Back to Normal?

27th June 2020

The number of new cases and deaths from Covid 19 reported each day has fallen in recent weeks and so things are gradually “returning to normal”. In fact the figures are far from negligible – we still had more than a thousand new cases every day and 186 deaths on 26th June. Our figures are higher than any other European country except Sweden. Nevertheless non-essential shops were allowed to reopen last week, and it looks as if pubs and restaurants may follow suit shortly. Children are gradually returning to school and more people are returning to work.

In most situations this is a rather new normal, quite different from how things were before last February. Our local garden centre has introduced a one way system and a complicated but highly effective way of paying for what you have bought without anyone coming within 2 metres of anyone else. Other big shops seem to have taken similar measures. The bike shop is only open by appointment, made by email or phone; when we rang the vet about our dog’s sticky eye they asked us to email photos of it to them, and when I had a blood test last week I had to wait outside until they were ready to see me. Fine in June but it won’t be such fun in November.

So long as this easing of the lockdown doesn’t lead to the dreaded “second wave” this is generally seen as a good thing. And in some ways it is, although when I heard that “non-essential” shops were to be allowed to re-open I couldn’t help wondering why, if we could do without them for three months, they were open in the first place? Clearly there are some things like clothes (and bicycle tyres) which you can manage without buying for a few months but do need eventually, but I do wonder whether lockdown has revealed how little of what we spend our time and money on really matters. ” Getting and spending we lay waste our powers” as Wordsworth remarked.

The same applies to many other “normal” activities. When I hear airline bosses lamenting at the harm travel restrictions are doing to their business I want to cheer. The disruption to people’s lives when airlines and travel firms fail or cut back is of course sad, but on the whole the world is a better and a cleaner place for us spending less time (and carbon) rushing about it.

I suspect some of this is going to be permanent – businesses will realise that the benefits of sending people half way round the world for meetings rather than sorting things out on Zoom are not worth the bills for hotels and travel, or the time lost hanging about in airports.

The epidemic provides an opportunity for a rethink on how we organise our lives, towards less frenetic activity and more focus on leisure, relationships and contemplation. Pope Francis has spoken about this; he said recently:

Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.

I see early signs of an economy that is more human. But let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back.

The great thinker E F Schumacher realised this in the 1970’s and started to think through how it might work in his important books “Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered” and “Good Work”. Schumacher was no starry-eyed idealist – he had trained as an economist and in the 1950’s he helped run the National Coal Board to fuel Britain’s post-war economy. But he realised that making money is a means to the good life, not an end in itself.

Sadly I rather doubt that our politicians have this vision – certainly not those currently in Government, who seem to be balancing controlling risk against the chance to make money in a way which prioritises the latter. One can only hope that those of us who have enjoyed the quieter streets, the chance to enjoy the birdsong and the trees, the home-made bread and banana cake will be able to hold on to those good things in the coming months.

I am not convinced that this is the end – not even that as Churchill put it the end of the beginning. Having dithered far too long in taking the necessary measures in January, February and March, we now seem to be opening things up when infection rates are still considerably higher than in other countries. And the pattern of behaviour we are seeing does not suggest Lerts are as common as they need to be. Neither the big picture of the crowds on Bournemouth and Margate beaches this week, nor the microcosm of the three young women my diabetic husband found breathing down his neck in our local corner shop which has a clear notice by the door saying ” Only two customers at any one time” gives one confidence. And I’ve noticed on my ventures into the street ( still only for exercise, medical appointments and other necessary reasons, though the definition of necessary has widened slightly to include getting a new bicycle tyre and getting the dog clipped) that about 30% of people seem to be looking at their mobile phone whilst walking along, which no serious Lert would do. Groups are gathering and moving around together to share their viruses and an increasingly circuitous route is needed to keep a minimum of 2 m from another virus shedding human being. So the possibility of a second wave soon increasingly looks more like a certainty.

Nevertheless I have decided that this is a good point at which to end the Diary of an Involuntary Anchorite. Partly because now lockdown has eased I am no longer involuntary – I am staying at home not because I am told to and to a considerable extent not even because I still feel it is prudent to do so, but because I want to. And partly because I think I have run out of things to stay on this subject.

But this is not the end of my blog. Next week I will start a new series, exploring the many pleasures of life which the modern anchorite and everyone else can enjoy, and some of those which do require a more mobile lifestyle. I look forward to sharing with you my “Personal Pleasures”.