My daughter commented recently that the global pandemic reminds her of all the dystopian scifi books on her bookshelf; a genre all of its own, there are even sections dedicated to it in bookshops.
For my generation, growing up watching TV programmes about World War 2, there are other cultural tropes arising in my mind. Indeed, each nation has its own mythos, giving shape to the crisis.
I’m reminded of “Dads Army”, and the comic farce of unpreparedness for the impending crisis. Then, the phony war before the fighting on the Western Front got started. The latter resonated with the eerie air of unreality in the previous couple of weeks, when no one seemed to truly believe anything was about to happen.
Now we are settling down for the longterm; for several months, maybe even a year, of lockdown. Flatsharers, and families in ‘self-isolation’ because someone displays ‘symptoms’.
Neighbours stand outside their doors, respecting the required ‘social distancing’, sharing concerns, with people they’ve barely communicated with for months.
For much of the world’s population, of course, this is nothing new. We have been shielded by our prosperity, from the ills affecting many other nations.
For them, epidemics are nothing new. For example, the recent Ebola outbreak in Congo. For most westerners, this was a faint item on the TV news, about which they felt little empathy or interest.
But now, the global system, which brought us material plenty, through a planetary network of economic and ecological exploitation, has also given us the Coronavirus. This emergency interrupts what is considered ‘normal’, and reveals our hearts to us. Thankfully, there are positive attempts at communal caring.
For instance, the campaign to drop cards through letter boxes in our block of flats, to offer help to shut-ins and vulnerable individuals.
But there are also, perhaps over whelming, counter-examples. Fear leads to fighting over toilet paper, and selfish panic buying in supermarkets, causing shortages.
Internationally, nations close down borders against immigrants, to protect their own citizens. While President Trump expresses his usual xenophobia, in describing Covid19 as the ‘Chinese Virus.’
Within cities, like London, at the forefront of the trend in the UK, we witness the development perhaps of a new form of society, which sociologists will study for years to come.
The mass individualisation of western society, with increasing numbers of single-person households, the decline of civil society and community organisations, has gone a step further.
As we are being encouraged to ‘self-isolate’, to avoid social gatherings, in pubs, clubs, restaurants, even churches, the isolation and individualism will become more accentuated.
A sci-fi society is being created, where we communicate only via screens, from our self-contained pods.
Although the trigger is contingent, in this virus, the tendency is a longterm drift, of which this is merely the occasion.
And, besides the economic effects, there will also be mental health results. We have been, rightly, worried about physical and sexual abuse.
But there are also effects from a lack of touch, physical or emotional.