As I write this, England – which is the bit of the UK I happen to inhabit – is about to enter a second lockdown, prompted by the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
It’s been an interesting experience, this pandemic. Of course we’ve had plenty of them before – many originating as this one did from the Far East – and some of them with a much higher mortality rate (the 2003 SARS outbreak effectively had a rate of 100%). For years now, a global pandemic has been on the collective radar of the powers that be. This is not surprising, given that intensive livestock farming is practically designed to give rise to new diseases, and globalisation is a great way to spread them. The Black Death took something like a decade to reach Europe from China; Covid-19 managed it in a matter of weeks.
There are many, many communicable diseases with a higher mortality rate than Covid-19; I’ve mentioned SARS and the Black Death, and Ebola is another example which was back in the news not so long ago. By all accounts, it’s still a pretty unpleasant disease to catch, and people with existing health conditions die of it quite readily (or at least die having tested positive for it, which is the basis for official statistics). It’s at least as bad as influenza, which itself is horrible enough and kills a lot of people. On the other hand, many people who test positive for it show no symptoms – although to what extent this represents false positives is currently unknown.
Nevertheless reaction to the outbreak seems to be highly polarised. (I’m speaking here of UK reaction; as far as I can tell, this seems to be even more so in the US.) Essentially the two camps are:
- “It’s just a sniffle” – the restrictions imposed by the Government are intolerable and can safely be flouted; or
- “This is the second coming of the Spanish Flu“ – we will all die unless even more stringent measures are adopted.
Obviously the government is going to have a hard time keeping everyone happy, especially since many of its own MPs fall into the former camp whereas their scientific advisers tend towards the latter.
Much of the motivation for the snifflers is economic. With the country in lockdown, many businesses are unable to trade once again, having been severely weakened already by the original lockdown in March. The government has been spending eye-watering sums of money supporting most (though not all) of these businesses, in particular funding a furlough scheme so that the many thousands of people effectively out of work because of this are not counted as unemployed.
On the other hand, a great deal of the impetus behind the second-comers is a blind panic about death. I have a forthcoming post on this topic; suffice it to say here that our culture is in massive denial about death, and it always seems to be considered scandalous that anyone ever dies of anything. There is very little grasp of what normal death rates look like. Here is a table of the top ten causes of death in England and Wales for September of this year, from the government’s own statisticians; Covid-19 does not figure in it at all. Here is a graph of UK deaths from all causes between 2000 and 2018; the annual figure fluctuates between 552,230 and 612,090 per year. It turns out that lots of people die all the time. Who knew?
I don’t want to sound here as if I’m channelling Stalin (“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”). Every one of those deaths was a cause of sadness. But even if it were desirable for everyone to live forever, it’s not exactly a practical proposition. In 2019, on average 79 people a day were killed on the UK’s roads. We could reduce that figure dramatically by banning all motor traffic, but of course we aren’t going to. Apparently we consider it a price well worth paying, in the words of Norman Lamont.
As I noted above, these viruses tend to originate in the Far East, and it is Far Eastern countries that have tended to have the greatest success in dealing with Covid-19 (see this chart, for instance). Most European governments appear to have been flailing about helplessly, and the UK government is no exception, although its apparent inability to organise a press conference give it a worse look than most.
One positive thing is that this pandemic is giving us an opportunity to practice dealing with such outbreaks so that if something more virulent does hit us in the future, which seems likely enough, we may have more of a clue how to deal with it. It’s also given us a sneak peak into the future in other ways too. Per capita income will have been significantly reduced over this year, as will GDP. There will be uncomfortable recognition of what we need, individually and as a nation, and what would be nice to have. Luxuries are being identified and discarded. There is also, I think, a growing recognition of the value of non-material goods, such as friends and family and a sense of community, and even, dare I say it, of place.
One of the many issues that has been brought sharply to the fore is the devolution of power across the UK. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have increasingly diverged from one another in their handling of the pandemic, and the comparisons have not been all in favour of Westminster. Already in 2014, Scotland came very close to voting for independence, and Brexit – whose imminence has largely been masked by the pandemic – will put further strains on the Union. It has major implications for Northern Ireland, for example, with the real possibility that the Conservative and Unionist Party (which currently governs the UK) will end up bringing about Irish reunification by accident.
Other fault-lines in the UK’s power-structures are becoming more conspicuous as they creak under the strain. For many years most major government projects have been contracted out to the same small group of companies, and for many years they have been delivered late, over budget, and/or unfit for purpose. (It is a well-known fact that spending money on civil servants is wasteful, whereas giving it to outside companies is efficient, owing to their being sprinkled with private-sector pixie dust.) This was more or less accepted so long as it wasn’t obviously leading to people dying. Unfortunately, one of the usual suspects was given the job of building a system to trace people who have been exposed to the virus and contacting them so that they can self-isolate, the somewhat redundantly named track and trace system, and they have not exactly done a stellar job.
The suspicion is that the UK government is abusing its emergency powers to dish out these contracts without the usual parliamentary scrutiny, cursory though that too often is. And while naturally nobody is suggesting that this could be in any way corrupt, obviously it probably is. This can only add to the growing disenchantment with the way in which the UK is presently run, and the order of things in general.
So there are good grounds for supposing that even when we have bidden a fond farewell to Covid-19 – and like all pandemics, it will eventually burn itself out; no parasite has an interest in exterminating the host – the new normal will be significantly different from the old normal. It won’t be the end of the world, although it may well be the end of the United Kingdom as we currently know it. It certainly won’t be a quick of comfortable process, and such good as may come of it may only be apparent in retrospect.
What gives me hope is that this process of what might euphemistically be described as creative destruction will, in the end, be creative: that is to say that a new society will emerge, albeit materially poorer and perhaps politically fragmented, that has more of a focus on what is important to the average person, more scope for individual initiative, and more realistic sense of where and what we are in the world. And if I end up needing a passport to go to Scotland, well, worse things happen at sea.
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