18 February 2021
Life, Liberty and Covid
Algorithms and state-endorsed snitching.
By Lynda Goetz
Last weekend I had ‘the jab’. I was not thrilled, excited or relieved; nor did I think that imminent death had been avoided. I was impressed, though: by the speed with which the various vaccines have been developed; by the efficiency with which my local surgery (one of the larger integrated centres) delivered the vaccines ahead of schedule (I am not yet 70) and by the speed with which I was in and out of the centre on Saturday morning after a phone call from them the previous day. My little card (as depicted on the front of the Shaw Sheet this week) even contained the date and time (‘at the same time’), on which my second dose was to be administered. This, of course, is no passport to any kind of change in current lifestyle. That supposedly will happen sometime, eventually. Lockdown has become a new way of existing. Human beings can adapt to almost anything if they have to. The question has always been did we have to?
In a perverse kind of way, I have derived a certain amount of enjoyment from lockdown. Admittedly, I am not having to home school children, nor do a job in a domestic environment which I would normally do surrounded by colleagues in an office. I do not have to attend university virtually nor watch my carefully nurtured new business fall apart. I am not living in a small flat on the tenth floor of a tower block (with or without dangerous cladding) facing unemployment and local food banks. In short, I am one of the lucky ones. However, it is not, I am ashamed to say, this fortunate position in life which is making lockdown endurable. It is, particularly in this third and most grim of lockdowns (at a time when many thought we would be ‘getting back to normal’ or at least enjoying a great deal more freedom as a result of the vaccines), the fact that I can look out at the rain and the grey muddiness that seems these days to be the English countryside in winter, and know that at least no-one else is having more fun. I may not be able to alleviate the dullness by going skiing for two weeks or taking off to the sunshine on a long haul flight, or even catching a train to London to see a play and indulge in some ‘retail therapy’, but the knowledge that in this First World ‘plight’ I am not alone (at least in this country) is strangely satisfying.
We humans seem increasingly to be programmed to compare ourselves with others. Historically, we may have wanted to do this, but it has not until relatively recent times been possible. Hierarchies were more ingrained. Although, in this country at least, social mobility has always been a possibility, it has not really been encouraged since the days when it was acquired through brute strength and battle prowess in the case of men or through good looks and marriageability in the case of women. Social climbing tended to be sneered upon and require a lot of dedication as well as ambition – and a very thick skin. Now, with all the benefits of modern communication, advertising and social media, we are all constantly exposed to the activities, ambitions, achievements and acquisitions of others. We are led to believe that these are open to all of us. In some ways this has been good for us and for society as a whole. We can all see what is possible if we strive. It has however had downsides for many, who can see what others have achieved without having the wherewithal to achieve for themselves. Amongst other things this promotes envy and envy promotes…
Well, envy promotes all sorts of things and few of them are good. Captain Sir Tom Moore’s daughter revealed this week how, before his recent death, the family had hidden from him the appalling abuse and online trolling which resulted in particular from the family’s Christmas ‘bucket list’ visit to Barbados. Some people, it seemed, did not see the good in fulfilling the wish of a very old man to spend what turned out to be his last Christmas in the Caribbean. Instead they felt that in these difficult times he and his family were doing the ‘wrong’ thing and needed telling so, in no uncertain terms.
At least, at the time, there was nothing wrong in law with them holidaying in Barbados. Now, under lockdown rules, you are certainly not supposed to travel abroad for holidays. Indeed, returning to the UK from any one of the 33 listed countries on the Government’s so-called ‘red list’ and not revealing where you have been (thus avoiding compulsory quarantine at a cost of nearly £2,000 per person), could not only land you with a fine of £10,000, but may apparently see you facing a jail term of 10 years. This, if you stop to consider it for even a few seconds, is an extraordinarily draconian punishment for contravening a health law designed to stop the spread of a disease which kills fewer than one person in a hundred of those who get it and where the average age of those who have died of it is 82 – pretty much the average life span in this country anyway.
Even travelling a few miles from home for exercise appears to put you on the wrong side of the law or at least of the police force in some counties, and should you be fortunate enough to own a holiday home within the UK and are unwise enough to think you can sneak a few days away, think again. Those (envious) permanent residents who live next door are quite likely to inform on you. Not only that, they will be more than happy to appear on ‘ BBC Spotlight’ standing sanctimoniously on their doorstep, doing their ‘good citizen’ bit, and talk to the police and television cameras who were hoping to catch you ‘in flagrante’.
The idea that ‘we are all in this together’ does not really bear close examination. As someone said a while back now, ‘we may be in the same storm, but we are all in different boats’. Lockdown clearly affects us all in different ways according to our very different circumstances; financial, familial and medical. What is becoming increasingly clear is that this worldwide social experiment, which a year ago almost no-one outside totalitarian countries thought could even be possible[i], is having a number of deleterious effects on all of us. The effects on children and young people, those least affected by the virus, have been particularly damaging; the anxiety and fear of illness and death irrationally induced by the government and the media has undermined those already prone to anxiety, never mind the anxiety caused by the very real fear of financial ruin and a bleak future; loneliness has been a massive problem for those of any age either living alone or otherwise cut off from family and friends; the list goes on. These problems are not ‘caused by coronavirus’, but by the measures taken to combat coronavirus. In other words, they are the downside of a deliberate choice.
Quite how this choice came about is, initially, a little hard to see. To some of us it seems surprising. In a fascinating Daily Telegraph article describing how in his view liberal democracy will be the biggest casualty in the post pandemic world, Lord Sumption, former Supreme Court justice, gives authority to a view which I share, namely, that it is the result of coercion by the ‘frightened majority’ demanding restraints for what they see as the public good. In the name of this public good, they call for restrictions on personal choices and liberty which amount to despotism. In an era when the majority has found its voice, when everyone’s opinion can be aired on social media irrespective of its value or its validity, then democratic governments feel obliged to listen. If, at the same time, the same thing is happening around the world, and supposedly democratic countries like Italy and not just totalitarian regimes like China are putting in place measures which have never before been used in a free country, then, suddenly, a complete restriction of individual freedoms, unseen even in wartime, becomes not just possible but apparently the only right thing to do.
Many Tory backbenchers are unhappy with the way ministers have handled the pandemic. They do not like the fact that parliamentary debate and consent have in so many instances been bypassed, with laws passed under emergency powers which the Government has arrogated to itself. This undermines democracy. As Lord Sumption points out, ‘You cannot switch in and out of totalitarianism at will’. He adds, ‘A society in which oppressive control of every detail of our lives is unthinkable except when it is thought to be a good idea, is not free. It is not free while the controls are in place. And it is not free after they are lifted, because the new attitude will allow the same thing to happen again whenever there is enough public support’. There will be pandemics in the future. Some may be more dangerous than Covid-19 (ie with a higher case mortality), some less. Are we going to enact draconian laws to keep everyone ‘safe’ each time we are faced with a new transmissible disease? Are we going to be faced, as now, with increasing restrictions every time new data is pulled together and a new algorithm determines some new criteria (an additional 1.7 million people were told to shield this week)?
Those who do not agree with the majority consensus[ii] are viewed as ‘entitled’ or ‘selfish’. The ‘good citizens’ see themselves as in the right and justified in any denouncements of those whom they see as flouting the regulations and laws designed for the general good, whether that be not sharing a flask of coffee with your friend on a park bench or not including one of your children to Christmas lunch (as that would exceed allowable numbers). Liberal democracy may, as one letter writer put it, be nothing but ‘selfish individualism… shown by the pandemic to be inadequate, unequal and ultimately unsatisfying’. The alternative currently being demonstrated around the world would appear to be authoritarianism masquerading as benign despotism; which is fine until the despotism stops being benign and the algorithms and Stasi snitchers decide all.