Well, GFPs, and how are you all feeling? It’s been a bit of an up and down week for me. For no particular reason…I suppose the lockdown has been starting to chafe. My mum, who has been working with MSF in Yemen, arrived back in the UK on the 12th of March, and I have been with her so I can do her shopping etc since she is in an at-risk group. So my lockdown has been going on since earlyish March.
I am, however, luckier than most since here I do at least have access to a garden. As I stare out at a green woodpecker hopping across the lawn, that feels like the difference between sanity and…well, not sanity. And – unpopular opinion coming up – I simply cannot understand how any council thinks shutting down any green space in a city is the right approach. To successfully socially isolate we need more space, not less. And to state the obvious, it is not possible to keep two metres apart on a pavement that is not two metres wide. I have several times been forced into the road, where cars are still merrily speeding along. Which is, again to state the obvious, extremely unsafe, and could easily result in the kind of accident that may require hospitalisation. Which is the last thing we need right now.
And let’s face it: this is not an equal opportunities issue. If you live in an urban area you are much less likely to have a garden. In London, having outside space is on the whole a reflection of how much money you have. Every human needs access to fresh air, sunlight, and, ideally, sight of trees. Depriving us of these basic needs will be storing up multiple health problems for the future – both mental and physical. But while some may feel that they personally can make this sacrifice for months on end and make up for it later (exercise indoors! open your windows!) there are those for whom for those for whom this deprivation is particularly acute.
Imagine you have two small children who don’t understand why they’re cooped up all day in a tiny basement flat with little natural light. Imagine you also have a partner who sees it as your job to keep them quiet and who may at any moment explode into a rage if you aren’t successful. That he might take his rage out on you, or the children. That he might get physical. As I wrote in last week’s newsletter, domestic violence rates have risen around the world
, and now our over-stretched system is being hit by the same lockdown-driven increases: yesterday the BBC reported that domestic abuse calls are up 25%
One woman, who fled her abuser a few days ago, told the BBC life had become intolerable since the lockdown started.
‘Tara’, who asked the BBC not to use her real name, said she had been suffering mental and physical abuse from her partner for six months.
When the lockdown began things became markedly worse.
To start with the abuse was subtle: “Isolating me from my family and friends… thinking I’m cheating on him when I’m with him all the time… just controlling”.
Her abuser deleted her social media accounts and stopped her from seeing family.
She says he was “mentally abusive, verbally and obviously hitting me… recently it’s obviously been getting worse, since the lockdown.”
“It’s been bad… I didn’t care if I didn’t wake up like from the night before… I just knew what was going to happen the next day, I just wanted the days to go past.”
“As soon as he gets up, he tries to cause an argument out of nothing, and if I fire back he’ll just hit me.”
Tara has now fled to a refuge in Wales, and is being supported by Llamau, a charity for young people and vulnerable women.
Now imagine you don’t even have an entire flat, tiny though it may be, but are instead relegated as a family to a single room
, which may be infested with bugs and damp. Where you may be sharing a bathroom with multiple other families. Where there is no privacy and social distancing is a pipe-dream. And where there is certainly no room to “exercise indoors”. The least these families need is an hour a day when their children can run around and let off steam in a green space.
One brighter note to end on: some countries have been a bit more sensible than the UK about the need to enable social distancing in the street. In Canada, the city of Calgary is experimenting with road closures
to give pedestrians a more realistic chance of socially distancing when they go out either to the shops or to exercise. New Zealand has launched a $7m (£3.3m; $4.1m USD) pilot fund
to help councils reallocate road space and make safe travel easier during the Covid-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Berlin bureau chief shared a picture on twitter
of widened social-distance-friendly cycle lanes.
The tiny amount of space reserved for pedestrians and cyclists on our roads is not only important during a pandemic. Readers of Invisible Women may remember that women are generally less likely to be satisfied with pavements than men – perhaps reflecting that in normal circumstances, women are more likely than men to be walking, and dominate the numbers of those navigating a narrow pavement (made narrower by badly placed street furniture) with a pram.
Some cities were ahead of the curve:
Valuing cars over pedestrians is not inevitable. In Vienna 60% of all journeys are made on foot, in no small part because the city takes gender planning seriously. Since the 1990s Vienna’s head of gender planning, Eva Kail, has been collecting data on pedestrian travel and has installed the following improvements: improved and signed crossing locations (plus forty additional crossings); retrofit- ted steps with ramps for prams and bikes; widened 1,000 metres of pavement; and increased pedestrian street lighting.27
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, has shown similar deter- mination to give her city back to pedestrians, creating what are called superilles or ‘superblocks’ – squared-off sections of the city with low speed limits open only to local traffic, with roads where pedestrians have equal priority with cars.
Let’s hope that the cities currently playing corona-catch-up will let these pro-pedestrian designs stick. A possible silver lining. Oh, and, no, I wouldn’t have known it was a green woodpecker before lockdown. I can now also tell you what a blue tit looks like. More on this story as we get it*.
*since writing this I have also learned to identify a pied wagtail.