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Una Mullally: The exhilarated enlightenment of lockdown has almost evaporated

Rather than view 2020 as a ‘wasted’ year, we can see it as moment of communal pause

We need to create new forms of being, working, socialising and thriving. We know what the pandemic has taken but what has it given us? Photograph: Gareth Chaney

Six months on from Ireland’s first case of Covid-19, the country continues to reel from the physical, psychological, emotional and economic impacts of collectively dealing with a serious illness. People have lost loved ones, jobs, work, opportunities, planned celebrations and travels, and the sense of security that allows us to move forward, plan and imagine our futures. The hardship of negotiating lockdown – something people in Kildare continue to experience – gave way to a murkier, messier transition, a kind of Schrödinger’s cat version of society. There’s also a broader dread that we ain’t seen nothing yet. This holding pattern – perhaps more accurately described as an induced coma – is discombobulating.

To participate in Covid-era versions of the very normal things people do to let off steam, commune, catch up or engage in the therapeutic and entertaining power of live art or sport or socialising, theatre, concerts, pubs and clubs, parties and family gatherings, is almost an exercise in feeling bereft. What we’re left with are anaemic versions of what once was, a sort of edging around the periphery of what was previously so easy, accessible and fulfilling, and now feels unsatisfactory, awkward or diluted. It’s easy and fair to resent this – how the enjoyable aspects of life feel taken away from us, or distant, sometimes literally behind a screen, be that perspex or digital.

The exhilarated enlightenment of lockdown has almost evaporated. And like all emotional states rooted in a particular time – like how we feel on holidays – it becomes harder to put oneself back in that place as time moves on.

We're left with anaemic versions of what once was, an edging around the periphery of what was previously so easy

There are those who are fighting the pandemic rules and guidelines, urging a return to the pace of the past, willing the hectic rhythm of capitalism back to life, and viewing everything through the lens of the economy. This is despite the fact that Ireland’s economic ecosystem was obviously dysfunctional, faltering on the fundamentals: housing, health, childcare, transport, quality of life. But 2020 is a prologue for the end of the toxic brand of late-stage capitalism many have been drowning in. We can either see the pandemic as yet another hole in that boat or we can see it as a life raft to something else.

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Oppressive force

In order for us to survive this moment – in every sense – we need to stop fighting the context, and create new forms of being, working, socialising and thriving that work within it, or that aren’t overly hindered by its oppressive force. So we know what the pandemic has taken away from us, but what has it given us?

Those who could afford to go on holiday this year did so for the most part within Ireland. This process of rediscovering the beauty of our own country is coinciding with a shift in thinking for those who have the luxury of working from home. Many people are now considering leaving, if only temporarily, a capital that no longer offers many of the benefits of urban life – cultural experiences, large-scale events, vibrant pubs and clubs – nor the office base that once bound them to a particular, unmovable location. The geographical freedom remote working offers is instigating a Flight of the Dubs, with younger, white-collar and tech workers going west in search of cheaper rent, bigger homes, a more enriching natural landscape, peacefulness and a change of pace.

This brings us to the growing irrelevance of the office. With many tech workers in Dublin already planning to work from home until at least autumn 2021, the office as a concept is in existential crisis. Co-working spaces are naturally in the most trouble. How can at least some of these buildings now be repurposed to benefit the broader urban environment? There are of course huge disadvantages to not having real interactions with people in a workspace. It disrupts collaboration and can stall the serendipity of how ideas emerge. But equally, office culture can also have a negative impact depending on its level of toxicity, and ending the stressful, expensive, polluting and time-wasting practice of commuting can only be a good thing.

Renewed appreciations

While the pandemic exposes the fault lines in society, it is reassuring to realise and remember the strength of Ireland’s social cohesion. Although there is a lot of inequality in terms of wealth, Ireland is not a divided society compared to the extreme examples of America and Britain. We have a strong sense of community and, as seen by the Golfgate saga, the public wields power. Then there’s the growth of small. Small journeys, small gatherings, small artistic experiences, small treats, small events. Turns out that it is “the little things” that get us through after all.

Office culture can have a negative impact, depending on its level of toxicity, and ending commuting can only be good

These six months have given many people a renewed appreciation of nature, an understanding of the importance of public space, a desire to see streets reconfigured to include more public seating and public toilets, and redesigned to removing clogging cars and create more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Many people have improved their personal skills: gardening, cooking, DIY, meditation, exercise.

So we can look at 2020 as a “wasted” year or we can decide, within all the trauma, to frame it as a moment of pause, an opportunity to build resilience and fortitude, increase social cohesion, enhance collective empathy, demand accountability in public office, and appreciate the importance of community organising and the spirit of neighbourliness. This is probably not much good to you if you’ve lost a loved one. But there is always hope. The future has not evaporated, but plans make fools of us all. So best to live in the present.