THERE have been some crazy reports in the last few weeks about people being stopped and fined by the police for taking ‘non-essential’ journeys, but I ask: What is essential and what isn’t?
Who gets to decide what a person can reasonably leave the house for? The government says you may leave your house for exercise – and thankfully, it has extended that recently saying you can drive to a beauty spot as long as you walk/exercise further than you have driven. Perfect! I hear the South Downs is nice at this time of year!
It says you can leave your house for food, though it is non-specific about what you can buy when you’re out. DIY stores have reopened in certain places but we are still being told that to shop at these outfits is non-essential – why keep them open if that’s what they think? Meanwhile garden centres stay closed while their oxygen-creating plants are withering away by the ton.
I’ve been thinking of this over the recent days and wondering about what the police may deem as non-essential. They might see my walking/driving to the shop for tobacco as non-essential but it is essential for me. They could stop me for driving to a shop to pick up games or DVDs but in this lockdown, where we are asked to stay at home, entertainment is essential. I hear the sales of booze have rocketed since the measures were put in place and no wonder: the weather has been stunning and many people will have wanted to get into their gardens, start a barbecue and have a few beers – is that essential? Of course it is.
The people are being asked to do something completely unprecedented, and so what if they want to travel a little further for their exercise, or drink a few during the hot weather, or pick up the odd box set so they can maintain their sanity? It’s not up to the police or government to decide what they think is essential – meaning food – and what they think isn’t. You’d imagine Big Brother would think it very necessary that the people find something, whatever it is, to keep them calm rather than going stir crazy.
But no, they are not even that imaginative.
For a person living in a tower block or basement flat, what is essential might be going into the countryside or to the beach for exercise rather than being stuck in his or her concrete surroundings. It might be just as essential to gorge on comfort food while watching or playing something. What is essential isn’t only what the government tells us, it’s a state of mind, and if we are denied that, we may just lose our collective sanity.
Shakespeare’s King Lear comes to mind on reading this – his great insight that humans would be no different from animals if they needed no more than the fundamental necessities of life to exist.
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. (Act 2, Scene 4)
Thus Lear cries out in defiance of his cruel daughter’s demand that he rid himself of his knights, because he doesn’t need them.
I have always thought this one of the most poignant and percipient of Shakespearean quotes, from the time, when I was 17, that I first read the play. It’s humanity touched my heart then and still does. Lear continues:
Thou art a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need –
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both.
His rail or appeal is not merely against the theft of his belongings, of his knights without whom he is made bereft of status and meaning, it is most fundamentally a cry for compassion and for the empathy that is humanity – for an understanding from his harsh daughter that she neither has, nor had she, would she be prepared to give.
Reading Michael’s comment is not the first time since the government determined to put us under house arrest, and the zeal of the State’s police apparatchiks to enforce it became apparent, that this particular quote has come to mind.
From the moment they announced their then ‘herd immunity’ policy – which was to depend on compulsory isolation of those over 70 – I found myself not only questioning their understanding but sensing we were in the grip of the most insensitive, authoritarian and tin-eared administration ever. Either they had no insight or no compassion, or maybe neither. Since then they extended isolation to everyone, with no regard even to the basic human need for sunshine and light, defining need to the narrow commodities that they judge the rest of us can survive on, as Michael points out above.
It is a godless government that betrays such a lack of valuation of human contact – of the importance of family relationships and the intergenerational dependence so fundamental to a functioning society.
Why would anyone be surprised now to hear that one in three elderly people are more lonely than ever before in wake of Covid-19. Of course they are. Or that Lockdown may come to cause more deaths than Covid-19. It is not just the cruelty of separating much-needed grandparents (especially in this era of fragmented families) from the grandchildren they love and who need them (frightening children into thinking that if they see their grandparents they might die). There’s also been the total lack of compassion and foresight for the elderly cut off in their care homes too, unvisited and unchecked; the government casually ignorant of how many, or how few, transient, unprotected care home staff are still working. Only now are the consequences coming to light.
Like many others I have been hardly able bear to think about it. It screamed at me that the elderly hardly needed any more isolation than they already suffer in a world where the state encourages people to cut them off and discard responsibility for their old.
I just thank God daily that my mother died last year and I’ve not had to endure the worry of not being able to visit her in her final year at a dementia care home, in ignorance of her plight, yet knowing full well of her fear of abandonment and the unknown.
Anyone is a fool if they don’t appreciate that it is not the annual visit of the Care Commission that maintains standards but the regular – sometimes daily – visits at least some of the residents get from committed family members, who then ‘look out’ for the other elderly too.
‘Values’ have been low on the list of recent governments’ (of both hues) priorities. We in turn have been programmed into insensitivity and encouraged to think this is not our responsibility but the State’s. Care is to be done by someone else – to be outsourced, got rid of, palmed off – as it is too for the majority of babies and young children whom the State also dictates we must abandon ever younger to the vicissitudes of subsidised ‘other’ day care.
Politicians salve their consciences with State solutions, desensitising themselves and the public to the realities of human need, though these can rarely replicate closeness, mutual knowing, love and trust of the private sphere, or meet the need for spiritual comfort that astonishingly our woke, supposedly religious leaders show zero concern for. They too now deny us the comfort of congregation, of communal worship, of such importance to those living solo. Now we are all to go to our graves alone.
Isolation, it should be well known, is the worst and most effective form of punishment. When his daughters stripped Lear down to what they judged to be his basic needs, to live on his own with only his ‘fool’ as his companion, their purpose was to disempower him. They succeeded in de-humanising him.
I wonder if our Big Brother State is much better than Regan and Goneril. Its definition of our needs – food, drink and the Prozac of TV – for all its superficial comfort is no less dehumanising. It reduces us to units of consumption and runs counter to the centuries old fight for freedom and human dignity that is our particular history’s story.
Now he has time on his hands, Professor Lockdown could do worse than acquaint himself with King Lear. So too could our Prime Minister, never one to have stinted on his own personal needs. Perhaps now, instead of his endless adulation of the NHS, he might apply his intellect and extend his imagination to others and start to worry about the killer impact of the oppressive State on the human spirit and human enterprise.
He might consider the young mother standing two metres in front of me in the Boots queue for the third day running she said to get her autistic son’s medication.
‘I think I am going mad’, she said, ‘alone, one child with OCD and two others in a flat, locked down and my money is running out. Boris can try coming to look after my children.’
That was over two weeks ago.