One of the things that’s been most shocking about the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic is the speed with which life has changed. Within a matter of days, millions of us have lost many of our freedoms and found ourselves confined to our homes, under pain of arrest if we flout the government’s instructions.
In some parts of the UK, people seem to be pursuing the enforcement of the restrictions with unsettling zeal, even reporting neighbours they suspect of going out for two runs in one day to the police. The police themselves have also come under criticism for the heavyhanded tactics some regional forces have used to stop people from venturing too far from their homes.
Small wonder, then, that many people have been reaching for comparisons with dystopian fiction and totalitarian societies. Faced with such a harsh adjustment to our rights (which, with hindsight, are looking more and more like privileges, particularly when you consider what people in some of the poorest parts of the world are dealing with under lockdown), it’s easy to feel that we have slipped into some nightmarish distortion of our reality – a modern-day Stasi Germany, perhaps, or a gender-blind version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which we must all meekly follow the rules under the watchful eyes of Aunt Lydia.
I have felt this myself. A few days ago, having kept our toddler at home for quite a stretch, we decided to take a family walk. Fancying a change of scene and judging that we were less likely to encounter people on a hill top than in the streets around our house, we got in the car and drove five minutes to a local footpath.
The weather was patchy and a squall blew in as we were parking, so we sat in the car in the deserted country lane to wait for the rain to pass. As we did so, I noticed a police car moving along the road on the far side of the neighbouring field. A couple of minutes later, it appeared, driving slowly towards us.
The anxiety I felt at its approach was extraordinary. Would the police believe that we were out for our daily walk? Would five minutes’ drive prove to be too much to conform with the requirement to keep exercise local?
‘They don’t know we haven’t got a dog in the back,’ said my husband as the police car glided past.
Suddenly, the absurdity of the situation hit me: here we were, muttering to each other like criminals, trying to look as if we might have a dog (as if that would make any difference), for the sake of being able to go for a walk. The whole thing was laughable.
It was a similar story a few days earlier, when I encountered a man in a wheel-chair and his carer (both of them wearing face masks) while out for a run. As the pavement was narrow, I stepped onto the road to enable them to pass the requisite 2m from me. As I did so, however, a car appeared, wanting to park in precisely the spot I was occupying.
We hesitated, the driver, the man and his carer, and I, all of us paralysed by competing imperatives: the need to keep our distance and the need to get where we wanted to go. Then, as one, we began to laugh. What ridiculous creatures we were caught in this bind! How ludicrous this must look from the outside.
It’s for this reason, for the time being at least, that I can’t wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that we are living in a dystopia. There is still space for perspective and fellow feeling. We can still laugh with strangers over how silly it all is. We can still make memes sending the whole thing up.
If we are living in a version of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s one where Aunt Lydia farts and falls over now and again.