The End of This Road

Stuart Anderson-Davis on swapping America for lockdown London, as tensions reach boiling point on both sides of the Atlantic

“Yeah, I had the virus. Well, I’m pretty certain I had it: I mean, I didn’t get the antibody test or anything, but I reckon it was Corona…”

These are not words you want to hear from cabin crew when boarding a flight right now. They are even more anxiety-inducing when delivered by a strapping “air-host” (?), looming over you in an airtight cabin without a face mask.

Being British, I nodded stoically and allowed him and his trolley on their merry way. But inside, my heart sank with the realisation that this journey – the one we had been dreading since first hearing the word “coronavirus” – had somehow become yet more nauseatingly stressful. And let me tell you, when you’re flying from New York City to London – one boiling hot COVID hotspot to another, frying pan to fire – tensions are already pretty high.

It soon became clear that British Airways had decided face masks were an optional extra for their employees. But perish the thought that our national carrier wasn’t taking the whole pandemic thing seriously. Oh no! So concerned is the airline about safety that they have stopped serving any alcoholic beverages on their flights – lest any passenger take the edge off the situation with a Jacob’s Creek miniature. While a more cynical person might view this inconsistent approach to COVID-19 as penny-pinching prohibition, I’m sure BA executives are only “following the science”…

But I get ahead of myself. First, let’s rewind to mid-March and my last dispatch from Princeton, New Jersey. That report ended with a question: what would happen next to this quaint little college town, now that most students had been sent home and we few Remainers were “locked down” in expectation of the virus’ arrival from nearby New York City?

Police enforce social distancing rules at Domino Park in Brooklyn. Photography Jordan Gale

Well, fortunately Princeton has thus far been spared the worst of this plague. The foresight and decisiveness shown by the university saved lives – removing students from shared dormitories and communal dining halls just in time to avert disaster. The wider state of New Jersey was far less fortunate, registering the 2nd highest death toll in the United States – exceeded only by neighbouring New York state. We were marooned in our comparative oasis for nearly three months – juxtaposing our own state of tedium with the harrowing tales of FaceTime farewells coming from up the road.

But through these months of virus-dodging there built a growing sense of dread about what lay ahead: namely, our imminent return to London. We had been following events closely on both sides of the Atlantic – watching aghast at the “hold my beer” competition between Britain and America to enact the world’s most inept response to the crisis. From Trump’s chlorine prescription to Boris’ near-fatal effort to shake as many infected hands as possible, there was little to choose between these two countries – just last year identified as the two best prepared nations to confront this type of outbreak.

But leave we must, and so we packed up our flat and started upon the long journey back to South London. The airport experience was surreal. As anyone who’s been to JFK will know, the place is infamous for two things: pugnacious staff and endless queues. This time, however, we were booked on one of only four flights on the departures board – roaming around the ghost terminal without a shop assistant or policeman in sight.

The flight was chaotic. In addition to mask-less staff, British Airways had designated “free seating” on the plane: euphemistic jargon for an absolute bloody free-for-all. We had  strangers sat in the rows behind, in front and to the side. When the lady in front reclined her seat her face was barely 2 inches away – never mind 2 metres. At least every passenger had voluntarily deigned to wear a face mask, while one lady stole the show with a full Chernobyl hazmat suit. I shall never forget her look of abject panic as she finally relented to bowel pressure and headed for the bathroom.

Bournemouth, England, over the Bank Holiday weekend. Photography Finnbarr Webster

Finally, mercifully, we landed at an equally deserted Heathrow. Here, surely, would be state-of-the-art health checks, clear guidance for embarking passengers and the ubiquitous face mask? Instead, we found communal sanitiser and a cryptic warning to “Stay Alert” against an invisible, airborne virus. We breezed through immigration with barely a glance and certainly no questions about our health, where we were going or what we were going to do. Welcome to Lockdown Britain!

Driving through the sunny streets of London-town we were struck by just how normal everything looked. There were only a few people in masks, while others were happily popping into shops, hopping on buses and enjoying convivial picnics in the park. Maybe things weren’t so bad here after all? The next two weeks of (voluntarily) lying low passed in a blur of Netflix and meet-n-greets from the balcony. Starved of social interaction, we lost ourselves in the saga of Dominic Cummings. We marvelled at the Government’s sacrifice of its last vestiges of control and trust at the altar of Dom the Magnificent: doyen of the three-word-slogan and Bozzer’s ideological dynamo.

Cummings and his lockdown busting antics have inspired perhaps the most forensically analysed car journey since OJ took a white Ford Bronco down the freeway back in 1995. Without going over it all again, the key point – blindingly obvious to the 3.7 million people who tuned in live to his press conference – is that Cummings broke the rules set out for the whole country. Any attempt to convince the public otherwise swiftly descended into farce, with the nadir coming as Michael Gove tried to convince us he too had tested his eyesight by going for a drive and seeing what happened. 

As the Washington maxim goes, “it’s the cover up that gets you”. Well, this Keystone Cops effort was so transparently bullshit that it achieved only the complete collapse of public trust in the government – never ideal, but particularly unfortunate during a public health emergency. Last weekend’s return to our nation’s parks of 11-a-side football matches, birthday parties and genial booze ups revealed that for many people the whole affair had been, quite understandably, the last straw.

Potentially even more damaging from a long-term perspective was this Government’s desperate attempts to shift the news agenda away from Cummings and his inexplicable survival. As someone who has worked in politics and media relations, I guarantee you that the decision to accelerate the “unlocking” process – including sending thousands of children back to school and launching a half-baked “Test & Trace” programme – came, at least in part, from a desperation to “change the narrative”. Who knows what damage those cynical decisions will wreak in the coming weeks.

One reason the Cummings saga struck so deep a nerve is that it played into suspicions that were already deeply embedded: a sense that there will always be some people who consider themselves above the rules, and that these rules will always be rigged in their favour. Studies showed that the British public’s trust in their institutions and elites was already at rock bottom before the pandemic – jaded by grade-one scandals like MP’s expenses fraud and the 2008 Financial Crisis. When viewed in this context, it’s a miracle the British people obeyed the government for as long as they did.

In the USA, the unprecedented reaction to the killing of George Floyd seems to play into this same phenomenon: a (much more serious) event that brings home the fact that something is very, very wrong. This tragic death brings home the deadly consequences of racism and hate politics, laying bare the stark realities faced by millions of black people living in America and elsewhere – including in Britain. It is surely no coincidence that the sheer scale of outrage at this killing comes in the midst of a pandemic that has already claimed over 100,000 American lives – leaving black people, yet again, disproportionately impacted.

Photography Warrick Page

The horrifying footage of Floyd’s death was the fuse that lit the American tinderbox and has rightly sparked outrage across the globe. Of course, the pitiful and pitiless behaviour of the current President is fuelling this grief and fury. But far more than that, this reaction is driven by four centuries of structural racism, mass incarceration and gross mistreatment inflicted on black Americans – encompassing racism from its most explicit to its most subtle forms.

George Floyd’s killing has led to long overdue soul-searching (or, at least, it should have) about our own beliefs and behaviour – tied to an expectation that everyone must “do more”. But for all the heartfelt expressions of solidarity, many doubt whether the USA can practically implement the radical reforms needed to truly heal its racial and societal divisions. Indeed, the forecast for the months ahead looks stormier with each passing day – with pandemic and protests lining the path to November’s general election.

So what happens next? Well, we now inhabit a world that is socially and economically shattered. For sure, there’s a collective resolution that things cannot “go back to the way they were”, but this slogan means very different things to different people. For Trump, this brave new world means doubling down on “America First”: shutting borders, removing foreigners, escalating tensions and relentlessly searching for scapegoats. For others, there is a more hopeful vision that the trials of 2020 will deliver the rationale and resolve to build a more progressive, just and equal world.

This positive sense of endeavour was the dominant theme of Princeton University (virtual) graduation ceremony this week: a clarion call for students to go into the world and use their skills for good. The challenge has never been so daunting. Every time the world convulses there is a seemingly undeniable demand for change: 1918, never another war; 1945, a new world order and collaborative approach; 1989, an end to tyranny; 2008, building a responsible financial system that works for everyone.

Some things got better, some got worse. Some didn’t really change at all. But if the events of the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that real change – tangible, enduring support for the most persecuted and vulnerable – cannot come soon enough.

A Room With a View

Annie Le Santo examines paintings looking outward and what we may learn from them

The sight of our windows viewed from the inside, is something we have likely become more familiar with than we ever thought we would. Previously an unremarkable feature of our interior lives, they now hold a new significance. It’s possible we are noticing new things about the view that they frame, peering out to observe (or judge) the social distancing efforts of the people outside of them, or finally realising it’s time to get some new curtains or just wipe down the sill. The point is, never before have we had a such a collective sense of ‘being within and looking out’. However, like nearly everything, this is not a perspective that has gone unexplored by artists. What can we recognise through revisiting paintings of windows by some of the world’s most celebrated artists? How do they resonate with the time we are living in now?

Morning Sun

Edward Hopper’s paintings are soaked in stillness. His figures sit, stand or lurk with an almost virtual presence. If they were Sims, they’d be idly waiting for their next instruction. It’s not difficult to imagine them living through a lockdown or practising social distancing, especially the lady in Morning Sun, painted by Hopper in 1952. The sun is up. Alone in a room absent of any personal belongings, she gazes out of the window. Rooftops hang in balance, like an opening shot of a sitcom stuck on pause. The light casts distorted shapes on the wall as the warmth tries to seduce her to go out, but today there is no ‘out’ to go to. She knows the Earth is spinning – because it has to be – but she feels no movement. Was this always the case? Panic prickles at the thought, but it’s ok. She replaces it with another: The sun will come up again tomorrow. She is one revolution closer to laying on the grass with the sun on her skin, no glass between her and it.

Particularly fascinated with the American urban scene, many of Hopper’s realist paintings summon these feelings of isolation and loneliness, lending themselves to the ‘little stories’ that viewers can assign to them. His compositions play with tension between the light, shadows, architecture and people, and the window in particular was an element he utilised frequently in order to achieve this. Whether the viewer is placed outside of the building looking in, or in the case of Morning Sun, enclosed inside with the subject looking out, he successfully evokes that familiar sense of alienation.

The Open Window

There is a feeling of jollity in the room of Matisse’s The Open Window. Sail boats bob in the harbour, like a pack of eager dogs waiting to be let off their leashes. The French doors are flung at a jaunty angle, welcoming the ocean waves and rustling of the potted plants. The Open Window

paints a bold-coloured picture of an artist’s apartment, with the artist standing back to soak up their own personal oblong of outdoors. And indeed, that is what Matisse was doing; this is the view from his apartment in Collioure, on the Southern coast of France. Painted by the artist in 1905, the mood of this image is further away from that depicted within Hopper’s. If we were to imagine this as a modern-day lockdown scene, we’d possibly see it as the home of someone who is pretty comfortable to be indoors: their days filled with sounds of the radio and smells of home-cooking. The carefree nature of the piece with the window left open, welcoming the outdoors and whatever is out there in it, combines contentedness with an underlying restless energy. The title of the painting itself eludes to the symbolism of the window: full of potential; being within; an invitation. Matisse returned to painting open windows later during his time spent in Nice and Etretat and particularly in his final years in the 1940s.

Young Woman at a Window

We know and love Salvador Dali for his melting clocks and the bizarre nightmarish imagery in his paintings. Young Woman at a Window (also known as Figure at a Window), however, is much more subtle in this way, hinting at a different, haunting kind of angst. Lacking the contrasting colours of Matisse, the subdued image was painted by the artist in 1925. It is one of Dali’s earlier pieces. The young woman pictured (who was actually Anna Maria Dali, his sister) faces away from the viewer. She adopts a rather relaxed pose, elbows rested and leaning forward onto one leg. We can’t see her face but we know she is looking out to sea, beyond the horizon. The lack of shore in the foreground gives the impression that the building she is in is floating and there is a bit of a Howl’s Moving Castle vibe to the whole piece.

Unease and uncertainty taint this image, something many of us will have become familiar with in recent weeks and months during the pandemic. We are in a liminal space, a state of transition. At times, it can feel like there is an entire ocean between us and the return to our ‘normal’ lives. The journey across that sea could be a rough one; crashing waves with ups and downs. Or it could be the chance for new discovery. It is a scary thought, but like the young woman at the window, all we can do is look out and wait until the crossing is safe.

The Girl by the Window

Unlike the previous paintings, The Girl by the Window (1893) by Edvard Munch, is set in the dead of night. Similarly though, the subject is female and her face is mostly obscured. Hiding behind the curtain she peers outside, unaware that our gaze and the artist’s is upon her. Let’s put aside the window itself for the moment. What is the significance of the character looking out of it? In the title she is referred to as a ‘girl’, offering an intensified sense of vulnerability: a child who should be asleep, but instead is standing barefoot at the window in her nightgown. Behind her in the purple and brown darkness, there is the suggestion of another figure. Imaginary – a manifestation of her own fear or concern? Or a piece of furniture taking the shape of a man as they often do at night? Apprehension vibrates within the colours. Maybe she has heard some disruption outside, maybe she is waiting for someone to return home or maybe she simply can’t sleep. The mystery within this image is intense, and there is a much more sinister feeling to it than the previous examples. Ultimately though, the piece is grounded by the familiar ‘being inside, looking out’ concept. Whether it is longing or uneasiness, or both, that has brought the girl to the window, there is an anxiety in this image that resonates with our own present times.

Interior, Sunlight on the Floor

Time forces you to become familiar with things. When you stay in one space for a long time, the details of it ingrain into your memory and become a part of your personal history. The way the sunlight hits the floor in a particular way can become as close as a close friend. Unfortunately though, it can also lead you into resenting things. It doesn’t matter how good of a friend they are, if you were locked in one space with them 24/7 for 30+ days, you might start to begrudge at least some aspects about them. It doesn’t mean you don’t like them. It doesn’t mean you aren’t grateful of their existence. It is just how it is. Danish artist Vilhem Hammershøi may have felt similar after finishing painting Interior, Sunlight on the Floor (1906), a picture of a window in his apartment. Glad to finish, be over with it, done! Still proud of the piece and the monotonous task he endured to complete it, but perhaps he felt more than ready to begin the next one. Something new, something fresh.

However, contrary to these assumptions about Hammershøi and his character, he actually painted near-exact pieces to this one multiple times. There are a number of his works featuring the same window, the same sunlight on the same floor, all with only slight differences and perspective changes. What can we learn from Hammershøi’s commitment to his interior scenes? Although at first this is a mundane sight, with this information in mind it becomes an ode to the everyday. Linking back to Hopper’s Morning Sun, this piece holds the potential for ‘a new day’. Yesterday is history, today is here and tomorrow is coming. Like Hammershøi, we are in the midst of an often monotonous task. And while it is a huge privilege to be amongst those who do get to peer out of our windows and isolate within the comfort of our homes, our endurance is still being challenged and our homes don’t always feel comfortable. We can, however, find solace in that fact that as long as the light shines through our windows, the outdoors still exists, and that on the other side of the glass the world is waiting for us.

COVID-OPIA

In an astonishing long-read, Sophie Shnapp offers two visions of a new world order after Coronavirus, for better or for worse

Illustration Barbara Fregosi

CORONA (crown) PAN (all) DEMIC (the people)

Crisis comes from the Greek word krisis. It means a turning point in a disease or a decisive state of things, a point at which change must come, for better or worse. And we are all in one.

In the midst of the current global crisis, our movements are limited, borders are closed, we have stopped travelling; the world stands still. Yet, despite the death and despair, there is also a growing belief that this pandemic has the potential to bring change. Is this the catalyst for our global awakening?

In isolation, we now have the time to wonder if the current state of affairs is Mother Nature’s way of sitting us on the naughty step, to think about what we’ve done. We are “a society of altruists governed by psychopaths”, says George Monbiot, and now, in quarantine, we can reflect on how sheepishly we have adhered to the deadly triumvirate of Capitalism, Consumerism and Neo-liberalism, knowing full well the catastrophe we are imposing on our planet.

Frank Snowden points out “epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are…” Covid-19 has dropped us bang in the middle of the political battleground between human impact and the economic implications, whilst reminding us “that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident or the actions of our fellow man” (De Botton discussing Camus’, The Plague). In one way or another, in this crisis, we have all experienced some form of internal moral conundrum; guilt, vulnerability or fear for ourselves, loved ones and the citizens of the world.

Photography Kirk Truman

We are all vulnerable, and currently the number of mortalities of Covid-19 is increasing exponentially. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients in critical condition and there are insufficient life support systems to save everyone, forcing doctors to face previously unthinkable forms of wartime triaging. A broad range of non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) responses linked to Corona suppression and mitigation are being implemented around the world, aiming to ‘flatten the curve’, to reduce the Covid-19 mortality and healthcare demand. In the absence of any control measures, a report by the Imperial College London estimates that over half a million people would die in the UK alone. Their research and modelling conclude that, although the social and economic effects will be profound, “the only viable strategy is to supress the virus until a vaccine is made available.” This means the entire world should practice social distancing efforts combined with home isolation of cases for 2/3 of the time (a global game of whack-a-mole), “until vaccines are available to immunise the population – which could be 18 months or more.” The report states that a short-term (3-month) mitigation policy option might only “reduce deaths seen in the epidemic by up to half”, leading to a quarter of a million deaths in the UK. This figure alone is alarming, made all the more so when we include the effects that aren’t yet being quantified or examined. Psychologists predict a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems” linked to the ‘deaths of despair’, anxiety, child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, loneliness, malnutrition, racism, trauma, unemployment, and more.

If we look back in time, we can see that financial and pandemic crises have fundamentally reordered the nature of politics and reshaped our modern world. There is no reason to believe this crisis will be any different. The timing of the virus coupled with impending environmental tipping points will ensure the change that coronavirus will bring will be radical; we are at a crossroads in our history. The timeline below exhibits a non-exhaustive list of historical crises and the impacts they had in shaping our modern-day world.

So, what about the current climate crisis? Although the scientific discovery of the human effect on the environment dates back to the early 20th century – Edison voiced concern about climate change as early as 1930 – scientific evidence and agreement has only recently come together. The 70s saw a collective understanding amongst scientists of global warming, and in 1972 the UN hosted its first environment conference in Stockholm. Shortly after, in 1976, Al Gore held the first congressional hearings on climate change and global warming. Over the 1990s, the term ‘climate change’ became more widely accepted, discussed and trusted, not only by scientists, but by the general public too. That being said, as recently as 2006, when Al Gore’s climate documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out alerting the public to an increasing “planetary emergency”, a significant body of climate deniers stormed forward to debate and oppose global warming.

Moving forward another 30 years, our language surrounding climate change is shifting; 1,400 local governments, 28 countries, the EU Parliament, Pope Francis, networks of thousands of universities and many others have declared a “climate emergency”. In November 2019, a paper published by 11,000 scientists across the globe in the journal BioScience states, “we declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency”. On the 27th of February this year, the UK Court ruled against the expansion of Heathrow airport, stalling plans to build a third runway. Many environmentalists hope that this will have set the precedent of ‘ecocide’, so that actions against the environment will be deemed unlawful by the International Criminal Court.

Divestment from fossil fuels is at an all-time high, money is being invested in and towards sustainability, efficiency and renewable energy, and thanks to American Senator Bernie Sanders, investing in fossil fuels is likely to become akin to a criminal act by 2025.  However, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report states we have 11 years left to save the planet before an irreversible climate catastrophe is triggered. So, I ask myself, where will we be in another 30 years…

Fast-forward to 2050, the citizens look back on the great Covidemic of the 20s, knowing the impact it had on Earth and society.

Utopia

Illustration Ella Rose

For the past 25 years, most rural areas in the UK have been declared “dark sky sites” offering mesmerising stargazing conditions. Favoured family activities include playing ‘spot the constellation’ at night, and ‘spot the wildlife’ by day. The art of storytelling is championed, and generations sit together in the evening playing music and games and laughing at pre- and post-covidemic tales. Corona Day is celebrated once a year, when people appreciate their home and nature, spending the day in household isolation together, being creative, gardening, cooking, reading and learning new skills. 

The corona pandemic of the 20s was a turning point for society, it paved the way for companies and individuals to adopt sustainable methods of living, working and travelling. Remote working became the norm and digital technology proved itself in practice, entering a new period of remote-everything; from VR conferences and events to live VR concerts, whereby virtual interaction involves all 5 senses. Live events could be enjoyed both in-situ and online. People could attend any event they wanted, sitting in the best seats, no queues, and enjoying interaction with other attendees. With the depletion of oil and the greening of public opinion, airlines rushed to dedicate their R&D resources to carbon-neutral planes, and mandatory carbon taxes for every flight ticket purchased were introduced. Trains and electric buses flourished, cars became defunct, old tramlines resurfaced, linked to more direct drop off and pick up points, and the autoroutes previously used by cars became super greenways for cities to grow vegetables.

In just a few weeks, the natural habitat started to come back to life, animals and plants were seen in places they hadn’t inhabited for decades, a rewilding of the land began. People fleeing from the locked down cities began to appreciate the serenity of nature and there was a transitional shift in consciousness. Returning to the cities, sustainability and nature were at the forefront of conversation. As projected, cities were now home to 80% of humanity and the understanding that compact urban centres were the path towards tackling climate issues was harnessed. Architects, city planners, scientists and politicians developed ecotopian cities, finding solutions to ensure the cities of our planet were ready to react to and work with the climate, resources and natural shapes and boundaries of the surrounding lands. Positive energy cities and districts meant that a natural economy and order was at the frontline of every political decision.

Thanks to the supply chain breakdown, old consumption and shopping habits were uprooted and our eating habits were reformed, adapting to the seasonality of fruit and vegetables. People were forced to localise food systems, and with inventive and technologically advanced community farms in every neighbourhood, food exports and imports greatly reduced.

Upon recovering from the virus, having come close to death, world leaders’ beliefs, attitudes, and values changed, realising they ‘owed their lives’ to national health services, they found a new sense of compassion and empathy towards their citizens. There was a realisation that interconnectivity was paramount for human survival and the world started to act collectively, opening borders, finding a balance between centralised responses to medicine, the judiciary, law and order and the growth of community rights and resources. A naissance of support for Green Politics arose. The European Green Deal became the blueprint for global climate change action for all countries, including Britain. There was a stark realisation that the media’s characterisation of green policies ‘only being interested in the environment and not being economically viable’ had always been false. Now green policies that focussed on returning to a natural democracy (putting life of planet ahead of profits) and a natural economy (self-sufficient economy) became the norm, driven by fundamental concerns focussing on every citizen’s income. The Green Party worked with a tax system countering inequality and pollution of all sorts, a banking system in which smaller banks were championed and policies against the privatisation of public transport, the health system and council houses were enacted.

Photography Rachel Nolan

Another profound impact of the Covidemic was the understanding that communities are the cornerstone for health, growth, policy and sustainability. Communities all over the world worked together to support the vulnerable, and each other. Together, communities learned and developed ways of farming, growing fruit and vegetables, producing their own energy and sharing their natural resources and lands. Making history, people and communities were living through an enriched social, ethical and planetary awakening. A new ideology was formed based on a social commons approach, whereby craftsmen and artisans were valued as highly as farmers and doctors. Greed and crime became negligible as everyone had what they needed to survive and live well.

The world worked together to secure an enrichment of biodiversity, a reduction of emissions, and communities all across the globe began to learn and share their lands, the skills and tools needed to work them. In this brave new world, children are free to roam and explore the world, asthma inhalers are a thing of the past. 

Dystopia

Illustration Ella Rose

It is bleak and dark, blue skies are described to children as in a folktale, of a world that once existed back in “the good old days”. When looking up at the sky one sees smoke, lots of smoke, smog, fog and planes, but not a bird in sight. Children conceive of polar bears, badgers and bees as they once imagined dinosaurs.

The Corona Virus Act, approved in March 2020, was only meant to grant the government temporary new powers, lasting for a maximum of 2 years, containing the most “draconian powers ever proposed in peace-time Britain.” This was the beginning of basic rights falling casualty to crisis. These ‘temporary’ security measures put in place to protect us from Corona were distilled into everyday life, forever, moving us into a highly surveyed, totalitarian regime. As predicted by Yuval Noah Harari, governments across the world ensured the corona-related extra security measures (such as urban video surveillance, widespread mobile location tracking and ubiquitous face recognition) became the new norm.

The years of social distancing left most citizens vulnerable, suffering from loneliness, isolation or desperation. Many people agonised and battled with mental or physical illness. Charities, food banks, and other support mechanisms dried up and the overall net effect of the pandemic further entrenched the divides that already existed.

Upon recovering from the virus, having come close to death, world leaders’ beliefs, attitudes, and values took a turn for the worst. The public health and education systems quickly collapsed due to privatisation which, coupled with the slackening of environmental regulations, meant that deep civil unrest was cast upon society. The planetary environmental effects compounded the citizens with a deep sense of hopelessness and guilt. As described by Le Guin in an essay for Motherboard “every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.”

Photography Kirk Truman

In this new world, lands are arid, dull, lifeless and poisoned; vegetables are grown in labs in the industrial parts of the capitals. Following the Covidemic, environmental regulations relaxed and have taken a back seat. Cities rest on stilts to avoid the bi-monthly floods, many people are permanently displaced due to the sea level rise, and the infrastructure of mono-cities are cyclically being destroyed and rebuilt by some “natural disaster”, like the ebb and flow of the tide.

The outside world is dangerous; the years of austerity, war, famine and the constant battering of natural disasters increased homelessness tenfold. Similar to the days of Corona, the streets are empty, occupied only by flashing blue lights and masked roamers, hungry and cold. In this world smiles are a thing of the past, as is face-to-face interaction. Anyway, you can’t see a smile behind a mask. Screens are the safe socialising place for kids, who live in imaginary worlds designed to keep them occupied, sucked into a distorted freedom where data is stolen, capitalism reigns, children are obese and the rich wear the crowns.

Reflection

Photography Kirk Truman

Deep crises of this nature offer opportunities to bring about social change, for the better or the worse. We are stuck inside a brief moment of history; the world as we knew it will never be the same.

These two conflicting views of our future shows us the stark potential of “what could be”, it’s up to every one of us to make “the change we wish to see in the world” and fight against what is currently the most successful and resilient ideology on earth: global capitalism. Thomas More was the first person to write of “utopia” more than 500 years ago, describing his perfect imaginary world, yet the rulers he was escaping from then are much like the rulers now, “greedy, unscrupulous and useless”. Revolution has been dreamed of for centuries, so how can we expect this to change in 30 years?

Looking back at the handling of the early responses to this crisis, we witnessed Boris Johnson’s overriding driver being profit above people. The new Corona Virus Act 2020 is deeply troubling, as to ‘protect citizens’, militarism has been normalised and, if we are not careful, this exception can then become the rule, legitimising heightened levels of security surveillance. Wartime metaphors are being employed in the media as if this is a reality show, ‘us against Corona’. Fighting our common adversary is leading to more power, control and vigilance. As Naomi Klein shows in The Shock Doctrine, neo-liberals use crises to impose and push unpopular agendas under the carpet while people are distracted and vulnerable. One cannot but fear another corona-driven Shock Doctoring impact featuring deep global recession leading to the privatisation of social security, the bail-out of polluting industries, further lockdown of borders and the incarceration of more and more innocent migrants. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, warns us about the Covid-threat to our freedom: “The coronavirus epidemic is a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms.”

Photography Kirk Truman

It has crashed economies, shattered health care systems and professionals, emptied parks and killed tens of thousands, yet this crisis, for all its terrible consequences, has already begun to help build a greater sense of common endeavour and community spirit. The ‘Clap for our Carers’ campaign supporting a nationwide applause to thank NHS workers every Thursday at 8pm fills the skies with cheers, music, vehicle horns, fireworks and a collective, deep and gut-wrenching feeling that this is serious, scary, death is ubiquitous – but that we are in this together. And this is the case in many cities across the globe, from Vienna, Paris, Madrid and Milan; balconies, porches and gardens are filled with explosions of gratitude. Colossal charity, community and volunteering efforts are being seen to support people in need, tens of thousands of people joining community groups, neighbourhood groups and 250,000 people have joined the NHS as volunteers.

Although more is needed, the unprecedented social policies being implemented by our right wing government are a step in the right direction, including weekly supermarket vouchers for more than a million children, new social security systems for the self-employed (Self-Employment Income Support Scheme), and companies (Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme) being able to reclaim 80% of their income, changes are being made to Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance and Housing Support Schemes are offered, all enacted in the space of weeks. Governments are putting security systems in place that seemed impossible just a month ago, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak claiming that these are “unprecedented measures for unprecedented times.”

The coronavirus standstill could not have come at a more vital moment for our planet. Transport, industry, travel and the global use of carbon has slowed down and over the past month, as we bear witness to the regeneration of ecosystems, the clearing of the Venice canals due to a drop in boat traffic and satellite images from NASA showing towns and cities being free from smog for the first time in years. Although reductions in carbon emissions are reducing in the short-term, a post-virus rebound is expected to offset the emission drop (emissions rose by 5.9% in 2010, following the 2008 Financial Crash). Just before the corona pandemic, grassroots climate action movements were gaining traction, and the climate emergency and the global movement for Green Deals had the limelight amongst politicians, businesses and investment funds. However, the pandemic has brought about change. We are witnessing a divergence of resources, a waiving of pollution audits and regulations, and a slackening of policies supporting climate efforts, alongside the postponing or cancellation of climate law debates. The UN’s international climate talks, COP26, seen as “the most important climate negotiations since the Paris agreement in 2015” have been postponed to 2021, Alok Sharma, UK energy minister and president of COP26 saying, “the world is currently facing an unprecedented global challenge and countries are rightly focusing their efforts on saving lives and fighting Covid-19.”

So, those of you focussing on the supposed silver-lining of Covid-19 induced pollution reductions, think again. A global standstill is not a viable nor sustainable way to reduce air pollution. As Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at New York University puts it, “emissions are down because the economy has stopped and people are dying, and because poor people are not able to get medicine and food”, is this really an analogy for how we should combat climate change? No, but it does provide us with an opportunity. An opportunity to use this already altered mindset of the populace and mobilise the “emergency mode” brought on by this coronavirus crisis to support the climate crisis. An opportunity, during and post-recession, to reshape and reframe policies so that carbon negative and resilient infrastructure are at the forefront of rebuilding and transforming our economy. An opportunity for architects, city planners, engineers and all stakeholders involved in urban planning, building, energy, health, transport and aviation policy to use their time in furlough, and beyond, to develop and formulate progressive solutions for a sustainable future. An opportunity to use this unimaginable experience of Covid-19 to help us understand climate change mitigation differently, as, in the short-term, Covid-19 has reduced industrial activity, transport activity and air pollution has plummeted. 

Photography Kirk Truman

Will we remember this period as being Covid-19, the ‘missed opportunity’, or will we look back and thank citizens for their self-reflection and growth, for protesting for our freedom and fighting to live with nature and not against it? In order to reach utopia, Le Guin argues that we must embrace the cyclical nature of our environment, the never-ending process of reflection and growth, and reject the self-destructive ideals defining success through the values of capitalism and patriarchy. In our New World, will it be wealth that plays the decisive role, or will neighbours, communities and flourishing vegetable gardens be more important? Will this pandemic be the wakeup call we’ve been lacking that allows us to change our lives for generations to come? Our future is yet to be written, hitherto there are a plethora of social and green ideologies floating around, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been advocating for a ‘Green New Deal’ for years, one that boosts clean industries using a comprehensive agenda of economic, social, environmental and racial justice. Policies that reclaim the economy back from the rich, giving everybody a right to free healthcare, shelter and a basic income, as Bernie says, “it is time we had democratic socialism for working families, not just Wall Street billionaires.”

As far back as 384 BC, Greek philosophers understood the pivotal importance of a crisis, as Aristotle says, “the wise man does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few things for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even his life — knowing that under certain conditions it is not worthwhile to live.” This crisis is an opportunity to fight and reform, as currently “our economic system and our planetary system are at war,” says Klein in This Changes Everything. This crisis is revealing what’s already broken in society; we are all witnessing the global issues surrounding food, health and income insecurities and at the same time we are all experiencing a global shift in consciousness. If we yield to our compassion, could we, together, reshape the future of politics, one in which we can all wear a crown?

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If you are someone who’s been furloughed and/or have time on your hands – why not find a way to help support those in need in during this crisis, but also find ways to support the climate crisis predicted to be with us for centuries. Don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Illustrations Ella Rose & Barbara Fregosi

Photography Rachel Nolan & Kirk Truman

Music Ads

Histo-graphic content Sophie Shnapp, design Katy Coltart

Special thanks to Dr Charlie Roscoe for her wealth of health knowledge and Emilie Laystary for her journalistic wisdom and insights. And the ever supporting Shnapp fam.

Love (and Life) in the Time of Coronavirus

Stuart Anderson-Davis reflects on the decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall

“But what am I supposed to do now?!”

I heard this helpless question countless times in the last few days, as emotion-filled scenes of confusion, despair and anger played out across Princeton’s picturesque college campus.

Last week, it was announced that all 5,267 undergraduate students had until the end of Sunday to leave the university. Classes for the remainder of the academic year have been cancelled or will go “remote”, while all university events, sports, performances and gatherings have been outlawed. A formal policy of “social distancing” is in operation, apologetically enforced by the campus police force, who’ve been instructed to break up gatherings of people wherever they find them. Princeton’s students – who come from all over the United States and far beyond – had just a few days to pack up, leave and find somewhere else to live until September. The decisions taken by the university have been brutal, but its leadership believes this is the best approach for protecting students and saving lives.

Regardless of the logic, every student at America’s most competitive university has seen their plans shattered by the coronavirus chaos. It’s not just the impact on their academic careers – although goodness knows how they can be expected to undertake fiendishly difficult exams without physical access to teachers, libraries or classmates. But more than that, it’s the tremendous psychological impact wrought on many by the abrupt end to their student lives. Seniors robbed of their last precious months before entering the “real world”. Athletes no longer able to compete for college glory and professional contracts. Actors and musicians banned from showcasing their skills. Friends and lovers denied those final, gloriously sun-drenched days before dispersing forever.

Of course, the impact of coronavirus on a group of elite students in New Jersey is the least of our concerns at the moment. We’re all facing our personal pandemic demons and, whilst there’s something vaguely reassuring about being “in this together”, our collective embroilment doesn’t make the situation any less disturbing. There’s no escaping the one topic of conversation on everyone’s lips, as people seek answers and reassurances that simply don’t exist. Even our daughter’s nursery class picked up on the morbid mood – insisting on playing endless games of doctors and dollies.

However, Princeton’s course of ruthlessly pre-emptive action has been the exception, not the rule. Indeed, bearing witness to events here affords a different perspective on decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall – bringing into sharp relief the comparative lack of decisiveness and coordination. The leaders of private institutions like Princeton, Harvard and Columbia – afforded near autonomy over their college ‘city states’ – have generally acted proactively (some might say drastically) in advance of coronavirus’ arrival. Indeed, at the time of writing no Princeton student has tested positive for the virus. These places – boasting some of the finest minds in the country and the wealth to act without fixating only on the financial consequences – decided to shut up shop for the year to minimise even the potential for an outbreak.

One cannot help but contrast this extremely cautious attitude with that of the Trump administration, which first sought to play down the threat of COVID-19 (a Democratic “hoax”) before finally lumbering into a glacial and largely ineffective response. You can easily imagine what the professors here make of Trump’s bungling inaction and unwillingness to view the pandemic as a threat to anything other than his beloved stock market. Indeed, it feels like these storied institutions wanted to show the President exactly what decisive, responsible leadership looks like.

And make no mistake about it, the US government’s response has been catastrophic. Since moving here last year I’ve heard countless people remark: “thank God Trump hasn’t faced an actual crisis.” Well, now the most unqualified and dangerous President in American history (every 2020 Democratic candidate™) is facing a peril more hazardous than any financial crisis or terrorist attack. The results have been predictably shambolic. From his administration’s calamitous decision to disband the White House Pandemic Response Team to the chronic lack of testing kits, to the increasingly desperate attempts to pass the buck by stoking anti-Chinese sentiment, the world’s richest country has squandered its preparation time and now looks set for unimaginable casualties.

By contrast, the United Kingdom looks to me (from this distance) to have succumbed to a different national character flaw – this time the insistence that any significant event be viewed exclusively through the lens of the Second World War. The result is that every wannabe Churchill is convinced the best approach is always a “stiff upper lip” and “Keep Calm & Carry On” (every Conservative Party candidate ever™). This has translated to a pandemic response not dissimilar to the commuter stuck in a tube carriage with a noisy person: keep your head down, don’t make eye contact and the problem will eventually go away.

Only a country so determined it wouldn’t be accused of “over-reacting” to a crisis could allow 250,000 people to get boozed at the Cheltenham Races during the biggest public health epidemic in 100 years. Cinemas are open. Concerts are continuing. Markets, bars and restaurants remain entirely open. I mean, it took the actual infection of the Arsenal manager before the Premier League decided it wasn’t a great idea to play a full schedule of matches (in front of packed crowds) last weekend. The Tory government has entirely set the tone for this jaw-droppingly chillaxed strategy and now we have a Prime Minister conceding defeat on containment (possibly not his “Finest Hour”) and condemning grandad to the attic – or the scrapheap.

Of course, COVID-19 was always going to bring catastrophic threat to human life and the impact was always going to be devastating. But it’s equally undeniable that many responses to the pandemic – including those by Britain and the United States, two countries with the financial clout and scientific expertise to do better – have not helped the situation, and may even have made things worse. If the fundamental responsibility of a government is to keep its citizens safe, then too many have failed this test.

So then, a jolly choice for the British expatriate in America. Stick or twist? Stay or go? Try to circumvent Trump’s travel ban with a cheeky flight back via Reykjavík? There’s plenty to consider. On the mundane side, there’s the logistical challenges of getting home when the US could stop you leaving or coming back. In fact, many expats fear that Trump will now seize upon this crisis to tighten immigration restrictions yet further in the long-term. But the greatest concern of all is the fear that by travelling home to see your loved ones, you may well be the one who makes them ill.

Truly, these are the most uncertain of times. As I write, Princeton is its same old beautiful, refined and tranquil self. The sun is shining and all is calm, yet everyone knows what is coming and a sense of helplessness pervades. To introduce the inevitable World War Two analogy (I am British, after all) this seems a little like how I imagine Londoners felt during the ‘Phoney War’. This was the period from September 1939 to May 1940, when war was declared on Nazi Germany and then…nothing much. It was a time of huge tension not because of what was actually happening, but because everyone knew what dangers lay just round the corner. That’s the situation facing most Americans today, as the number of confirmed cases rises, the rumours swirl and a deadly virus advances across its great expanse.

So that takes us to the second big question on every Princeton student’s lips: “What happens next?”