The hawthorns were pale green when the first lockdown started, and we all clapped for caretakers. The grass was lush and flowery everywhere as people argued over Dominic Cummings driving to Barnard Castle, and towns went up in flames during the Black Lives Matter riots.
The hedges were thick with fruit when Donald Trump’s administration came to an end (as was Dominic Cummings’). The mud was ankle-deep, churned by hoofprints and frozen when Boris rammed into the Brexit deal at the 11th hour, and not long after, a horned Nazi shaman invaded the US Capitol in Washington.
Closing days have a way of fading into each other, but my year has been marked by the changing of the hedges as I ran endless miles of footpaths.
Thinking about that year of Covid is like trying to grasp the layout of someone’s home by peering through the keyhole.
It’s hard to get any perspective when we’re all at home, with only algorithmically filtered online news feeds to provide information about the outside world. The temptation is to drop all perspective, keep the most personal experiences and the most general ‘public conversation’.
It would be easy enough to write an annual review from a personal perspective: all hedges and emotion. It would be just as easy to write a light-hearted summary of the year’s public conversations, which were boisterous (to say the least) and increasingly surreal.
But there is a different story about the impact of the pandemic that is much more difficult to see in each of these boxes.
The 10,000 pubs, bars and restaurants that will close for good in 2020 are not just a business; each close represents friends not met, milestones not celebrated with family, stories not exchanged, problems not shared over a pint, writes MARY HARRINGTON
This has been the deliberate destruction, in the name of virus control, of what was left of our ordinary life.
Between individual experiences and those on the larger scale of national or international politics lies most of human society: clubs, church groups, voluntary associations, the whole organic life of communities large and small. All of this relies on peer-to-peer social connection – and it was all abruptly halted by lockdown.
When the pandemic hit, there was a wave of hopeful articles about how this crisis could strengthen civil society ties and make us more aware of how interdependent we are as a society.
This all happened to some degree.
Mutual relief organizations sprang up, often with communities of faith in the foreground, seeking to close gaps and provide assistance to those struggling with incarceration. There were waves of volunteers helping the NHS deliver vaccines and pick fruit.
But against that new-found voluntariness, we have to weigh the impact that the past year has had on countless existing institutions, social institutions and relationships.
Because Covid has accelerated what I consider to be ‘the disintermediation of everything’.
In the 2000s, as the internet went mainstream with the launch of Facebook, eBay and their ilk, there was a lot of chatter about how amateurs could use the internet to route intermediate settings. This, the apostles of the digital revolution believed, would encourage great democratization and empowerment of smaller players.
That was the theory.
What it meant in practice was centralization. Think of the way Facebook replaced local newspapers, and the ad revenue they once earned made Mark Zuckerberg one of the richest men in the world. Now the Covid rules have brought that centralization – with its many losers and a small number of winners – into all of life.
Forced to close by a pandemic policy, more than 11,000 small and medium stores had gone out of business by June 2020. A report estimates that 48 businesses will be closed for good every day by 2020.
It’s not just the shopping street: Another report estimates that in September last year, 240,000 small and medium businesses of all types went to the wall.
But that was not equally true for all companies – it fell disproportionately for smaller companies. Online supermarket chain Ocado grew by 35 percent in 2020, while Amazon grew by 84 percent. All over the world there were lockdowns, small businesses struggled and died, and big ones got bigger.
The attack extends to the voluntary sector. As donations were hesitant and in-store charities had to close, one report estimates that even charities are facing a wave of consolidation, with smaller, more niche institutions folding their sometimes very specific local duties into the more general ones of larger organizations.
The effect can be felt even in churches. The Bishop of Manchester warned in January that Covid will accelerate the closure of more Anglican churches, as the loss of revenue from the collection meets already dwindling congregations, making maintenance of old buildings prohibitively expensive. Reports suggest that the Church of England is now proposing increasing the size of the parish and scrapping the middle class to cut costs.
There are many losers on an informal level.
Reports suggest the Church of England now proposes increasing parish size and scrapping the middle class to cut costs
The 10,000 pubs, bars and restaurants that will close for good in 2020 are not just a business; each close represents friends not met, milestones not celebrated with family, stories not exchanged, problems not shared over a pint.
And here again the centralizing trend applies: people with happy marriages, children, and good social lives have been walking through the past year with social bubbles and Zoom calls for the past year. But anyone without strong social connections, or who relies on social institutions for everyday human contact, found even that was taken from them.
A quarter of UK adults suffer from loneliness and mental health problems, and the hardest hit are young people, single parents and the unemployed – in other words, those with the weakest support structures. And nowhere has the destruction of life been bitten together more sharply than with those most in need of support. The past year was tough for all children, cut off from social contact and struggling with Zoomschool. But what is painfully visible is the deterioration in children’s mental health on a socio-economic scale.
It also plays a role in the impact of distance education. Children who were already underprivileged may not only lack the laptop (or the space, or the silence or the support) to properly handle distance education – even worse, one in five struggles to cope with hunger. to concentrate.
Lockdown has also gnawed at the quality of life of the elderly. A whopping 80 percent of respondents to an Alzheimer’s Society survey reported a decline in faculties due to isolation. And there are poignant stories of the impact that isolation in a nursing home has had on people with advanced dementia without visits from relatives.
As many as 126,000 British citizens died within 28 days of a Covid test in the past year. Perhaps that number would have been even higher without the lockdowns. But the costs of these measures were also unfathomable, both individually and collectively.
In the past year I have walked more than 1000 miles. I kept running as the hedges bloomed, turned green, gave fruit, and blew bare, and the world outside began to look like a hallucinatory shadow show.
Even when everything else didn’t seem essential, the paths beneath my feet remained unchanged except through the seasons.
It’s easy to conclude it’s all unreal and turn away. But the thing is, what we’re seeing is an emerging new normal. It’s just hard to see because now everything from our media to the government’s lockdown policy seems to be targeting ‘just me’ or ‘everything’ – but nothing in between.
Who cares about local life, now our public conversation is happening online, on a colossal scale, in terms of Chinese companies and Silicon Valley social justice evangelists and massaged by algorithms?
The answer must be: we. We care. Even though it has become more difficult to see our life mean, we need it more than ever. The alternate future is an unjust, atomized, deeply inhumane place.
- This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the UnHerd website.