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The rest of the world is calling the UK Plague Island because it’s true: a mutant strain of the coronavirus is out of control, laying waste to fantasies that any region is out of the woods, or that the November lockdown had its desired effect, or that we might manage a “merry little Christmas”, in the words of the prime minister.
The plague phrase carries a lot of resonance, beyond being a reference to the high prevalence of infectious disease: it casts us as a far-flung place, isolated, chaotic, uncivilised, a place that wise and/or decent people stay well away from. But is that how it feels from the inside?
From observation – understanding that you can’t speculate with complete confidence about what is going on in other people’s heads – the messaging around the newly virulent virus has brought more panic than caution.
The utterly empty streets and newly audible sound of birdsong were very much a feature of Lockdown 1 (well, some of the birds have migrated, but still …); there is noticeable bustle in this pre-Christmas week, but the atmosphere is febrile.
People’s masks are getting more elaborate, more like hazmat gear, some people are wearing two. Social distancing in supermarkets, difficult enough when everyone’s reaching for the same sprouts, has taken on an uncomfortable edge as people worry, too, about shortages of basic items.
The news that large supermarkets have started to limit eggs and loo roll has added to the tension, but a more powerful drumbeat is that more people are struggling financially than earlier in the year. The constellation of indicators – food banks use, new universal credit claims, businesses failing or letting people go – all point in the same direction, and no local authority or regional mayor is unperturbed.
People seem more afraid of the virus itself than in the spring, when it was mainly framed as a threat to the vulnerable, and somewhere between an inconvenience and a burden to everyone else.
The existence of long Covid has torpedoed any remaining insouciance. While people at the coalface, in the NHS and Public Health England, in local authorities and administrations, tend to amp up any good news about the vaccine – people are particularly hopeful about the Oxford version coming on stream imminently, since it needs less careful handling – there is a note of dread in the way they talk about the numbers.
“Everything is now baked into the system,” one source from City Hall told me. “The hospital numbers we’ve got now are the people who were infected in November.”
She left the next bit hanging: things are going to get worse before they get better. “Delay was a decision in itself.”
The source of that delay, a prime minister who hates making difficult decisions, in circumstances that require 25 of them before breakfast, is a source of anxiety quite separate from the virus.
If we lost our innocence over Easter, when we realised we weren’t all in this together, in autumn we lost even the most grudging resignation: there’s a palpable difference between being governed by people you don’t agree with, and being governed by people who you wouldn’t trust with even the most basic pragmatic decisions.
There have been too many cock-ups, too much cronyism, too many U-turns, too much overpromising.
Crucially, there’s been no recovery time between each disaster, no restorative periods in which the government just ticked along. It’s frankly terrifying to confront the handling of 2020, and it’s this, I think, that informed the recent poll in which 51% of people blamed the public for our current predicament, and only 31% the government. It’s actually less frightening to conceive a generalised mulch of selfish individuals than it is to wonder where incompetence at the highest levels of government may take us next.
The acceleration of bad news gives it a dynamic edge, a sense that, whatever happens next, it will be the worst thing that possibly could.
Three thousand lorries stranded in Kent becomes the tinderbox in which all our problems explode at once: the mutant strain meets the shambolic testing system, while the closure of the French border raises painful questions – would that have happened if we weren’t on the point of leaving the EU? Would they have thought of us as a separate thing that could be shut out?
Maybe they would, but it’s a sour irony that all those dangers of a no-deal Brexit, the food shortages, the mid-apocalypse traffic, are hovering over our heads anyway, whether there’s a deal or not.
“The situation isn’t really what Brexit is,” said Michael Chessum, of Another Europe is Possible. “This is just a dramatic enactment of Brexit, a melodrama.”
And then, of course, there are the poor lorry drivers, stranded in their cabs, wishing they were home, without the most basic facilities. It’s terrible on a human level, and also on a symbolic one – it shouldn’t happen in a functioning, modern nation.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats is calling for a state of emergency to be declared in Kent; photos of central train termini after the cancellation of Christmas on Saturday were captioned “last helicopter out of Saigon”.
Nobody’s using this aerated language for fun or mischief, it’s just that we’ve used a lot of words for this “unprecedented” year, and it’s a struggle to acknowledge and to articulate that, however bad it’s been, right now feels worse.
Source: The Guardian
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