Are we all in this together? Illustration by Odessa Chitty

There are pros and cons to being an international student observing the third lockdown in the England. I’ll start with the most obvious downside: as someone who has not been back in Cambridge since Lent last year, I don’t have concrete experience of the situation in the UK.

On the other hand, being in a country that has handled the pandemic relatively effectively has given me a perspective from which I can better understand the UK’s response to it. I want to resist the temptation to simply point to everything other countries are doing as “better.” Yet using a comparative perspective allows us to understand some of the different factors that can lead to a more adequate adaptation to the pandemic and make suggestions for a way forward. There will no return to “normal” – like it or not, the ramifications of the pandemic will last for a long time yet. To learn to live with it, we need to build greater consensus, solidarity, and trust among citizens and between them and their governments in political spaces of debate.

Parties and massive get-togethers that blatantly break UK lockdown rules baffle me. At first, it was easy for me to dismiss this as a matter of “culture”, but I came to realise this was an unsatisfactory explanation. Even if there were a fixed and immutable “British culture”, how would we go about overcoming this “culture” to keep the virus at bay? Rather than being a function of convention, such instances reflect social divisions regarding our priorities and the ways we relate to each other. An Instagram comment I saw recently in response to a post from The Guardian about the number of Covid-related deaths demonstrates this. The commenter said that instead of focusing on fatalities, we should think about the costs to our quality of life, and claimed that lockdowns led him to feel sad about “the fantastic life we’re flushing down the toilet and that our young children may not get to experience if this madness goes on and on”.

“Greater social consensus on the order of priorities in political life may help lead a way out of the impasse.”

This finds resonance in Hannah Arendt’s warning that politics has become concerned with physical survival over what she called the “world”, a space of human togetherness in which humans act and speak together. The conflict between a narrow focus on physical life and a broader conception of human life seems, to me, to be at the heart of difficulties in policing lockdown measures. Recognising this prompts us to ask questions about what we value in human life: for instance, whether physical life, being a necessary precondition of political life, should be prioritised over the latter, especially in the face of the strain on the NHS. Greater social consensus on the order of priorities in political life may help lead a way out of the impasse.

Commentary on the pandemic has commonly erected a divide between the supposed Western values of freedom and anti-authoritarianism, and the East, which ostensibly has a tradition of submitting to authority and valuing the collective good over individual autonomy. Regardless of how much truth there is in this binary divide and reductive assumption, it is absolutely imperative to reconcile both the values of freedom and community espoused. We should examine the laws that are promulgated in the name of tackling the pandemic and their potential to be wielded in the service of discrimination and domination.

In Singapore, there has been a recent eruption of controversy surrounding the government’s ability to use contact tracing data for criminal investigations. Fears about the extension of government regulation and surveillance, often racialised and gendered, are justified. While keeping a vigilant eye on the issue of freedom, I would suggest that following lockdown rules should be conceptualised as an act of solidarity rather than as an act of blind obedience to the state. Just as we would avoid going out or sharing utensils if we were sick, so too should we wear masks and avoid gathering in large groups in the face of this invisible killer. Conceiving our actions as solidarity allows us more room to exercise our freedom of judgement, for instance, being able to read alone on a bench in a deserted park, or to pull down our masks when no one is around even if wearing masks is made compulsory in all public spaces.

Admittedly, a call for solidarity may be met with a great deal of cynicism, especially when the rich and powerful have flaunted lockdown rules and received no punishment. The scandal surrounding Dominic Cummings’s drive to Barnard Castle is but one instance of the blatantly different standards that exist for those with power and those without. The onus is clearly on political leaders to demonstrate the same willingness to abide by the rules that they demand from the general population. Boris Johnson’s justification of Cummings’s actions was disappointing. Still, there is reason to be optimistic. The UK has rallied admirably behind the NHS; when the government called for 250,000 healthcare volunteers, more than 750,000 signed up. The explosion of community volunteering initiatives that donate money, deliver groceries, and reach out to vulnerable groups has manifested a heartening groundswell of goodwill that can provide a powerful force for tackling the pandemic in times to come.

“Governments should spell out their rationale when making particular decisions and be open about repercussions.”

Along with the UK population, I have experienced the ups and downs of a government that makes constant U-turns in implementing public health directives and travel guidelines. While I appreciate the need to adapt decisions to fast-changing and unpredictable circumstances, this does not equate to last-minute reversals and a refusal to make long-term plans with contingencies. Singapore announced a three-phased approach to exiting its ‘circuit breaker’ in late May 2020, and has since moved progressively through the different phases to reach the final phase in December 2020. In contrast, the government – and devolved administrations – have flip-flopped between different policies and have not published clear schemes for exiting the present national lockdowns. In the face of such changes, public trust in the government depends vitally on political transparency. Governments should spell out their rationale when making particular decisions and be open about repercussions of these decisions. Only by being transparent about the indisputably difficult choices they have to make can greater consensus be forged around the approaches they take.


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One of the greatest takeaways I have learned from studying social and political science is the importance of human community. Rather than being atomistic, autonomous individuals, we are all deeply embedded in social relations and the construction of political worlds. This has all too often been taken for granted, but with lockdowns, social distancing, and self-isolation, we have realised the joy and potential of small, everyday interactions with families, neighbours, colleagues, and strangers. In this light, we need to open up questions about what kind of world we want to live in and how we can build solidarity and trust among our concatenation of communities.