A Very Modern Plague

This is a piece I wrote back in October 2020, almost exactly two years ago. I repost it here, partly so that the whole piece is available in one place and partly because, as we taste the bitter economic fruit of lockdowns this winter, just one variety in a whole orchard of acrid consequences of seeds sown in 2020, we should revisit the roots of the folly. The piece is unaltered, doubtless I would now put some things differently but the basic analysis is the same and, I think, sound. Lockdowns were, I still believe, one of the most pernicious and disastrous public policy decisions in British history. Understanding why that was, why they happened and why they proved so hard to stop will be an urgent task for many years to come.

Back in those strange mid-March days it felt as if the calendar was turning backward. Being confined in our homes because of a plague seemed a resuscitation of history. As the word ‘unprecedented’ became ubiquitous, we looked to episodes like the Black Death, the Great Plague of London and Cholera outbreak of the 1850s to find reference points. We were wrenched out of time, as strange as if the Year of the Three Popes suddenly became the closest parallel to political developments. Over the last six months, however, I’ve become more and more convinced that, far from being some kind of historical throwback, recent events have been quintessentially modern. No other age would have, could have, approached the arrival of Sars-CoV-2 in the way we moderns have. This has been a very modern plague.

What do I mean by modern? I mean that the crisis caused by the arrival of the Sars-CoV-2 is a crisis that requires modern patterns of thought as a condition of its existence. Other generations have faced viruses, and other diseases, far more deadly than COVID-19, serious and significant as COVID-19 certainly is, and yet they have not responded by shutting life down to the extent and to the degree that we have. Perhaps they would have done if they could or perhaps it is the mindset we have come to regard as self-evident, the way our instincts have been formed and trained, that has created a crisis far out of proportion to the actual biological threat that COVID-19 represents. 

In making this claim, I do not wish to throw opprobrium on any particular official, advisor or minister. Certainly, all those with responsibility for the Government’s response to the virus have faced difficult choices and no doubt they have sought to make them to their best of their ability and with all the wisdom at their disposal. My case is not that we should identify a small band of guilty men. Rather, it is to seek to identify the social and intellectual conditions, conditions that have emerged over decades and centuries, that have created such unenviable choices for our governing class. 

A Very Modern Problem

One of the striking features of our response to the arrival of COVID-19 has been the intense focus on human intervention, specifically government policy, in restricting the impact of the virus. In his ‘squeeze the brakes’ speech of July 31st, Boris Johnson stated that, ‘I cannot – I won’t stand by and allow the virus to cause more pain and heartache in this country.’ The progress of the virus did not depend simply on Mr Johnson and all his powers as First Lord of Treasury, no it depended on all of us. As he reminded us in his statement of September 22nd, ‘Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour.’ 

Now, of course, human beings have always been able to take steps to reduce the spread of a disease, human agency is not completely irrelevant in such cases, but the emphasis that Mr Johnson, and almost everyone else, has placed on human choice as the key factor is worth observing. What if viruses, like other forces of nature, like the wind and the sea, are largely beyond human, let alone government, control? 

Our response to the Coronavirus crisis has been distinctively modern because we have regarded it as a problem to be solved rather than a trial to be endured. The idea that there might be a force more powerful than us, that death and disease are immovable realities of a tragic human condition, has been anathema to us. But are we right? We may laugh up our sleeves at the way our pagan forefathers dealt with plagues by offering sacrifices to one or other of their gods. But at least their actions showed that they had sense not to believe that everything that happens to us is within the grasp of human control. That there are some things to which human power is not equal. Perhaps, in this at least, even though their medical and scientific knowledge was rudimentary, their wisdom surpassed our own. 

A Very Modern Saviour

Once we regard Coronavirus as a problem to be solved, the question naturally arises, who will solve it? And the answer has been as instinctive as it has been almost universal: the Government. While there have been some countries that have allowed their citizens to make individual assessments of the risk the virus poses, the majority response has been one of mandatory measures. The Government has been assessed by one measure and one measure alone: the Covid deaths per million rate, as if that statistic is determined solely, or even largely, by state action. Not by the underlying health of the population (which is also increasingly viewed as a matter for the state rather than the individual), or the previous year’s flu season mortality or sheer random chance beyond the ken of human perception; no, the death per million rate has been viewed as determined by decisions in Whitehall or the White House.

Very few have stopped to question whether even the most highly organised Government could prevent the spread of a virus several weeks, even months, after it has arrived in a community, nor whether it would be wise to give any Government the powers necessary to do so. That the virus is the responsibility of the Government has been a basic assumption of the public discourse from the very first moment that the word ‘coronavirus’ became popular parlance. Why? 

The answer lies in what we observed before. If the progress of the virus lies not with chance or fate or divine power, but in the control of human beings, where else is that control most fully manifest but in the power of the state? It is no accident that G.W.F. Hegel, who believed that the behind all reality was the process of humanity arriving at self-consciousness, believed that that history had reached its conclusion in the Prussian state in which he lived. For if humanity is the highest power in the universe, where else does that power reach its apogee but in the state,  which is the most concentrated corporate expression of the human will? 

So it is that, during this crisis, the Government has taken on the responsibility to regulate ever smaller areas of human activity. No family gathering, no association, no activity lies outside the scope of the Government’s coronavirus response. During the media frenzy over whether Dominic Cummings had broken the rules by driving to County Durham to let his parents look after his son, very few queried whether regulating when a child could see its grandparents by legislation was such a good idea. Of course, Cummings himself could not appeal to such an argument because the Government which he advised had created the very rules he was accused of breaching. But the reality is, by asking the Government to stop a process beyond direct human control, we have authorised it to take ever more detailed control over us and our lives. 

Again, this is distinctly modern. Only equipped with the apparatus of apps and PCR testing and Bluetooth, could the Government hope to achieve the kind of mastery of the population necessary, at least in theory, to restrain the spread of the virus. Only a Government encumbered with the belief that there is functionally no higher authority or power to which it can appeal would even attempt to. 

A Very Modern Knowledge

So how did the Government know how to act? On what basis did it know that locking down, not just for weeks but months, was necessary? We were told, repeatedly, that they were led by ‘the science’. But what kind of science? The answer is a very modern form of knowledge, the model. It has been widely reported that the key moment that turned the British government away from its original strategy, which appeared to be something close to the path Sweden has taken, was the publication of infamous Imperial College model. A model that predicted up to 500,000 deaths without a lockdown. The use of models, complex algorithms, to produce a picture of the future is an increasingly common feature of contemporary society. But, of course, such models rely on particular assumptions that would have struck people of other ages as rather dubious. The modeller must identify each variable relevant to the question in hand, they must know how those variables relate to each other and they must know the correct figure for each variable to enter into the model. Only if all these conditions are met does the modeller have a reasonable chance of producing a model that correctly predicts the future. Listen to Michael Yeadon, a former Chief Scientist for Pfizer, 

‘I cannot stress how important it is, whenever you hear the word “model”, that you ask who has the expertise in the thing that’s purportedly being modelled. It is no use whatever if the modellers are earnest and brilliant if they are not top-quality experts in the phenomenon being modelled. Because you may be sure that from models come future scenarios – predictions if you will. If the model is constructed by people who are not subject-matter experts about the thing being modelled, then if they’ve constructed it in error, they will not know it.’

To rely on modelling, therefore, rather than empirical data collected in the past, assumes a very optimistic view of human understanding of the universe. It is essentially hubristic. Of course, as a rough and ready calculation that informs our picture of an unknown future, models can be useful. But to shut down almost all economic, social and cultural activity on the basis of a model shows an extraordinarily high level of confidence in our mastery and knowledge of the world around us. Since the UK Government did introduce a national lockdown we will never know if Professor Fergusson’s predictions about not locking down would have come true. But since the same model predicted that deaths in Sweden would reach 96,000 without a lockdown, and they currently stand at around 6000, we may well wonder if our confidence in his model was misplaced. 

We now live in a society driven not by the human and humane urges for company, companionship, love and laughter but by whatever an algorithm foretells about the likely transmission of a virus. Nothing that cannot be given a numerical value is included in our calculations and even much that can be, like the wave of unemployment and cancer deaths sure to follow the lockdown, seems to be missed out. Generations that managed to maintain their societies, without anything like the resources we have, in the face of much deadlier diseases must look upon ours with astonishment. We have been driven mad with statistics, frenzied by numbers, dancing like marionettes pulled in and out of lockdown by an algorithm in the most miserable version of the hokey-cokey imaginable. The truth of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that, 

“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

has been proved true on a societal level. We are a society led by ‘the science’, governed by logicians, no wonder we are a society that has split apart so severely.

A Very Modern Life.

Of course, there has been a remarkably strong degree of public support for the restrictive measures that the government has imposed. That’s not particularly surprising. Indeed, I supported them, initially, when the Infection Fatality Rate seemed to be nearer 3% than the current estimate of 0.2%. However, I do remember being somewhat taken aback when in June when Boris Johnson announced the first, slight, initial easing of the lockdown that only something like 17% wanted him to go further in loosening them. Even today, six months in, roughly 60% of the population supports the current restrictions or wishes them to go further. This can, perhaps, in part, be explained by the distinction between stated and revealed preferences. While 60% may state that they have a preference for strict rules, the fact that only something like 20% of people are actually self-isolating when those rules say they should reveals what they actually think. 

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the British population has tolerated an enormous restriction of their activities for a significant amount of time and show little sign of stopping in the coming months. What explains this? I can’t help but think that the answer lies in the absence of any shared meaning or purpose to life that transcends death or the risk of death. Previous generations went to work, played sport, gathered to worship, in the face of far higher rates of mortality than we face in 2020. But we don’t. We might think that our reluctance is borne out of a well-developed sense of compassion for the old and the frail. But the way that the old and frail are really treated in our society belies that explanation.  

More likely, it seems to me, that we have been so willing to give up our daily activities in the face of the virus because we do not believe any of the activities in our day can really stand up to scrutiny in the face of death. Of course, many of us did things before March that did provide shafts of significance in our mortal condition; watching a football match, going to a concert, seeing grandchildren or grandparents, gathering with friends, singing in church. But while we may be able to articulate to ourselves why those things are worth doing, even if they involve a tiny risk of increased mortality, none of them have been able to hold their own in the public square. All have been swept away by the fear of death.

Like the painted boards of a stage set design, that give the appearance of the depth and grandeur of a great metropolis while being just a few inches thick, the thin, shallow, and illusory nature of so much of modern life has been revealed. Just when we need a cause, a purpose that endures beyond the grave, which can stand in the public square as well as the private home, we find ourselves bereft. And so, we are left with a life with little of the social contact that used to bring cheer and comfort, a life lived simply to endure. But, as we will soon discover: a life lived merely to endure is unendurable. Those who wish that they, or at least others, were confined to their homes to lower the death rate, will find that mortality, misery and meaninglessness slip inside the door with them while hope, joy and comfort remain shivering outside. 

The Coronavirus has shown that those who told us the very modern idea that the meaning of life is whatever you make of it were telling a lie. When a society is struck by a disease like COVID-19, it is society that needs meaning and purpose and not just the individuals within it. The idea that we didn’t need to bother ourselves with ultimate questions, that the meaning and purpose of life could simply be assumed or the question endlessly deferred, has been debunked. No, we have found out that even if we merely want the liberty to see our grandparents, we need some explanation of why life must continue in the face of death that has public acceptance. Our modern society does not have one, and so it must remain trapped indoors in fear of mortality. 

Some opponents of the lockdown have constructed rather outlandish theories as to why this is all going on. No doubt, there may be some truth in the idea that not everyone’s motivations are as straightforward as they may seem. However, while explanations such as the avariciousness of pharmaceutical companies or politicians avoiding injury to their vanity may have some truth, they are not necessary. The underlying conditions of modern society: our refusal to reckon with the tragic nature of the human condition, our reliance on the state to solve every problem, our devotion to ‘modelling’ as a source of knowledge about the future and the absence of any overarching meaning to life in the face of death, all provide fuel for the conflagration of foolishness in which we currently find ourselves, for which Covid-19 was merely the spark. We can only hope that, when this is over and we examine the charred wreckage of what remains, we find those ideas that proved to be so flammable have burned away, even as they burned up, alas, so much that we cherished and loved.

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