One of the main reasons that many progressives are looking to the Covid crisis to change the nation’s politics is that this crisis has been such an unusual unifying national experience. Whilst older individuals are much more vulnerable to the very bad effects of the virus, nearly every family in the country has been similarly worried about such a universal threat.
Not that everyone’s experience of the Covid crisis is the same. Having a garden; a secure job where you can work from home; savings; or a laptop, good Wi-Fi and Netflix. These advantages are differentially distributed across society. All the inequalities in our society that existed pre-Covid have been magnified by the crisis. You are more likely to catch the virus if you are poor – and more likely to die. It has not been ‘the same’ experience for everyone.
But the crisis and the fear of infection has created something similar for everybody. Only very few have been able to escape to foreign hidey holes and even there the infection will have had an impact on their lives.
By March everyone will have had a year-long similar experience – for most of the days of that year the Covid experience has dominated most people’s lives.
It is because of this universality that so many people are drawing historically analogies with World War 2. That war was called ‘total’ because very quickly after the war was declared it involved everybody. Over two weekends in September 1939 3 million children were evacuated from their urban-based parents to rural strangers. During World War 2 big things happened to nearly everybody and they went on happening for a long time.
Why am I labouring this point?
Real political change – not the ephemeral changes in political ideas a few people read about in magazines – but real political change – is caused by a change in the hearts and minds of millions of people. And it’s much more likely that hearts and minds of millions will shift when big and long communal experiences happen.
In yesterday’s post I tried to walk through the timetable of the coming year and pointed out that it now looks likely that there will not be a simple break with Covid. There will not be a day that the Covid experience ends. By the end of 2021, it will have diminished but it will still be with us (in the No 10 press conference on 22 January Chris Whitty put this in his epidemiologically correct way by telling us the virus will never go away. It will be there – mutating – forever. It’s how we deal with it that matters).
The fact that there will not be a simple break with Covid is important for the possibilities of future politics. There will not be a single day this year when we can go back to the way we were before without fear of infection. This lack of a ‘clean break’ is not just important for all of our health (“stay safe” will be the injunction this Xmas as it was last) – but it is also vital for the politics of the world after Covid
Yesterday I mentioned how Cabinet Ministers, when talking to right wing media, felt they had to say how they would bring freedom from lockdown forward very quickly. As winter becomes spring that debate will become very sharp and those media will pressure the Government to say that the crisis is over.
At the same time the Prime Minister is impatient to pivot away from all of this gloom and disease toward the sunlit uplands of an optimistic new Global Britain.
Obviously the best moment to restart would be when the daily death toll has diminished to zero. But my point is that this is a long way off. On past form, emotionally, it will be very difficult for the PM to do this. (He doesn’t do ‘delayed gratification’)
Relaunching his Government too soon would see him struggling to take top spot on the news against the numbers infected by Covid. Even if the death toll is much lower, it will still look odd to say that we are living in a post-Covid world.
The relationship between the Covid and post-Covid worlds will not be a simple “switchover” – one ends and the other begins. It will be very messy and it will take a long time. Since the world of Covid will intermingle with its counterpart for some time, the opportunity of real learning and change is bigger.
Take the example of the homeless. The pre-Covid homeless lived on the street and Government had a policy to deal with the issue over several years. In April 2020 the policy of “everybody in” – when the homeless were given a hotel room and some health care, took just over a weekend to implement. This speed of this action came about because government policy for the rest of us was to stay at ‘home’, and not having one became an infection problem. If people on the street were infected, we would all be at risk.
This accelerated government social policy on homelessness – from promises to deal with it over several years, to doing something real about it over a single weekend.
The infection of a few and the fear of those few infecting many more resulted in a social policy solution being found over a weekend. It’s no longer possible for this government to say that we don’t know how to solve homelessness.
Social policy innovation during the crisis has made it very difficult to say that social policy innovation is not possible after the crisis.