What makes a good society? This year, more than any other in recent history, has forced us to reckon with this question. The Covid-19 pandemic is the gravest crisis we have faced since the Second World War. It was – and remains – a huge test of social, political, economic and moral resilience.
Though scientists and epidemiologists have long been warning of the threat of new zoonotic diseases and of pandemics, policymakers were preoccupied with other challenges, not least Brexit. As the virus spread with lethal speed in the early months of 2020, states imposed extraordinary lockdowns in an attempt to reduce the pressure on their health systems and to save lives. But in many European countries, government intervention came too late or was not sufficient to prevent extraordinarily high death tolls. As economies contracted at the fastest rate since the Great Depression, jobs and livelihoods were destroyed.
What were the lessons of this sobering year? In the UK, the early months of the crisis exposed fragilities but also hidden reserves of strength. In just four days, more than 750,000 people registered to volunteer for the NHS after the government appealed for support. For ten weeks, at 8pm every Thursday, many of us applauded our health and front-line workers. The people of these islands were united in solidarity against a virus that does not respect borders. Perhaps a better society would emerge from the ravages of the pandemic?
This early sense of hopefulness did not last. The violation of lockdown rules by prominent public figures damaged trust. The Prime Minister’s boasts and hollow promises became tiresome. The variation in rules and support between different nations and regions of the kingdom magnified the fractures in the multinational Union state. And the longevity of the pandemic – and the social distancing it necessitated – wearied even the most resilient citizens.
The human suffering inflicted by Covid-19 lies not only in the deaths and illness it caused. It lies in the rise in avoidable deaths from heart attacks, strokes and cancer that followed the first national lockdown. It lies in the rise in mental illness and loneliness as many people were deprived of traditional networks of support. And it lies in the lost potential of children forced to remain absent from school for six months.
Yet throughout the crisis, glimmers of a better society pierced the gloom. The 23-year-old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford led an inspired – and successful – campaign to force the government to provide free meals to children from poorer families during the school holidays. Our scientists collaborated as they worked tirelessly to understand the disease and contain it. After years of spending cuts, the Covid-19 crisis has reaffirmed the value of social security as a form of collective insurance against life’s hazards: ill-health, unemployment, disability and the death of a partner. The age of hyper-individualism is coming to an end.
As the former chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died on 7 November, observed in the NS of the pandemic: “Rarely has it been clearer what we lose by focusing on the ‘I’ and gain by caring about the ‘we’. When this is all over, society will emerge with a stronger sense of ‘we’.”
If coronavirus has newly exposed injustices, it has also increased our desire to address them. The best defence societies can marshal against the pandemic is human cooperation and solidarity. The Pfizer and BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine authorised by the UK on 2 December was developed by a German-Turkish couple, funded by an American pharmaceutical giant and manufactured in Belgium. Such cross-border collaboration will prove essential against the existential threats that haunt this century, such as environmental breakdown and antimicrobial resistance.
The pandemic has demonstrated some of the worst impulses of humanity: demagoguery, chauvinism and vainglory. But it has also demonstrated some of the best: kindness, altruism and resourcefulness. We wish all of our readers a happy Christmas and the very best for the New Year.
[see also: The year of the Great Humbling]