This essay, on restoring freedoms post-covid, was my Observer column this week. It was published 27 February 2022, under the headline “‘Freedom day’ was no leap into the light. For that we must set aside tribalism”.
There was a certain irony that “freedom day” – the name given by some to the removal on Thursday of the last official Covid restrictions in England – was also the day that Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. For two years, as the virus has wreaked havoc and authorities across the globe imposed unprecedented constraints on our lives, there has been much discussion of what the “new normal” might be in the post-pandemic world. Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine is a reminder that the new normal may be shaped by developments more profound than even the pandemic.
The “freedom day” rhetoric is both understandable and asinine. It is understandable not just because we all desire a return to some form of normality but also because we should be wary of elements of the unprecedented state encroachments on our liberties of the past two years being folded into the “new normal”. It is asinine because this is no sudden leap from enslavement to freedom, from darkness to light.
There are important debates to be had about the responses to the pandemic and their impact. We should not confuse this, however, with a black-and-white debate about achieving “freedom” through the removal of Covid restrictions. This both trivialises the meaning of freedom and ignores the fact that the removal of formal restrictions is part of an unfolding process of learning to “live with Covid”.
A study by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) suggests that the new normal may be much like the old normal. On issues of inequality, welfare, law and order, trust and the role of the state, the authors argue, “the pandemic, has had relatively little impact on the balance of public opinion”. Rather than “having to confront an apparent ‘turning-point’, for the most part the pattern of attitudes and beliefs with which policymakers will have to deal when the pandemic is finally over will be a relatively familiar one”.
Yet two years of a degraded social life, of more intrusive policing, of the disruption of everything from work to schooling, cannot but have had an impact. Trust in institutions has taken a particular hit. A survey by King’s College, London and the University of Sheffield shows a large decrease last year in the proportion of people who think the government is honest and truthful, who believe what the government says, who think the government does the right thing in general or who think it acts fairly. More than half the British population disagree that the government is honest and truthful and more than half of Conservative voters are unsure as to whether they can believe the government.
These are not, as the NatCen survey points out, new phenomena. The atomisation of society and the erosion of trust in mainstream institutions have developed over many decades. What the pandemic has done is deepen already existing trends, exacerbating some of the worst aspects.
Crises and disasters often bring people together. The pandemic, particularly at the beginning, led to a flourishing of community spirit. From mutual aid groups to volunteers helping the vaccination drive, there has been a desire to show solidarity in the face of adversity. But Covid, and the response to it, has also required a greater individuation of society, in which social distancing and self-isolation have become the most vital expressions of social solidarity.
Trust rests on our ability to engage with other people and on our experience of a flourishing public sphere. To have a chat at work, argue over a pint in the pub, mingle after worship, debate in a seminar or public meeting or simply gossip with a friend you bump into in the street – all these little moments serve collectively as the foundations of a thriving civil society. Much of this the pandemic and the restrictions took away. It was inevitable that trust would erode too.
Distrust has grown not just of politicians or of institutions but also of other people. Throughout the pandemic, there has been a tendency to view other people as the problem. Polls have shown that many people have blamed “the public” more than government policy for Covid failures. The willingness of the government to point the finger at ordinary people for all manner of social ills has only exacerbated this process.
All this takes us back to the question of “freedom”. It’s a concept that has many connotations and its meaning is inevitably shaped by context. The possibilities of freedom in a fractured, atomised society, in which people are fearful of others, is necessarily different from that in a society with a flourishing civil society, vibrant social movements and the promise of real social change.
‘Freedom” today has become both trivialised and tribalised. Many on the right who insist that the refusal to wear a mask is a matter of “freedom” are quite happy to support the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, one of the most ferociously illiberal laws of recent times. At the same time, many on the left are happy to ignore egregious assaults on freedom when it suits them to do so for tribal reasons. Take the debate over the Canadian truckers’ “freedom convoy” protest in Ottawa. For some, the truckers are fascists, for others, an exemplar of working-class resistance to unacceptable authoritarianism. They are, of course, neither. Like many protests and social movements today, such as the gilets jaunes in France, the truckers exhibit an inchoate anger that can take many forms.
Whatever one thinks of the truckers’ protest, the authorities’ response – from the police violence in removing them to the freezing of the bank accounts of those who gave money to the protesters – has been authoritarian. And yet, liberals and the left have barely spoken out against this crackdown because of their antipathy to the truckers. If it becomes accepted that the authorities can do this to the truckers, what will stop them doing it to a Black Lives Matter protest or a strike next time? The expansion of policing powers in the pandemic will have real consequences for the future and this should matter to the left even more than to the right.
Whatever the new normal, less tribalism and posturing will make it easier both to restore a degree of trust and to give shape to the post-pandemic world.