Covid#5 – 19 April 2020

So. Another three weeks of working out what to do next. Extension of the lockdown was no great surprise, but it came with less predictable woes. On the Tuesday after Easter, as the UK theoretically returned to work, the Office of Budget Responsibility warned of 10% unemployment and a 35% decline in GDP by midsummer. The IMF pitched in with predictions of ‘the worst global recession since the Great Depression’. Reports on Channel 4 News and the BBC simultaneously revealed that COVID-19 has been raging through UK care homes. Only hospital deaths figure in the government’s daily fatality statistics, and a report in Friday’s Financial Times said that uncounted victims might number six thousand in England and Wales. That would put the UK in pole position to reach the largest toll in Europe.

The care home scandal is the clearest evidence yet that the government came to this pandemic unprepared. But another charge against ministers – that they should set out details of an exit strategy – is less convincing. So many calamities lie ahead that strategising a route through the pile-up wouldn’t just be premature; it would be incredible. Transparent planning is important, but all that’s absolutely certain is that, whatever steps are taken to ease the lockdown next time round, the social world that dissolved in March isn’t about to return. Everything that draws strangers together, from acts of worship to dating apps, has already changed, and though dreams of a vaccine might keep us sane, the intensity of life under lockdown is scoring deep psychological tracks.

That’s making central London feel like a suspended city. Nostalgia got me even before it closed down, but as the desolate streets and shuttered shops have grown more familiar, the 24/7 metropolis of yore is becoming increasingly hard to re-imagine. Zone 1’s space-age plazas, pseudo-traditional food courts and lunchtime amphitheatres, eerie enough to begin with, are downright spectral without the commuters, tourists and slackers they were built to accommodate. Uncongested roads are flowing, but the lanes filled with emergency vehicles, supermarket juggernauts and passenger-forsaken buses aren’t traffic as we knew it. The most visible measure of London’s economic health, its advertising space, meanwhile looks like a particularly sickly COVID-19 victim: for want of lucrative clients, screens across the city are urging praise for the NHS and calling on consumers to save lives.

Every circuit through the urban desert takes me sooner than I’d like to the same dull oasis – home – but though I badly miss the detours and pit-stops of pre-pandemic London, things could be worse. During an evening of lockdown-fuelled obsessiveness last week, I excavated a book I’d last shelved about two decades ago – Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – and re-contemplated the measures taken in seventeenth-century France whenever plague broke out. Mayors would sub-divide their towns into residential quarters, and wardens were made responsible for specific streets. They locked all residents into their houses and, until the plague passed, everyone had to appear daily at a window to respond to a roll-call, on pain of death.

That didn’t just make me grateful for small mercies. It reminded me of conversations I’d had with several friends before our own house-arrest scheme began. They had complained that the government wasn’t clamping down hard and fast enough. Over recent weeks, lots of other people have been repeating similar charges: among them, plenty who’d say they were liberal. I can’t pretend to have agreed – though hindsight is showing the government got lots wrong, a Tory-declared state of emergency always felt instinctively to me like something worth resisting – but even if the clamp-down enthusiasts are right, their longing for a more decisive, repressive Prime Minister Johnson shows that political perspectives can shift fast during a crisis. And though Foucault had many convoluted and controversial theories, that’s why his account of French plague regulations is straightforwardly relevant today. Information gathered about individuals can be the source of immense power, and politicians who control it need to be kept in check.

That matters because of the current clamour over mass testing. The government’s consistent inability to organise the tests it’s been promising is glaringly apparent, and identifying people infected with COVID-19 would potentially benefit everyone, especially if recent contacts are traced and warned to self-isolate. Such a system won’t just spring into existence though. On Radio 4 last week, Imperial University’s Neil Ferguson said it presented an organisational challenge greater than Brexit and demanded ‘a small army’ of infection trackers and tracers. The government already seems to anticipate that ordinary members of the public will have an important role to play. Here, as in several other countries, apps are being developed that will use bluetooth to monitor physical interactions, so that people can be notified if they’ve recently been near someone who’s recently reported coronavirus symptoms. The questions thrown up are a lot easier to ask than answer though, and they go beyond concerns about mischievous mis-reporting and anonymity protections. What will happen to citizens who can’t be bothered to download a track-and-trace app or self-isolate? Will the government force them to? Will we, the people?

Another dimension is opened up by the controversy there has been about antibody tests: the ones that reveal not that someone’s infected, but that they’ve had the disease already. Ministers seem to have given up on Boris Johnson’s grand claim of mid March – that they’ll be a ‘game-changer’ – but only because trials at Oxford University found that 3.5 million tests purchased from China were useless. On 2 April, four days before the Oxford findings were reported, Matt Hancock was still vaguely foreseeing a time when recovered victims of the virus would get certificates or wristbands to prove their immunity. That was a double fantasy, because there’s no reliable evidence that exposure to COVID-19 produces lasting immunity, but a system that privileged people for beating off the disease would also be objectionable in principle. It would disadvantage everyone else, especially the old and vulnerable. It would encourage some people to catch the coronavirus rather than avoid it, and the value of certificates or wristbands could quickly generate a corrosive black market. The only way of safeguarding the system’s integrity would be yet further extensions of government power.

All the dangers lie ahead, and lockdown London certainly isn’t an Orwellian dystopia. Even if advertisers’ exhortations to love the NHS are starting to feel a touch totalitarian (and I admire health workers as much as the next potential ICU patient), police on patrol seem friendly enough. Though there have been reports of heavy-handed enforcement elsewhere, the greatest insensitivity I’ve personally encountered came from an officer at Kings Cross station, who laughingly told me that smack addicts now have to pay heroin prices for methadone. Drug dealers are being spooked by the city’s emptiness too.

States amass power invisibly and slowly though. And fear is driving so many decisions at the moment that authoritarian approaches to the current crisis are bound to gain support. Intrusive and repressive measures might even be necessary (I don’t yet know where I’d hypothetically stand) but it’ll be crucial to view the downsides through perspectives that aren’t just medical. If there’s one thing this government’s ineptitude has proved for sure, it’s that sound science can underpin bad policies. And the choices being made now are going to shape whatever’s left of society, long after COVID-19 subsides.

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