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Social Distancing, or ‘You’re All in This Alone’

By Phoebe Jarvis

Image credit: The Independent

Earlier this week, our trusty PM Boris Johnson made the grand announcement that we should all try and stay home, maybe avoid cafes, bars, and restaurants, and as a result, we probably won’t die. The government’s half-hearted, disjointed, and unenforced COVID-19 guidance has left a sour taste in the mouths of many; from the thousands of pubs and restaurants left unprotected by their insurance, to the self-employed and those on zero hour contracts, who have no safety net.

Instead of a comprehensive protection plan offered to the country, we are given a directive to look out for ourselves, take personal responsibility for the spread of the virus, and retreat into deafening self-isolation – for the most vulnerable, up to three months is advised. When social isolation and loneliness is already a lived reality, particularly among older people, I ask you to consider what sensible 80-something would choose to avoid all interaction with friends and family for three months on the advice of the government – and the damage that such isolation would inflict.

On a larger scale, such an individualistic mindset causes widespread confusion and panic. Supermarket shelves are stripped of their cupboard stables, employers’ policies change on a daily basis, travel prices skyrocket as people scramble to get home, and the futures of the arts and entertainment industries are left hanging by a thread. There arises a culture of blame, for people choose the parts of their lives which are indispensable and continue with them – whether this is their exercise regime at the gym, the opportunity to socialise in the pub, or for so many people, their jobs. We’re all making sacrifices, yet we are all to blame, because the government has told us that this is our responsibility.

This conception of the individual is dangerous; free to choose, free to consume, but free to take responsibility for our own health, to financially support ourselves when disaster strikes. Although we are fortunate enough to still have the NHS, and some form of a social security net, this neoliberal fixation has shaped the way we deal with crises. We’re told in the face of the Global Financial Crisis that we just have to live within this dangerous cycle of boom and bust; we’re told in the face of a climate crisis that there must be a trade off between economic growth and the planet, as if both are dispensable; and in the midst of a global pandemic, we are told that our lives are of equal importance as the economy.

But the economy does not work for us. It works for the privileged few who can afford to charter private jets when commercial flights are stopped. It works for those who can afford to take eight weeks unpaid leave from work. It really works for the billionaire CEO who has the power to hoard such vast amounts of wealth, whilst refusing to offer basic protection to his employees for those eight weeks. In America, it works for those who can afford a $3,000 coronavirus test.

The government tells us there is no alternative, as they have for decades. But there is: social democratic governments around the world strive to build a strong (and stable) social security system – one that can guarantee citizens a basic standard of living, one that is robust enough to withstand the blow of a global pandemic. Rigorous testing from the outset, a healthy population to begin with (the result of adequately funded universal health care and low pollution levels), and strong and decisive self-isolation guidance, has prevented the coronavirus situation in the Nordic countries reaching anywhere near the scale seen in the rest of Europe. However, we keep voting in conservative governments, because the lesson that this is the best and only way of doing things has been drilled into us since the Thatcher years.

Despite a government that refuses to inspire compassion and protect the most vulnerable, we continue to surprise each other with our love and self-sacrifice every day. In Leeds, there are independent businesses like Hyde Park Book Club delivering free books and food; the university art society is dropping off self-isolation packs, with local businesses donating more supplies; and the local Labour MP Alex Sobel is curating a list of potential volunteers to help the most vulnerable in the coming weeks and months. Across the country, therapy, yoga, and fitness sessions have been made freely available online. Organisations such as Arts Council England have made generous funding decisions to ensure that individuals and businesses remain supported, and the National Trust have made entry free to all of their parks and gardens.

It’s so obvious that we don’t have to be alone, and in times of crisis we must remember that. For every bare toilet roll aisle, think of the communities rallying round to increase food bank donations and provide hot meals to those in need. The panic-induced selfishness of many is a product of the individualistic way our government has told us to respond, and otherwise tells us to lead our daily lives. Let’s hold the government accountable for their actions in this time of crisis, and when it has passed, use this moment as a platform to force change. As the world takes ever more unpredictable turns, we’re going to need a government that looks out for us all.