The hawthorns were pale green when the first lockdown started, and we all clapped for carers. The grass was lush and everywhere full of flowers while the Westminster court press argued about Dominic Cummings driving to Barnard Castle, and cities around the world went up in flames in the BLM riots. The hedgerows were thick with fruit when the reign of Donald Trump came to an end (as did that of Dominic Cummings). The mud was ankle-deep, churned by hoofprints and frozen solid when Boris rammed the Brexit deal through at the eleventh hour, and not long afterwards a horned Nazi shaman invaded the US Capitol.
Lockdown days have a way of blurring into one another, but my year has been marked out by the changing of the hedgerows as I ran along endless miles of footpaths.
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Reflecting on that year of Covid is like trying to grasp the layout of someone’s house by peering through the keyhole. It’s difficult to get any sense of perspective when we’re all confined to our homes, with only algorithmically-filtered online newsfeeds to supply information about the outside world. The temptation is to allow every perspective to fall away, save the most personal “I” and the most general “public conversation”.
It would be easy enough to write a review of the year from the “I” perspective: all hedgerows and emotion. It would be as easy to write a breezy roundup of the year’s public conversations, which have been loud (to say the least) and increasingly surreal. But there’s another story of the pandemic’s impact as well, that’s far harder to see in either of these frameworks. This has been the deliberate shattering, in the name of virus control, of what was left of our common life – and the asymmetrical impact this has had.
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Between “I” as an individual, and “we” at the largest scale of national or international politics, lies most of human society: clubs, church groups, voluntary associations, the whole organic life of communities great and small. All of this relies on peer-to-peer social connection — and it was all abruptly halted by lockdown.
When the pandemic struck, there was a rash of hopeful articles (including some of mine) about how this crisis might strengthen civil society bonds, and make us more aware of how interdependent we are as a society. This all happened, to an extent. Mutual aid organisations sprang up, often with faith communities at the forefront, seeking to plug gaps and bring help to those struggling under lockdown. There were waves of volunteers to help the NHS, deliver vaccines and pick fruit. But against that newfound voluntarism, we must weigh the impact the last year has had on countless existing institutions, social settings and relationships.
For Covid has accelerated what I think of as the disintermediation of everything. Back in the 00s, when the internet first hit the mainstream with the launch of Facebook, eBay, and their ilk, I was involved in the startup world. There was lots of excited chatter at the time about “disintermediation” — the way groups of amateurs might use the internet to route round intermediate institutions. This, the apostles of the digital revolution believed, would impel a great democratisation and empowerment of smaller players against rigid gatekeepers of all types.
That was the theory. What it meant in practice was centralisation. Instead of local newspapers, now we have one virtual “local newspaper” — Facebook — whose monopolisation of the ad revenue that once went to local papers has made Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest men in the world. Instead of high-street antique shops, we now have one “antique shop” — eBay — that has devastated high-street sellers while it made its founder a billionaire.
As we’ve plunged deeper into the digital era, a pattern has begun to emerge. Not only do digital players centralise and then replace offline ecosystems, but winners and losers on digital platforms also follow a centralising trend. This was recently captured by OnlyFans superstar Aella, who posted a graph showing how much money porn stars on that website earn:
Onlyfans ranking % and how much actual money that corresponds to: pic.twitter.com/0BiL4NKADE
— Aella (@Aella_Girl) December 6, 2020
Aella herself ranks in the top 0.8% on OnlyFans, and in her best-performing month last year made $103,000. Others on the site may make very little, despite posting lots of content. This extreme asymmetry in who benefits from a platform eviscerates everything except the very top of the curve. I think of this dynamic as Aella’s Law – and over the past year, largely thanks to Covid control measures, it has made rapid incursions into real life.
This real world rollout of Aella’s Law was first visible in bricks-and-mortar businesses. Compelled to close by pandemic policy, by June 2020 over 11,000 small and medium-sized shops had gone out of business. One report estimates that 48 businesses closed for good every day in 2020. It’s not just high street shops, either: another report estimates that by September 2020, 240,000 small and medium-sized businesses of all types went to the wall.
But that didn’t apply evenly to all businesses – it fell disproportionately on smaller ones. Online grocery retailer Ocado saw 35% growth over 2020, while Amazon (which holds the kind of leading spot in e-commerce that Aella does in porn) saw 84% growth over the year. Aella’s Law doesn’t just affect groceries either; wherever in the world there were lockdowns, over the course of 2020 small businesses struggled and died, and big ones got bigger.
The assault extends to the voluntary sector as well. As donations have wavered and high-street charity shops been forced to close, one report estimates that even charities face a wave of consolidation, with smaller, more niche bodies folding their sometimes highly specific local remits into the more general one of larger organisations.
Meet Aella: the intellectual porn star
Aella’s Law is even being felt in our churches. The Bishop of Manchester warned in January that Covid will accelerate the closure of yet more Anglican churches, as loss of collection income due to closures meets already-dwindling congregations to render the upkeep of ancient buildings unaffordable. Reports suggest the Church of England is now proposing to increase parish sizes and cull mid-ranking clergy in order to trim costs.
At an informal level, too, there have been many losers. The 10,000 pubs, bars and restaurants that closed their doors for good in 2020 aren’t just a business; each closure represents friends not met, milestones not celebrated with family, stories not exchanged, troubles not shared over a pint.
And here, again, Aella’s Law applies: those with happy marriages, kids and good social lives have limped through the last year with social bubbles and Zoom calls. But anyone without strong social connections, or who is reliant on social institutions for everyday human contact, found even that taken from them. A quarter of UK adults have suffered loneliness and mental health issues during lockdown, and those worst affected have been young people, single parents and the unemployed — in other words, those with the weakest existing support structures.
And nowhere has the shattering of life in common bitten more sharply than for those most in need of support. The last year has been tough on all children, shut off from social contact and struggling with Zoom school. But Aella’s Law is painfully visible in the concentration of worsening child mental health down the socioeconomic scale. And it’s also at work in the impact of remote schooling: children who were already disadvantaged may not just be missing the laptop (or the space, or the quiet, or the support) to engage properly with remote schooling — worse yet, one in five have struggled to concentrate due to hunger.
Lockdown has also gnawed at quality of life for all but the best-resourced and most well-connected elderly people. A massive 80% of respondents to an Alzheimer’s Society survey reported a dramatic decline in faculties as a consequence of isolation. And there are harrowing stories of the impact isolation in a care home has had, on people with advanced dementia deprived even of visits from loving relatives.
We’ve paid steeply to control this virus. The price has not just been in government borrowing but in the tattered warp and weft of our common life. Maybe the price has been worth paying: even under lockdown, a staggering 126,000 UK citizens died within 28 days of a Covid test over the last year. But the cost has been unfathomable as well, both individually and collectively — and it has not been evenly borne.
Over the past year, I ran more than a thousand miles. I counted my blessings with every step. Compared to many I have been lucky. I kept running as the hedgerows blossomed, greened, fruited and blew bare, and the world outside came increasingly to resemble a bleak and hallucinatory shadow-show. Even if everything else has seemed insubstantial, the paths under my feet stayed put: unchanged except by the seasons coming and going.
It’s easy to conclude that it’s all unreal, and to turn away. But the point is precisely that that out there is not a shadow-show: it’s an emerging new normal. It’s just difficult to see, because everything now, from our media to government lockdown policy, seems geared toward “just me” or “everything” — but nothing in between.
Who cares about local life, now our public conversation happens online, at colossal scale, in terms set by Chinese ambassadors and Ivy League social justice evangelists and massaged by algorithms? The answer has to be: us. We care. Even as it’s grown harder to see our life in common, we need it more than ever. The alternative is a future governed purely by Aella’s Law: an unjust, atomised, deeply inhuman place.