We have had a glimpse of who we can be as individuals and a society – we cannot afford to lose it
We need to talk about love. Not romantic love, or the love of a family, or between friends. We need to talk about love as an act of citizenship.
We need to talk about love. Not romantic love, or the love of a family, or between friends. We need to talk about love as an act of citizenship. It is this public, civic love that stubbornly defied fear and self-interest. This love, as an act of citizenship, is what shaped us as a society so that we could better bear the brutality of Covid-19.
We are not the same people we were at the outset of 2020. Our lives have been upended and our world radically changed. The unthinkable happened; a deadly, highly transmissible disease is on the rampage. It has taken the lives of over 3,500 people on the island of Ireland and over 1.4 million people globally.
We have endured nine months of deprivation, isolation, loneliness and uncertainty.
If we had asked ourselves back in March how we might react to all of this we probably would have predicted levels of fear and self-interest that might have destroyed society. This did not happen. We have been afraid, and rightly so, but fear did not dominate. We were naturally concerned for ourselves and our families and immediate friends, but self-interest did not dominate either.
Citizens volunteered in their tens of thousands. Over 50,000 people responded to the HSE call for staff and an army of volunteers took to city streets, towns and country lanes to provide support for those in need.
We took the long-view and provided support for the thousands of workers and their families who overnight became unemployed. We passed legislation protecting those in rented accommodation from eviction and capped rents. We temporarily nationalised private health care in order to care for as many people as possible.
We witnessed cross-party leadership that did not politicise Covid-19. In turn, we responded to this genuine political leadership. This leadership bravely set the tone by calling on us to protect the most vulnerable – because the most vulnerable were the most precious.
We did not see a dystopian society emerge. We saw the opposite; we saw a society cooperate, not disintegrate. We looked Covid-19 in the eye, this life-threatening illness that can literally put the fear of death into us, and we did not let fear dictate. We got bigger than our fear and self-interest and we expressed a public love that is audacious, muscular and civic-minded.
A love that has had to say a heartbreaking and a brave no, a thousand times. No to being together at family gatherings, no to the visits to our loved ones in care homes, no to human touch, no to embracing the bereaved, no to hugging grandchildren.
We have seen a society transformed by this civic love, this kind of citizenship and its daily displays of love witnessed in 2020. We found a different version of ourselves, a more tender and, at the same time, a more robust version of ourselves.
When we privatise love, we do love a terrible disservice. Confining love to personal relationships impoverishes individuals and society. There is nothing private about love, it is an expression of our citizenship. And like all forms of love it is also fallible, fragile and imperfect.
Amid the heartbreak of 2020 we have had a glimpse of who we can be as individuals and as a society. We can not afford to let this evaporate, we can not afford to let the crisis be wasted or betray the sacrifices we have made over the last nine months.
Crucially, it is this kind of citizenship, this kind of audacious, muscular, civic-minded love, that will also radically reform the gaping inequalities that Covid-19 revealed.
Who knows how we will be in the longer-term after this pandemic? However, now is the time to decide who and how we want to be as individuals and as a collective and maybe bravely reclaim a citizenship of love.
The great tragedy would be to go back to normal.
Originally published in The Irish Independent 31/12/20.