March 22, 2020
Author: Ralph Berry
Our rulers, and much of the media, invoke the wartime spirit of the nation to combat Covid-19. Let people recall the spirit which saw us through the bombings of the war–above all in London–they say. This is as misconceived an analogy as is imaginable; history is assymetrical. Two points: The wartime Government imposed rigid rationing of food and much else. You could not buy food without a ration card, and today’s scenes of panic buying and aggressive hoarding would have been inconceivable. (For the earlier years of World War II, the German civilian population was rather more comfortably off than the British.) Then, the population was encouraged to come together. The authorities ensured that pubs had least a supply of beer—which need not be imported–and their contribution to the nation’s morale was matchless. Under pressure from the Communist Party, the Government reluctantly allowed Underground stations to be used as air raid shelters, a decision that saved countless lives. And now the Government urges us to stay away from other people. If you cannot ‘self-isolate’, the Government will do it for you. If it can.
The policy is already at breaking point. The people, delighted at a fine Spring day, have been flocking to the seaside and other holiday resorts. They have irresponsibly decided to enjoy themselves. So much for the main headline in the Sunday Times: STAY HOME ALONE TO SAVE YOUR LIFE. On the Continent the rulers tend to be obeyed; the British have no such confidence that their governors have got it right. And they have some solid reasons to back their scepticism.
The data are unsound. What are reported as COVID-19 cases may be different ailments with similar symptoms. Some people have the virus and never know it. Or they may take to their beds for a few days and recover. In America, recorded COVID-19 cases begin on January 21, but there must have been an unseen spread of the disease before then. Subsequently, people naturally reckoned that their influenza-like symptoms were probably the real thing. In Britain, the dominant forecast rests on the famous ‘trajectory’ theory—as Italy goes, so go we. That seems to me a variant of all ‘inevitable’ theories of history, like Marxism. Suppose Britain is not like Italy, what then? But Italy is essential to the propaganda message, the thought control by the authorities, which is buttressed by the sheer numbers of Italian deaths, and by harrowing TV shots of coffins laid out in hospitals. Boris Johnson’s prediction is that Britain will be over the worst in twelve weeks. He’d better be right.
Again, the virus is treated as nation-wide, but it is not. London of course has many confirmed cases, unevenly distributed within its boroughs. It commands great attention, as that city-state always does. Scotland has recorded ten deaths. But consider this: The Republic of Ireland reports two deaths, and Northern Ireland a single one. The Irish, a notoriously recalcitrant people, seem extraordinarily resistant to the virus. Why is this? And why, in Europe, is Italy declared the ‘epicentre’—linguistic accuracy is the first casualty of war—of the pandemic?
On Monday Parliament will be asked to pass into law curbs on ancient freedoms, and to grant new powers to the State. These will be challenged on both sides of the House, and many Conservatives are in no mood to let Boris have his way. But the Prime Minister has made it clear that if people do not follow his ‘rules’—two metres, not yards, of “social distancing”—then more draconian measures will follow. The war on Covid-19, Macron’s preferred and Johnson’s less emphasized metaphor, is now national policy. Whether the nation will respond to this antique drum is another matter.