20 April, 2020

The Times | This crisis will touch us all in different ways

Authored by Trevor Phillips, this article was published in The Times on the 6th of April, 2020.  

Social and political divisions won’t vanish because of coronavirus — and might actually deepen

Last century, newspaper journalism was described as the first rough draft of history. Today, the number of people attempting the first draft of the history of the coronavirus crisis has been multiplied by the online millions. The impact on decision-makers of social media — occasionally inspired, mostly ill-informed, and often deranged — is immediate. And in their anxiety to come out of it well, ministers and officials are already ensuring their version of events is written into official documents that will be pored over by the inevitable public inquiry.

There is great danger here. In an effort to define how history views the emergency and the way  it was handled, we risk focusing decision making on the  wrong aspects. A central theme of the coverage to date is the way the crisis is bringing everyone together in support of our health professionals, the quiet determination of an army of dedicated key workers who keep the lights on, and the small acts of kindness to people whose names we may not have known a month ago. The Scots have put off their plans for a new independence referendum. Her Majesty has rallied the nation in a rare TV address. This is the glowing version of history that most will understandably want to remember.

But the fact is that moments of social trauma and transformation are never recalled the same way by everyone. “If you remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there” goes the cliché; shorthand for visions of miniskirts, pop stars out of their heads on LSD, and anti-war protests in front of the American embassy in London. But for others the memory is one of crimplene, the first taste of real coffee, and dockers marching in support of Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech.

Different groups in society experience social dislocation in different ways. Trauma of the kind that most countries are now experiencing has two effects. The first is to accelerate change that is already on the way. A hundred years ago, women’s wartime resilience increased the momentum behind female emancipation. 

For most Americans in the Seventies, the Vietnam war was a national humiliation. But it took that war for the US Army, which at the start of the 20th century counted just one black officer among its 25,000 regular and officer classes, to realise that it couldn’t continue to send black GIs to die under an all-white officer corps. Before Vietnam, the idea of a black man, Colin Powell, as America’s top soldier would have seemed impossible; after the war it became inevitable.

The second effect of national trauma is to exacerbate the  existing divisions in society, such as urban versus rural. Those who hope that national unity in the face of this crisis might kill off identity politics and other aspects of our culture wars are likely to be disappointed. Different groups will have entered lockdown in very different states of mind; they will endure it differently and they will emerge with very different expectations. 

Take gender. Broadly speaking, the 15 million women who work will continue to do so, even under today’s very difficult circumstances, while many of their 17 million male counterparts will be forced into idleness. Of the 63 occupations where more than 85 per cent of those employed are male, most have ceased to operate — laying off more than a million and a half men in the construction, security and transport sectors alone. On the other hand, while time may weigh heavily on the hands of 250,000 female receptionists and beauticians, the million and half women who nurse our sick and care for our elderly must be at their wits’ end, trying to do their jobs as well as look after children and parents.

Elsewhere in the world, where many believe the crisis is better met by communal worship than by individual introspection, nations such as Nigeria, Brazil and South Africa will be harbouring the virus long after it has passed over Europe. It cannot be a coincidence that the proportion of Americans — 44 per cent — who claim that Covid-19 represents some form of  divine retribution for man’s sins is very similar to  the proportion of the electorate that chose Donald Trump in 2016 and have stuck by him in every opinion poll since.

Even in Britain, members of some faith communities will be caught in an agony of indecision. Fewer than one in three British Christians take part in communal worship once a month but more than half of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus gather regularly. I have no doubt that the latter are complying with government advice on social distancing in the same way as everyone else. But what may feel like a minor inconvenience to most may be a spiritual privation for others.

The legacy of coronavirus is not going to be the same for everyone. Nor is it set in stone. Some things we cannot influence but others we can. What we tell ourselves now about the trauma we are undergoing will, more than at any other time in our history, determine how well we manage the crisis and how well we emerge from it. 

Paradoxically, perhaps the first step to unity is to recognise that there is no single “we”; that our identities may sometimes converge with those of others but often they will not. Let this be an opportunity  to walk in each others’ shoes for a moment. We will need to call on all our skills to stay together when the fierce life-and-death urgency of now recedes and normal competition resumes.


To read the article in The Times, please click here.

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