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.