‘There is nothing unprecedented about the virus itself’

Lionel Shriver on the hysteria driving the worldwide Covid shutdown.



The ‘new normal’ of lockdowns, social distancing and economic catastrophe has been greeted with remarkably little resistance. The novelist Lionel Shriver is a rare dissenting voice. In the language of coronavirus, she proclaims to have ‘immunity’ from the ‘herd’. She joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract. Listen to the full conversation here.

Brendan O’Neill: You have talked about the supine capitulation to a police state that has happened in the UK over the past few weeks. Do you think things are that bad? Do you think it is not only so bad that we have a police state, but it is even worse because everyone has capitulated to it in a rather craven fashion?

Lionel Shriver: I think it’s pretty impressive. I have come across, in more than one article, references to how ‘free thinking’ and ‘independently minded’ British people are supposed to be, and I don’t think that this situation bears that out. There has been research into the English attitude to authority. The English, in particular, capitulate to authority. They obey the law for the law’s sake. This runs completely counter to my own inclinations, because I’m afraid I have a very deep-set ‘fuck you’ impulse. I don’t like being told what to do, and most of all I want people to justify it when they tell me what to do. I don’t do things just because of the law. I do them because they are the smart and right things to do. There has not been enough questioning on the public’s part, especially as to whether or not these lockdowns are even epidemiologically sensible.

O’Neill: Why does the lockdown not add up, in your view?

Shriver: I don’t think it makes a lot of sense once the virus has spread generously in the population already. There is plenty of evidence that the virus does continue to spread, even if you do have a lockdown. What we are doing is dragging the period of infection out. A lot of epidemiologists will back that up. Rather than reducing the absolute number of infections and absolute number of deaths, you simply make them occur over a longer period of time. You could argue that is actually socially destructive. As long as your healthcare system can handle a higher rate of infection – which our NHS could do right now – then it’s probably better to get it over with.

O’Neill: One thing that you have raised is the absence of critical voices in the mainstream media. As you point out, there are actually epidemiologists who believe that the idea that you can lock a disease away in a cupboard and make it disappear is complete idiocy and is completely unworkable and only puts off the inevitable, which is that the disease will become part of the family of diseases. Those voices are not being heard as much as they might be, and certainly not with parity to the other, more terrifying voices. What have you made of the broader media culture around this discussion of the virus and the lockdown?

Shriver: The media are worse than the public. Of course, the media are also controlling the public to a degree. I have been especially appalled by how few dissenting voices ever appear on television. I force myself to suffer through news programmes on a nightly basis, and I was really struck recently by Channel 4. This was not even a story, it was just a little statistic that they flashed up on the screen. It was that we are expecting 1.5 billion people – which is, they were careful to clarify, half the workforce of the entire world – to have no source of livelihood. That was just a little fact. Then we went back to the situation in care homes in the UK, which took up most of the rest of the broadcast. It’s as if it was incidental. This never gets any attention.

Nor does any dubiety among the scientific community about the wisdom of treating this disease completely differently to how we treat any other disease. Nor do I ever see any comparative statistics aired on television news – and you rarely find them in newspapers, either – putting the deaths in context, both in the context of how many people die every year in certain countries and worldwide anyway, and also of how many people die of other diseases routinely.

In 2017, the number of people who died of malaria was 620,000. That is almost all in Africa. We totally ignore it. That’s three times the number of people who’ve died of Covid-19 so far worldwide. But it’s just ordinary. They live with it. In 2018, 1.5million people died of tuberculosis. And TB is especially dangerous because it’s developing a resistance to our treatment to it. So it’s actually more terrifying than Covid-19. Again, we forget about it. Typhoid, which we think of as a disease of the past, still kills up to 160,000 people a year. Cholera is the same – it kills about 140,000 people a year. Influenza, which Covid resembles in many ways, kills up to 650,000 people every year. It took me five minutes to find those statistics. Why don’t I ever see them reported?

O’Neill: I want to go back to a point you made there about the incidental nature of the unprecedented economic collapse that the world is heading for. I have noticed that too; that in the media and in lots of political discussions, the predictions of a historically unprecedented contraction of economic life are treated either as incidental, or as significantly less important than Covid-19 itself. You give the example of 1.5 billion people losing their livelihoods in some way. Of course, in the UK, it is now being predicted that this will mean a 13 per cent drop in national output, which will be the largest contraction ever recorded. Why do you think that stuff is being pushed aside? Part of me thinks it’s some kind of Covid-related madness in which the media cannot see the broader picture. Or do you just think they cannot let anything get in the way of the politics-of-fear narrative that they are currently pushing?

Shriver: Madness is the word, but it is a shared hysteria. We are dealing with an international hysteria. You hear that word ‘unprecedented’ all the time. There is nothing unprecedented about the virus itself. It is very much like lots of other viruses and lots of other illnesses. In fact, it is less deadly than many other illnesses that we have had to learn to live with – some of which we have cured.

What is unprecedented is our reaction. And it’s the reaction that is causing the inevitable economic depression – or collapse, even. That is the level of economic failure we are dealing with. But it is as if the disease has caused the collapse. All that economic fallout is seen as simply the inevitable fallout of this terrible illness. But it has nothing to do with the illness. It has everything to do with our reaction to it. We have never done this before. We have never said we must close whole countries because of a contagious disease.

With these kinds of contagious diseases, you cannot just wait. If you are going to wait for it to not be there anymore, you are going to wait forever. That is what is really dangerous about the government’s change of strategy. It used to call for flattening the curve to save the NHS. And then as soon as we saved the NHS, we were still in lockdown. A new purpose for the lockdown was found, instead of ending it once it achieved its purpose.

Of course, the other thing that has happened is that the people have been so successfully brainwashed that it is getting very difficult to un-brainwash them. So it’s going to be difficult to get people to go back to work. It’s one thing to open restaurants again, it’s another thing to convince people that they want to go out to eat.

Furthermore, these new laws look as if they are going to be virtually indefinite. Many of these laws are going to make it impossible to run a successful business – if the business is even allowed to open. If you have a restaurant in which everyone has to be two metres apart, then how do you serve enough people to pay your staff and pay your chefs and pay your food bill and, most of all, pay your rent? The whole model is not going to stack up. You can’t spread people out too much, the facilities don’t allow for it. And therefore, it cuts your productivity so much that you cannot make any money. Everyone is just dealing with all of these measures as if they are inevitable, as if it’s just too bad, and it’s the fault of the virus. No, it isn’t. It’s the fault of the rabid overreaction to the virus.

O’Neill: Do you think there is a class or cultural component to that blindness of the lockdown fanatics to the consequences of the decisions that they are taking and the actions that they are pushing through? We know from the experience of recent years that we live under elites that are cut off from ordinary people’s lives and beliefs. Do you think there are some sections of society who are rather enjoying the lockdown because they can carry on working from home and the Deliveroo guys will still bring them their food? They live in nice houses and their blindness to the consequences of what they are doing or what they are supporting seems to be driven by their distance from people who have to work and have to mix together and have to make a living.

Shriver: I do think there is a segment of the population that is having a wonderful time, especially people who are being paid 80 per cent of their salaries. The irony being, of course, that they are paying themselves 80 per cent of their salaries. It’s taxpayers’ money. These are the same people who are heavy taxpayers, so they are going to end up having to pay their own furloughed salaries in future.

I think for some people, this has turned into a kind of indefinite holiday. You do not have to work very hard. You do not have to get dressed for work. You can stay in your pajamas. You can sit in front of the computer and feel self-righteous about it. Right now, being incredibly lazy and unproductive is patriotic. It’s the best of all possible worlds. In this sector, it is going to be hard to go back to normal, especially now that we are constantly informed that we cannot go back to normal. There is going to be a so-called ‘new normal’ – one of those expressions that we all now have learned to hate.

O’Neill: In terms of the economy, one of the striking ways in which people justify their blindness to this situation, or justify the acceptability of what is about to occur, is by making this very shallow propagandistic distinction between lives and the economy. You will know from personal experience that anyone who questions the lockdown or the reaction to the virus is depicted as caring more about the economy than lives, caring more about profit than lives, hating old people and so on. But to make a distinction like that between how people live and economic life is completely false, right?

Shriver: I think it is self-evident. [We] cannot have a country without an economy. What is abstract about an economy is the word. An economy is anything but abstract. It is all the very literal, tangible things we do between ourselves that make high-density living possible. If we do not have an economy, we cannot have a city – we would all be grubbing on our own little patch of dirt trying to raise a stalk of corn. When we are doing that all by ourselves, then there is no economy. But if we want to go to the supermarket to get popcorn, there has to be an economy. This whole idea that you can shelter human life and throw the economy into the toilet is patently ludicrous.

Lionel Shriver was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

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Philip St. John Lewis Davies

12th May 2020 at 2:56 pm

I actually believe that we are now beginning to see a great mass extinction of the human race. I really don’t think that we are viable as a species any more.

There is no question that humanity has innumerable achievements to show and billions of incredibly talented individuals contribute to our betterment in so many ways; but the trouble is that as a species we trip up so often that we stagger more and more, ultimately lose our balance and fall. And it seems that as populations of any organic kind, and whether local or global, grow, they inevitably expand beyond the critical point where they cease to be supportable, becoming a burden on their environment, and essentially affecting the world as a kind of plague or blight, that then naturally provokes a counterbalancing attack to reduce it’s destructive effects on surrounding populations.

Perhaps we should think of our own complex cellular and community structure, as a species, as being only the macroscopic aspect of this connected world, existing at one end of the broad spectrum balanced by the microscopic? Thus Nature will constantly be attempting to re-balance these forces at either extreme; She never succeeds, of course, in a dynamic world characterised by critical instability, so that we should normally expect a violent see-saw of wildly changing fortune to result, never settling in any stable relationship of balance for any side of this changeable equation.

This must be accepted as the lot of every part of life – not excepting humanity, despite the blindly unrealistic complacency of the more sheltered populations of the advanced West. The few brief seeming pauses of recent generations have lulled us, as if we were still babes, into a somnolent attitide towards the hostile forces prowling round us. This tragically absurd and pointless Lockdown cannot possibly alter that implacable reality; even the far greater purpose of the search for cures, treatments and vaccines to arm ourselves for a serious defence is at best a doubtful prospect.

The immunity of the entire surviving herd was the only defence available to us – yet we shun it in our cowering arrogance, as if inactive fear could possibly prove resistant to such a resourceful enemy! Our entirely artificial separation from the natural world is doomed. The only proposition that makes sense is to march back into the jungle and learn how to survive all over again.

It is of course very understandable that we are filled with terror at such a savage prospect, and seek by any means to put off that evil day. But Nature dictates that that day is upon us, when we will again be driven out naked upon the hostile world, and forced to make our own way as best we can, alongside all the other creatures of this crawling Universe.

I think that this fear that has come over us is the instinctive re-awakening of the existential dread of living on the precarious niche we have always occupied. We were only daydreaming our delusional escapist fantasies of conquering those natural limitations.

Now the days of cheating Nature are over. The Truth stands before us with fangs bared, dripping hungry poison. We cannot escape it. We must face it.

Puddy Cat

11th May 2020 at 5:14 pm

Everything being enacted at the moment seems to be endorsing socialism and the money tree policy. Yes, yes, Kevin needs looking at but so do Keir, Jeremy, the unions, politicking factions in the devolved assemblies. The papers all too eager to name the zeitgeist to pronounce that they saw it first, that they were right all along, of coercing events to suit their narrative. In a time of plague you soon find out who the selfish and roguish ones are. It started with the hoarders and ends with the BBC. It is not a search for truth at the BBC but a playground for the university graduate smarty pants frying syntax to try and make their point, interrupting replies to lengthy questions, chivying, that old trick about not letting your opponent ever to finish an answer. The evil way that the producers at the corporation are able to pick elements that support their view is eye watering and they offer it as vox pop. The BBC is the political arm of the Labour Party (its rather sad confection of eternal meetings and the appropriateness of policy and leadership but only if agreed by the unions) A party created out of a number of sects and self-interest groups whose policy is largely to merely to disagree with everything that the state proposes.

Steele Rudd

16th May 2020 at 4:50 am

Well said. Tabloid media can be bad, but ever-pretentious State “quality” edifices are clearly the worst when it comes to selective reporting and blatant political angling.

This syndrome isn’t confined to the Beeb – other countries have the same problem.


11th May 2020 at 2:22 pm

This views expressed by Lionel Shriver in this article are entirely correct.

Gareth Edward KING

11th May 2020 at 12:27 pm

Absolutely spot-on. The Spanish are also supposed to be so ‘independent’ and ‘bloody-minded’, aren’t they? Today I had a middle-aged couple try (unsuccessfully) to denounce me as I came within their ‘sacred’ two metres-space. This was a spill-over from Friday when the woman (who’d already tried to denounce the cashier for not wearing a mask) hit me with her shopping bag! Her husband today, who was even worse with this ‘two-metre’ lark, shouted out that I was a ‘terrorist’! Anyway, two pólice cars came roaring up within about five minutes and about four cops jumped out! I was quite adamant that this ‘two-metre rule’ was only a recommendation as was this mask-wearing insistence, and of course I was right! What could they do? The cops in Spain know that there’s little they can do, there IS no law, how can there be? All it takes would be a bit more ‘attitude’ from the Spaniards, and ala! problem sorted! What a pair of scum-bags! Denouncing me as a ‘terrorist’. Spain knows all about terrorism: ETA for starters, was that c. 900 deaths as from the late 70s?

James Knight

11th May 2020 at 12:07 pm

Apparently most new cases in New York – which now seems to be the covid19 ground zero – are people who are staying at home. So it hardly looks effective in it’s own terms.

James Knight

11th May 2020 at 12:01 pm

We are developing a lockdown Stockholm syndrome where everyone from Owen Jones to Piers Morgan encourage us to drink the lockdown Kool-Aid.

Dick Turnip

11th May 2020 at 10:15 am

If it’s not a virus, it’s Brexit, if it’s not Brexit, it’s global warming. The MSM just LOVE any perceived disaster story, otherwise they think they cannot sell their tat. Hell’s teeth, what a sorry world we live in.
It seems to me that me MSM have lost all sense of perspective—–as Ms Shriver points out, millions of people die all the time. As a doctor, I see diseases of all kinds kill people every day, few of those diseases in the West nowadays are infective, but what must be remembered is that life is hazardous, we are fragile and as long as we take precautions we must keep b*ggering on, as Churchill put it.
As the 1920s laid-back professional golfer Walter Hagen put it “Never worry, never hurry and take time to smell the flowers along the way”. A good motto for today, especially the “worry” admonition…..

Neil John

11th May 2020 at 5:55 pm

Yes the Minging Sewer Media (MSM) do seem to have their own agenda to break the ordinary people, if only in revenge for backing Boris and Brexit.

Jerry Owen

11th May 2020 at 9:32 am

Ferguson has been totally discredited yet Boris chose last night to refer to his outlandish unproven claim that without the lockdown 500,000 people could have died.
Dreadful mixed up worthless speech.

Dick Turnip

11th May 2020 at 11:47 am

Ferguson has in no way been “discredited”. You imagine you know about epidemiology than he does? What incredible arrogance!!!

Dick Turnip

11th May 2020 at 11:48 am

“…..you KNOW more…”

Neil Mca

11th May 2020 at 7:10 pm

His model has been completely discredited.

jan mozelewski

11th May 2020 at 11:51 am

I am fast coming to the conclusion that he is a dreadful mixed-up worthless Prime Minister.

James Barber

11th May 2020 at 9:08 am

I gather that it is the cytokine storm into which the Wuhan virus may provoke the immune system that can kill patient. It seems that the government’s response is a cytokine storm of its own.

James Barber

11th May 2020 at 9:10 am

*the* patient

Philip St. John Lewis Davies

12th May 2020 at 3:18 pm

We have become allergic to life, and increasingly unviable as a species.


11th May 2020 at 8:36 am

This is an excellent article. We need to see opinions like these aired on mainstream TV and press, but we don’t.

The MSM are descending into a political scrap, with Labour, Scottish, and Welsh interests scoring points off the government.

The country will go bankrupt and children will become failures while the tabloids wail and politicians score cheap points.

Linda Payne

11th May 2020 at 7:27 am

This is a wonderful interview and needs to be circulated more widely. Interesting that she talks about the difficulty in unlocking people who have been convinced of the lockdown in their minds, that’s the further challenge

John Lewis

11th May 2020 at 6:32 am

Excellent article.

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