‘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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