My great uncle Matty died a few weeks ago at the age of 95. I remember him primarily as a genius at whittling; he made a tiny mouse I used to love to play with as a child. And today, I will be missing the Budget speech — for the first time in 20 years — to be at Matty’s memorial service.
But I am frightened to be paying my respects to this much loved old man: frightened because it will be a gathering of dozens of people in their seventies and eighties, and I can’t know if they will be safe there, however many times I wash my hands.
Coronavirus has sent a shudder of fear through our society about interacting with others. There’s that moment when you reach out automatically to shake the hand of a friend or colleague, or exchange a hug. And then you pause. You wonder if they’ll think you timid if you pull back — or will they be horrified if you press ahead? We giggle awkwardly, we touch our elbows, and then the next person we greet charges in with a kiss on the cheek and you wonder why you bothered. Everyone we meet could be the carrier, even the people we love the most.
An argument broke out on my local internet forum about how we can best look after the elderly. One kind woman wanted to launch a new initiative where we all reached out to the older people on our streets and asked if they needed any help — could we pick up groceries, or just make sure they’re not lonely if they want to stay in to keep safe. But soon others pointed out that visiting is more likely to harm than to help, by exposing them to people who may unwittingly be carrying the disease. After all, one of the key factors in keeping our schools open is the fear that, without them, grandparents would end up looking after grandchildren, and getting infected that way.
That’s why I’m so baffled by those who see this epidemic as a corrective that will restore communitarianism, as we abandon global supply chains and go back to self-reliance. I see the exact opposite happening, as we all retreat into digital fortresses. The people who are smugly content right now are not communitarians. They’re the “extremely online” millennials who are as happy in confinement as anywhere, so long as they can get to Tiktok. And the hyper libertarian preppers who’ve been stocking extra loo paper for decades, and buried their gold somewhere in the woods.
The lesson thus far is that if you rely on other people, you’re at risk. As this crisis continues, we will be pushed to do more and more online. We will distance ourselves from physical contact in favour of virtual interaction. Those who persist with the kissing and the hugging will start to be pariahs.
It’s happening not by accident but by design. Universities are cancelling classes and telling people to log in to a virtual classroom. Some schools are doing the same. The NHS is talking about a target of 50% of GP appointments being held over the phone, app or video. There’s a government initiative with supermarkets to introduce shop-by-phone for elderly people who don’t trust the internet when it comes to ordering groceries.
This is a digital inclusion programme on steroids. The reality is that the more we can enable people to stay indoors, and stop breathing on each other, the safer we will be. Digital transformation has been slow in the past decade because of the complexity, the resistance of staff, and the fears of leaving older and more vulnerable people behind. But now all those reasons — good and bad — for moving slowly will be swept away in a blizzard of emergency initiatives from video courts to robot health assessments.
And don’t tell me these are temporary measures. Putting women in the factories in the First World War was a temporary measure: it transformed women’s role in society and life was never the same again. Millions of sceptics and reluctant adopters of technology will try out the online version and — perhaps grudgingly — use it. Our high streets are struggling already with the competition from online.
Two weeks of isolation will push almost everyone into trying online shopping, which is great if you’re a neoliberal who cares only about price, competition and choice. But less good if you’re interested in the human interactions that happen on high streets, when we queue together, chat together, and simply see other people and how they live their lives. On Amazon I see only products for people like me. At the local shop (even my local Tesco) I see products for people like my neighbours too.
But these tiny treasures are easily swept away by the efficiency demands of AI-optimised services. Over the next few months, huge public funding will be thrown at keeping people fed, happy and healthy without leaving their homes. So we will have got over the big costs and upheaval of introducing digital access. Public services and businesses alike will be reluctant to go back, when they think of the savings they can make by closing down physical locations.
I’m not a technophobe. Of course, digital services can be just as good if not better in some circumstances. But if we move things online we have to notice what we lose, and find a way to get it back. We are in real danger of disregarding the social and emotional value of face to face public services and of human contact with neighbours, fellow parents, fellow patients, fellow shoppers, fellow worshippers, fellow pupils.
With a cloud as big as coronavirus, it’s only natural to look for silver linings. So I understand why people are praying it will call a halt to the things they hate, whether that is neoliberalism, globalism or even Borisism. But we must not be naive. Social disruption of this scale will never take us back to an old way of being; it will only accelerate change. We have to be clear about the kind of society we want. We have to face the truth about the forces we are fighting against.
We all know the economy will take a knock from coronavirus. So we talk about a fiscal stimulus to get it back to health.
Let’s admit that our society will take just as big a knock. Weeks or months of staying indoors, not trusting strangers, second guessing every cough and every handshake: this is social poison. When this is over we will need a social stimulus on a massive scale: a rebuilding programme for relationships, friendships, and communities.
What do I mean? Perhaps a national C-Day celebration when we’ve beaten back this bastard disease and can move freely again: with streets closed and lunch parties and union flags and bunting. A national commitment to our relationships at the heart of all our public services: job clubs for unemployed workers; expert patient clubs for people with long-term conditions; parent clubs at every school; tax breaks for employers to fund after-work social activities; doubling the number of parks, and ensuring people don’t need a licence to do anything interesting in them; a parish council in every community with a mandate for parties and friendliness and little else.
In the past the state didn’t need to worry about this. But as our society atomises, and diversifies it could become its most important job.