside businesses which have been forced to close. If the UK is to reduce the pandemic’s severity, an effective test and trace system is also necessary.

But the argument over what kind of future the UK and the world want to enjoy cannot be pushed to one side. It shouldn’t be left for academics and policy formulators to construct. The public shouldn’t be left waiting on tenterhooks for one restrictive government announcement after the other. I fear, however, that the public and politicians have almost begun to fetishize lockdowns as a long term solution in themselves.

Politicians recognise that some opposition exists to a full-scale lockdown. The term ‘circuit breaker’, essentially a lockdown in all but name, has instead entered public discourse. Proposed by both Keir Starmer and SAGE scientists, the question never answered is what those in power expect to happen after the fortnight has concluded. The Welsh Government, whatever the opposition, have announced a two-week lockdown that strongly mirrors what the entire UK faced in March. The only caveat appears that schools will remain open. Of course, in hindsight, they should have never closed in the first place.

The announcements have beckoned minimal opposition or protest. Where this has occurred, it has mainly been a coalition of 5G, vaccination and Bill Gates conspiracy theorists, who harm any cause of freedom with their dangerous, nonsense rhetoric. From the rest of the public, if there hasn’t been a fetishisation of lockdown, it is a weary attitude of inevitability. 2020 has already been so awful. What’s so terrible about spending the rest of the year locked up?

This attitude cannot be allowed to prevail. The comparisons between wartime and COVID-19 are, on the whole, inaccurate and unnecessary. One area of unity is leaders wishing to give the impression things will be over soon. As everyone loves Christmas, seeing 2021 as the glimmer of light and normality at the end of the tunnel brings hope and optimism.

That just won’t be the case. Eradication of COVID-19 looks near impossible. As the Guardian has argued, even a long-awaited vaccine will only deliver a certain level of protection and fail to ensure everyone is safe. If we are, as best as possible, to live with the virus, repeatedly going in and out of lockdown is not sustainable. However much humans may be animals, a disputed philosophical and psychological argument, it is not within our nature to hibernate every three months.

Some have tried to distract from the disaster of lockdown. Sophie Ellis-Bextor is a fantastic artist, and throughout lockdown, her kitchen discos were prolific for bringing enjoyment when in-person discos were impossible. Recently, she has announced a Halloween themed kitchen disco. Although this will create short term pleasure, it inadvertently reinforces the notion that humans should be separated, spending as much time apart from one another as possible.

Throughout the main lockdown period, pioneers for positivity tried to present elements of normality among the differences experienced by everyone. Every weekday for months, Joe Wicks would livestream a YouTube workout, aimed at parents and their children, to improve fitness. This was reflective of the country. According to Nuffield Health, 76% of Brits took up at least one new form of exercise after the lockdown began, with walking, jogging and yoga being the most popular options.

Of that 76%, more than eight in ten stated that they wanted to continue their exercise in a ‘new normal’. On the surface, exercise is brilliant. It was truly shameful that gyms were forced to temporarily close in Merseyside after it became the first region to reach tier three. Now thankfully back open, it is obvious that being fit and healthy is the key to combating any disease, coronavirus or otherwise.

That being said, it shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to find time for healthiness. While a sudden change can force individuals to reassess their lifestyles, people who are committed to being active should find methods to achieve this outside of lockdown. Being permanently inside as a means of staying fit is no desirable alternative. Time should be found elsewhere.

Similarly, many individuals, myself included, enjoyed the extra time for baking and cooking. The Bakery and Snacks website reported that 53% of the nation baked in the first two months of lockdown, with 37% baking bread and 34% trying cookies. Cooking from scratch at home is a wonderful thing, not least if children are being taught recipes they will remember for life. However, it once again shouldn’t take a pandemic for individuals to appreciate the importance of cooking.

It’s also important to remember that any time a child was cooking was a time not spent at school. Alongside this, the food hospitality sector was decimated and continues to struggle. Regardless of how much the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme helped the recovery, those months of trade were entirely lost. Some businesses, whatever the financial support, will never open again.

When people stepped outside of their houses, either into their gardens, local parks or pavements, they reflected on the beauty of hearing birdsong, the peace and quiet and cleaner air. These positives will have masked the reality of lockdown. The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) own figures showed 10.6 million of those employed, accounting for 33% of the total workforce, were key workers. The sights they will have seen are ones no human should have to bear. Dire testing, inadequate PPE, vulnerable children, abandoned elderly people, appalling mental health, premature death. It is a literal dystopia.

The rollout of excellent broadband as a solution to human isolation is irrelevant. Even if everyone had access to fast speed internet, it would be no meaningful way of life. Permanently staring at a screen, one can easily feel lonely and disconnected with the world. The ScienceDirect website argues the internet before the pandemic was a replacement for in-person companionship. This must not be allowed over the long term.

Viewing habits transferring online is most notable with the entertainment industries. The National Theatre bought some hope by broadcasting 16 plays for free every Thursday on YouTube. While it provided a welcome alternative, it never matched the theatre. As the Stage website found, 23% of arts, entertainment and recreation companies reported a severe or moderate risk of insolvency. This compared to just 11% generally across industries. 

There is nothing idyllic about watching a play or film, experiencing a museum, art gallery, attending a virtual concert compared to the real-life alternative. If people are repeatedly told to stay indoors, the migration away from such shared institutions will be permanent.

A lockdown, in my mind, was a sad necessity back in March. We simply weren’t aware of how serious the virus was. The government wanted to act with the best of intentions to ensure the elderly and vulnerable were protected. The rapid spread of coronavirus had to be maintained. However, such drastic measures can only be temporary measures for buying a country’s time. Time to do what? Increase testing capacity, ensure Nightingale hospitals are available and protect care homes.

There is no case or the local purpose for lockdown now. Nostalgia over the extra time it provided is a reason for getting outside and reshaping society. If the public is to adopt Stockholm syndrome, it should perhaps be to look at that very capital and country of Sweden. While no country – not even New Zealand – has initiated a perfect response to COVID-19, the Scandinavian country full of history and culture could provide the beginning of a pathway for coping with coronavirus in the long term.

Cover Image: Kwh1050 via Wikimedia Commons. Licence here.

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