When I was a gal, way back at the end of the 60s, I was in a youth theatre group. We were pretty avant garde. One of our best remembered shows was an improvised production about the Black Death, the plague that swept through Europe in 1348, killing half of Europe’s population. It was a tale of superstition, conspiracy, families turning against one another, weird sects and the collapse of morality. As teenagers we had a lot of fun with it.
Fast forward to 2020 and we find that, in the face of a new pandemic, we have acted rather differently. We’ve managed to be separated and yet united. We have discovered in lockdown what are the things most valuable to us, what really matters when life is reduced to essentials. We have rediscovered the sound of birdsong, the smell of the flowers. Neighbours have reached out to help each other, who didn’t even know one another before February. How are we going to give all this up and go back to ‘normal’?
Many of us in Extinction Rebellion and other climate change groups have continued our activism, but in a different direction. Now is not the time to cause disruption and make people’s lives more difficult than they already are. We have been helping to distribute food boxes to vulnerable people in our neighbourhoods, helping people do essential paperwork, bringing folks together online. And it’s clear that, all over the country, people have been looking out for one another, in spite of not being able to get physically close. Those who have been enclosed in their flats and houses have reached out too, by putting rainbows in windows, and pasting up messages of thanks to the NHS, posties, bin men, just about everybody.
Our street in Wolverhampton is not the sort of place where wealthy people live. We are a very diverse neighborhood, and there are plenty of people who are poor. We’ve helped one another by simply putting stuff outside our houses for others to help themselves to - plants, seeds, books, toys. I have made 60 fabric masks for friends and neighbours. It has been a bit like a great big bring and buy sale without the money.
We don’t want to go back to the old normal. But already we can feel the pull, as parents have to go back to work and schools reopen. Somehow we have to hold on to the precious lessons of this grim but special time.