This afternoon, as I was hunched over my phone composing a draft of a tweet, I paused over what word I would use to describe the COVID-19 events of the past few weeks.
Shenanigans? Malestrom? Crisis? Hilarity? Tragedy? Nonsense? “This COVID19 business”?
I began to realise that, in our discussions about the virus, we all seem to be able to slide effortlessly between gravity and frivolity. We can at once be deeply affected and concerned by the death, illness, and risk to our frontline workers on the one hand; and sharing memes about day-drinking and homeschool #fails, on the other. We all seem to be experiencing a sort of mass cognitive dissonance.
But I think that’s healthy. In the past few years, with No Deal Brexit a genuine possibility, we Brits spent a lot of time invoking the mythological ‘Blitz Spirit.’ Eighty years on from the actual Blitzkrieg, it still looms large in our national self-conception… yet what that spirit actually entails is never properly defined. Is it simply, ‘going without’? Is it the acceptance of mortal risk, every time you pop out for some eggs? Or is it simply an attempt to maintain normality and humour at a time when people are indiscriminately dying in their thousands?
The COVID-19 lockdown is patently not as horrifying as the Blitz, but I think the ‘spirit’ of this crisis may be found in the way in which it is happening to all of us, at the same time and in the same way. Whenever I pass someone on a path during my daily, state-sanctioned ration of exercise, the act of giving each other a wide berth is invariably accompanied with a nod and a smile, an acknowledgement of a shared predicament.
Likewise with the memes and frivolity, which we share even as our neighbours are hospitalised. Doing so does not mean we exclude more serious thoughts about the progress of the pandemic. Rather, it is the way we can acknowledge that the crisis is multi-faceted. COVID-19 has implications not just for our health (physical and mental) and the economy, but for our social interactions and our culture, too. Each aspect of the crisis requires a different response. Its a wonder and a delight that our brains can (usually) process these different issues, holding the contradictory emotions of horror and humour in our heads at the same time.