By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
IT DOESN’T SEEM all that long ago since I was talking about how unexpected natural disasters knock societies out of kilter. The current coronavirus pandemic may at first sight seem to fall into that category, what with the thousands dying in China, Italy and Spain but I don’t think it is so.
All annual influenza outbreaks cause disruption and deaths by the thousands, but the current pandemic so far is causing considerably less misery and damage than the media present. This may change, of course, and the final death toll in Britain and Europe reach Spanish Flu proportions, in which case you should be grateful I’m just an obscure scribbler in the sticks with no influence whatsoever on how things are run. On the other hand you may wish I were a supreme influencer, since I am both a sceptic and a cynic and have grown accustomed to taking nothing on trust from government, media, academia or the internet. I assume that the majority of them are lying, prevaricating, shilly-shallying, ignorant, incompetent, witless, panic-mongering herd beasts who acquired immunity to common sense and clear thinking at birth. In this case I may just have a more realistic view on things. I don’t have a degree in PPE, for a start, and I have been self-employed as well as occasionally employed in the private sector, so my experience of the world is somewhat more attuned to the nitty gritty reality of the majority of the population than theirs.
That is why I say that the catastrophe unrolling itself in the British economy, and thus society at large, is not caused by the virus but by the ineffable uselessness of those in charge. I think the lockdown is not only unnecessary but profoundly damaging. There is no evidence that it is having any effect either on rates of infection or death, despite the repeated declarations of the politicians. And there never will be any evidence that it has done so. How can there be? There is no way that a causal link can be soundly demonstrated. If the lockdown is having an effect, just how many deaths has it prevented? That cannot be answered except by the vague assertion of “thousands” or “many more.” No answer, in other words. In fact, given the flakiness of the scientific team advising the government, I wouldn’t be surprised if some time after this has all died down, research suggests the lockdown made things worse.
What we have witnessed is the collapse of all sensible governance. The British government initially approached the problem with an admirable cautiousness and the appearance that it would not be panicked into extreme measures. They said they would not shut schools and universities, for instance, when people were pressuring them to do so. Quite rightly, they said that doing so would cause difficulties for parents and put grandparents (who would be drafted in for childcare) at greater risk, since they are the most vulnerable group. Yet within days of saying this they caved in.
That was just the first act of panic, the first domino to fall. The rest toppled in terrifyingly quick succession. Schools closed on the Friday. On Saturday they told the elderly to self isolate for twelve weeks. On Monday they told everybody to stay at home for three weeks. Within days of that they rushed through parliament laws that restricted our civil liberties in the most unprecedented ways. And unprecedented here is the correct word – as it is not when describing the virus itself. Because what is truly unprecedented is the hysterical reaction to the epidemic. A serious public health issue has been turned into a massive economic and social crisis.
The truth is the government was panicked by the experts — whose track record, wild predictions of up to half a million dead and constant recalibrations should have given them pause — by the media, who are ever ready to stir up anxieties, by a playground pressure to do as all the other countries are doing, and by a craven fear of a collapse of the NHS, and thus a PR and electoral disaster. Luckily for them the populace seemed to agree with being placed under semi-house arrest with no end in sight, no hint of an exit strategy and no true cognisance of the forthcoming economic destruction on the way. Lucky, too, that worship of the NHS is equivalent to Christianity in the Roman Empire just before Constantine converted and should now oust the Church of England as the state religion. “Save our NHS” is a major admonishment from these true-believers, impervious to the irony that they have got this the wrong way round.
Since before the final days of the collapse of all sense when the most we had to worry about was various shortages in the shops, the government has overplayed the PR card. Staging daily sessions with ministers and health experts to explain what is going on may have had its use early on but it’s now counter-productive. The media, needless to say, have behaved as badly as you’d expect, with one hack after another asking the same damn question that had already been answered. There’s too much data and no knowledge. You can read all the newspapers, watch all the tv you can manage, listen to ministers and advisors talking about the state of play and at the end of the day you still only know two things: the number of people who died in the previous twenty-four hours and the fact that nobody has worked out how they’re going to get us out of this crisis.
All the gung-ho wartime spirit will not get us out, nor all the saccharine sentimentality over the NHS nor the repellant self-regard of celebrities doing their Vera Lynn bit via social media nor the sickly, infantile assertion that all this chaos is worthwhile even if it only saves one life.
It’s all noise. As T.S. Eliot asks in “The Rock,” “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Because for all the sound and fury of so much information raging through the mainstream and social media at the very heart of it is the frightened silence of people who have no rock of knowledge to hold onto.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.