For all of us, the pandemic will be an experience to get through, to survive before things return “to normal”. We should all be involved in this effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, no question.
At the same time, and I don’t wish to say this callously, I think it is also important to consider that this pandemic is “not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world”.
OK, that’s perhaps a grand way of putting it. In less grandiose terms, perhaps, these times offer an opportunity to allow ourselves to be changed.
As I reflect on this shift in perspective—on the pandemic as a moment of change and opportunity—I think at one level of the massive structural changes that are happening in the UK:
- the intervention of the state and the medical and economic guarantees it has made (which I reflect on here)
- the changing nature of capitalism
- the public recognition of those we so easily took for granted, including NHS nurses and doctors, carers, restaurant owners, delivery drivers, cleaners. The scale of this recognition is at biblical proportions (“the last shall become first”).
- relatedly, our prioritisation of the elderly and vulnerable in public health policy
Other developments stare us in the face just waiting for those in power to do something. There is, for instance, a desperate need for a social stimulus to support charities and non-for-profits to carry out their important work in promoting social cohesion and care (for more on this, and the need for the government to let charities register more quickly and so receive gift aid status and to lessen the time for DBS checks, listen to Will Tanner between 19:00 and 32:00 here).
But at another level, I am thinking of transformation at the personal level. I have recently noticed a shift in my own habits, thinking and attitudes, and even some rare moments of moral insight.
The hesitant but unmistakeable wave to the bus driver on my morning walk. The conversation with the Sainsbury steward. The nod to the cleaner who passes my window in the morning.
I become more aware of people around me. Shared suffering creates this kind of solidarity. It reminds me of our inter-connectedness. Deeper still, it also offers an opportunity to create habits that work against the default mode of selfishness, to embody practices that go against the grain of modern life. In the time of the pandemic, there are more readily available, more pressing opportunities to look beyond myself and so challenge the prevailing individualism of late-modern life.
This condition naturally arises from a consciousness of shared fragility—the potential to be a carrier of the virus and so infect others, regardless of whether or not they are a stranger, is strong. As Peter Franklin puts it, “There’s nothing like a contagious disease to remind us that individual actions have collective consequences”.
So I give thanks for these moments of change amidst all the difficulty of this season in our national and global life.
Since starting these diary entries, I have reflected on whether the pandemic is an abnormal time or whether, in fact, we are living in “the normal times” (I was convinced more towards the latter point when listening to Rowan Williams discuss the plight of those in the majority world, for whom the conditions of the plague are, at least materially, no different from their daily reality; full episode here).
But I’ve now come to a different conclusion. Or at least, a different way of looking at the matter. What if strained times such as these offer us the opportunity to re-think and re-shape the normal?
This isn’t to instrumentalise the pandemic. Rather, it is to reflect carefully and candidly on the social, economic and spiritual implications of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Of course these are abnormal times with their sad but necessary blend of spatial distancing and social isolation. And we hope for a return to “peace time” and an end to the virus and the tragic suffering and loss of life it has caused.
What if, in the midst of the survival, the mitigation, the spatial distancing and self-isolating, we also took time to re-think the “normal” order of things?
To challenge our assumptions not only about how our world might look, but about how I, how we, might be in it?
I think we have the chance to not only re-imagine the macro-structures of our society and world, but to also re-conceive of the individual habits, attitudes and desires of our own hearts (more on that in this wonderful piece).
All along, we assume that things will return to normal. And in medical terms, we certainly hope that will be soon. But what if the new normal we return to, will in some sense, be new? How, then, would we want to shape it?
By all means, let’s first and foremost survive and protect lives.
But please forgive me if I am also interested to see what new shoots might be growing up…and consider how I might tend to them in the days ahead.