from Brenda in Hove, UK: Another ‘Blursday’

Prof. Brenda Gourley

‘Blursday’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘doomscroll’ are in Times Magazine’s collection depicting the year ‘2020 in Language. I relate to these three particularly. In the UK we are now in the third strict lockdown in a year – but, given the risks for our age group, my husband and I have effectively been in strict lockdown since last March.

You will understand my recognition of ‘blursday’ as an excellent way of describing my life at the moment, a life where one day is so very like another that it is difficult to know which day of the week it is.   

You will pardon my exasperation at Covidiots who include the members of government here who thought letting people celebrate Christmas with their families a good idea. With family in America you can well imagine that ‘exasperation’ hardly covers my feelings towards an administration that largely ignored the Covid reality – and encouraged that same attitude in its millions of supporters. It is , however, no longer useful to merely describe them and the many millions of Americans who clearly think the same way as ‘idiots’. There are deep underlying issues here.

That brings me to ‘Doomscrolling’. Watching the news began to feel like ‘doomscrolling’ some time ago and we decided to limit the number of broadcasts we watch every day. There is just too much bad news out there. And then came the events at the Capitol in Washington last week. I was back to ‘doomscrolling’. I would think impeachment is the least of the consequences in store for Trump. We will see. One is not filled with confidence. And, given the number of his supporters and their deep and strongly held sense of grievance, Biden will have a difficult job restoring trust in the system. And it is not just the US system where trust has been eroded. The whole Brexit debate was fuelled by the many who no longer believed the establishment in power was working for them.

But exasperation, and doomscrolling and the blurred focus of the days do not cover the one overriding feeling I have at this time – and that is a sense of grief.

The grief is prompted by my concern for what young people make of all this, and what it all means for the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is not just the pandemic – although that has certainly highlighted many of the fault-lines in our society and I suspect that life will never be the same for many of us. It is that – but so much more. We are seeing almost in real time major geographic and political shifts which are already reformulating many of the premises on which so many of us in the West have built our relatively comfortable lives.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on many lives and yet we don’t see urgency in the kind of responses that such catastrophe should elicit. Governments that have been unable to come to grips with a pandemic do not fill us with confidence that they are equal to this larger and more threatening challenge. No wonder the Greta Thunbergs of the world feel they have to act. They do.

The changes wrought by technology and all that it has enabled have made the world better in so many ways with amazing innovations being announced all the time (not the least of which is the new vaccine). But it has also exposed a deep digital divide and made many jobs redundant. New kinds of jobs are being invented and yet education systems have been slow to change accordingly – and it is young people who are feeling the burden of this, their schooling interrupted and even cut short, they are to be thrust into a cruel and ridiculous ‘gig’ economy (if they find a job at all) and equipped only with the education of yesteryear. They are the future architects of a new world and the support they are given wholly inadequate.

The balance of world power from West to East, long foretold, is happening at a much greater pace than predicted and helped along by weak leadership in the West and the rise of populist cultures fed on the thin gruel of conspiracy theories, ‘alternative facts’, the importance of ‘celebrity’ and social media untethered by the laws of libel, incitement and hate speech. Some call this ‘the age of impunity’ where all sorts of behaviours including egregious human rights abuses are tolerated. Young, impressionable minds need to be strong to resist the siren calls.  It is hard.

It is true that from great upheavals there often comes great change. I do hope that the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the death of George Floyd and others will take hold and fuel change. I am only cautiously optimistic. If those storming the Capitol last week had been black or Muslim I can’t help believing that the police response would have been a whole lot more violent. So we are not there yet. But I do believe there has been at least some change – but can young people rely on this?

The success of populist cultures has exposed the inadequacy of so-called ‘democratic’ systems of government and with the inequalities between rich and poor are more stark than ever before, no wonder there are so many angry people. Again too many people, young and older, do not have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. 

No young people are sheltered from these realities. Social media ensures that. No place for innocence now. My heart grieves.  

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Staying alive

June 10.  If we are to learn the right lessons from the pandemic, it is crucial that we are careful with the meaning of words.

Monday’s Guardian carried a disturbing headline: ‘Epidemic of Loneliness’.*  This was a phrase much deployed in the public debate about loneliness in the years leading up to the present crisis.  It had two sets of meanings.

The first was a general metaphor.  It just meant that loneliness was a large and negative event.  If we say that someone received in an ‘avalanche of complaints’ we do not mean literally that they were covered in a mountain of rocks, just that they experienced a lot of trouble.

The second was more serious.  It was at the centre of an attempt to medicalise a social condition.  linking the experience to other crises such as smoking and obesity.  By this means the effect was dramatized, and campaigners hoped to appropriate longstanding concerns with major public health issues.

Critics were concerned about this use of language.  Whatever it is, loneliness cannot be caught by someone breathing on you.  It seemed an inappropriate descriptor before the present crisis, and now it would appear indefensible.

But in the Guardian, no less an authority than Professor Martin Marshall, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, was cited as saying:  ‘The Covid-19 pandemic is also creating an epidemic of loneliness, not just for older people, and sadly there are some people who will fall through the net.’

The story was actually about the tragic discovery of individuals who had died alone, either of Covid 19 or of another condition for which in their lockdown they had failed to seek treatment.  A pathologist cheerfully described them as ‘decomps’, ‘people found dead at home after not being heard from for a couple of weeks.’

There are many ways in which ill health can be exacerbated by the experience of enforced and unwelcome solitude.  It is known that those living alone are less likely to seek medical assistance, even in normal times.  Associated forms of depression, or melancholy as it was once termed, can lower immune systems and increase vulnerability to a range of serious illnesses.  Conversely, various kinds of disability can have the effect of turning chosen solitude into an imprisoning loneliness. 

It might be expected that these interactions will increase the incidence and danger of loneliness in the present crisis, although there remains little quantitative evidence that this is happening on a significant scale.  The Office for National Statistics yesterday published its latest report on the experience of coronavirus in which it confirmed that the numbers ‘feeling lonely often / always’ in the lockdown remained at 5%.  As in earlier surveys, the old seemed more resistent to this condition than the young.**

With the total UK death rate now passing sixty thousand, lives will have been lost in every kind of social setting.  The evidence so far suggests that locked-down interiors, whether care homes or private residences, present the greater risk.  A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of the US population found that the virus had spread more widely in the most crowded households, irrespective of population density.***  .

When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.  Solitude has its compensations, and staying alive may be one of them

* Guardian, 8 June, 2020.

* Source: ONS survey of adults aged 16+, 3 April to 3 May.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandlonelinessgreatbritain/3aprilto3may2020

*** Ian Lovett, Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg, ‘Covid-19 Stalks Large Families in Rural America’, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2022.

From David Maughan Brown in York: minor irritations …

 May 30th

The amorphous and fortunately relatively low-level feelings of claustrophobia, anxiety and loss that accompany the lockdown, for me at least, are resulting in minor irritations assuming greater significance than they merit.   For those of us who have a tendency to be pedantic at the best of times – aggravated in my case by too much exposure to too many student essays over too many years – it is often the use and abuse of language that I find disproportionately irritating.   Covid-19 is highly infectious and it isn’t just people it infects.  At least where English is concerned, it has also infected language.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the way the word ‘shield’ has mysteriously mutated under the influence of Covid-19 from being a transitive verb to being an intransitive verb.  Those who are ‘vulnerable – another word whose meaning has been virally affected and now refers to anyone over 70 – are constantly being instructed to ‘shield.’   Shield what? Shield whom?  Shield themselves? Staying at home, dexterously wielding their front doors as their shields?  The closest my dictionaries can get to finding anything resembling a usage of a word meaning ‘shield’ as an intransitive verb is the archaic ‘forfend’, as in ‘Heaven forfend!’  Precisely.  This intransitive usage, adopted by the BBC and seemingly accepted without demur by everyone else, has become so commonplace that I fear that the Oxford Dictionary will have to bow to populist pressure and list ‘shield’ as an intransitive verb in its future editions.

I blame Dominic Cummings, the utterly indispensable sloganmeister who clearly runs the country from his control-centre behind the arras, when he isn’t breaking the rules in County Durham.   Breaking rules has long been known to be his forte and the rules of grammar will be at the very bottom of the hierarchy of rules he has broken.   But on the slogan front his reputed genius also appears to have been undermined by the virus.  Whereas ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and ‘Take back Control!’ clearly struck a popular chord, even if both were vacuous and misleading, ‘Stay Alert!’ and ‘Control the virus!’ clearly don’t.  Whereas the Brexit slogans invited contestation, these second-phase Coronavirus slogans merely invite bemusement and ridicule.  Both have very rapidly become the subject of cartoons and memes, as exemplified by one doing the rounds at present: “So, it turns out the real reason they told us all to stay alert was to watch out for mad bastards with impaired vision tanking it down the A1.”

I suspect that most first year Political Science students would conclude that it isn’t a particularly good idea for a government to become the subject of widespread ridicule at a time of national crisis.  Boris’s political persona as an amiable buffoon who could quote Latin served him well enough in winning a referendum and an election on the back of Cummings’ slogans.  Forty or fifty thousand Covid-19 deaths later, neither looks that clever.  There is usually a good reason why the clown doesn’t manage the circus.