‘There is meaning as well as pain in sadness, mourning and grief.’
Rachel Solnit (April 2020)
More than forty years ago Susan Sontag, a celebrated American cultural critic, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment was successful, and Sontag went on to reflect on her experiences in Illness as Metaphor. She had found that the fear of cancer, and the death-filled images associated with it, made her experience of the illness worse. Her final recommendation was to take a cool, calm, sceptical approach: to avoid talk of battlefields, invasion and heroic struggle, to refuse to feel dread at the mere mention of the word ‘cancer’ and to treat her illness as a bio-chemical process, which would be resolved through medical procedure.
Can we stay as calm when we consider coronavirus? For many reasons, the answer seems to be no. This strange, unprecedented crisis has stunned us; it has left us floundering for comprehension and desperate for metaphors by which to make sense of lockdowns, R-rates, herd immunity and virus mutation. Already, in just over a year, the Covid crisis has spawned a mass of writing, too vast for any one person to read. (Amazon is currently listing over 30,000 publications featuring the term ‘Covid’). Aside from journalism, this tsunami of writing falls into four main camps.
i. Eye-witness accounts, usually by patients who have suffered Covid infections or by carers in Intensive Care Units (ICUs), who have tried their hardest to cope with the Covid crisis. The finest example of such writing, in a British context, is probably Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking. (Full publishing details of all texts I refer to are given at the end of this article). Many of these eye-witness accounts are extremely poignant — it’s difficult to read them without tears welling up in your eyes — and many will be valuable to future historians attempting a more measured mapping of the crisis. Eye-witness accounts also play an important political role: while the official government line has consistently proclaimed that our brave lads and lasses in the NHS can cope, it’s clear that at various points in 2020—21 the NHS was overwhelmed; it did not cope; and appropriate care was not available to all patients. However, eye-witness accounts are limited in important ways: they concentrate on immediate first impressions, and rarely offer sustained analyses.
ii. Instant analyses. These are more considered attempts to put the Covid crisis in a wider political, social or ecological perspective. In general, they’ve been disappointing, marked by a distinct ‘told-you-so’ attitude in which the writer merely reiterates their past views, and then claims that the crisis vindicates them. The contribution by French eco-socialist Edgar Morin is probably worth mentioning, for any book written by a 99-year-old with a (slightly exaggerated) claim to have been marked by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918—19 counts as an event. Morin’s Changeons de voie [Let’s Change Our Way] quickly becomes a series of lists of good policies and causes which are not inspiring. Grace Blakeley’s Corona Crash is equally unimaginative for similar reasons. To date, Rebecca Solnit seems to have been one of the rare established commentators who walks the line between drawing on her past writing and yet saying something fresh, which faces the challenge of current crisis.
iii. Instant history. A long time ago, Lewis Carroll gave some good advice on writing: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ Can these instructions be applied to writing on the Covid crisis? Probably not. We’ve got some reasonably clear ideas about where and when the crisis began — probably Wuhan, probably January 2021, maybe earlier. But we cannot be certain when this crisis will end. (My gut feeling is that it will be with us for years, and we should expect this stop—start cycle to continue into the 2030s). It is impossible to know if May 2021 (when I’m writing) marks the end of the crisis, the beginning of the end, or merely a pause. This inevitable lack of clarity hampers any attempt to write an immediate historical perspective. Clarke’s Breathtaking ends in April 2020, with a hastily-written afterword from August 2020. Clarke suspected that something awful might happen in winter 2020—21, but she couldn’t be certain of this. Calvert and Arbuthnott’s Failures of State winds down to some sort of conclusion around January 2021, but doesn’t foresee the success of the virus rollout: how could it?
iv. Counter-science. I’ll say more about this later, but a unique feature of the Covid crisis has been the remarkable rise of a confused, highly sceptical counter-discourse, largely reliant on social media platforms. There’s no precedent for the scale, virulence and — arguably — influence of this counter-discourse. Reaching for everyone’s favourite metaphor, during the Second World War plenty of British people were sceptical about Churchill. But there was no public platform for their views: usually they stayed quiet and kept their heads down until they were able to vote Labour in July 1945.
Trying to Make Sense of Covid
One of the funniest Covid stories I’ve heard was a question from a boy to his mother: ‘So what did you do last time this happened?’ This hasn’t happened before. Of course, there were precedents: SARS in 2002, MERS in 2012, even medieval plagues. These should have been studied more closely, and lessons could have been learnt from them. But the previous epidemics weren’t on the same scale as today’s Covid crisis. They didn’t affect the whole world, and they didn’t have the same tricky, deceptive two-week incubation period during which there are no visible symptoms. Covid is new, and its effects are exceptionally difficult to understand.
In order to come to terms with this unprecedented situation, many of us turned unthinkingly to representations in novels and films. But these were of surprisingly little help. Anyone who watches Contagion (2011) cannot help noticing how much it gets wrong. R-rates are mentioned, but social distancing is barely observed and the PPE looks horribly rudimentary. Instead, the film falls back on some established, cliched tropes of apocalyptic literature: the fights in the supermarkets, empty streets, the collapse of Life As We Know It. All that’s missing is a horde of cannibal zombies. I suspect that the ridiculous, frightening sights in British supermarkets in March 2020 was a direct response to these established tropes: if this is a pandemic, went the reasoning, then it’s time to clear those supermarket shelves. Buy, buy, buy. I was bewildered by the targets of the crazed zombie-shoppers: why clear the shelves of pasta but leave noodles? What was the point of bulk-buying toothpaste? What happened to all those eggs?
The simple truth is that (as yet) we Brit’s haven’t starved. Other countries — the USA, Peru, Brazil, India — have suffered far worse than us and there’s no doubt that horrifying and unexpected crises will impact elsewhere in the near future. In Britain, we haven’t always been able to buy eggs or pizza base mix, many have seen their incomes decline, some have lost their jobs, then fallen through the net and they are now — to the government’s eternal shame — reliant on foodbanks, but we have not come close to mass starvation. Our lives have been transformed in more subtle, intangible, unexpected ways. Staying home, no travel, no mass events, no parties, weddings or funerals. The constant presence of some (our house-mates), the constant absence of others. Persistent self-checking: is that just a tickle in my throat? Or a different kind of cough?. The new caution when we meet on the streets, often like an expression of some old-fashioned courtesy. Hand-washing, masks. For the majority of us, the most important effects of the Covid crisis have been psychological, economic and social, not biological. How do we make sense of these processes?
The British public has been told to imagine these events as like the Second World War. Johnson openly channelled Churchill and invoked the Dunkirk spirit: for him, there was an easy continuity from the rhetoric he used to justify Brexit to his rhetoric during the Covid crisis. When Johnson was admitted to hospital in March 2020, the public were told that he would survive because he was a fighter, as if he actually became a D-Day hero. While never actually dominant, Second World War images circulated with ease, and must constitute the single most common comparison used to explain the Covid crisis in Britain. Examples popped up in surprising places. Major Tom, a real Second World War veteran, became the poster boy/pin up for the nation’s hopes and fears. A Christian Covid-sceptic group in South London chose to call themselves ‘The White Rose’, a reference to a conservative anti-Hitler grouping in Nazi Germany. The gifted graphic artist, M.J. Hiblen, circulated a series of free images which celebrated the fight of NHS workers in blue and grey scrubs, ‘frontline heroes’, posed like superheroes. Alongside Star Wars, Tarantino and Keanu Reeves/Matrix references, the Second World War inevitably crept in: Hiblen contributed a vaccine needle morphing into a Spitfire.
But resisting Covid is not like fighting the Second World War. That war was a total war: it demanded the active participation of all members of society, from landgirls to miners, from accountants to bus-conductresses (an innovation of the time). The Covid crisis has been a time of passivity; the majority of us have been concerned spectators, not active participants. The primary injunction placed on us has been to stay safe, not to contribute. Our moments of activity — shopping for an elderly neighbour, donating to a humanitarian charity, clapping for the NHS — have been rare exceptions, memorable for that reason. And what are we fighting? Not a hi-tech enemy, not a fascist party, not a terrifying army, but a tiny, dumb, primitive speck, so basic that it’s debatable whether it counts as alive at all. There is no propaganda war to be won against it, no mass conscription, no air-raids smashing streets and dockyards, no U-boats threatening food supplies in the Atlantic, no concentration camps to be liberated, no tanks rolling towards Berlin. This is not like the Second World War.
There’s perhaps one legitimate comparison that could be made between the Second World War and the Covid crisis. I think of the families in 1941, grouped round the wireless, listening to half-accurate accounts of conflicts in far-away places, and trying to understand: are we winning? When will it end? The psychological cycle that many of us have been through — passionate concern, moments of real fear, incomprehension, irritated boredom — would have been familiar to many Second World War families. But that comparison doesn’t feature in the contemporary references to the War, in which all Brits are noble, selfless heroes.
There were other appeals to history. Both Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (published in 1722) and Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) became best-sellers in 2020. Both works certainly pack a punch, but neither really guides us. Defoe’s Journal is at its most useful in demonstrating that madness in the face of crisis is nothing new: apocalyptic cults and eschatological visions flourished during the Great Plague. It also reminds us of the psychological dread of that period: there was no scientific explanation for the Plague, it just happened, incomprehensibly, and hundreds of thousands died. Camus’s Plague is more complex, written as much as a metaphor about the spread of fascism as about a biomedical emergency. Again, the details of people’s reactions are convincing and resonant, and show how little has changed. But Camus’s concentration on the gallant actions of a little group of quasi-Christian heroes seems unnecessarily moralistic. Covid can kill anyone, good or bad.
On this point, Sontag’s cool, quiet scepticism in the face of disease makes sense: except for perhaps a momentary boost to our self-esteem, we gain nothing by comparing the Covid crisis to the Second World War. What else is available? Johnson’s and Cummings’ default position was always that they were insurgents, fighting for the People against a Westminster establishment. ‘Follow the science’ was a tactical shift for them: an attempt to cover their tracks with a different form of legitimacy. But ‘follow the science’ should mean something else: it should mean thinking like scientists: rationally evaluating data, rather than resurrecting cinematic cliches about our nation’s finest hour. Indeed, there’s a real danger that as the public perceives the difference between the struggles of the Second World War and the Covid crisis, they will feel cheated, and grow sceptical of all official pronouncements.
Another of my favourite (and true) Covid crisis stories is the one about the respectable woman in her 60s who went for a walk in her local park, and sat down on the bench. Two mounted police officers approached and told her to move on. Who wouldn’t want to protest about this? Many actions by officials during the crisis have seemed heavy-handed and even vindictive. Expressions of hostility to and scepticism about government policy have taken many forms. Much of this is perfectly understandable. The government’s inconsistencies and mistakes are obvious: in March 2020, masks weren’t needed, in March 2021 they were part of everyday life. In March 2020 our test-and-trace system would be ‘world-beating’; in autumn 2020 the utterly failed system was quietly abandoned. The various vaccines have been rushed into production: it’s entirely proper to raise questions about their effectiveness and nature.
A substantial minority of the British public seems willing to listen to forms of Covid-scepticism: polls regularly suggest that as much as 20% of the population express substantial scepticism and/or hostility to the government’s Covid policies. Certainly, nearly everyone has encountered Covid-scepticism; anyone choosing to have a jab has also made a decision to reject the sceptics. Any future history will have to consider Covid-scepticism as an integral part of this crisis.
On a few occasions, Covid-sceptics have gathered in public demonstrations of a few thousand people, suggesting they share some sort of common platform. But it’s almost certainly a mistake to understand these strands as a single political bloc. For the majority of sympathizers, Covid-scepticism is a mood rather than a political ideology. One can identify the following strands, with the inevitable qualification that they criss-cross over each other.
i. Total scepticism: the belief that the entire crisis is based on a hoax; there is no Covid 19.
ii. Conspiracy scepticism: the belief that the virus does exist, and that it was deliberately manufactured for political reasons by a shadowy and mysterious elite. (Take your pick for the identity of that elite: the Chinese, aliens, Bill Gates, George Soros, Dr Evil…).
iii. Lockdown scepticism: the belief that the virus does exist, but its effects have been exaggerated, and that lockdowns do more harm than good.
iv. Vaccine scepticism: the belief that the vaccines will not be effective to control the virus and/or that vaccines will actually do harm. Sometimes these voices raise legitimate questions about these rapidly-produced vaccines which should not be ignored.
One fascinating and revealing point is the glee with which those on the fringes of such movements approach Covid-sceptic publications and postings. There’s usually a knowing laugh, a curious attitude, akin to saying ‘I know this is nonsense but I also know it’s not nonsense, and I’m going to enjoy it anyway’. The postings and pamphlets circulate widely partly because they openly, joyfully break taboos — look: I can puncture the pomposity of the government pronouncements; I can walk into a supermarket without a mask; I can drink with seven friends; I can laugh in the face of misery. To some extent, this explains the success of the counter-discourse: it functions as a source of entertainment, a semi-satirical, bitter commentary on government officiousness and pomposity.
This counter-discourse has been an effective vehicle for voicing some of the countless frustrations of the Covid crisis. Parents exhausted by the strain of managing their children’s education, owners of small businesses depressed by the future, young people unable to socialise, workers who’ve lost their jobs — all are people who can feel a sense of relief and identification when they find that at last someone has articulated their frustrations. These feelings are more than understandable.
But this gets more serious when Covid-sceptic feelings are linked to a wider global vision. The term ‘conspiracy theory’ simplifies the nature of these movements, for it imposes too neat a grid on them. Samira Shackle, an investigative journalist, has a neat little story which says something about the Covid-sceptics. Interviewing a series of people involved in Covid conspiracy theory-based movements, she found that each one in turn warned her about talking to other people in the movements who held extreme or irrational views. Presumably each interviewee believed themselves to be the voice of moderate, sensible Covid-scepticism, and the others to be the mad extremists. There is no unity to their political visions; rival views and rival targets compete, whether the focus is far right, extra-terrestrial, New Age-y, anti-Semitic, Christian-apocalyptic, 5G, Trumpian. A temporary, tentative unity is based more on a common mindset or a common frustration rather than a common political vision.
On the other hand, the rise of social media-based Covid-scepticism suggests something extremely serious happening to political discourse. The hard-line Covid-sceptics usually reduce processes and debates to a negative minimum: no public voice is to be trusted, all is lies and trickery, except for the tiny bands of rival true believers. Uncomplicated explanations follow: every public figure is purely and simply after what they can get. There’s an appeal to the reader’s most basic and most cynical experience: phrases such as ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up!!’ conclude tenuous arguments linking Chinese laboratories, American doctors, global billionaires and (usually) George Soros. Research, of a sort, is sometimes involved: conspiracy theorists will wade through volumes of densely packed quasi-scientific material in search of their answer. The message is consistent: what you believe in your heart to be true is the truth; there’s no need to listen to awkward arguments or to consider challenges to your world view, there’s no need to empathise with people unlike you. To an outside observer, one point is very clear: when conspiracy theorists are at their most blind and stupid, they consider that they are at their most intelligent. This is one reason why it is so hard to debate with them.
The standard explanation for conspiracy theories is that their followers cannot accept the role of chance and hazard in daily life. Mariaconcetta Costantini argues that conspiracy theories about the Covid crisis are ‘less scary’ than more secular, down-to-earth, bio-medical explanations. I’m not sure that this is correct: the idea of a vast global conspiracy, working to enslave whole populations strikes me as more scary than a microscopic virus with no political agenda. But Covid-scepticism certainly offers comfort in another form — in the certainty that the believer is not alone, that there are other groups of dedicated people who will respect and validate the believer. There’s even comfort to be found in the certainty that you are a member of this tiny Elect, superior to the sheep-like mass, that you’ve been given the privilege of seeing through the lies, fake news and distortion to grasp the truth. Think of the happy smiles and waving flags at a Trump rally — here’s the comfort that the counter-discourse offers.
One problem is that the hard-line Covid-sceptics offer their followers targets and these tend to be the favoured targets of a certain type of hard-right: anti-globalism, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-internationalist, anti-Semitic. When someone begins to take these ideas seriously, it’s hard for them to accept any type of humanitarian or humanist agenda. The negative agenda ‘trumps’ positive action: the believer wishes to stay pure and isolated from the movements of the real world.
Lessons of the Crisis
For over a year, we’ve been in an exceptional, unprecedented situation. It’s not like the Second World War, it’s not even like a medieval plague. The lessons it teaches us are paradoxical. One is that our society is more resilient than all those apocalyptic films and books suggest — one little microbe is not enough to end Civilization As We Know It, not enough to create mass starvation and not enough to turn us into cannibal zombies. Modern capitalist societies are more complex, more variegated entities than we suspected, and they can shift and adjust more competently than we might have believed. Forms of solidarity — whether institutional, like the NHS, or informal, like the friendly, helpful neighbour — are relatively strong, and these are an essential part of our resilience. International solidarity has been far more of a challenge: the situation in Israel/Palestine, where the Israeli government has largely refused to share vaccines with the Palestinian people, is a warning. In the long-term, vaccine nationalism cannot work, as in a globalized world, the vaccine-less will always ultimately re-infect the vaccine-rich countries.
Maybe the worst is yet to come: one further killer-mutation might be enough to push us over that edge. But, just as possible, the next mutations of the virus might be benign, transforming it into something as banal as the common cold; and future vaccines may be even more effective — to the point where they can be used to control and eliminate the virus on a global scale.
In Britain, we’ve had an intense crash course in the politics of logistics, and a grim reminder of the bio-medical basis of our existences. Test-and-trace: appalling. Vaccines: unexpectedly competent. We’ve learnt that exercises and planning for disasters and emergencies are essential, not wasteful indulgences to be cut in the name of financial austerity. Failing to plan, failing to consider the long-term good of our society has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Measures like lockdowns are unsophisticated and often unpopular, but failing to implement them properly is deadly — arguably, many British people lost their lives because Boris Johnson refused to implement a measure that he thought would be unpopular.
We’ve learnt how interconnected our society is. Nurses, refuse-collectors and supermarket workers are more important than we thought. We should study other countries and other social models, and be willing to learn from their experiences. There is a hopeful, utopian dimension here: our brush with death and our collective observation of social resources stretched to their limits, may reveal what we should really value in life and how we should evaluate what counts in a good, caring society. In the last year, many of us have grown closer to nature: walks in parks, along canals and across hills have been the only leisure pursuits available to us. Weather forecasts have become unexpectedly important. Here too is another lesson in what really matters: we can imagine a new relationship with nature, and even new urban forms constructed around these values.
We’ve learnt that travel can be dangerous. Mass international travel only became a reality in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This easy availability may well have definitively ended. Travel has become dangerous. As Daniel Defoe knew, it’s the way viruses spread.
Another lasting legacy will be a sense of bitterness. Much of this didn’t need to happen. The Cheltenham Races, the Liverpool vs Madrid match, the Stereophonics concert should all have been cancelled; lockdown should have been implemented earlier; and many deaths and much misery could have been prevented. Johnson’s government was cavalier, careless and irresponsible in Spring 2020: the relative success of the vaccine rollout has allowed him to recover some public respect, and there is the inevitable move to ‘rally’ to a government which has — finally — produced some workable policies.
What will Johnson’s legacy be? Will he be remembered as the uncaring incompetent who could not even be bothered to attend the relevant COBRA meetings? Or the pragmatist who realised that the vaccine rollout was best organised by the NHS, not one of his cronies? One of the most terrifying images that has come from this crisis is the spectacle of a government which refuses to take action to protect the lives of its people.
Works cited or consulted
Blakeley, Grace, The Corona Crash: How the Pandemic Will Change Capitalism (London: Verso, 2020).
Camus, Albert, Le Plague (1947).
Clarke, Rachel, Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a time of pandemic (London: Little, Brown, 2021).
Costantini, Mariaconcetta, ‘Pandemics, Power, and Conspiracy Theories,’ Critical Quarterly 62:4 (2020) pp. 24—31 (open access).
Defoe, Daniel, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
Gleeson, Rory, ‘Abbandonati,’ Granta 154 (Winter 2020), pp. 159—72.
Hiblen, M.J., twitterfeed.
Morin, Edgar with Sabah Abouessalam, Changeons de voie: les leçons du coranavirus (Paris: Denoël, 2020).
Shackle, Samira, ‘Among the Covid Sceptics,’ Guardian 8 April 2021.
Soderbergh, Steven, Contagion (2011).
Solnit, Rebecca, ‘”The Impossible has already happened”: what coronavirus can teach us about hope,’ Guardian 7 April 2020.
Sontag, Susan, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978).