Lockdown Papers
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Lockdown Papers

#2: Death comes ashore

The Diamond Princess cruise ship was the jewel of the sea. Few imagined it would become a floating death trap.

When it disembarked from Hong Kong in early February 2020, the 3,711 passengers and crew members on board were preparing themselves to experience the wonders of Japan, with its clash of technology and tradition. They never disembarked.

The story of the Diamond Princess is at risk of being forgotten in the mists of 2020, given all that has happened since. But for me it serves as an illustrative microcosm of the existential trauma we have all endured this year. I think we need to talk about this trauma more, but also, what comes next.

Standing upon the seashore

After arriving in Japanese waters, the Diamond Princess was quarantined immediately. In the UK we watched on with intrigue. Two British passengers — David and Sally Abel, made video diaries of life onboard, confined to their tiny cabin. It was our first glimpse of quarantine and from comments on social media, lots of people found it entertaining. It was a spectacle, but a distinctly distant one. We were standing on the seashore. It would never make it onto our tiny island, would it?

The first Briton to die of covid-19 was on board the Diamond Princess. They were the sixth person to die on board, of over 700 who were eventually infected, including the Abels. But then the same day the UK recorded its first case of transmission on home soil, and the World Health Organisation raised the global risk to “very high”. Within six weeks the UK was in full lockdown and the Prime Minister was in intensive care. Death had docked his boat on our shores. Within six months of his visit, over 40,000 people died. At the end of 2020, the figure stands at over 60,000.

Death docks his boat

We are no longer standing on the seashore, and death has come ashore. The virus has struck at the core of who we are, collectively and as individuals. It has forced us to acknowledge insecurities and issues we would rather ignore.

I wonder about how covid-19 has reminded us all of our vulnerability on a mass scale. Death is now onshore and stalks the corridors of hospitals and care homes, and floats in the very air we breathe. It stands between us and loved ones, and grimaces at us on the evening news. It has exposed us for the mortals we are and wreaked havoc on all our lives.

As a result of the first lockdown my friend lost her job in the theatre and, when her landlord wouldn’t agree to a rent holiday, lost her home. My Granddad spent hours each day alone and is still too afraid to leave the house. My brother had to entertain his kids on a council estate with no green spaces or play areas. And an old school-friend died alone in hospital, with only six people physically attending his funeral. A life half-lived and a death half-commemorated. Similar scenes have played out tens of thousands of times this year.

Events like these plus many others made me, and I think many other people, question what type of civilisation this is. When there is no guarantee of a roof over your head and where children don’t have space to play. These problems weren’t made by covid-19, but it helped us see them more clearly.

Even before covid-19, I think modern capitalism was rife with unconscious reminders of mortality — low paid, precarious, repetitive employment which is at risk of automation; bullshit jobs where a considerable amount of time is spent reading, replying to and sorting emails, colour coding spreadsheets or moving boxes around a PowerPoint slide; stagnating productivity meaning we are working harder to stand still and receive less and less of the pie. Modern capitalism amplifies the passage of time and provides less and less meaning to fewer and fewer people.

Yet, yet. For many of us these reminders of death and vulnerability, however painful, also stimulated reflection and provided inspiration. For example I met the unemployed theatre worker at the food bank where we both volunteered. Despite being out-of-work and losing her home, she still gave up her time to help feed others in need. Along with over 300 other residents who pulled together to ensure no one went hungry.

The crisis forced us to reconsider what matters, for ourselves and each other. We checked in on our neighbours and picked up their prescriptions. We pulled on our running shoes and went out into parks en masse. We listened to the birds singing for the first time since we were children. We stopped to smell the roses, and picked up pens, paintbrushes or played the piano. We began appreciating the little things again. In a strange way, death reminded us how to live.

What if death and vulnerability can help us create something new and better? From Socrates to Hegel, philosophers have long argued that without facing our own mortality, there would be little civilisation at all. But what is this version of civilisation we’re currently living in? All I know is that for a fleeting moment earlier this year, I saw something which looked more like the kind, caring society I think we all secretly want to live in. Which is more like an actual civilisation in which we consciously consider things such as where people live and where children play.

So what if covid-19 provides an opportunity to not just mourn, but to also celebrate life? How can we use this as an opportunity to create a better society and economy?

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Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller

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Social researcher and writer. Putting theory into practice, to make the world a better place.