As I write this, it has been five weeks since life as we knew it ended. This sounds like the first line of a post-apocalyptic novel or the rough draft of a sci-fi movie script. If you’d e-mailed it back in time to me two months ago it might have triggered a panic attack, so I would like to reassure February 2020 me that, really, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
I want to imagine re-reading these lines in five years and chuckling at how strange and exceptional the spring of 2020 felt. I want to remember how suddenly the onset of a virus from China rampaged across continents, ended lives and, (less tragically, though you wouldn’t know it from most media coverage) cancelled everyone’s plans. But I also want to remember how quickly we adapted, how well we recovered, and how fortuitously it transformed our lives.
But that would be how an optimist looks at the world, and I am not an optimist.
We were still hoarding toilet paper and trying to log on to Zoom for work meetings when articles imagining the future post-lockdown were being written or published; what you imagined depended, as ever, on what you wanted to see. In late March, barely a week or so after the lockdown had decimated March Break and heralded empty classrooms for the rest of the school year, the Washington Postpublished an article predicting “How the coronavirus will change our lives forever – from music to politics to medicine.”
The introduction looked back to the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918, and how it changed the world, with the qualification that, when it was all over “people rushed to regain their sense of equilibrium and normalcy.” But life did change, in ways we might consider obvious a century later:
“Certain habits did change,” the Postnoted. “Americans never returned to the common drinking cup, outlawed during the crisis and previously common in schools, offices and railway cars; they frowned on public spitting. Public health leaders celebrated their success in providing basic education on sanitation and personal hygiene.”
Musician Rosanne Cash, speculating on the effects of the pandemic on the music industry, notes that as her last tour came to an end earlier in the month, she had already stopped letting guests and fans into her dressing room after shows for crowded meet-and-greets. “Three weeks later, I’m still thinking, ‘If I get sick, I’ll know who to blame.’” She couldn’t bring herself to stop autographing albums for fans, though her tour manager carried around a pocketful of Sharpies in his pocket so she wouldn’t have to borrow one.
She also acknowledges that her experience comes from privilege – a name artist who will have tours and albums lined up as soon as this is all over. Cash goes on to explain that she’s on the board of an arts organization that is trying to alleviate the lost income of musicians lower down the status ladder, who have had tours and recording sessions canceled and music schools and classes shuttered, cutting off their last scrap of professional income. I’ve seen this first-hand with my own friends in music and the arts, suddenly having to pivot to living room “house concerts” on YouTube and Instagram and feverishly increase their social media postings.
Cash tries to end on an upbeat note. “I can’t help thinking there is a Darwinian reset taking place, but it remains to be seen what evolutionary advantage is paramount – a sense of community and compassion, I hope.”
American political consultant Liz Mair imagines an upcoming campaign season conducted remotely, with interviews on Skype and appeals to voters made through social media and the lurching attention span of what remains of mass media. “The bad news is that, to make a name for themselves without meeting voters, candidates will have to be as interesting (read: outlandish) as possible,” she writes.
“Nice-but-boring politicians can make it in retail politics, but they’ll be a tougher sell in an online-dominated political environment … Those of us who want less shtick and more gravitas from our leaders will have to adjust.” I would respond that we passed this baleful point long ago, back when shopping for groceries was a banal chore and not a gamble with fate. And I can’t imagine it’s a problem that a political communications expert wouldn’t relish, secretly or not.
Commentator Joel Kotkin sees cities as big victims, since urban density, alongside cheap international air travel, is the most reliable amplifying factor for disease transmission. His scenario has the big metropolises losing population to smaller cities and towns, as the public transit networks that are the antithesis of social distancing make life in the big cities more inconvenient. It’s a plausible theory, provided our subsequent fear of COVID-20, 21 and 22 permanently transforms us into an agoraphobic society.
In an article published on the Federalistwebsite on April Fool’s Day, Sumantra Maitra insists that “Coronavirus Has Driven A Stake Through Globalism’s Heart.” He details the story – familiar enough to conservatives – that big international institutions have failed their way through the decades, with the World Health Organization face-planting spectacularly in its plodding response to the outbreak of COVID-19, mostly by carrying water for the government of China.
Maitra is adamant that the globalist ideal has shown itself to be misguided, even sinister, as nations have pulled away from organizations like the European Union, strengthening their borders and making their response regional and local. “In a crisis,” he writes, “people trust their own government more than others, and their nation-states realize it is always easier to safeguard your own citizens.”
This is, of course, the preferable future for anyone sympathetic to the anti-globalist political idea. And it might be a better one, though I don’t see its appeal to the people I read every day online defending WHO head Tedros Adhanom or howling in outrage at Donald Trump defunding his organization.
On the Unherdwebsite, an article titled “The culture wars are far from over” doesn’t share Maitra’s triumphalism. Columnist Mary Harrington writes that the coronavirus hasn’t, as some writers have imagined, ended the world of mere months, when we argued about whether sitcoms like Friendswere racist, or if comic book movies needed to reboot themselves with more female, gay, and trans superheroes. Harrington sees the brief silencing of these debates in a world suddenly concerned with life and death as a cease fire, not a victory. “Critical Social Justice is recalibrating,” she writes. “It is waking up to the political opportunity presented by the pandemic and beginning to shift its lens from the relatively trivial business of canceling 1990s sitcoms to genuinely emotive topics such as treatment of healthcare workers.”
Harrington insists that “social justice activists are regrouping, mustering the institutional power they already have and seeking more…I also suspect that when they do, their arguments will have not less, but considerably more impact than they did Before Coronavirus.”
Rare among the articles I’ve read imagining the future After Coronavirus, this piece sounds credible enough, if only because it imagines an outcome it doesn’t personally favour.
“Coronavirus will change nothing” boldly states another article on Unherd, written by Ben Gummer, former UK MP, member of Theresa May’s cabinet, and author of The Scouring Angel, a history of the Black Plague in the British Isles. Like those 14thcentury Britons, confronted with a pestilence exponentially more deadly than the one we’re currently suffering, we’ve identified portents and signs preceding the crisis, attempts to find “evidence of a disequilibrium that neatly puts the pandemic into a comprehensible context.”
Gummer’s own study of the Black Plague reveals that the changes wrought by the horrible deaths of 50 million people – over half of Europe’s population at the time – were profound, but that the “new normal” quickly returned to the “old normal” with time. This wouldn’t have been considered outrageous to almost anyone alive at the time.
“For the medieval mind, this was a far easier outcome to comprehend than for us,” Gummer writes. “In a pre-liberal worldview, one’s place in the world was divinely ordained, and change outside the turn of the seasons was neither inevitable nor expected.”
“It is a conclusion we find almost impossible to accept now,” as a people raised for generations on a narrative of historical “progress,” and a curious notion that history, like a good novel or a miniseries, has to end in a place notable different from the one where it started. It was a hard sell as a conclusion for his own history of the plague. As Gummer says, “‘Millions dead: things go on as before,’ makes for a poor quotation on the flyleaf of a new book.”
“This pandemic will bring nothing to an end,” he concludes, “nor create anything anew. When historians look back in seven centuries’ time, they will hopefully divine the truth of our age: that we were already embarked upon great change – coping with an ever more interconnected world, the dismemberment of traditional community, huge structural changes in the nature of work, and our existential effort to cease the wanton destruction of our planet and manmade climate change – well before pandemic flu temporarily stopped everything in its tracks.”
The last few weeks have hardly been a hardship for me. While people have died and jobs lost and front line workers – in hospitals and morgues as well as supermarkets and delivery services – have worked overtime, I have not seen a huge change in my own life. Apart, of course, from finding my wife and children at home with me nearly every hour of every day.
I am one of those people for whom social distancing is a habit of a lifetime, and while whatever paying work I might have had as a photographer and journalist has effectively evaporated, I’ve been able to turn my attention, with gratitude, to personal projects in the comfort of our kitchen. I have watched more TV than I have wanted, and read fewer books than I imagined. And if what I’ve been reading online is worth believing, many of us have been grudgingly grateful for being able to live in sweatpants and pyjamas and abjure onerous social obligations with a clean conscience.
But it has to end, and soon. The death toll is one price to pay, while subsequent economic devastation will be another, and possibly more devastating. Weighing one against the other is, emotionally, a callous equation. But it’s one that we, the comfortably afflicted, and our political class, apparently and finally engaged in real work, have on our minds all the time.
Other difficult periods in history have been remembered with slogans like “I Want YOU for U.S. Army” and “Keep Calm And Carry On.” This one might be illustrated in some future history book with a Facebook meme about saving the world by sitting on your couch and watching Tiger King. We will get off the couch, but it’s best not to imagine that the world we walk back into, paler and probably fatter, will look much different.