HomeCoronavirusReaching for military metaphors won’t help Britain learn to live with Covid...

Reaching for military metaphors won’t help Britain learn to live with Covid | Philip Ball

The Covid pandemic has entered a perplexing phase, challenging our beliefs about what the best responses are and how we should behave. Is Omicron now “just like the flu”, meaning we can relax – or does that overlook the continuing crisis in hospitals, the record hospitalisation rates for children, the continuing deadly danger for elderly and clinically vulnerable people, and the lengthening shadow of long Covid? Is it time, as the government has decided in England, to throw away our masks and perhaps to abandon self-isolation rules, or is that recklessly optimistic (if not just politically expedient for the prime minister)?

Our pandemic narratives are splintering. Once, aside from a handful of noisy libertarians who insisted that lockdowns and mask mandates were violations of civil liberty, most people accepted that restrictions were necessary to prevent the health system from imploding and to reduce the risks for vulnerable people. Now, even some experts who previously advised caution and criticised lax and tardy government strategy, such as the public health expert Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University, have suggested that the virus has been largely “defanged” and that it’s time to “move forward” with our lives. Others react to such suggestions with horror, pointing out that this isn’t an option open to all. There’s much talk of the virus having become “endemic” – a nonsensical suggestion if you know what the word actually means, but one that reflects an increasing sense that, one way or another, we will have to learn to live with the virus, as the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said this week.

All of this shows how unwise it is to try to tell a simple story about where we are. As Mark Honigsbaum concluded from his magisterial historical survey The Pandemic Century, the way pandemics end is “never quick and never neat”. Yet, he argued, we yearn for “narrative closure”: hence the allure of “herd immunity”, floated even by the government’s chief scientific advisers as the promised land in the early days of the pandemic and subsequently advocated with misplaced confidence by the Great Barrington declaration. The fantastical nature of such narratives is now coming home to roost.

That deluded dream of closure is encouraged, too, by the military narrative the government has adopted. From the outset, as the sociologist Franziska Kohlt of the University of York has written, “government and its representatives ‘declared war on coronavirus’, framed themselves as a ‘wartime government’, and described their response as a ‘battle plan’”. Boris Johnson evidently fancied himself as the pandemic’s Churchill, although his promise in July 2020 that it would all be over by Christmas recalled instead the misguided belief voiced in 1914 about the first world war. Blind to warnings of the harm that warfare metaphors can wreak in medicine – “war on AIDs”, “battle against cancer” – politicians have clung to them; even last week Javid insisted that the Omicron variant is “in retreat”.

All this jingoistic battlespeak, Kohlt says, is not only distinctively British – the pandemic narrative in Germany was framed more in terms of building dams, for instance – but dovetails perfectly with the exceptionalist ideology of Brexit. Among other things, it enabled the deaths of health workers on the “frontline” to be framed as a noble sacrifice by “heroes” in the line of duty, rather than the avoidable cost of negligence and neglect. The wartime rhetoric reached surreal proportions with the government advice to “stay alert”, as though we should be on the lookout for sneaky viruses lurking in the shadows.

This war narrative also encouraged the idea that there would eventually be a victory: an armistice day when the foe was vanquished. Hence the full relaxation of restrictions on 19 July last year being dubbed Freedom Day (and how did that turn out?). Now that we are forced to accept that – as experts always knew – there will never be a triumphant declaration of “herd immunity”, much less of “surrender” from a virus perfectly capable, as far as we know, of still generating variants worse than Omicron, we are left casting around for new ways to tell the story.

The favourite candidate seems to be “living with the virus”. It’s equally flawed. For Javid and others who believe “personal choice” should be society’s guiding principle, the phrase carries an implication that it’s time to get real, man up and stop hiding behind masks. “Sadly people die of flu as well,” Javid said. “In a bad flu year you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives, but we don’t shut down our entire country.” Indeed not, but this doesn’t mean we eschew other preventive measures and simply take it on the chin. Perhaps instead we might accept that routine mask-wearing to reduce any airborne infection is not just a weird thing people do in Asian countries, and that maybe mild, minimally inconveniencing measures like better ventilation and some degree of social distancing at the height of the flu season might reduce that death toll too.

The idea we should just be getting on with our lives plays along with the narrative that, if victory isn’t an option, we need to be more stoical. That’s all very well if you’re not on chemotherapy, or compelled to cram on to trains every morning, and won’t lose income when you’re off work with the virus. Yet by the same token, lockdowns and other restrictions also hit disadvantaged people hardest. In short, there are no perfect solutions or tidy endings while inequality persists; pandemics are political, and we’re evidently not all in this one together.

We need to reject simplistic stories about where we are with Covid. None can be universal and none captures the whole picture: they may conceal and mislead more than they illuminate. We’ve been living with the virus for two years, and we’ll keep doing so as best we can. But spare us the slogans.

Source link