With Covid Infections Rising, Conservatives Conduct Deadly Social Experiment | Andy beckett
A the pandemic is a political event. It reveals who is vulnerable and who can afford to escape, who is prioritized for treatment and who is being overlooked. The politics of a pandemic are both large-scale and intensely personal. How we behave towards each other, what balance is struck between security and freedom, how blame is distributed, what a country considers an acceptable level of illness and death: questions that could once be philosophical have become scary.
In Britain, Covid policy has been thought out and discussed almost entirely in party terms: the relative prudence and competence of the SNP government in Scotland and its Labor counterpart in Wales; the recklessness and fatal mistakes of the Conservatives in England, and whether Labor can make the Conservatives pay for them. The pandemic was seen as a potential turning point for all major parties.
That it hasn’t worked out like that – until now – has been a huge disappointment to the enemies of the Conservatives. But this party focus also came in handy for voters. Uncomfortable questions about whether our individual behavior during the pandemic matched our political values were not asked.
These questions are particularly important now. Since Boris Johnson declared ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19, almost all previous restrictions on daily life in England under Covid have been removed. “Personal accountability,” as Johnson and his ministers like to say with libertarian flavor, has replaced emergency legislation as one of the main weapons against the virus. Indeed, a gigantic experiment in individual ethics is underway.
The results seem increasingly alarming. In pubs, stores, public transport and other enclosed spaces where the virus easily spreads, many people act as if the pandemic is over – or at least, over for them. The wearing of masks and social distancing have sometimes become so rare that practicing them is embarrassing.
Meanwhile, England has become one of the worst places in the world for infections, despite a high degree of vaccination by global standards. The number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all on the rise and are already much higher than in other Western European countries which have maintained measures such as mandatory indoor masks, and where the compliance with these rules remained strict. What does England’s failure to control the virus say through the “personal responsibility” of our society?
It’s tempting to start by generalizing about national character, and how the supposed individualism of the English has turned into selfishness after half a century of frequent right-wing government and the fragmentation of our lives and culture. There may be some truth to this. But national character is not a very solid concept, weakened by all the differences within countries and all the similarities that cross continents. Thanks to globalization, all European societies have been affected by the same forces of atomization. England’s lack of altruism during the pandemic cannot only be blamed on neoliberalism.
Other elements of our recent history may also explain it. England likes to think of itself as a stable country, but since the 2008 financial crisis it has experienced a period of economic, social and political turmoil that is more prolonged than most European countries. The desire to return to some sort of normality can be particularly strong here; taking appropriate anti-Covid precautions would be recognition that we cannot do this.
These decades of crisis have also hardened us. Last week, researchers at the University of York revealed that between 2010 and 2015 alone, conservative austerity policies in England resulted in more than 57,000 deaths. Yet like the thousands of English Covid deaths since ‘Freedom Day’, the revelation has not received much coverage. Ever since the conservatives started dismantling the protective state in 2010, with very obvious social consequences, much of the media and the public have grown accustomed to looking away. Dealing with the enormous human cost of modern conservatism would make their support, as the government’s supposedly safe choice, much harder to justify.
There is also a more subtle side to England’s Covid complacency. One of the reasons for Johnson’s strong position as prime minister, which is rarely talked about, is the complicity between him and many voters – even some who do not support him. His cynical optimism feeds an appetite for easy solutions and the hope that crises such as the pandemic can be averted, even though we know they cannot be. At the Labor Conference last month, as speaker after speaker rightly condemned the government’s recklessness in the face of Covid, many participants in the crowded sessions sat without their masks. Such behavior is contagious: after a few sessions, I also removed mine.
There is a certain fatalism mingled with this wishful thinking: the widespread belief in England that the Tories are so politically impregnable that there is nothing we can do about their approach to the virus but accept it. Earlier in the pandemic, things were different: Many people followed their own Covid rules, which were more cautious than those of the government, for example by reducing socialization while it was still officially allowed. There are fewer signs of such caution now. We seem to have learned to live with the Conservatives’ deadly incompetence because they told us to live with the virus.
In England there may also be awareness of how other countries are dealing with the pandemic. Initially, by following the different Covid strategies around the world was a way to deal with the crisis, to find small sources of hope, and the media provided this material accordingly. But the pandemic is now covered in a more insular fashion in England, with little reference to the stricter rules of comparable countries and the lower death toll. With travel to the rest of Europe still much less common than usual, many Britons have no concrete idea of how the latest anti-Covid measures, such as vaccine passports, work. Such measures are also being tested in Scotland and Wales, but much of the English press is deeply curious about how these countries differ from England. In public health, as in many other areas after Brexit, England is following its own risky path.
It could change. Over the past few days, as many realize how bad the Covid situation in England is, the government has said it has no plans to change its virus strategy “to the moment “. Previously during the pandemic, such evasive language was the prelude to a change in policy.
In the overcrowded part of London where I live, where the Covid toll has already been terrible, a few more people are wearing masks and keeping their distance on the streets this week. It is possible that England’s pandemic ethics experiment is finally about to yield more encouraging results – signs that we want to protect each other as well as our own interests. But for the victims of the Covid since the “day of freedom”, it will be too late.