“Is there hope for the next decade?” a debate at the Oxford Union asked in January, just weeks before panic began to spread over the escalating coronavirus crisis. By March we were under lockdown, yet in this debate visions of the future remained untainted by the prospect of a pandemic.
Now, it looms over our everyday lives, our thoughts, plans and hopes for the future; it dictates the present, but our angst also lies in worrying how it will dictate the future. The next decade suddenly takes on a very different form in our imaginations. Uncertainty, fear and dread: these feeling don’t leave much room for hope and optimism.
But the hope we do have, to quell our fears of the unknown, is that things will soon ‘return to normal’. That we will watch the news and not be confronted with a mounting death toll, that we will see our families again, that our worlds will open up once more.
While we of course long for this harrowing reality to be replaced by our old, ‘normal’ one, questions are starting to be asked about if this ‘normal’ is really what we should be aspiring to. A Google search of ‘new normal’ flooded me with articles about how the world will adapt to a post-pandemic age and what our new reality will look like in terms of transport, work, and socialising. But what about a more drastic, fundamental change to our ‘normal’? Could this pandemic be a turning point, a moment to reject the abhorrent, shocking traits of our pre-COVID-19 world?
Into the measures we take to ease this crisis and ‘return to normal’, can we incorporate our visions of a more equal society? Can we close the wealth gap, topple the patriarchy, embed compassion into government policy, banish greed and invest in the NHS rather than just clapping for it? And on a personal level, can we take what we have learnt about the value of community into the future?
These questions join the countless others swirling round our collective conscious. And like all the others, our answers and speculations are shrouded in doubt, undermined by unpredictability.
But what is certain is that this presents an opportunity for drastic reform. Disasters and upheaval pave the way for change, good or bad. Our modern welfare state took shape after the crises of the Great Depression and Second World War. But as we pick up the pieces in the aftermath of this crisis, and face the oncoming recession, activism and social change may not stand in the foreground of our focus.
Activism in the time of lockdown and social distancing is more challenging than ever. With street protests – one of the most powerful and tried ways of creating change and raising awareness – banned, and activists reliant on the online realm of social media to continue their work, the question of hope for the future does seem uncertain.
A brief look at the history of social movements shows that fighting for justice involved leaving the house and gathering en masse. The French Revolution, the Suffrage movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Occupy Movement, Extinction Rebellion: all have involved taking to the streets. Now, not only are we limited to our homes, but ‘taking to the streets’ has completely new associations, of rebelling in the wrong sense, putting the lives of others at risk by ignoring collective responsibility.
That said, powerful displays of defiance and protest have taken place within the parameters of social distancing and lockdown. In Belgium, doctors and nurses at the Saint-Pierre hospital turned their backs as Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès walked past in an effort to bring recognition to their efforts on the front line.
Likewise, activism online has grown and taken on new significance. The Friday For Futures movement, which saw school strikes in 7,500 cities to protest the lack of action against climate change, is now gaining momentum online with the #DigitalStrike. Its effectiveness, compared to physical protests, is perhaps questionable – it has 50 to 100 participants each Friday, and gains less attention from governments distracted by the pandemic – but in times like these all we can do is adapt, and they have done so with determination and hope.
We are now more embedded in the online realm than ever, and activism is clearly no exception. If there is hope for the rest of this decade depends, however, on if movements for change can thrive online, during a pandemic and its aftermath, and if they can achieve a better, more equal ‘normal’. Perhaps it will be a combination of activism online and in the community – which we have seen already through peoples’ acts of kindness and solidarity in the past months – that will propel us towards a better future.
Perhaps out of this time of pain, loss and fear, will come the opportunity to create a better world. But it may be years before we know. Fundamental change may be hard to see, but with hope and adaptive activism, it is possible.