The Fragility of Democracy II: Covid Society

The Post Office Tower, London, June 2020

Authoritarianism arises as a response to a threat, real or perceived. More often than not, the threat finds fertile ground in reality: in 1930s Germany, economic hardship created the conditions for the rise of Nazism. Humans, vulnerable and dependent on others for their early survival longer than other mammals, scare easily. Key to our psychology and way of being in the world is our tendency to give our inner fears outward expression.

In 2020, the threat precipitating authoritarianism in the western world is a disease, a new respiratory infection which poses a particular threat to the vulnerable. Covid-19 presents societies priding themselves on their healthcare and compassion with a huge challenge: in the western world of the 21st century, the possibility of large numbers dying from a single cause is socially and politically unacceptable. The world has seen plenty of pandemics, but there is something about this one or the point of history at which it’s occurred that’s made this epidemic seen as ‘unprecedented’. Combine this with the modern faith in the human ability to control and in government’s ability to protect and you quickly arrive at the popular belief in a ready solution.

It’s important to say that this second essay on our times (Part 1 is here) is one person’s response to a collective struggle, observations born of lived experience in one place: London. A background in philosophy and journalism has often led me to consider ‘the good society’, but I’ve never thought about how a country should respond to a pandemic before. My reactions don’t come from a predefined set of political views and, although I now know my concerns are shared by growing numbers of people, in the first half of 2020 with much of the British population isolated and scared, living with my observations was a lonely business.

In the spring of 2020, in the weeks following the UK government decision to impose a national lockdown, I watched with alarm as a new kind of social behaviour emerged. While ministers issued instructions about how people should live their day-to-day lives, the public joined in with their own ideas, loudly condemning those they felt were not behaving correctly. Expressed mostly freely online but also in person, many prescriptions took the form of a simple repetition of the government instruction to ‘Stay home’, while others went further and added their own recommendations. ‘Just because you CAN go out doesn’t mean to have to’, a local acquaintance posted on Facebook. According to the new morality of the pandemic, being outside was bad. Criticism of people on the street or in the park tended to be general, expressing the speaker’s feeling that were ‘too many’, their presence a clear indication of their selfishness. It was almost as if hostile attitudes towards others had been lying latent until the right conditions brought them out.

This anxious public discourse was accompanied by the use of a curious phrase. The ‘New Normal’, advocated by public health professionals and taken up by a section of the population, encapsulated the new disciplines and rules that would henceforth regulate human interaction. It was often expressed in a tone of excitement as if, rather than denoting a set of practical measures, it heralded something bigger, more significant: a vision of a society in which everyone would be safe from infectious disease. Its advocates had found a new cause.

But far from being a minority’s fight for change, this dramatic change to British way of life was mainstream thinking led by government, or rather the new version of political authority which appeared daily on television in the form of a minister flanked by a couple of scientists. Before long, the new mainstream was generating its own out-groups, with one after another sub-set of the population becoming a target. Complaints about those running in parks expanded into a broader criticism of people sitting down outside. The category of ‘irresponsible sunbather’ emerged over a weekend, travelling along the invisible wires connecting the health minister with the broadcasters and social media. It seemed unlikely, in an English April, that sunbathing was widespread — in two months of spending more time in my local parks than I had ever done before, I saw one man with his top off — but I soon understood that the phenomenon was part of the new set of pandemic values: ‘exercising’ was permissible, but being motionless outside was not. The term ‘sunbathers’ was shorthand for all those who wanted fresh air but who couldn’t or didn’t want to be continuously on the move. They included cyclists lying on the grass to rest, a man sitting on a bench with crutches and the solitary woman writing her journal in her nearest park. (Me, in case you’re wondering — and the only people nearby were the policemen who crossed the playing field to move me on.)

The specificity of the groups and the venom with which they were condemned puzzled me until, recalling the lessons of history, I realised that these, in a world dominated by a new threat, were the scapegoats. By the time the long British lockdown came to an end, I could predict which groups would be next: when the shops opened, it would be the shoppers; when the pubs opened, the drinkers, on warm sunny weekends, the beachgoers. By now it was clear that, like the best marketing, these informal campaigns focused on a particular demographic and place — Primark, Soho, Durdle Door — and were accompanied with strong visuals. Word and image combined into an emblem of ‘selfishness’ that could easily be shared in the digital age.


Put into context, these behaviours are the dark side of a collective willingness of a peaceable, law-abiding society to follow official advice for the common good. It’s important to remember that, at the outset of the crisis the government’s decision to impose a national lockdown was a response to public opinion as expressed through focus groups and polls, as well as pressure to follow the examples set by Italy, France and Spain.

But however well-intentioned the policy, two things in particular worried me about lockdown. One was the putting aside of so much knowledge about physical health, mental wellbeing and social bonds that British society had carefully accumulated. For decades, the UK had been at the forefront of research in the complex, overlapping factors that make up health and wellbeing at an individual and society-wide level, with experts in universities and think tanks detailing the negative effects of loneliness and inactivity. Although the funding might not always follow, in terms of understanding we were going forward. And then, almost overnight, an entire population was confined to their homes, many alone, with even a threat to ban exercise. What we had learnt about how to live well, how to build a flourishing modern society — how could I be so quickly forgotten?

My other concern lay with the instruction for certain people — the over-seventies and anyone with conditions that made them vulnerable — to isolate completely. Quarantine of the contagious for the public good was one thing, but state-imposed confinement for your own good represented a dramatic shift in policy. It seemed as if the principle of consent, a cornerstone of modern medicine and human rights, had disappeared without so much as a whisper. Where was all that careful weighing up of quality of life versus biological survival I’d read in medical ethics debates about abortion and euthanasia? And what had happened to the increasingly sensitive, sophisticated approaches about the choices of illness and end-of-life I’d learnt through the dying of my own loved ones? Did the wishes of the patient — no, the person — no longer count?

Meanwhile in Westminster, the government’s tone was changing. The lockdown had begun with an acknowledgement of how far it ran counter to the British traditions of liberty, reasonableness and policing by consent, with an apologetic announcement from the Prime Minister asking that people stay at home for three weeks. But as the weeks turned into months and restrictions were renewed without public discussion, those in charge were adopting an increasingly domineering tone. More measures were put into law and, by the autumn, the fines were big enough to bankrupt. There was talk of using to army to help with enforcement and neighbours were encouraged, by both government and opposition ministers, to report each other for infringements. As I write, the country is entering a phase of rolling lockdowns without an end-point.

All along, in the quasi-Churchillian rhetoric of government, is the idea that The Virus is the enemy which must be defeated. Sacrifices are required of the people who show their support for tougher measures through the polls.

And so it is that, heading towards the end of 2020, I find myself living in a society consumed by the fear of a single threat, a preoccupation with one form of suffering and a determination to avoid death by one cause. In the mono-vision of Covid Society, the risks to life posed by cancer, heart disease, poor mental health and the longterm effects of poverty and unemployment count for little compared to the overwhelming need to conquer the new foe. Like all obsessions, the obsession with Covid-19 justifies a disregard for that which falls outside its priorities. There’s a heartlessness about Covid Society where the dying and bereaved cannot be comforted, fathers can’t be sure of supporting their partners in childbirth, and visiting by relatives is banned in care homes, leaving uncomprehending dementia sufferers feeling abandoned.

The UK response to Covid-19, as far as I can see, has become an ideology. It’s an ideology centred on the need to organise society around public health, understood as the need to avoid a single infectious disease. Scientists, in the form of epidemiologists, are the experts who matter, success and failure judged in terms of clinical numbers, modelling and metrics. ‘This year has given us a new ideology with totalitarian tendencies,’ writes Jeffrey A. Tucker. ‘It has a vision of hell, of heaven, and a means of transition. That ideology is called lockdown … Its vision of hell is a society in which pathogens run freely. Its heaven is a society managed entirely by medical technocrats whose main job is the suppression of all disease.’

Ideology, the discourse about ideas, is traditionally examined in the academic disciplines of political theory, history and social psychology. But I think that dystopian novels, with their ability to take ideas and behaviours to their most extreme conclusions and their show-not-tell exploration of their effects on human life, are the teaching texts here. In the next part of this essay, I’ll use some to consider the ideas underlying what could be called the rise of health authoritarianism.

Writer, reader & genre-weaver: current affairs, travel, place. Writing a book about Europe by way of its cities. See:

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