Coronavirus: When the West Stared at its Reflection | Jake Scott
At the time of writing, Britain is easing itself out of lockdown. At the time of publication (I hope) the country will have emerged, blinking, into the light. It feels as though we have taken a collective intake of breath, in anticipation of something; what that thing is, I cannot say, but it certainly feels that way. While the staff of the National Health Service has performed admirably, our retail staff have continued as they were expected to (though no-one is prepared for that conversation), and those further down the list – farmers, rubbish men, and so on – have gone almost entirely unmentioned.
I often find myself wondering how the history books will write of our present time. Certainly, the ‘2010s’ will become famous, and perhaps not for the reasons we wanted or could foresee; and crowning this fame will be 2020. The images that will pepper the page will, no doubt, include the masked faces of doctors and nurses, the medical tents beside hospitals, and the disinfection of streets in cities throughout the world. But another, I think will be the long queues outside of shops, the thick glass screens around cash registers, and the uncomfortably packed parks, even with the sphere of social distance around us. These queues were never due to lack, or rationing, but because the shops themselves were not large enough to accommodate its demand, and the required distancing.
It is this that I think needs to be remembered, alongside the pressure on health services, the appalling death rates, and the (looming) economic disasters. Even large shops, built to serve thousands daily, were cramped: and even then, those of us braving our food shops were still behaving as we usually would (though I doubt we would be prepared to admit it), side-stepping and squeezing between one another, picking up items and considering them before putting them back.
Perhaps this crisis can be an opportunity to address our current state of being. Questions can be asked, like: if our current shops are not large enough for people to reasonably keep a distance between themselves, are they built for purpose? I’m sure we’ve all experienced squeezing between people stood staring at shelves, tutting at one another as if we aren’t just as bad as the next person, reaching past one another to get the right tin of tuna, and bustling between queues as they snake about the shop floor. Perhaps it takes a crisis like this to make us ask if we have been travelling down the right path.
I also wonder if we have gotten too used to endless supplies of endless shopping, with the option of a product showing up within 24 hours going from an unbelievable innovation to the expectation. I am still a young man, but even I can faintly recall mail-order catalogues, and the shipping times being as little as two weeks. Such waits seem like an eternity in the age of Amazon Prime.
I also remember when the local Asda in my hometown opened up, and declared it would be “open 24/7”. Obviously, such opening times in practice meant from 7:30am to 11pm, but still – a far cry from the post office’s opening times of 8am to 6pm. Now, when the Iceland round the corner from where I currently lived reduced its opening times down to 10am to 4pm, we were aghast. Even now, with the times changing to 8am to 4pm, queues extend down the pavements.
The question of public sanitation needs also to be considered. When, in the mid-1800s, a hot summer made the Thames smell so badly that the House of Commons was evacuated, serious questions started to be asked about the status of the UK’s sanitation. We are much better than that now, but such changes always engender a change in practice, and we think nothing of shaking the bare hand of someone we have just met – or, we certainly used to. Now, I’m prevented from shaking the hands of friends I’ve had for years. It wasn’t that long-ago people still carried handkerchiefs or wore gloves for more than just fashion. Have we gotten too used to a lax approach to public sanitation? It is hard to say, but I think the question is one worth asking.
Ultimately the current crisis will do more than change our economic and political situation; it will change our social practices also, and not necessarily for the best. Shops might still ask us to queue outside, we might still be reticent to shake one another’s hands, and we will almost definitely continue wearing ostensibly protective clothing. It wasn’t long before some people turned face masks into a fashion accessory, as has long been the practice in Beijing. No doubt we will also make an effort to take this on the chin, and turn it into another jovial symbol of Britishness; we’re so British we queue outside the shop as well as inside! But such changes are the reflection of our current circumstances. Do we like what we see?