After a Sunday afternoon cycle ride to the Belarusian Embassy in Kensington, I wrote about the protests that have begun there for the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2020/august/the-revolution-will-not-be-colourised. *UPDATE* That led a couple of weeks later to an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! (https://tinyurl.com/ybfh8t5v) and a discussion with al-Jazeera about Russia’s approach to its problematic neighbour (extracts here: https://tinyurl.com/y9jgjncz).
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.
A couple of weekends ago, I fell foul of the law. Potentially. In semi-honour of my half-Finnish roots, I had a picnic at Wormwood Scrubs to celebrate midsummer. Aware of the legal risks, I may have been reckless with my invitations. It’s a criminal offence to participate in an outdoor gathering ‘of more than six persons’, and a few too many turned up: at least twenty persons. The arguable crime was aggravated when a couple of QPR supporters, excited by Finland’s blue and white flag, came over to chat.
In my defence, Wormwood Scrubs is a windswept wasteland – more blasted heath than midsummer night’s dream – where no virus particle can hang around for long. Besides, I really wanted to party. Zoom Gloom had been gathering, and I was keen to engage physically with multiple acquaintances. Things never got as wild as I’d have liked. Memories of solstices past flickered through my mind – a screening of The Wicker Man in 2017, a walk across hot coals in Helsinki before that – and I imagined flaming effigies and leaping bonfires after sunset. Toying with taboos felt wrong this year, though. As the wind grew chillier, we finished my cinnamon buns instead. Those of us left standing when my flag was furled – a safe six, at last – headed to a friend’s garden to shiver a little longer.
It was a transgression ahead of its time. Within a day, thermometers were soaring, and al fresco celebrations erupted nationwide. By the middle of the week, campers and sunseekers were heading in their thousands to beauty spots and beaches around England. Liverpool’s Premiership win then unleashed festivities across Merseyside. Streets all over London bubbled into get-togethers, and police vans sped about dispersing open-air parties from Kingston to Hackney Downs. On Thursday, Wormwood Scrubs itself became a dance-floor, as hundreds descended on my picnic spot to rave the night away.
Images of crowds, confrontations and litter mountains provoked disapproval from all directions. Lots of people worried that the authorities were losing control, and a couple of tweeting anarchists I came across saw the opposite: an emerging ‘biosecurity state’. An ultra-sceptical acquaintance thought it obvious that the government was behind it all, pursuing hopes of herd immunity it only ever pretended to abandon. The most influential voices of outrage sounded almost impartial by comparison: as infuriated by the sunbathers and ravers as they had been about Black Lives Matters protesters and, early in the lockdown, people in parks. The Daily Mail reported that beaches across Britain were submerged in debris and laughing gas canisters (‘hippy crack’), while the prime minister warned that beachgoers in Bournemouth were ‘taking too many liberties with the guidance’. Anticipating a lockdown deregulation that he’d just announced, Boris Johnson said it was ‘crucial that on July the Fourth we get this right and we do this in a balanced way and we recognise the risks’.
Though the apprehension sounded reasonable, it was anything but. Two weeks before Johnson’s 23 June announcement that ‘our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end’, a trusted associate called Andrew Griffith – his former chief business advisor, now a Tory MP – had urged him to ‘sweep away’ almost every pandemic-related economic restriction on Saturday 4 July, and label the occasion ‘our own Independence Day’. Friendly newspapers were briefed accordingly, and the Daily Mail was among several that predicted our liberation in advance – on what they duly called Independence Day, or ‘Super Saturday’.
Audiences less amenable were given treatment less friendly. Police commissioners weren’t contacted at all, and Downing Street ignored a direct plea from the Police Federation that pubs reopen on a weekday instead. The government’s concern about overcrowded beaches in Bournemouth was correspondingly hollow. Boris Johnson’s genuine attitude had been on show in parliament three days before, when Brighton’s Labour MP flagged up the similar risks facing his seaside constituency; the prime minister contemptuously told him to ‘show some guts’.
The implication that we should be gearing up to celebrate on Saturday is rather mystifying. Though Johnson is strangely loyal to the United States, he’s also a cynical English politician – and to many people whose support he’d ordinarily court, ‘our own Independence Day’ is a disaster in the making. Tim Martin of Wetherspoons is predictably pleased, but Greene King pubs won’t even start reopening until Monday, while the chairmen of the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police Federation angrily foresee ‘a perfect storm’ and ‘apocalypse.’ Even traditional Tory cheerleaders are hedging their bets. ‘Barmageddon!’ equivocated The Sun.
So why the concern to facilitate a monumental booze-up? Plots are easier to assert than prove, but I’ve imagined a masterplan that’s at least plausible. Dominic Cummings is notoriously fond of disruption, and he apparently fancies himself to be a deep strategic thinker. He might have calculated that drunken disorder is most likely to break out in urban areas where Tories are already unpopular – and that if it does, Johnson could pose to his core supporters with very little downside as a champion of law and order. Subsequent arguments about relaxation of the lockdown could also serve as a useful distraction. Cummings has just initiated a restructuring project he’s been contemplating for years, taking steps to abolish DFID and politicise the senior civil service, and the less that anyone focuses on those seismic institutional changes, the happier Downing Street will be.
That’s more hypothetical than your average conspiracy theory, especially because the pubs haven’t opened yet, but unhinged speculation seems appropriate to the volatile mood. In my own corner of North Kensington, midsummer was followed by quite intense madness. The street parties last week regularly ended with emergency response teams calling time on crowds of drinkers, and police helicopters circled overhead on at least two nights. Late on Wednesday, someone was shot on Portobello Road, and Saturday saw a stabbing. Now that temperatures have sunk ten degrees, the streets and skies are quiet all over again, but Independence Day could easily draw the crowds back out. And though the weather for Saturday looks iffy, it feels as though the summer party’s just getting started. It certainly won’t take much to persuade Londoners that it’s time for a drink. Maybe even a little hippy crack . . .
I saw a movie last week. A friend recommended it. His cinematic tastes are more sophisticated than mine, but Mars Attacks delivered exactly what the title promised, and more. Mars didn’t just attack; its inhabitants annihilated almost everyone in the cast. Pierce Brosnan was decapitated and Sarah Jessica Parker’s head was transplanted onto a chihuahua. When President Dale (Jack Nicholson) pleaded for peace, a Martian hand of friendship impaled him through the rectum. All that stood between earth and oblivion was, inexplicably, the music of Slim Whitman. The aliens disliked it so much that (spoiler alert!) their brains exploded. As a result, humanity prevailed.
It would be an exaggeration to call the film good. Dumbing down is its own reward though, and I had my reasons for watching it. An excuse, at least. I’d been thinking about the apocalyptic atmosphere that descended as COVID-19 spread out of Wuhan and Milan, and a story Mikhail Gorbachev had once told about Ronald Reagan. In November 1985, during a nuclear arms control summit in Geneva, the American president apparently ended an afternoon session early and invited his Soviet counterpart on a lakeside stroll. Accompanied only by interpreters, Reagan then raised a subject that was playing on his mind. If extra-terrestrials were to invade, he wondered, would the USSR help defend earth? ‘Without a doubt’, said Gorbachev.
The very idea of a US president who dreams of global cooperation is almost poignant in 2020, and Reagan’s sunny personality couldn’t be more different from the dark presence glowering out of the White House today. But Reagan trod a fine line between ludicrous and bellicose, playing up to his cowboy image in an era that teetered on armageddon. President Dale’s unhappy fate in Mars Attacks was a reminder that not every threat can be negotiated away, but the casting of Jack Nicholson as a reasonable man also hints at an unexpectedly serious point. The gravity of a global crisis is no guarantee against ridiculous or inadequate political leadership.
High-flown rhetoric about the scale of the COVID-19 threat was widespread outside the United States when this pandemic began. In March, the World Health Organisation and Chinese government both urged the international community to take concerted action for humanity’s sake. By early April, no less a figure than Matt Hancock was rallying the human race. It was ‘in the midst of a war’, he said, and history proved ‘that when the world unites against a common foe, we will prevail.’ A couple of days later, the Queen pitched in. She recalled a more divisive conflict – the Second World War – but ‘this time’, she reassured viewers, ‘we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour.’
That almost sounded convincing. As I counted emergency vehicles and hearses on my rides around lockdown London, ominous developments far away felt strangely familiar. A friend who’s been working on a book about life in an isolated Peruvian village told me that the virus was somehow spreading through the Amazonian rainforest. An aid worker I know described its effects in the world’s largest refugee camp: the residents of Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar had been doubly confined, and they were worrying not just about COVID-19, but also rumours that anyone showing symptoms would be murdered in quarantine. Hardships were often worse elsewhere, but the sense of menace was ubiquitous. It seemed to be touching everyone, in ways more shareable than ever before.
That’s changed, in that people are now angry and sceptical as well as distressed, and the prospects for inter-governmental collaboration look even worse. As if hankering for a War on Terror to call his own, Donald Trump’s only crisis strategy has been to conjure more adversaries into existence. Two days after Benjamin Netanyahu became the first world leader to call COVID-19 an ‘invisible enemy’, the president borrowed the phrase to declare war on it. In the three months since, his tweets, interviews, press briefings and speeches have attacked the ‘invisible enemy’ (along with the ‘Wuhan virus’, the ‘Chinese plague’ and ‘kung flu’) more than a hundred times. Under cover of the verbal barrage, he’s withdrawn United States from the World Health Organisation and escalated political assaults on not just China, but Canada and Europe too. The only fears he hasn’t whipped up are those he senses might be his fault. Asked on 20 March what he’d say to Americans ‘who are scared’, Trump told NBC’s Peter Alexander, ‘I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think that’s a very nasty question.’
Contemplating the violent vocabulary of Donald Trump for long never did anyone any good. But the language has echoes closer to home that deserve notice. Boris Johnson first mentioned the ‘invisible enemy’ just two days after Trump, and when the prime minister announced his own ‘wartime government’ on 17 March, he was deliberately evoking the alliance against Hitler. ‘Incredible’, an astute American friend observed at the time. ‘He’s dreamed of being Churchill in the wilderness for years. Now it’s all come true, and you can’t even complain about the war he’s chosen to fight.’ Three months on, her cynicism’s redundant. Winston Churchill, for all his flaws, rose heroically to the moment. Johnson, having targeted a morally indefensible foe, has been ceding ground throughout.
Caricatures notwithstanding, the prime minister is quick-witted and eloquent, and the difficulty he’s had in articulating this pandemic’s enormity is correspondingly telling. His first effort on 12 March – a sombre warning that many families would ‘lose loved ones before their time’ – was so surprising that it was impressive. But Johnson reflected a lot more anxiety than he soothed, and after COVID-19 came close to killing him, he seemed hostage to his own clichés. Speaking after his hospitalisation, he said that: ‘If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.’ Ostensibly heartfelt, the reduction of a brush with death to a supernatural street crime casts doubt on whether Johnson saw beyond his lucky escape at all. Even as an expression of optimism, the statement rang false. Since the day the coronavirus was supposedly wrestled to the floor, the number of lives it’s claimed has almost doubled.
Johnson’s inadequacy is so apparent that his approval ratings have plummeted, and since his dependence on Dominic Cummings was exposed last month, it’s become common to hear that he’s lost the psychological plot too. Rumours are circulating that late fatherhood is proving stressful or that post-intensive care syndrome has set in; my favourite fantasy is that shame is belatedly gnawing at his soul. Chances are he’s just finding hard work a chore though. And though his inner demons are probably awful to behold – more terrible than any invisible mugger – only one misfortune would definitely instil shame. Deserting the metaphorical battlefield would be an admission of real defeat.
My own bet’s on a prime ministerial offensive. Now that Johnson has announced a major dismantling of the lockdown on 4 July, he’s bound to try and switch attention to more comfortable political arguments – including Brexit – so as to recover his footing. That could make the next few weeks particularly dangerous. His lurch to liberation clearly owes more to calculations of political advantage than it does to serious assessments of practical readiness. Though Johnson told parliament on 20 May that the UK would have a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace operation in place by the beginning of this month, recently released official statistics show that a quarter of those who’ve so far tested positive for COVID-19 haven’t been traced at all. That puts all the talk of invisible enemies into its proper context. If the government was focused on eradicating an unseen virus, a more efficient system to identify carriers would have been developed long ago.
I’m keener than ever to mix and mingle, but the prime minister’s claim to parliament yesterday that ‘at every stage, caution will remain our watchword’ inspires no confidence at all. With tattered military ambitions in mind, Boris Johnson’s performance reminded me of advice urged on Lyndon Johnson at a pivotal moment during the build-up of US troops in Vietnam: ‘Declare victory and go home’. That would have been a sensible strategy back in 1966 – countless lives would have been saved – but it would be a disastrous course of action today. That’s not to say risks shouldn’t be taken; they’re unavoidable. But this pandemic is a lot more complicated than the war Boris Johnson had in mind when it began – and its political challenges are only going to get tougher.
I was invited to a dinner party a week ago. The host was an old friend, now a senior doctor at a busy London hospital. When this pandemic started, he feared the worst. Though he didn’t say so, he thought his own number might be up. Over the next few weeks, as he and his colleagues battled to save lives, the surge in admissions threatened to overwhelm his hospital’s critical care units. By early April, fears of the virus were so intense that some victims were dying in isolation. Staff lent mobile phones to patients on their deathbeds, so they could say goodbye to people they loved.
Last weekend couldn’t have felt more different. As we traded lockdown tales in the garden – a conversational bargain, from my point of view – it became almost possible to forget that a cataclysm’s still in progress. And when I wondered what the coronavirus was going to do next, my friend, who always seems pretty buoyant, looked elated. He’s recently had an antibody test, and though he doesn’t recall suffering any illness worse than a chill this year, it showed he’d had COVID-19. As if astonishing himself, he held out clenched fists and opened them slowly. ‘Obviously it’s not just me’, he said. ‘Who knows exactly what it means? But in London, I’m pretty sure herd immunity’s been achieved.’
That says a lot more about my friend’s confidence than demonstrable reality. Though government serology testing suggests that at least 17% of the capital’s residents had COVID-19 antibodies by mid May (compared to 5% elsewhere), it’s not clear yet how – or if – they protect against re-infection. Insofar as there might be heightened resistance in London, it’s certainly not total. But the exchange got me recalling how contentious the hope for universal immunity has become – and how weird that is.
The controversies began with an appearance by Boris Johnson on ITV’s This Morning on 5 March. The prime minister told Holly and Phil that all the scientists he was talking to were ‘brilliant’, and that one of their many clever suggestions was that the population could maximise its resistance to COVID-19 by ‘taking it on the chin’. That was enough to convince some critics that the Tories were cooking up a plan to cull the weak and murder the old. But in the uneasy, apprehensive days of early March, a more common reaction was stunned surprise. A prime minister who’d built his career on levity was wondering whether the best way of tackling a lethal pathogen might be to spread it around. Many foreigners were just amazed, unsure if Britain under Bojo was more sacrificial or suicidal. My favourite response was a popular joke on the Chinese social media site Weibo: ‘After leaving Europe, they now want to leave the world.’
I was definitely among the stunned. Call me an apologist for genocide, but the hidden agenda struck me even then as more panic-stricken than sinister. Ministers and advisers weren’t being ruthless; they were in disarray. When Johnson took control of pandemic management at a COBRA meeting on 2 March – after delegating the job to Health Secretary Matt Hancock for a month – his priority was apparently to cling to boffins: claims to be ‘guided by the science’ quickly become a mantra among ministers. And though the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on 13 March that ‘herd immunity’ was one of ‘our aims’, the prime minister promptly lurched in favour of a strict lockdown – again, ‘on scientific advice’ – after a team of Imperial College epidemiologists under Professor Neil Ferguson published an urgent forecast. It warned that a failure to check COVID-19 would probably lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
That’s all history (except insofar as the machinations will one day be evidence in an inquiry) but neither the science nor the politics is settled. Ferguson proposed last week that locking down a week earlier would have halved this country’s death toll. The Swedish scientist most closely associated with an alternative policy, who advised his government to go easy on restrictions, has just said that in hindsight he’d have favoured stricter measures. Neither Patrick Vallance nor the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, are prepared to admit past mistakes, but both insisted on Wednesday that they were monitoring events carefully, because we’re ‘not at the end of this pandemic, not by a long shot’. And with shops and zoos preparing to open, school gates staying closed, and political protests multiplying, there’ll be plenty of events to monitor. While the scientists gather data, we’re living the experiment.
And even if government interventions should have been earlier or firmer, an alternative argument remains strong. In the absence of a vaccine, widespread immunity offers many countries their best hope of getting through this pandemic. Though right-wing extremists like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro have yoked cynical political agendas to this claim, credible science also justifies it. The reasoning has been vocalised best by an academic who co-authored a paper published at Oxford University a week after Ferguson’s Imperial report. Professor Sunetra Gupta maintains that at least half the British population are already immune to COVID-19, and that the coronavirus is ‘on the way out’. Natural resistance or antibody acquisition explains why the disease has ‘grown, turned around and died away’ all over the world, ‘almost like clockwork’.
Gupta isn’t a fascist any more than Neil Ferguson is a snowflake. She objects to the ‘libertarian harangue’ that’s been ‘hitched’ to the scientific modelling of her Oxford team, she firmly supports enhanced protection for vulnerable people, and (as befits a scientist who’s also a prize-winning novelist) her stance is both nuanced and empathetic. Lockdowns aren’t just hindering the acquisition of immunity, in her view. ‘The truth is that lockdown is a luxury. And it’s a luxury that the middle classes are enjoying, and higher income countries are enjoying, at the expense of the poor, the vulnerable and less developed countries. To think of it simply in terms of “is this epidemic going to be over or not?” is really unconscionable.’ Personal factors might also explain her differences with Imperial – but if they do, Gupta isn’t entirely at fault. Her career was almost nobbled by false allegations in 1999 that she was sleeping her way up the career ladder – and though the man who slandered her duly lost his Oxford professorship, Roy Anderson took a team of 70 loyal epidemiologists with him to Imperial College. One of them was Neil Ferguson, who relied directly on a recent Lancet article by Anderson for the structure of the Imperial lockdown paper.
Scientists’ likeability and their rivalries don’t say much about the reliability of any particular piece of work, but the contrasting approaches of the Imperial and Oxford analyses still illustrate an important truth. Data is meaningless until it’s interpreted, and no one yet knows which interpretations of COVID-19’s spread are going to end up most accurate. Every epidemiological model in use at the moment draws heavily on what happened during the Spanish Flu pandemic a century ago (Neil Ferguson, like Anthony Fauci in the United States, has written influentially about what it might teach), but history only offers signposts. Though social distancing, school closures and the prevention of mass gatherings reduced fatalities back then, many deaths were delayed by months, not staved off for years – and that’s bound to be even truer of a coronavirus that disproportionately hits the old and sick. Spanish Flu also mutated far faster than COVID-19, and its vicious second spike can’t say much about what recurrent waves of infections will do today. In any event, lowering casualties by slowing down the world threatens collateral damage that’s simply unknowable. According to one guesstimate, global lockdowns could cause 1.4 million extra deaths before 2025 from tuberculosis alone.
No one’s necessarily to blame if epidemiological guidance turns out to be wrong: science does that sometimes, and politicians are elected to decide between options and put advice into practice. But judgments aren’t immune from criticism either – and even as I’ve been writing this post, a strategy to pretend otherwise has been on show. At last Wednesday’s Downing Street press briefing, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty flanked the prime minister, and all three batted away journalists’ questions about whether they had made any mistakes. The scientists said it was too early to know, while Johnson deferred to their expertise. It was a smooth circle of excuses, for fixed decisions with final consequences. Key workers and health professionals were lethally under-supplied when they needed protective equipment most. Broken promises to ‘cocoon’ and ‘shield’ the vulnerable contributed to a care home catastrophe and a per capita death rate that might well end up the highest in the world. Though everyone’s able to shift responsibility for now, there’ll come a time when the political buck won’t be as easy to pass around . . .
Along with quite a few people I know, I’m vacillating between optimism and despondency at the moment, and last week’s dinner party kept me teetering. My upbeat friend was echoing hopes I share, but the risks from COVID-19 still feel very real. Holding back from an instinctive hug and handshake, he was entirely sympathetic. ‘You’re sensible’, he nodded. ‘That’s wise. Completely understandable. You’ve got mild panphobia.’ That came as news to me, and I turned over the diagnosis in my mouth as I cycled homewards. When I reached Battersea Bridge, curiosity got the better of me. Pausing to look at the river and absorb the nocturnal hush that’ll soon become unimaginable again, I keyed ‘panphobia’ into my phone. It turned out I’d been displaying symptoms of an ‘abnormal, vague, persistent dread of everything’. That sounded about right. But as I wobbled on, a tinge of irrational exuberance was added to the dread. Doctors know their stuff. Perhaps antibodies really are widespread? Even I might have picked up a few. I definitely remember a cough in February.
As usual these days, London’s on edge. Plenty of people look relaxed, almost carefree, but few conversations steer clear of COVID-19 for long. Others are wilfully careless: a recent Yougov poll suggests that the government’s indulgence of Dominic Cummings has caused 7% of the population to observe lockdown rules less strictly than before. There are probably serene corners of the capital somewhere, but the prevailing mood feels odd: impatient but also bewildered, touched by fears that a second wave of infections is already on the way.
Uncertainties on the ground are intensified by gnawing political doubts on high. Even The Spectator tentatively proposed last week that Boris Johnson ‘is not up to the job’, and on Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition nailed the ominous implications. Keir Starmer has had Johnson’s measure for years – ever since they both worked within metres of each other in Doughty Street – and he was spot on when he accused the prime minister of ‘winging it’. The government started without a plan, and as Starmer said, it’s now trying to ‘exit without a strategy’.
Curious to see if one particular aspect of the lockdown might be weakening, I revisited Speaker’s Corner last Sunday. It wasn’t long before I found a preacher: the first returnee since March. Dr Banda had strong views about the nature of angels, the power of prophecy and Star Trek, and he claimed to have met a million people and not lost a single argument. As he explained how he’d predicted the miracle of the mobile phone, I grew tempted to take him on – at which point, coincidentally enough, my dad called. Was I at the protest, he wondered? A TV report from Trafalgar Square had just shown hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice for George Floyd, the black man asphyxiated on 25 May by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Within minutes, I was there. The crowd had dispersed, but it hadn’t gone home. Placards multiplied when I got to Westminster, and by the time I crossed the Thames, pedestrians were streaming along the pavement at pre-lockdown rush-hour levels. Wobbling along the road, I became part of the march, and soon found myself beneath the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy at Vauxhall. Accompanied by boos and supportive car horns, people yelled a slogan that’s become almost traditional since Donald Trump’s election – ‘your pres-ident’s a wan-ker’ – along with a chant unheard in this country until last week. Again and again, the crowd repeated three words spoken by George Floyd as he lay dying under a policeman’s knee: ‘I can’t breathe.’
The suffocation of a defenceless black man so powerfully epitomises what’s rotten in the United States under its current ruler that it barely crossed my mind not to protest. But the thought of being elsewhere wasn’t unthinkable. Far from it. As the crowd grew, I kept recalling the anti-vaxxer protest I went to last month, and a remark I’d made soon afterwards that ‘gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb’. Vauxhall could hardly have felt more different – COVID-19 deniers and 5G fantasists were nowhere to be seen, while many participants were making obvious efforts to keep apart – but that’s only half an answer to charges of recklessness. The risk of a disease spreading through a crowd is determined by probabilities, not good intentions.
The reason I was prepared to take a chance is obvious: the protest felt important. And, subjective as that is, the sentiment reflects an attitude to risk that’s almost universal. Even my dad, a shielded 83-year-old who assumes the worst of COVID-19, expected me to demonstrate against George Floyd’s murder and was pleased when I did. Those who’d disapprove of that particular mass gathering might make greater allowance for others: a beachful of sunbathers, perhaps, or reopened schools. Tory legislators thought it sensible last week to oblige elderly and vulnerable MPs to swarm in to the House of Commons in person if they want to vote. Actions taken and precautions foregone during this pandemic are affected not just by science, but by passions and varied beliefs about the public interest.
Observations like that skirt around the trickiest issue of all: whether more mass action is desirable. No one seems more torn on that point than Black Lives Matter UK itself. Last weekend, it unhappily disavowed Sunday’s protest by referring to ‘the implications of calling a mass march in the middle of a pandemic that is killing us the most’; it’s now tweeting legal advice about what to do in the event of arrest. And confrontations are certainly possible. A head of steam is building behind plans for a second rally outside the US Embassy on Sunday afternoon . . .
My support for demonstrations so far has been informed by another subjective factor: one so complicatedly personal that I still can’t really work out where rational thought ends and wishful thinking begins. My perception of risk has been changing. I’ve come to suspect that immunity to COVID-19 exists, and that it’s widespread and durable enough to be significantly reducing the likelihood of the virus’s spread. The opinion’s not provable – but it’s not based on utter ignorance either, and the precautionary principle that’s often invoked to justify stricter regulations doesn’t defeat it. To explain why, I’d have to unpack a controversy over herd immunity that would distract from the theme of this post – but a point tangentially connected to my tentative argument is directly relevant.
As most people know by now, COVID-19 has a discriminatory impact. Black and Asian key workers have been exceptionally likely to fall victim (at least three-fifths of all health care staff killed by the coronavirus in the UK have come from these communities) and the greater vulnerability of non-white people was confirmed by a Public Health England report last week. As an analysis, the study was useless – hundreds of informed opinions canvassed during its preparation were suppressed, and it didn’t even pretend to explain the disparities it described – but one fact buried deep within its pages was striking, all the same. Deaths from all causes are up at the moment – in large part, because people are neglecting very serious health problems – and black men are more vulnerable than anyone else. Confirmed COVID-19 deaths in this group haven’t been immensely higher by comparison to white men (just 10%), and yet black men were more than twice as likely to die in the six weeks after the lockdown began. Set against mortality rates at comparable periods between 2014 and 2018, they’re dying nearly four times as often as normal.
The PHE report’s methodology is dubious, not least because it assumes all COVID-19 deaths were properly recorded as such, but this finding is still remarkable – especially because all non-white minorities, women as well as men, seem to be dying of non-COVID-19 causes at considerably greater rates than the white population. A convincing explanation of these excess mortality levels would have to look into all sorts of variables, including poverty levels, occupation choices and genetic predispositions, but one conclusion is already crystal clear. Non-white people, above all black men, are suffering a great number of avoidable deaths as a consequence of not just COVID-19, but the lockdown too. That’s no reason to be complacent about this coronavirus – it’s a racially selective killer in its own right – but it illustrates complexities that shouldn’t be ignored when discussing health precautions. Black lives matter.
Even before yesterday’s announcement that the lockdown’s being relaxed, London was feeling buoyant. COVID-19 is now spreading so slowly through the capital that infection statistics plotted on a graph look set to sink to zero within weeks – and though eradication’s still a fantasy, the city’s dismantling its defences. Police tape and plastic wrap is coming off park benches and playgrounds. Smoke’s rising from barbecues. Houseboats are hosting house parties. Social distancing continues, but social confinement is coming to an end.
As if the feel-goodery called for edgier excitement, central London also saw two major car crashes. The pile-up happened in Downing Street. In response to reports that Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings had violated the lockdown by driving 260 miles to his parent’s farm in search of child-care options, the prime minister and his aide both staged press conferences. Though Cummings had dismissed the charge as ‘fake news’, he went on to confirm its substance in great detail. Issues arose that might one day be forgotten, from bladder control and petrol consumption to the wisdom of driving blind, but the takeaway was memorable. For my money, the pithiest assessment came from Nazir Afzal, a former senior prosecutor, who compared Cummings to a figure familiar to every criminal lawyer: ‘the suspect who creates a story around the known facts’. As though a Novichok assassin reminiscing about Salisbury Cathedral, he even explained why he’d been spotted on an excursion to a medieval tourist attraction. And like Prince Andrew, he radiated abnormal confidence. People would appreciate the truth, he was convinced, now that he’d spoken out.
If they did, it didn’t help. 71% of viewers polled just after the press conference thought Cummings had broken the law, and more than forty Tory MPs called for his departure. The reputation he’s built since Brexit as a strategic genius with his finger on the people’s pulse isn’t just mangled; it’s looking like a write-off. He’s either committed a crime, or co-designed lockdown rules so incomprehensible that everyone outside government misunderstood them.But Boris Johnson looks to have seen off the immediate threat, and that opens up a deeper mystery. He has many qualities, but loyalty and self-sacrifice aren’t among them, and his willingness to haemorrhage support for the sake of his advisor suggests deep dependency or fear. Smart political money explains it in terms of rivalry – the prime minister’s concern that his theoretical underling might back Michael Gove’s perennial leadership bid – but I prefer to imagine a darker secret. My pet hunch involves a lucrative publishing contract Johnson signed in 2015 to write a celebration of Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. Throughout February, he laid low at Chequers, skipping five COBRA meetings in a row, and I suspected even then that he was pondering The Riddle of Genius with an eye on post-Brexit laurels and his half million advance. (He has relevant experience – The Churchill Factor got churned out while he was London mayor – and his fondness for deputising and springing surprises is notorious.) In any event, the prime minister’s inaction during that crucial month is a sensitive subject. Perhaps it’ll stay that way . . .
The scepticism made more plausible by Johnson’s retention of Cummings – and the specific belief that their health advice should be discounted – could have serious consequences. As of Monday, amended regulations will authorise the re-opening of shops, markets, car dealerships and schools, and groups of up to six people will be able to gather lawfully for the first time in ten weeks. Though millions of people will welcome the implication of returning normalcy, pollsters say more than half the country is worried that the lockdown is being loosened in haste. This tension’s bound to increase, and the risks are compounded by the government’s recent launch of a ‘world-beating’ track-and-trace system that the Health Secretary’s said will depend on ‘civic duty’: public goodwill, in other words. At a time when credible guidance and trust is essential, the government seems to be prioritising the prime minister’s comfort zone over the nation’s health.
That calls for reflectiveness as well as criticism though. Cummings isn’t the only lockdown violator in town, after all. I’ve certainly bent a few rules over the last couple of months, sneaking into friends’ gardens or loitering alongside acquaintances without reasonable excuse, and other people I know did worse. Only 43% of those who responded to a Daily Mail poll last week claimed never to have broken the health regulations at all. Hypocrisy at the heart of government is obviously of greater national significance (I hope), but that doesn’t make personal choices unimportant. Quite the opposite.
I happen to be feeling pretty optimistic at the moment. Though traffic jams are coming as an unpleasant shock, the routine amazements of London in the spring get me every time, and the reoccupation of pavement furniture and park lawns that’s currently under way feels like a little fiesta. But thousands of people are still catching COVID-19 every day outside the capital, and I wouldn’t yet bet on a smooth summer. Though the chance of a second wave of infections and the near certainty of an economic abyss still lie ahead, Boris Johnson has so thoroughly undermined his pandemic strategy that any effort among his ministers to promote it sounds insincere. It feels as though a gambler’s in charge, abetted by careerists and cowards. Important as it’ll be one day to recollect that, however, complaints can only go so far. We’re living in risky times, and it’s up to us to improve the odds.
Last Saturday, I faced a dilemma. A friend had told me about a ‘mass gathering’ in Hyde Park. A Facebooker she knew who called himself an astrologer, tarot reader and love guru had forwarded her the details. Urging people to protest against the lockdown by turning up with picnics and music, the UK Freedom Movement wanted everyone to ‘have some fun and say yes to life’. Though that sounded quite hedonistic, the only UK Freedom Movement with a website is made up of nationalists who want to ‘shake up British politics like never before’ and ‘fly the Union Jack at every opportunity we get’. By Friday, Twitter was abuzz with complaints, and two rival Islamophobes were denying involvement. I felt conflicted. Gathering en masse during a pandemic is inherently dumb, and the likely gatherers weren’t my kind of people. But the possibility of a new age neo-fascist love-in was too intriguing to miss.
I wrestled with my conscience. It’s hard to say who won, but the outcome was a compromise. It would be acceptable to cycle round Hyde Park, I decided, so long as I showed my disapproval of picnicking and protesting by wearing a mask. I duly bumped in to about 300 demonstrators milling around Speaker’s Corner, and spent half-an-hour loitering non-committally on the sidelines. There were flag-waving patriots, drum-banging Hare Krishnas, prophets of doom and admirers of Julian Assange. One man wanted people to remember God; another demanded that everyone remember Jeffrey Epstein. A speech by Piers Corbyn – the battier brother of Jeremy – was cut short by his arrest, but not before he instructed listeners not to be brainwashed and to remember that COVID-19 isn’t contagious on sunny days. It was a cacophony, but a couple of themes were recurrent. No one liked Bill Gates, and everyone seemed to agree that vaccinations were somehow at fault.
That’s triply weird, given that a COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t exist and may never be developed, but it’s underpinned by a logic of sorts. A narrative that’s been energising US anti-lockdown protests for more than a month now holds that Silicon Valley, in cahoots with Big Pharma, is whipping up fear because its leading figures stand to profit from a vaccine. And as Bill Gates was targeted by right-wing Republicans (because his medical priorities contrast so dramatically with those of President Trump), people on this side of the Atlantic took notice. One of them was ‘professional conspiracy researcher’ David Icke. Three weeks after recycling a bizarre theory about 5G telephone signals and COVID-19 without mentioning Gates, Icke disclosed on 6 April that Microsoft’s founder was ‘one of the most sinister people on Planet Earth’. In a broadcast that promptly became legendary among anti-vaxxers, he identified Gates as a member of a murderous cult that plans to control humanity using not just 5G frequencies, but microchips, nanotechnology and vaccines ‘full of shite’.
David Icke isn’t renowned for rigorous thinking. His most consistent opinion, maintained now for more than twenty years, is a belief that the world is governed by shape-shifting reptiles. Even people who greatly fear political manipulation typically think him unhinged. As a consequence, it was striking to hear an echo of his views outside Hyde Park on Saturday, when I stopped at Portobello Road on the way home. I told my regular mushroom supplier that I’d just been to a big picnic, and though I was smiling, he nodded grimly. He’d stayed away, he said, because ‘it’s not yet time, you gotta play the game’.
Eyebrows raised, I asked what that meant – and a very detailed explanation ensued. To paraphrase, Tom wouldn’t say he was anti-vaxx, he doesn’t know what to make of Bill Gates and 5G, and all he really understands about COVID-19 is that it isn’t as contagious as they say, but he wishes there could be a proper debate on TV. Stuff’s being hidden by scientific journals, he believes, and the mainstream media isn’t telling the full story. But he’s going to stick by the rules for the time being, because the financial support he’s received from the government is tiny, and he needs to sell his mushrooms. ‘You gotta play the game.’It’s always risky to read too much into a single conversation.
Anecdotes are no basis for theories. But the conversation with Tom didn’t just crystallise what had been obvious in Hyde Park: that lockdown impatience is breeding scepticism. It also made me recall a trio of modern cataclysms – the World Trade Center attacks, the Iraq War and Brexit – and the way that hesitant political divisions involving all three had quickly become chasms of misunderstanding. And though the speed with which those disasters have receded into history is a reminder that no aftermath lasts forever, the latest new normal feels particularly destabilising. My opinions about mass murder, civil liberties, military aggression and nationalism were almost predictable – but COVID-19’s riddles have thrown me. Questions about individual rights and duties and what governments should do to protect the vulnerable from the irresponsible are familiar, but the answers are suddenly personal. It’s not just whether to sacrifice some privacy and download a contact-tracing app; even watching picnickers is a moral choice.
The conflict between individual and collective interests is reflected starkly by attitudes towards a COVID-19 vaccine. Even assuming such a thing feasible, many people too fragile to be jabbed would remain susceptible to infection until at least 60% of the population, perhaps more, gained immunity. One person’s opt-out wouldn’t kill anyone – except, perhaps, the opter-outer – but collective abstentions certainly could. Deciding hypothetically to dissent might be principled; it’s certainly selfish.
Individualism isn’t irrational, and it’s not paranoid to point out that governments sometimes invoke the common good to cloak injustice and repression. But opposition to vaccination is regressive, all the same. That’s why the world’s poorer populations trust vaccines most, and it’s why Western opponents tend to be under-educated, politically disillusioned and socially disengaged. And though anti-vaxxing sentiments aren’t quite as capricious as the fears of 5G might suggest – because they’re part of a protest tradition that originated in reaction to 19th-century laws that made smallpox vaccinations compulsory – the instinctive disrespect for communal safety isn’t inspiring.
Less than a mile from Speakers’ Corner stands a memorial to Edward Jenner, the physician who coined the word ‘vaccine’, and as I cycled away from Saturday’s protest, I stopped to say hello. As a direct consequence of a pamphlet Jenner published in 1798, it became routine to immunise people against smallpox by injecting them with harmless doses of cowpox – and though it’s impossible to calculate how much suffering that alleviated, the number of lives saved runs into hundreds of millions.
The statue gets no more attention today than any of the other bronzes littering London, but it used to be more prominent. When unveiled in May 1858, it was in Trafalgar Square. Within days, MPs were demanding that ‘the promulgator of cowpox nonsense’ be removed, because he was ‘altogether out of place among statues of our naval and military heroes.’ Less than three years later, Jenner duly yielded his spot to Henry Havelock, a senior army officer who had died heroically of dysentery during the second Siege of Lucknow. The British Medical Journal wasn’t pleased, but it kept its criticisms sardonic. Jenner’s expulsion made sense, it observed, because ‘his honourable neighbours killed their fellow creatures whereas he only saved them’. Today’s anti-vaxxers might have some history on their side, but that’s a decent epitaph.