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Corona Diaries: when the clapping stops, it’s down to us, not them

May 22, 2020

The Thursday Clap-In has turned into a national institution. Last night, the BBC produced live coverage of the event in a number of locations around the country. People on streets, the emergency services standing to socially-distanced attention and Boris, making his customary appearance, looking like Harpo Marx without the curls and wearing an ill-fitting suit worthy of Leonid Brezhnev, on the steps of 10 Downing Street. The Queen has yet to make an appearance on the battlements of Windsor Castle, but that must only be a matter of time.

On my road, a few people stuck their noses out from behind their hedges, had a sniff and a clap, and retired again. Some of the familiar faces, people who ordinarily we wouldn’t meet from one month to the next, didn’t show. I don’t judge them. There were a couple of Thursdays when we almost forgot to step outside, only to be alerted by the banging of pots and pans.

It’s now nine weeks of Thursdays, and I sense that for some the exercise is no longer a genuine expression of gratitude. It has become something of a social obligation. In fact I’m reminded of the call to prayer in Saudi Arabia, which rings out simultaneously from neighbouring mosques.

Pots and pans are not as pleasant-sounding as muezzin, and it would insulting to compare the obligation to pray with social expectations on a population that is more often than not embarrassed by displays of emotion on occasions other than football matches, elections and birthday parties. But in both cases, it’s a matter of what society demands that you do, regardless of your own personal inclinations.

I continue to be grateful for the NHS staff who are keeping people alive, but my feelings towards the organisation that employs them and the politicians to whom they are responsible, are less warm. But sorting out systemic failure and exposing human shortcomings is for later. For now, we have to make do with what we have.

As we come out of lockdown, we’re in a bind.

What’s the point in quarantining people arriving in the country when so many exemptions – of agricultural workers for example – are being contemplated? How is it fair that bus drivers, who can’t work from home, will only be able to take holidays in this country, while those who can work from home can take off for a foreign holiday, after which they can come back and work in their own homes during the quarantine period?

What to do about schools when we have no firm grasp of the dynamics of the virus, and track-and-trace appears less feasible every day?

And if the result of widespread abuse of social distancing rules is a second wave, how easy will it be for the government to impose a second lockdown? Almost impossible, I would guess, except in clearly delineated hotspots.

It’s little wonder that faced with such questions, the politicians are huffing and puffing, sending mixed messages, making U-turns on the spur of the moment and working themselves up into a frenzy of confusion over divergent scientific advice.

Are there any silver linings coming out of all this? Possibly yes and possibly no.

The received wisdom is that in times of crisis people crave for Big Leaders with the authority, decisiveness and courage to lead us safely through the hard times. Big Leaders with simple answers and an inclination towards authoritarian rule have not prospered in this pandemic. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the US, Putin in Russia and our own would-be Big Leader have all presided over disaster. Their authority is greatly diminished.

Could it be that far from ushering in an era of dictators who routinely ignore the rule of law, the pandemic will remind us that in the long-term the only viable form of rule is by consensus? Or will we find the bumbling authoritarians being replaced by people who don’t mess around – like generals?

Then there are the dinosaur bosses who insist that their staff can’t work effectively unless they’re where they can see them – stuffed in an office. Habits of decades are being cast aside as people are realising that yes, workers are just as productive at home as they are in the office. Yet what will be the cost of reduced human interaction to information-sharing and creativity, especially if every conversation is potentially recorded?

There’s also the possibility that many of us will emerge from lockdown fitter than we were before. I certainly will. And if we continue with new habits such as walking and cycling instead of driving cars, not only will our health improve but carbon emissions will decline. Or is this just a pause, after which we will resume out former habits?

Finally, and this is something that applies particularly to Brexit Britain, will more of us have learned to rejoice in our ethnically diverse society, now that we’ve seen how much we depend on people from other countries for our well-being? And will our immigration policy reflect a new-found respect for them? Not if Priti Patel, our Home Secretary, has anything to do with it. But if the winds of opinion are changing, she’ll soon change her mind or be swept away.

One thing’s for sure. If we’re to emerge from this tunnel a better-adjusted and happier society, we’re going to have to do far more than step into the street and bang a drum every Thursday. And I do mean us, not some ever-culpable them.

From → Business, Politics, Social, UK

  1. Andrew Robinson permalink

    My guess is a dictator for the UK, voted in of course. Mind you I have just binge-watched the six episodes of “Years and Years” on BBC Iplayer.

    I sincerely hope your analogue meat tenderiser is still operational!

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