YY’s Jefferson Hack imagines freedom, connection, and real change out of isolation. This is what truly hangs in the balance in these unprecedented times
NEXT LEVEL was the message in Naomi Campbell’s Instagram post on March 11, when she wore a full hazmat suit and mask as she boarded a flight at LAX. What seemed like a surreal joke or an image from a cyberpunk future just a few weeks ago looks very different today. Memes and isolation videos become more urgent to share than breaking news, carrying light relief to those we love and care for the most. Everything is a joke, but nothing is really funny. Record numbers of people file for unemployment benefits in the US – 6.6m in the last week alone. The stock market craters. There aren’t enough hospital beds, or even morgues. If you look at graphs for the economy, they look like someone has kicked over the machine. The speed of news forces a shock reaction akin to powerlessness. Putin moves to give himself a lifetime presidency, Lady Gaga launches her new single “Stupid Love” and delays her album release, and no one seems to notice or really care.
I am reminded of the beauty of humanity when I witness empty city centres and recognise them not as dystopian images of the end of capitalism, but as reservoirs of love, a protest against our inherent selfishness that is forcing us to be alone together in isolation, bound by common sense and a duty of care to others. Every phone and text conversation has an added spiritual dimension as I share messages of love and receive hope and support from others. Meanwhile, millions of doctors and nurses, health workers and key workers tend to the sick and keep the lights on all our devices, powering the new reality.
It is within small communities that practical and effective information is shared. I get clearer support from YY Media’s newsletters than the government. My daughter’s school’s messages, or those from some local businesses, show me the power of micro-communities to connect and inform with greater accuracy, immediacy and comfort than national media, which is, as we know, hard-wired to offer a sensationalist, dystopic and politically engineered view of reality. In this moment we become incredibly vulnerable to persuasion, but most of us are actually doing what we are told, what we know instinctively is right – perhaps by virtue of being held accountable for not doing it, but we are still doing it. We are the collective cells which, by shutting themselves down, provide the power for the social body to reboot.
Is this wake-up call for humanity a moment when things radically change? If so, what will this change look like, and how fast will it happen? Will we see a significant rise in social, political and environmental consciousness, or will we see greater abuses of political and economic power?
Within humanity’s capacity for love is also a capacity for contempt. I witness racist taunts in the street. I hear stories of Chinese friends reluctant to leave their homes to go to the supermarket, afraid of being attacked. Gun sales have soared in the US, with Americans buying two million firearms in the last month alone. It’s unbelievable to read that, in many states, gun shops are being given critical business status to stay open during the crisis. Fear, anxiety and toxic management of the situation are as contagious as the virus. “In times of crisis seemingly impossible ideas suddenly become possible. But whose ideas?” asks The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein, introducing her brilliant explainer video, “Coronavirus Capitalism – and How to Beat It”, on The Intercept. Klein has spent the last two decades studying moments of crisis and how they have been used politically to empower right-wing agendas, and her thesis here is that we have a brief window in which to take action before a new political agenda is set – one that she fears will be a far worse and even more corrupt version of the old system we were so used to. She asks us to imagine what kind of world we want to see emerge. Is it a world of solidarity and equanimity, where the right of every individual to healthcare and shelter is protected? Where investment in clean energy as outlined in America’s Green New Deal is prioritised over bailouts for our planet’s heaviest polluters?
She points to the clear and present danger of authoritarian governments using fear and misinformation to their advantage. We see it in the repeatedly seeded questions such as ‘Can you trust the public to do the right thing?’ It’s a way of generating further confusion, allowing governments to roll out more invasive new laws that may not be the only methodology to halt the spread of the virus. As the bodies pile up and headlines grow more alarming, new laws will likely cascade into effect, with new powers of emergency, as in a state of war.
In the UK, it was this government’s nudge tactic of building distorted media viewpoints of reality that weaponised the immigration issue, which became the fuel for Brexit. As citizens, we need to be hyper-vigilant of this political gameplay – already the police have been given new ‘emergency powers’ which will last up to two years.
During this ‘shock period’ of the crisis, certain strategies for survival will form and coalesce into dominant narratives. The ones that win popular support may well become the ones we end up living with for a very long time. It feels similar to events directly after 9/11, which led to the Patriot Act. Active US citizens, concerned about the new powers and rolling back of privacy laws from a government at war with terror, joined Not In Our Name. Millions signed petitions, but they made little difference. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex tightened its grip while winning popular support from an already fearful and soon-to-be vengeful electorate to put it into action.
Far-right populism as it exists today has rolled back years of progress in social equality, environmental protections, and women’s and LGBTQIA rights. As I write, the first European country to fall into total shock doctrine is Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has consolidated his power with a new pandemic emergency law, effectively rendering the entire country defenceless against his whims. In the US, enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts has been suspended by the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing the largest industrial polluters a free pass to accelerate the economy.
The virus mediates our social relations. The profound realisation is one of our interconnectedness. The pattern recognition is teaching us that, counter to this natural predisposition, we must isolate, socially distance and follow the scientific and medical guidelines for our protection, shutting down in order to save society’s vital organs. Self-care and care for others is now clearly one and the same thing. The first responders in an emergency situation put the lives of those they are saving before their own. This is one example of the resilience of humanity’s instinct for putting community before self.
In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, American writer and activist Rebecca Solnit writes that, in times of disaster, those in power fear an ‘elite panic’ will grip an irrational public. But as long as the correct information about the situation (from trusted experts, not politicians) is made simple and accessible, the drive for collective security more often outweighs the drive for personal survival. It’s what was so sadly missing for so long during the Aids crisis, and why so many Aids survivors feel justifiably angered by the lack of empathy and social stigma that was projected on to them by an uncaring, ignorant mainstream culture – one that undeniably allowed the best minds of a generation to be wiped out without compassion. Just so we are clear, an estimated 35 million people have died from the HIV-related causes since the start of the epidemic. It’s something to think about when we weigh up the humanitarian versus the political in the Covid-19 story.
“Collective and creative organisation on a grassroots level will be the potential network through which future economies based on a society of care and compassion can be built” – Jefferson Hack
During a weekly phone call with my friend Gianluigi, now experiencing his fourth week in lockdown, he says, “We don’t see the end of it.” This refrain is echoed by friends in Shanghai, now back at work, slowly adjusting to a new paradigm, a lockdown with no end date or, as is the case in China, the constant lurking spectre of this Machiavellian strain of virus constantly in the ether. China is a totalitarian state with a technocratic corona-beating cyber-defence system. Yet this is where our governments are looking to, for answers on how best to manage containment and control. They want big tech to track us, to ease the burden on our health system – but is outsourcing the problem to technology the right fix? Is atomising all citizens into flickering pixels in a giant, socially engineered simulation game the right way to manage this?
We might not feel like there is an end to this situation, but there is always an end to things. And in every end there is always a new beginning: an opportunity to restart. Even if we don’t have jobs or businesses any more, or we can’t hug our loved ones, we all still matter as people, and it’s our collective understanding of that power in the face of oppressive forces that allows positive social change to happen.
Last month, Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari wrote a brilliant essay for the Financial Times detailing the speed and power of this secondary virus, a pandemic of viral-fascism that is spreading at lightning speed through media and politics and into the streets. “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population,” he writes.
Harari sees the “root of the problem” as the media making binary assumptions about complex issues, such as asking people to choose between privacy and health. “Because this is a false choice,” he argues. “We can and should enjoy both privacy and health.” His article continues by suggesting a way out, a global strategy of cooperation between medical and scientific experts designed to get the best advice directly to citizens. Now is the time for scientists like Christian Drosten, Anthony Fauci and Jaap Van Dissel to lead us through this. They are the new disaster architects, their expertise the only reliable, rational programme we have to control, maintain, manage and heal our damaged system.
There are many traps we can fall into right now. We can fall into the trap of the victim and blame others. In her book The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson writes that cruelty is a natural response to powerlessness. It’s also the natural response of those that identify as victims, who may internalise it and seek to inflict this cruelty on themselves through acts of self-harm or self-abandonment, or externalise it as violence visited upon others. We may fall into despair and hopelessness, gripped with fear and anxiety about our futures. This is the trap of those who feel overwhelmed by the misinformation and lack of clarity, and can’t act responsibly. They look for an authority to take charge to tell them what to do, for they feel they can no longer function, incapable of taking charge of anything but basic survival. There is also denial, from those who so badly want to believe that everything can be reversed, that we can rewind events and clear up the mess and move on, that things will eventually return to normal. Denial is a beautiful thing; it’s the body’s shock absorber. Action, then, is one of the few viable antidotes to denial.
It feels like this is the moment when social media could finally come into its own. It plays a crucial role in doing what it does best, connecting us to our loved ones, our community and our peers. It’s a place where we can share our personal experiences and overcome them through humour and joy while fostering compassion and empathy, sharing gracious acts of kindness or jokey memes of light-hearted resistance. The ethos of digital interconnectivity in small groups is a necessary antidote to the alienation of social distancing. Coordinated national clap-alongs for our NHS heroes, tens of thousands of public volunteers, and balcony arias in Italy and France show the potential for new organising principles to emerge from community-led action. We are in the early days of this pandemic, and the psychological effects of extended lockdown are unknown, but it is my assumption that Hans Rosling’s mantra that economies are built in the bedroom, not in the boardroom, will come true. Collective and creative organisation on a grassroots level will be the potential network through which future economies based on a society of care and compassion can be built.
In an opinion piece for Wired, Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology began to sketch out his theory of how social media could be reformed to work for the public who power its very existence. “Imagine Google Flu Trends, Twitter Analytics, Snapchat, and Facebook combining their insights to provide unprecedented forecasting for planning in the medical supply chain, for example,” he writes. “It’s time for technology companies to demonstrate how much good they can do when they act like public utilities operating for the greater common good, rather than optimising for extraction and profit.”
“We may never have felt so powerless while at the same time being so intensely reminded of our interconnectedness” – Jefferson Hack
Though you might not imagine that you do, you absolutely have the power, the agency, the freedom, and the possibility to create the change that you want to see emerge. At the same time, precarity is real, and wherever we are in this story we must always recognise our privilege. It’s the vulnerable and the oppressed – those who would benefit most from social reinvention – that always struggle the hardest to strategise, self-organise and communicate. They will face insurmountable economic odds and are (along with our health-workers in the frontline) most at risk. A plan for universal healthcare cannot be delinked from universal income security. A plan to empower the millions who will fall between the cracks of a neoliberal capitalist model to protect them must begin to be enacted. The cancellation of student debt, the institution of universal housing benefits and universal income – ideas that once seemed unrealistic – now are essential to both America and Britain’s future.
New concepts of care, authenticity, empathy and kindness have the potential to emerge from this. We may never have felt so powerless while at the same time being so intensely reminded of our interconnectedness. Yet the irony is that people have always had the political and social power to dream, invent and enact their futures. While we need governments, they must now act for the people: not in the self-interests of the elected officials, but for the health and social well-being of those they supposedly represent.
“I was dreaming in my dreamingOf an aspect bright and fairAnd my sleeping it was brokenBut my dream it lingered nearIn the form of shining valleysWhere the pure air recognisedAnd my senses newly openedI awakened to the cryThat the people have the powerTo redeem the work of foolsUpon the meek the graces showerIt’s decreed the people rule”
– Patti Smith
WAYS YOU CAN CREATE POSITIVE CHANGE IN A PANDEMIC-HIT WORLD
ARRANGE PHONE CALLS WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE ISOLATING ALONE
For people who live by themselves, social distancing can be particularly lonely, but just because we have to be physically isolated, it doesn’t mean we can’t build connections over the phone. Use this time to sign up to a service like Telefriending, where you’ll be paired with an LGBTQ+ person over the age of 50 who you’ll call once a week. Alternatively, you could utilise QuarantineChat, which connects you to someone else around the world who’s also in isolation, or volunteer with Samaritans. Age UK is no longer seeking volunteers for its Call in Time befriending service after being inundated with applications, but it’s worth checking back every so often to see if spaces have opened up – it’s also worth remembering that, for many old people, loneliness won’t end when the lockdown ends, so why not offer your help post-pandemic?
LOG ANY SYMPTOMS IN THE COVID SYMPTOM TRACKER
Scientists at King’s College London have launched an app that they hope will slow the outbreak of coronavirus. Called Covid Symptom Tracker, it can be downloaded from any smartphone app store, and allows each user to self-report their symptoms, including a persistent cough and fever, as well as lesser-known symptoms like a loss of smell and taste. The information gleaned from the app will help researchers understand the virus and identify those at risk sooner.
OFFER SUPPORT TO YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY
Although we’re all on lockdown, those who are deemed high-risk are living under much stricter guidelines than the rest of us – in some cases, they can’t leave the house at all, not even for essential grocery shopping. With this in mind, if you’re healthy and not showing symptoms (nor have come into contact with anyone who is), you can look to join local relief groups working to provide resources to those in need. Run by volunteers, Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK enables you to find support groups in your area, which offer things like delivery services for the vulnerable. You could also donate food to your local food bank – The Trussell Trust can match you with your nearest one.
DONATE TO VITAL CHARITIES
From providing essential personal care products and food to supporting those with mental health issues or people trapped in homes with an abuser, there’s a number of charities that need your help at this time. You can find a selection of organisations to donate to here and here.
COMMISSION YOUR FRIENDS
For many people around the world, the uncertainty of the crisis has forced them out of work, or made it difficult to get freelance commissions. For those whose friends are in need of some money – or even something to do to pass the time – why not commission them to create something for you? Need a website portfolio designing? Want a new piece of art to transform your house post-lockdown? Pay your pals to do it!
According to an update on the NHS website yesterday (April 2), giving blood is considered essential travel, meaning you can still donate despite the current lockdown. Hospitals are in need of blood now and in the coming weeks more than ever, so head down to a blood donation centre on your lunch break. As well as saving lives, it will probably be a nice respite from the inside of your house.
DONATE TO THE SEX WORKERS HARDSHIP FUND
With social distancing stopping anyone from coming within six feet of each other, sex workers are currently facing a major income loss. In an attempt to help those in financial crisis, sex worker-led collective Swarm has started a hardship fund, asking people to donate to help sex workers through their employment drought. As of today (April 3), the group has made payments to 234 sex workers in the UK, but there are stillmore than 300 people on the waiting list. With no government support, sex workers are at risk of facing poverty or homelessness. Donate to the fund here.
SUPPORT THE HOMELESS
Last week (March 27), the UK government said all rough sleepers should be housed amid the coronavirus pandemic, urging local authorities to “do all they can to get everyone in”. However, on Tuesday (March 31), it emerged that many homeless people were still living on the streets. With a number of reliable support systems lost, including soup kitchens and food distribution, those without a home are more vulnerable than ever. If there is a soup kitchen near you, offer to volunteer or donate supplies – Muswell Hill Soup Kitchen is looking for donations – or contact food redistributor FareShare to find out how you can help. Homeless Link also has a number of resources to connect volunteers with schemes aimed at helping rough sleepers.
BACK INCOME PROTECTION FOR FREELANCERS
The Creative Industries Federation are urging the prime minister to provide a temporary income protection fund for self-employed people and freelancers whose income is currently at risk. In an open letter – which you can sign here – the group warns that the coronavirus crisis threatens the ability of self-employed people “to keep their businesses alive and cover basic living costs like rent, bills and food”. The letter has so far been signed by the likes of the British Fashion Council, UK Music, and the Association of Photographers. Although the government has offered to pay self-employed people 80 per cent of their earnings, for those earning up to £50,000 (which makes up 95 per cent of self-employed workers), they won’t see any money until June, leaving them without an income for two months.