In the midst of all the horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are occasional glimpses of light. Who could fail to be moved by the Italians (pictured above) serenading each other from their high-rise balconies? The sign ANDRA TUTTO BENE, by the way, means: "Everything's going to be fine." Or what about the so-called 'balcony concerts' in Paris (see picture below)?
As I said in an earlier blog entry, my daughters have often asked me what life was like in the 1960s. My stock answer is that it was the most moral decade I can remember. My contemporaries were driven by a series of judgements which were essentially moral and which turned out to be right. This was the time of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, of anti-Apartheid rallies, of civil rights marches in the American South and in Northern Ireland, and the beginnings of the women's liberation movement around the world. These groundswell movements left their mark on the six decades that followed.
Then came the terrible 1980s when Margaret Thatcher told us that there was no such thing as 'society'. The message from Thatcher, Reagan and a host of others seemed to be that 'greed is good'. It's common orthodoxy to blame the 1960s for the ills of the world. I dispute that. If you want to trace the origins of much that is wrong in the world today, look back no further than the greedy 1980s.
So what are the reasons to be cheerful in the midst of lockdown, quarantine and a looming economic depression, which seems set to match anything seen in the Great Depression of the 1930s? If I am hearing right, there is universal agreement that the world will never be quite the same again after Covid-19 has moved on. What are the likely changes? Let's look on the bright side.
First, the biggest winner is likely to be the internet. Covid-19 has jabbed forward a lot of changes that were already under way. So families are communicating on Skype and FaceTime and that has put the 'global village' at the centre of the global map. Printed newspapers are slow and clumsy: we get our virus news from the TV or online (including, let it be said, the online sites of newspapers like The New York Times and The Guardian.) It's not just the news. While we are in lockdown, we do our shopping online. (Amazon workers are at breaking point. They've never been busier. They are now shipping food as well as books and iPhones.)
Margaret Thatcher's vapid and silly argument that there is no such thing as 'society' is looking very thin indeed. My wife and I have been in self-quarantine for a fortnight after flying back to France from Australia and Singapore. (Today is the first day of freedom. Whoopee!) No sooner had we returned home than friends and neighbours rang to see if we were okay, and offered to go shopping for us. That's community or 'society' reviving.
We've had a stream of e-mails from friends around the world. Just checking, they say. Is everything okay? Again, that's 'society' making a comeback.
Today's Observer newspaper tells me that an overwhelming majority of the British people now want to see an extension beyond 31 December 2020 of Boris Johnson's ill-advised Brexit deadline. Good. Britain didn't take part in European Union collaborative efforts to fight the coronavirus. Smart? We'll see if Britain can now beat Italy's winning streak as the European country hardest hit by the virus. If the Brits can't beat Italy at football (and they can't, they've won 8 and lost 11) let's see if they can out-virus them. Meanwhile, the advantages of international co-operation may be made apparent to the British in a particularly gruesome way.
But the biggest what-if is political. In his inaugural address in January 2001, Ronald Reagan said: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." How things have changed! Who would make that argument now, with governors in the United States screaming for federal help? The hugely impressive Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York State, even argued a few days ago that competition between the various states for ventilators and masks was causing great and unnecessary damage by forcing up prices. Competition is damaging? Whatever next??
Who will now argue against deficit financing? Trump is just running up a $2.2 trillion bill for America's children and grandchildren to pay. The bill was drafted by the Republican majority in the Senate, and passed with Democrat support by 98-0. What can Republicans say next time a Democrat like Barack Obama offers American banks and industry a huge bailout?
And who will now argue that public health spending is somehow un-American? Sarah Palin promised death panels if Obama had his wicked way with Obamacare. Now they look infinitely more possible on Donald Trump's watch.
Nor is it enough to blame Donald Trump for this unseemly mess. Okay, if he wasn't in the habit of seeing everything as somehow revolving around him, he might have moved a bit more quickly in February and saved 100,000 lives. But he didn't. So who is to blame? Me, I'm inclined to blame the American voters who put him into the White House in the first place. And, sadly, those of them who survive the coronavirus will be around to vote for him again this coming November. And that is a distinct reason to NOT be cheerful.
Back in the 1960s a group called the Hollies created one of the decade's great popular music anthems, right up there with John Lennon's Imagine. 'He ain't heavy,' the Hollies wailed. 'He's my brother.' The song could do with a revival. And, with a bit of luck, the sentiment is already reviving.