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The limitations of virtual community – and why we should be angry that it’s still a reality

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

As the world turns and the UK’s tragic, shamefully high COVID death toll gets mentioned less and less, it can be easy to look back nostalgically on the sun-drenched days of the ‘first lockdown’ in Spring 2020. While evidently this period was difficult for many, there seems to be a universal sense that 2021’s confinement engendered a new level of despair for most people in the UK. This feeling stemmed from the undeniable fact that this nightmare should have been over long before it got to that point. Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, Cuba; the list of island nations who negotiated the pandemic and returned to normality was substantial. The UK’s glaring absence from this list is a direct result of the government’s mishandling of COVID-19, and young people are still paying for it. While young adults across the world were visiting friends, working, attending events and festivals and having drunken political debates with strangers in greasy late-night bars, we were stuck at home. Our social lives, careers, and educational opportunities have been desecrated, and for what? The lack of progress throughout the entire lockdown cycle made the third lockdown, and the residual fallout, especially depressing. And one aspect of isolation which I’m utterly sick of is the continual reliance on ‘virtual community’.

Within this article, the term ‘virtual community’ refers to the various modes of remote interaction which have become so commonplace during the pandemic; online education and work, virtual events and conferences, Zoom quizzes and drinks, family FaceTimes and live streams from DJs and artists. Picture fifteen well-acquainted but hardly intimate work colleagues repeatedly interrupting each other in polite attempts to ask the customary question, ‘How are you finding lockdown?’. Envisage a sweaty Breakbeat DJ stationed behind a makeshift industrial desk, hectically spinning vinyl on Zoom like an entrenched soldier scrambling for ammunition. Think of ancient university lecturers plunged into the world of Microsoft Teams, relics of an old academic order forced to confront their technophobia head-on for the sake of students who were falsely promised a normal education. Virtual events are often chaotic and frustrating; however, they have proved invaluable in bridging gaps between individuals during the pandemic. The problem is, they were only meant to be temporary.

If over two years of strained online interaction and technological frustration has taught us anything, it’s that virtual communities are no substitute for the real thing. It feels as though there is a growing collective fatigue with these systems of communication, as young people become incrementally aware of the limitations of remote interaction, and of the futility of our sacrifices.

Let’s briefly consider the many government actions which led to this situation. Perhaps the foremost reason we entered a third lockdown was the government’s failure to establish an effective test and trace system. Eight months after PM Boris Johnson promised we would have a ‘world-beating test and trace’ system in place, this vision was in tatters. While East Asian countries like South Korea and Taiwan brought COVID-19 under control primarily through the implementation of effective test and trace structures, the UK switched its attention almost entirely to the distribution of vaccines. Rather than using test and trace to bring the virus under control, our government rested all its hopes on a vaccination programme which virtually all public health experts agreed should only represent one aspect of the fight against Covid-19.

One of the key reasons test, trace and isolate failed in the UK was the lack of support being offered to members of the public. At just £96 a week, statutory sick pay in England was the lowest offered by any major economy during the pandemic, and a survey for the TUC found that 20% of workers told to self-isolate who cannot work at home receive no support at all. Unsurprisingly, those who can afford to isolate will, and those who cannot are still forced to take their chances.

This situation reflects the harsh, elitist, individualist ideological beliefs which underpin British conservatism. The government’s staunch commitment to private sector cronyism led to the outsourcing of NHS Test and Trace to companies such as Serco, who were handed secret contracts worth hundreds of millions in exchange for failing to deliver a working system. Public outrage erupted when it was learned that between 25th September and 2nd October 2020, nearly 16,000 COVID-19 cases went unreported due to an alleged error with a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The following week it was revealed that just 68% of close contacts of those who had tested positive were being reached. Such dramatic failings are a direct result of the Tories’ actions. As environmental and political activist George Monbiot states, “money that could have saved lives has been diverted into corporate profits; inexperienced consultants and executives have been appointed over the heads of qualified public servants”. Thanks to this, we are still facing the effects of long-term, repeated lockdowns.

It is vital we recognise the direct relationship between the government’s failings and our continued reliance on virtual community. We can’t blame this seemingly endless lack of face-to-face interaction on some glitch or coincidence; this situation was preventable, and we must hold the government accountable. The long-term effects of the past two year’s depressing dearth of social activity, physical events and broader cultural stimulation are still unknown, but they will be serious. Ultimately, young people in the UK should be furious about this predicament. No other wealthy island nation in the world has recorded anywhere near the number of deaths we have, and yet it took the UK government almost a year to close international borders. A crucial section of our lives has been tossed away, and we are still relying on virtual modes of interaction which are no substitute for the real thing. Many people will allow the UK’s successful-looking vaccine programme to wash over the government’s many COVID-related failings; however, I don’t think young people will ever forget what they missed out on as a result of the Tories’ decisions.


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