Increasing numbers of us are becoming restless to get back to normal. What 'normal' means in this context is a return to life that was exactly the same as before, which is reasonable when that means being able to embrace family and friends, to treat other people as people rather than potential vectors of infection and to go on holiday. But the reason we're being told to get back to work is to service the economy.
Like all other nations Britain has been up to its neck in debt since national debt was invented. We began paying off our WW1 debts in 2014 and still haven’t paid off those incurred by the Napoleonic wars. The equivalent of £17bn was paid to 46,000 UK slave owners in 1833 as compensation for the loss of their human 'property' which was only paid off in 2015. Running a national and international economy is not like home budgeting, economics is entirely based in ideology, not maths. At the end of WW2 Britain's debt exceeded 200% of GDP the country was in ruins and we created the NHS, a decent welfare system and built nearly a million council homes. That was profoundly abnormal. Our current debt is 85.2% of GDP
So while we do need to speed our economy up there’s no natural law - like the sun coming up or the inevitability of death - that says that nothing must change. C19 has illuminated just what a choice “normal” is. For years, disabled people have been saying that they can work and study effectively from home and have been told that it would be too difficult to organise. They’re also unwilling experts in the effects of social and cultural isolation yet within the space of two weeks museums, theatres, galleries, opera houses and other institutions became accessible to everyone. Instant experts on screen fatigue are being consulted by business keen to reduce their liability, while disabled people have been managing it for over two decades.
Two women a week are routinely murdered by a current or ex-partner and under C19 those numbers have more than doubled: are we content to return to normal?
Of course children trapped in abusive households must be rescued, but hasn’t that always been the case? We didn’t seem to care as much about education being a respite for them pre-pandemic.
Children must be educated but we’ve clearly seen that education’s current foundational purpose is childcare so that both parents can work. A child’s need for loving, caring touch and attention can be provided by family if all members of the family don’t have to work all the time, and if the family is more than units of isolated couples or single parents. Extended families were normal before the 1980’s, then we were told to 'get on your bike' to seek employment as a means to avoid being identified as a scrounger, and atomisation became the new normal.
What is not being talked about is the very positive impact lockdown is having on mental and physical health for a great many people.
Commuting is an expensive, dismal stress and gaining two hours a day to do with as you please is very welcome. Workplace bullying has been an epidemic from before the Industrial Revolution and working from home offers some respite from it: physical spite is reduced to zero, gossip is limited. While some research shows that some people find the social aspects of working life great fun, more research shows that when fewer leading questions are asked and more time is given for respondents to answer fully, working culture thrives on purposefully constructed competition. For most of us work is a burdensome toil that’s performed for a sense of identity rather than income, more panopticon than anything else.
Quieter voices are daring to say that lockdown has offered them time, peace, pleasure, privacy, opportunity. Never before have parents been expected both to work and to educate their children and many, realising how unreasonable this is, have prioritised domestic harmony over competitive productivity. Educating their children has less to do with comparison emerging as a period of mutual curiosity, pleasure in time spent together and new conversations – nothing heavy, just having the time to talk with each other about anything at all, agenda-free.
Children are relaxing, resting, playing more, discovering boredom and absolutely relishing being with their family.
For these people walking through deserted streets is delightful not unsettling. As a middle aged woman, I can tell you that a 2m-exclusion zone, even if seldom respected, is a joy. I can walk in a straight line rather than having to constantly calculate whether someone has seen me or if they’re going to barge into me. The cessation of construction, traffic and other human noise allows birdsong, the sound of the wind or rain or even – rare as hens teeth – silence; not boring or disconcerting but a balm. These quieter voices are saying that they greatly appreciate the time to think, to observe - not to fulfil a quota of ‘mindfulness’ but because they would like to spend 5 uninterrupted minutes looking at, listening to, being with something. For them, the routine of waking, working, eating, sleeping and the organisation that supports it all, has fallen softly and naturally into place without the noisy demands of an extravert, neurotic society warping the authentic shape of their lives. Their stress levels are way down.
And many say that that they won’t share their contentment too widely because they’ve been accused of not caring about people dying from C19.
We live in a world driven by other people’s anxiety and inability to be still, to endure or even to be aware of the noise in their head. Therapists are noticing that some patients who, pre-C19, were anxious or depressed are now much less so. What was making them anxious and depressed was the manner in which they were forced to live, utterly against their nature. These are not dreamy poets, they’re ordinary people who are unable to warp their nature sufficiently to feel comfortable in the world. Neither are they particularly privileged: I’ve spoken informally with middle managers, bus drivers, horticultural, restaurant, retail and local authority workers and precarious freelancers from a great many sectors.
Perhaps most interestingly people on benefits are suddenly able to relax. Freed from the bitter enmity of the DWP they have the space to recover and to seek opportunities in a very different world. This is a world where 1.8 million people suddenly had to apply for Universal Credit and where everyone is forced to have a small taste of the very curtailed life that claimants must endure full time. Bear in mind that almost overnight the DWP was able to increase the standard rate of UC and local housing allowance, issue 700,000 advance payments, make statutory sick payment available from day 1 of illness and be generally agile and helpful, so that new claimants really are not experiencing the shock and cold fear of being subjected to a sadistic sausage factory of poverty and contempt. But every little helps.
The world that benefit claimants, the disabled, the working poor live in is now somewhat shared by all and it’s not a ‘lifestyle choice’ for any. Growing numbers of ordinary people are discovering that there might be a choice in the way we move forward, that there is life beyond commute/perform/repeat; that family life can be rich and rewarding; that the majority of children and parents thrive most of the time when they're allowed that time; that boredom can be amazingly creative. How brutally abnormal life has become when we have to be reminded that sleep is necessary, not an inconvenience or luxury but as imperative as water.
As pressure mounts for a return to normal, have the bravery to listen to the voice that resists it, not through fear but through determination to make a life that’s better for you, the you that is more than a cog in a machine or an economic unit. You’ve seen what happens to cogs and units that are considered worn out or unproductive: you’re worthy of better than that. Everyone is.
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