Leisure and the Pandemic

Now is a once in a lifetime moment when leisure’s voice must speak loudly.

Last week I left depressed from an online panel of sociologists offering views on life during and following the pandemic. The panel was a part replacement for the normal British Sociological Association annual conference. The panelists were agreed that a return to the previous normal was not an option, and they seemed pleased about this. One vision was that in future we would live surrounded by personal clouds of air. Another was that digital relationships would be the norm. We were told that change would be slower than in the past, and backward rather than forward economically. The contributions with which I could agree insisted that the pandemic itself and therefore any final solutions must be global. Even so, national governments can make a difference. In Europe they clearly are making a difference. National governments must protect their own people in so far as they are able, and a return to the previous normal must be not just an option but surely preferable to all alternatives on offer.

I am becoming more-and-more annoyed and frustrated when medical experts tell us that it will be many months, maybe a year or even longer before, and that possibly we may never again mingle in bars, cafes and restaurants, go to the cinema or theatre, attend a music concert or festival, play group sports or attend spectator events, or go away on holiday. These sacrifices are dismissed as if they were minor inconveniences, acceptable collateral damage. The leisure voice must protest.

First, in the UK around five million jobs are stake, plus the businesses that created the jobs, and when the businesses have gone there can be no quick bounce back. Leisure employs more than manufacturing. The lockdown, not the pandemic itself, has tanked the economy at an unprecedented pace and raised unemployment to an unprecedented level.

Second, leisure performs vital psychological and social roles. It stabilises people’s minds. Indicators of destabilisation include suicides and mental illnesses. Leisure activities also create and maintain social bonds. Indicators of trouble include domestic abuse and (mostly online at present) expressions of hostility towards ethnic, national and religious others, cyber-attacks on individuals and institutions, and rampant cyber-disinformation. This damage most not be allowed to grow exponentially.

It is now accepted historical fact that the UK was unprepared for any pandemic despite warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO). It is impossible to believe that failure to prepare was following expert medical advice. This has restricted the UK’s scope for choice in addressing the pandemic. The WHO advocates a’ suppression’ strategy which has been followed by some European countries including Germany. This has to be the choice when an infection is usually lethal. It involves testing everyone who reports symptoms,  isolating those who test positive, tracing their contacts, then repeating until the chain of transmission is exhausted. ‘Test, test and test’ (as this strategy is known) requires pre-pandemic preparations, and may need to be complemented with ‘distancing’ measures but only in so far as necessary to keep human-to-human transmission within the capabilities of test, test and test. It is difficult to believe that no UK expert government advisers were advocating this strategy in January and February 2020. Whether by choice or default, the UK has adopted the alternative ‘containment’ strategy. This involves changing social behaviour so as to keep demand on health care within the country’s capabilities. This strategy is workable only with infections where the human-to-human transmission rate can be kept low, no higher than one transmission per infected person, and where fatalities are uncommon. ‘Lockdown’ has succeeded in containing transmissions, though the main drop appears to have occurred during the week before legal restrictions were imposed, and thereafter the rate has stabilised well within the  health services’ ability to cope. Whatever the strategy, until a vaccine or effective treatments become available, ‘herd immunity’ is the game ender.

Leisure scholars have no special expertise to comment on the wisdom of different national governments’ strategies. Our plea must be that leisure spaces and activities are among the beneficiaries of early, mid-term and late release from distancing restrictions. All out-of-home leisure cannot be left behind manufacturing, construction, education, personal and household services. This is not just to let people have more fun. It is also about allowing the workforce to work and earn.

I will add a personal plea that the over-70s should not be the last to be ‘released’. We have the fewest years of lifetime to spare.

Ken Roberts

University of Liverpool

26 April 2020.

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