That was the fate a senior Belarusian official in Tokyo saw in store for sprinter Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya last weekend, after she publicly criticised coaches in the national Olympic squad. It looks as though she’s actually broken free, but for millions of her compatriots – functionaries keeping Alexander Lukashenko in office, as well as people who long to see him leave – the hazards are more perilous than ever.
News out of Belarus has hardly been slow of late, but it feels as though the drama is accelerating. I’ve just written an LRB post (https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/august/into-the-devil-s-vortex) about the Tsimanouskaya drama – which coincided with the mysterious death by hanging of a 26-year-old opposition activist in Kyiv – and that’s made me reflect on the fear and malevolence that’s now hanging over Lukashenko’s determination to retain power. A couple of years ago, knowing little about Belarus except that I fancied a holiday there, I saw him as a benign figure by neo-Soviet standards: almost avuncular, as dictators go. No longer. His regime isn’t just victimising people who make their opposition public; it poses a challenge to everyone’s integrity and self-respect. To survive, it insists on positively indulgence, no matter how unreasonable Lukashenko’s demands. And that’s not going to end well. As I’ve said before about the pseudo-president’s ‘reasons’ for grounding a Ryanair jet, threats of external aggression he invokes are delusional – but within Belarus, there’s a bomb on board.
In the middle of March 2020, with COVID-19 rolling in, I spent a gloomy Wednesday wandering the botanical gardens at Kew. A friend had called that morning to offload a rumour. Someone she knew in Whitehall had apparently heard the army was going on standby. Thrilling as top secret gossip is, the idea of clandestine troop movements was making me anxious. A day earlier, Boris Johnson had promised ‘drastic measures to check the coronavirus’s progress’, and there are few politicians whose pursuit of drastic measures could reassure me less. Hence, Kew. I hoped it would be a calming experience.
That was Wednesday. By Friday, I was all for drastic action. The prime minister had announced England’s first lockdown, and another friend had been in touch to say a party he was planning that weekend would go ahead. Disdainful though I am of Johnson, the invitation annoyed me more. With all the passive aggression I could muster, I swotted up on epidemiology and told the world via Facebook why recent advice about ‘social distancing’ made sense. My would-be host was probably displeased – he certainly didn’t Like the post – and though I never asked how the soirée went, our interactions have been going downhill ever since.
Other perspectives were as wobbly as mine. On 23 January 2020, when Chinese authorities barred entry to Wuhan and ordered residents to stay indoors or go to jail, lots of Westerners were amused or amazed. Locking down and sealing off a city to contain a disease seemed both anachronistic and dystopian: a medieval measure that only a hi-tech dictatorship could get away with. By March, the mood had shifted. With the spread of COVID-19 slowing in China, it became common in the West to hear that quarantines and travel bans were essential. Plenty of ordinarily easy-going folk were sure that opposing such constraints had always been reckless – perhaps even criminally negligent.
Fourteen months and three lockdowns later, the United Kingdom has recorded almost 128000 COVID-19 deaths – the fifth highest fatality figure in the world – and that suggests strongly that lethal mistakes were indeed made. Excess mortality rates are more illuminating, however, because they show how monthly deaths from all causes (including those brought about by lockdown constraints) compare to previous years – and though the UK’s position was unenviable for most of 2020, it’s improved considerably in recent months. A health ministry that was once an unfunny joke is meanwhile winning plaudits for the NHS’s vaccine roll-out. It’s not clear what the praise proves – except that the prime minister’s fondness for gambling and delegation paid off on this occasion – but there’s at least one observation that’s pretty certain. Opinions are still in flux.
That means any assessment of governmental performance can only be provisional. Despite the need for genuinely independent scrutiny of its preparedness and policy choices, evidence is still coming in. One aspect of the ongoing crisis demands immediate attention though. Whatever might be said about the political side of this pandemic, its emotional dimension has been intense – and that’s posing a serious threat to mental health which could outlast COVID-19 itself.
With anti-depressant prescriptions at an all-time high and England’s hospital waiting lists at their longest since records began, charities have been sounding alarm bells for months. Last October, the Centre for Mental Health predicted that ‘up to 10 million people (almost 20% of the population) will need either new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the [pandemic]. 1.5 million of those will be children and young people under 18.’ A month later, MIND warned that ‘urgent and emergency referrals of people in crisis have shot up since the beginning of the first national lockdown, with figures for June and July higher than ever previously recorded.’ Related problems like alcohol abuse and domestic violence have also surged, and personal perspectives have become intertwined with the pandemic’s most volatile political question: whether people are being hurt more by COVID-19 or the effort to control it. As that issue has come to monopolise chit-chat and parliamentary debate, older quarrels have almost fallen silent. Arguments about immigration, terrorism, the environment and the economy will one day ring out again, but the new fault line is still deepening.
Having decided last year that lockdowns are better than collapsed health services, I know where I stand. But though it’s tempting to caricature the other side, associating its arguments with the lunatics who fear nanochipped vaccines and 5G mind control, I’m sure many of their arguments make sense. It’s at least arguable that measures to control COVID-19 have worsened well-being more than they have protected it. It’s also demonstrably true that sweeping public health powers are open to abuse. Today’s anti-lockdown gatherings are tame compared to ‘cholera riots’ that swept Europe and the United States in the 1830s, and protesters back then weren’t pitchfork-wielding imbeciles: just slum-dwellers living precarious lives, unhappy that officials wanted to evict, confine and forcibly medicate them. And governments today are certainly open to criticism. Many have used COVID restrictions as a pretext to harass opponents and victimise minorities; in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, the people arrested and penalised for violations have been disproportionately non-white.
Important as rationality is, however, it’s not logical disputation that’s energising the distress. In the face of lives lost and futures thwarted, it’s fear. There have been bleaker responses to disease – in 1348, for example, when thousands of Europeans greeted the Black Death by publicly whipping themselves and by massacring Jews – but people are certainly lashing out and flailing around. (The raves that erupted across England last summer recalled nothing so much as the dance frenzies that were once a regular sideshow of plague outbreaks in Europe.) Science itself is fuelling emotional conflicts. The online journals I’ve taken to skimming have fortified a commitment to all sorts of uncharitable conclusions: I now assume anti-maskers to be scientifically illiterate or sociopathic, for example, and I instinctively attribute vaccine hesitancy to underlying cowardice. Others, just as self-righteously, invoke alternative data to establish that masks are muzzles and that people like me are ‘sheeple’: fools incapable of understanding their own subjugation. That’s a broad gulf to bridge.
When I last saw the friend who’d been determined to party on in March 2020, we fumbled for common ground. It wasn’t there. As we trudged along a deserted Portobello Road in late December, a few days into England’s third and dreariest lockdown, he said he’d been convinced by internet research that COVID-19 was a psychosomatic condition. ‘Dark forces’ had inflicted it on the world, and though he wasn’t sure of their motives, he thought the forces probably included the Queen of England and some very powerful ‘Rothschild bankers’. We parted with an agreement to disagree, but I don’t expect the debate to be resumed. Stances that began solidifying during the first lockdown won’t evaporate when the last one ends.
Oppressive though the first lockdown was, the spring of 2020 didn’t depress me. It was too dramatic for that. As I cycled through London’s empty streets – spooky as Pompeii, still as the moon – it wasn’t the prospect of infection that troubled me so much as portents of apocalypse. Did China’s diseased bats and pangolins mean monstrous mutant microbes closer to home? Was clapping for NHS workers the sound of solidarity, or a noise to fill a void? Even the louder birdsong hinted at extinction. Humanity was in trouble; Planet Earth was happier than ever.
The same fear that decelerated activity in March 2020 dynamised other lives too. While some spiralled towards loneliness or claustrophobia, a sense of shared danger strengthened many households and relationships. Routines were shattered, but also transformed. With the world turned upside down, some exceptionally vulnerable people were even normalised. When benefit offices closed and millions of workers went on furlough, the stigma of unemployment vanished. Official advice to disinfect regularly and keep strangers at a distance validated all sorts of obsessive and compulsive disorders. Even hypochondriacs had reasons to be cheerful, sort of.
Everyone’s lived through a long annus miserabilis, but it’s also been a fourteen-month roller-coaster ride. Insofar as the distinction between coronavirus regulations and government guidance has been understood at all, reactions have ranged from obedience and acquiescence to complacency and anger – and the lurches from isolation to release have reset expectations so many times that an end to the journey is almost unimaginable. When I recently discussed post-lockdown plans with a group of friends, the observation that rang truest was as ominous as it was plaintive. ‘I don’t know what returning to normal means’, said one. ‘I’m not even sure who I am any more’.
As might be expected at a time of great tension, signs of mania aren’t in short supply. Since the government flagged up 21 June as a day for the nation’s suffering to end, four months in advance, corporations from nightclubs to Nando’s have been scheduling midsummer celebrations. Exuberant socialites and over-worked journalists are meanwhile prophesying that COVID-19, like the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago, is about to give way to a new Roaring Twenties. Even if you ignore the comparison’s downsides – fifty million deaths, followed by Fascism and the Wall Street Crash – that’s tempting fate. A virus that’s mutating billions of times each day won’t be over till it’s really over, and pockets of vaccine hesitancy may well make localised restrictions routine. Corks will pop when the last coronavirus regulation falls away, no doubt, but hangovers are just as certain. As the 1930s reminded the 1920s, civilisations don’t party their way out of catastrophe.
Epidemiological history also suggests that the nostalgists should be careful what they wish for. Spanish Flu had effects on mental health that long outlasted the Roaring Twenties. As had also been true of 19th-century influenza outbreaks, suicidal propensities seemed to rise in tandem with incidents of the disease, and as the flu subsided after 2019, a mysterious new syndrome involving symptoms ranging from insomnia to erotomania started to spread rapidly. The ‘sleepy sickness’ would never be as lethal as the virus that had just swept the world, but its scale wasn’t small. By the time encephalitis lethargica stopped spreading in 1927, as suddenly and inexplicably as it had arrived, nearly half a million people were dead, and hundreds of thousands had been reduced to zombies.
Levels of distress were high already, because the First World War had left millions shell-shocked and bereaved, but anyone who’d survived a bout of influenza seems to have been distinctly more vulnerable. A scholar who’s sifted through medical records in Norway – a country that stayed neutral between 1914 and 1918 – found that throughout the first half of the 1920s, people who had had the flu virus were more than seven times likelier than anyone else to be hospitalised with brain disorders. And though no one ever established that the sleepy sickness was caused by Spanish Flu, there’s strong evidence of some kind of link. An increasingly plausible theory holds that sufferers were attacked by their own immune systems: in other words, the symptoms of encephalitis lethargica were by-products of a successful effort to fight off the flu.
That reflects current research into COVID recovery which could carry significant consequences. An analysis published by The Lancet Psychiatry inApril, which drew on data from 81 million health records, suggests that one in three people infected with coronavirus have gone on to experience neurological and psychiatric problems within six months. ‘Long COVID’ is still more of a label than a diagnosis, but early research already indicates that some aspect of the disease – if not viral particles themselves, an over-active auto-immune response known as ‘a cytokine storm’ – can spark mental disorders that are known to be recurrent or chronic.
The upshot is that a second health crisis is already on the way. The government’s only response so far has been to earmark ‘around £500 million’ extra for mental health services next year, and the Queen’s Speech indicated that social care reforms will be ‘brought forward’ at some point in 2022. That better be enough. Inadequate preparations for COVID-19 may or may not be judged excusable. A failure to anticipate its inevitable aftermath won’t be.
On the anniversary of my visit to Kew Gardens in March 2020, I made a return trip. The purpose in general was to exorcise pandemic demons, but I was also on a mission. Among the fifteen million trees uprooted by England’s great storm of 16 October 1987 is an oak planted in the grounds back in 1798 – and unlike the millions that fell, it’s still around. With freakish good fortune, winds ripped it from the earth only to plonk it right back again. And it didn’t just survive. The shallow root system, squashed like a pancake after two centuries, was rejuvenated – inspiring fresh approaches to soil aeration at Kew that have transformed tree management throughout the world.
The interest in arborology wasn’t quite as geeky as it might sound. I’d been reflecting on how surprises emerge from disasters. Any tree that’s shrugged off a cyclone is worth admiring in my book, but I hoped this oak in particular might suggest fresh perspectives on the pandemic. Past outbreaks of disease have always had their upsides. Though they necessarily leave wreckage in their wake, they’ve also accelerated medical research, turned stinking slums into boulevards and sewers, and inspired landscape architects to prettify hellholes from Hackney to Manhattan. Might responses to our current predicament improve lives again?
An affirmative answer depends on optimism rather than facts, and though my return to Kew was supposed to accentuate the positive, I’m not as confident as I’d like to be. Even at the time, circling the lucky oak concerned, I’d suspected that life after COVID won’t really feel much like an uplifted tree. It’s not the virus but lasting resentments that threaten to do most long-term damage. In a country that was disunited enough after Brexit, intensified anxieties are now swirling: not just the obvious fears of sickness and death, but also the stresses of isolation or enforced cohabitation, concerns about education and career prospects, and worries about redundancy and impoverishment. The country’s polarised all over again, unevenly but bitterly, and even if COVID-19 were to disappear in the rear-view mirror, the unease, the dread and the anger would remain.
Any individual who suffers serious shock or pain is liable to reshape or repress memories of the experience – and though a society can’t do that any more than it can regrow roots, another dark aspect of the Roaring Twenties suggests that collective trauma may also lie ahead. The 1920s fizzed with creative energy, and yet efforts to memorialise Spanish Flu’s devastation were vanishingly rare. Scientists and journalists tracked its progress, and a handful of artists captured its agonies – most hauntingly, Egon Schiele, whose self-portrait alongside a doomed wife and unborn child was completed three days before his death – but subsequent recollections aren’t now available anywhere except in a few obscure academic archives. The great pandemic novel never appeared, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the world was reminded of sleepy sickness. By then, sufferers of chronic encephalitis lethargica were thin on the ground, but Oliver Sacks had been treating several survivors with a new drug – and in the book that made him famous, Awakenings, he described the very different treatment meted out to tens of thousands of others in the late 1920s. ‘Like lepers of the present century’, they had been shunted off to asylums and closed hospital wards where, for decades, they had been left to sleep their lives away.
One explanation often advanced for the forgetfulness holds that decimated populations were keen to put death behind them. It’s not that convincing, in that the millions killed in Europe’s trenches would be honoured on both sides of the Atlantic with sombre cemeteries, cenotaphs and eternal flames, but the link between pestilence and warfare is worthy of contemplation. In the only significant work of literature that ever addressed Spanish Flu head-on, a short story by Katherine Ann Porter, they are co-protagonists. Drawing on personal experience, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a fever dream in prose. Its central character hallucinates a death she’ll escape, while influenza claims the Texan boyfriend who’s waiting for a ship to carry him to war. As normalcy returns, fighting ends in faraway Europe and wild celebrations erupt on the streets outside.
It’s a hypnotic novella: a slender monument to a killer at least as lethal as the First World War itself. Not every invocation of battle is as haunting. The prime minister has regularly compared COVID-19 to a violent adversary, but plans he’s promoting to memorialise the virus at St Paul’s Cathedral and elsewhere could easily reduce carnage into kitsch. Services of remembrance and rituals to hallow the fallen can soothe pain; to mend mental injuries, experience needs to be remembered. And when this pandemic ebbs, it won’t be a triumph. Pathogens don’t produce victors – just victims.
Last week’s Supreme Court ruling that Shamima Begum has no right to return to the UK isn’t the last we’ll hear of her. It certainly doesn’t establish that the Home Office can abandon citizens suspected suspected of bad things, just because they’re foreign enough to have vague chances of getting citizenship elsewhere. It’ll make it far harder for the 21-year-old to mount a substantive challenge, however. Sajid Javid’s original decision in February 2019 didn’t happen in a vacuum, and just in case anyone’s interested in remembering how we got here, I thought I’d repost a piece on citizenship-stripping that I wrote for the London Review of Books back in 2015: https://tinyurl.com/yak26563. It’s behind the LRB paywall, but if memory (and cut-and-paste skills) serve me right, the full text goes something like this . . .
“The removal of citizenship has been used as a penalty for disloyalty only rarely in Britain. A handful of spies with dual nationality were denaturalised during the Cold War, but the last case in the 20th century was in 1973. Change came slowly even after 9/11: only five people were stripped of British citizenship by Labour home secretaries, and the emblematic bogeyman of the era, the hook-handed Abu Hamza, repeatedly dodged moves to annul the Britishness he had gained through marriage. He didn’t manage to elude extradition to the United States, where he has now been jailed for life, but for what it’s worth, he remains notionally a British subject.
The obstacle to swifter executive action is the rule against statelessness. Originating after the Second World War, it reflected a belated concern about the removal of citizenship from Germany’s Jews in 1935. With the consequences of postwar decolonisation also at issue, the UK helped draft two treaties aimed at limiting the freedom countries had to abandon their residents. The rule counterbalanced a new power given to the home secretary in 2002 to withdraw citizenship from people who had ‘seriously prejudiced’ vital national interests. The criterion was broadened under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, which made it possible to withdraw citizenship whenever it was ‘conducive to the public good’. Even in Abu Hamza’s case, the rule wasn’t challenged: the government argued instead that it wasn’t relevant, because the preacher remained Egyptian. The judges weren’t convinced: on the evidence they’d heard, Egypt seemed to have disowned him.
Soon after Theresa May became home secretary in May 2010, the Home Office lost its tussle with Abu Hamza, but she was determined to be more effective in her attempts to remove citizenship – and to do it more often. In her first six months in the job, she issued five revocation notices – as many as had been issued over the preceding 37 years – and the rate has accelerated steadily. By early 2013, she had moved against 32 more individuals, including at least five born in Britain. But last October, another inherited case got her in legal trouble. Hilal al-Jedda entered the UK in 1992, seeking asylum from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He was granted British citizenship in 2000. In 2004, he was detained by British forces in Iraq on suspicion of terrorist offences and held without charge for three years. Shortly before his release in 2007 the then Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith notified him that his citizenship was being removed. Home Office lawyers resisted his subsequent appeal by contending that he was still entitled to Iraqi nationality and could reapply for that if he wanted. The Supreme Court was unpersuaded. Al-Jedda argued that he shouldn’t be put in the position of having to ask Baghdad to take him back. The judges agreed: whatever Iraq’s response might be, it was Britain’s actions, not al-Jedda’s failure to act, that threatened him with statelessness.
None of this stopped May issuing an order to deprive al-Jedda of citizenship a second time. But the Supreme Court’s refusal to speculate on the future attitude of a foreign state spurred her to rewrite the rules. She told MPs in early 2014 that the court’s ‘disappointing’ decision had made it necessary for her to ask Parliament for further powers. The outcome was section 66 of the Immigration Act 2014, which gives the home secretary the power to reverse the granting of citizenship if a reasonable reading of another country’s laws suggests the individual could gain nationality there. The new powers could have been even more sweeping. May initially wanted the right to denaturalise British citizens without regard to statelessness. But section 66 is far-reaching enough. May had already shown herself ready to strip citizenship from dual nationals born in Britain. Now, so long as there is a chance of their gaining dual nationality, naturalised citizens will be at risk.
All the revocations that May has issued so far have survived judicial challenge, and an authoritative Supreme Court decision in March suggests that the legal wind is finally behind her back. An unusually large panel of seven judges, convened because of the importance of the case, upheld her withdrawal of citizenship from Minh Quang Pham, an alleged al-Qaida activist born in Vietnam. The judges ruled that Vietnam’s refusal to have him back imposed no obligation on the home secretary. The only fault they (implicitly) found was with officials in Hanoi, because Minh’s right to citizenship was clear under Vietnamese law, yet was being ignored.
If citizens can be forsaken on the off-chance that another country will take them on, who bears responsibility for the ones who end up with no nationality at all? The evidence so far suggests that, one way or another, it will be the US. Minh was extradited there even before the result of his appeal was known, and the Americans have taken on at least three more ex-Britons. One was spirited from East Africa to Manhattan by FBI agents, who swooped in soon after May declared him un-British. Two other Londoners didn’t get that far: after being stripped of citizenship, Bilal el-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr were killed in Somalia by US drone strikes in early 2012.
The Home Office strongly denies that it is co-ordinating the withdrawal of citizenship with the US Justice Department and the CIA, yet all but two notices of revocation on national security grounds have been served while their subjects were abroad, and both GCHQ and a facility at RAF Marham are permanently engaged in supplying the US drone programme with real-time intelligence. It may be that some of May’s decisions on citizenship aren’t promoting the public good of this country so much as serving the American desire for British Islamists to be taken out of circulation.
It might well seem that delegating the disposal of ex-Britons to the US would be vulnerable to legal challenge – but it probably isn’t. In the same month that the home secretary asked MPs to extend her powers over citizenship, the Court of Appeal drastically reduced the judiciary’s right to oversee any contribution Britain might make to US-led military operations. In response to a Pakistani who blamed GCHQ for guiding the drone that killed his elderly father, Lord Dyson held that a respect for foreign governments precluded further investigation: otherwise, he argued, facts might be ascertained and conclusions expressed that ‘would be seen as a serious condemnation of the US by a court of this country’.
The decision pretends deference, but it’s disingenuous. Actions taken by another government often have reverberations that merit legal scrutiny here – as, indeed, the Supreme Court recognised when it noted Vietnam’s failure to observe its own citizenship laws. And Dyson’s reasoning obscures a growing recognition that even in wartime, arbitrary violence is wrong. The British military vaunts its strict rules of engagement, but if our courts have to look away whenever a friendly country is involved in the fighting, the only legal safeguards will be the ones enforcable in the courts of that country – and in the US, to take the case in point, judges have denied themselves the power to examine even the targeted killing of American citizens. Suspicious seeming ex-Brits stand no chance.
So what? Hasn’t everyone deprived of British citizenship in recent years done dubious or violent things; didn’t most of them put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time? Perhaps, but citizenship isn’t ordinarily forfeit on proof of bad conduct, and for good reason. Many governments would like to rid themselves of unwanted residents, and those that countenance statelessness threaten to increase rather than reduce the problems associated with any who are poorly integrated. Their efforts are also wrong in principle. Citizenship, Hannah Arendt said, is ‘the right to have rights’. Citizenship isn’t a transient privilege, but an ancient status on which legal order is built. If individuals are accused of wrongdoing, they should be brought to trial, not issued a notice by the Home Office that cuts them loose and exposes them to unregulated and potentially lethal action by another country.’
The law that’s just obliged England’s shoppers to wear masks got several angry right-wingers even hotter under their collars. Desmond Swayne MP called it a ‘monstrous imposition’. James Delingpole wondered if it was the most damaging and self-destructive thing Boris Johnson has ever done. Peter Hitchens waxed nostalgic and apocalyptic at the same time: anyone who wore a ‘muzzle’ was assenting to ‘the final closing down of centuries of human liberty and the transformation of one of the freest countries on Earth into a regimented, conformist society, under perpetual surveillance.’
Opposition to legal compulsion isn’t quite as ludicrous as those objections make it sound. Australians, Scandinavians and the Dutch have been even less inclined than English people to wear masks during the pandemic, and no Nordic state makes them compulsory at all. The more radical forms of dislike emerged among fringy supporters of Donald Trump, but their idiocy isn’t conclusive proof of mandatory masking’s effectiveness. No randomised control trial has ever established (or tried to establish) that face coverings slow the spread of COVID-19 among apparently healthy people. Until June both the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control were correspondingly equivocal about whether wearing them in public places should be routine.
Since the only obvious downside of more face coverings is more litter, that doesn’t explain the fury though. Coughing into elbows isn’t a scientifically validated precaution either, in that no clinical trial has ever measured its benefits, but it’s unwise for everyone to cough into their hands during a pandemic all the same. And whatever Desmond Swayne might say, the only thing definitely monstrous about the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings in a Relevant Place) (England) Regulations 2020 is their name. No one’s required to cover up if that would cause them ‘severe distress’, several retail chains aren’t planning to enforce the law, and senior police officers have been insisting that they’re not keen to arrest unmasked shoppers. The libertarians might yet be vindicated, of course, but as things stand they look less like prophets than scaredy-cats.
To feel the fear, I went to a demonstration against the new law in Hyde Park a couple of weekends ago. Organised by ‘Keep Britain Free’, it drew a few hundred predominantly middle-aged, middle-class, white people, and had a vibe similar to that of an anti-lockdown protest I attended back in May (https://tinyurl.com/3uxwybh). Concerns about 5G frequencies and vaccination plots were rife, linked now to false claims made in a documentary called ‘Plandemic’ that masks somehow ‘activate’ latent particles of COVID-19. While some people observed that face coverings were no guarantee against viral infection, others imagined that they kept away germs so effectively that immune systems could seize up. There were worries that re-inhaled carbon dioxide would kill, and allusions to the involvement of powerful paedophiles. Someone explained that the government’s delay in making masks obligatory proved they were a ‘distraction’, but became annoyed when I asked what they were distracting from. My bandana got lots of funny looks.
Happily, I bumped into a friendly face: a police officer called Steve Barnes I’d met at the same spot four months ago. Our paths had crossed on 29 March: a grim moment in the pandemic, just ten days before London’s death toll hit its peak (I wrote about our meeting soon afterwards: https://wp.me/p1ZazT-77). Though Steve’s an upbeat character, the mood then had been melancholy. He isn’t your average copper – as I mentioned in a post at the time, he’s a druid too – and it had emerged during our chat that he’s emotionally attached to Speakers’ Corner. Six days on from the lockdown’s start, he’d just circulated an email among Sunday regulars to tell them that its traditions of free assembly were on hold. Contemplating the expanse of asphalt, he was already anticipating their revival. ‘This is the jewel in the crown’, he’d said. ‘If this goes, everything goes’.
The atmosphere at our reunion could hardly have been more different. The area around Marble Arch was abuzz with feminists, preachers, and Black Lives Matters supporters, and Steve himself had just addressed the Keep Britain Free crowd. I found video evidence later (https://tinyurl.com/yd3tr4eq), and it turned out to be one of the afternoon’s less radical speeches. Someone had been using a megaphone, and he’d had to explain that wasn’t how Speakers’ Corner worked: ‘If you want to get on your soapbox or ladder, you’ve got to shout!’ That let me steer our conversation towards politics though, and I eventually asked what he’d made of his audience. I was genuinely curious – it’s not every day you get to discuss conspiracy theories with a druid – but Steve was definitely on duty. Without quite evading my question, he answered a different one. ‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘A lot more groups are out than before. Speakers’ Corner feels healthier than it’s been for a long time.’
That’s what you want police officers in a democracy to say, and though nothing else about Sunday’s protest impressed me, I was almost as glad as Steve to see it happening. The government’s inconsistent approach to masking arguably has justifications (the WHO didn’t make its U-turn until June, after all), but its steady squandering of trust since March is now tainting every tired ministerial claim to be ‘guided by the science’. The extent of scepticism has to be acknowledged and understood – not least, because the success of a future vaccination programme might depend on it. COVID-19 will remain a threat until at least two-thirds of the population are immune, and there’s everything to play for. Just 6% of UK citizens currently tell pollsters they’re sure to refuse a vaccine (a proportion lower than almost anywhere else in Europe) but 25% remain on the fence. They need to be persuaded, not ignored.
The small protest was unnerving nonetheless. The rise of social media algorithms and echo chambers means that the size of real-world gatherings matters less than ever before, and one of the justifications for free speech I optimistically maintain – that bad arguments wilt under public scrutiny – has had a poor track record in recent years. Politics post-lockdown are even more mysterious. So many people claim to have been reprioritising and recentring during the atomised, silent days of spring that social attitudes to big issues like individual and collective rights have almost certainly shifted. Seismic fractures open far beneath the surface though. It’s barely possible to imagine how attitudes created by COVID-19 will one day redefine us all.
The new division that’s most visible – an imported obsession with the symbolism of masks – could hardly be more surreal. In the United States, it’s given rise to at least eight shootings (four of them fatal) and some of the Americans who say they’re battling totalitarianism are doing it by wearing swastika masks and KKK hoods. With luck, England will avoid similar extremes, but, almost like the conflict described in Gulliver’s Travels between Big-Endians and Little-Endians, a bitter war fought over which side of a boiled egg to break, the struggle’s significance is inseparable from its pointlessness. It’s now been confirmed that England has suffered more excess deaths during this pandemic than any other country in Europe. As Brexit negotiations hurtle towards an undebated dénouement and Kremlin interference in British politics goes uninvestigated, tensions with China are soaring and the US is teetering on the brink of real fascism. If I were conspiracy-minded, I’d be suspicious. Worrying about muzzles is something of a distraction.
Inspired by recent dips into the diary of Samuel Pepys, I spent much of last week in the City. In Aldgate, specifically. Sandwiched between the financial district’s glistening towers and the grubbiness of Whitechapel, it’s at the capital’s core. Beneath the streets lie innumerable plague pits and the ruins of an Elizabethan playhouse. A fifteen-minute walk could take you to an Anglo-Saxon wharf or a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras. An hour’s enough for a whistle-stop tour across two thousand years, with ancient synagogues, medieval bridge remnants and Jack the Ripper murders all included. Ghosts are everywhere.
The area’s even more haunted than usual at the moment. Whereas London’s other neighbourhoods are twitching and jerking back to life, up to 90% of the City’s million or so commuters aren’t back yet. It’s normal for the area to lapse into silences – fewer than nine thousand residents live there – but the stillness now is continuous, and almost sinister. Though malls have opened, they’re deserted. Receptionists are at their desks only to explain why no one else is. Excavation works have restarted (because, as fate would have it, office construction hit an all-time high just as the pandemic began), but groundbreaking is more speculative than ever. At least one phantom skyscraper has no prospective tenants at all.
The uncertainties are compounded by contradictory official messages about the healthiness of office environments. But though friction between ministers and scientific advisors has been worsening other avoidable mistakes, clearer guidance wouldn’t have filled the City’s streets. Companies are focused on practicalities – how to safely transport people up and down skyscrapers, for example – and their eyes are fixed firmly on bottom lines. Facing an economic crash that the Office for Budget Responsibility expects to be the worst in three centuries, almost a third of firms are already planning redundancies. And the storm’s not far off now. Furlough schemes will wind up on 31 October, and the OBR forecasts that unemployment could reach four million by the start of next year.
That raises complicated issues. For lots of people, working from home isn’t living the dream; it’s a rabbit-hutch nightmare. Like any self-respecting liberal, I’m also well aware that multinational corporations aren’t cool. I’m reactionary enough to fret at the prospect of a City gone tumbleweed though. Economic activity in London apparently generates almost a quarter of the UK’s GDP, and while that might be abstract, it isn’t meaningless. All it takes to appreciate the point is a lunch-break. At every supermarket and sandwich shop I saw open last week, more staff uniforms were visible than suits. If hardship does hit, the filthy rich won’t suffer alone . . .
Over-contemplating the cathedrals of capitalism doesn’t feel good for the soul, and in the interests of spiritual renewal and historical reflection, I detoured on Thursday into a real church. St Olave’s, a Gothic dwarf crouching in the shadows around Fenchurch Street, is where Samuel Pepys once worshipped. His grave is under the altar, and when I wandered over to take a look, a figure pottering around the chancel introduced himself as the rector. Though Arani Sen agreed that his parish is quiet, he takes inactivity in his stride. All his Sunday services are currently being conducted via Zoom, and when I promised to attend the next non-virtual event ‘if there’s room’, he assured me that his congregations are never large (‘perhaps six?’). As we contemplated Pepys and the pretty church garden – beneath which, three hundred victims of the 1665 plague lie buried – his wife came to join us. Alison had never read Pepys, and wondered what the diarist might have made of it all. ‘Describing the present is one thing’, she said. ‘It’s hard to imagine the future. Only a real visionary can do that.’
As it happens, Pepys probably wouldn’t have imagined very much. He liked to experience things, not anticipate them, and day-to-day events were all he really wrote about. I was struck by Alison’s remark though. It caused me to reread predictions I’ve been collecting since mid-March. Back then, it was common to hear fearful hopes that COVID-19 might usher in kinder, gentler societies and a more sustainable world. By April, downsides were coming to the fore: the risk of scapegoating, authoritarianism and mass death. Most recently, I’ve noticed an apocalyptic trend: commentaries that link Anglo-American pandemic failures to geopolitical shifts, and warnings of a civilisational clash that could overwhelm liberal democracy. Some of the prophecies will doubtless turn out to be true. At the moment though, they prove only one thing: collectively, we don’t have a clue.
All that made sightseeing expeditions quite eerie. Even in happier times, the City’s intimidating facades can’t help but hint at dystopian terrors, and the gleaming, windswept exteriors feel doubly weird today. Moribund though things look, corporate minds are whirring. Behind glass doors and skyscraper windows, heads of strategy and human resources are contemplating whether to make emergency measures introduced in March permanent. And if enough employers decide that enough employees should work remotely, dizzying implications follow. The institutionalisation of flexible working could set off spiralling job losses, not least because of its impact on the City’s service sector, and were the shift to become a stampede, acres of office space would flood the rental market.
A day after my visit to St Olave’s, the prime minister weighed in with visions of his own. In his latest effort to show that the Bojo magic’s still there, Johnson foresaw a revival in office activity after 1 August and expressed a ‘strong and sincere hope’ that there will be ‘a more significant return to normality . . . possibly in time for Christmas.’ That wasn’t a reasoned assessment. Since the government’s senior medical advisors were simultaneously insisting elsewhere that normality is a long way off, it wasn’t very persuasive either. Listening to the speech made me recall, all the same, that rhetorical optimism has value. Though Johnson’s handling of this pandemic has been disastrous in my opinion, one of leadership’s purposes is to accentuate the positive. No one’s going to be in want of reiterated medical advice as autumn and winter approach.
In my own moments of irrational optimism, I’ve been reminding myself that cities are good at enduring cataclysms. Even the plague of 1665 was a beginning as much as an end. A year after it began, the City was razed by fire, and a contemporary of Pepys noted that by 1681 London was already ‘infinitely more Beautiful, more Commodious and more Solid’ than ever before. Twentieth-century Manhattan also throws our present predicament into rose-tinted perspective. The Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center all took shape in the aftermath of Spanish Flu and the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The upheaval that instils the biggest sliver of hope in me is, oddly enough, Thatcherism. In warehouses and factories marooned by the de-industrialisation policies of the 1980s, rave culture was born, and recession in the early ‘90s nurtured a tremendous flowering of musical and artistic talent. Out of disaster, creativity can thrive.
Inspired by the lofty architecture that surrounded me during my City break, I’ve even had a few utopian thoughts. In another of his set-piece speeches, Boris Johnson announced on 30 June that his government is about to push through ‘the most radical reforms of our planning system since the end of the second world war’: legislation to facilitate office-to-residence conversions, which will supposedly transform ‘vacant and redundant buildings’ into tens of thousands of cheap new homes. Just conceivably, that could be a perfect answer to City woes. With a few tweaks, abandoned skyscrapers could be turned into affordable housing, with ample space for socially-distanced gigs in the viewing galleries, and ateliers in the skygardens. It’s not on the cards, admittedly. Johnson’s deregulatory scheme has more dastardly aims. But all bets are off. When spaces open up, unexpected things start growing through the cracks. It’s hard to imagine the future.
North Kensington’s feeling capricious at the moment. A couple of weeks on from a stabbing, a shooting, a rave and a riot, no one’s expecting a calm summer. When England’s lockdown ended last Saturday, I wondered if there’d be a celebration.
Things started quietly. ‘More stalls, fuck-all business’, was the assessment of a market trader who I bought peas from as I strolled down Portobello Road. When I suggested that the prospect of pub reopenings might have frightened some people off, he misheard. ‘Yeah mate!’, he laughed. ‘They’re probably all getting pissed.’ A few were, but no one looked very happy about it. With visors and squirts of hand sanitiser, bouncers were explaining COVID-19 compliance protocols to all new arrivals. Customers keen to get to the bar nodded solemnly. Others, less interested in going to the pub than in being around one, diverted to the supermarket and bought cans instead.
Later that evening, things moved up a gear. Local restaurants were fully booked. At the more exclusive establishments, patrons dined at outdoor tables in the drizzle, just because they could. The junction of Blenheim Crescent and Portobello Road, an epicentre of entertainment in recent weeks, had turned into a small dancefloor. Several hundred people were milling around it, wondering when something would happen. The answer turned out to be 11.45. Dancers scattered like pigeons, the sound system vanished, and a fluorescent phalanx of riot police advanced on the crossroads. Chanting some kind of haka, they pushed east- and northwards. An officer shouted orders to ‘leave immediately or face arrest!’ Buildings flashed blue, police carriers zipped round street corners, and a distant helicopter chopped towards the scene. I called it a night.
Notting Hill’s seen better fiestas. It wasn’t social distancing violations that made the night dreary though. It was the social fragility and economic vulnerability it reflected. And that extended far beyond Portobello Road. Earlier in the day, I’d cycled through Soho, and though it was filling with party animals, signs of vitality plummeted everywhere beyond Old Compton Street and Soho Square. Theatreland was a silent, flickering time capsule, and the shops of Oxford Street were so deserted they looked almost inviting. A few cycle rickshaws were back in operation, but there weren’t enough passengers to go round. The same looked true of Thames clippers I saw plying the river the next day, while East London’s Sunday markets, starved of tourists, were spindly shadows of their former selves. Brick Lane’s Bengali restaurants, desperate at the best of times, had so few passers-by to entice that one tout took a chance on me. ‘Fully socially-distanced, sir’, he said. Sadly, I believed him.
All that’s been causing me angst, especially because the question of constraints on pre-pandemic behaviour arose during my own little contribution to last weekend’s festivities. The occasion was a garden dinner party on Friday night. The host had cautious intentions – indeed, he was the most COVID-wary person I knew back in March – but it was raining, and arriving guests instinctively stayed around the dining table. Though I kept my distance for a long time, eavesdropping from the patio and yelling contributions to the conversation, I finally gave in when the dancing started. It’s not that the downsides of this coronavirus have become abstract – strokes, scarred lungs and heart attacks still flit through my imagination more vividly than I’d like – but catching up with people I care for by shouting at them just felt wrong.
It’s not just me. A friend who used to wash his groceries and quarantine his post went to an unashamedly house party last weekend. Another friend who’s spent weeks talking about her fondness for isolation popped out on Saturday to raise a pint. And though plenty of people are perturbed by the mingling that’s kicked off, a set of IPSOS-MORI polls I’ve just read suggests they’re in the minority. Young adults, always relatively sceptical about public health restrictions, see their relaxation as long overdue. Non-white people have also been less likely to comply with lockdown rules, perhaps reflecting their disproportionate susceptibility to loneliness, anxiety and depression since March. The population as a whole has always claimed to be more concerned for the health of the country than personal well-being – and that worry is less intense than at any time since the lockdown began.
Evolving perspectives about the risk of COVID-19’s spread can’t easily be shrunk to generalisations, but they divide at least three ways. Some people assume that loosening the lockdown will hasten a second wave of unnecessary infections. Others think that danger minimal or inevitable, and the only controls they potentially support are local restrictions and laws to shield vulnerable groups. The most numerous group stand somewhere in between. Fearing the worst and taking sporadic precautions, they’re recalibrating their alarms and lowering their guard. In case it’s not obvious, that’s where I am.
All middle ways are open to criticism. Awaiting disaster is obviously passive. Anyone who eases up in the process might, like the metaphorical frog in a slowly boiling kettle, miss the biggest threat of all. It’s never complacent to rethink attitudes formed at the peak of an emergency though. They’re easily skewed by fear, and those maintained for the sake of consistency sometimes reflect a less principled response to shock – namely trauma. And though dismantling the lockdown obviously carries risks, a refusal to take chances now seems even riskier. Screened from public view by furlough schemes, at least a million jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry may already have evaporated . . .
As I contemplated the mysteries of risk-assessment for this post, a sideways slant on the subject popped up across Facebook in the form of extracts from Samuel Pepys’s diary about London’s plague epidemic of 1665. They’re fake, and the invented observation that’s been most popular over the last week suggests, topically enough, that Pepys had no sympathy for anyone who risked infection by going to the pub. ‘A dram in exchange for the pox is an ill-bargain indeed’, he supposedly wrote. The supposed lesson’s obvious. Anyone intelligent knows to weigh long-term danger against short-term pleasure.
As usual, the propaganda’s less interesting than facts. Pepys was deeply troubled by the plague. It killed around a fifth of London’s population, including many of his acquaintances. As it circled the City, he became obsessed with death tolls and regularly resolved to put all his earthly affairs in order. But contemplating mortality didn’t paralyse him. Quite the opposite. As his morbid interest in burial statistics grew, he criss-crossed London by carriage and ferry, downing pints of wine, feasting on oysters and partying nights away. On 5 October 1665, he visited his mistress in Deptford, and though ‘round about and next door on every side is the plague’, he ‘there did what I would with her’. Death finally caught up with him – but it wasn’t till 38 years later, and whatever might be said about Pepys’ personal choices, the takeaway from his 1665 diary entries isn’t caution at all costs. Only fools ignore danger, but risks are sometimes there to be taken. That’s life.