Is society broken? And if it is, are we too late to fix it?

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Residents in some Cornish seaside towns have said they are too scared to go food shopping because of visitors cramming narrow streets and ignoring social distancing. This lack of consideration reflects deeper social and political problems, argues Bev Haigh-Jones.

There’s no doubt 2020 will be one of the strangest years most of us have experienced. And one of the strangest things about it is just how differently people have responded to the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in.

This was brought home at the end of July when David Kurten, who represents the Brexit Party in the London Assembly, tweeted “Devon and Cornwall police announce they will not be enforcing the ridiculous mandatory face mask law. I’ll be going on holiday this year in Devon and Cornwall!” This announcement, not surprisingly, sparked a furious reaction from people in Devon and Cornwall, who simply couldn’t comprehend this level of irresponsibility from a public figure.

Society has always had divisions: moderate versus extreme, xenophobic versus multicultural, climate activists versus climate change deniers, Conservative versus Labour and – at least since 2016 – Brexiters versus Remainers. Differences like these have existed for as long as people have had opinions. But the events of this year seem to have turned such fault-lines into yawning fissures.

What can have prompted Kurten to make such a staggeringly offensive remark? No doubt he had been influenced by the extreme version of far-right ‘libertarian’ ideology that has spread from Trump’s America to the UK. But there is something else at work here, and I believe it to be the same factor that underlies the government’s abysmal performance through the pandemic: a lack of empathy for one’s fellow human beings.

Fortunately, we’ve also seen a very different kind of response among many ordinary citizens who volunteered in their thousands to help others, including people they didn’t know. Then, of course, there were all the NHS workers, care workers, pharmacists, supermarket workers, who kept us all fed, volunteers at food banks and teachers looking after the children of key workers. Yes, some of these people (though not all) were being paid to do these jobs and some may have had little choice. But for millions of such people, the priority was to help others.

Yet at the height of the pandemic, while the vast majority of people were complying with the lockdown for the good of all, the government defended its most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, when he was revealed to have clearly flouted the regulations while infected, with scant regard for anyone but himself.

Suppressing the Russia report, appointing dubious cronies to the House of Lords, ruthlessly blocking bills and amendments to bills designed to protect the vulnerable (such as the refugee bill, which would have allowed refugee children to join their parents in the UK, and the amendment aimed at including migrant women in the domestic abuse bill) and refusing to extend the Brexit transition period despite the impact of the pandemic all show a government completely lacking in empathy that is operating in the interests of a very narrow group to which it has connections. While it uses the rhetoric of social solidarity, its every action seems deliberately designed to deepen the fissures in our society.

The easing of restrictions in July brought more signs that such divisions are sharpening. While many people began venturing out and about in a cautious, considerate way, conscious that their actions could have dire consequences for those around them, others packed the bars and the beaches, paying little or no heed to social distancing and not wearing masks.

Just as distressing is the aftermath of mass visits to parks, beaches and beauty spots. Hordes arrive at pristine locations that haven’t seen human activity for months and leave them looking like refuse tips. How can these people not see what they are doing to our (their) planet? Do they really feel justified in relying upon those on the other side of this particular divide to volunteer to clean up after them?

Perhaps the answer is not to clean up after them. Perhaps if they arrived on an idyllic Cornish beach to find it already covered in the litter left by an earlier influx of ‘don’t cares’, they would realise just what they are doing. But I suspect not. Sadly, it would be the environment, wildlife and those that do care about the future of our planet that would suffer the most.

With the virus now on the rise again, some restrictions have had to be re-imposed and further easing put on hold. And, yet again, the great divide rears its head – on the one side, sighs of relief that we are doing what we can to protect our vulnerable from this terrible disease; on the other, more complaints about infringement of rights and the inconvenience of not being able to go to the pub or hold a street party.

We can only get through this pandemic by pulling together, pooling ideas and resources, and working as one. It’s exactly the same with the other massive challenge we face: climate change. This has not gone away; in fact, scientists’ projections have recently become even more extreme. Our future is not guaranteed; we have to work hard for it, and work together.

Unanimous agreement on everything is clearly never going to happen, and neither would it be desirable in a free society. But somehow we need to heal the most serious of these social fractures and come together in a shared culture of empathy and compassion, with the will to save the planet that is our common home.

The social fault-lines run through families, workplaces, social media and every other aspect of our shared experience. And when our government shows no desire to bring people together for the common good, it’s up to each and every one of us to do what we can, wherever we can.

This is no easy task. It will mean, among other things, people finding the courage to speak up when they see others acting without empathy or consideration for others – whether they’re friends, work colleagues or strangers sharing a public space.

The British were once famed for their tolerance, and in many ways this is an admirable quality. But tolerance of callousness and disregard for others are not – they’re a sure way to guarantee an increasingly divided future, or no future at all.