On February 15 this year, Caroline Flack of Love Island fame was reported to have committed suicide. Just under a month later, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. In the wake of both events, we were given a simple message: be kind. Don’t say anything to others online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling them in person, and don’t put lives at risk by going out more than you need to.
But six months on, and despite warnings of the past, could we be seeing signs of a future society that’s less compassionate than what came before?
Last month the UK government announced that face masks would be compulsory in shops from July 24. There can be no doubt this was the right thing to do, as masks have been clearly proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, one criticism that was widely levelled at the time was: why weren’t masks being made mandatory immediately? What was with the almost two-week delay between the rule being announced and it coming into force?
These complaints were largely from people who had already been wearing masks out and about – they couldn’t understand why the government was being so hesitant about it. What they forgot was that many people found it harder to wear or obtain masks for various reasons – be they physical, mental or financial – so the time delay helped them do what they needed to in order to prepare.
Similarly, when Boris Johnson declared a lockdown on March 23, it was after much pressure from the public, who had watched other countries go into lockdown and report fewer cases of the virus. As such, there were many people asking why we hadn’t done this sooner. While we can’t overstate how important it was to go into lockdown, we also can’t ignore the fact that being in quarantine was always going to be harder for some than for others. Surging numbers of calls to domestic violence helplines, lower-earning families struggling to afford the technology to take part in online lessons, and more people than ever before reporting difficulties with their mental health all stand as proof of this, and yet the blanket legislation didn’t make for easy solutions to these problems.
In each of these instances, we saw the country’s response to the pandemic being encouraged by the able-bodied and economically well-off, who – despite having good intentions – often forgot about the more complex needs of others. This begs the question: once the pandemic is over, will we as a society still address our issues like this? Will the ‘last and least’ continue to be overlooked in the way they have been here?
This doesn’t have to be the case. Writing for BBC News in March, author Matthew Syed suggested that kindness could become “a more sustainable part of our societies” post-pandemic, given how interdependent our societies already are. He pointed out that the people who are more willing to help others are often the ones who end up achieving the highest in society, contrary to the popular belief that achieving high means ‘looking out for Number One.’ This could make kindness seem more appealing to those to whom it doesn’t come so instinctively. Coronavirus has taught us how much we rely on others without even realising it, from the NHS workers risking their lives on the front lines to the neighbours picking up groceries for us on their weekly shop – “no man is an island”, as John Donne famously put it. It’s also reminded us that there are many people in much less favourable circumstances than us, such as in the above examples. So, if we want to prove we’ve learned anything from this crisis, we must consider these people’s needs going forward.
And yet in a society which never used to pay them so much attention, could we not just end up falling back into our old individualistic ways again? Will we be so motivated to look out for the underdog once COVID-19 is out of the picture? For all the talk of how this pandemic has changed the world, many of us (this writer included) have spent the past months longing for life to go back to normal. This reflects a privileged, “I’m alright, Jack” view of the world. However, for many in our society, life was already an uphill battle and COVID hasn’t made it any easier. There’s a danger that after months of collective panic and heavy-handed government have drained us emotionally, we start to turn inwards and focus on keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, forgetting about those at the bottom of the pile. Let’s not allow that to happen.
Words by Nat Schaefer
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