On Friday, I drove my mother-in-law home, and passed through many towns on the journey. We were often caught in traffic jams, and sometimes I ended up idling outside pubs. Every time, I saw the same thing: a handful of tables in use, in a largely empty pub. And that’s on a Friday night, one of the key trading days of the week for licensed premises.

And now we’re going back into lockdown. Those pubs will be essentially without income for a month, at the very least.

How many will survive it?

The pub cull

The small town I live in has already lost at least two pubs to the pandemic, with others looking precarious. What will be left by the time we have the pandemic under control? How many of the town’s small retailers will survive another month without income?

When the virus is under control — finally — I want to go out for a drink with my friends. I want to catch a show at the local arts centre. But will that be denied to us, because we only cared about preserving lives, not the quality of them?

It is, it must be, possible to give thought to both.

Trapped in reaction

It feels like we’re trapped, the UK at least, in reactive mode — responding to short-term shifts in viral prevalence, without any long-term vision of how we survive it, and what we want left afterwards. Oh, there’s talk of the “science cavalry” arriving — but both the timelines and the effectiveness of any vaccines or treatments are very much an unknown quantity.

Are we really prepared to emerge from this at some unknown future point with our high streets devastated, our pubs shut and our theatres and community centres gone? There’s two ways that this virus ends lives: by taking lives, and by taking away what makes life worth living.

Our greatest test in this time, is to work as hard as we can to save every life we can, but while still acting to preserve what feels valuable to us in our lives. Right now — in the UK, at least — it feels like we’re failing on both sides.

Viral Polarisation

And that, in turn, feels like another expression of the polarisation in our society. You either have to be pro-lockdown, or anti it. You can’t be somewhat pro-lockdown, but concerned that we’re not paying enough attention to ameliorating its social, economic and (most vitally) health consequences.

That takes a nuance that our politicians seem incapable of, and certainly the loudest voices online have no tolerance for. Join the tribe. Hold the view. Punish the transgressors.

A future of shouting at one another over social media, without any ameliorating social contact in a pub, a theatre or a community space seems bleak to me. But how do we avoid it? How do we use digital tools to help preserve the places that matter, connect to each other in meaningful ways, and both preserve both life and quality of life into the future?

The next steps

This is not going to be all over by Christmas. It’s probably not going to be all over by Christmas 2021. It’s time we accepted that, abandoned a hope of the science miracle that will make the problem go away, and start building for a more realistic future which co-exists with the virus, but isn’t dominated by it.

It’s going to be challenging. But it needs to be done.