The Covid effect: city dwellers want to move to the countryside

7 march 2021 - City rats or field rats? If the debate between these enemy brothers goes back to the dawn of time and is not about to end, it has just regained new vigor in the wake of the Covid, which will soon be entering its second year in March. With its repeated confinements, curfews and restrictions of all kinds, starting with the closure of cafés, restaurants and shops, the Covid specter is prompting more and more people to leave the city to rediscover the charm and pleasures of nature.

The Covid effect: city dwellers want to move to the countryside

The famous psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik never ceased to remind us of this with his tongue-in-cheek smile: the compulsory confinement in France, in the spring and then in the winter, was not the same for everyone, both mentally and psychologically. There are those who found themselves shut away in their large flat or in their beautiful house in the country, with a garden and sometimes a swimming pool. This was the case for him, since he is lucky enough to live in a vast villa by the sea, near Toulon. And then there are the immense majority of people who have shut themselves up in their more or less cramped flat, without perspective, without balcony, with as their only outside contacts the noises of their neighbours and of the street, and with as their only horizon the walls dying of sadness of the surrounding buildings. If the former experienced the confinement as a rather special holiday, often enhanced by the small distractions of teleworking, the latter experienced it as a painful and unfair ordeal.

The temptation of the countryside

Even if the Covid episode is not yet over, we can already see a first fallout almost everywhere, in Switzerland as well as in France and elsewhere in Europe: city-dwellers were very afraid during the confinement and now dream of leaving the city to settle in the countryside. They had the impression of having been locked up overnight in a closed and anxious space; they want to find in the future the reassuring feeling and the sweetness of the countryside: space, nature, calm, the rhythm of the seasons, the proximity of the fields, the vines, the clouds... In fact, everything happens as if the confinement had rekindled a desire that was already floating powerfully in the air of time, the desire to live differently, in a simpler, more convivial and deeper way. The fashionable utopia, the green utopia, has definitively supplanted the old Marxist utopia which claimed to change the world by taming nature! A real change in civilisation that the French philosopher and essayist Régis Debray, Che Guevara's former companion in the communist maquis in Bolivia in the 1960s, who with age had become a sort of grumpy old conservative, had perfectly perceived and explained in a small book, "The Green Century", published by Gallimard in December 2019, at the very moment when the Covid epidemic began silently in Wuhan, China, before spreading throughout the world.

Anxiety about the future and the past

For the past twenty years or so, there has already been a lot of talk about global warming, climate change, biodiversity and the carbon footprint. But there was also, without anyone's knowledge, a deeper anguish buried in the collective unconscious, that of the great plagues of the Middle Ages which had decimated a third or half of the European population, mowing down indiscriminately young and old, men, women and children. But how could we imagine that these two visceral fears, that of the future and that of the past, would suddenly meet and reinforce each other with the appearance of a virus that was not very lethal? How could we imagine that this panic fear would take everything in its path and bring almost every country on the planet to a standstill? Ignoring that what we destroy destroys us," explained Régis Debray before the virus, "the tenant of the planet who thought he was his landlord finds himself in an insolvent squatter, threatened with eviction. The definition of good manners has been turned upside down. To emancipate oneself, yesterday, was to free oneself from natural scourges, today is to free oneself from the jackhammer to espouse photosynthesis. We leave the building sites to embrace the trees. We envy the good behaviour of the panther and the orchid: the former doesn't leave anything lying around and the latter emits oxygen, and not, like us, carbon dioxide".

Redistribution of the cards

Leaving the pollution and the heaviness of the city to breathe the air of the countryside: the trend is growing stronger every day, while the threat of the virus, tracked down by vaccines, is becoming less virulent. But from the city to the countryside, that is to say from the reality of the city to the dream of the countryside, the path is more complex and winding than it seems. The borders are a little blurred, ambivalent, changing, and they are more in the minds than in the field. Musicologist and writer, member of the Académie française, subtle and penetrating mind, Philippe Beaussant readily mocks "those who naively believe that what is white is not black and that what is not the city is the countryside". But if the countryside is not the opposite of the city, where can one escape from the city? The Covid has reshuffled the cards, but it is also to confuse them. Because if it has given back the taste of nature, it is the taste of an invisible and elusive nature, an imaginary nature that is constantly slipping away. The West desperately wants to be green," says Régis Debray, "but it wants to be green in its own way, "soft, light and fun". The village café, the old school, the church, the fields that smell of manure and the farms that smell of animals don't always appeal to him. City dwellers want to free themselves from the demigods they can no longer stand - the car, stress, aggression, speed - and rediscover a sensitivity, a quality of emotion, an openness of heart and mind. Meditation, silence, zenitude: the eternal codes of the countryside titillate the rats of the cities.

François Valle