The Cost of an Extraordinary Experiment
What began as a temporary measure designed to reduce the exponential spread of a new disease is in danger of becoming a new way of life.
What began as a temporary measure designed to reduce the exponential spread of a new disease is in danger of becoming a new way of life. This, I fear, will deepen social divisions and tensions – including those between the generations.
I wrote the article ‘Covid-19 is not a generation war’ the week before the UK’s formal lockdown announcement. As major political pressure for lockdown grew inside the country and internationally, disease spread rapidly. National school closures and the cancellation of public examinations had already been announced. Nonetheless, there remained a possibility that the UK might still avoid taking a path that seemed actively harmful, both to our ability to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 and to our ability to maintain social and economic resilience in the face of a destructive pandemic.
One year on, three things strike me about the article.
COVID-19 was serious, but manageable
Critics of lockdown have since been pilloried as ‘COVID-deniers’, ‘granny-killers’ and reckless libertarians, whose objections allegedly stem from the presumption that the virus is an evil conspiracy manufactured to terrify the global population into submission.
Yet, well before the government issued its first ‘Stay Home’ order, most people knew that this was no mere moral panic. The pandemic would, I wrote then, ‘have huge consequences: for human life and health, for the global economy, for people’s livelihoods’, and our task was to find the most effective ways of protecting the most vulnerable members of our population.
Doing so would not be straightforward, but neither was it impossible. Given COVID-19’s demographic risk profile, it seemed reasonable to expect that healthy, non-retired people should provide extra care for those at highest risk from the disease and that we should ‘look after our pensioners, because it is the right thing to do’.
But instead, we plunged the entire population into a protracted lockdown, neutering people’s ability to make sensible, compassionate decisions about how to care for others while minimising the risk of transmission.
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Generations wanted to work together
A year ago, I felt optimistic that a positive social response would prevail. Keeping social and economic life going during the pandemic would, I argued, depend on ‘developing a strong sense of social solidarity: drawing on the ties that bind us to our communities, friends and families, and setting aside petty differences and grievances’. As a sociologist, I am preoccupied with social atomisation and divisions, and the potential for inter-generational conflict.
Yet, the initial public response to the pandemic seemed to fly in the face of long-documented cultural trends of individuation and suspicion, with local communities rallying around to offer help to their neighbours. I argued that the despicable ‘Boomer Remover’ meme causing outrage on social media did not represent most young people’s response, which was to demonstrate high levels of concern and responsibility. This was something we could have built upon.
But, instead, we made acts of intergenerational solidarity illegal, abandoning elderly people and relegating them to isolation while behaving as though young people themselves were the virus. The focus on children and youth as vectors of asymptomatic transmission was relentless, resulting in educational institutions adopting practices that, in other times, would have been considered both irrational and inhumane.
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Lockdowns were intended to be temporary
I remain shocked at the speed and willingness with which most people acclimated to the lockdown regime and the callousness with which we have accepted its devastation.
In the quest for safety from an unknown disease, we showed ourselves willing to incur countless known harms – including interruption of children’s education and social development, the sacrifice of jobs and livelihoods, degradation of older people’s quality of life, and the compromise of fundamental democratic principles. What began as a temporary measure designed to reduce the exponential spread of a new disease now has the potential to become a way of life. This, I fear, will deepen social divisions and tensions – including those between the generations.
Too many discussions about the impact of lockdowns either avoid acknowledging the cost of this extraordinary experiment or fatalistically assume that it has done irreversible damage, especially to the futures of young people. As such, there exists a danger that even when the public health threat of the pandemic recedes, the political and cultural state of lockdown will remain.
Moving forward, the major challenge confronting the UK is to push beyond the reactive framework of pandemic politics and focus on constructively rebuilding social and economic life.
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Jennie Bristow is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, and a member of Collateral Global’s Scientific Advisory Board.
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