• jm40556

Playing the pessimist

Updated: May 19, 2020

That the current peculiar situation is an example of a crisis is no hyperbole. For the majority, at the very least social and economic sacrifices and postponements have been made, with potentially chronic and debilitating effects on lives and livelihoods. A sizeable minority has experienced death or grief as people have faced the acute aspects of the crisis. Nevertheless, governments and organisations assure us that ‘we will beat this virus’. I think this is a struggle to understand at best. Viruses are not enemies against whom an overall defeat or victory can be declared after a favourable balance of triumphs and retreats in battles and campaigns, but phenomena against which some individuals simply survive while some sadly die. But regarding a whole nation, the standard for victory is different and open to opinion. The Government sought to limit COVID-19 deaths to 20000 in this country, or at least the Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, believed less than 20000 deaths would have been a ‘good outcome’. On April Fools’ Day, The Spectator reported that the ‘UK figure now looks likely to stay below 20000’. Since we have well passed this figure and become the deadliest man in Europe, have we lost the war? 

50000, 100000, 500000 to lose the war? More? A nation cannot just dictate the standard for its own win or loss against a virus in some strange collective existential defiance. Throwing a limit like 20000 deaths to the air was something that baffled me from the start anyway, not least because it was so inconsistent with our recognition of the volatile nature of COVID-19. And of course, you have beaten the virus if you only need to stay alive and you are still alive. It is ridiculous to think that COVID-19 could have even got close to killing everyone. But this cannot be the standard of victory for a whole nation lest we fall to our knees; weak and incredibly safe thresholds for victory and ridiculous ones for defeat. A single death along with economic recession in a well-developed country is surely sufficient for a virus in the 21st Century to complacently repose and declare victory in the manner of the old Italian in Catch-22. Shall we just stand and admit defeat rather than declare victory on our knees?

There are persons in their 20s afraid to leave the house, for God’s sake - afraid of their own bloody hands. 

Soon, they will suffer a nasty economic turn. Defeat. We have very much passed the 20000 limit, are experiencing increased unemployment and shattered productivity and are well on course for a recession. The youth is a mess and will be punished for it by bearing the brunt of the upcoming economic collapse. Perhaps we have at least got better as a community. As we live through the lockdown, we may raise the social question before a selective reminiscence on COVID-19 and Society-20 arise, or the impacts of recession divide us and to an equal extent corrupt memories and perspectives of life during the lockdown. 

For all their horrors, wars do give us glorious opportunities to root out the weak, stand up to evil, improve our society, boost employment and learn from the past. Perhaps the current situation can bear a resemblance with wars in this respect and may be said to be ‘beaten’ because we have gained ground on social cohesion and community spirit. Crises in this country are often followed by claims that we beat them and came together more than before and improved our community credentials. Terms now on the waves include community, social unity and cohesion, a sense of togetherness and a common will. Not long before COVID-19, we were quite bitterly divided over Brexit and other issues not entirely disconnected from it, including political correctness and a divide of generational interests. Many now seem to be firmly behind Mr Johnson, which is something that must be given to the argument of social cohesion. Yet I have still not come across anyone who can confidently supply an example of a solidly Johnson accomplishment or quality such to justify the occupation of the highest office in the land. We should remember that Brexit is in strong part on account of the Prime Minister, who arguably pursued it for his own advancement, is surely almost wholly dependent on the scientists now, called the lockdown too late and is inconsistent with Wales and Scotland in the easing of lockdown. Regarding and regardless of COVID-19, whom and what are we behind, exactly? Surely not someone whose central and perhaps only appeal is his image-based, substance-free electability and odd bumbling speech? Now, my point here is that there is probably a lack of sincerity and substance behind the cohesion, something that I intend to show is the case in other examples, as well as a potential irony that the man whom we are now behind in this example of greater unity and cohesion was possibly integral to the division that has made any sense of greater unity quite easy since the start of this year when Brexit was finally passed. Indeed, recent times before this pandemic were themselves extraordinary and of the kind where society is more disposed to division. With the decision of Brexit settled by the start of the pandemic and the latter working to obliterate thoughts about Brexit in any case, the removal of this stimulus of division, if you will, is naturally going to draw an appearance of greater unity. But much of that unity is only a return to the norm, something that arguably would have happened anyway with Brexit far more settled and the Tory Party cruising on a convincing majority. Thus, it is no wonder that writer Fergus Smith says ‘we appear to be more ‘together’ than we have been in recent times’. It is easy to rise from a low base. And it is easy to find examples of greater community when trying hard to look for them.

Now, it stands that we were divided before the outbreak and few can deny that there have been many admirable examples of unity and cohesion since the pandemic began. Smith’s belief that COVID-19 has encouraged a sense of social unity is not unreasonable, nor is it unusual. According to fresh data from the ONS, just over half of people think that COVID-19 will be followed by unity, while just under 70% believe we will be kind. These are marked increases compared to responses about life before the pandemic, which show that fewer than half of respondents answered with the affirmative in these variables. Unlike Brexit and almost all other matters, COVID-19 has affected all of us negatively and heightened all manner of anxieties. Most of us have also for the largest part followed the rules of lockdown, so we have been united in this respect for the greater good: fewer deaths and an NHS that can tread water. However, it has not affected us all equally, nor have we responded without a heavy dose of self-interest or lack of regard for others. I find Smith’s article quite peculiar, for he identifies some facts that compel one to disbelieve in an immense sense of social unity (surely an exaggeration), including the rise in cases of domestic abuse. In fact, at the beginning of April, Refuge, a domestic abuse charity, recorded a 25% increase in calls compared to when the lockdown was called. This was followed by a staggering 700% increase in a single day, not including the greater traffic on its website or the rise in calls to other domestic abuse charities. Refuge went on to report an increased number of calls across April compared to previous months. What appears to be a sharp increase in the rate of domestic abuse is intimately linked to the conditions of lockdown and is the antithesis of social cohesion and kindness at the most intimate level (of all people, your partner should care for you). This is especially the case if the lockdown has been followed by a substantial number of new instances of domestic abuse, and the numbers suggest it almost undoubtedly has, although we do not know if anyone has become a permanent abuser during the lockdown. 

Any sense of national unity the pandemic inspires is vulnerable to erosion as we over-compensate for our confinement in the transition, and in the face of the acceleration of social conflict and competition seething beneath the surface of this collective test. At the heart of this pandemic is in fact a very unevenly experienced situation...

…argues Sophia Gaston, Director of the British Foreign Policy Group, who has shown that the notion of a shared reality behind the lockdown is not far short of a myth. For example, being confined to an apartment or high-occupancy council house unsurprisingly offers a profoundly different experience to that in a countryside retreat. Even political divisions have continued, some of which have increased, with some linked to the typical factors like age (source below).

The pandemic has not only raised tensions via lockdown. It has also created an opportunity for exploitative practice, and not just that outside of the law (which has also occurred), which speaks to selfish gain rather than a community spirit. According to the Evening Standard, hand sanitiser has sold for up to 5000% its recommended retail price. Even second-hand sanitiser has been sold on eBay pounds above its value. These facts are not all justified by supply-demand economics, but pure greed at the expense of others (not necessarily that wrong or unusual a thing, by the way, but hardly consistent with a community spirit). The pandemic and lockdown have not been free of feeding on vulnerabilities, with a nasty array of scams, forgeries and fake news all exploiting novel financial and health insecurities. Meanwhile, pre-existing vulnerable persons have suffered negation. Lindsay Boswell, CEO of the food charity FareShare argued that the ‘dramatic increase in consumer demand and clearing of shelves and stocking’ meant their ‘supply chain was cut off at the knees’. We have forgotten that not long ago we were stockpiling most ridiculously. Regarding necessity, we did not falter in the pursuit of our own interests first, even going above and beyond the necessary supply for our own reassurance.  

Yet many vulnerable individuals have reported positive feelings about the community. According to ONS, a clear majority of disabled adults feel reassured that members of the community will offer them support during the pandemic and even more have reported that people are doing more to help others during this challenging time. Almost identical proportions (almost 40%) of disabled and non-disabled adults have said they have also shopped or helped complete tasks for neighbours. However, we should note that the millions of furloughed workers and employees now confined to home have newfound time, boredom and potentially less stress to afford pro-community activities. Neighbours may also prove an alternative to friends who cannot be visited. All of this can explain the appearance of a pro-community design. Again, if I may be cynical, we should not be too ready to believe that any example of greater social cohesion is sincere or much more than an illusion. Also, one-off events like the VE-Day anniversary celebrations can temporarily sway one’s overall opinion of the community. According to ONS data, ‘measures of community spirit have increased’ through the lockdown, but this may be due to short-term surface changes like street parties and, as above, more time on the hands of those in the community to engage in activities and assist neighbours. 

In all, we should take claims of greater community with a pinch of salt. While our confinement to the home is commendable, it certainly has not produced a shared social reality. Furthermore, despite limits on our activity, some people have still found opportunities to gain from the pandemic. With a cynical eye, even the examples of greater social cohesion or pro-community activity can be seen as somewhat insincere and temporary.

Jack Margetson

Starting this month, the Nuffield Foundation will run a project of longitudinal data on social cohesion in the context of COVID-19, with samples from Wales, England and Scotland. 

Many communities are responding to the crisis with prosocial behaviour, as neighbours organise for mutual support to help the vulnerable. However, many groups may remain overlooked, such as undocumented migrants, the linguistically disadvantaged, low-income families and gig-economy workers. This study will seek to understand factors that promote or inhibit social cooperation, that mobilise or discourage action in support of others, and that build or undermine the potential for positive relationships between different groups in society. Understanding the social and psychological processes in responses to the pandemic will support policy to build resilience as the crisis proceeds and recedes.

The data will be collected until the end of the year. This is sure to be a fascinating study and one we should all closely and critically read. https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/project/social-cohesion-covid-19

Evening Standard


Fergus Smith


ONS Data


Sophia Gaston  


The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs


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