Love in a time of Coronavirus

By John Gillibrand
June 19, 2020

As the Coronovirus struck, people began to ask themselves what the ‘new normal’ would look like. There is a nostalgia in the question, a longing to return to ‘the normal’, whatever that may be. There is a similar rush ‘back to the normal’ in the current thinking of the Westminster government. There is a danger that the rush will be disorganised, chaotic even, and – if it provokes a second spike of the disease, defeating its own purposes. 

My suspicion is that we have not really taken on board – because we dare not – the full magnitude of this crisis. Since the financial collapse of 2008, the economic, social and political system of the West has been buffeted by repeated shocks. We have now come to the point of an economic crisis more severe than the shock of 1929, with all its long term consequences. What if it were the case that our system is now so seriously damaged that it is incapable of repair, that there is no prospect of return to any kind of normal by the means of previously existing thinking and policy? Michel Foucault the French philosopher talked of epistemic breaks. Many people in the 1960s believed – probably mistakenly – that they were living through one. But maybe this is actually it. 

We could try the neo-liberal economics that have held sway in so many places since the 1980’s. We are – after all – Thatcher and Blair’s children. The whole thing was predicated upon global economic competition in which the criterion of our success in this Hobbesian struggle was ever increasing Gross Domestic Product. In a world of finite resources, although the neo-liberal experiment has now gone on for so long, it cannot go on for ever. Such economists would plead for us to balance the books of the corporation or the nation-state – we actually have to balance the books of the planet. We have to live within our planetary means. During the coronavirus epidemic we have discovered the horrible inefficiencies of this system, as governments and individuals have struggled to access adequate testing and PPE. It is – ironically – not a very good way of doing business, when profiting from activities becomes more important than the activities themselves. 

We could try the Corbyn experiment – again. It would be premature to believe – despite the result of the 2019 election – that such an option has gone away for ever. With all its faults in the realm of the political, it was rooted in a call for social justice and genuine equality – and none of that is going to go away. However, there is a core problem with that agenda: it is the flipside of the neo-liberal programme, the alternative proposal of those whose politics was forged in the struggles against Thatcher in the 19080’s and in an internal resistance in the Labour Party after 1997. Its contours are those of Thatcherism, moulded by that which it – so rightly opposed. It has exactly the same flaw as Thatcherism, in that resources are not unlimited. It takes the Keynesian perception that you need to spend your way out of a recession – a perception which incidentally seems to have been adopted by the present government as well – but is unable to save us from the following retrenchment. Despite Gordon Brown, there always seems to be a return to the cycle of boom and bust. 

One of the benefits of the current crisis is that locked away in our homes, with – if we are so fortunate – an internet connection to give us company, we have become more aware of communal need, of what some have called the ‘common good.’ We are aware of our shared need for effective health and social care. In so many aspects of life, the best have been prepared to give a helping hand to their neighbours. Our problem has been exactly how we meet such need, but we have recognised it to be a priority, combined with a realisation that – under the neo-liberal economic dispensation, those who meet such needs at the front line have been chronically under-rewarded. We need to think about outcomes. If the provision of health and social care is indeed such a  priority, how must we change our social, economic and political system in order to deliver the outcomes which we all look for, which we need for ourselves and others? We must stop at nothing to do this. 

Therefore, we should now look at the resources of the planet, and who holds those resources, both our physical resources and our human resources. We have to think also about our shared non-negotiable needs. The need for life, but not just to be alive, but rather to have – within the constraints of our human situation – an abundance of life. The weeks of lockdown, as so many of our habitual activities have been stripped away, have reminded us what it is to be merely human, but also what abundance of life should look like. Thus, we set the balance of resources and needs, and allow for intergenerational sharing. We look for new systems of equity by which resources can be made available to meet need, rather than hoarded in the hands of the rich, the possessing classes, whose luxurious pleasure is made possible at the expense of basic quality of life for so many millions. What is proposed here goes beyond the Blairite project of making neo-liberalism work to produce social good, and beyond the more left-wing project of the marginal redistribution of wealth for the same purpose. What is not proposed is heaven on earth, one more new Jerusalem. Rather it is the simple claim that the health and well-being of all trumps the claims of any economic and social system. We now have an opportunity to build anew, rather than rushing back to the old. 

These last few months have seen acts of extraordinary care. The last few days, as racist violence has erupted on Whitehall, have shown that human beings can be otherwise. Both the hatred and the love have been triggered by the appalling pressure under which all of us have placed by the Coronavirus outbreak. They are two possible reactions, but we know which one is right. Even the most hate-filled person, if asked, would rather be targeted by love than hatred. There is here a fundamental Christian principle: love your neighbour as you love yourself. The internal debates in the churches over the last months seem to have been mainly about buildings. Insofar as the government has paid attention to the churches, it has been in responding to the debate about the reopening of churches. It is a highly impoverished vision of the place of faith within the public square.

Actually our core Christian principles call us – in partnership with those of other faiths, and of no faith, because we love them as our neighbours, and they carry the same burdens as ourselves – to a fundamental redesign of the world in which we live. We spend many a long year taking what we are given,  and accepting it as a given. In lockdown, we have learnt what an amazingly precarious, and yet special place home can be. For some it has been downright dangerous. We can make this planet our home, and instead of accepting the givens, design things for ourselves and those around us.    

One last thing. This is actually not about economics. When those of us who choose to do so return to our church buildings, we need to investigate new forms of public liturgy which allow local communities to express their most profound anxieties and needs, and by expressing them, to assist those communities in designing their futures. In the secular context, we need to make greater art than humanity has ever made before. In such art we will hear each other’s voices, and by attentively listening, come to an understanding of the future – yet unimagined – towards which we are surging. Our future. 

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© John Gillibrand is Vicar of Pontarddulais with Penllergaer, in the Church in Wales Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. He is an Ekklesia associate, writer and independent scholar. His other writings for Ekklesia can be found here.

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