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Varied Voices 5: Looking Forward Even Though It's Impossible

14 May 2020 Share

Honestly, I have no idea what to write for this blog.

I realise it is supposed to be about creative process, but I can’t seem to write about that right now. Two weeks ago things were normal and I was planning ahead; today my job is suspended, I am stuck in the house trying to work from home while simultaneously home-schooling a seven year old, I can’t see my elderly parents for twelve weeks, and toilet paper has replaced the gold standard. In the space of two weeks, normal life has been up-ended. We are all worried about our health, our loved ones’ health, our financial survival and/or our children’s futures in a world where the economy has suddenly shrivelled up like a grape in the sun. In the arts world, so many of us are renters and so many of us are self-employed. It feels – for me at least – far too early to look forward to a time beyond Coronavirus. 

Yet equally, there seems no point in dwelling on the negatives. We are all far too well aware of them. Could there be positives too?  At some point, social distancing will end, and we will get back to trying to live – but maybe not as normal. What might we learn from this period? What possible benefits can come out of this time? Here are ten positive changes that I would personally like to see come out of this time. What about you – what positive changes would you like to see?

1) A re-valuing of the NHS. Just imagine if it had been valued by politicians and voters as well as it should have been, in the past. Perhaps we should have a National Service, focused on caring or medical work rather than killing. Perhaps we should wake up to the fact that universal healthcare is not just a humane duty, it’s an economic essential. You can’t make a profit when you’re dead. 

2) A re-valuing of education. See point 1). You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. I suspect there will be a lot of children who are actually raring to go back to school once all this is over. Maybe we will have a generation in Britain who appreciate how lucky they are to have a free education. 

3) A better understanding of what we each want vs. what we need. Nothing brings that into focus like a crisis. 

4) Hopefully, more pressure from society and voters to build humane, affordable housing for families. No child should be without a safe outside space to get sunshine and exercise, and I have never been more grateful for a garden. Plenty of families live in flats, but builders continue to build them as if they were always only going to be lived in by single people or couples.  Apartments in other countries are built with secure playgrounds and communal spaces to park the buggy or house the washing machine. Why can’t we do the same?  

5) Realisation of the impact that pollution has on the world, and decision to do things differently. 

6) More working from home, more use of the wonderful potential of the internet to do things in an ecologically positive, less wasteful way. Availability of the internet to everyone, giving us all more opportunities to work in 21st century ways.

7) Hand-in-hand with 6), more value placed on REAL human contact and intimacy. In this crisis, we have all turned to our physical neighbours. Boris Johnson, who can’t resist a soundbite, announced ‘there really is such a thing as society’, but more than that, there is such a thing as community. Community networks have grown up like vines for people to help and support each other locally. In more normal times, libraries, for example, are and should be a place for meaningful human contact. Reading a book is one of the most intimate, meaningful interactions possible. You listen to the dead by reading, and speak back by writing. 

8) More attention to hygiene. Many things that have just been put in place – screens for shop workers for example – should arguably have been there ages ago.

9) Demanding more social responsibility of those with wealth, privilege and power. I will make different shopping decisions in the future based on how companies have treated their staff in this crisis. If we all come out of this with healthier priorities, that will be a good thing. 

10) And finally, a boost for books, reading, stories and story-tellers. None of us would get through this period without these things. With them, almost anything is bearable. Doctors and nurses keep us alive, but artists, writers and story-tellers give us a reason for living. Those are all I can think of. What positive changes would you like to see come out of this difficult time??

I really don’t know, but I can offer a personal angle on it. Leaving aside the virus itself, isolation and social distancing reminds me of my childhood.I feel lucky in that I have something to compare it to, that this isn’t completely strange to me. I grew up in Libya in the 1980s. Shortly after we moved to Benghazi, the Western bloc applied sanctions against the country. This led to shortages of food, clothes, sanitary products – you name it. You went to the market early, or you got noting. You queued for hours at the butcher when tehre was a rumour of meat, and sometimes still got nothing. We had frequent power cuts. The water that came out of the taps in our flat was undrinkable, red with desert dust, so my father drove miles to get fresh water from a spring. There was no television, of course; we listened to a lot of BBC World Service radio. Moving around freely was very much restricted; we were only allowed to live in one compound, Al-Kish, near the barracks, and there were police on the gates to watch where we went, who we spoke to, what we spoke about. We did get out – to the beach for picnics, to visit Roman ruins maybe once or twice a year, to the sea front now and then to ride a bike, to the souk – but mostly I grew up, from 2.5 – 11, in the confines of a 2 bedroom flat. The best adventure to be had at home was when the door to the roof was left unlocked – then the children who lived in the block would go onto the roof, lie with their legs or heads dangling over the edge of six stories, the heat of the blue sky like a warm blanket on top of us, looking out over the city. We would play with bits of tar on the roof that had melted in the 30+ degree sun, and sometimes get into the room where the water tank was kept – a ghostly, echoing, clanging place, suddenly so cool compared to the glaring heat outside. 

This went on for ten years. There were more dangerous moments. Benghazi got bombed by Thatcher and Reagan. There was a fire in one of the flats in our block, and no fire fighting service. But – here’s the thing - I remember it as a very happy childhood. I don’t think it would have been made happier by having television, or a wide choice of breakfast cereals, or Nikes.

So what made it happy? What works in these circumstances?Well, one thing is books. We had a small library -the size of a large garden shed – attached to the school, where we could borrow books. It seemed that with books, you didn’t really need anything else. Books still matter a lot. Another thing was community. Getting on with your neighbours. Of course, we can’t see our neighbours in the way we normally would. But, we can use the internet. If you can, talk to each other via Skype, Zoom or something. It’s been amazing to see the outpouring of connection across the internet – from cafes switching over to food delivery, to exercise classes and authors reading aloud.Knowing the difference between need and want. If you run out of toilet paper, water works just fine.Of course, there were lots of differences – we didn’t have to stay away from other children, for example. Nowadays, we have the internet. Try making a When I came to England, I was stunned by a lot of things: the pubs on every corner – why did they need so many? But also, memorably, the unhappiness of so many girls my age who’d grown up with so much more. It was all very confusing. Why were they so unhappy when they had so much more than so many could even possibly imagine having? Why did they focus on such tiny things, like what the label in your clothes said? 

So I suppose my insights from living in slightly similar conditions are:

  • We all still matter equally. We still need diverse books. 
  • Remember, you won’t die if you don’t get your first choice of food. None of us are going to starve here. We are lucky to live in a functioning state. 
  • Remember, as long as there are still water, heating and electricity, things are not too bad.
  • Follow instructions. Wash your hands. Now is not the time to be a rebel.
  • Move fast. React quickly to new situations.
  • Get to know your neighbours and look after each other.
  • Get out in the sunshine, it’s good for you. Even if you can only go on a balcony.