Orwell & The Coronavirus: Change through Crisis

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

By Alex De Boick

‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ So opens George Orwell’s 1941 essay ‘England Your England’. Though written during the Second World War, the tone of the essay could not be more apt today. Of course, our current crisis is far different from that of WW2 yet many of the problems and issues that are outlined in Orwell’s writing could just as easily apply to the contemporary situation we find ourselves in.

Many people have speculated and will continue to speculate upon the changes that the coronavirus epidemic will make to the world. It seems almost incomprehensible to think of how different our world has become within the course of a few weeks. At the time of writing, almost half of the world’s population has been under or is still under some degree of quarantine measure, nine million people have had the virus and almost 500,000 people have died. Working from home is the new norm for a lot of people, others struggle to know when they can get back to work, and healthcare staff tirelessly provide care for the sick. However, though the virus has affected so many people, many have been suggesting that it is not some kind of great equaliser that brings everyone to the same level. Celebrities calling for people to forget the importance of possessions from the comfort of their Hollywood mansions is just one example.

Indeed, Orwell suggests that all talk of ‘equality of sacrifice’ is nonsense, listing a number of examples including the bombed-out populations of the East End going hungry while others could simply drive away to another home safe in the countryside. This is incredibly reminiscent of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer who resigned over repeated trips to her second home despite broadcasting instructions not-to-travel to the rest of Scotland- not to mention Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham and Barnard Castle, displaying a blatant disregard for the rules that so many have made sacrifices for and without showing an ounce of remorse for it.

Production issues are another striking similarity between our crisis and Orwell’s. At a time when there has been constant news of problems with the supply of PPE and other medical equipment it is interesting to see that the same problems were occurring with production during WWII:

After a year of war the regular army was still short of 300,000 tin hats. There had even, previously, been a shortage of uniforms- this in one of the greatest woollen-goods producing countries in the world!

Despite these notions that times of crisis can be dividers, we can also see how they can be uniters. Orwell describes times of war as ‘bringing it home to the individual that he is not altogether an individual.’ Equally, this crisis has at least united us behind a message of staying home and preventing a tidal wave of cases that would’ve seen the NHS being overwhelmed. While it remains to be seen how things will progress as lockdown is now being eased, it seems as though the general mood within the public is one of wanting to look out for the most vulnerable within society. The government has implemented some of the most radical economic stimuli, thousands of staff have been furloughed and the homeless have been allowed to stay in hotels. My hope is that we can keep this attitude long after the COVID-19 pandemic has been dealt with.

One of the crises that Orwell didn’t have to deal with was that of climate change. Many commentators have looked at the massive economic and societal problems caused by the coronavirus and compared them to the global effort that will be required to deal with climate change. Whereas the virus has only been known about for a few months, we have known about the creeping effects the climate crisis is having for decades now. Perhaps, this pandemic will finally add some much-needed urgency to the calls of climate change activists as well as demonstrating that we can deal with that impending crisis but it will require a colossal effort as well as monumental changes to society. As Orwell’s closing words suggest:

Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backwards. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.


Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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