Editor’s Note: Julia Hobsbawm is a social philosopher and author specializing in addressing connected behaviour in the digital age. She has been consulted by the World Health Organisation, the OECD and the European Union on her ideas on Social Health and is Honorary Visiting Professor in Workplace Social Health at Cass Business School, City, University of London. Her latest book, “The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex Age,” will be published this month. The opinions in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Something extraordinary is happening in the middle of this extraordinary crisis. While the physical health of the world is in peril, a new kind of health is emerging in which the emotional connections between people start to strengthen along new, fresh lines. I call this social health.
This can be seen most clearly in the world of politics where old borders and enmities are dissolving. For evidence of this, look no further than my home country, Britain, and the response to the hospitalization due to complications from coronavirus of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
I have known Boris for 30 years, from when he was editor of The Spectator, the famous conservative magazine. I was briefly in charge of high-value donor fundraising for the Labour Party and am the daughter of a man so left wing that Bernie Sanders flew over to the UK to give the “Eric Hobsbawm” lecture at the famous Hay Festival.
Boris doesn’t do boundaries. If he likes you, he likes you. If you are not of his political persuasion, no matter. This underscores both his popularity with the public – he won a landslide in the general election in December – and the response to his medical predicament.
When “Boris” (we refer to our leader by his first name, unlike Americans, who seem to refer to theirs by his surname) was taken into St. Thomas’ Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament last Sunday evening and then moved on Monday night into intensive care, you could almost hear the collective gasp of grief and concern.
In the Daily Telegraph, house Bible of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party and where he was a popular columnist for many years, you would expect the kind of sentiment expressed by Allison Pearson who wrote: “the health of Boris Johnson is the health of the body politic, and by extension, the health of the nation itself. All 66 million of us are metaphorically pacing the hospital corridor, desperate for news.”
But another centrist commentator, Matthew d’Ancona of Tortoise Media wrote that: “On a professional level, Boris and I fell out many years ago … Sharp words have been exchanged. And yet none of that seemed to matter now.”
By the time he went into hospital Boris Johnson’s government was criticized for instigating lockdown late and for being behind the curve in testing. Before his hospitalization, the UK was nowhere near “flattening the curve” and as I write, deaths are nudging 1,000 per day. But his illness has overridden politics.
I found myself going into a mini-meltdown when I heard the news that the Prime Minister’s condition had deteriorated and he had been moved to ICU (he remained there for three nights but has moved to a main ward in a positive sign of recovery). I worried how we would all cope if he died, and I realized this felt more like a close family member than a politician or even loose friend.
I was reminded of the handwritten note Boris – then the mayor of London – had written to me in 2012 on the day after my father died, and I went to retrieve it from a memory box I kept of all the condolence cards. His postcard – handwritten on the back of one of his mother’s paintings as if to underscore that family matters most – was one of the first to arrive.
Signed “Love Boris,” he described my father – a man whose communist politics was viciously denounced by many on the right of politics and journalism, as “wise as a treeful of owls.” He closed his note by saying, “I bet you are missing him a lot, and hope you are bearing up.”
Boris is famously close to his own family, despite them all having very different politics. In her recent memoir, his sister Rachel recounts how she stood for an opposing political party to her beloved big brother, whom she calls “Al,” and how during the Brexit row her husband Ivo, “an out-and-out gloomster Remaniac,” was “much given to trolling his brother-in-law from the sofa on Twitter.”
A few months ago, I strolled through the pre-pandemic Lower East Side of Manhattan with Rachel and Ivo, and we joked about the “social death” that different politics can bring about within social circles (my own husband was standing as a parliamentary candidate for the Brexit Party at the time, and Rachel commented that that was even worse than her brother having caused Brexit in the first place).
But Boris has helped us rediscover not social death but social health: He has connected us all to the fact that in something as serious as life and death we all choose life. It is not complicated – and don’t politicians always try to say that everything is – but the opposite. It is simple. In the face of a disaster as epic as this pandemic, political boundaries which once felt rigid to turn out to be flimsy and crumble quickly.
In fact, this should be no surprise: Neuroscience shows that every healthy human brain has one default setting running through it like a motor: Connection. We are social beings first and foremost, and this crisis is actually uniting us in a way politics never could.
When things normalize, will politics every be normal again? It feels unlikely that the Republican – Democrat divide or the Conservative – Labour tribalism can survive in its current form in the face of a health issue far more pressing – that in the end we only care about one simple thing and one thing alone: Love.