Goodbye big society – already we are seeing a return to looking out for number one

Predictions about how life would be radically different after Covid-19 – that we would be more cohesive as a society – are beginning to look overly optimistic

Ian Hamilton
Friday 01 May 2020 14:51 BST
Priti Patel says there will be 'new norms' for British society after lockdown

We’ve reached a stage in the pandemic where we are discovering the impact that the virus has had, not only on our health, but on our lives and habits in general. As the data becomes available, it provides some fascinating insights.

Prior to Covid-19, many of us didn’t even know the name of our neighbours, let alone chat to them. The pandemic acted as a social catalyst, with an upsurge in the number of people checking in on their neighbours.

But while two-thirds of respondents said they had checked in on neighbours at the start of lockdown, this has now fallen to just 52 per cent. A similar fall is reported in those going shopping or carrying out tasks for neighbours.

Loneliness was a significant but largely ignored issue prior to this pandemic. Self-isolation has only served to increase loneliness, whether you live in a city of millions, or in a village of a few hundred. But the epidemic is not distributed evenly among the population: those aged 70 and over are less likely to report feeling lonely than younger adults. Of those aged 70 and under, 22.5 per cent report feeling lonely compared to just 10.9 per cent of the over-70s. So much for the sweeping generalisation about older people being more isolated and lonelier than their younger counterparts.

What emerges from this data is a population that is increasingly self-interested, or at least less interested in others, which advances social fragmentation.

This may seem like a general and unimportant observation but it’s critical: we are more likely to adhere to social distancing and other infringements on our liberty and routines to fight the pandemic if we perceive this to be a community effort. Social cohesion and a shared purpose are critical assets which appear to be diluting as each week goes by.

Seductive as it is to believe that Covid-19 is the great leveller, it is not. The pandemic has in effect widened another rift that was alive and well pre-pandemic: that of class and inequality. Low-paid shopworkers, porters, cleaners and so on all have maximum exposure to the virus and the least state support in return for that risk. The middle class stay shielded, spending their time learning a new language or some other form of self-improvement that must be despairing to hear about if you don’t have equal economic, social or psychological capacity and you’re struggling to survive.

This social and psychological splintering is compounded by another factor: where we work. A decreasing proportion of people are working from home over recent weeks as a greater number return to the daily commute. No doubt some will be leaving their home due to economic necessity rather than choice. Those who have been made redundant, don’t have savings or family that they can turn to for money will be part of these increasing numbers.

Returning to some level of normality over the coming weeks, including travelling to the office or workplace, means we have less time to help people, whether that’s neighbours or others in our community.

Predictions about how life would be radically different after Covid-19 – that we would be more cohesive as a society – are beginning to look overly optimistic. Indeed, we are already returning to our old ways of looking out for number one.

Ian Hamilton is an associate professor of addiction at the University of York

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