The closure of physical space was the most shocking thing for many people. We take that so much for granted, the ability to move around.
The ability, if we have the money, to buy a plane ticket and travel to the other side of Europe (for which you don’t need much money) or the world (for which you need a little more).
The ability to go for a walk. Not for any particular reason, just because you want to. Because you want to enjoy the existence of physical space, which only really exists for you to the extent that you move around in it. If you don’t move – if you can’t move – space shrinks, and it was a new, strange and unpleasant feeling to experience the shrinkage of space.
To be stuck, for the foreseeable future, with Here.
Without even the possibility of going There.
At first there was a sense of outrage, something almost like disbelief. How was this possible? How can this be denied to us?
For some people, though, it was a more familiar situation. The middle-aged and elderly in Eastern Europe, for example. Someone in that age group from the Czech Republic posted on Twitter: “Borders closed, empty shelves in the shops, shortages of basic goods – welcome to my childhood.”
And yes, there was something almost charmingly retro about it.
Not least the way that at the same time as we felt the space we personally inhabit shrink, the world as a whole seemed strangely to expand: places that are impossible to get to seem further away. For a moment we could experience the geography of the planet in a way that would have been familiar to anyone living before the mid-20th century – that sense of nearly insurmountable distance that separates the continents and indeed even the countries of Europe.
I know a man in Slovenia whose son lives in Italy, only a few kilometres away but on the other side of a national border. That border existed only notionally for 20 years. And then, sadly, this spring it was real again and they were separated by it. Really separated. For months they could not meet in person. They spoke on the phone or Skyped, but that was just not the same.
It might be hoped that our brief – hopefully brief – experience of that old world will help us to appreciate afresh the different world that we have managed to make for ourselves in recent decades.
I hope that it will.
In other ways, however, it might not be so great to go back to how things were before. Another and more tangible positive to all this is that it is now thought that global oil demand and carbon dioxide emissions might turn out to have peaked in 2019, as the pandemic may well have a lasting impact on both. It’s a question of habit again – the way the force of habit can make temporary changes permanent, for good or bad. The experience of Covid-19 has shown that behavioural changes in this area are in fact possible, that new and more sustainable habits can be formed, that we don’t actually need to jet around the world, that life can exist and thrive more locally if we want it to.