Liberalism under lockdown

The global covid-19 pandemic has created the largest public health crisis in living memory. It continues to take the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide. In our own country, the official toll is still rising, and many estimates put the true number far higher. Every death is a tragedy, the loss of a human being with dignity and inherent worth. And alongside that loss comes a wider loss – to families, friends, communities and our entire society.

Beyond the immediate and catastrophic loss of life, however, the pandemic is also one of the greatest social challenges we have ever faced in peacetime. The virus and its impact has shaken and sometimes reduced to rubble the foundations of our beliefs and assumptions about how we structure our lives, workplaces, societies, economies, and governments. The UK state has found itself unable to protect its citizens in good time – for all kinds of reasons. Some of these are forgivable and outside any government’s power. Some are systemic and require long-term action. And some are due to actions governments have taken, some recent, some over decades, that have weakened our society and reduced our resilience, while also impoverishing our lives and the way we treat one another.

For liberals, the crisis has had a particularly sharp edge. We have found ourselves in a position where we are forced to support a drastic and indefinite curtailment of some of our most basic civil liberties. The freedom to move, to assemble, to socialise as we please: all have been temporarily abandoned in the interests of protecting those around us, and in sharing responsibility.

The willingness of people to respond creatively, bravely, stoically, and in many cases heroically to this situation has confirmed all that liberals – who are natural optimists – believe about humanity’s best traits and instincts. This response has not been confined to any nationality, or belief system; it has been a truly global effort. It shows the solidarity we can create together to reduce harm.

These temporary sacrifices have been admirable and necessary. But they have also been salutary. By relinquishing our liberty, we have also seen just how captured our society – and our world – is. Just as with the period of ‘austerity’ that followed the global financial crisis, we have not ‘all been in this together’. The measures to combat covid-19 have disproportionately impoverished the already poor, and our public health system has disproportionately failed people from more vulnerable backgrounds, especially black and brown people, and elderly people in institutional care settings.

There has been talk of ‘going back to normal’ during this crisis. But there can be no going back. We have an historic opportunity to emerge from drastic limitations into a newly liberated society. Increasing freedom and improving lives must be the aim – or we will have missed the opportunity. It is time to rethink what we want from our lives and from our society, and to reform our politics and economics around new purposes.

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