Debate is intensifying about the need for a measured response to controlling the spread of coronavirus that will allow economic recovery without long term damage to society. I argue here that it is not just about when but how a gradual return of normal life can be rolled out across Britain.
As we are starting to see in Italy, wholesale lockdown will not be tolerated for weeks on end. Even if the government’s support packages are generous and comprehensive enough to bridge the financial hardship, there will be large numbers of people in society who begin to fight back against lengthy oppression. That’s not to mention the injustice facing those unable to access other health care and essential services at this time.
The riots in summer 2011 were, according to reports in the Guardian, almost inevitable given the prevailing conditions with a “tinderbox of economic and social tensions”. No-one would suggest that those social inequalities have gone away and current events are increasing unemployment once again. Those on precarious contracts are likely to be particularly hard hit. With lockdown, add to this increasing boredom, household tensions, anxiety and testosterone build-up among young men along with a lot of unoccupied retail premises and a new “tinderbox” is again present in many urban neighbourhoods.
It would be easy then to argue, and several commentators have done, that we should revert to “business as usual” as soon as possible and accept that a few more people that usual will die. The problem with this argument is not one of “saving lives” vs “saving the economy” though – given the events that have already taken place the economy cannot just be turned back on. As Jonathan Portes wrote in the Guardian (25/2/20) even if we were all allowed to return to work, “many or most of us would, quite rationally, choose not to, for fear of catching the virus”. Without a degree of confidence and certainty, both about personal finances and the wider economy, Portes continues: “households won’t spend and businesses won’t invest. And that simply isn’t going to happen until the spread of the diseases has been contained”.
However, is there an alternative way of thinking about this problem? Does the UK have to follow one set of regulations everywhere and at all scales? As geographers we always talk about scale and as someone who studies regional and rural economies, I want to advocate a localised approach to relaxing the restrictions currently in place. There are, in my mind, 4 strong justifications for this:
- The virus spread much less quickly in rural areas. This phenomenon has been reported in Southern Italy and data from the shows that there are roughly half as many cases per head in rural districts compared to urban areas UK (further updated Defra figures to follow). Break this down to lower scale of geography and we can be fairly confident that the difference would be even greater. Recent reports suggest a higher “viral load” also increases the risk to human life, and in densely populated urban areas, exposure to multiple sources of the infection, and potentially to slightly different strains simultaneously, is also higher.
- In rural areas, isolation and loneliness among older generations was one of the biggest health concerns up until a few weeks ago. Despite the great efforts of many communities to help isolated and vulnerable people, the mental health impacts will increase the longer the lockdown continues. If restrictions on local services and amenities are relaxed for those within small communities, it should be possible for social engagement, and low-level economic activity to return whilst social distancing continues to be observed. Even village schools could potentially reopen sooner so as not to impact the social and educational development of young children. In all of these cases, the social mixing would be limited to local communities and not a widespread inter-mixing of different groups of people. Together, such localised re-openings would allow home-workers to become more productive, allow the self-employed and small businesses to keep ticking over, reduce isolation and actually build on the positive responses of local community-focused activities of people trying to help others in responsible ways. The fact that positive community responses to help those at risk are largely occurring at a local level highlights that despite our global society facilitated by multiple communications technologies, community-spirit is still “local” and place-based.
- The economic recovery will itself be uneven and businesses in rural and peripheral regions will have to work hard to rebuild their markets. Currently, a lot of bigger businesses that already have well-developed retailing and other services will be improving their market share. The longer-term effect of this on supply chains may see a number of rural firms falling further behind. Allowing a regional relaxation of lockdown can enable these firms to re-establish local supply chains and start to serve local markets more quickly, before nationwide market competition returns. Not all rural businesses can do this (e.g. rural tourism will inevitably lose a large share of annual income) but where it is possible, this could also stimulate shorter supply chains in the future and strengthen local economies and local business networks in the future.
- Looking further ahead, rural economies have the potential to deliver significant growth and to better support their local communities. This requires spaces for interactions between disparate groups of people living and working in rural areas. The current crisis sees these individuals coming together on social media to support their communities and as freedoms return, there is a real opportunity to capitalise on the new connections being made. Home-workers, self-employed people and a range of small businesses all have a lot to offer their communities but so often they are segregated, each operating in their distinct professional network or social grouping. Linking together the skills and activities that are taking place locally can see rural localities becoming more vibrant, lead to reduced commuting and stimulate a greater degree of local spending to sustain rural services.
At a time when large number of lives are being lost in our bigger cities and key workers are putting themselves in danger, these points may seem a little parochial to some. Clearly, there are other priorities to tackle first but we have to plan for an end to the situation both to help people to keep conforming to the restrictions – a light at the end of the tunnel is essential for this – and to ensure that the aftermath of the lockdown is not worse than the current situation.
I don’t like the comparisons with war. Limitations on personal freedom and the overriding fear of losing lives are of course similar but, in a time of war, lives are sacrificed for a belief in society whereas this emergency sees society put at risk to save lives. Perhaps one useful comparison, though, is the idea that winning the peace is more important than winning the war. If the end of restrictions and the containment of the virus leads to an uneven rate of recovery, poverty and social unrest could be just as big a fear as coronavirus itself. We therefore need clear strategies for how, as well as when, a return of civil liberties and of economic activity can take place.