Mon 18 January 2021

James Melville shares his thoughts about how we are more together, while more apart, than we have ever been during the Coronavirus crisis.

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That was the week that was. The strangest week of our lives. I try and stay positive wherever possible, but the first week of lockdown has, to paraphrase David Bowie, forced us to turn and face the strange.

As well as the huge health concerns, and professional and financial uncertainties, almost every group or shared activity we care about or find joy in has been shut down. Our economic and social liberty has been suspended by something that is not even visible to the human eye. The days are blurring into one long pattern of a half-life. Just like Morrissey once said, Every day is like Sunday.

I live in Cornwall, while my old family lives 500 miles north in Scotland. I have a wonderful sister and two separated parents who, while not ideal for each other, have always been pretty much ideal to me. They have been, without fail, magnificent parents and I miss them dearly. They live alone. They are in the high risk category of vulnerability from a virus that has already inflicted so much mortality and illness.

My father is old school. He has taught me more about the real values of life than anyone else and he is now teaching me lessons about how to deal with this crisis. He is incredibly self-sufficient, partially because of his life’s work as a farmer in Fife, and also because he lives by himself. Despite having crippling arthritis, he just keeps on. He seems remarkably stoic about the pandemic, but then he remembers his early childhood of rationing and air raid shelters in World War Two. He is blessed with the fortitude of trying to turn the sourest of lemons into lemonade.

Our physical ties that bind have been unstrung. The basic human sense of touch has been marginalised. The connection with many of our loved ones has been reduced to the virtual reality of a screen or a typed word.

I long for those simple moments of coffee, dinner or the pub with friends. To watch and play sport. To attend a concert. To hug someone who lives outside of my own house. It feels like a dream world, as if we are all extras in a dystopian sci-fi film.

But the world is still full of stories of social connection and empathy, even as we keep our distance. Italian opera singers fill the streets with song in Florence, health service workers are applauded from lockdown balconies in Spain, half a million people sign up as NHS support volunteers in just a few days. As well as signing up myself, I’ve set up a social media home fitness club to reach out and get everyone keeping up their mental and physical fitness levels within the confines of their own house. People from different backgrounds and from many countries have shared their home fitness videos and photos and created their own mini household gym through a social media screen. 

In some ways, we are lucky. We have incredible technological connections that are keeping us connected and this has empowered us to engage with each other. Imagine going through this in an era before we had this.

Our habitual access to new tech media has been debated over the years in terms of addiction, overuse and mental health. Questions have been raised about whether mobile phones and social media were actually diminishing the quality time spent engaging with real physical interaction and communication. But, right now, it is our new technology which is keeping us connected. The anti-social network has become the social network. It is keeping my teenagers connected to their schoolwork; it is keeping my geographically distant old family connected with me; it is keeping me connected with business and my clients. 

We are currently participating in what is probably the most collective moment of global empathy in history and we should channel this in the right way during this crisis and continue with it afterwards. The first thing I plan to do when this half-life existence ends is to travel up that long and winding road to see my family in Scotland. I’ll walk up the driveway of the house where I was raised, catch my father’s eye as he potters about his lovely garden and say simply “hello Dad’.

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