You can take our freedom but…

The ‘new normal’ after Coronavirus here in Spain feels more free than the last 7 weeks in almost total lockdown.

But I suspect people will soon, by their very nature, begin to feel restricted again and yearn for even more freedom. We just can’t help ourselves!

But what if we returned to exactly the same way of life as before – by which I mean – seven shorts weeks ago? How free would that actually be. In other words, how free were our lives before Coronavirus?

Our very existence on planet earth requires us to live within one society or another, whether that is communist China, tyrannical African nations or any democratic country in the western world.

By the very nature of our implicit agreement to live within that society and abide by its laws, we are sacrificing some of our freedoms in exchange for the protection of other freedoms which, typically, we value more. Each constitutional referendum is analogous to sitting down to sign a new contract with the government of the day – after extensive negotiations to optimise some new freedom. Our ancestors did it on day one and progress is dictated by our repetition of their arduous achievements – albeit via referendae which only become a reality when the political will for change has been nudged and cajoled by the people. Progress is solely for, by and of the people!

We are all born into one society or another and learn the rules as we mature towards adulthood, which is when we are expected to obey or suffer the consequences. Infractions before adulthood are usually viewed and treated by reasonable societal justice systems as outliers – unless, of course, the offending behaviour is repeated.

Once the age of consent is achieved we become legally and morally responsible for all our actions and must therefore conduct ourselves accordingly in both our public and our private lives.

The human paradox, I noted in the last few weeks, stems from the fact that different countries applied different levels of behavioural restriction, according to the requirements of their own particular crisis.

For instance, in Ireland, citizens were allowed to exercise within two kilometres of their home whereas here in Spain no outdoor exercise at all was permitted. Clearly the authorities of each jurisdiction were applying their own rules according to a variety of issues which were primarily guided by weighing the severity of the local crisis and the capability of their respective health systems to manage the fallout. So, different countries made different requests of their people which, on the whole, were complied with.

When presented with new restrictions of freedom, people appear to be willing to comply as long as they are also presented with reasonable cause. Failure to present the cause in a clear and efficient manner can lead to confusion – as was seen in the early days of the crisis in the UK. Boris Johnson literally bumbled through the first couple of weeks not knowing what to say or when to say it. Horse racing meetings went ahead, music concerts continued as scheduled and planned public gatherings the length and breadth of the country proceeded without hesitation. Whether these activities have had any significant impact on the overall crisis in the UK is still either unknown or hidden in the maze of data.

In contrast, Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez was immediately and sufficiently authorative (and concise) when presenting his case to the people in the early days. The potential severity of the crisis was made clear in no uncertain terms and, whether out of fear or a patriotic willingness to comply, the people of Spain stayed at home.

If it is true that, as members of the human race, we are essentially all the same, how is it that people in one country accepted more severe restrictions than people in another – despite the universally catastrophic consequences of the virus all across the globe and especially in light of the fact that, via social and mainstream media, anyone could see in an instant how the restrictions were completely different from one country to the next?

In a very deliberate move by many government agencies across the globe, the focus of the crisis was subtly shifted from the catastrophically significant death tolls to the bravery of the front line workers – risking their lives every day to ensure continuity of essential services, most notably the healthcare professionals. While data was collected on every conceivable aspect of the crisis, it was the emotions of the people to which the authorities played, rather than their mathematical reason and logic. Suddenly, every evening at 8pm in Italy and Spain, as in many other countries where significant numbers of the population in the major cities live in high-rise apartments, balconies rang loud with the sound of clapping, singing and banging of kitchen utensils – ostensibly as a show of solidarity with those ‘fighting in the trenches’ below. But there was something else, perhaps even more critical, that the ‘solidarity show’ provided to those on the balconies. It gave people something to look forward to – a brief but essential escape from the claustrophia of being couped up all day in their apartments.

As a photojournalist I was dispensated – on a number of evenings – to photograph the balconies at 8pm for a local newspaper here in Malaga. Solidarity was self-propagated as people saw their friends and neighbours on the front pages of the local press each week. But, as week six of lockdown in Malaga began I noticed a change. People seemed less enthusiastic. They stayed out on their balconies for only a brief time whereas previously they had spent at least fifteen minutes clapping. I concluded that enthusiasm for the restrictions of the lockdown was wearing thin and it appears that the authorities were coming to the same conclusion in Madrid – and elsewhere around Europe and the world.

The plateau of new Coronavirus cases was being reached in many countries at exactly the same time as the plateau for acceptance of the lockdown conditions was achieved. Whether there is a direct cause and effect between the two plateaus might be debated but I would proffer that it was no coincidence. People saw the data curves being flattened and started to immediately look to the future, when their previous freedoms might be restored.

Almost overnight, officials started announcing that a panel of experts had been assembled to discuss how best to begin to ease the lockdown restrictions. The morning news has since included the data from the previous day and reiteration of the planning process for easing of restrictions.

Spain has begun to implement a 4-stage exit strategy which will proceed over the next six weeks – at a minimum. As the second-worst affected country on the planet, it is astounding how effective the total lockdown has been in Spain. As I previously mentioned, each country applied their own proportionate restrictions. It appears now that the optimum strategy for Spain was complete lockdown. Whether we will ever know if another strategy might have worked is moot. We are now in the process of waking up from a fifty-day nightmare. When morning comes we will open our eyes and cast our minds across the ‘new normal’.

How much freedom are people willing to exchange for societal protection of their other freedoms? As much as it takes it seems – and then some. It’s all relative but there is a limit which was defined by the Coronavirus lockdown. You can take our freedom but, even in the most severe circumstances, we want it back after six weeks.

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