Covid and the collapse of reason

Covid and the collapse of reason

How we got here, and how we might get back to normality.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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Topics Politics UK

On 23 March, Boris Johnson locked down the country. It would last for three weeks, he said, and it had one simple aim: to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed by Covid cases. Six months on, where are we? A quarter of the population is still under lockdown. The rest of us are living under the most stringent social rules in living memory. Students in Scotland and Manchester are locked in their halls of residence and are prevented by actual police officers from going outside, visiting a pub or returning to their family home. Riot police are violently shutting down anyone who protests against this new authoritarianism, as we witnessed in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. And the economy is in freefall: we are heading for the largest recession on record, with millions of jobs on the line.

How has this happened? How did we go from a three-week effort to protect the NHS from a sudden spike in coronavirus cases to a forever lockdown; to the reorganisation of political, social and economic life around a novel virus; to a situation where fresher students are putting signs saying ‘HELP’ on the windows of their dorm rooms fearful they will be arrested if they leave? This question needs urgent answering. Because the only way we will get out of this crisis – this crisis of freedom, of autonomy, and of reason itself – is if we know how we got into it. Understanding the origins of this unprecedented reorganisation of the relationship between the state and society is essential if we are to find a way back to normality.

If we were to assess the state of the nation right now, we would find that it is not good. Liberty, democracy and reasoned discussion have all suffered greatly over the past six months. We now live in a nation where arbitrary rules are introduced by government decree. Where parliament has essentially neutered itself, becoming little more than an uncritical green-lighter of whatever new rule or regulation is introduced (although a threatened parliamentary revolt this week might finally start to rectify this sordid state of affairs). Where political disagreement, and basic pluralism, has been virtually suspended – witness Keir Starmer saying Labour will support whatever Covid measures the government introduces. Where people can be fined for visiting loved ones, where ministers make statements about who we can hug, where there is serious talk of Christmas being cancelled.

It all feels so disorientating. Many people just cannot work out what is going on. Is this just mission creep, with an understandable short, sharp three-week lockdown somehow morphing into a much broader crusade to fortify every part of society against any level of Covid? And why did we shift from temporarily protecting the NHS from a spike in Covid to protecting all people from ever catching the virus? As for the rules, how come you can gather in groups larger than six at work but not in a pub? Why can children in Scotland gather with 30 other children at school – all from different households – but they can’t visit their Nan because she lives in a different household? And why is so much of the nation still in lockdown when hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 remain, at the moment, incredibly low – far lower than in April?

What we are witnessing is what happens to society when fear and distrust dominate. When the impulse of catastrophism overrides our commitment to coolly negotiating the risks we face and trusting communities to devise plans and strategies that work for them in times of crisis. One of the frustrating things for those of us, like spiked, who have taken a critical approach to the events of the past six months is that we are often caricatured as not taking Covid-19 seriously or as conspiracy theorists who think powerful forces, especially the government, are cynically exploiting this crisis to pursue the dastardly authoritarian ends they always had in mind. In spiked’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. As we have argued from the beginning, Covid-19 represents a serious threat, but it is one that society would be more than capable of dealing with, and living with, if a culture of fear and a climate of distrust had not come to dominate our institutions and cultural imagination over the past 30 years.

spiked takes Covid-19 seriously. As we argued on the eve of the lockdown in March, this pandemic poses a ‘profound challenge to humankind’. It was unquestionable to us that something had to be done to mitigate Covid’s impact on human health. ‘Society ought to devote a huge amount of resources… to the protection of human life’, we argued. It would be ‘perverse and nihilistic’ to argue that no measures at all were required to deal with this novel virus. But what we argued for was a more targeted approach to Covid-19, especially as more came to be known about the virus’s disproportionate impact on elderly people and people with underlying health conditions.

Indeed, for us, one of the key problems with a society-wide lockdown was precisely that it distracted society’s focus from the more targeted policies required to protect older people. The ‘myopic obsession with shutting down the whole of society… constantly drew attention away from those who were most at risk: the elderly and the vulnerable’, we argued. As we pointed out in our numerous pieces on the care-homes crisis, a crisis spiked drew attention to long before the rest of the media did, the unforgivable shuffling of sick older people from hospitals back into care homes – all in the name of ‘protecting the NHS’ from the apocalypse of coronavirus – was a prime example of lockdown myopia having unwitting and severe consequences for human life. It was precisely our concern to preserve human life that made us question the blanket authoritarian policy of shutting down everyone (rather than offering to shield the most vulnerable) and of shutting down essential health services that were not directly related to Covid-19.

Our sceptical cry wasn’t ‘do nothing’ – it was ‘let’s think carefully about what we do and try to ensure that the actions we take against Covid-19 do not have unintended consequences for people, society and the economy’. ‘There is such a thing as doing too little and also such a thing as doing too much’, we warned a few days before the lockdown was enforced in March. ‘People need jobs, security, meaning, connection. [And] to threaten these things as part of a performative “war” against what ought to be treated as a health challenge rather than as an End Times event would be self-defeating and utterly antithetical to the broader aim of protecting our societies from this novel threat’, we argued. Our concerns have, sadly, been borne out. It increasingly seems that the ‘cure’ to Covid-19 – the freezing of economic life, the tight control of social life, and the halting of certain health services – could prove more harmful than the disease itself. A government study has suggested that there could be 200,000 excess deaths in the long-term as a result of the anti-Covid measures and the recessionary trends they have unleashed.

As to the idea that a conspiracy was at work, that officials spied in Covid-19 an opportunity to enforce an authoritarianism they had long fantasised about, spiked continually pushed back against such notions. Some in the anti-lockdown set use terms like ‘plandemic’ to suggest that this whole thing is a ruse to allow officialdom to denude us of our liberty. Evil ministers are rubbing their hands with glee and purposefully exaggerating the problem of Covid-19 so that they might consign freedom to the dustbin of history and assume total control over our lives, some in wackier circles claim. spiked has always resisted this naive understanding of the current crisis. For us, this isn’t all part of some big plan; it’s worse than that – it’s a product of a profound nervousness and worst-case thinking that have been growing across society for a few decades now.

‘The great problem we face right now is not that the government is arrogantly stealing freedom from us’, spiked argued, but rather that ‘so many people… seem so cravenly keen to sacrifice their freedom’. Our concern was with the inexorable withering effect that narratives of fear have had on social confidence and even the individual capacity for judgement in recent decades. The problem was the filtering of Covid through society’s ‘pre-existing dread, its pre-existing cultural skittishness’. As a ‘consequence of the culture of fear and safetyism that has gripped Western societies in recent decades’, people have come to be ‘insulated from risk and even from offence’, and this has ‘given rise to a situation in which some seem incapable of exercising any kind of personal judgement’. Our worry was less with a sinister, conniving government than it was with the deadening impact that the worst-case ideology and cult of safety have had across society, especially on community life and individual initiative.

That is why our proposed solution to the Covid crisis was to call for the reconstitution of a meaningful public life, one which acknowledges the existence of uncertainty, and understands that communities must be trusted to negotiate that uncertainty through the use of reason and choice. ‘In decommissioning the public, our society has destroyed its own best resource when it comes to dealing with crises’, spiked said of the lockdown. For us, the problem with the lockdown was its culture of ‘compliance, resignation and forced retreat into the non-public realm’, which could only exacerbate the trend towards a ‘broken, over-policed public’ that feels increasingly uncertain about how to ‘stand up to viruses and other threats together’. Lockdown’s most baleful impact was to intensify the corrosion of social solidarity that has been a problem in society for the past few decades.

This is where spiked differs, profoundly, from the more conspiratorial sections of the lockdown-sceptic community. It is understandable that some people have weaved conspiracy theories to try to explain the current moment, insisting that dastardly figures like Bill Gates, Big Pharma and of course wicked governments are busily plotting the overthrow of human liberty on the back of a cooked-up virus crisis. After all, things are confusing. Extraordinary events have unfolded with very little clarity or explanation. In such circumstances people will create stories to try to make sense of the sudden diminution of their freedom and their lives. And yet, this conspiratorial bent among anti-lockdown protesters is a very serious problem. It ends up giving rise to a competition of narratives of powerlessness.

So on one side, we have officialdom’s lockdown myopia which disempowers communities by exaggerating the threat of Covid-19 and downplaying our capacity for dealing with risk and uncertainty. And on the other side we have a pushback against officialdom that says dark, evil forces beyond our control are puppeteering this crisis in order to achieve their malevolent ends. In both scenarios, the public is reduced to spectators. Spectators either to the fearful crisis-management of government officials and experts who insist we must follow the rules if we want to survive, or to an evil conspiracy of the usual suspects that we can hate and rage against but not really do much about. In both situations, the capacity of individuals and communities to understand this crisis and to start taking action to alleviate it, or live with it, are diminished. We need a better opposition.

Locating today’s unprecedented crisis in the culture of fear and of official distrust is important if we are to work out the best way out of this increasingly dire situation. People are frustrated and fearful. How to change this, or how to marshal people’s concerns into a clearer, community-wide critique of the Covid hysteria, is the key task facing democrats right now. There are openings. For example, surveys continually find that a majority of people support the lockdown measures, but other surveys suggest that growing numbers of people are refusing to adhere to quarantine and other measures. We are witnessing a performance of compliance. People know that the ‘right thing’ to say to pollsters is ‘I support lockdown’, but they also recognise that life in lockdown is difficult and unpleasant. So they publicly pay tribute to the rules, while privately breaking them.

On one level, this is worrying – it is worrying that many people lack the confidence to say publicly that the Covid measures are an intolerable burden on their work life, their family life and their love life. But on another level, it is positive that people are finding ways around the regulations and are even taking some risks to live their lives more fully than the government currently wants them to. What we now need to do is channel this unspoken rebellion against the more onerous measures into a broader, democratic questioning of the current crisis. We need to reconstitute the public spaces in which people can think and speak freely about the lockdown and take responsibility, personally and locally, for deciding how to negotiate the risks of this virus. As spiked said months ago, this crisis put out to pasture society’s best resource for dealing with threats and dangers – the reasoned, rational public – and it is now time to re-engage this public and ensure that they impact on every facet of the debate going forwards. How to live with Covid rather than fantasising that we can hide away from it forever – that is the urgent democratic public debate we need.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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