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The Need To Keep Apart Is Bringing Us Together

Someone thought her cat was about to die, and she wanted a grave dug for it in the garden. She wasn’t able to do it, and so a neighbour, one of our volunteers, said, ‘OK I'll come and dig your cat's grave.’ That's not the sort of thing you think of but it's the sort of thing that matters to people.

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I'm a retired professor - I still do research, so actually my day- to-day ordinary life is virtually unchanged. We worry about our sons who are both in vulnerable sectors, and I am, as someone who studies economic and political things, rather anxious about what's going to come out of all this, with a world that is going to be quite a lot poorer. How are people going to respond? We saw a bit of it with the financial crisis in 2008 and the euro crisis in 2010 in continental Europe. This is going to be far, far bigger than those.

We've lived in this road for 46 years. It's got an active Google group, and when the lockdown started one of my neighbours had the idea of circulating everyone and saying, look, shall we try and organise something for the road? Then we realised actually that not everyone would be on the Google group so he and I designed a leaflet, which we distributed. This was the beginning of our activities, because the people who are not on the Google group are probably most likely to be the ones who need something.

There's a small number of very elderly people who occasionally need a bit of help. Someone thought her cat was about to die, and she wanted a grave dug for it in the garden. She wasn’t able to do it, and so a neighbour, one of our volunteers, said, ‘OK I'll come and dig your cat's grave.’ That's not the sort of thing you think of but it's the sort of thing that matters to people. But then I realised, since we're over 70 and my wife's got asthma, we actually shouldn't mix much and do tasks for people who were isolating, and so I said, right I'll take over the job of being the road’s communicator. So I managed those issues for the road, and also external communications, mainly with Oxford Hub and local networks.

Our road’s group was set up autonomously, but we decided we ought to actually affiliate to the Hub and be part of the general effort for three reasons: One, the Hub would need to know our road had got something happening. Two, we thought there would be communications from them that might be quite useful - which has been the case - and thirdly, I thought that if there were any more general City-wide issues that we should be aware of in our little ghetto, they would tell us about those.

The various local parts of the Hub got busy quickly in a very lively way. For example, a local woman found she could make medical scrubs out of sheets, duvets and certain kinds of pillowcase. The Hub announced that, so I passed it on to the whole of my street, and people immediately dumped pillowcases on her doorstep - I hope she wasn't overwhelmed. Because the Hub has got these networks, and because we're all in touch with each other, when someone's got an idea like that, very, very quickly they can be put in contact with people in quite a wide network of streets around. If the Hub didn't exist, and if we'd all just been doing our own little things, that wouldn't have come through really. She'd have just been sitting there, willing to do it and looking to her friends, but because of the Hub, it's a kind of nice echo chamber. So it's useful.

There's a large block of flats near us where people do not have gardens. They used the Hub’ local network to organise drinks together across their balconies, or they would sing, suitably spaced out, in the quadrangle that they've got. There's a common space and they signal a certain time to do all this. And for people in flats, especially someone perhaps living alone, I think that's a real help. These networks enable people to come out of their loneliness and isolation for little communal events. It's great.

Our road has always had a lively Google group, but it is definitely much more intensive now. People are communicating with each other a lot. I have also noticed that when we go out for a walk and pass each other - at a respectful distance - in the street, there are more exchanges of greetings. In the past you'd have just walked past each other closely but not have recognised each other as human beings. Now we wave, speak and smile. My son calls it ‘a closed mouth smile’. And perhaps that'll live on a bit. And I suppose two things are happening. One is just a kind of expression of solidarity, but partly, what you've actually just done to each other is something that's quite offensive, which is to walk away, and you feel a need to cancel that out. Although you both know what you're doing, we can't give someone a wide berth as though they smell or something without a little cheering wave.

Rather like happened in wartime, people are aware, much more aware, of what's going on in public life. They are following the news, seeing what's happening. So you could say a much livelier civil society has been developing. Now, in my Post Democracy book, I said the only thing that can save us from a trend towards weakening of democracy is strong, powerful civil societies that generate movements, that generate groups who watch what's happening and alert people. So in a way, that base of civil society should be strengthened by this crisis in a way the financial crisis didn't achieve. If you think that things are going to get bad in the wake of the virus, you have to say what would we need for that not to happen. A stronger civil society with people being outward going, neighbourly and welcoming could be important, and we have that going on. We must all encourage it, try to bring it out.

I can see contradictory possibilities. One is to reject foreigners - the corona crisis does to some extent provide a rhetoric for xenophobia. Trump does this…’ It's foreigners bringing it here.’ Some people might say, ‘Right, we've got to close down, seal national borders or even regional borders’, whereas something else we ought to be learning from this is the indivisibility of human activity. We're looking to scientists to provide answers. Science doesn't understand any boundaries. There's no such thing as British, German or American science. Scientists contribute to an enormous edifice of knowledge that is global and accessible. We become aware of the total interconnectedness of humans. It seems to me that's one of the things one ought to be noticing, and we ought to make sure each other notices - we are all in this together, and that's not about Oxford or Britain, or Europe, it's the world. The very sad fact is that so many of the medical and care staff who've been dying are from ethnic minorities. We need to take note of that; our society depends on these people.

I'm rather a social isolate normally. I don't regard myself as a very sociable person. But through this crisis I have learned that I look forward to being close to people again - to be in a crowded restaurant, and to have shared live cultural experiences. It's been very good that so many media and cultural organisations have provided a feast of stuff online. But it's not the same as being in a room or concert hall. At the sort of concerts I go to, the audience is meant to be silent, but you still are experiencing something collectively. So I miss that. I also miss live theatre. We have learned through this experience that cultural and sporting events are not fringes, trivial to life. On Saturday afternoon I was thinking, ‘why am I not listening to football?’ - music, theatre, cinema, football, cricket - they are fundamentals.

Most of the people in our road are much younger than us now, and we only knew a sprinkling of them, but now, there's a whole load of them I know quite well. Some people say that the virus enabled us to discover that life's quite possible online, and that many will just stay there. Other people say, actually we will all want to go out and hug someone. We will miss actually being with people. I'm in that category. I think people are finding this all over the place, that in a weird way, the need to keep apart is bringing us together.

Edited by Renata Allen


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