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There’s nothing more worrying than being told not to worry, when there are clearly things to worry about. Such as the super-spreading event formerly known as Christmas. Don’t fret, it’s still on! Or, technically, it’s still on because to cancel Christmas would be “inhuman”, according to the prime minister, Boris Johnson. With the small caveat that, if we can, we really shouldn’t choose to celebrate it in the old-fashioned, in-person way. Not that he wants to spoil our collective enjoyment or anything, but the fewer of us that spend time with family, the less likely we are to cause thousands of people to die. But hey, who is the prime minister to tell us what to do?
By trying so hard to be really, really nice Johnson risks making us all crazy. Instead of instructing us on what to do (and basing his edict on the course of action likely to cause the least damage) he is instead inviting us to “think hard and in detail” about how to handle Christmas. As I gather from the people I work with in therapy, this is precisely what everyone was already doing. Anybody with any kind of conscience is beating their brain, calculating all eventualities that may result from showing up for lunch in a week’s time – one of which involves inadvertently killing your aged parents.
“Thinking hard and in detail” is basically a friendly sounding description of the symptoms of obsessional neurosis – a mental disorder that involves mulling over life’s possibilities to the point where life itself becomes impossible: “What if Mum thinks we’re using Covid to avoid her? What if we still go, but eat outdoors? How would we keep the food hot? Might the garden become overcrowded? What if it rains? We could get a mini-marquee, but what if Granny died of hypothermia instead? Perhaps we could eat indoors with our masks on and just sort of slip the food under …”
By failing to take on difficult decisions, and refusing to set clear guidelines, Johnson has offloaded anxiety on to the general population. Good leaders make choices for us in order to help our collective lives run more smoothly. In order to do this they have to be psychologically robust enough to risk the possibility that people won’t like it, or that something might go wrong. They take the pain of the choice on our behalf. What they definitely don’t do is affably pretend to be doing us a favour by shirking responsibility. This does not help a nation to relax over the festive season.
What the government has mysteriously forgotten is that many of us have become accustomed to the idea that things are a little different at the moment. We won’t have a tantrum if you tell us to spend a bit more time at home. We’re old hands at this. Someone will come up with a cheesy national activity we can all do at midday, and it’ll be fine. An enforced “Crappy Christmas” might even give us back some of the sense of shared purpose we had at the beginning of the pandemic, before our trust was eroded out of existence, fatigue set in, and we started making up our own guidelines in the absence of rules that made sense.
At this point in the pandemic, some clarity would be a welcome relief from having to figure out each social interaction, or even how the queuing system works in your local coffee shop. Clashing advice is causing people to give up trying altogether. How can you reconcile obediently sending your children to school right up till the end of term, keeping them in a Covid-secure environment for two weeks before a grandparental visit, and doing Christmas on the allocated dates? (Answer: you can’t.) Obeying the rules may be impossible, disobeying them is irresponsible, and even obeying them may be considered morally dubious when Johnson himself seems to be telling us that they aren’t actually fit for purpose. With such a large-scale celebration on the horizon, it is actually anxiety-provoking to have personal enjoyment privileged over collective safety. If Johnson wants to be liked, he might achieve this better by being prepared to limit our enjoyment a little, and thereby reduce our fear, too.
The political reactions to Covid so often seem to reinforce a false dichotomy between nasty authoritarianism and nice liberalism. Under our best friend Boris Johnson, everyone is treated like a rational adult who gets to think for themselves. Whatever you do for Christmas is right if you believe it is. Got that? But rules, a sense of structure and boundaries, if consensually agreed upon, can actually be kind to people. No one’s asking for a return of the Victorian patriarch, imposing top-down diktats with the crash of an iron fist. We’d be happy with a Winnicottian “good enough” parent – someone a bit fun and responsive, but who’s also occasionally prepared to lay down some rules for our own best interests.
Politicians have the option to look at the numbers, listen to the experts, explain the deadly consequences of big gatherings, develop rules for everyone’s wellbeing and trust that most of us will be happy to go along with them. This is precisely what happened in March, albeit after an extended bout of burbling and bluster. And, as one glance at the graphs shows, it worked. How hard can it be to convince people that the same magic could happen twice? Alongside the roll-out of the vaccine, we would see cases drop, rather than increase, in the new year.
If Johnson isn’t prepared to do it, can we just agree among ourselves that Christmas is cancelled? I’ll take the blame if he won’t.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Boris Johnson’s lack of clarity is offloading Christmas anxiety on to the nation | Coronavirus