For decades, our society has been deteriorating. And our tolerance for the discomfort and death of our fellow human beings has seemed virtually boundless. But with the appearance of a virus that made the world stop, we started to notice each other again. We started to count those suffering and dying like it mattered.
We are in a surreal and terrifying moment. But if we harness the compassion and creativity that the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has forced upon us, this virus might just save more lives than it takes.
I was floored by a statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO) from just two years ago. A child under 15 dies every five seconds, mostly due to poverty. To put it another way, the failure of our current economic system is largely responsible for killing a child every five seconds.
And okay, maybe we feel like we can’t save the whole world and its children. But what about closer to home? A 2017 study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that, since 2010, cuts to health and social care could be linked to over 120,000 British deaths. This was a problem with an obvious solution: stop electing the people responsible. But instead, England (because this was the only nation in the UK which gave the Tory party a majority in 2019) voted them in yet again.
And so it is really something to see the overwhelming majority of people around the world responding with urgency to the coronavirus. A cynical response says ‘x million people die a year from starvation, so what’s the big deal about this virus?’ A human response says: ‘If we can mobilise like this for coronavirus, what can’t we mobilise for? Let’s harness this energy and rebuild from the bottom up.’
Time to care
It’s important to remember the UK government’s initial preferred approach to this crisis was ‘herd immunity’. This essentially meant letting the virus wash over us like a tsunami and kill whomever it killed in the name of capitalism. This strategy was rejected not only by the usual suspects on the left but also, ultimately, even by the likes of Donald Trump:
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Donald Trump discussing the UK’s initial “herd immunity” as an example of how not to respond. DONALD TRUMP pic.twitter.com/NnAH1cYuVQ
— mar cus (@marcusjdl) April 1, 2020
Instead, the vast majority of countries are protecting salaries, housing homeless people, and banning evictions. Governments are mobilising in a way that many people would have considered impossible a few weeks ago. And where they aren’t, we are noticing again:
The sleeping arrangements of dozens of homeless people in Las Vegas has been condemned on social media.
In a photo, a handful of people are seen lying in white boxes painted on the concrete floor — six feet apart to enforce social distancing. https://t.co/cwbcJ6WEox
— CNN (@CNN) April 1, 2020
The world stopped. Everyone stopped rushing around trying to survive and thrive, all at once. And suddenly, we could see each other.
A colleague sent me a story from his village:
And these stories are happening in villages, towns, and cities across the world.
Are diabolical and selfish things still happening? Of course. But a simple thought is catching in people’s minds. If this stuff isn’t acceptable during coronavirus, is it ever acceptable?
Coronavirus is showing the power of cooperation. Most of us are either essential workers on the frontline, saving lives and providing critical goods and services, or we’re joining mutual aid groups or checking in on neighbours we couldn’t name before the crisis. We are remembering we need each other. We are remembering we care about each other. And the longer this goes on, the harder it will be to return to ‘normal’.
The mission ahead
This thing has barely begun. Already, over 45,000 people have died. And the cruellest thing about the virus is that people are dying without their loved ones. Just this week, a 13-year-old boy from Brixton died of the virus in hospital, without his family. He had no underlying health conditions, and now he’s gone. He was unable to reach out for his parents as he left this world, and they were unable to cradle him in their arms and tell him they loved him. I cried reading that story. And I cannot tell you the last time I cried at a tale of human suffering. Like healthcare workers and emergency services personnel, journalists have to build a protective layer around ourselves to operate in the darkest corners of life. It struck me in that moment that my own humanity was being awoken by this crisis. This is not an ‘over there’ thing, it’s an ‘in each of us’ thing.
In coming weeks, we may lose many of our people. And we will lose them in a way we never imagined. We will wave them off from a distance, and they will never return. But others will. And what world will we create from the ashes of this one to commemorate our lost and welcome our survivors?
This was the spirit driving Britain in the aftermath of World War II. An energy that drove us to build the NHS, roll out a proper national education system, build more council homes than we’d ever done in our history. We made it our mission that everyone in this nation would have access to the food, shelter, healthcare, and education that they needed to live a comfortable life. Not just to survive on the breadline, but to live comfortable lives. And we have almost a century’s worth of breakthroughs in technology, science, medicine, and social progress to work with this time.
This moment of collective insecurity, discomfort, and togetherness can serve as a catalyst for rapid social change.
We may have no choice but to rebuild from the ground up if coronavirus keeps us stopped for the estimated 12-18 months. And every day of this lockdown, people are learning new and better ways to work, parent, teach, and live. At the same time, the virus is demanding breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology. We are sowing the seeds for a new society.
Let’s never return to a ‘normal’ that kills five children under 15 every five seconds. In that way, we can make sure coronavirus saves more lives than it takes.
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