The Longing for Trivial Concerns
I’m not someone who struggles for ideas of what to write about. Ordinarily, my problem is choosing a single idea from of the hundreds constantly pushing for seniority in my subconscious. But lately, when my fingers hover over the keyboard, nothing happens. No matter what subject makes its way to the fore, it seems trivial in the shadow of recent events.
COVID-19 is sweeping across the planet, and beginning its assault on my own community. It’s ever-present in the back of my mind, refusing to make way for any other thought. The devastation it’s already wrought in some countries is just beginning here, but for many the panic that comes with it is already well established.
In some instances, it has held a mirror to some of our less pleasant attributes. As people look for someone to blame, it took a significant number no time at all to turn to racism. Huge corporations are leaving employees wageless and destitute, while simultaneously begging governments for handouts. The governments themselves dither over saving the lives of countless citizens for fear of upsetting the markets. Fighting over toilet roll is hardly the enduring symbol for humanity that any of us are aiming for when the dust settles.
But it has also emphasised the sense that we’re all in this together. We are, in fact, one species, and will face this and any other threat to our existence together. Communities around the world are rallying to protect their vulnerable. Hospital staff have in recent weeks taken on superhero status, and rightly so. Myriad other frontline workers are toiling under the constant threat of illness to provide the rest of us with what we need to get through this. I’ve seen first-hand the incredible commitment that teachers and other school staff have to our children, willing to stop at nothing to ensure they’re cared for during this crisis.
Empathy is widespread, the instinct of the majority, and a credit to humanity. Often, our less tasteful characteristics can be attributed to circumstance. Under capitalism, it’s inevitable that those struggling to budget will miss out as the wealthier stockpile necessary resources, ultimately to even their own detriment. It follows that there will be disputes over resources. Yes, of course we all have individual responsibility, but much of what happens is predictable and therefore preventable.
The limitations of capitalism become obvious in times of crisis. Any talk of countries like the UK delivering ‘socialist’ budgets are a far cry from the truth, but the fact even conservative governments see the need to provide such measures proves the much-vaunted markets don’t have it all covered, and never have had. The ‘key-workers’ holding a country together have been highlighted, and it isn’t the bankers.
In the wake of this pandemic, perhaps it will become clearer to more and more people that things could, and should, be different. Maybe GDP doesn’t need to be seen as the be-all and end-all of a country’s success. Maybe a system that takes us away from our families for ever-increasing periods of time isn’t offering us the freedom we imagined it was. For some, as difficult as self-isolation will be, spending unbroken time with their families may see them develop a sense of appreciation that will make it difficult to go back to how things were. That’s not a bad thing.
The likes of Rutger Bregman have long championed ideas like a 15-hour work week, with more than a little research behind them to back it up. And he can’t even be considered to be some radical anti-capitalist; rather, he’s simply someone who sees the glaring flaws in the way our lives are organised right now, and is looking for solutions, not excuses. Aside from the proven increase in productivity that would benefit employers, the health benefits of spending more quality leisure time with loved ones are immeasurable. This could well be an idea that gains traction as we begin to move beyond this.
Bregman is also a fierce proponent of a Universal Basic Income, which is something that’s already been making headlines. It was Andrew Yang’s key policy during the Democratic primaries in the US, but since then the COVID-19 outbreak has seen countries around the world discussing some form of emergency basic income or other as necessary to bail out struggling economies.
People are witnessing how other people losing out affects them, personally. This in turn makes them more receptive to the idea that policies directly benefiting strangers can ultimately benefit them, too.
Whatever subject I write about, I try to look for positives. And I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. This pandemic is altering the world before our eyes and having a disastrous impact wherever it’s able to take root. But it isn’t going to wipe out humankind; afterwards, our societies will remain. Once we’ve done all we can to protect our vulnerable — that must continue to be our priority — these societies will need rebuilding. In the meantime, I take some solace in imagining how they might look — once we’ve got through this together.