He didn’t see this one coming. To be fair, no one did, but other nations saw it before it was too late and were able to act. Now that roughly 20% of humanity is officially in lockdown, there are few things either The Boris or The Donald want more than for Covid-19 to disappear up its own spiky protein. But not necessarily for compassionate reasons. Rather, British and American decision makers, laden down by their unique political histories involving liberty and personal freedom, plus economic histories involving conquest and greed, are desperate to get back to the business of business as usual. Discomfort shows in their every contradictory pronouncement. For Trump, Covid-19 threatens to undermine his masterplan to Make America Great Again. Extrapolations on the data are already making for disturbing reading in the Oval Office. Be gone! Or we’ll find a way to switch back on the Christmas lights, with or without you – that’s the underlying message. By forcing Covid-19 into a hasty exit from the world stage, the Twenty-First Century’s first pandemic becomes an artefact of the past, an irritant, allowing the engine of Industrial Capitalism to crank up again.
I’ve heard it said that this mass quarantining, with all the supply-chain grogginess accompanying it, will contain a hidden bounce. We’ll learn through it to curtail our insatiability for goods, we’ll slow down, start taking in our immediate surrounds, take stock of what it’s all about. Nature, hating vacuums, will step in again, guiding us onto the right track.
But the cynic in me thinks the opposite will happen. The bounce we’ll see will represent another existential threat to life on earth because the global capitalist system will go into overdrive to compensate for lost productivity we see right now. As happened in the decade following the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu, the world made strides of unimaginable distance (even to the point of pioneering the very cure that nailed infection: antibiotics). In 1929, the world economy overheated and Wall St. imploded, just to underline the Capitalist frenzy that was the 1920s, which was supposed to have been an era stopped in its pre-1914 tracks. I thought the whole point of the industrial and microbial mass killing of the 1910s was that in the 20s the world would to be cowed by the horror of what they had experienced: sent homewards to think again. Logic determines that the high-rev 1920’s that did eventuate should never have been. We should have been slowed into digesting the shock of living through an aftermath of 100 million dead by Influenza, on top of the 20 million killed in the Great War. Instead the opposite happened. Where the late 1910s whimpered, the 1920s roared. That was the lesson humanity learned: not to eat humble pie, but to throw it back in the world’s face.
The 1918-19 influenza preyed on mainly the young (unlike this one): killing upwards of 100 million of them when world population was about one quarter of what it is today. On an interesting note, to match Spanish Flu’s global death rate, this one would have to claim upwards of 400 million lives. Irrespective of however many lives this virus will ultimately take relative to 1918-1919, one thing’s for sure: players of influence in world affairs will ensure the 2020s will roar like the 1920s. The same industries that devise global networks of fantastic intricacy and infectious energy are ready and primed for action. As soon as it can, the global supply chain will. Though flummoxed by this global pandemonium, industry is spring-loaded, and when this virus runs its course, production will go into interstellar overdrive.
In short, we’ll be picking off natural resources at a rate that’ll equate to where we’d be had this so-called ‘Chinese Virus’ never broken out in the first place, in that sinister live market in Wuhan. The Government here in the UK tarried more than most, not wanting to disrupt civic and, more importantly, commercial life. Laying down curfews while turning off the mercantile-financial tap, is not how affairs are conducted on these stubborn and defiant isles. Britain, above all other nations, is historically bound to the idea of a liberty that each person supposedly wears under their soul. Liberal democracy rests upon consent between ruler and ruled. Lack of consent is taken to be authoritarianism, a next step to despotism with the bloody curfews and martial law that denotes. This notion of multi-party consent runs strongly along an historical arc that reaches back even further than the Magna Carta and into the mists of our Celtic and Anglo-Saxon past. Telling people unconditionally that they must remain indoors is even more anathema to the governing class than it is to a broad swathe of the population who don’t much appreciate being told what to do.
Boris Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian. He is an arch advocate of liberty in conduct, providing that conduct does not impinge negatively on others. And therein lies the rub. His dilemma is knowing that liberty of conduct very obviously involves impinging negatively on others by the mere act of standing within six feet of them. Johnson must have delivered his emergency measures with heavy heart. And his moral conflict reveals itself in the mixed reaction of the people he governs who are right now getting out and enjoying the sunshine of early spring. They’ll take their chances, thank you very much. Even if that means a brush with Coronavirus.
On the first day of national lockdown – possibly the first mass quarantine in modern history – I personally witnessed a populace so unmoved by the spectre of mass infection, so determined to get out to feel washed by the warmth of a sun that seemed to abandon us last September, as to render the whole seriousness a joke. From my home on the water by the canal towpath leading out of Bath, England, hundreds came my way. A near unbroken stream of cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, lovers, couples, and nature lovers went past all contented to be engaged in the very thing they most wanted to do. And as the day progressed the crowds grew in number until quite breezily potential hosts eclipsed one another going in opposite directions. You’d have thought it was a bank holiday.
We”re now on day two, and the crowds have yet to abate while the sun clings on.
Those who pass by in their multitudes are a stolid and resilient people, although not daft enough to risk compromising their health, well not knowingly. Except they’ve seen the gathering storm, so why do they risk making a mockery out of the famous tea towel mantra of Carry On and Keep Calm? Selfishness is undoubtedly an aspect of this because who is out there reminding the Great British Public that it’s not themselves they risk harming by turning their one daily allowance of exercise into a three-hour stroll with picnic on the side? But there lurks something beneath the brittle mantle of selfish inconsideration. It’s the liberty, stupid!
The tradition of English and American liberalism in so imbued in our respective political cultures that suffocating the virus by the act of imposing belated curfews, and even drafting in the army to enforce a national lockdown, will be a tough sell to a begrudging population (in American election year) who are all for stamping out sickness for a return to normal but without compromising their right to free will and consumer choice too much. When governments in London and Washington start doing the modern equivalent of posting decrees on town halls and church doors across the land, a liberty-spoilt people will want to see that their personal sacrifices were worth the effort of not going outdoors on sunny days. You can’t always see that with disease, pestilence and plague. Furthermore, if life-threatening illness has never factored into your life, why give up a good, long stroll along the canal on a fine spring day when the songbirds are trilling happily for the sake of a vulnerable stranger whose contraction of Covid-19 cannot be scientifically traced back to you, you who might carry it without symptoms?
Trump and Johnson, perhaps more than other world leaders, desire a speedy and tidy end to this drawn-out mess. They see the collapse of the global free-trade mercantilist system as the worst kind of pandemic. Investors are losing money; distribution centres lie stocked and undelivered. The wheels are coming off the bus one by one. It doesn’t matter that the passengers aboard the bus are catching something nasty, for the point is that it’s the bus that counts, and not the passengers it carries. Where there’s money to be made, unnamed figures of policy influence don’t fancy Covid-19 to turn into another Brexit paralysis, even if that means the cities like London and New York feel the sting in the tail of the Covid-19 scorpion: a disproportionate outbreak due to deep ambivalence about making NYC into the city that sleeps all the time. Libertarianism will take a hit. A beautiful idea rendered pointless by the need to be ordered where to go and when. Johnson and Trump are deeply wedded to the principles of libertarianism and will be loathe to rule without it.
When all is said and done, Johnson and Trump just want to get Covid done!