A young woman is standing on the steps leading up to the front door of a budget hotel. Her luggage – possibly all of her worldly belongings – are in black plastic bags bundled at her feet. In her arms, she cradles a tiny pot plant. The woman looks up and around. She appears to be hesitating, unsure of what happens next. She is clearly not checking in for a holiday. Embarrassed to be caught staring, I look away and back to my screen.
It’s week five in lockdown-land. I know this from watching the news. From watching out the window of my tenement flat, I also know that the world is as unfair as it always has been. Everything and everyone might be connected in a crisis but some will be more equal than others in how they experience it. Lockdown is merely reflecting back home truths.
The news on screens tells me that we may, or may not, have passed the peak of coronavirus deaths in the UK. For certain, it is a time of extremes. Too much work for those on the frontline of emergency services and deliveries. Not enough, or no work, for those in precarious employment situations. Extreme loneliness for those living alone and extreme claustrophobia for those cooped up indoors with caring responsibilities and relationships stressed to breaking point. Left unchecked, this loneliness and stress may prove to be bigger killers than any virus. The gaping wounds of a mental health crisis will remain for a long time after a cure for the virus is found.
Pushed to the extremities, one day fugs into another because how we experience time is not linear. Similarly, self-care in a crisis is not a continuous progression toward productivity and happiness. There are good days, bad days and days that all feel much the same.
I’m noticing that I feel more anxious than ever. My concentration span is shot to pieces and I can barely focus on basic admin amidst the clamour and clutter of the noisy internet. Annoyingly, the extended period of isolation does not feel like the creative retreat it ought to be for a self-professed introvert. Rather, every awkward farewell on a Zoom call for work or social gatherings appears like a game-over message in which we watch our pained reflections in a slow-wave for help.
And it’s those not on the Zoom calls that we most need to check in on. Philosophising about system change and new economic models isn’t a priority when you’re worried about how you will cook a meal or next get a wash.
In Edinburgh, as in other cities, some hotel bedrooms and Air BnB flats left unoccupied due to coronavirus are now being used as safe accommodation for homeless people. These are not the luxury five-star hotels of the city centre but basic hostels and hotels that typically lack laundry or cooking facilities. The hotel on my street is one such property. Some of its twelve new residents told me that they have one microwave to share and must wash clothes in bedroom sinks. In such situations, social distancing is near-impossible and housing charities have warned that permanent, local solutions will need to be found here and in other cities around the world.
A global health pandemic doesn’t respect sovereign borders and the strong-man politics of taking back control. It requires us to stay local and be interdependent with neighbours. This is familiar ground for me. I wrote a book about how the global and the local intersect at street-level and about how the stories from the many streets that make up a nation is an expression of our collective wellbeing.
While many spend their lockdown days in their back gardens, ripping up weeds and tending seeds, others are cautiously unpacking pot plants in empty hotel rooms. Wherever the tactility of hand-holding and hugs is absent, we reach for and grasp signs of new life where we can find it.
I’m also a young woman with houseplants and window boxes in place of my own garden. Restrictions and financial uncertainty have pressed pause on immediate plans to move to a home with outdoor space. Like the cancelled holiday to visit relatives abroad and the hiatus on starting my own family, these are small, personal losses that accumulate to form a weighty and stubborn loss. It feels indulgent to vocalise these losses in the context of others grieving and exhausted from bereavement or tough life choices, but they are losses nonetheless. And after sadness and anger comes a quiet acceptance. An acceptance that nothing lasts forever.
In her acclaimed essay for the Financial Times, author Arundhati Roy reminded us that “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
Here in the UK, we can still remember the recent past we have come from – February and early March of this year, when we kept calm and carried on as normal while the government sleep-walked us into a nightmare of denial about our readiness for a health crisis. The dereliction of public health duty may have been so grave that we will one day assess the decisions it led to as violations of the right to human dignity.
We don’t yet know where we’re headed. These are days suspended between the old world of profit and property before people and a potential brave, new world where the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised, including the homeless, are prioritised.
I believe there was hope contained in the green leaves of the pot plant that my new neighbour brought with her-hope for a fairer, kinder world where we can all feel safe, secure and have our dreams realised. And I am hopeful that the enforced pause will be a chance to take stock of the priorities we want to carry with us into whatever happens next.
Dignity is hope’s companion. There is dignity in checking loss and knowing that the work of re-imagining the future is hard. We can always spare a little dignity, for ourselves and one another.