IIf at some point in the future there is a Pandemic Museum, its curators will fight to convey the pulverizing triviality of the confinement. A living room replica and Interactive Zoom installation won’t do it justice.
It’s hard to remember boredom, which has been the defining experience for many. The human mind measures time by the passage of different events. A large routine slab offers no limits; no pegs for remembrance. It seems to last forever, but it leaves a superficial mark. Or do it if you are lucky. To have reached this point in the pandemic with a safe job, a quiet room, without serious infections or the agony of grief, is to have known a pandemic different from that marked by destitution and death.
That is not to underestimate the emotional cost of accommodating confinement. It has been brutal for those who live alone. There is a reason loneliness is used to break the spirit in prisons. It is harrowing to think of those who have been caught with abusive partners or at-risk children from their own parents and have been denied the sanctuary of school. There is no easy hierarchy of ordeals when the entire society is submerged in crisis: the corrosive fluid will find its way into any crevice.
But there is a spectrum of suffering. The language of collective resistance has helped to sustain the public spirit, but it also eludes great sacrifices with acts that, in the larger scheme of human experience, are recorded more as inconveniences: wearing a mask; previous meals.
Most people have kept this in proportion. The description of the confinement as an ordeal for freedom-loving England is overrepresented in the media. It is not the general opinion. But some people do well to inflate tolerable discomfort at human rights abuses. By exaggerating the burden of regulatory compliance now, lockdown skeptics are betting on mass victimization, which they will cash in when the time comes to meet, or avoid, the cost of recovery. If everyone suffered equally, there is less reason for redistribution later; less moral imperative to harness the wealth of those who sat in the floodplain on high ground to compensate those whose livelihoods were wiped out.
We know from George Osborne’s austerity budgets that “we’re all in this together” can be rhetorical sleight of hand. The solidarity claim sounded like an argument in favor of fiscal transfers, but for the most part it was a clever mark on the message that people who had already suffered were going to suffer more, longer.
Last week, Rishi Sunak said his budget involved “asking more of the people and companies that can afford to contribute and protect those that cannot.” It sounded charitable, but there is a lot of flexibility in the word “more.” Nurses have been given a 1% pay increase, which is “more” in nominal terms than before, but still a cut in real terms, and a derisory reward for traumatic front-line service against Covid.
It may seem insensitive to talk now that someone has had a “good pandemic,” but it is dishonest to pretend that the nation will emerge from the darkness together, with a story to tell. The disease has devastated some and saved others. It grows deadlier with age, but it also appears to have discriminated on racial grounds for reasons that are not yet fully understood. In part, it is likely also a function of class inequality. Covid thrives on deprivation: overcrowded housing; poor diet; Precarious jobs that make it difficult for people to isolate themselves or be absent from work due to convalescence.
Some have saved money from accrued wages. Others have spent little savings and accumulated debt to stay solvent. The blockade has been more expensive for the people who could least afford it.
A publication of repressed consumption by the lucky group will generate flattering growth statistics, although that economic rebound will leave millions behind. Boris Johnson MPs will resist efforts to force winners to subsidize losers on the appropriate scale. The conservative cult of self-reliance generally provides intellectual anesthesia against the discomfort of living in a highly unequal society. There is less duty to worry about unemployment once it presents itself as a self-inflicted penalty for inactivity. It becomes more difficult to argue in the same vein when a pandemic is the cause of people’s suffering, but then the myth of collective sacrifice and the rhetoric of “hard decisions” can be applied to ease wealthy consciences. We are all in this together. Some are deeper than others.
Britain has shape when it comes to narrating historical tribulations in terms that turn uneven traumas into a heroic ball. We talk about national stoicism without realizing how easy it is to be stoic with money in the bank. Johnson is a skilled political storyteller and will want the winners to write the history of this era – a story of massive tolerance in the face of inevitable calamity and a happy ending as we all form an orderly queue for the vaccine.
That story will appeal to those who only endured extreme inconvenience. No one wants to admit to being the winner of a tragedy, but a pink mist will soon descend on the lucky ones. Nostalgia will color the space where few different memories have been formed. Then a new division will emerge, between those who should remember the pandemic badly and those who saw its true face and cannot forget.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism