I don’t particularly like the constant war analogies used about fighting coronavirus. However, when someone like Matt Hancock conjures up the Blitz spirit, urging us to pull together ‘in one gigantic national effort’, I think of that cliched question: ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ Forget the sexism, what will our answer be to future generations? The fact is that millions of us will have to reply: ‘I did nothing, I stayed at home.’ That raises a real dilemma of lockdown society: are we being socialised into concluding that passivity is a positive virtue?
In the 1915 war recruitment poster ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’, designed to shame people to enlist, a daughter poses the question to her father sitting in an armchair, while her brother plays with toy soldiers. The propaganda may have been crudely guilt-inducing, but historically heroes don’t earn plaudits for sitting out any call to arms on the sofa. You don’t need to be a fan of wars or militarism to note that heroic action – whether being prepared to be jailed as a conscientious objector or putting your life on the line by joining the resistance – creates a sense of meaning when society faces a huge challenge. Facing the Covid-19 enemy, what meaning will we derive from being told we’re brave for doing nothing?
This is not an argument against lockdown. I have mixed views on its efficacy, but am prepared to consent to its temporary demands as a necessary evil. However, I am arguing that we shouldn’t celebrate lockdown society, and I have a warning: we need to be careful of the cultural conclusions we draw in responding to any major crisis. Another iconic war poster illustrates the point.
Rosie the Riveter symbolised the heroic quality to being actively engaged beyond hearth and home. The drafting of women to work in factories and on farms as part of the war effort may have initially had a coercive element. But many relished that, at last, they were making a positive, practical contribution beyond the confines of home. It gave millions of women a new taste of freedom. Here was a chance to acquire new skills, to be treated as equals in the workplace.
Hence a wartime mobilisation became a collective experience of playing a socially useful role in the public sphere. Its cultural and political reverberations shaped social change in the decades that followed, sowing the seeds of the women’s liberation movement. In contrast, the present ‘war’ against a virus is social segregation; we are demobilised back into the private sphere, freedoms restricted, our skills left to go to seed, our work ethic damped down. When we ask, what can we do to help, we are told to stay put, do nothing, watch Netflix. In such circumstances, it is difficult not to become lethargically alienated from taking responsibility for the fate of society. Is there a danger that our role as active citizens will become side-lined as a consequence?
One lesson of the vote for Brexit was that citizens were fed up being treated as bystanders. One of the gains of Leave was the flourishing of a sense of agency and self-determination that it afforded to many. Years of being ‘done to’ by well-meaning but paternalistic technocrats had created a climate of demoralising defeatism. When offered a chance to ‘take back control’, millions seized the chance. An anti-establishment rebellion actively engaged people as citizens, with an appetite for being players in the project of social change. How can this optimism be retained when so many citizens are now reduced to watching from the side-lines as our fate is announced at daily press briefings?
Initially, the government emphasised it trusted us all as grown-ups to do the right thing. Over time, messages have become shriller, bossier. Even the limited activity we are allowed is marshalled and policed. The mandated physical daily exercise has become fraught with do’s and don’ts. We sheepishly dread a walk in the park in case we are accused of endangering fellow citizens if we sit on a park bench to catch the sun, or jog too close to others. Surely there’s a danger that such official prescription undermines people’s confidence in their own judgement? Infantilising us with simplistic slogans and patronising advertising campaigns certainly makes a mockery of the notion of us as consenting adults.
Softer messaging poses another danger. Government adverts that preach the positives of lockdown: all home baking, time with the kids, film nights. These seem to want to make a virtue of a terrible necessity. Yes, for all those whose work hours and conditions are usually arduous, having time to read the Hilary Mantel trilogy, flake out on the couch or clean out the attic can be a boon. But don’t let’s oversell this as heroic, life-saving activity. I understand the search for silver linings, but worry that those on social media who are preaching the virtues of Zoom yoga, the joys of bread-making, Zoom-drinks, home-working and more are in danger of being apologists for our anti-social plight, of presenting lockdown as a fashionable lifestyle choice, of normalising a grotesque perversion of social interactions.
We already know that the experience of lockdown is a mixed bag. It is increasingly recognised that for many it can be hellish. Enforced leisure – if you are crippled with worry about debts, insecure job prospects, your family’s health – is no holiday. And imagine what it’s like being locked up in a cramped flat with an alcoholic partner, an autistic child or a hyper-anxious parent with Alzheimer’s. As to older citizens forced into isolation: there’s a reason why solitary confinement is considered one of prison’s most cruel punishments. In the bigger picture, psychologically we are robbed of what makes us human – our role as social beings, defined by how we relate to each other and our capacity to act on the world to change it. Being left with no useful role to play can be grindingly frustrating and deeply debilitating.
Moving forwards, despite a strategy that has confined the majority to barracks, perhaps the government can come up with creative ways of allowing citizens to practically help the country take on the pandemic. Millions want to contribute to the national effort. Hundreds of thousands have signed up as NHS volunteers – so many, in fact, that there are complaints of not enough to do. DIY initiatives continue to inspire. It’s been brilliant watching the flowering of community action: streets and estates organising to make sure their vulnerable neighbours are catered for, the homeless are fed, sending cards and flowers to the lonely. Two of my favourites are the cycle clubs who have organised to deliver prescriptions and Scrub Hub, which has involved everyone from theatrical costume-designers to amateur dress makers in creating tunics and trousers for NHS staff. Can’t some cross-party parliamentary committee harness this itching-to-get-hands-dirty mood into a version of the peace corps, that can help kick-start society’s post-lockdown reconstruction?
It already feels a waste that the relevant authorities haven’t used the empty roads and infrequent trains to do more essential infrastructure work, from filling in potholes to rail engineering works. But while such projects would involve workers in specific industries, the many public-spirited self-employed and furloughed employees are also stir crazy. Can they be deployed productively on socially useful projects, perhaps sprucing up the outsides of social care homes or repairing and enhancing playgrounds?
And let’s get the young involved. All that excess, cooped-up energy is looking for an outlet. Even the initial enthusiasm for hours of unlimited gaming, Instagram and Tik Tok is running out of steam. Could we set up fast-track apprenticeship schemes and involve them in new house-building projects? And then there’s fruit picking…
In March, Defra announced Pick for Britain, a modern-day Land Army scheme aiming to recruit students and laid-off hospitality workers to help pick crops. Although it was all a bit too Dig for Victory for my taste, what a shame the initiative seems to have withered on the vine. It at least had the merits of attempting to rally people behind a positive campaign to help society at this challenging time.
Perhaps it’s not too late. The much-publicised emergency airlift of Romanian farm workers became tangled up in the Brexit wars. Beyond that, could young recruits be trained up by experienced European fruit and veg pickers to temporarily support the farming industry? Of course, pay the pickers well, whatever their age or nationality. Regardless it could be a positive appeal to the young to rise to the challenge of public service.
Such schemes would also reinforce an important message that I fear is getting lost: society cannot carry on consuming at home if it does not produce. What we need now is a huge surge of popular enthusiasm to kick-start dynamism into economic and social life, to urgently regain the habit of productive activity. This is a tough call. How easy will it be to energise people who have been told they are heroically saving lives by staying at home? We can expect new battle lines. When I recently suggested that I couldn’t wait to return to normal, and relished the prospect of hugging people again, I was met with incredulity and admonished for being irresponsible.
Opinion polling seems to show the public are more pro-lockdown than anyone in power might have expected. No surprise. Focusing on people’s vulnerability, making safety a virtue, depicting ill-health as the most frightening of enemies, promoting inactivity as heroism: this all adds up to a narrative that suggests state protection is the answer to all ills. All these things will have cultural consequences.
However, nothing is fated. It is up to us as citizens to decide not to concede to a prewritten script of passivity. Retreating to indefinite lockdown culture would mean surrendering what makes life worth living, a far more tragic cost than anything inflicted by a virus.