Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to let up to 500,000 of his own citizens die. “I must level with the British public,” Johnson said in a statement following an emergency meeting over the coronavirus crisis last Thursday. As the virus continues to spread, he continued, “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
In large part, this was because Britain’s response, unlike that of basically every other nation, was designed around accepting that almost everyone in the country — up to 80 percent of the population, according to one leaked document — will at some point become infected with the virus. The idea, such as it was, was that this sort of stiff upper lip fatalism would allow Britain to generate a “herd immunity” other nations would not have, protecting the elderly and immunocompromised who are most at risk from the virus and allowing the British economy to ride out additional waves in future.
“Our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it,” the UK’s chief science advisor, Patrick Vallance, said on the BBC.
The only problem, of course, is that it quickly became apparent to everyone that this was epidemiological nonsense. “Herd immunity” is something public health officials typically seek to generate by vaccinating populations (you know, once an effective vaccine has been developed, which is not the case here), not by allowing diseases to infect people largely indiscriminately; it’s a bit like trying to fireproof your house by burning the most flammable bits down. In practice, the Johnson’s policy would have meant that up to 7.9 million people would be hospitalized. The 500,000 figure came from a working assumption of a one percent death rate — Italy’s currently stands somewhat higher than that, as health care services have become overwhelmed — so the number could easily have been far worse (a 3.8 percent death rate in an infected population of 54 million would mean more than two million dead).
This all assumes that the most deadly thing about coronavirus will be coronavirus itself, when an overwhelmed health care system means many more people dying of preventable conditions; when fear and isolation will take an incalculable toll on the nation’s mental health; when economic disaster will mean many people lose their normal means of support.
The Bengal Famine of 1943 — for which Johnson’s often-invoked inspiration, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was ultimately responsible — had a death rate of two to three million. The 1932 Holodomor in Ukraine, which is recognized by the country as a genocide, had a likely death toll of around 3.5 million (and some scholars argue that it led to the Holocaust). Perhaps it would sound hyperbolic to suggest that Johnson was inviting his country to experience a preventable disaster of similar proportions, but I cannot figure out what, beyond the wishful thinking that such things just “don’t happen here,” would have excluded these figures from the realm of material possibility.
Basically no one in the upper echelons of British government knows what they’re doing.
So it’s not especially surprising that the government have mostly spent their time since Thursday walking their own deadly nonsense back. On Sunday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock apparently decided that herd immunity was not “the goal” in itself, only a “scientific consequence” of their real goal, namely, protecting public health. And yesterday, Johnson did finally announce that he was advising people to avoid non-essential travel and contact — apparently after, uh, being told that his approach, which involved accepting that there might be hundreds of thousands of deaths, was likely to result in hundreds of thousands of deaths. He did stop short of enforcing the sort of formal ban on congregation would have allowed workers and small businesses to claim any sort of compensation (so what we can say about the new policy, I suppose, is that the government has stopped trying to make everyone lose their lives, and decided that they should simply lose their livelihoods instead). They also have some half-baked notions about asking private industry to help them manufacture more ventilators.
Clearly what all of this implies is that basically no one in the upper echelons of British government knows what they’re doing. The crisis which has emerged in the wake of this pandemic is rapidly leading to a post-Chernobyl style reckoning with/unraveling of an economic system which has already had its shortcomings brutally exposed, and they are treating it as one might do one of those Oxford seminars in which they all got their start, where it is perfectly fine just to say whatever you think might sound clever to see if it sticks.
Part of the reason why this political style works — and given that the Tories have been governing this way for a decade now, and just got re-elected in a landslide, it’s certainly clear that it has been working — is that once the mistake has been “rectified” by the government announcing a u-turn, no one ever wants to dwell on the mistake. So I want to do something other than assume that the government’s current plan is now the “real” one: I want to continue to think about those three or four days, when the official line was that it was perfectly fine for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people to die; when people were still defiantly sharing tweets showing huge crowds of people going to see plodding ’90s coffee table rockers the Stereophonics, as if such an event was very obviously worth turning oneself into a vector of disease for; with the London Times publishing thinkpieces whose stance effectively amounted to “RIP to ur grandma but im different.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about those few days was that none of it seemed in any way out of the ordinary. The prime minister said that it was fine for loads of people to die, and everyone just kind of went along. Establishment journalists even started discussing the plan as if letting everyone die of coronavirus was simple common sense: taking it upon themselves to gloat over the government denying scrutiny of their plans to the general public on the basis that a non-negligible percentage of the public have “humanities degrees”, archly mocking the public’s entirely understandable fears over what might happen, and warning people not to “politicize” what is very obviously a political crisis. (As others have pointed out before me, for the mainstream of the British media, it is all-too-often the public — not politicians — who must be held to account).
In many ways, the Blitz continues to define British national identity — perhaps more so, now so few people are still alive who are able to remember it.
This is a country, after all, whose government continues to command wildly solid electoral support despite being essentially the same government which was found guilty by a United Nations report of inflicting “great misery” on its own people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies (if we’re talking about preventable deaths here, the figure for Tory austerity is 130,000). At a certain point, it has simply been taken for granted that the government is actively hostile to the interests of the majority of the British population, and people in general have decided that they are perfectly happy with this, that in truth they love the pain.
Maybe nothing has changed since the London Blitz of 1940 to 1941, during which levels of “suicide and drunkenness” declined, pub visits increased in number, and “cheerful crowds visiting bomb sites were so large they interfered with rescue work.” “Some people even told government surveyors that they enjoyed air raids if they occurred occasionally, perhaps once a week,” Wikipedia tells us. In many ways, the Blitz continues to define British national identity — perhaps even more so now so few people are still alive who are able to remember it.
And certainly there is something very British about feeling more at ease in a world where you could find yourself suddenly killed from the sky at any point — a reasonable trade-off, perhaps, for the possibility that the friends and neighbors one secretly hates might find themselves eliminated instead. This sort of resentment, more than anything else, explains the persistent success of British Toryism: the pain that exists unchecked across everything is fine, the average voter reckons, so long as I (with my good job, mortgage, able to send my kids to private school, etc.) am navigating it relatively better than most.
I remember my grandparents talking about the Blitz; they lived in what is now the commuter belt south of London, and their street got bombed a couple of times. I remember my granddad, in particular, talking about excavating a house on their street that had been leveled during a raid and finding his neighbors, who had a daughter the same age as his own, lying dead under the rubble in what had been their bed, with their four year-old daughter crouched between them, terrified and still alive. I never heard my granddad tell that story without crying, and that was the only thing I ever saw make him cry. If my grandparents remembered the Blitz fondly, it was because it was a time when people came together to help one another, when they forgot what drove them apart and stood in solidarity against a common foe.
Any crisis presents an opportunity for something different, something better to emerge. Coronavirus is leading to a more general reckoning of our economic and political institutions. As far as I can tell, there are two broad ways in which this crisis might be resolved.
The first is that coronavirus intensifies our society’s current logic of atomization — with the economy re-constituting itself definitively around the conditions of social isolation that the virus is now making it necessary to enforce. Already, coronavirus is turning out brilliantly for big tech companies, as theaters and cinemas must be substituted wholesale for TV and computer games, and restaurants and pubs must be swapped for food sent by Deliveroo. On this resolution, working from home will become the universal norm, and even gatherings of friendship groups will be conducted via video chat. It is entirely possible that this sort of existence, where no one would ever need to be bugged by any fellow human being they cannot simply block, would even be actively preferred by many. The problem, of course, is that it would render us helpless — pure consumers who would be left unable to engage with anyone except on the terms of the tech companies we now rely on to provide everything we need to survive.
But the second is that the crisis turns out to be the perfect moment for atomization to give way to solidarity. This will be difficult since, by its very nature, the virus means we must exercise our duties towards one another by making sure we keep at enough of a distance to prevent infection. But this just in itself involves a recognition that we do exist in a shared world, with shared interests — that even if, as a younger person, the disease is unlikely to prove fatal to me, there is every reason to self-isolate because it might prove fatal to older or immunocompromised loved ones, or the loved ones of loved ones (of loved ones of loved ones of loved ones). And already there are calls for what look like essentially socialist policies in order to curtail the economic damage the virus is going to do.
But if solidarity does emerge, then it will not only be through love and care and those sort of things. Solidarity must also exist through the recognition that we need to come together to resist a common enemy. In the case of Britain, at least, that enemy is not only a disease: it is also the people we have invested with the state power necessary to fight it, whose malicious incompetence implies a murderous irresponsibility.