Why we should mistrust the motivations of both the pro and anti lockdown lobbies.
As we lumber towards the third month of Coronavirus lockdown, the cracks are starting to widen in what was once – the usual outliers and swivel-eyed conspiracists aside – a somewhat uniform acceptance that the extreme measures were an unfortunate necessity. Like any public health scare, the once whispered voices of discontent have become louder and bolder, and as a sense of complacency sets in, so the sense of panic that initially drove compliance has started to give way – despite the fact that the deaths have continued, the immediate fears that it might affect you or those around you have started to give way – at least for those who remain untouched by it – to the frustrations of not being able to do all the things that you want.
As the weeks tick slowly by, we’re starting to see a fascinating societal split, where extreme ideas about both the immediate and long-term ways forward are hardening into less an opinion and more a religiously held political stance, and common sense seems to be left in the dust – like all centrist ideas, hated by both sides and dismissed amongst all the shouting.
On the one hand, we have the increasingly vocal ‘end lockdown NOW’ lobby, which has grown in confidence as public frustration sees people increasingly ignoring the rules about staying home, social distancing and such. A quick stroll through Hyde Park on our government-mandated hour of exercise last week showed that the public was out in force, picnicking, sunbathing, playing games and meeting friends – it didn’t look very much different to any summer weekend, quite honestly, and this was a Friday afternoon. Let’s not even get into those crowds on Westminster Bridge applauding the NHS by spreading infection as much as possible, or the people cramming into B&Q as soon as it reopened because apparently, no one can live for four weeks without a can of paint.
Clearly, the public can’t be trusted to be sensible, despite the idealistic claims of the people who want the lockdown entirely abandoned, and the idea that people will socially distance is laughable – if we’ve learned one thing from this whole experience, it’s that no one in Britain has the faintest idea about what two metres looks like, and a sizeable number have no more intention of respecting personal space now than they ever had. But the anti-lockdown lobby is actively encouraging this rebellion, supported by widespread revulsion at stories of heavy-handed, power-crazed policing. “End the lockdown”, is the cry – open up the shops, the bars and the restaurants, and allow things to get back to normal while we let herd immunity take a turn.
I’d be more sympathetic of this if it wasn’t so cynical – a lot (not all by any means, but a lot) of the people who want the lockdown to immediately end will come up with all sorts of reasonable-sounding arguments, but in the end, it seems that their real reason is because the lockdown might interfere with their summer plans – festivals, carnivals, holidays and so on. The closer we get to summer, the more their blind panic and frustration becomes apparent. They would throw the vulnerable under the bus – and make no mistake, if Coronavirus is still rampant, it’ll be spread by those healthy and asymptomatic people to family members or co-workers or anyone else they come into contact with – for the sake of their own selfish desires, their greedy worries that their highlight of the year might have to be foregone just once in order to keep others from dying. Herd immunity is a nice idea, but by no means a sure thing, and risks killing a lot of people. It’s hard to have much sympathy for people who are so utterly self-centred that they’ll risk that because they want to party in the sun.
But in case you think we are lockdown enthusiasts, well… think again. While we can see that large chunks of the population simply can’t be trusted to make their own choices on anything, we also agree that there is every chance that the lockdown is going to cause more harm than good. Even if we are to ignore the economic nightmare that awaits – the businesses that will never reopen, the inevitable spike in unemployment and the massive debts that will take decades to clear, potentially leading to the sort of austerity that will make the last decade look like a spending free-for-all – then the mental health toll; the fact that other, possibly more serious illnesses are going undetected because people have, until the last few days, been told not to go to hospital or their GP (assuming their GP is even receiving patients – ours isn’t); increases in domestic violence and abuse and the strain on relationships that comes with being locked in together for weeks or months; and the mere damage done from the very effective sense of terror that has been whipped up from an infection that might yet prove to be not much worse than a particularly virulent flu season… all this is causing immeasurable harm. Add to this the new powers given to eager police forces – powers that they’ll be reluctant to give back – and to governments, and we should all be keen to find a way out of this situation as soon as possible. It just needs to be one that doesn’t immediately result in a new Covid-19 spike, which will send us right back to square one, and there is every chance that the lockdown has simply delayed the inevitable.
But for some, the lockdown didn’t just come too late, it’s been too little and should be extended indefinitely. Yes, as hard as it is to comprehend, there are people out there who don’t want this to end. I don’t just mean the determinedly introverted, or even the prohibitionists who don’t want to see pubs and other areas of pleasure reopened. for reasons that seem baffling, some people who are not politicians or police officers actually seem to think that the current state of affairs is much better than what we had before. It’s a motley crew of environmentalists and anti-human nihilists, a subsect of the Left that has always craved Soviet-style totalitarianism, people who have a genuine fear that Covid will run rampant once any lockdown ends and assorted oddballs and weirdos who have their own mad reasons for celebrating the world effectively being ground to a halt. Some are happy this way because it doesn’t really affect them – they don’t have jobs at risk, dwindling income, a lack of space to exercise or socially distance, worries about shopping deliveries or the other concerns that the majority face daily. For some, there is a political undercurrent – just as some on social media simply couldn’t hide their glee that the British government’s 20,000 deaths line in the sand had been breached, so they are hoping that a long or unending lockdown will chip away at government approval figures. There is political capital to be had in death, unemployment, spousal abuse, societal collapse and mental breakdown.
I understand the caution of those who sincerely worry about a government that will buckle under pressure (especially as the current version of the lockdown is very much the result of a government buckling under pressure) and open everything up before it is safe. But of course, it might never be safe. That’s the problem. Covid-19 is almost certainly not going anywhere. At best, we can hope for a vaccine, growing immunity and a dilution of potency – the herd immunity concept that anti-lockdowners cling to – that will make Covid Season a yearly inconvenience, like Flu and Cold Seasons. This, I fear, will be the real ‘new normal’.
That phrase, ‘the new normal’, is being bandied about a lot right now, and seems to mean different things to different people – at best, it suggests that we’ll all be more aware of personal space in future, or that perhaps our shopping experiences will change, or perhaps that – despite any evidence to show this – that we’ll all be ‘kinder’. At the start of all this, I dared to hope that having a real crisis to deal with would see the end of self-absorbed identity politics, but of course, being locked in at home has just caused more navel-gazing and social justice flag-waving that ever. Perhaps, though, we’ll see some sort of social shift in the next year or so. Perhaps things will change for the better. But for some, I suspect ‘the new normal’ means being tracked by the authorities ‘for public health reasons’ will become as widespread and uncommented on as the surveillance state. It probably means more police powers to stop dissent and control movement. It no doubt means that our culture will be that little bit less free, and I have no doubt that many will actively lobby to keep those places that they don’t approve of closed, or at least more strictly controlled – expect lobbying for new and tighter licensing for bars, strip clubs, and public entertainment spaces of all sorts by well-placed organisations that have been waiting for this opportunity for decades. For them, the new normal will be a world remoulded to their requirements, and the longer this goes on, the easier things will be for them.
In the end, all we can say for sure is that Covid-19 has royally fucked us over, and will carry on doing so, however directly or indirectly, for a very long time. It has, in many ways, brought out the best in society – but more depressingly, it has also amplified greed, self-importance, narrow-mindedness and pettiness. Both a sudden lurch back to the old normal or a year-long evolution into a new normal seems foolhardy and dangerous, but I’m not certain that we can avoid either – my biggest fear is a half ‘n’ half compromise that offers the worst of both worlds. There is an opportunity here to build a better world – the best opportunity since World War 2, perhaps. But I fear any hope of that happened will be buried among the petty self-interests of competing extremists.