When this coronavirus crisis is over, what kind of society will we be? A more important question is what kind of society do we want to be?
To begin with, all there seemed to be was panic-buying with supermarket shelves stripped bare. Yet for every person grabbing that last pack of toilet roll, there were dozens shopping for a neighbour, getting their medicine, joining a local support group or just giving a friendly phone call to people isolated in their homes.
In this crisis, we are learning a lot about ourselves and who we can be.
This week, the government’s appeal for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS in the fight against coronavirus saw more than half a million people sign up within 48 hours, and the target’s now been raised to 750,000.
Even in the House of Commons, the petty point-scoring attacks have — for the moment at least — gone.
It is proof, if ever it was needed, that our common interests, our compassion and the bonds of community support are still very strong in Britain. Most people, most of the time, want to help and given the chance, they do.
It reminds me of words by the American writer Rebecca Solnit who wrote a brilliant book, A Paradise Built in Hell, about what often happens during natural disasters. Most people, she says, rise to the occasion. Disasters give us “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”
The outpouring of support for people has been truly heartwarming, as has the sense of solidarity between different groups and different generations. Young people are changing their way of life to try to protect those most at risk. There is a real sense that we are all in this together and we are only “safe” if everyone is safe.
It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to show us this. And our challenge is to keep these bonds alive when this crisis is over.
When we rebuild our society on the other side of this pandemic, as we must, we can choose to do so with greater consideration for each other, with more compassion for every person and for their wellbeing.
That doesn’t just mean encouraging an army of volunteers to help our cherished public services. It means building an economy and society that works for everyone, now and in the future. And a society with the values of compassion, consideration and cooperation at its core.
It means thinking more about how our actions impact on others, not just today but how they will shape the lives of our children and grandchildren. It means building long-term thinking into our politics and decision-making so that our legacy isn’t just how we overcame this terrible pandemic, but how we left the world in a better state. How we used this moment to become better ancestors.
That is what lies behind the Future Generations Bill, which I introduced into the House of Commons this week.
It used to be said that war was the locomotive of history, with its power to accelerate change.
The coronavirus crisis has that same power. It has already shown us who we really are, and how there is much more than unites than divides us. It has shown how governments need to work with their citizens to overcome threats or challenges. It has brought into the mainstream ideas which were once considered radical or extreme – like a universal basic income, which now has the backing of even some Conservative MPs.
“Huge public spending and borrowing in the face of an existential crisis is clearly the right thing to do, as is putting people’s health and wellbeing above the pursuit of economic growth.”
We face other crises, in particular the climate emergency, and the choices being made now could have a profound impact on how we tackle that. The response to coronavirus has shown what can be done when governments put their mind to it.
The austerity programme which inflicted so much damage to many is now being shown to be the grotesque mistake it was. Huge public spending and borrowing in the face of an existential crisis is clearly the right thing to do, as is putting people’s health and wellbeing above the pursuit of economic growth.
When this crisis is over, it will be moments of solidarity which I believe will be remembered, such as the tons of medical aid sent by China to Italy with the message “we are all waves in the same sea”, rather than the finger-pointing and denial from politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro.
The impact of the previous global pandemic, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-19, led directly to the formation of the Ministry of Health, sowing the seeds for the founding of the NHS a generation later – which hundreds of thousands of us applauded from our doorsteps on Thursday night.
We can build something positive from this pandemic too. It has shown us what we are capable of when we come together. We can act today for tomorrow.
Caroline Lucas is Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, and former leader and co-leader of The Green Party