ritain is trapped in lockdown purgatory. In Liverpool, where I live, we are back to square one, with an “R” rate estimated at just over 1. This means that the vast majority of people have stayed indoors, without sending their children to school, or seeing their friends and family for almost three months, only to find out that the coronavirus, and the risk of passing it on to others, is still in circulation. Now what?
Our household of four – two adults working at home, two children of primary school age – is normally increased by many visitors. I know from my early experiences that nuclear families contain unexpressed pressure and trauma that can only be relieved by constant engagement with the outside world, but the March lockdown imposed this rigid nuclear model almost without warning.
We stayed in our bubble, believing it was temporary, and did well for a good eight weeks, blessed with good weather and a decent backyard, despite a disturbing suspicion that Zoom calls could become considered a satisfactory replacement of real relationships. Sometimes locking has only seemed possible because our household has the resources to make it tolerable.
The government’s message then changed, that it was up to individual households not only to have virtual social relationships, educate children and keep the economy running, but also to “control the virus”. I started to wonder if there was a method – however buried it was unconscious – in this. After all, who needs society – and its social support systems – when you have nuclear families and stoic individuals?
Locking was necessary, but in the past few weeks, he started to feel insidious and false. I could only identify this feeling by reading the 1970 book by sociologist Richard Sennett The Uses of Disorder, who imagines a young girl of the near future growing up in “a neighborhood that does not allow her family or her circle of friends to be intensive and interior -turning… [there] would be a natural social life born of the need for common action. “
Joint action depends on social life. Whenever people are ordered to withdraw from physical society, it is necessary to ask who and for what purpose they are doing it. At first, the answer was clear: it was for the other, and it was for the NHS. But then the hospitals – in most cases – weren’t overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. The intensive care units, for the most part, were never full. A&E services emptied overnight and hospitals in Nightingale were almost never used.
It became clear in April and May that thousands of people died during this crisis from causes other than the coronavirus. To give an example, 10,000 more people with dementia died than would normally happen in the same period, in addition to those who are known to have died with Covid-19. They may have died because, to put it bluntly, an attempt to prioritize the quantity of their lives rather than quality has backfired.
My father, 75 this week, has dementia and moved to a care home near me last year. His home is one of the few in Liverpool that has so far been uninfected and, of course, his staff want it to stay that way. But he is getting more and more confused. He hasn’t been out of the house since March 22. Since my visits were limited to a quick wave from the porch when I put down his Guinness and his crisps, he spends most of the day sleeping and gradually loses his sense of time and its meaning.
How long can we say we protect the elderly – and all the vulnerable – during the pandemic while making so few arrangements for their integration into society? The government and its scientific advisers know that reducing infections in nursing homes is necessary to avoid a second wave. But what we knows that, throughout the pandemic, the Conservatives were used to treating a public health crisis as an exercise in political management, which resulted in a social and economic crisis of a magnitude that he seems to have little interest in recognize, let alone deal with.
The government Solution isolation and unemployment is the reopening of garden centers, “non-essential” stores and beer gardens. There has been no major media splash on the reopening of public libraries, swimming pools and toilets, nor has there been any attempt by the government to find – or fund – ways for schools to resume classes using outdoor spaces or that nursing homes allow physical visitors. The best that we have shown in 40 years of “benchmark economic growth”, it seems, is a pathological aversion to the civic sphere.
The result is a locked twilight area, where public life and private spirits continue to wilt while the idea of being able to go to Next in a car is presented as a return to the kind of normalcy that most people have said that ‘they didn’t even want to. In other words, it’s the worst of both worlds, offering neither the certainty of “staying at home, saving lives” nor the messy reality of everyday public life. It emphasizes and contributes to the inequalities that already exist and bends us towards a society based on withdrawal on the inside rather than on the outside.
In such circumstances, where people from black and ethnic minority groups have a considerably higher risk of mortality from Covid-19, it is galvanizing and encouraging to see the Black Lives Matter protests taking place at a time when we are told to stay indefinitely, unless we have a risky job to go to or we have an overwhelming urge to buy compost.
The protesters have a clear message: we refuse to live like this, and we refuse to die like that. The coronavirus crisis has widened to reveal the effects of social marginality and inequality, and the ways in which race and class work in tandem to compound disadvantage in multiple and deadly forms. If it had taken the pandemic and its aftermath seriously at the outset, the government could have avoided falling into an endless semi-lockdown that will put more lives at risk and make countless others miserable.
• Lynsey Hanley is the author of Estates: an Intimate History and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide