At the time of writing I have COVID. It’s something I believe I’ve avoided for two years although, without the benefit of testing, it is impossible to say for certain. Thankfully, due to vaccination, I have no more symptoms than those of a heavy cold. I remain confined to home until Tuesday at the earliest – maybe longer if the lateral flow tests are positive. I am experiencing what millions of others have endured, but thankfully without the hospitalisation and critical illness that came to so many before the advent of the vaccines and continues to be a reality for many people across the world. I have the virus at a time when some scientists are concerned about the political and media drive to normalise COVID, even as the USA approaches a total of one million COVID deaths. Writing in Scientific America, Steven Thrasher refers to “the manufactured consent to normalize mass death and suffering”.
The UK Government is putting out a clear message that it’s time to move on from COVID. The fit and healthy, the young and the vaccinated, want to get on with life and leave the misery of lockdowns behind. If wishing made it so. This is still a new disease, with no evidence about long term effects or what will happen if we simply resign ourselves to a virus whose tide will ebb and flow for years to come. It is quite possible that the current mood of Government is to accept 80,000 COVID deaths a year as a reasonable price for ‘normality’.
Whether individually or as a community, difficult experiences can lead to transformative change. Perhaps the most notable example of this in the UK’s history is the creation of the NHS. War had demonstrated that the central organisation of resources by the State could defeat an evil. The Beveridge Report published during wartime made the argument that 5 ‘Great Evils’ could be overcome if the resources of the State were marshalled and coordinated. War inevitably broke many patterns of social interaction and expectation, and this also created a moment of opportunity. Labour’s 1945 election victory bore witness to the appetite for change and the determination to see genuine improvements across a range of social situations. The NHS was launched in 1948.
At this point in the COVID pandemic, with a growing consensus that we are over the worst, the opportunity for lessons learned appears to have been missed. National political leadership has degenerated into a blustering determination to push past every criticism and crisis. When the Prime Minister is accused of lacking ‘shame’ I wonder whether the word has any meaning for Mr Johnson. There is a school of thought that finds merit in denying responsibility, marching forward and seeing anyone who admits shame as fundamentally weak. What’s the use of shame when you can dazzle, distract and deny – and live to fight another day?
Tragically, what we are experiencing in domestic politics is no less true for international relations. At one point it felt that lessons were being learned and attitudes were changing and warming. Speaking at the World Policy Forum in 2020 Dennis Snower sounded an optimistic note:
The pandemic has revealed a vast sea of kindness and benevolence in our communities around the world. It has led to countless acts of selfless heroism in hospitals and care homes. It has impelled many of us to use our greatest strengths to serve our greatest purposes, suddenly giving our lives new, inspiring meaning.Opening Address to the Digital Global Solutions Summit 2020
If anything it feels that the most significant legacy of the past two years is for people to focus their thoughts closer to home. The wave of early retirements suggests that people may want to disengage from workplace commitments and concentrate instead on family and personal pursuits. It feels that the pandemic has done nothing to enhance international co-operation, or patience or kindred feeling. Fear of disease has given way to fear of conflict and we stand on the verge of war in Europe. At the same time, most if not all of the pre-pandemic conflicts around the world remain unresolved.
from plague, pestilence, and famine, from battle, and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.The Book of Common Prayer, 1662, The Litany
In the Bible disaster usually brought people to a realisation that things could not continue as they were. Generally that led to a recognition that doing what they wanted, and ignoring God, was not the right way to proceed. As I have written previously, lamentation was often the response that led to an honest recognition of disaster and a desire to renew the relationship with God. Conditioning people to live with a sustained number of excess deaths is not lament – but instead a further confirmation that preventable deaths limited to some sections of society are acceptable. Whether or not people believe in God, it is clearly true that not everything is under human control or manipulation. Admitting this reality might be one way to understand the past two years and begin to generate the sense of common humanity which is surely the only way we will learn, change and survive. Sadly, it is hard to see how this mature reflection might begin.