Dani Garavelli: This terrible trade-off risks becoming the new normal
I say this not to gloat, but in an attempt to be honest. When we first went into lockdown, I thought my mental health would suffer. Instead – despite all the worries about others in my wider family – I have been fleetingly surprised by joy.
Maybe that’s what it’s like when death is everywhere and you are not yet touched by it. Everything has a heightened intensity. You see more clearly, love more fiercely, take nothing for granted.
I say this also as a checking of my privilege. I have never been so conscious of how lucky I am: to have a house to spend lock down in, and people I like to spend it with. I am not an NHS or supermarket worker out risking my own health for the welfare of others; I don’t live alone, have no underlying health conditions and, so far, no-one I love is sick. The knowledge that this may change is what renders the untouched parts of existing life so sharply beautiful.
I know that for many people, however, lockdown is a nightmare. For the frail, the immobile, the already isolated; for low-income single parents, cancer patients whose treatment has been suspended, people whose partners have custody of their children, there are few compensations for the restrictions on movement.
The rough sleepers now deprived of passers-by and the amenities they relied on, the entrepreneurs whose businesses have collapsed and many more will be struggling to keep their heads above water.
Imagine the terror of women forced into quarantine with their abusers, with no means of escape. The pandemic is a gift to coercive controllers whose desire to watch their partner’s every move has been legitimised. Just two weeks in and newspapers have reported nine so-called self-isolation killings in the UK, including the murder-suicide of an entire family in Sussex.
Imagine the plight of those with dementia who have no idea why their routine has been changed; whose care packages have been reduced and who can no longer attend the day centres which provided them with stimulation.
In the last few days I have heard devastating tales: of those whose condition has declined sharply; who are disoriented and lost; who have stopped eating or listening to the music that used to be their link to the outside world. And of the despair of those who care for them – now deprived of the family visits that provide a brief respite from endlessly answering the same questions and engaging in conversations that make no sense.
Few would dispute the need for the lockdown. The #stayathome message is imperative if we are to slow infection rates. But even if we flatten the curve, it seems likely to last another ten weeks, and may be reintroduced sporadically after that if infection rates spike again.
The pandemic – like war, I suppose – has allowed some to flex their entrepreneurial muscle. There have been amazing stories: gourmet chefs making ready meals for those who cannot get out to buy food, school technical departments using 3D printers to make protective eyewear, a diving equipment factory that is now producing ventilators.
There are also celebrities and others who have striven to make life better for those in lockdown, instituting online listening parties, poetry readings and virtual book launches.
And yet none of this will prevent the knock-on effects of the lockdown – and other policies made on the hoof – on our most vulnerable. When all this is over, there will be an almighty fall-out; there will be increased pressure on hard-pressed mental health services; elderly people whose mobility has diminished will be more prone to falls; those in alcohol and drugs recovery may have relapsed.
Lockdown was introduced at short notice because, well, it had to be, but I wonder what we will eventually learn about the trade-off between preventing the spread of coronavirus and other negative health outcomes (as they say in jargon-land).
I wonder too at the ease with which we have acquiesced to other restrictions, such as the refusal to allow relatives to sit at the hospital bedside of their dying loved ones. In one case, these rules appear to have been applied to a 13-year-old boy.
I am sure there is sound epidemiological thinking behind it, but forcing anyone to die alone is inhumane and likely to lead to severe trauma for those left behind. Moreover, the policy appears to be patchily applied, with some relatives allowed in wearing PPE, and others not. Who is weighing the physical risks against the emotional risks? The medical imperatives against the cultural ones? Is that even possible?
This leads to the question of our wider civil liberties. Fear is a powerful emotion, and let’s face it: as we watch temporary hospitals and morgues being built, we are all terrified.
But I do worry about the dark alleys into which that fear might lead us. Just a few days after lockdown was announced, Derbyshire Police sent up a drone to shame walkers in the Peak District. The move was criticised as “disgraceful” by Lord Sumption – a former Supreme Court judge. In its defence Derbyshire Police said the new laws lacked clarity and that other forces were implementing more draconian measures, such as the setting up of roadblocks. The whole affair underlined the dangers of hastily drawn-up emergency legislation.
Closer to home, the Scottish Government’s proposal to suspend jury trials – a tenet of our justice system – was met with a backlash that threatened to wreck the cross-party consensus. The government quickly backed down, but the short-lived furore raises concerns about how other measures brought in, without public debate, to tackle an immediate crisis might lead to an insidious social shift.
I have also heard concerns about the shifting emphasis in care; clinical staff who have spent their lives delivering “gold standard” are now having to make do with “good-enough-in-the-circumstances”. This is inevitable as hospitals face a deluge of critically-ill patients. But if a precedent of having one nurse to 15 beds is established, who is to say we will return to what were considered – pre-Covid-19 – as safe staffing levels?
We are only months into coronavirus and weeks into lockdown, and it is changing us for better and for worse. We are seeing heart-gladdening displays of altruism and imagination, alongside those who cough over emergency workers for a “laugh”.
When it is over we will need a period of stock-taking in order to harness the good and interrogate the bad; to reinforce those changes that have improved society, while rejecting the long-term curtailment of our liberties; and to try to find technological fixes for some of the unforeseen problems – such as how to hold jury trials while social distancing – thrown up by this pandemic.