This weekend, vast numbers of my fellow Britons went to the park. As pubs and other entertainment venues closed, public parks from London to Yorkshire to Wales saw attendance records broken as visitors milled around openly flouting social distancing rules. Photos circulating on social media, taken by those who had noticed the large numbers of people irresponsibly visiting the sites they themselves had decided to irresponsibly visit, appeared to depict a nation determined to make itself sick, thoughtless strangers brushing up against each other with their placid, poorly bodies, at best loosely concealing their mounting dry coughs with no-doubt unwashed hands.
What a sight! Victoria park and the flower market, so fucking important! Thanks to our amazing government! These things are open and people like these acting like nothing is happening. Lockdown, where are u at?? #lockdownUKnow#Londonpic.twitter.com/NBA0fSY4EI— kriti ✽ (@Kriti__x) March 22, 2020
Obviously, this behavior resulted in widespread condemnation: how can we expect to get coronavirus under control, people asked, if this is how the public respond to advice to remain isolated and distant? Throughout Monday, the story built and built, until Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who just 10 days previously had been happily declaring that his coronavirus strategy was to allow it to spread unchecked until all the weakest members of the population were dead — eventually felt obliged to declare an indefinite national lockdown. Like a primary school class a few members of whom had proved unable to use their hall-going privileges responsibly, a few bad eggs had soured it for the rest of us. What had previously been some vague best practice guidelines (don’t leave the house if you don’t have to, don’t travel up and down the country for no reason, etc.) were now going to have to be enforced by the police.
When you’re exhausted and afraid, yelling at random strangers for not doing enough seems like an understandable, human reaction.
This is a pattern that has been repeated across the world. In Australia, the police have been inundated by reports from the public of people breaching isolation orders. In Italy, irate mayors have taken to the streets to yell at their citizens for going outside, recording videos berating them for getting in mobile hairdressers (“What the fuck is that for? Do you understand that the casket will be CLOSED?”) People have taken to sharing irresponsible pandemic behavior using the #covidiots hashtag — there has even been an article on the BBC about how to avoid getting “quarantine shamed.” Already people are flouting the new rules in the UK: on Tuesday, 11 people were dispersed by the police for trying to have a barbecue in the center of Manchester.
All of this has led to the widespread belief that when it comes to the spread of coronavirus — and, thus, to the ever-building rise in coronavirus deaths — it is one’s fellow citizens who are to blame. A recent YouGov poll found that while 58 percent of Britons believe that the government (yes, that same government would thought it would be fine if millions of people died; yes, that’s also the one which spent last week teasing rumors of a total ban on travel in and out of London — rumors which have almost certainly accelerated the spread of the disease from the capital to the provinces) is taking the coronavirus crisis seriously, 87 percent believe that the general public is not taking it seriously enough.
Granted that when you’re exhausted and afraid, yelling at random strangers for not doing enough seems like an understandable, human reaction. But while going to the park, or meeting up with friends, or even going for a frivolous trip to the shops, might in the present circumstances be pretty irresponsible, it is not — in and of itself — why far too many people will catch coronavirus and (perhaps ultimately) die. Individuals might spread coronavirus by not socially isolating properly — but the conditions under which they might spread coronavirus by not isolating themselves have been created by the poor decisions of states unwilling to take decisive action when the crisis first presented itself because they were scared of the economic damage it might do.
Some people are in such poor health that catching coronavirus would have been fatal to them regardless — but millions more will die because they happened to catch the illness in countries where decades of criminal under-investment and pathetic servitude to the profit motive had already left health services stretched to breaking point. The crisis surrounding the pandemic — not just the disease and the deaths but the breakdown of supply chains; the loss of jobs; the dwindling of freelance work like trying to tap an exhausted well; the slack now having to be taken up by precarious workers in supermarkets and schools and in hospitals — is the product of our whole political culture. The actions of individuals are a part of all this, but only as a link in a much longer causal chain.
In truth the problem is not with people in general — but with certain people specifically.
What we are witnessing here is an attempt to privatize responsibility for the crisis. Obviously this seems likely to work out great for the powers-that-be: if people can be made to blame each other for the disaster that is being wrought on us by coronavirus, then they are much less likely to turn their blame on their leaders as well. And then, as the dust settles, the present regime will be able to remain in power — with the pain accompanying rebuilding largely falling on the less well-off. This, of course, is exactly what happened following the global economic crash in 2008, especially through the imposition of austerity measures — but this time the effects are likely to be even worse.
The response coronavirus now demands is, by its very nature, physically atomizing — we must remain contained in our individual dwellings, largely subsisting on what can be accessed through the internet or delivered, by drivers who now dash off just after knocking, to our doors. The challenge now is to prevent this physical atomization from accelerating (an already-extant tendency towards) political atomization too. We must stop ourselves from being tricked into thinking that we all stand towards each other as pre-teen siblings locked in heated rivalry, with the government our long-suffering parents doing their frazzled best to stop us from tearing strips out of each other.
On social media, there has been a marked tendency towards “the humans are gone” posting, with users marvelling at the positive effects coronavirus has had on Venice canals, or the streets of London. “Corona is the Cure,” a sticker distributed by the climate change activism group Extinction Rebellion claims, “Humans are the disease.” This is indicative of a tendency towards thinking that it is other people in general who are doing this — other people in general are lazy, selfish, and mean, and make the world a stupider and uglier place merely by existing.
But this is little more than a lazy nihilism — an end-times logic which in fact marches entirely in step with that of the present order of things. In truth the problem is not with people in general — but with certain people specifically. It is the political choices of a relatively small elite which is doing this to all the rest of us (all things considered it does seem a bit on the nose that coronavirus appears to have been spread around Europe by the wealthy attendees of an Austrian ski resort playing beer pong).
We must find a way of turning the atomization coronavirus is enforcing on its head: come together, however this might still be possible, to overturn the order responsible for the disaster currently unfolding. This has to mean its end, not ours.