After Covid

We won’t get normality back without a fight.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

Suddenly, everyone’s talking about getting back to normal. After 22 months of restrictions, of going in and out of lockdown, of a suspension of civil liberties that was unprecedented in modern peacetime Britain, all the talk is of ‘moving on’. Let’s learn to live with Covid, politicians say. The UK could become one of the first major economies to move from ‘pandemic to endemic and then deal with this’, says education secretary Nadhim Zahawi. Even the Observer, which wasn’t shy in its lockdown drum-beating over the past couple of years, is now doing splashes on experts who think it’s time we put the Covid obsession behind us. ‘End mass jabs and treat Covid like we do flu’, said its front page on Sunday. What a turnaround. Not long ago, the Observer was in the frontline of branding those who spoke of Covid in the same breath as flu as dangerous loons.

The Observer’s startling front page is about Dr Clive Dix, the former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce. He now thinks that ‘mass population-based vaccination’ should end. We should tailor vaccines to the vulnerable rather than jabbing everyone, he says. Moving forward, we ‘need to manage disease, not virus spread’, says Dix. There is also chat about cutting the isolation time for Covid, again, this time from seven days to five. Should we have to isolate at all? Given the mildness of Omicron, maybe not, some experts are saying out loud. ‘Ultimately, we’re going to have to let people who are positive with Covid go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold’, says one professor of medicine. Meanwhile, Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, says Covid is no longer ‘the same disease we were seeing a year ago’. High death rates are ‘now history’, he says.

Reasoned voices seem to be to the fore now, while the shriller fearmongers of the cursed Covid era are on the backfoot. That might be one reason why their commentary is becoming ever-more frenzied – they sense that the clout and celebrity they enjoyed during the Covid terror is slowly slipping away. Leading alarmist Deepti Gurdasani is now accusing even the Guardian and the BBC, possibly the least lockdown-sceptical institutions in the land, of being sources of misinformation, all because they’re saying that maybe, just maybe, the worst is behind us. This is typical of Covid authoritarians – they don’t merely criticise those they disagree with; they accuse them of deliberately intending to deceive the populace, which, according to the dictionary, is one of the meanings of the word ‘misinformation’.

Calmer, more self-respecting alarmists seem to recognise that the jig is up. The spectacular collapse of the deranged Omicron projections drawn up by the people around SAGE has added to the feeling that we are at a turning point in this crisis. ‘Deaths could hit 6,000 a day’, screamed a Guardian article on 18 December, summarising SAGE’s worst-case thinking. Courtesy of SAGE’s mad modelling, such doom-ridden predictions were everywhere three weeks ago. The reality, to engage in some rather dramatic understatement, is a little different. There has been a small spike in deaths, but nothing remotely like the calamities we saw in earlier waves. Cases in parts of England now seem to be falling and hospitalisations are plateauing. It seems those South African experts we were told to ignore may have been right all along. ‘“Gloomster” scientists admit they were wrong about 75,000 Omicron deaths’, said a headline in the Mail as some UK experts accepted they may have jumped the gun.

Of course we must still be vigilant. Covid is a sneaky bastard. It can still morph, it can still cause harm. And most people – not being the selfish, uncaring idiots that stalk the nightmares of the Covid fearmongers – are still taking precautions. If you’ve got a sore throat these days, you don’t visit your ailing grandmother. You might even dodge the pub. We don’t need liberty-trashing laws to make us behave responsibly. We have our own – brace yourselves – moral consciences. And yet we are well within our rights to start talking about the good news – namely, that the inspiring mass rollout of vaccination is successfully protecting us from the serious ill-health and high death rates that were the dire wages of earlier Covid waves. That is worth raising a glass to. Resisting the dying cries of the Covid fear lobby and instead cheering mankind’s brave and fruitful war against this blasted virus is the most important act of intellectual resistance any of us can engage in right now. Normality, here we come.

And yet… Without wanting to make any further contribution to the gloom that continues to grip too many in the political and media sets, we need to get real about how difficult the journey back to normality is likely to be. It will be a rocky ride. Liberty, public trust, social solidarity and freedom of thought have been ravaged to such an extraordinary degree over the past two years that their restoration is not going to be a simple or easy task. The technical accomplishment of weakening Covid-19 and holding at bay its most pernicious impacts on human health is one thing (and a great thing). Repairing the political freedoms and social bonds that were so violently undercut by lockdown is another thing entirely. It is naive to think ‘normality’ will magically re-emerge, intact, in rude health, simply because we have scored a scientific victory over Covid’s fatality rate. No, if you want to live normally again, you’re going to have to fight for it.

Just as we must assess the damage Covid-19 did to human health, so we must examine the impact restrictions had on society and freedom. One of the worst decisions made by governments across Europe was to deploy the politics of fear to try to dragoon their citizens into abiding by Covid rules and regulations. As sociologist and SAGE adviser Robert Dingwall said back in May 2020, officialdom ‘effectively terrorised’ the public into believing Covid would kill them if they broke the rules. We created a ‘climate of fear’, he said. The consequence of terrorising the public, rather than galvanising us to pull together to combat the spread of Covid and assist the vulnerable, became clear very early on. Snitching abounded. Neighbours told on neighbours. Venturing outside came to be viewed as dangerous anti-social behaviour. Police forces went wild, clearing people out of parks for no good reason and even sending drones to spy on dog-walkers in scenic country spots. The culture of atomisation that predated Covid was intensified by the terror officialdom deployed in response to Covid. Repairing solidarity will be a tough task.

Then there’s freedom of thought, the right to think and speak differently to mainstream opinion. To my mind, one of the most noxious elements of the Covid hysteria was the ruthless demonisation of anyone who questioned the policy of lockdown. The impact of this incurious, censorious culture should not be underestimated. Consider the attempted unpersoning of Sunetra Gupta, Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, the originators of the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued for ‘focused protection’ of vulnerable people rather than a generalised lockdown. For proposing, in utterly good faith, that there might be a better way of dealing with Covid, these people were treated as thoughtcriminals. Commentators hollered for their No Platforming. They received hate, threats. They were depicted as a danger to public health – the new Enemy Within. It all spoke to the unforgiving intolerance of the Covid era.

And what about the culture of freedom? Forget, for a moment, the way our legally guaranteed liberties were put on ice during this crisis. That was bad, no question. But a more injurious if sometimes intangible process was taking place alongside this temporary unwinding of our rights. The culture of freedom was undermined. The individual self-confidence and social trust that freedom depends upon, which freedom cannot exist without, was pummelled, day in, day out. We were educated to distrust others, to distrust ourselves. People are vectors of disease, the messaging went, not fellow citizens in the cause of the common good. Your friends, your neighbours, your colleagues, they will infect you. They’re bad for you, and you are bad for them. That was the propagandistic menace through which lockdown was maintained. Anyone who thinks that such weaponised distrust will not have consequences beyond the crisis itself is kidding themselves. You cannot sow suspicion, tear citizen from citizen and criminalise community life and then expect everything to be hunky-dory once you say: ‘Right, back to normal!’ The beast of fear is easy to unleash, but rather more difficult to heel.

We hear a lot about ‘Covid denialism’, about those who deny the scientific reality of Covid-19’s impact on human health. Those people are certainly worth challenging. But I would venture that there is a worse problem – cultural denialism; the blinkered belief that lockdown was a simple and straightforward measure to deal with a health crisis rather than something that was also highly influenced by the cultures of fear, distrust and censorship that sadly define this young century. To my mind, this cultural denialism is worse than scientific denialism because it keeps at bay the political reckoning we will need to have if we are ever to restore the human connections and individual self-belief that are necessary to a good society. For nearly two years we’ve been told that protecting health is the highest aim of human society. We now need to make a very different case – that it is freedom that makes life worth living, and that everything should be bent towards making freedom a reality for all people. Let’s fight for that normality.

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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