Baroness Pauline Perry of Southwark, Creativity, Containment, Chaos and Community. How Will We Review The Pandemic?

So – we are promised a full ‘review’ of the pandemic and ‘lessons to be learned’ some time in 2022.  Dominic Cummings has even offered his extraordinary version already. No promises of what will be reviewed, or who will conduct the review have yet been offered but we can guess that it will be more political than medical. Opinion will be as divided as ever on what the government did right and wrong, on what role the scientists played, on how other countries reacted, on the use of statistics, on who was most adversely affected and on how responsibly people behaved. What fun the media commentators will have! Lined up as the self-appointed new Opposition, they will seize on every detail and ensure that they tell the public exactly what the review has said whether it did say it or not.

Only one thing is certain, that it is too early for any real perspective on this terrible pandemic to be reached in one year or even ten. Historians still argue about the handling of the last century 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic – indeed there are still historians devoting time and thousands of words to analysis of the Great Plague of London in 1665-6. If 350 years is still not enough, we have little hope of rational, unbiased review after a few months. Aldous Huxley wrote that ‘Men do not learn much from the lessons of history’. Let us hope he was wrong, and that lessons, not name-calling and division, are the long term outcome from the months we have lived with the virus as our terrifying and powerful enemy.

Chaos has become the favourite word of the media and indeed, images of chaos have darkened our news screens. Not political chaos, but the chaos of burials without ceremony, bodies stored in vans on the streets of New York, hospitals in the developing world with patients dying in corridors with no medical or family to offer comfort, NHS staff in tears of stress and the nature of their task. Chaos there has been in the economies of the world’s largest trading nations, in the conduct of millions of businesses and in the cancellation of social interaction at work and play. We need time and calm to analyse and judge what this has meant for us all. The experience is too frightening and overwhelming for political gains to be wrested from it.

Millions of citizens have been contained in lockdown, self-isolation and quarantine on a scale unthinkable a few months ago. This phenomenon is striking in the issues it raises of compliance, fear, obedience and personal freedom and choice. The majority of the UK population obeyed the rules of containment, painful as they were – in different ways – for almost every age group. We will need to consider how and why this compliance was achieved and what understanding about human behaviour can be derived from it.

The good news, of course, as has been often and well said, is that the pandemic has brought both amazing creativity and wonderful community support. From the restaurants who turned newly take-away providers to the business executive who turned delivery driver, people became survivors through creativity in new business, in the arts, the online experience and much, much more. Meanwhile, stories abound of the community spirit the situation engendered. Neighbours cared for the vulnerable and elderly, made phone calls, offered cheerful waves and online messages to those they had hardly known before. In many stories of community kindness we can look back to similar stories from wartime in the 1940s. Human nature can inspire as well as engender despair.

In reflecting on the likely outcome of a politically determined ‘review’ I have been immensely heartened and challenged by a new publication predominantly from the discipline of psychology . Entitled ‘Danse Macabre and other stories’ and edited by Halina Brunning and Olya Khaleelee, it offers a number of essays by practitioners and researchers who examine the phenomenon of the pandemic and our behavioural response to it.  This is a challenging and highly expert book which is too detailed to examine in total, as it covers many social phenomena, but its insights in respect of the pandemic have provided for me a new way of looking at our behaviour during this unique and extraordinary time.

One of these insights intriguingly offers a way of looking at our behaviour as a group within society in the way that individuals experience their own body in an epidemic. Social Anthropologist Mary Douglas’ essay observes four individual approaches – the body ‘porous and open to invasion’ – the body ‘strong’ – with an efficient immune system that can cope with infection – the body protected not only by its personal immunity but by a community ‘social skin’ – and finally a body with its own protected envelope assisted by medical technology. These individual approaches, she argues, are reflected in the differing group responses to the pandemic – from the group who see themselves as extremely vulnerable to the virus and who obey every restriction increasingly fearing all human contact, to those who feel ‘safe’ and who despise lockdown restrictions or vaccines. Between these extremes are those who would wish to see all borders closed to provide a ‘social skin’ as for example New Zealand has done and finally those who have relied on every rule presented by our splendid Chief Medical and Scientific Officers and the teams of scientific advisers behind them.

I found this analysis helpful to explain the variety of responses to Covid and the hostility often felt between different groups. If these group responses stem from our personal bodily beliefs, it is no surprise that we find the responses of others difficult to understand or sympathise. The psychologist Halina Brunning links these behaviours with the responses to HIV in the 1980s where both within the gay community and outside the same four behaviours were exhibited.

Many of the differing responses and divisions created by covid were apparent in society before the pandemic hit. Populism and nationalism have emerged in powerful new ways during the past decade, not only in the United Kingdom but elsewhere in the Western world. Behaviour during the pandemic has reinforced these trends, when fears of immigration have become fears of foreign viruses and virus carriers; nationalism has become a readiness to close borders and hold on to vaccines; mistrust of experts has become vaccine refusal.

The brilliant final chapter in ‘Danse Macabre’ is sometimes painful to read.  Here, the editors offer their summary thoughts on the Covid crisis. At first thought to be the ‘great equalizer’ as the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and Health Minister all fell victim to the virus, it has later emerged that the BAME community and the most disadvantaged communities are the worst affected. As a world wide community we will have to respond to this tragic finding and ask ourselves how to create a new structure for our nations where this cannot be repeated.

Brunning and Khaleelee point out how Covid took away many of the customs on which our lives and emotional security depended. We were separated from those we love and could not even be with those who were dying. The rituals of funerals to say goodbye were cruelly curtailed and the happier rituals of weddings and christenings bore little relationship to what had been planned. Long term, these denials may come to haunt the mental health and security of us all.

The writers also note how all reactions to crises have exhibited themselves – fear, dependency, bravo denial and ritual behaviour.

One example they offer of the latter are interestingly our obsessive hand-washing. While this is rational in protecting us from the spread of the virus, it also, they suggest, has symbolic ‘magical’ meaning in protecting our integrity against the perceived danger outside us.  Clapping the NHS also has a symbolic meaning. Clapping, they point out, dates from the third century and in history has often been employed as ‘an act of idolatry to bring us personal protection and good luck’. Their comment here is chilling ‘We clapped for the NHS hoping it would stay alive so that we could also live….’

It is indeed good to find the discipline of psychology wrestling with the myriad issues which this terrible period of history has brought us – stretching now across 2020-2021. Psychology is not the only analysis needed, as many  will follow in the months and years ahead, but this is an early contribution which helps us to think objectively about the experience which has overturned much of our previous lives.  It is a vastly important first analysis which should continue to be read, quoted and enjoyed as an antidote to the media frenzy which daily offers its own less scholarly comment on events which darken all our lives.