Western society is shutting down. Yes, people are complaining about people still being in cafes and pubs in London, but this is temporary. Whether the government shuts this down by legal means in the coming week or not – and I suspect they will – this behaviour will fade out as more people become ill. We are a week or so away from a virtual society; where everyone interacts online and nowhere else.
It is obvious to say that I never thought I’d see this happen in my lifetime. That it is an airborne virus that has caused this is daunting, particularly given it has demonstrated how unprepared our societies are for anything like this. Almost without any real discussion, a CoronaVirus Bill is set to be rushed through parliament as quickly as possible. It gives the government powers that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. No one other than conspiracy theory types think this is being done to curtail civil liberties as a power grab. In fact, a lot of those who will be complaining about the powers this bill will give the government have been complaining for weeks already about how the government hasn’t been restrictive enough thus far.
The problem comes when you consider unintended consequences. Many bills placing emergency powers into the hands of a democratic government have been done with good intentions and still turn out to create horrible situations further down the line. When you make a society less liberal, for whatever reason, it becomes harder to make it liberal again later. Freedom is hard fought and not easily reborn. I don’t have an answer for this by the way. It’s clear the government needs to do something to avoid mass deaths of the elderly and people with underlying health issues. I’m just pointing out that it will be tricky to unwind later.
What if society has to shut down for another month? Two months? Six months? The results of this, social and political, are unknown and unknowable. The economics are easy: for all but a handful of industries that will actually benefit from the crisis, it is armageddon. I think the government had it right when it worried about lock down burnout and people’s ability to get frustrated and flout the rules eventually. If it were a strain of Ebola that had found a way to spread quickly we were facing, things would be different – a measure of fear over one’s own mortality comes into play on a widespread scale. But what happens when a significant chunk of society get tired of staying indoors because of “old and already sick people”. I mean, that’s horrible, but you only have to look at some of the reactions from British holidays makers, easily available online, to think that discounting this behaviour would be foolish. This could get worse as a lot of people get the virus and have a minor reaction and recover quickly. We’ve already seen how quickly people can become selfish in the midst of this crisis. I worry a lot about how this dimension of it will play out.
Will this change British society forever? How and in what ways? I obviously don’t know but my main worry is how the hell the government manages this crisis if it stretches on. Having draconian powers is one thing – having to use them is a whole other problem.