Lockdown and Liberty

Lockdown in New Zealand has been a weird mixture of intense activity and lethargic wallowing: pressure to DO EVERYTHING and at the same time DO NOTHING. Even for those of us in the best circumstances, there is stress and conflict at the same time as peace and tranquility. There is a lot of “should” but only a little motivation. Even for those of us who managed fairly well with the daily paradoxes, hypocracies and contradictions of the “old normal”, lockdown is fraught with dilemmas.

On the one hand, it is a time of immense freedom: we can sleep in as long as we like, there is no need to get dressed or shower regularly, we are free of most social obligations – no need to make polite chit-chat with vague acquaintances in the street or reluctantly accompany a partner to a tedious work function. Some work pressures have evaporated – some deadlines simply ceased to exist and for those that are still there, everyone has the perfect excuse. The pressure is off. The world has an enforced holiday, a month of Sundays. We can read novels, do jigsaws, do nothing …

But on the other hand, our old freedoms have been massively curtailed. Around the world, protest is building against these undemocratic restrictions: those of us living privileged western lives should be allowed to do what we want, whenever we want! We should be allowed to go on holiday, to socialise, to consume! These are our hard-won rights! How dare the politicians unilaterally imprison us, close the economy and take away our jobs, just because of a pesky virus!

These rights – to move, travel, socialise, shop – are indeed things that people should be able to do, everywhere in the world. But what about those who have never had these rights? Or who have had them and lost them, due to war and other crises? What about refugees sitting in helpless limbo on Manus Island, Nauru, Lesbos, and other camps around the world? Hundreds of thousands of people have been deprived of these rights for years, or never enjoyed them. Lockdown has been these people’s reality for years. The other day we watched “The Cave“, an excellent documentary film about an underground hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Al Ghouta. These people were in lockdown for five years, during which time they endured constant bombing, shortages of medical supplies and food, and chemical attacks.

Yes, we absolutely must take care that the pandemic crisis doesn’t lead to the erosion of democracy, as Arundhati Roy warns, but are we also fighting for the rights of those who lost their democratic rights years ago (if they ever had them at all)? The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the massive inequalities on which the “old normal” world was built on, and given us privileged people a taste of what has long been the reality for far too many people all over the world. We cannot scream about our rights to move and consume when that lifestyle is based on so many others being denied those same rights.