LOCKDOWN 2.0 (to adopt the favoured 21st century label) contrasts hugely with Lockdown 1.0, not only with respect to school closures, air quality and the weather, but also in relation to the ‘rules’. ‘Few seem to be taking the prohibition as anything but a loose guide for other people’, an Observer reporter remarked last week.

Take, for example: ‘You can meet one other person at a time from another household, in an outdoors public place’; this perhaps rendered unclear by that quirk of the English language that doesn’t distinguish singular ‘you’ from plural. On my exercise outings I frequently meet groups greater than two (grouse#1 – but ok, maybe all one household?), occupying entire paths without a 2 metre space for passers-by (grouse#2), and registering no acknowledgement of said passers-by stepping aside into muddy verges (grouse#3).

At the beginning of L1.0, there were stories of community spirit: of neighbours supporting neighbours, of vast numbers becoming NHS volunteers (but mostly still redundant two months later despite Matt Hancock’s rousing endorsement), and of social isolation to protect us all. The weekly clapping for the NHS symbolised this community spirit (except for the neighbour-bashing of those who failed to show up), and Captain Tom fed nostalgia for World War 2 resilience in the face of evil. There was a general belief in people looking out for others.

What’s happened? Researchers at Essex and Manchester universities expected to find that the pandemic had ‘brought the nation together’, but in fact they found that trust in neighbours had fallen to 56% in June from nearly 70% in 2015. There was less identification with neighbours: 45% down from 62%, and only 50% reported talking to their neighbours compared to 60% in 2015. The decline in helping behaviours generally had declined with the onset of the recession, and was more prevalent among disadvantaged communities. How much also have Brexit-related issues contributed to fractures between neighbours, or the ‘post-truth’ era influenced us? Whatever caused this decline, it seems the pandemic has not actually boosted ‘neighbourly behaviours’ despite Boris Johnson’s ‘we’re all in this together’.

What of the psychological impact of ‘social isolation’, and the impact on our social skills of contact confined to video calls? We no longer have visitors to offer a cup of tea to. Our concerns have become inward-focused as we figure out the personal impact of each new edition of lockdown rules. Outdoors, few people make eye contact, or say hello. Perhaps I need more generosity towards my fellow park-users: apparently, a lack of social connection reduces the size of the brain, and causes deterioration in spatial processing (including maintaining 2 metres?); there are certainly suspicions that increased isolation can impair social skills (1). Looking to the future, some may have ‘lingering concerns over social contact’: fear of infection has impacted on trust of other people (2).

Perhaps we have an antidote in the unmissable annual event which is the John Lewis Christmas advert. Described by the Observer’s Barbara Ellen as ‘perfect for 2020’, being ‘fractured, trippy, bewildering and slightly bonkers, but with some very sweet moments’, it has a ‘love and help each other narrative’ which, on repeat play, might just reverse the trend and bring some reconnection.

(1) https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20201022-how-solitude-and-isolation-can-change-how-you-think

(2) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32690752/

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

IT’S gone all quiet again.

We noticed this in the first lockdown, back in March/April/May – how the world was a lot quieter, even out in the countryside. Our walks – now that we are back in lockdown, now in our third week – are quiet again with fewer people, fewer cyclists and less noise from the nearby roads.

Lockdown for a second time lacks novelty and is therefore more boring. That’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that I, and many others, are finding this more depressing, more difficult to endure, more taxing. During the first lockdown, we saw police around the village, every day, sometimes three times a day – this time we have seen none. Perhaps they are all busy with the terrorist threat, but it has made observing the rules seem less important.

The first time we knew why we were doing it – to get the infection under control – but this time it has been imposed because unlockdown was very uncontrolled and the infection had sprung back again, with a vengeance. Over the summer people travelled around freely and our quiet part of France was invaded by infected ‘foreigners’ (by which I mean anyone who doesn’t normally live here) and from September onwards the infection rate rocketed until it surpassed the heights of the first lockdown, even in Occitanie where we live.

I suppose that is why this lockdown is harder: we know it was effective last time but it did not make the virus go away; it just came back again, and the likelihood is that the same will happen again. The forthcoming ‘festive’ season will see people mixing, socially proximate, travelling around the country, students coming home from university – it will be the summer all over again and the rate will go up again; leading, in all probability, to a further lockdown, one even more depressing than this one.

The feeling we are on a treadmill of returning, repeated lockdowns is hard to avoid. Despite increasing knowledge of the virus and the improving treatments for it, for me the only way out of it is the prospect of a vaccine that will make us immune.

And what did I hear today?!!

One third of all French people are sceptical about the vaccine – they doubt it will work, they think it will harm us, they think it is part of a worldwide plot to control us! Where are they coming from? How can they believe these things? How is it that French people are the most sceptical people in the world (so said France 24, normally a reliable source of information) when it comes to a vaccination for the virus. I don’t mind them questioning it, we should all do that, but this means that many people will be reluctant, or will refuse, to be vaccinated. Which, of course, affects the immunity and lifestyle of us all.

Incroyable, I say, je désespère.

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

SECOND waves and further lockdowns; but not here at the sharp end of Africa. Two weeks ago President Cyril Ramaphosa announced another extension of the state of disaster while fully re-opening the country’s borders and normalising the sale of alcohol.

Looking back at this calamitous year it’s very hard to assess South Africa. Was the hard lockdown anything more than a show of bravado? Have only 20 000 people died of Covid19 instead of the 50 000 suggested by excess death statistics? Why did Covid19 not cut a swathe through the townships and informal settlements where social distancing is culturally, socially and economically impossible? Why has a second wave not materialised when South Africans continue to breach public health rules?

Three possible explanations spring to mind. First, only a very small proportion of South Africa’s population is over 70; and it is largely well-off, able to stay away from the virus. Second, summer is well underway. Third, there is growing evidence of high levels of coronavirus antibodies in the population. So Covid19 no longer dominates the news, its place taken by another part of the nation’s pathology – gross corruption.

Whether history will eventually judge it as such, Friday 13 November felt as if a significant bridge had been crossed. Ace Magashule, in some senses as secretary-general the most powerful person in the ANC, appeared in court on corruption charges (somewhat prosaically they are related to a Free State contract for asbestos stripping in which over R200 million went AWOL). In a Trump-type performance he raised conspiracy theories about attacks on the ANC while his supporters burned a picture of Ramaphosa and demanded review of the party’s leadership.

Their lack of democratic credentials is reinforced by demonstrable lack of understanding that the National Prosecuting Authority is independent of government. Lurking in the wings is something more sinister: a military-linked outfit masquerading as an agent of radical transformation called ANC Cadres. Exactly where the camouflage fatigues of Carl Niehaus and the surprisingly sprightly members of the MKVA (not a type of transformer, but the Mkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association) fit in has yet to be shown.

In fact, it’s not so confusing after all. South Africa is in the grip of an epic and possibly terminal struggle between the upholders of the Constitution and the rule of law; and the racketeers, looters and opportunists who have stripped the country almost bare. The Zondo Inquiry into State Capture has taken evidence from a parade of liars and incompetents whose performances have been both tragic and comic.

But South Africa is not alone. A collective madness has seemingly gripped significant parts of world politics. Magashule rants in front of a Bloemfontein court while Jacob Zuma tries to force recusal of Raymond Zondo from his eponymous commission on the most bizarre of grounds. In the White House a defeated populist president refuses to acknowledge that he has been fired by the people. And an incompetent British government stumbles towards the lunacy of Brexit, probably without a deal, and eventual national disintegration.

The virus may have put Christmas pantomime out of business, but we have extremist politics instead. Unfortunately, there will be no vaccine for that.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg