David Morgan offers some reflections on the coronavirus and what it means for the world.
David Morgan is an editor and writer based in London and Manchester. He is involved mostly in historical research and has edited a number of books for the Socialist History Society: such as ‘1917: The Russian Revolution, Reactions and Impact’ and ‘The Labour Party in Historical Perspective’ to which he contributed essays on Freud and Leonard Woolf respectively. He is currently finishing a book that will reappraise the ideas of John Ruskin.
David also writes on political issues, especially the Kurds in Turkey. He is a long-standing member of the Peace in Kurdistan campaign for which in 2019 he co-edited a book, Peace Poems for Ocalan, with Estella Schmid. David also writes poetry.
Like many, I entered the world during a period when humanity was overshadowed by crisis. I was born in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when people feared that a nuclear confrontation between East and West would bring about the end of the world as they knew it. That didn’t happen, of course, but a nuclear arms race gathered pace and proxy wars were fought over continents as wide apart as Asia and Latin America. Millions died in those wars, although humanity was not annihilated. The shadow of the bomb hung over us until the Soviet Union collapsed which brought different uncertainties. As a student in the 1980s I wore my CND badge with pride tinged with a certain amount of fear. The nukes posed an existential threat and many feared that the extinction of the entire human race was imminent. Today, climate change and environmental catastrophe have awoken similar fears in millions of young people, including school students who left their classrooms and took to the streets to shame the world’s political leaders into taking some action before it is too late. The extinction rebellion has now subsided because of the new threat posed by the coronavirus. This virus is claiming more victims around the world and government responses so far are proving ineffective in halting its merciless progress, at least in Europe and the United States, the so-called advanced “First World”. Ironically, South Korea and China, part of the so-called “developing world”, appear to have got the virus under control.
The threat from the virus remains real. It is a shared experience that will mark us all for the rest of our lives. Things will never be the same again. Nor should they be.
We are compelled to spend more time at home, which is all very well if you have a pleasant home in which to live, one with plenty of space and amenities. If, however, you are confined in a tiny flat or squalid dwelling that lacks amenities and comforts, you are in big trouble. The prospect of such confinement is real and horrific for many. We should never forget the worse off as we seek to cope with our enforced confinement and try to make our own entertainment. One thing I most miss is the theatre, which admittedly is a very small price to pay for survival. I don’t seek or expect great sympathy. In the 1980s when I became interested in the theatre, one of the most successful innovative companies in the UK was named Shared Experience. That group was founded in 1975 by Mike Alfreds, its first artistic director. He was followed, I believe, by Nancy Meckler in 1987 and Polly Teale in 2000. These names will be quite meaningless to many people. Shared Experience, which still exists, earned a reputation for its productions of some of the renowned classics of the modern stage, such as the plays of Chekhov and Ibsen, which were reinterpreted from a feminist and Brechtian perspective. The company’s approach was highly influential and had many imitators. Its work helped make the modern theatre more meaningful and relevant as a genuine shared experience. I took from this the idea that creativity and culture were essential aspects of human wellbeing. Going to the theatre was not simply a form of entertainment, but about understanding life, human behaviour and social interaction. The closure of the theatres is a tremendous loss to our civilisation. Everyone should have the opportunity to partake of this shared experience. But for the moment, we face far greater challenges. What is uppermost in our minds is pure survival and this time there is not even a CND badge to offer any comfort.
As we are all now only too fully aware a shared experience does not always have to inspire positive feelings. We are compelled to experience darkness as well as light; adversity as well as delight; destructiveness as much as creation. At present the threats are all around us and they are growing. We are all in the same boat and it seems to be one that is sinking rapidly. When the usually untouched celebrities can be struck down, when the elite are knocked off their feet, when the heir to the British throne is diagnosed as positive, along with the Prime Minister and other political leaders at home and abroad, we can perhaps be oddly comforted that we are all in it together. It is a shared experience though not one we would ever welcome. At the same time, we are instructed to stay at home, to isolate ourselves in our family units and to practise “social distancing”. It is beneficial to be anti-social, at least for the time being.
The salutation “Keep Safe” quickly replaced “Yours Sincerely” and “Best Regards” as the preferred sign off when concluding a letter or email; actually letters written on paper virtually ceased to exist a very long time before the present crisis gave a tremendous boost to communications technologies and the expansion of virtual reality. We are forced to withdraw into our own little worlds, retreating more and more into an inner space, which we suppose we can more easily control, retreating as we fear the unruly reality that exists untamed outside our doors, beyond our consoles, laptops, tablets and smart phones. The present crisis has massively increased a trend that had been growing over past decades, at least since the invention of the internet and social media.
Where we will be when this crisis has blown over not even the experts can yet foretell. What we have all probably started to realise is that we cannot go back to how things were. Life will never be the same again. We might be told that “normal service will be resumed as soon as possible”, but we will all be changed by the experience. The world has shutdown and when it reopens many people will demand that the world is run differently, if they learn the right lessons from history and draw the correct conclusions from their recent experiences.
After the global financial crash in 2008, a decade of austerity was imposed on the people who were punished for the crimes of others. Similar austerity measures were introduced across continents. The people were forced to pay a high price for the mistakes of the privileged few. The weakest among us suffered the most and the rich continued to thrive and prosper; their partying never stopped. It became obvious that we were not really all in it together.
When the Second World War ended in 1945, people in Britain voted out of office their war leader, Winston Churchill, who had sought to scare voters that his political opponent, Clement Attlee, was about to introduce a “gestapo” into Britain and that Labour’s socialist programme was alien to the British way of life. The people remained unconvinced and opted to put their trust in Attlee, who went on to create the modern welfare state and established the National Health Service, which we all enthusiastically applaud today without one single dissenter daring to raise one word of criticism; the free marketeers for the moment have been vanquished. The NHS is now regarded as our saviour as we fight the menace of another formidable enemy in the shape of the coronavirus, COVID-19.
In many respects, this development is proving to be a great gain for human advance and wellbeing. The crisis is showing us every day the true value of cooperation and highlighting how much we exist in a community, underlining the vital importance of collective action, the need for public spending, the strategic role of government in providing for the people. What is not so good is that the technologies of surveillance and the sophisticated mechanisms of social control have been unleashed as never before and this goes unchallenged by all but a small minority of isolated sceptics. “Big Brother” is watching over us and the frightened people are demanding even more of it. We are assured that the emergency measures that states around the world have introduced in their attempts to combat the spread of the coronavirus will be only temporary restrictions on our freedoms. We must endure short-term pain for long-term gain; that is the necessary remedy. We must all take our medicine.
But the series of curfews, executive orders, edicts and stringent penalties, amount to social controls unknown to any modern democracy in peacetime. For the present there is no end in sight; we must lay our trust in our leaders. Our vulnerability as free individuals has been brought starkly to our attention and our utter dependency on authority goes virtually unchallenged. Not even the most militant activists are going to be able to organise a protest march when conditions of martial law have been imposed with the consent of the public, many of whom demand even tougher measures, at least for the moment. Opinions will certainly change as people begin to break the curfews and flout the rules, as they seek to play, to socialise, to do what comes naturally. Only time will tell how much pain and discomfort we can tolerate.
The shopping malls, the cinemas, theatres, clubs, stadiums, bars, restaurants, hotels, schools, museums, galleries, bookshops have all closed. Consumerism has been suspended and many may warmly welcome that; we can breathe again because there are fewer flights polluting the air, there is no traffic on the roads, the streets are silent, the motorways and highways are empty; fish can swim in the rivers again as the once fetid waters start to shimmer as never before. City dwellers awake to the sound of bird song for the very first time. Let’s hope that encourages a greater appreciation of the beauties of Nature.
In these times of adversity, we are forced to invent a new culture, to create new forms of entertainment, to make use of our enforced free time in different ways. We can read books. For those who have never picked up a book in their life until now, this will be a very hard task, but many might try it and they might find that reading is at least as enjoyable as their usual pursuits. People can change. Leisure time does not need to be squandered away in the pub or watching sport on a big screen among groups of rowdy revellers. Cerebral activities are as needed for the mind as physical exercise is for the body. Both are essential for our wellbeing. Let people learn to live as full human beings developing themselves to their fullest capacity.
Things will never be the same again, that is for sure. People are realising the virtue of community, public service, extensive public investment in the economy, a strong public sector, financial support for the weak and the vulnerable; even the homeless are being taken off the streets. The world that existed before this crisis was not all perfect; far from it. We must be vigilant and make sure that we don’t go back to the bad old days, the bad old ways. We desperately want our freedoms back as soon as possible, that is natural, but we also want to continue to help each other. Wealthier countries must help the less developed just as stronger citizens should help the poorer. Excess and scarcity exist side by side, but there is an urgent need to close this gap. This is a lesson that can be learned in these tumultuous times that we are all going through together. Nobody should be left to sleep on the streets; no household should be crushed by punishing debt repayments just as no country should be crippled with debt too. If we are truly all in this together, we must all be given a stake in our society during the good times as well as the bad. That is the positive lesson we can learn from this shared experience as we confront the current crisis. The world can and will be a better place. But it is all up to us.
© David Morgan