All in it together? The pandemic’s losers could soon be left behind | Coronavirus

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If at some point in the future there is a Museum of the Pandemic, its curators will struggle to convey the pulverising banality of lockdown. A replica living room and interactive Zoom installation will not do it justice.

It is hard to memorialise tedium, which has been the defining experience for many. The human mind measures time by the passage of distinct events. A vast slab of routine offers no holds; no pegs for recollection. It seems to last for ever, but leaves a shallow imprint. Or it does if you are lucky. To have reached this point in the pandemic with a secure job, a quiet room, no severe infection or agony of bereavement, is to have known a different pandemic to the one marked by destitution and death.

That is not to belittle the emotional cost of an affluent confinement. It has been brutal on those who live alone. There is a reason why solitude is used to break the spirit in prisons. It is harrowing to think of those who have been trapped with abusive partners, or children at risk from their own parents and denied the sanctuary of school. There is no easy hierarchy of ordeal when the whole society is submerged in crisis: the corrosive fluid will find its way into any crack.

But there is a spectrum of suffering. The language of collective endurance has helped sustain public spirits, but it also elides major sacrifice with acts that, in the wider scheme of human experience, register more as inconvenience: wearing a mask; foregoing meals out.

Most people have kept this in proportion. The depiction of lockdown as calvary for freedom-loving England is overrepresented in the media. It is not the mainstream view. But it suits some people to inflate tolerable discomfort into human rights abuse. By exaggerating the burden of compliance with regulations now, lockdown sceptics are taking a stake in collective victimhood, which they will cash in when the time comes to meet – or shirk – the cost of recovery. If everyone suffered alike, there is less case for redistribution in the aftermath; less moral imperative to tap the wealth of those who sat out the flood on high ground to compensate those whose livelihoods were swept away.

We know from George Osborne’s austerity budgets that “we’re all in it together” can be a rhetorical sleight of hand. The assertion of solidarity sounded like an argument for fiscal transfers, but for the most part it was slick branding on the message that people who had suffered already were going to suffer more, for longer.

Last week, Rishi Sunak said his budget involved “asking more of those people and businesses who can afford to contribute, and protecting those who cannot”. It sounded charitable, but there is a lot of flex in the word “more”. Nurses have been awarded a pay rise of 1%, which is “more” in nominal terms than they got before but still a cut in real terms, and a derisory reward for traumatic frontline service against Covid.

It might seem callous to talk now about anyone having had a “good pandemic”, but it is dishonest to pretend that the nation will walk out of the darkness together, with one story to tell. The disease has ravaged some and spared others. It gets deadlier with age, but appears also to have discriminated along racial lines for reasons that are not yet fully understood. Partly, that is likely to be a function also of class inequality. Covid thrives on deprivation: crowded accommodation; poor diet; precarious jobs that make it harder for people to self-isolate or take time off work for convalescence.

Some have saved money from hoarded salaries. Others have spent meagre savings and run up debts to stay solvent. Lockdown has been most expensive for people who could least afford it.

A release of pent-up consumption by the lucky group will generate flattering growth statistics, although that economic bounce will leave millions behind. Boris Johnson’s MPs will resist efforts to force the winners to subsidise the losers on any adequate scale. The Conservative cult of self-reliance usually provides intellectual anaesthesia against the discomfort of living in a very unequal society. There is less duty to care about unemployment once it is cast as a self-inflicted penalty for idleness. It gets harder to argue along the same lines when a pandemic is the cause of people’s suffering, but then the myth of collective sacrifice and the rhetoric of “hard choices” can be applied to salve wealthy consciences. We are all in it together. Some are just in deeper than others.

Britain has form when it comes to narrating historical tribulations in terms that roll unequal traumas into one heroic ball. We talk up national stoicism without noting how much easier it is to be stoical with money in the bank. Johnson is a skilled political narrator and he will want the history of this time to be written by the winners: a tale of mass forbearance in the face of unavoidable calamity and a happy ending as we all formed an orderly queue for the vaccine.

That story will appeal to those who endured only extremes of inconvenience. No one wants to admit to being the winner from a tragedy, but a rosy fog will soon descend on the fortunate ones. Nostalgia will colour the space where few distinct memories have been formed. Then a new division will emerge, between those whom it suits to misremember the pandemic, and those who saw its true face and cannot forget.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: All in it together? The pandemic’s losers could soon be left behind | Coronavirus

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