By Stig Abell in THE TIMES, 25 March 2020
There’s something I am trying to do less at the moment: terror-scrolling on my phone. I am sure many of us do it too much: first thing in the morning or – even more perniciously – last thing at night, cycling through news websites or social media feeds, mouth agog, trying to process the latest death rates of Lombardy or London, or the closure of some familiar business. Social media is worse because there too we get the build-up of angst and rage, and plenty of criticism of others: those flocking to the benign open spaces of parks, or crammed into tubes heading to work.
So here is a brief corrective: our country is handling this horror, this shock to our system, largely with poise, generosity and wisdom. Of course, there are problems; of course there are – as there always have been – wreckers and blunderers, the cruel and the mean-spirited. And yes, Mike Ashley, I am looking at you. But consider this: in the last month, our entire way of life, our basic freedoms, the purpose of our existence, have changed beyond recognition.
Our main reaction has been to find a way to cope. Most people, not under the pain of state enforcement, have wisely and voluntarily reduced their horizons to their front doors, an act of quiet revolution amid a culture of easy access, consumerism and free movement.
And acts of small heroism, a very British sort of heroism, abound. They start with those working in the NHS, heedless of danger. More than 10,000 retired NHS staff have returned to the front line, even though they are putting themselves in peril to do so. A call went out this week for volunteers to support the health system, and more than a hundred thousand people immediately answered. They will never be recognised by name, or even known to many; they did it out of a common feeling of decency.
That decency is echoed throughout our communities all over the country: the co-ordination of shopping, the care for the vulnerable, and all of the nods and waves of friendliness and encouragement that form the very ether of our shared lives.
In Britain, today, we now know better than we have ever done who our key workers truly are: not only doctors and nurses, but perennially under-valued folk like shelf-stackers and delivery drivers, postal workers and farmers. It is thanks to them that our new unimaginable life has the slightest chance of continuing.
Sometimes the scale of the crisis – and its obliterating impact – becomes overwhelming. Over the next few weeks, every single one of us is going to be troubled by mental unrest, moments of darkness. But we must see the light, too: a massive act of unbridled and destructive force has hit us; and we are just about coping. Let’s give ourselves some credit for that.
Stig Abell is editor of the TLS