When all this is over, I wonder what the abiding images of this coronavirus outbreak will be.
Will they be the social media videos of people panic-buying in supermarkets, loading their trolleys with multiple packets of toilet paper? Or the Italians in enforced self-isolation, singing together from their balconies to keep their spirits up?
Will the historians focus on President Trump’s disgraceful leadership, first labelling the coronavirus as ‘the Chinese virus’ and then blaming Obama administration for the shortage of testing kits? Or will they note how a Chinese company sent a planeload of face masks to Italy, with a message written on the boxes from an ancient Roman poem, saying ‘We are waves from the same sea’?
There have been plenty of widely reported incidents that could make you despair at human nature, and the greed and selfishness driven by fear. And it’s often these incidents which receive the most media coverage, and which then drives more copycat behaviour.
But disaster can bring out the best in us too, and give us a common focus and a common purpose.
We may be divided in so many other ways, but we all want the same thing: for the coronavirus outbreak to be over, for people to be safe and for our public services to be resilient and well-resourced enough to cope.
That means the state stepping in and fulfilling its key role of protecting people. It is what lies behind the Green Party’s call for a Coronavirus Solidarity Pact, with measures like funding arrangements for free deliveries of food and medicines for people over 64 and those with disabilities, a council-tax ‘holiday’ for households affected by the virus with compensation to councils for lost revenue, support for small businesses, and a ban on essential services like electricity and gas being cut off.
The authorities’ response must be to protect people, but past experience from around the world suggests that too often, it isn’t. Governments are instead driven by a fear of anarchy and a breakdown in law and order. Their instinct is not to help people, but to control them.
Even when the state does step in to help, there is a limit to what it can do. That is where communities play such a vital role, coming together and creating webs of support with so many individual acts of kindness.
A brilliant book by the American writer Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built In Hell, examines how this often happens during natural disasters. Everyday concerns and societal strictures frequently vanish… and people rise to the occasion.
These disasters, she says, give us ‘a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become’.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the same as a sudden natural disaster, but I can already see the flowering of a community response, with mutual aid groups springing up all over the country, making contact via WhatsApp and Facebook groups, and offering people in self-isolation help with shopping, collecting prescriptions, dog walking or even just simple human contact.
When we emerge from this crisis, I believe we can do so as a better and stronger society, ready to take on the other challenges we face
This pandemic is frightening when you have someone to share your fears with, but how much worse must it be for those who are alone?
The measures being proposed to deal with coronavirus also remind us that we face another epidemic in our country, that of loneliness. More than 7.5million people in Britain live alone, and nearly a third of them are over 75. They now face the prospect of having to self-isolate for several months.
The response from some of those affected puts paid to that oft-quoted axiom that ‘hell is other people’. It is surely the opposite: hell is the absence of other people.
These Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups are offering a real lifeline to those living alone and others, creating community webs which I believe will last well beyond this crisis because they show we are not passive citizens.
We have the power to shape the kind of society we want to live in, and we can do this not just by who we elect into power, but by coming together in solidarity.