What does a healthy recovery look like when what came before wasn’t good for us either?
Hello, it’s been a while. It turns out being lucky enough to find a job that involves writing and researching all day is bad for the creative, spare time writing process. Especially when it involves a four-hour daily commute. Plus, sometimes it’s easy to lose faith in yourself, and feel like what you have to say either doesn’t have the right words available or doesn’t seem like something anyone else would want to read.
But everything – really, everything – is different right now. I haven’t seen my office in two months and I suspect I may not see it until 2021. Not that I’m especially sad about that, other than missing my colleagues and the numerous joys of London. I can work just fine in our nice little home, with our foster cat, patch of garden and nature reserve just a careful, people-dodging 20 minute walk away.
And perhaps, when it comes to a creative release, it’s worth getting the words out no matter how clumsy they are and regardless of the audience.
So below is a meandering selection of thoughts on the current COVID-19 crisis. They aren’t especially coherent, and definitely raise more questions than answers. But it felt nice to get them down anyway.
I know I am definitely one of the lucky ones. It induces a strange feeling of guilt and relief. Although circumstances mean we’re a single-salary household for now, we can still afford the bills and to support our local cake shop for a weekend treat. I can’t hug or have long, chatty dinners with friends, but we can speak online and chat through windows when dropping off supplies to share. I’m fine.
Except none of us are fine, are we, really? Before I expand on that, it is clear that there are degrees of ‘not fine’, on a scale so expansive neither end can realistically imagine the other. Take for example, Syrians living in refugee camps where humanitarian organisations describe their situation as “more scared of starvation than they are of the coronavirus”. Closer to home here in the UK, homeless people, who have been put up in hotels and given support through the outbreak in unprecedented numbers so far, now face being sent back to the streets as a leaked report suggests the government will stop funding the outreach programme. The health and social care workers who have seen unimaginable death and suffering, while risking their own lives, to treat and care for people with coronavirus. And that’s before we even get on to the potential mental health crisis after this eventually subsides.
At the other end of the privilege scale, while regular air travel is down 60%, there is a tenfold increase in private jet bookings. There have been fears that people travelling to their holiday homes to ‘lock down’ outside of cities were spreading the virus further, as well as putting pressure on local health services which were not expecting the sudden additional population growth.
So for those of us somewhere in the middle, who have been lucky enough to hunker down somewhere safe and habitable, with a bit of a financial and social safety net to catch us, why do I feel a sense of distinct unease and unhappiness when I think about our future return to normality? Is it selfish to fear ‘getting back to normal’ when our normal was really quite nice in comparison to so many?
Because I absolutely do. For the first time in my life, the riverbed and underwater plants are visible in the river that runs through the town because the water is so much clearer. We can breathe easier, possibly due to the massive drop in air pollution. We can hear birds and not cars when we’re out. We check in with and share more things with our neighbours and people in the street are friendlier. I have time to cook healthy meals and exercise before work. I’m no longer permanently exhausted and using weekends to catch up on sleep, or to batch cook meals I’ll bolt down after work, having been stuck on a delayed train for four hours, before collapsing into bed to do it all again the next day. I find myself mourning the thought of when the river gets dirty again and I can no longer see the fish in it.
I think it would be a mistake to pretend these feelings don’t matter, or that it’s just middle-class handwringing. Because these things – healthy air, soil and water, time with loved ones and time to slow down – are important to everyone’s ability to thrive, even more so to those who don’t have the time or money to think about them now.
In the rush to return to ‘normal’, we need to realise how abnormal ‘normal’ was. It should not be normal for 320,000 people to be homeless in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world. It should not be normal that the World Health Organization estimates seven million people are killed each year as a result of air pollution – all those lives lost matter just as much. It is absurd that a care assistant’s average salary in the UK is £8.94 an hour, just 22 pence more than the legal minimum if you’re over 25 years old. How is it a job that involves keeping other people safe, happy and alive is considered to be worth so little?
‘Normal’ should not mean having to return to previous levels of air pollution for the sake of ‘progress’. It should not mean people in hard, low-paid jobs can go back to life merely being a struggle rather than a living hell.
The difficulty with this is that our entire system is geared towards economic wellbeing, rather than personal or planetary wellbeing. An economic recovery, even when it comes, will not benefit us all equally. If a more even wealth distribution would mean fewer private jets but that care assistants could afford to save money, I’d be all for it. But how do we do that? How do we reconcile the fact that the current system needs us to go out and buy stuff, with the fact that so much of this stuff will directly or indirectly pollute the air and the water again?
These are the questions I struggle with at the moment.
Again and again, it comes back to the feeling that everything needs to change, and not just go back to normal.
Another thought that has plagued me is how much of a privilege it is to have choice. I love the extra time I have, and may consider moving permanently to part-time work, therefore paying less tax and spending less money. I mend my broken clothes and goods rather than buying new, am happy to take a long walk rather than jump in a car, and only tend to buy things I need rather than want (aside from that occasional slice of cake).
Environmentally, this is all good. But for us ‘simple living’ advocates, we need to make it clear we understand that for those with much less, there is no joy to be taken in being ‘thrifty’ when it is done by necessity and with no option to opt out. As we turn our thoughts to the bigger picture of recovery, environmentalists and our ilk need to be careful to not align the language of the climate crisis with people’s experience of what is happening now: the poor are fed up with making sacrifices for the rest of us, and the rich who are rich enough to know they be ok (at least in the short term) frequently aren’t interested in paying anything more than lip service.
So what to do? For those of us lucky enough to do so, probably continue to hunker down for a while yet. But let’s start thinking and talking about what we want next. It may not be much, but here are a few options:
- Talk to others about how they’re feeling – is there a groundswell of people with an appetite for change?
- Learn a bit about, and then consider lobbying your MP (or other representative, depending on where you are) about different economic ideas for recovery, such as Universal Basic Services or Universal Basic Income.
- Read about just how unequal our society is, and the difference this actually makes, in The Equality Effect, by Danny Dorling.
- Or, try Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, a brilliant and innovative look at how “to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet”.
- Support your local, ethical independent businesses for things you do need, with a gift card for future use if they aren’t open now. Don’t let the convenience of Amazon eclipse its tax avoidance or environmental issues.
I was reminded of a long-forgotten quote in an article I read earlier today: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” If we let normal slip back in unnoticed, we lose an opportunity to make something better. Rarely – I hope – will we have such a chance again, and to come out of such suffering and have learned nothing would be the biggest mistake of all.