Lockdown has laid bare Britain’s class divide | Lynsey Hanley | Opinion

The latest weekend in the coronavirus crisis was a tale of two lockdowns. Scotland’s chief medical officer was caught contradicting her own instructions and escaping to her second home, a mistake for which she paid with her job. In London, Brockwell Park was closed on Sunday after 3,000 people had visited the day before, many apparently using the space to picnic and sunbathe.

Our experiences of the lockdown are shaped by class. How can they not be, when the rich have escaped to second homes, when bus drivers and nurses are dying on their jobs, and when our ability to tolerate large amounts of time at home or to properly self-isolate is determined by how much space we have at our disposal?

Space – how it’s apportioned, how it’s governed, how it’s made available to some and denied to others – is always political. The middle classes, accustomed to constant mobility while valorising the home as a place of comfort and safety, balk at the thought of being unable to up sticks at will.

For the urban working class, meanwhile, trapped inside flats where children have no option other than sharing bedrooms or “affordable” homes built to minimal space standards, there’s not so much choice. In such circumstances local parks are one of the only forms of escape: access to open spaces when you have no private outdoor space is vital to public health.

City parks have always been about more than just leisure. Victorian reformers such as the physician John Snow, who established the link between cholera and poor sanitation, and the statistician William Farr lent their weight to middle-class campaigns for urban parks that might improve their own health through the improvement of working-class environments. In 1839 Farr noted how “a park in the East End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousand … and add several years to the lives of the entire population”.

His words, supported by a mass petition to Queen Victoria, led to the creation of Hackney’s Victoria Park – the “people’s park” – in 1845. Brockwell Park in Lambeth, the fifth most densely populated local authority in England and Wales, where 31% of residents live in poverty, reopened on Monday. But Victoria Park, in Tower Hamlets, the borough with the highest level of child poverty in Britain, has remained closed since the end of March. Meanwhile, the “royal parks” in sparsely populated central London and posher suburbs have stayed open throughout the lockdown.

The cultural historian Joe Moran, writing in 2004, noted how “the reality of uneven development” – the way technology forces massive changes in some areas of life while leaving others untouched – means that “our surroundings become out of sync with the needs of the present and we muddle through with outmoded layouts and dilapidated systems”.

Right now, our immediate surroundings are all we have, and we are being encouraged to imagine that every home and immediate neighbourhood is as comfortable and well-resourced as the next: that everyone has a garden, a computer, a quiet room to study or work in, and a supermarket and an open space nearby.

Moran adds: “We rarely think about the collective logic of houses, their increasing connection with global systems of production and consumption, and their crucial relationship to the other spaces of everyday life.” Now we are being forced to consider those crucial relationships, such as the availability of fresh, inexpensive food within walking distance of home. Not takeaways or off-licences, but the fresh food you need to stay healthy.

Working from home, too, is a convenience available to those whose jobs tend to involve words and numbers – better remunerated, if no less precarious, in the “knowledge economy” – rather than people and objects. For many on low incomes, internet connection is patchy, slow and only available on phone screens while paying through the nose for data. (Remember how Labour, last November, promised free broadband for all, and how everyone who already had superfast broadband laughed?)

For many people, life at the moment resembles an endless Sunday afternoon. That presents few problems if spending Sunday afternoons – that weekly appointment with invisibility when, according to Alan Bennett, “the spirit falters” – trapped indoors is well-nourished, calm and convivial. Less so in small houses with cardboard-thin walls, the washing machine running at full pelt in the open-plan kitchen/dining/living room and the telly turned up to be heard over it. There comes a time when you have to get out before one of you – perhaps all of you – will explode.

I grew up in one of those houses, a “starter home” that people end up living in for 40 years because they can’t afford to “trade up”. They are, to use Nye Bevan’s term, not homes but “rabbit hutches”, designed as if to weaponise nuclear families against each other. As Bevan underlined in his revolutionary stint as both health and housing minister between 1945 and 1951, there was no point in establishing a universal health service if he wasn’t also to try to establish a universal right to decent, spacious housing in equitable environments.

For all the trauma caused by the coronavirus, I can’t help but hope that, on the other side of it, we will better understand what we need to live well, and demand more. In comparison with most other rich countries, British people are incredibly badly housed, and are expected to treat open spaces as a luxury not a right. There’s only so long you can keep fit and carry on, as instructed, when you’ve no room to swing a cat.

Graham Medley, an adviser to the government on coronavirus, made an awkward but relevant point when he highlighted the potential damage caused by trapping people for too long in a home environment that is influenced, in an absolute and quantifiable way, by class. The lasting social effects of coronavirus will only be seen more clearly once they are understood through the prisms of social class, economic disadvantage, and the ways that our environment can work against us, according to how much power we have to influence it.

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