There is something remarkably bewildering about living through a pandemic, which, at its very heart, encompasses a jarring juxtaposition of dichotomous realities too facile to formulate. Yet, it is through one profound simplicity, the line between life and death, that a virus-gripped nascent actuality has been modelled.
“Stay at home”. “Quédate en casa”. “Sauvez des vies, restez prudents”. The mere semantic realities espoused by slogans accentuate the era of pandemic existence; a battle between health and illness, protection and disease, the living and the dead. Adjoined with the material symbolism of the mask, civic life is now both fundamentally and functionally defined by bipolar conceptualisations of acting and being.
After all, it is the elusive nature of a respiratory virus, hidden only but for the tragic numbers of deaths across the world, that incapacitates our conventional notions of safety and threatens our way of life. It is a known unknown, an enemy that we know of but struggle to contain and comprehend.
It is within this paradox that the coronavirus has been so ruthless; its invisibility has exposed the core fragility of our societies, further debilitating the remnants of long-redundant civic continuity.
Whilst it is true that the hardship of the past nine months (and one imagines the ensuing months ahead) has, in certain regards, provoked renewed sparks of togetherness, the pandemic has erased the already thinning veneer of social equilibrium born from the aftermath of World War II.
Particular but not exclusive to the UK, the near-collapse of the social care system reaffirmed the callous and asymmetrical basis for which it has been historically managed, whilst simultaneously displaying its bewildering incapacity when confronting an hour of desperate need. This, one imagines, corresponds to the disjointed stratifications of societal division – their problem, not ours.
In the United States, the asymmetry of dichotomies is stark; socioeconomics, race, and political polarisation reflect a strained and deeply splintered social and cultural body politic. Reminiscent of insurrection, the recent storm on the US Congress by the despotic followers of Trump appeared to resemble more demagoguery than democracy.
In November, the pale contrast of civic life was clear: the instrument of democracy was used like never before, only for it to resoundingly confirm splintering social and political divides. More concerning was the resentment which followed, empowered further by worsening economic conditions among the American working-class.
In a relative sense, the collateral damage caused by hyper-individualism has manufactured corrosive linearity, aiding with the gradual chipping away of civic duties borne through the democratic ideal, leaving them unlearned and disregarded. It is through these chasms, then, that civic responsibility has been mercilessly dwarfed, gifting room for which to cultivate the residual divisions seeping through the fabric of contemporary society. Damaged through its indulgence of private power, the liberal ethos has forgotten the principles of community and identity, long syphoned off as secondary considerations in an increasingly atomised world.
It is by peering through this prism that the pandemic life of today appears so obnoxiously contradictory. The brutal tide of fresh COVID-19 cases unleashed on the UK has, as expected, hit the lost and the forgotten, the poor and the have-nots. By mandating confinement measures and stemming circulation, a harsh disparity between those staying at home will only aggravate the fault line of economic asymmetry across the country.
As though it were omnipresent, such stark societal imbalance is scarcely a new phenomenon, but it is its reach that is of most preoccupation. Whether it be access to education, job reduction and loss, or healthcare and quality of life, the “great equaliser” has only served to brutally unearth the scathing difference woven into the fundamental dynamics of societies.
Yet, it is the profound depths of such abstruse inequality that renders the semantics of pandemic public messaging problematic. There lie both vague and explicit notions of connectedness and responsibility in the carefully crafted slogans of virus-era measures, “all in this together”, “protect the NHS”, “levelling-up”.
No matter their rhetorical ingenuity, the engineered amalgamation of togetherness seeks to paint a portrait of Britain that it is not. It is the Divided Kingdom. And across the pond, it is the Divided States of America.
One can only hope that the post-pandemic years acknowledge these social, political, and economic partitions. The liberal reinvigoration, if there is to be one, must address the destabilising consequences of obnoxious, hypertrophied atomism. In other words, governments must add substance to their semantics. If not, the forecast for the future looks jarringly bleak.