How was your lockdown? Bored by now? I feel life coming back: restaurants getting cleaned, outdoor tables appearing at cafes, more traffic on roads and a general spirit of giddy optimism rising again. We said we would get through it and we have and even before Buoyant Boris announced it, we were making small, tentative baby-steps into a new future as we test our ability to survive in a World with Covid. But we are not returning to from where we came; we are carefully climbing out through an opening window down into a new social arrangement.
As we locked down I found that most people were just decent and good. What quickly became clear was a genuine collective caring. People acted more kindly; strangers greeted in the street, we had extended conversations with deeply felt thanks for those who helped and overall children were better behaved or perhaps just seemed so. Yet, for the most deprived and marginalised, they tragically remained fixated on themselves and we judged them while we remained unwilling to understand.
A week into lockdown my attention was drawn to a trending social-media video of one of our ex-patients being apprehended by security at a local superstore. Naked to the waist he reminded me of a bull-calf charging pointlessly. He rammed the entrance head-first only to be repelled by the burly indifferent employees. He then, after a tirade of innovative expletives, hurled a metal stand, in place to direct social-distancing, but this merely bounced off the door frame. I was impressed by his determination as I was staff patience. He had attempted to steal vodka before being ejected and his online performance suggested both incompetence and incapacitation. This was day six of a bender that started before St Patrick’s Day and possibly inspired by the threat of a prolonged lock-down. Police, the night before, had raided his flat where 20 had been partying and confiscated alcohol and a complete sound system that risked structural damage to the building. When, at the end of the video, I saw police arrive, and knowing something of his probation terms, I knew it would be some time until we saw him again.
Three days into lockdown a methadone patient, one who frequently complained about the inconvenience of attending for daily supervised consumption, casually asked what would happen if she was forced to self-isolate. Updated service guidance meant if self-isolating methadone would be delivered to her home. Next day she was self-isolating. On her return to the rigours of daily consumption, she told me in isolation she had enjoyed herself; went to lots of parties, had a new hairstyle, got a new boyfriend, who she firmly believed was the one and renewed her addiction to alcohol. After two days she was lost to the system.
Only two examples from a challenging cohort. They rattle and frustrate us with their behaviours as they splash about drowning in the deep-middle of the social inequality lake, another generation so abused by a system that seemed forever sustainable, irreparable and unchangeable. To save them, a few throw out poorly designed life-buoys but most just watch judgementally blaming them for getting themselves too far out of their depth. Once in the lake you realise it is full of treacle not water and now matter how you struggle you gravitate down towards the deep-middle.
We all say in public we hope for a fairer society but each step towards fairness is aggressively resisted; progress was held back in the greedy 1980s and again the 2008 financial meltdown resulted in austerity that asset stripped to the bone every possible social support.
We are about to enter into a new social contract and it must be that those who before the Covid crisis were forced to paddle and wade in the shallow margins of the inequality lake doing their best not to get pulled to the deep-middle, and who we now recognise we cannot survive without, must get a fairer deal. Failure to take this opportunity will ensure that too many of another generation currently paddling there will end up in the deep-middle “not waving but drowning”.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.