In this time when we are confined to our homes its worth reflecting on those people that don’t have one. For some of us #StayHome is an inconvenience, but it should be a human right.
The image of the week that was seared onto my brain was the one of the car park in Las Vegas with homeless people marked out in conveniently social distant grids on the concrete whilst vast empty hotels lay unoccupied around them. Las Vegas had criminalised homelessness in 2019 and here 150,000 hotel rooms in Vegas were going unused. I can’t think of a better example of how broken our world is.
And unless we think we are superior to Dumb Americans Andy Wightman was this week accused of being a communist by the Scottish Tories for just trying to beef up existing powers in 1987 legislation to allow councils to temporarily bring into use vacant holiday accommodation to house homeless people in the midst of a public health emergency.
The Scottish Conservatives Murdo Fraser and Graham Simpson (who’s apparently an MSP) accused Wightman of “communism” as he attempted to move the amendment, one shouting it out the other tweeting it. Even in times of extreme crisis, these people’s priority is to defend their interests and the system they support.
This week we solved homelessness. As Owen Jones tweeted: “Turns out the government could always abolish homelessness at a stroke. It just had to want to do it.”
Councils in England were ordered to house all rough sleepers by the weekend.
The prime minister’s personal homelessness adviser wrote to local authorities telling them “communal night-shelters and any street encampments” must be “closed down for the time being” as they are “high risk” for spreading COVID-19.
The possibilities come thick and fast. As Gary Hay noted: “Oh look, pregnant women and sick MPs could *always* have debated and voted in divisions in absentia – they just couldn’t be bothered to modernise. The UK parliament isn’t fit for purpose.”
So we are in lockdown together with a world of possibility emerging before us, simultaneously facing death or life, simultaneously facing the possibility of the real change we know can transform and save us, or a return to the old world that we know leads to catastrophe.
It is, as the Canadian writer Max Haiven writes, like a cocoon. The question is what will emerge?
“Those of us now in isolation, in spite of our fear and frustrations, in spite of our grief — for those who have died or may die, for the life we once lived, for the future we once hoped for — there is also a sense we are cocooned, transforming, waiting, dreaming. True: Terrors stalk the global landscape, notably the way the virus — or our countermeasures — will endanger those among us whom we, as a society, have already abandoned or devalued. So many of us are already disposable. So many of us are only learning it now, too late.” (‘No return to normal: for a post-pandemic liberation‘).
A recurring theme is what are people learning with their lives deconstructed, their careers abandoned, their social conditions re-created?
There is hope in this fever-dream, but, paraphrasing William Gibson, the virus experience is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.
Lockdown means very different things to different sectors and classes of people.
Paradoxically for the already isolated it may mean less change. For those comfortable with technology it may mean Zoom calls and Facetime and endless Netflix. But for those on the wrong side of the digital divide it may mean terrifying loneliness and sense of isolation.
For the comfortably off, “lockdown” may mean reading and baking sourdough, to the unemployed, the self-employed and the precariously employed it means waiting in fear not just of your health but of how you can support yourself and your family.
For those overly-invested in their careers it may mean a loss of meaning and prestige.
For those in difficult or strained relationships it may mean tension and misery. At the farther end of this reality it may mean violence.
“Home” means different things to different people.
Catherine Baker reminds us (Shelter in Place: The Feminist and Queer Insecurities of ‘Home’):
“… feminist and queer understandings of security remind us that even in a global pandemic home can be the least secure place of all, through the forms of structural and physical violence that manifest within.” She continues: “Homes themselves will be worsening the health of those living in conditions which are too cramped to distance or isolate themselves safely, those suffering the mental health consequences of not having private space or guaranteed access to the open air, and those whose housing depends on informal agreements with arbitrary or discriminatory landlords in the midst of a global economic shutdown.”
Of course for “frontline” and “essential” workers lockdown doesn’t exist, they face greater or less amounts of forced risk and protection, and some for not much more than the minimum wage.
But for the vast majority of people this is a collective and transformative experience.
As society struggles to cope with layers of denial, it’s worth reflecting on these simple facts.
10 million Americans have put in claims for unemployment insurance in the last two weeks.
Almost a million (950,000) new Universal Credit claims were made between 16th-31st March in the UK.
If these 950,000 new claims are flows into unemployment then that means UK unemployment has risen by about 71% in a fortnight.
That could mean unemployment of 3 million within a few months.
No-one has experienced anything like this.
For many of us leaving lockdown will mean entering a world of unemployment.
Our society is changing rapidly and our economy is next. Thousands of small business will not survive. The new forms of solidarity and mutual aid that we’re building now will be needed for when this is “over” and the era of mass unemployment returns.
Other battles need to be fought to maintain and defend the many gains that have emerged strangely from the virus.
Many of the ecological stories have been fantasies or distortions. But not all of them. Asking the question: “Will the coronavirus kill the oil industry and help save the climate?” journalists Damian Carrington, Jillian Ambrose and Matthew Taylor suggest:
“The plunging demand for oil wrought by the coronavirus pandemic combined with a savage price war has left the fossil fuel industry broken and in survival mode, according to analysts. It faces the gravest challenge in its 100-year history, they say, one that will permanently alter the industry. With some calling the scene a “hellscape”, the least lurid description is “unprecedented”. A key question is whether this will permanently alter the course of the climate crisis. Many experts think it might well do so, pulling forward the date at which demand for oil and gas peaks, never to recover, and allowing the atmosphere to gradually heal.”
Some people think peak oil has arrived, and that 2019 will go down in history as the peak year for carbon emissions. But others disagree: the fossil fuel industry will bounce back as it always has they say, and bargain basement oil prices will slow the much-needed transition to green energy.
It depends what we do next, what industries we save and what we let go.
Mark Lewis, head of climate change investment research at BNP Paribas:
“When the dust settles, the peak demand narrative will be there stronger than ever,” he said. “This is particularly true if long-haul aviation fails to recover. This has been a very strong source of oil demand growth in recent years but the longer we are at home – remote working, using video conferencing – the more people will wonder: do we really need to get on a plane?”
We need to re-think everything. A return to business as usual would be an act of self-harm.
There is work to do in this cocoon, so that the world we emerge to is worth waiting for. We need to project outwards from our domestic lockdown and re-define and re-imagine what “home” is, one that can survive climate crisis and has a place for everyone.