As we huddle, or not, in our homes, and wait it out, or not, it’s interesting to ponder the response of the UK government, and that of the US government, in comparison to all the others.
Europe, we’re told, is now the epicentre, with Italy the epic entry point for a disease that is both virulent and mild, deadly and harmless, widespread and concentrated. It is Schrödinger’s virus, known and unknown, wave and particle, existing always in the space between certainties. Being in the middle of it, we cannot know it. And because of the actions we take now, we will never even know, at some point in the future, just how bad it might have been.
The World Service produced a brilliant episode of The Inquiry, which asks the question, Why did the USA fail in its initial coronavirus response? Spoiler alert: Trump, but the facts are laid out so baldly and the failures and the reasons for them so dispassionately that it ought to be compulsory listening. Trump’s denial and bluster, his focus on the stock market as the sole measure of his success as a President, his tendency to improvise and lie and then deny what he said: all of that; but also the dismantling of the Federal government’s ability to respond and co-ordinate effectively so that even when the problem was known, even when there was a clear course of action required, the mechanism simply did not exist. Know this: the first case of a person who had been infected on American soil was only detected because someone broke the rules and tested samples they weren’t allowed to test. Here’s to the crazy ones…
Now, our blustering puffball of a Prime Minister has differentiated himself from Trump by speaking more coherently (a first, for him) and by lining up with experts beside him who are not facepalming. There seemed at first to be a genuine belief that the UK’s measures, supported by our NHS which is fairly unique in the world, might prove more effective in the long term. After all, if you go into total lockdown, you might slow the spread of the disease for two weeks or a month, but then it comes back, like the Spanish Flu of 1919, and you’re back where you were.
When I wrote before, I admit, I didn’t understand the importance of testing. I do now. Of course, with widespread testing, those who have had the disease, who are no longer infectious, who have the antibodies, can stop self-isolating and get on with things. Without testing, people are staying at home who probably don’t need to stay at home. So the lack of testing here and in the USA is a problem. (On the other hand, nobody knows yet whether you can get Covid-19 twice, so there’s that.)
Setting all that aside, what might be another reason the British government (and the US government) didn’t want stringent lockdown measures in place earlier? Why were people being nudged and encouraged instead of bound by law?
I think the answer lies in the way the government has “closed” the schools.
Yes, the schools are closed, except maybe they’re not. I’m a teacher. My school “closed” on Friday, but I’m getting up on Monday and going into work because, and here’s the thing, we don’t know how many kids are going to turn up.
When you look at the list of “key workers”, it’s hard to imagine many professions that aren’t covered under its rubric. Now, anyone who can should be keeping their children home. But people in many sectors have been given permission to send their kids to school. So teachers like me, for example, are considered key workers, which means if I had school age children, I could send them to school so that I, in my turn, could go to school.
As I said, nobody knows, as of now, how many will turn up on Monday. Furthermore, we’ve been told we’ll have to go on caring for these children during the Easter holiday. Huh. And now it’s seeming like the right-wing politician’s disdain for “long school holidays” is coming home to roost. One of my colleagues thinks we’ll have more kids by Wednesday or Thursday than on Monday because parents will get sick of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds show up. Fingers crossed it’s only a couple of dozen, but nobody knows.
It’s the uncertainty, you see, which of course, is far more concerning than certainty.
Why doesn’t the government properly close schools, properly close pubs, restaurants and shops, instead of just “advising” them to do so? My personal conspiracy theory is that, strategically, these neolibs know that a proper lockdown would expose the fragility of the economy, the Oz-like illusion of prosperity, and that a domino-like collapse of the precariat would lead to… socialism. Their solution? Socialism. Bailouts, benefits, mortgage holidays, and – most importantly – free state childcare, even during the Easter holidays. All in service of shoring up capitalism and the free market, which is not really free because, oh look, the government are here to bail you out. Again.
How many people driving around in unnecessarily large German cars are going to miss a PCP payment?
One final thought, which you’ll note from the image above is actually my first thought. Trump’s barefaced lying and denial in the face of facts is, as ever, deeply calculated. He knows how it plays with his supporters, who are in the front line of saying that the whole thing is a hoax. Doesn’t matter that he’s no longer calling it a hoax: they are, because they heard him call it that a month ago. He’s always gambling that the coin will fall his way. But his “it goes away” line struck me hard because it’s what William H Macy as George Parker says in the movie Pleasantville, as he tries to persuade his wife Betty (Joan Allen) to ignore all the changes that are happening: even as she sits in front of him in living colour while he’s still in black and white. She’s fully on board with the change and wants to move with the times, but he faces her, so earnestly, and says, “It goes away. It goes away.”
Spoiler: it doesn’t.