Opinion

Paul McNamee: A new reality can lead to new ideas

While lockdown is hard, already the new normal is helping us all work through some positive impacts

The pace of inventive idea development is not abating. While lockdown is hard, already the new normal is helping us all work through some positive impacts.

There is focused bird listening. Mornings are full of song. And after the songs there are exercises with Joe Wicks. Following the initial panic, there are now planned and focused supermarket runs, hopefully resulting in less waste. And fewer toilet roll mountains blocking hallways. And language grows and develops. We’re now hugely familiar with ‘self isolation’, ‘social distancing’ and my personal favourite, the odd excuses for breakdown of remote group meetings sneak into everyday use. ‘Sorry, my mic was off’ is a plaintive refrain echoing across Britain. It’s an isolation mini haiku. In years to come numerous twee indie bands will use it as the basis for their name.

It goes beyond that. When a new problem appears, a group grows to find a way around it. This is the new capability of human decency, empathy and compassion that the Irish president Michael D Higgins spoke about last week. A celebration of the good people is necessary, but they emerge with such frequency that the list, in a deeply existential manner, is both always complete only in the moment and never actually complete. It got so last week that goats came down from the hills and started searching for more humans, obviously keen to share the information. It’s not clear if they found what they were looking for.

There is another ray of hope amongst the uncertainty and fear. Because the foundations of all we have come to accept as normal have been shattered, we have a chance to rebuild things better when this is all over. This is not to minimise the crisis; of health, education and exams, fears over employment and the myriad other elements that grow and grip like choking vines.

We still have some distance to travel during the coronavirus lockdown. But it has already made us rethink so much

But there are entrenched structural problems that big minds have wrestled with for decades that we can genuinely do something about.

Some days ago 80 charities asked the Chancellor to make £10bn available to write off debt carried by people on low incomes. This was to tackle, especially, outstanding council tax and social security debt. They also asked for a freeze on unsecured debt to allow some breathing space for those who really need it. This includes, don’t forget, some NHS staff.

Such calls before were greeted as pie in the sky, the demands of institutes and talking shops who had never lived in the real world. And so those at the bottom, frequently working but struggling just to get by, were left adrift. At The Big Issue we’ve reported frequently on the burden debt places on the poorest. It costs to be poor. We’ve seen how those on limited incomes have had to make choices between paying rent or food or council tax.

Council tax frequently was seen as non-essential and so was left unpaid. Local authorities, desperate for income, pursued the debt, and what was hundreds of pounds owed could spiral into thousands, due to fines and fees. And so the debt burden mounted.

Where we are now, £10bn doesn’t look like that much. After all Health Secretary Matt Hancock just wrote off £13bn NHS debt to help Trusts now and in the future. What if the burden could be removed, and so when we’re ready to go again those at the bottom are starting on a level playing field to be able to build futures with more promise and less fear.

We still have some distance to travel during the coronavirus lockdown. But it has already made us rethink so much. Within The Big Issue, we have had to move incredibly swiftly to find new ways to sell, so that we can keep helping our vendors. We thank those of you who have already subscribed, and we thank those of you finding us in shops for the first time. Continue.

And we’ll continue. And we can all think differently with all this new time to think.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue   

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