‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing’

Unbreakable: Extraordinary outbreaks of altruism and courage across Europe. © Getty

Could the virus help bring us together? Social distancing is the new normal as the pandemic takes over the world – but some people predict that, in other ways, we may become closer than ever.

In Sicily, a man serenades his neighbours from a balcony, accordion in hand.

From neighbouring high-rise buildings, people lean out of windows and peer over balconies, rattling tambourines in time to the music.

It is one of the most extraordinary side-effects of life in lockdown: spontaneous outbursts of harmony from narrow, medieval streets to housing estates across continental Europe.

Many have been reminded of the famous war poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

It is not just impromptu concerts. In Spain, a coordinated round of applause for healthcare workers could be heard in streets across the country.

And in Cornwall, a woman designed a postcard to help people look out for self-isolating neighbours. “If just one person feels lonely when faced with this pandemic, I’ll feel better,” she said.

England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said he expects society to respond to the pandemic with an “extraordinary outbreak of altruism”.

It is clear that the world is experiencing huge disruption. In the UK, people talk about the Blitz spirit – endurance and defiance in the face of a crisis.

Professor Mark Connelly says the idea of a Blitz spirit is crucial to modern British self-perception. Could we now see a new worldwide “coronavirus spirit”?

Indeed, some are imagining a fundamental realignment in society.

Li Edelkoort, a trend forecaster, claims the coronavirus “might be the reason we survive as a species”.

If the supply chain breaks down, says Edelkoort, people will learn to live with fewer possessions. As we dispense with the frivolities of modern life, improvisation and creativity will become our greatest assets.

So, could the virus help bring us together?

Silver linings

Yes, say some. People may be staying physically apart to avoid spreading the virus, but communities are standing together. Viral videos of people singing from Italian balconies show that fear is not stopping people from expressing joy. More people are checking on their elderly neighbours, and the environment is already benefitting from fewer flights. The coronavirus could make the world a better place.

This is naive, say others. The response to the virus has been fear and self-preservation – not concern for others. Panic buying of pasta and cleaning products, that prevents others from reaching them, is selfish and irresponsible. There are even examples of Chinese and Italian citizens becoming victims of discrimination. And as quarantine is lifted in China, some couples have rushed to file for divorce.

You Decide

  1. Is panic buying selfish or just good preparation?
  2. Is disaster the only thing that makes people work together?

Activities

  1. How has coronavirus changed your everyday life? Write a list of five things that you are doing differently, or which soon might change.
  2. Research a time in history when people came together to solve a problem, or deal with a crisis. Create a five-minute presentation for the class.

Some People Say...

“The impact of the virus will be cultural and crucial to building an alternative and profoundly different world.”

Li Edelkoort, researcher and trend forecaster

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that governments around the world, but especially in Europe, are taking increasingly radical action to prevent the spread of the virus. In the UK, the health secretary has said people over-70 may be asked to self-isolate for up to four months – for many, this will be very challenging. Elderly people are more likely to suffer from loneliness, and may be cut off from essential care and supplies. Interestingly, only 6% of people now think Brexit is the biggest issue facing the country.
What do we not know?
Quite simply, it is hard to say if the coronavirus will bring people together or push us further apart. Last week, the World Health Organisation announced that Europe is now the epicentre of the pandemic, but it is still early days. As the virus spreads, and lockdowns continue for days or even months, people’s patience may begin to wear out. And even more worryingly, we do not know for certain what impact the virus will have on the economy – we are unlikely to remain cheerful in a recession.

Word Watch

Siegfried Sassoon
(1886–1967), an English poet, writer, and soldier.
Impromptu
Unplanned.
Chief medical officer
In the UK, the CMO is the most senior adviser to the government on health matters. There are four CMOs: one in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Altruism
Being selflessly concerned about other people’s happiness and wellbeing.
The Blitz
A German nighttime bombing campaign against a number of UK cities in 1940 and 1941 during WW2. The word “blitz” means “lightning” in German. Forty-three thousand British civilians were killed during the Blitz. As much as possible, people carried on with their lives, going to work despite the fear.
Mark Connelly
A professor of modern British military history at the University of Kent.
Realignment
Changing or restoring something to a different or former position.
Supply chain
The sequence of processes involved in producing and distributing an item. Products we buy in shops often travel through many countries before reaching supermarket shelves.
Assets
A useful or valuable thing, person or quality.

Subjects

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