On Isolation and Recovery

A few years ago the idea of “resilience” was doing the rounds. Everyone was obsessed with it as a concept to explore. Resilience – or the lack of it – or how to create it – cropped up in seminars and academic papers all over the place.

If the coronavirus tells us anything it is how thin and precarious our assumed security is and how fragile our sense of order is. We lack any real resilience.

The global pandemic we are witnessing lands in a society already deeply unsettled, profoundly insecure and ill at ease with itself.

“Self-isolation” lands in a world already marked with alienation, loneliness and social insecurity, and the virus exposes the insecurities of a world of freelance work, zero-hours contracts and the ‘gig economy’.

As the environmental journalist James Murray writes:

“We are really starting to see how ingrained presenteeism, utter dominance of work in work-life balance, and insecurity of gig economy has become.”

What the virus is telling us about our society, our work life, our family life, our systems is this: most of it isn’t designed for humans it’s designed for capitalism. That’s a profound insight worth holding onto.

What comes next is as important as what’s coming now.

“Social recovery” may be as important as recovering our health, because when this passes we will be faced with all the stark problems it is exposing. As Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine have written this week:

“As long as we function as individuals, our ability to solve complex social problems will fail us. With the coronavirus spreading across the globe, we literally have a social emergency that makes us want to wrap ourselves safely away from others. These so-called solutions— wearing masks, working from home, cancelling travel— make sense to us at one level, because our lives and daily habits are already arranged this way.”

They suggest: “At another scale we worry that the affective remainder will congeal into a fear of coming together, limiting our desire to gather in celebration, mourning, anger or prayer. This effect of self-contained lives will certainly exacerbate our current levels of loneliness, lack of touch, and social anxiety, but it will also weaken our ability to take on the larger arrangements (and ideas that the coronavirus is thriving on.”

The phenomenon of “self-care” is important in times of deep insecurity tipping into everyday crisis. But ‘protecting yourself’ becomes a defensive and ultimately isolating posture.

As Arwa Mahdawi has observed:

“…self-care runs the risk of becoming more meaningless than ever. It’s become co-opted by market forces and consumerized … Self-care has also become a carefully curated lifestyle choice to show off: there are more than 1.4m photos hashtagged #selfcare on Instagram. Many of these seem to consist of skinny women doing yoga poses, legs in bubble baths, non-caffeinated-non-dairy hot drinks, gluten-free berry-based desserts, green juice in mason jars, that sort of thing. It’s basically Treat Yo’ Self in slightly superior clothing …more often than not, our acts of self-care are simply acts of privilege.”

The danger is that these trends are boosted through crisis and social panic. We need to find some collective security and some shared social networks as faith in either market or state solutions disintegrate.

“Self-isolation” comes in a society where self-isolation is already pervasive.

As we recover, as we get healthy again we need to create community and real resilience. This means things like having job security, having a basic income, not having thousands of people in desperate poverty and living in a country where foodbanks have become utterly normalised, and where housing is seen as primarily a way for the already wealthy to exploit others.

This is thought to be wildly utopian I know – but the lessons from the virus is clearly that our health and wellbeing is a collective task and a social responsibility, and this is true also of living in a society that is profoundly dysfunctional and constantly close to collapse. The social cost of ill-health, poverty and alienation is stalking us, and has been for years.

But it also means attending to the other problems that are festering away as the pandemic sweeps across the world.

In this weeks much celebrated budget we were told to expect a “Budget that put climate and environment first” but we got a fuel duty freeze and £27 billion more spent on roads”.

The state’s inability to change economic course and deal with climate breakdown speaks to an elite that cares more about profit than planet and will do anything to avoid taking the necessary action.

As George Monbiot wrote this week:

“The great political divide is now between those who take risk seriously, and those who deny or dismiss it. This applies to climate breakdown, ecological collapse, air pollution and #COVID19, among many other issues.”

There’s another parallel between inaction over public health crisis and inaction over climate breakdown. The neoliberal response to both is to be profoundly averse to state intervention and absolutely resistant to anything that disrupts the smooth running of the economy. The Green New Deal is treated as a Trojan Horse for communism just as the Prime Ministers comments about a “herd immunity” betrayed a worldview steeped in eugenics and crisis capitalism.

“Every man for himself” has been raised to a glorious ideology, but it looks darkly pathetic in times of crisis when solidarity and communal care is what we are crying out for.

We should be careful too to not to be carried away by the positive environmental ramifications of the coronavirus. As the economy shudders to a halt and airlines ground planes and we are told that “Coronavirus has temporarily reduced China’s CO2 emissions by a quarter” it seems that the disease is our salvation.

This is wrong.

It’s completely anti-social and anti-human. In the 1980s and 1990s some reactionary Deep Ecologists like Dave Foreman, for instance, claimed at the height of the 1983-85 famine, that ‘the worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid – the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve’. Others welcomed the AIDS epidemic as ‘a necessary solution’ to population control.

Celebrating the carbon reduction brought from the coronavirus distracts us from the very real solutions we have known about for a long time.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn important lessons from the moment.

The jobs lost in tourism are a blow but they raise important questions about the idea that we can all just fly anywhere at any time for no apparent reason. Overtourism is an ecological problem we need to face up to.

Similarly the cruise liner industry may shudder to a halt in the face of the virus. This may be no bad thing for a business that produces huge emissions and would need to be completely reconceived to be sustainable.

If the coronavirus tells us anything it is that we need to re-imagine our whole world from scratch. It may have a silver-lining if it shocks us into facing this truth and re-building our broken society.










Comments (17)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    MSM: Covid-19 has worst affects on those with underlying health conditions.
    Anarchist: we all have an underlying health condition – it’s called capitalism.

  2. Sarah Glynn says:

    Absolutely. But we have the anomaly here that social distancing benefits the communal good, and we are also seeing a flowering of grassroots groups offering support to neighbours. But, yes, ofcourse we need a fundamental change in society or we will lurch from crisis to crisis.

    1. Yes social distancing is an act of solidarity – very true – quite a lot we can do to stop social isolation becoming a damaging experience of loneliness. Using post, Facetime/Skype and supporting family friends and relatives etc

    2. Jo says:


      Neighbours – in the wider sense – are also racing to the supermarkets to clear the shelves and hoard vital supplies, thus denying others of food and other essentials.

      Retailers are failing to take meaningful action to stop this. Instead, they’ve issued a general, “Be nice.” appeal today which won’t change the obscene bulk-buying that’s going on. These people are selfish idiots and should be labelled as such. People with less money, who are less able, won’t win against these folk. They will go without.

      If the lunatics are going to act like there’s a war on, fine, so let’s have rations!

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        In a feeding frenzy–aka “the marketplace”–the largest, most aggressive sharks get the better share of what’s there. Old story. And as Mike makes clear, this is simply the living out of capitalist values.

        1. Jo says:

          Exactly, Daniel.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Real resilience requires overcapacity, reservoirs, buffer zones, slack to cope with peak shocks. These are all things that the short-termist profit-motive seeks to cut to the bone. Our political systems need to be able to gear up a level in collective intelligence to handle unprecedented threats. The reactionary, secretive and dysfunctional systems of the UK and elsewhere are not up to the task, especially as even their concept of the status quo they aim to preserve is deeply flawed. Pandemics should not a surprise, neither should the next crisis of capitalism be.

  4. John McLeod says:

    It is instructive to read “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World” by Laura Spinney. Many millions of people died in that pandemic, in all parts of the world – those that were capitalist societies and those that were not. Many sections of that book read as though they are descriptions of what is happening today. The only way to limit the effect of a virus for which there is no treatment (then or now) was/is to quarantine. My personal interpretation of Spinney’s well-documented account of the Spanish flu was that it did not change the world in any fundamental way. I suspect that the eventual long-term effect of COVID-19 will probably be the same. I hate, as much as the next person, the individualised, entitlement-based, nature-destroying, short-termist capitalist system in which we exist. However, despite that, it seems to me that there is a massive amount of mutual support and caring happening at the moment – at least among ordinary people.

  5. DAVID SMART says:

    Personally, I hope that this virus will bring about the de normalising of eating animals.
    Swine flu, bird flu, SARS, MERS, VCJD and Ebola for a start, all linked to eating animals
    There are also other health related issues brought about by eating animals like cancer and heart disease and obesity.
    This is a time of great change and what once seemed normal, should be re-evaluated, like as you say, we “can all just fly anywhere at any time for no apparent reason.”
    The fragility of humans and our planet will hopefully be recognised and we can live more in harmony with nature.

  6. Wul says:

    Many years ago, I worked in a small community work team in a deprived area in central Scotland.

    Our Team Leader was a wise and thoughtful man. During my quarterly workload review, he would ask how full my diary was and if I was managing OK. One time, when I said I could take on more work, he looked at my diary and told me he liked to keep at least one day equivalent per week free of commitments. This, he explained, was so that we could react to whatever came up in the community. “Unplanned work” he called it.

    This “free time” of ours meant that when someone came into our building, off the street, without an appointment, usually in some distress or crisis, one of us could drop what we were doing and attend to them.
    Often it was simply offering use of phones, help with a Social Security form, signposting them to the right person & dept. within the council labyrinth who could help them, making a call on their behalf to get accurate advice, or maybe just making them a cup of tea and letting them ventilate about their worries for a wee while.

    Senior service managers would have called us “underworked” and been appalled that we had inefficient “gaps” in our weekly timetables. However, it was often in the gaps where the best and most valuable work was done. As workers, we felt that our job was both manageable and meaningful.

    Those days, and my intelligent boss, are gone. Everyone works “efficiently” and at maximum capacity. If you turn up announced looking for help you will quickly be shown the door. Actually, you won’t even get into the building because it is key-pad entry, no receptionist any more, and a generic “call centre” (premium rate!) phone line for any enquiries.

    True resilience means building in some level of redundancy as a desirable and essential element. In oil rigs, or aeroplanes or any situation where safety and operational ability are needed to be 100%, there are systems to ensure redundancy (i.e. a component can fail without harm, because another (until that moment redundant) component will immediately take its place).

    Our “just in time” approach to the supply of biscuits and vital NHS care alike (after all, the NHS and Society are just Markets aren’t they?) has been exposed by this crisis.

    If we truly, actually valued our citizens and their wellbeing, we would not run our social care systems at fire-fighting levels every day of the year, staffed by overstretched, burnt-out people doing their best.

    1. Jo says:

      Well said.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, really good example and sound reasoning. Do you think that one difference between aeroplane design and social service design is that it is easier to pin the blame for failure on an aeroplane designer? With social services, you can always blame demons like Austerity, or staff, or the service users themselves, perhaps.

      1. Wul says:

        @sleeping dog. Re; blame. It is true that if a person knows that the buck stops with them, then they will take more care. ( And, I suppose, if they know responsibility can be fudged and ducked, then they will care less)

        The UK’s 2010 health and Social Care Act removed, for the first time, the duty of the Minister for Health to provide health & social care in the UK. That was a big, big step which went pretty much unnoticed.

        Some folk think that its inevitable that public health services will be stretched because “there isn’t enough money” and that “there’s always going to be poor people”. Maybe they are right. We always find money for wars and bail outs though. And we have created a taboo on paying more tax for some reason; who benefits from that? I’d swap my £560/yr “Tax Bomb Shell !” for a properly functioning social care system for my loved ones in a heartbeat.

        1. Jo says:

          ‘Some folk think that its inevitable that public health services will be stretched because “there isn’t enough money” and that “there’s always going to be poor people”. Maybe they are right. We always find money for wars and bail outs though.’

          When I started work, basic rate of tax was 35%. Higher rate bands went up to 80 something per cent. Maggie set us on a path to getting the basic rate down to 20% and a flat rate higher band of 40%.

          People complain about services and then faint with shock if you mention raising taxes even slightly! Raising taxes has become a very bad thing.

          Today Johnson tells people to avoid pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. He’s not going to officially close those places down. If he did, those businesses that go to the wall could claim on their insurance. This way, they won’t get a dime.

  7. AKR says:

    I agree with pretty much everything in this article except the point about the government’s medical strategy being loosely compared to eugenics. While I am no fan of Boris Johnson, he does have good medical advisers and I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss the strategy of not locking down society too quickly. (As I’ve had it explained to me by a doctor, locking down too quickly could be counterproductive as the virus could then run rampant as soon as lockdown is lifted.) According to infectious diseases doctors I know in London, Professor Chris Whitty is exceptionally well thought of in terms of his expertise in population-level infectious diseases and as a man of humane and good character. I’m obviously no expert myself but I think too many folk online are being unhelpful in over-reacting and imputing dark motives to what may actually turn out to be an effective strategy. Time will tell, I suppose.

    1. James Mills says:

      Just listened to a specialist epidemiologist from Shanghai , who has lived through China’s ”lock down” who completely disagrees with the UK Government advisors . He has even stated that some of the stats being quoted by Prof . Whitty are completely wrong – and these are stats referring to the infection/death rates in China .

      He advocates the complete shut down , as done by China , of the whole economy and cites the effects on other areas of China which suffered minimal infection . As to the spread after a lock down is eased , the Chinese have done this in stages to limit the re-emergence of the virus .

      Who to believe ? Those who have experienced the worst or the theorist ?

      1. AKR says:

        That’s disturbing to hear. In light of yesterday’s policy U-turn, I’ve read sources saying that the government’s medical advice was wrong but other sources arguing that it wasn’t wrong but that the situation is simply changing very quickly and they are just responding. I did say “time will tell”… well it looks like it’s already telling me that I had a bit too much faith in our government’s strategy….

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