Twenty-eight weeks, this coming Monday, since the UK officially first went into lockdown in response to the Covid pandemic; and it’s perhaps not surprising that at this turning-point in the crisis – from summer to winter, and from short-term to long haul – rebellion against the situation we are facing, and some of its grimmer implications, has become all the rage. Tory backbench MPs do it, demanding the chance to debate the government’s local lockdown measures in parliament. Anarchists do it, complaining about the huge ramping-up of the role of the state in response to the crisis.
Online conspiracy theorists notoriously do it, replacing the complexities of the real-world situation with the false certainties of conspiracy theories that range from the weird to the downright deranged. And across social media, ordinary citizens and voters do it, some embracing those wilder theories about the existence and origins of the virus, others confining themselves to the usual litany of complaint about how the latest restrictions are “mad”, or “make no sense”.
There is, though, a world of difference between genuine debate on exactly how we handle the virus, and the kind of comment that dismisses all such measures as crazy, and a sign of some nefarious government conspiracy. Like climate change – long denied by so many – the virus is real. As we have learned, its particular characteristics compel us – if we want to avoid catching it – to stop doing many of the things most characteristic of human beings, in terms of interaction, sociability and human touch. And although most of our vital systems – food, energy, basic services – have so far survived the crisis fairly well, it’s arguable that after six months of limited real-world social interactions, of far too many Zoom meetings and not enough hugging, many people are beginning to crack a little under the strain.
In Britain and the United States, in particular, there is a visible culture-clash between leaders elected in an age when people had almost come to think of politics as a branch of showbusiness, and the reality of a moment that requires much more traditional government virtues, including sound administration, high levels of public trust, and a willingness to live out – as opposed to merely declaring – the idea that we are all in this together. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, who like Angela Merkel projects an air of solid fact-based competence with relative ease, Boris Johnson can barely announce a new round of lockdown regulations without a barrage of noisy apologetics about “freedom-loving” Britain, effectively undermining his own words.
As for Donald Trump – well, from the outset of the Covid crisis, he has been unable to resist taking a tone that has undermined expert opinion, first dismissing the disease as trivial, then routinely refusing to be seen socially distancing or wearing a mask, wandering off on bizarre medical theories of his own, and finally arguing that while 200,000 deaths in the USA do amount to a tragedy – one about four times greater, in fact, than American losses in the Vietnam war – it is somehow nothing much to do with him. And beyond these showbiz-style leaders, of course, stretches the clickbait universe of social media that helped elect them, always encouraging the rapid, un-nuanced response, and the vivid imaginary politics of the online culture-war, over the dogged realities of policy-making and institution-building that actually change voters’ lives for the better.
So how should responsible citizens face up to the hard months to come, and to the truth that Covid may be with us throughout 2021 and beyond? First, by facing the facts, and not wasting time on debating the obvious; with Covid as with climate change, the time for abstract speculation on the reality of the threat is over. Secondly, by accepting that the situation involves uncertainties; it is a childish waste of energy to start berating governments and scientists for occasional misjudgments, in a situation where they cannot yet have all the facts.
Third, by keeping our wits about us, and reserving the right, as citizens, to question policies where we feel they are genuinely going wrong. And fourthly, by normally taking all the reasonable precautions outlined by government; simply because, in the absence of certainty, it seems both courteous and kind to do all we possibly can to protect others from infection, particularly those more vulnerable than ourselves.
And finally, we can try to learn from this crisis, and to work and vote, in future, towards the kind of society that will be able to survive this century of crisis with as much resilience and good will as possible. The fact is that across most of western Europe, citizens enjoy levels of security and public support, in this economic and health crisis, that put the UK’s cash-starved state systems to shame. The NHS, for example, has risen to the Covid challenge, but only at the expense of a dangerous pause in other essential and life-saving treatments. Our cash-starved public health institutions have struggled to deal with the demands of test and trace; and our benefit systems and emergency support schemes are riddled with gaps and inadequacies that have left millions in serious poverty.
If we want to live well through this difficult time, in other words, then we could do a lot worse than to seek out kindred spirits, online or in our own local communities, who want, in the light of this crisis, to see a shift towards that better, kinder and more resilient kind of society; and who will work together on seizing this opportunity to change the terms of debate, to explore new ideas about our shared future, to push those ideas towards the centre of our politics, and to find leaders who are willing to begin the long task of making them a reality.
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