Hope and despair in the Age of Corona

hands-4934590_1920It’s been ten days since I left the house.

I developed a dry cough while visiting my parents and have been self-isolating in my teenage bedroom, surrounded by hand sanitiser and Backstreet Boys posters. I waited for the other dread symptoms to follow — fever, shallow breathing, loss of taste and smell — but so far none have. Probably just the old asthma playing up again. 

There is a perverse disappointment in this: the quicker I got it, I reasoned, the faster I could be back on my feet and able to look after my parents. Both are cursed with underlying conditions, as am I. I am well aware of what this means. 

Isolation is nothing new. Clinical anxiety is a constant companion and one that jealously keeps me indoors for long stretches. Now the rest of the world is having a panic attack but this doesn’t make it any easier. When you are off-kilter you envy everyone else their even-keel but you also draw solace from it. 

Yesterday morning, I ventured out to the front step to write this. What does the outside world look like? At once familiar and uncanny, a pedestrian scene without pedestrians. Crows still congregate in the three barren oaks on the hill across the way, but now they go undisturbed by smartly-dressed ladies on their way to church or heathen husbands on a pilgrimage for bacon rolls and back pages. 

Family saloons usually on manoeuvres in the war zones of Ikea and B&Q lie decommissioned in driveways. Back street league fixtures have been called off, a mercy for garden fences and garage doors but I secretly miss the reassuring thump of vulcanised rubber.

Glory be to God for humdrum things: the pneumatic gulps of the bin man’s lorry, the dutiful footfall of the postman on slab steps, even for the junk mail and gas bills he brings.

What was mundane days ago is unimaginable now. No more popping down the pub, no more nattering with Tariq, the local newsagent, who sells you the paper and provides his commentary on the headlines for free. How fragile our lives turned out to be, how ill-founded the certainties of modernity. 

Medical science had a pill for everything but it has nothing for this. We are not invincible after all. The reach of technology is straining and with it our illusory superpowers: summoning taxis and takeaways at the tap of an app no longer seems so appealing. 

The open society struggles against a virus that turns our openness against us and hijacks our interconnected world as a transport network for its spike proteins. Cheap flights and city breaks are over and the airliners that offer them might be too.

Economic migration will crater — Australia and New Zealand have already closed their borders — though the prospect of Covid-19 refugees looms down the line as developed nations acquire vaccines that the developing world will struggle to afford or administer. Social distancing means one giant frustrated swipe left on dating apps. Coronavirus will do more to curtail casual sex than Aids or Mary Whitehouse.

Glumly, repressive states have been more effective at containment than free ones. Russia has a population 232 times the size of Luxembourg but only a third as many cases. Israel only has four times the population of Gaza but 500 times the recorded infections. True, authoritarian regimes are probably massaging the figures but the contrast is still stark.

Here in the UK, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have assumed the roles of Good Cop and Bad Cop. Rishi Sunak has announced state intervention in the economy that would have made Nye Bevan blanche. First, there was his £350billion bailout for businesses, then his pledge to pay up to 80 per cent of the salary of any employee unable to work because of the outbreak.

The Chancellor is under pressure to extend this coverage to freelancers; meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that even if just 10 per cent use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, it will cost the Treasury £10billion over three months. Now, Sunak has unveiled a £1,000 boost to the Universal Credit payment for the coming 12 months, at a price tag of £7billion. 

Boris Johnson has found himself as the Dirty Harry of this crisis: Go ahead, punk; wash your hands. As Sunak gets to dole out the carrots, the Prime Minister must wield the stick. It falls to him to urge pubs and restaurants to close and soon it will fall to him to order them to do so.

Today Parliament will debate sweeping new emergency powers that will allow the police and public health officials to detain anyone they suspect of being infected, force them to isolate and levy fines of £1,000 if they fail to comply. The government says such powers are necessary as long as there remains a ‘serious and imminent threat to public health’.

This is a Britain that could not have come from the pen of even the most dystopian of science fiction novelists. The measures announced — and there will be more and more drastic ones — are an indication of the gravity of the moment. This is not a bad flu outbreak; this is the close of one way of life and the opening of another. 

Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter to Ronald Reagan, observed after the September 11 attacks: ‘It was the end of a world, the drowning of illusions… the end of the assumptions that ease and plenty will continue forever’. The Age of Corona is pulling our illusions under, too. The easy and plentiful times that seemed like they would last forever are over. Now a cough can kill a loved one and a thriving business can collapse overnight. 

In the Age of Corona, we will be more circumspect, less confident, perhaps even more humble. We will certainly become more dependent on government and more obedient of authority. The Chancellor’s measures, in the round, seem wise and necessary but this suddenly inflated Leviathan will be difficult to cut back down to size. Once whetted, our appetite for big government will become harder to sate.  

The Prime Minister’s measures, in the round, seem wise and necessary, too. I bow to no one in my civil libertarianism but, as Thomas Jefferson argued: ‘The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger are of higher obligation.’ Or as the American jurist Arthur Goldberg put it, while a constitution ‘protects against invasions of individual rights, it is not a suicide pact’. 

The duty to preserve life and public order make these new powers imperative but MPs from Left and Right are being reasonable in asking for a sunset clause to keep them under parliamentary scrutiny. Whether they succeed or not, the state will likely prove as reluctant to surrender its stick as the public will be to return their carrot. Those of us fortunate enough to survive will be living in a country with a bigger state and less freedom but we will at least be living. 

Dark days lie ahead but spot the glimmers of hope, too, for they shine with the promise of human potential and perseverance. The Israelis and the Australians are working on a vaccine; the Americans and the Chinese are already testing early prototypes. The world’s finest perfumeries Givenchy and Christian Dior have switched to producing hydroalcoholic  hand gel. Fashion designers Christian Siriano and Dov Charney are turning their talents from high couture to surgical masks. 

Coronavirus will change the world but it will not end it. On the other side there will be industries to rebuild and new ones to found where the old ones cannot be revived. Innovations will ensure we are better prepared for the next crisis and future technology will offer solutions just beyond our grasp today. Families will put themselves back together, mourning those they have lost and welcoming new members around their hearths. We have succumbed to the Age of Corona for now but not forever. 

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Published by stephenjdaisley

Political journalist and commentator.

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