Gerard Howlin: Covid-19 has temporarily halted our pervading culture of convenience

Always-on entertainment, and the entitlement to be entertained, is the antithesis of social distancing, writes Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: Covid-19 has temporarily halted our pervading culture of convenience

Gardai on patrol as a group of people drink outside the Dame Tavern pub in Dublin city centre.The gyration of closing-down, opening-up and closing-down again is unsettling. There is edginess in the air. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/

What will matter most when it’s over, assuming there is an end, is the permanent change caused by Covid-19. I have a sense we are not even at the mid-point of this, and that all estimations will have to be revised, and revised again. 

In the last 10 months, a million people have died. I assume that is a rough estimate. There are countries where the dead are not counted. Tuberculosis and hepatitis are now replaced as the world’s most infectious diseases, and Covid-19 is still gathering pace. 

There was a moment, months ago, of bucolic bliss, as roads emptied of traffic and birdsong was heard again in cities. Now, the initial terror has passed. So has the first burst of discipline. The gyration of closing down, opening up, and closing down again is unsettling. 

There is edginess in the air. Public authority has lost some of its potency. People are under pressure, winter is closing in, and the plan to get through all of this is continually elongated.

The horror at the recklessness of house parties now should be put in context. London during the Blitz was not just an end of empire. That came later. Under cover of darkness, it was the end of Victorian morality. Bunkers are always an open house for the feral in times of danger. 

Think on the failure of parish priests here to stamp out immorality in dance halls, and behind ditches and in sheds on the way home from them. What was at stake then was far greater. It was nothing less than eternal salvation. Covid-19 is mild compared to the fires of hell for all eternity. But even that threat failed to cool the ardour of courting couples.

What is surprising is the surprise at how people react under pressure, including the pressure to conform. 

The longest period of peace and prosperity in human history has shielded us from most of the realities previously counted as commonplace. Specifically, penicillin, the contraceptive pill, and the flush toilet have immunised us from pain, the direct connection between sexual intercourse and childbirth, and our own squalor. An almost-permanent peace in Western Europe, with the exceptions of Bosnia and Northern Ireland, create a makebelieve that this is the natural order. It is anything but. 

Perhaps most profoundly, Covid-19 has temporarily halted an age of convenience, which seemed to be a deepening, permanent normal.

Optimism was already receding. The spurious view that an end of history arrived with the fall of the Berlin Wall was short-lived. Religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world, the rise of China, and the reassertion of autocracy in Russia and Turkey, as well as burgeoning authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary, and Trump’s America, are all a falling away from the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948, it set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The difference now is not that we can guffaw at the reality; we could always do that. It is that lip service itself has ceased in powerful places and lip service is an underrated balm.

Covid-19 cuts across trends. It arrives as we have already acquired specific attitudes. 

One is a dependence on convenience. Another, accelerated by the tools that deliver it, is a sense of entitlement to it. Pushing buttons enhances our sense of authority. 

There is also our insatiable need for entertainment. If penicillin, contraception, and the flush toilet were the epoch-changing technologies of human experience in the 20th century, the explosion of modalities in which we can be entertained is driving deep cultural change now.

Our attention span is plummeting. All-you-can-eat buffets of music, film, and more are a single click away. But none of this, which is fully available now, satiates a need for social interaction. 

The desktop computer was supposed to almost end a need for paper, but its functionality exploded its necessity in work. Interaction online requires the live feed of the real thing. Frenetic interpersonal contact is the Red Bull fuelling how we live.

The shuddering stop was traumatic. The imposition of discipline since is bridled against. If we are not entertained, how can we live?

The uncertainty of Covid-19 raises up what had been out of sight — human fragility. We can face it, or deny it. 

Always-on entertainment, and the entitlement to be entertained, is the antithesis of social distancing. Covid-19 is a crisis in how we socialise. It has ended a pervading culture of convenience. It confronts not just old patterns of human nature, it is a rude awakening from a normal that is so new, it is unprecedented. 

Gismos and cheap money are the cotton wool we are wrapped in. It is not a coincidence that the age of the app flows from the longest period of the lowest interest rates in the history of the world.

There are a million people dead from Covid-19 now, to show that suffering remains a reality. The consequences of the dislocation are probably far worse than the virus itself. But if suffering still exists, it no longer makes sense. 

Only a generation ago it was an almost inevitable outcome of life, and had a salvific quality. Life, after all, led to an afterlife. But no more. An amusing aside is the pervading use in our secular society of the word ‘passing’ to describe death. It anaesthetises the end.

I am afraid the turnstile is closed, however. You are not passing anywhere anymore. You will be dead. Euthanasia, coincidently, is now formally on the political agenda here. I predict that particular change will happen. It is indisputably of our time and culture. Ultimately, the only effective denial of death is to turn what had been an apotheosis into a procedure. You simply integrate the mortuary into the sick room. This is the natural progression of a society where suffering makes no sense, and there is nothing else afterwards. 

That it is humane seems obvious in its own terms. That it turns the idea of what it means to be human inside-out no longer seems a leap. We were almost there anyway. The joke is that euthanasia is the death of God.

One long-term effect after Covid-19 will be a vigorous return to an apparent normal. It is nearly always thus after great disasters. As after the First World War, we might have a new jazz age. I think there will be an enhancement of decadence, and I have always had a weakness for that. 

Anyway, the clearest threats to civilisation are ageing, and climate change, not disease. What has been exposed by the retreating tide of always-on activity is the fragility, the flotsam of people themselves. 

Best then, to restart the music as quickly as possible. Bread and circus is an old formula.

To be human is to be entertained.

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