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Do Less, Save Lives: Staying safe - and sane - during lockdown

Fun is the only way to stay sane if there is nothing else to be done. Lives depend on it.

I wake to another timeless day and my brain clicks on.

What's in store? In the clean air, the quiet streets, it'll be safe enough to go cycling with my daughter. I'll take part in her education, re-learning long division and joining in with Pete McKee's online drawing classes.

This unnervingly steady spell of beautiful weather gives me, for the first time I can remember, a chance to notice spring's explosion of new life in daily, joyful clarity, and to share it with the people I love the most. Then there'll be some pixelated interactions with familiar faces and voices concerning the abstracted nonsense that used to be called 'work'.

In 2007 I was involved in a campaign we called 'Do Less, Save the Planet'. A series of photographic posters and postcards featured people just swanning around: lying down in a field, pulling up a chair in the middle of the road. Slow down, we said, and the world will be a better place. I found one of the postcards the other day and felt a twang of nostalgia. It didn't catch on. After all, you couldn't question the need for productivity.

In the blink of an eye, productivity is no longer an acceptable objective. 'Do Less, Save Lives'. If your job is essential, then you must do it in the face of mortal danger. For the rest of us, our duty is to do almost nothing.

Our work ethic has spontaneously combusted, its replacement a weird form of peer-to-peer authoritarianism that would do 1980s East Germany proud. Why does my neighbour insist on running? Can't he see the flying carpet of contagions he's trailing along with him? What are those three men doing, talking in the street? Look at those kids over there, playing in the garden when they should be doing online lessons. This isn't supposed to be fun, you know.

Yet, of course, fun is the only way to stay sane if there is nothing else to be done. Lives depend on it.

Our first duty is to stop the spread of infection. Our second is not to lose the plot while performing the first duty, to keep ourselves and our communities in good spirits. When we clap and whoop in the street for key workers, we're thanking them for their hard work, their self-sacrifice and the impossible choices they're having to make. But we're also letting out a cathartic scream at our own incarcerated uselessness, waving to folks across the street who we're suddenly sharing this weird, communal payload with.

Meanwhile, the government is plainly winging it, having squandered their last crumbs of moral authority. Inconsistent instructions issue from mouths we stopped trusting years ago. The last thing you want in a crisis is to be chivvied and chastised by laughable school bullies. The UK seems likely to emerge from this crisis like a spinning top, so pre-occupied by the spin itself that it is caught off-guard when it inevitably scuttles off at a tangent and falls over.

What should come into focus when the spin breaks? That our key workers deserve decent pay and the materials to do their jobs well. That we'd like an alternative to asthmatic air and abrasive commuting. That children should be able to play in the street. That small, enthusiastic businesses within walking distance of our homes are a great and precious resource. That homeless people shouldn't be reduced to sleeping in doorways. That if we'd already been enjoying those things last year, it's possible that thousands of lives would have been spared a premature end.

Maybe that's idealistic, but we now know that ethical expectations of ourselves and each other can change with astonishing speed. While we're busy doing less, perhaps it's time to think big.

Filed under: #Coronavirus

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