It is not clear precisely which twisted 19th-century scientist first thought of blanching frogs, but he lives on in the pantheon of metaphor. We all know the fable: one placed in cold water and heated up will cook to death, one thrown into boiling water will jump out. Some changes are too gradual for us to notice, in other words, but a sudden shock can spur us to act.
Modern societies are gradually-heating-up sorts of places, full of mechanisms for putting things off: infinite experiences with which to busy ourselves rather than doing or pondering things we would rather not have the time to do or ponder. I have taken to using Trello, a list-making app, to sort things I have to do into different time horizons; primarily because of the ease with which it allows me to lift a colourful little tile from one column and drop it, with a satisfying “plink”, into next month’s list or the one after that.
So it is with societies as a whole, which tend to prioritise acute problems over chronic ones. Those that really gnaw are the ones that no government will serve long enough to win re-election for solving: the nagging problem with the unpopular remedy, the global challenge for which responsibility is too diffuse, the gradual structural shift that is obviously taking us to a bad place but is just too gradual and structural. The water gets hotter, but we frogs choose not to notice.
Enter coronavirus. The pandemic is forcing us out of our routines, individually and collectively. Across the world millions are getting used to different living and working arrangements and more limited circles of movement, experience and social contact. Plenty claim they are using the lockdown to weed that garden, read that novel or unpack that one last box from a move years ago. Some may even be telling the truth; my windowsills are now full of little pots sprouting the first shoots grown from long-neglected packets of tomato seeds.
Aside from such mundanities some people will be prompted by the jolt to take genuinely major life decisions: to quit jobs, say, or move elsewhere. On 24 March the deputy chief medical officer for England Jenny Harries suggested that dating couples who did not want to spend the lockdown apart might wish to “test the strength of their relationship” by moving in together for its duration. On the other side of the ledger, divorce rates are reportedly spiking in China, as married couples cooped up for weeks are allowed back out.
More serious still are the realities that the virus is forcing us to face collectively. In ageing societies the lockdowns are bringing a reckoning with the numbers of old and vulnerable people living on their own; slowly spreading epidemics of loneliness about which there have been few proper national conversations. But now, en masse, people are checking in on their neighbours to ask if they need a phone call or some shopping doing, or getting older relatives set up with mobile phones and video calls. I would not be surprised to learn that, for some lonely folks, the last weeks have been the most social for years.
In the UK the pandemic has also exposed the crisis of social care, the desperate need for prison reform, the instability of life in the “gig economy” and most of all the failure to establish a lasting, adequate funding settlement for the NHS. Crucially, as it provides the necessary shot of adrenaline, the virus has made those failures scary to voters and politicians.
Similar revelations are taking place elsewhere. Here in Germany, where I live, widespread home-working is showing how urgently the country needs to invest in its patchy digital infrastructure. With a lethal and indiscriminate virus on the loose three of the US’s most intractable problems – its over-full prisons, its precariat and its appalling public health – have become risks to society as a whole. When some states are releasing prisoners, Republican stalwart Mitt Romney is calling for a prototype basic income and a poll is showing that within weeks 41 per cent of Americans have become more likely to support universal healthcare, it is fair to assume that tectonic plates are shifting. Worldwide, meanwhile, tolerance for the poisonous disinformation that has washed across social media in recent years is falling as platforms intervene more actively to avoid becoming the baddies of the pandemic – with Facebook, Google and Twitter all taking unprecedented steps to elevate authoritative content and remove fake news. Frogs are jumping out of pots all over the place.
Then there is the reality closest to the metaphor. Quite literally, we are all surrounded by heating-up water as carbon reduction targets slip and societies do too few of the disruptive and daunting things needed to flatten that other curve: global temperature rises. When the effects are so disparate and hard to imagine we can always plink the tile marked “transform our economies, energy production and ways of life” into the column marked “next year” or “next decade”. No one is there to throw us into the boiling water, as it were; to force us to contend now with a 2050 or 2100 world scarred by famines, eco-wars, extinctions, floods and fires.
But in coronavirus and its effects, we might have the next best thing: a sudden test of our societies’ abilities to transform industrial processes and lifestyles, to cope with emergencies and dislocations and to curtail certain short-term freedoms for the long-term good. Such matters would have made most of us, citizens and leaders, impossibly queasy even a few weeks ago. Now, perhaps, we can at least begin to pay attention to them, like a frog in a pot suddenly noticing the heat.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special