How the pandemic has made us less human, an essay, by Mary Harrington, reject the 'new normal'
#Pandemic #Lockdown #Normal #Virus
The hawthorns were pale green when the first lockdown started, and we all clapped for carers. The grass was lush and everywhere full of flowers while people argued about Dominic Cummings driving to Barnard Castle, and cities went up in flames in the Black Lives Matter riots.
The hedgerows were thick with fruit as the reign of Donald Trump drew to an end (as did that of Dominic Cummings). The mud was ankle-deep, churned by hoofprints and frozen solid when Boris rammed the Brexit deal through at the 11th hour, and not long afterwards a horned shaman invaded the US Capitol in Washington.
Lockdown days have a way of blurring into one another, but my year has been marked out by the changing of the hedgerows as I ran along endless miles of footpaths.
Reflecting on that year of Covid is like trying to grasp the layout of someone's house by peering through the keyhole.
It's difficult to get any sense of perspective when we're all confined to our homes, with only algorithmically filtered online news feeds to supply information about the outside world. The temptation is to allow every perspective to fall away, save the most personal experiences and the most general 'public conversation'.
It would be easy enough to write a review of the year from the personal perspective: all hedgerows and emotion. It would be as easy to write a breezy round-up of the year's public conversations, which have been loud (to say the least) and increasingly surreal.
But there's another story of the pandemic's impact that's far harder to see in either of these frameworks.
This has been the deliberate shattering, in the name of virus control, of what was left of our common life.
Between individual experiences and those on the bigger scale of national or international politics lies most of human society: clubs, church groups, voluntary associations, the whole organic life of communities great and small. All of this relies on peer- to-peer social connection – and it was all abruptly halted by lockdown.
When the pandemic struck, there was a rash of hopeful articles about how this crisis might strengthen civil society bonds, and make us more aware of how interdependent we are as a society.
This all happened, to an extent.
Mutual aid organisations sprang up, often with faith communities at the forefront, seeking to plug gaps and bring help to those struggling under lockdown. There were waves of volunteers to help the NHS, deliver vaccines and pick fruit.
But against that new-found voluntarism we must weigh the impact the past year has had on countless existing institutions, social settings and relationships.
For Covid has accelerated what I think of as 'the disintermediation of everything'.
In the 2000s, when the internet hit the mainstream with the launch of Facebook, eBay and their ilk, there was lots of chatter about the way amateurs might use the internet to route round intermediate institutions. This, the apostles of the digital revolution believed, would impel a great democratisation and empowerment of smaller players.
That was the theory.
What it meant in practice was centralisation. Think of the way Facebook replaced local newspapers, and the advertising revenue they once earned made Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest men in the world. Now, Covid rules have brought that centralisation – with its many losers and tiny number of winners – to all of life.
Compelled to close by pandemic policy, by June 2020 more than 11,000 small and medium-sized shops had gone out of business. One report estimates that 48 businesses closed for good every day in 2020.
It's not just the high street: another report estimates that by last September, 240,000 small and medium-sized businesses of all types went to the wall.
But that didn't apply evenly to all businesses – it fell disproportionately on smaller ones. Online grocery retailer Ocado saw 35 per cent growth over 2020, while Amazon saw 84 per cent growth. Wherever in the world there were lockdowns, small businesses struggled and died, and big ones got bigger.
The assault extends to the voluntary sector. As donations wavered and high-street charity shops have been forced to close, one report estimates that even charities face a wave of consolidation, with smaller, more niche bodies folding their sometimes highly specific local remits into the more general one of larger organisations.
The effect is even being felt in churches. The Bishop of Manchester warned in January that Covid will accelerate the closure of yet more Anglican churches, as loss of collection income meets already dwindling congregations, to render the upkeep of ancient buildings unaffordable. Reports suggest the Church of England is now proposing to increase parish sizes and cull mid-ranking clergy in order to trim costs.
At an informal level, there have been many losers.
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