Exploring how socio-economic circumstances impact our experience of the lockdown
I recently put together a little ‘triptych’ of shots summarising my isolation experience on my Instagram. These are the three spaces I’ve been spending most of my time during lockdown. It really got my thinking about how lucky I am to be able to curate my own environment. To have the spaces and resources to express myself with through my home. And how privileged I am to have so much space to work with. This is something we can all too easily take for granted. The implementation of lockdowns across the globe, and subsequent online learning and working from home has revealed the vast inequalities between even people ostensibly in similar situations, such as studying at the same university, or working similar jobs. It is often assumed that everyone will have access to a computer, fast internet, and a private space in which to work. But very often this is just not the case. If we are to respond to the current situation adequately, we must find ways of addressing these inequalities on a systemic level, not just with stop-gap measures. I count myself incredibly lucky to have a desk to sit at as I write this. Having lived in shared houses with a tiny bedroom in the past, I know that no matter how creative you are, sometimes your circumstances just won’t allow you to express it.
So some of us will be having radically different experiences of this lockdown than others. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the calculated outrage that has faced people making use of parks in London. Here in Australia tough regulations were put in place to prevent people gathering at beaches. Large groups were hanging out at the beach as if nothing was happening, completely disregarding social distancing guidelines. These people were ridiculed, and rules were changes. The annoyance voiced about using beaches as normal seems pretty reasonable – it’s vital that we reduce the rate of community transmission (and Australia seems to be succeeding at this). But though it is being treated as the same, walking in a London park in fact presents an entirely different situation.
According to a 2011 housing survey, over half of homes in London are flats, maisonettes or apartments, compared to just 20% in the rest of the country*. It is safe to assume that a) housing stock has not changed much in the intervening years, with a percentage increase in flats more likely than a decrease, and b) at least two-thirds of these flats will not have a garden or outdoor space. I don’t think we can really count balconies as a viable option for exercise. In the face of these statistics, what do we realistically expect these people to do during the lockdown? In 2011, Inner London had an overcrowding rate of 6.7%, while Outer London had one of 5.2%. This is measured by calculating the number of houses that have more than one person per room (excluding bathrooms and storage rooms and landings). In 2011 there were 3.3 million households in London. That means that at least 171,600 houses were overcrowded. The government is also actively encouraging people to exercise. On top of all the usual health benefits, continuing to exercise right now will help maintain a healthy immune system.
Public parks were created as just that: public. They are open spaces preserved and maintained for use by the people, and those people contribute to their upkeep through their taxes. In a city with such a high percentage of flats, it is hardly surprising that people seek alternatives to the gardens that they don’t have. Another side of this is the over-zealous policing of these spaces, but perhaps that’s best left for another discussion.
When looking down on the behaviour of others it is important that we consider where we are looking from – it is often a place of privilege. If we are lucky enough to have large houses or even just small gardens, it is important that we recognise the difference this will make to our experience of the COVID-19 crisis. Socio-economic privilege cannot completely protect you from risk or discomfort, but it can certainly make weathering the storm a lot easier. Instead of turning on our fellow human-beings, this should be an opportunity to empathise, and work to create positive change. If you think it’s outrageous that so many people are forced into public spaces, maybe you should start engaging with your local authority’s housing policy? If you think it’s stupid of people to go out in these circumstances, you should definitely stop to think about how your own situation might impact your view. If you are one of those without the ‘luxury’ of a garden but are trying to stay indoors anyway, it can be really frustrating to see others acting differently. But we should all, at all times but particularly now, remember that people are just trying to do what they think is right at any given moment. With confusing and conflicting advice, and leaders actively ignoring their own rules, it is hard to know what’s best.
The fact of the matter, and the simplest takeaway from this is that before we judge others, we should take a step back and engage our empathy. You will never do any harm by trying to understand where someone else is coming from, and sometimes you’ll do an awful lot of good.
How have you been finding the lockdown? Are you able to get out to exercise or are you staying indoors? I’ve shared some ideas on how to stay healthy and happy whilst stuck indoors, as well as some no-equipment indoor exercises I’ve been doing to help stay in shape. Please do share your experiences below, and especially your thoughts on how housing inequality is impacting our understanding of the crisis.