Richard Dawkins

Charlie Mackesy: Covid has shown we can build a kinder social media

'The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse' became a beacon of hope for thousands of people during the pandemic. Here its author reflects on what the experience has taught him about technology and human nature.

Charlie Mackesy

I had a terrible experience the other day. I was driving back from going for a walk with my Mum and I hit a robin. Robins are my favourite creatures – always have been – and it sent me in a downward spiral that ended with spending a fortune on birdfeeders.

The third lockdown has been hard for everyone. We’re in a strange hinterland, it’s dragging on and we’re fed up and exhausted. I’m a single man with a dog, so I haven’t really hugged anyone and I’ve almost forgotten how that feels. I think because of that my need for connection has gone through the roof, so I tend to ring friends and message people more than I ever would. 

To see that The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse has had value for some people over this time has been a bizarre privilege; to think that something you scribbled away at in a room, completely unwittingly, has now taken on a life of its own. I have had emails from people in hospital who have read it every day, families who use it to connect with parents who have dementia. One guy said his dad was dying of Covid and they read it together. Kids have been using it for projects in schools, too. I like the fact people have taken ownership of it and see things in the story I haven’t and never will. It moves me deeply. It’s everyone else’s book now, not mine. 

'Future vaccines might be swiftly edited to crush rapidly changing viruses'

A place that’s giving me hope, strangely enough, is Instagram. A few months ago, a girl commented that she was in hospital and her dad had just died from Covid and she was really struggling. All I could say was: I’m so sorry, I hope you’re OK. The next day I looked again and 400 people had engaged with her, listening and offering comfort. And it meant a great deal to her because they are real people, even though it's cyberspace – real humans connecting with someone. At the end of day I'm just a man scribbling away in Suffolk, trying to make sense of things. But that online community has definitely helped me deal with my own experiences of Covid too. There seems to be more openness now. It makes me feel less alone.

There's a drawing I did that was: we don't know about tomorrow, but all we need to know is that we love each other. And for me, that kind of sums it up. We don't know, really. We’ve got vaccines and lockdown results and all that. But ultimately, what gives me hope is the resolve and kindness there is in the community. That's what will win: how we choose to treat each other.

You can’t get more direct training in what really matters in life than a crisis like this, when the things we think are important are suddenly less so, and the things that we haven't necessarily seen as vital really are. And I think kids are seeing it, too. They recognise we’re all fragile and that love is the thing that will help us survive, rather than wealth or who comes first, or grades or winning. These things don't really teach us so much at the moment. I think that's the answer to this situation, apart from the scientists doing a great job with vaccines and the NHS: the population choosing to fight together.

In the mornings now, I sit in the garden and watch the birds flying around my new feeders. They're oblivious to all of this. Being able to lose yourself in the world, even just for a bit, is such a crucial part of the journey, I think.

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Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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