Strange Days Indeed…
Diagnosis, Oil on Wooden Panel 40cm x 50cm, from Frank To’s Plague Doctor series. Photographed by Ian Marshall
The doctors wore masks too: sinister long pointed ones with herbs inside the beaks to protect them from the smell
… It seems that, across the world, we have overwhelmingly complied with what is basically state-imposed house arrest. How did that happen? At a time when outrage and contempt for our political leaders dominates every media outlet we have knuckled down and done what they’ve told us to do. How did they do that? All of our neighbour countries, so deeply divided on huge issues like Brexit and Independence, have stayed indoors and acquiesced. How can that be?
I have lost count of the number of Unionist Scots who openly admire how Nicola has handled this crisis. And even in England, where Boris is far from being a unifying figure, they still do what is required of them. I expected a lot more (lockdown related) riots and looting. But I was wrong.
At the start of this I didn’t believe that lockdown was the way to go. I still think that building up Herd Immunity is the only way out – and that will probably take years and many more deaths. But I too have willingly followed the rules. I trust Nicola and I trust the State in times of crisis.
The powers that we elected deemed that this was a crisis worthy of these measures, and crucially, without much debate, utilised the levers of the State to enforce them. The State protects us, and we do what is required of us. That’s the deal.
It wasn’t always like this. In that famous quote from Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, life for most people was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
In 1645, during Hobbes’ lifetime, a plague ravaged Leith and Edinburgh; in the case of Leith, (worst hit, due to us being a port) killing nearly 60% of our population. Their skeletons (discovered during tram works a decade ago) remain under our feet to this day, stretching from Constitution Street eastward right through the Links. The dovecot in Lochend Park was where their clothes were incinerated.
Leith and Edinburgh both took measures – which included quarantine and expulsion of the infected outside of their boundaries. The doctors wore masks too: sinister long pointed ones with herbs inside the beaks to protect them from the smell. But during all this death and infection the nation was busy having a civil war, and they kept fighting.
At least five major battles were fought in that year alone killing about the same amount of people as the plague. Meanwhile, across the border, the Roundheads and Cavaliers were also busy slugging it out to the death. And when the dust had settled by 1660, Thomas Hobbes published his famous book The Leviathan, with that famous quote.
Hobbes disputed the notion of free will. For him, to act at will is simply the act of satisfying your most recent appetite or reacting to your immediate aversions. The human state of nature is not a liberty that you want, because in that form our wills inevitably clash. Resulting ultimately in a state of war where life again becomes ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
Your idea of an objective moral good could well fan the embers of my hatred. Therefore, Hobbes believed, we need a ‘covenant’ between each and every one of us that there be a single ‘sovereign power’, an all-powerful authorised body of representatives to act in all our names. A foundation stone for the Nation-State was duly laid.
Across the world, during our respective nation-state’s lockdown conditions, our lives have shrunk to our immediate neighbourhoods, defined by how far we can walk for an hour each day.
Meanwhile our very neighbours have become potential killers. So will we emerge more community-minded having got to know who our neighbours are? Or are we on the slippery slope to becoming more suspicious of those who come too close, harbouring rising indifference for the suffering of others outside our immediate circle?
Everything has changed and I doubt that there will be a return to many of the norms we once took for granted. Except for one: outrage!
Twitter and the massed ranks of social media have turned us into a baying mob seeking transgressors to punish, humiliate and consign to oblivion. Whether it is Dominic Cummings or Catherine Calderwood, we seem to want them to suffer. There is no second chance, no redemption, and not a hint of compassion. Civility itself is being erased from our civilisation.
I too have had my moments of irritation during this time, when every passer-by is a potential carrier of the deadly virus. Whether in the supermarket aisles or in the negotiation of a narrow pavement with the approaching ‘threat’ seemingly oblivious to the new rules of courtesy. Or perhaps they were in a zone of their own grief from having just said goodbye to their mother via Skype, as she breathed her last breath. We don’t know, and even worse, we don’t seem to care.
The collapse of civilisation could be just around the next corner: another more vicious pandemic, nuclear Armageddon, droughts, famine, floods and all manner of climate ‘extinction’ horrors.
How we relate to strangers will determine our capacity and resilience to survive such horrors. We have dispensed with so many previously held common courtesies, like surrendering your seat or holding a door open for someone, deeming them to be chauvinistic, or just plain out-of-date.
During these last three months we have been gingerly feeling our way towards a new two-metres ‘plague-etiquette’. If we are to prevent ‘outrage-virus’ undoing all the hoped for dividends of a new post-Covid egalitarian world, then common courtesies need to become more common still.