Vvolunteers from Sikh communities, some from as far away as Coventry, provide food for truck drivers stranded in Kent. Scotland’s Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologizes for violating Covid rules after a newspaper published photos of her talking to three elderly women at a wake, socially estranged but standing and unmasked.
Not just two very different events, but also two events that represent polar opposites of what we might call the “public mindset” in the pandemic. One, an act of giving, the other of finger pointing, both of which have become essential parts of Covid culture, exposing the tensions that now define our social relationships.
When the pandemic forced the first shutdown in March, there was high hope that the crisis would bring people together. Community support has blossomed this year because it has had to: voluntary organizations, mutual aid groups, food banks have stepped in to cover up the failures of the state. However, what has also flourished is the kind of “public mindset” exemplified by the Sturgeon affair: the call on individuals for minor infractions of Covid rules.
There is something to be said for greater scrutiny of politicians or other public figures, especially those who impose or demand limits on public behavior, but seem to imagine that such regulations do not apply to them. However, if we really want to hold politicians accountable, it would be much better to challenge the corruption and chumocracy that has embedded itself in Covid politics, or the failures of administrations in both London and Edinburgh to protect nursing homes or organize properly test systems, than simply reveling in personal lapses.
What the culture of denunciation reveals is cynicism not only about hypocritical politicians, but also about people in general, a willingness to see the worst in humans, a relentless view of people’s indiscretions. In the spring, polls showed that most people thought they were observer of the closure measures, but also that most other people were not. Now a poll suggests that a third of the public blame the government for the recent surge in coronavirus cases, but the majority blame other people.
None of this should surprise us. Trust in others is based on our ability to relate to them and in a flourishing public sphere. To chat at work, argue over a pint in the pub, mingle after worship in a mosque, church or synagogue, debate at a seminary or public meeting, or simply gossip with a friend you meet on the street, All of these little moments collectively serve as the foundations of a prosperous civil society. Much of this has taken away the pandemic and the closures and tiers. Zoom calls emphasize the distance between people as much as they allow them to interact. In a more atomized and self-isolated society, the community mentality becomes more difficult, touching others in a more natural and acceptable way.
The culture of denouncing and public shaming of people has long been a built-in feature of social media. As real life has become more individualized and fragmented, it can sometimes start to resemble interaction on social media.
In his book Humanity, the Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman challenges the “persistent myth” that civilization is nothing more than a thin layer that cracks at the slightest provocation ”. In fact, Bregman observes, the opposite is true, that people are generally sociable and generous, especially in a crisis, while all the time they believe that “by their very nature humans are aggressive, selfish and quick to panic.” .
Covid, however, is a crisis like few others. While other crises, from Aberfan to Grenfell, from Hurricane Katrina to the 2004 tsunami, have forced people to work together to provide support and assistance, Covid, and the response from authorities, has required further individualization of the society, in which distancing and self-isolation have become the most vital expressions of social solidarity.
What is remarkable is that at a time when the public sphere has been so eroded and regulations make it much more difficult to interact with each other, such a high degree of community-mindedness still exists. What brings out the worst in people is not human nature, but the social structures that we inhabit and that shape the ways in which we relate, structures that too often incentivize the cynical and selfish and disapprove of generosity of spirit.
Whatever the new normal of 2021, rebuilding the public sphere and working to be a little less cynical with other people is perhaps our most urgent task.
• Kenan Malik is a columnist for Observer
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.