As only he can, Albert Camus in his classic 1947 novel The Plague mines the human condition in the midst of a crisis in which solidarity, selflessness and mutuality are the means of survival, and in which individualism, selfishness and self regard are death itself.
This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.
The personal and social struggle of a public health emergency, such as we are experiencing now, is unprecedented in its human toll and revelatory in what it’s revealed about our common humanity. And when we trace the trajectory of the pandemic we cannot but avoid the harsh truth that Covid denialism began, here in the UK, at the level of government.
When Boris Johnson, prompted by his otherworldly special adviser Dominic Cummings, infamously voiced the possibility that the UK might ‘take it on the chin’ in the interests of herd immunity, he instantly exposed himself as a moral and ethical monster. And here, as Camus artfully reminds us, ‘A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.’
Johnson voiced this macabre possibility in an interview on ‘This Morning’ on ITV on March 5 last year. By then China had been in lockdown for over two months and by then it was abundantly clear that Covid-19, the name given to the virus by the WHO on 11 February 2020, was deadly, having already ripped through Wuhan, where it originated, and was now ripping through other countries in the Global South, such as Iran.
Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
You could not avoid the conclusion that a sense of upper class born to rule British exceptionalism had Johnson and his cohorts in its grip, manifesting in a refusal to believe that a pandemic could impact people in the UK as it was impacting the people of China and Iran. Good God no, how could it possibly? We once had an empire upon which the sun never set. We are a better race, a higher culture and superior civilisation than ‘them’.
By the time the Johnson government bowed to reality and placed the UK into lockdown on March 23, almost a fortnight after the WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, it was too late. The Cheltenham Festival had been allowed to go ahead as normal between 16–19 March, Liverpool vs Athletico Madrid Champions League match had taken place on 11 March in front of a capacity crowd that included a large contingent of Athletico fans travelling into the UK from Spain, and the virus was ripping through the country unchecked at a ferocious rate.
And, too, what kind of lockdown was it in 2020 when international travel into the UK continued without interruption, with no measures in place to test and quarantine people arriving from other countries?
The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was no the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.
Undoubtedly, the inordinate death toll wrought by Covid-19 in the UK, which at this writing is up to 117k, traces its roots to the Covid denialism of Boris Johnson and his government of right wing ideologues at the outset.
Covid denialism has also revealed itself in a different way among voices on the left, in the centre, and most prominently on the right of the political spectrum in Britain.
A who’s who of political commentators, ‘journalists’ and hacks — some with large numbers of followers on social media — have been dining out on various lurid Covid conspiracy theories, anti-lockdown propaganda, anti-vaxx, anti-materialist lunacy, as if this global crisis has all been engineered in service to the coming New World Order, proclaimed under the rubric of the Great Reset at the World Economic Forum in June 2020.
This madness has roots in dominant cultural values of me, myself and I, a by-product of free market economics and most malign for all that. It also speaks to a latent disbelief that the world of today — a world of boundless wealth and prosperity in the West — could ever be afflicted by something so representative of the dim and distant past as a plague.
We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away.
There is nothing so powerful as a public health emergency when it comes to being introduced to who we are as a people, what we are as a society, and where we are headed as a country. On all three counts the best among us — our NHS staff and workers, our delivery drivers, supermarket workers, bus drivers, and so on — have deserved much better than a government of wolves and the far too many for comfort Covid denial cranks in our midst.
The UK is a state with a shameful past, a mendacious present, and zero future. Covid is a stress test, shaping a new world defined by sustainability, justice, interdependence, multilateralism and cooperation. Old world values, of national chauvinism, exceptionalism , and cultural supremacy have no place in this new world.
Those values belong in the museum and those who adhere to them are afflicted with fossilised minds. The problem for us in the UK is that it is those very fossilised minds that are in the saddle, occupying positions of wealth, power and class privilege at the apex of society.
By now it is beyond peradventure that the status quo in Britain is the extreme position and that revolution — political, cultural, and on the level of ideas — is where moderation resides.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Albert Camus:
The public lacked, in short, standards of comparison. It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion became alive to the truth.
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