Just a couple of days ago I took this picture of a very long, straight track not far from where I live. The image was taken under a bleak sky on the Moine Mhor in Argyll, Western Scotland and it was difficult to separate the image from the reality of where we, as a species, now stand.
After all, humankind likes to know where it is headed, surely? The suddenness and apparent ferocity of this pandemic is outside our lived experiences and leads us to question many of the assumptions we have always taken for granted.
But we have been here before.
During the 1300's, the plague arrived on UK shores and very quickly began decimating whole villages, town and cities, with people having absolutely no idea of what it was (other than 'It's not good') or how to control the disease, let alone fight it.
Today we are a tad luckier. We understand the nature of disease, even as we sometimes struggle to contain new ones. But some things don't change, and that is our unerring ability to be controlled by events.
I say this because I have noticed a new and disconcerting aspect to social distancing. It is not necessarily how people I pass in the street will quite happily walk in the middle of the road in order to get past me (risking the high likelihood of death by automobile as opposed to the much lower risk of me directing a stream of pathogens at them). Nor is it the store assistant who attempts to squeeze themselves into the wall when I attempt to pay for my goods.
It is the apparent absence of me as a human being. The advent of perspex screens has provided not only a barrier to potential disease but also an effective screen against reality, dehumanising those on the 'wrong' side of such barriers. Alongside detailed lists of what you must do before entering shops, the average store seems to have become the face of 'us' versus 'them' and it is wearing heavily on the fabric of society.
I will give you an example: I tried to buy some eggs recently.
This is another commodity apparently in short supply although no-one seems to know the reason. Perhaps chickens are a lot more intelligent than we take them for and have taken the opportunity, under the guise of a pandemic, to hide away fertilised eggs and then one day unleash an army of hens against an unsuspecting population, ensuring world domination and a future where making an omelette is a hanging offence.
Or it could just be because of fewer deliveries to shops...
Anyway, back to my example. I asked the shopkeeper for 4 boxes of eggs. Yes, I know that sounds a lot, but with four of us in the family that amounts to slightly less than one per person per day. The shopkeeper was obviously taken aback by this brazen attempt by a customer to buy more than 2 boxes and immediately sought out a more level-headed colleague for advice and guidance, all this without speaking to me, or looking at me or even acknowledging the fact I was stood a couple of meters away. The two went into a huddle.
I heard darkly muttered words, '...four boxes...!' whilst I continued to maintain social distance with all the aplomb of a citrus fruit with nowhere to go. My attempt to mitigate what was turning into a major discussion by suggesting that I could probably stand to buy only two boxes was ignored because at this point it wasn't about my choice anymore.
I had thrown away that right and now it was the people behind the perspex calling the shots. They were in control and they were going to show it. The shopkeeper and their supervisor finished the huddle and still without looking at me I heard the word 'Two' uttered.
Two boxes of eggs were placed on the small area of counter not covered in a plastic barrier. I shrugged, paid the unsmiling person and, thanking the shopkeeper for their deference, left the store - feeling like a leper-in-training.
Of course, the shop was doing the right thing, ensuring that everyone has a fair share of goods. But it is not about the eggs. I can live without them and a great deal more.
This was about the screen and what it is doing to people, which is this:
They are displacing reality in some kind of fundamental way. The screens do not give physical distancing but give something more insidious -
A bubble. And not just any bubble but one that distorts the vision and provides two worlds. One that is safe and secure and insulated from the nasties that live out there.
And more, inside this bubble the rules are different. There is no longer any need to engage, to discuss, to quantify or to behave in any way that we were once used to.
The screens are more than just a precaution.
They represent an end to social norms.
©Nick MacIneskar 2020