We can’t go on like this

When liberty can be snatched away at a moment’s notice, it becomes meaningless.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

Fear is now the only language our politicians speak. There’ll soon be a ‘tidal wave’ of Omicron in the UK, said Boris Johnson last night. He was echoing Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who warns of a ‘tsunami of infections’. These watery metaphors, these prophecies of breakers of disease crashing on the shores of the UK, capture the extent to which the politics of dread and doom have replaced calm analysis. Covid is a transmissible virus. It is not a punishment visited upon us by Poseidon. It is not a hellish rush that will wipe away entire towns. These tidal tropes are deployed, not for their accuracy, but in order to terrorise the populace into believing it faces an imminent and catastrophic threat. This is the political world we inhabit now.

Project Fear staggers on. Like Covid itself, it has mutated over the past 21 months. It has peaked and troughed. There have been virulent strains and weaker strains. But it has been a constant. From both the political class and across the media airwaves, the foghorn of fear has blasted. Go outside and you might unwittingly kill someone. Visit granny and she could end up in hospital. And now, get boosted or you could be washed away by that tsunami on the horizon, by the violent wave of sickness coming to a street near you soon. Any attempt to engage with us as rational, reasonable adults, capable of understanding viruses and of taking voluntary action where necessary to protect ourselves and our communities, was abandoned long ago. Instead we are treated as lab rats, poked and jolted this way and that by a bureaucracy that now relies entirely on fear. We need to start talking about how this weaponised dread, this politicisation of panic, is diminishing us as citizens and harming society itself.

My view is that the politics of fear was never necessary, not even back in March 2020, when Covid-19 was new, clearly virulent, and arriving among populaces that had no protection against it – no vaccines, no immunity. Even then, levelling with the public, and galvanising us to pull together to face down this health threat, would have been preferable to the enforced atomisation and culture of perma-fear that the political and media elites opted for. Today, 21 months later, the playing of the fear card is more preposterous still. Omicron seems to be a milder variant than Delta. What’s more, 95 per cent of Brits have some level of antibodies against Covid. The idea that we are helpless, hapless creatures facing a mountainous wave of doom is simply untenable. It is, to all intents and purposes, a lie.

The elites have entirely lost the ability, and the will, to reason with us. The impact this has on the ideal and the practice of citizenship cannot be overstated. It is an offence against democracy to issue apocalyptic warnings to try to dragoon the masses into compliance with restrictions. It turns us from democratic citizens who ought to be engaged in factful discussion about how crises should be tackled and society should be organised, into aberrant children whose behaviour must be shaped and controlled by threats and occasional treats (‘Follow the rules and Christmas will be saved’). The hollowing out not only of civil liberty but also of democracy itself, where The People are transformed into a problematic blob to be massaged and reprimanded by behavioural experts, is perhaps the grimmest achievement of the Covid era. Anyone who thinks these authoritarian consequences will not linger past the Covid pandemic is kidding themselves. They ought to acquaint themselves with history.

We can’t go on like this. We can’t keep ratcheting up terror in response to every outbreak of Covid. We can’t keep putting social life and work life on hold every time there’s a wave of disease. We can’t keep putting a gun to the head of the hospitality industry, and threatening to plunge its businesses and its workers into turmoil, whenever a worrying variant emerges. We can’t keep drifting back into lockdown, which we might now do in January, in response to the notoriously pessimistic and often wrong modelling of epidemiologists who know the R number of everything and the value of nothing. We can’t carry on in this limbo between normality and shutdown. In some ways it isn’t the current restrictions themselves that are particularly onerous. They’re relatively mild, for now. No, it’s the knowledge that restrictions could return at any time that corrodes our citizenship and throttles our freedom. When liberty can be snatched away at a moment’s notice, it becomes meaningless.

But we have to do all of this, we’re told, in order to protect the NHS. This has been the cry of the elites during the entire pandemic. It still is. It captures how thoroughly the relationship between the individual and the state has been rearranged, for the worse, over these past 21 months. The NHS is meant to serve us; now we must serve it. Public services are supposed to make life easier for the public; now the public is told to make sacrifices to assist these services. State health has become a kind of god we must appease by agreeing to the occasional loss of our liberty, of our connection with other people, and in some cases our jobs. A terrible irony is that in the process of suspending normal life to save the health service, we may end up worsening the health of the nation. Last night Boris said doctor’s appointments will need to be postponed to aid the booster rollout. What that will mean for undiagnosed cancers or insufficiently treated mental-health problems remains to be seen. Health secretary Sajid Javid says cancer check-ups will be prioritised this time, but we still face the prospect of people avoiding contacting health services as part of our ‘duty’ to the NHS. It is a very odd and perverse health drive that suspends the diagnosis and treatment of certain health problems. Our Covid myopia could prove dangerous.

No one in officialdom seems capable of getting us out of this Covid loop of doom. Something has to change, something has to give. We are vaccinated, we have antibodies, we are getting boosted – so let us now live with this virus as we do with other viruses. As for the NHS – a health service that requires the suspension of normality and a clampdown on liberty every time a worrying new virus emerges is clearly not fit for purpose. It should be an urgent priority of the government to introduce enough elasticity into the health service to ensure that we never have to shut society down again, in response to any disease. Normality used to be a pretty boring word, but it’s the thing we should all be fighting for right now. Against the distrustful political elite, the hysterical media and the modellers of doom, we need to make a radical cry for the restoration of normal life.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer 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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