Covid-19 and the paradox of sacrifice
As this writer sits restlessly in the London borough of Wandsworth, it has been four weeks since the Conservative government decided on a total lockdown of the United Kingdom.
Without context, one might suspect such a move was taken because of some terrorist incident — perhaps a biological agent in the hands of religious fascists — or indeed because of an imminent threat posed by a foreign power.
Such emergencies have historically proven worthy of Hollywood film scripts, but in the agonizingly complex real world, great events do not rely on great causes. The decision to enter a total lockdown was taken because a novel pathogen, a coronavirus known as Covid-19, completed its transit from the Chinese city of Wuhan to the UK.
Precisely how the virus emerged is unclear. The early consensus is it originated from one of Wuhan’s disgusting ‘wet’ markets (where wildlife intended for human consumption is sold alongside chicken and beef). These markets have inexplicably not been closed by the Chinese authorities despite repeated warnings they could act as hotbeds for virus outbreaks. More ominously, however, are suspicions from some of dangerous practices at the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whatever the cause, do not expect compliance and honesty from the Chinese authorities in discovering it. To date, China has soft-peddled its own data on death rates and known cases, provided the world with faulty testing kits to identify the virus, and propagated a conspiracy theory that the virus originated in the US. As long as countries are permitted to be run by corrupt, unaccountable, power-hungry organizations which commit crimes upon its own people, the world will never be safe.
Regardless of what actually transpired in China, in the West the virus has proved incredibly disruptive. Businesses are closed and people can only leave their homes for select reasons, such as exercise and food shopping or providing care for a vulnerable person, while only handful of ‘essential workers’ are permitted to travel to work. I myself am currently on furlough; a strange medieval term which was been resurrected in recent weeks to describe those who have taken a leave of absence from employment.
Interesting is the virus itself, which at a cursory glance hardly seems terrifying. Early data suggests it has a mortality rate of 0.5% — 2% and rather than turning humans into rabid monsters, in most cases it gives them a dry cough. For comparison, flu carries a mortality rate of approximately 0.1%.
This is not to undermine the severity of the illness. While many cases remain asymptomatic, and many result in only minor symptoms, healthy people who would otherwise be alive are being killed by it. As I write over 10,000 people in the UK have had their lives taken by the virus, and even optimistic projections tell of many more dying. There is also uncertainty about the antibody levels in those who survived it. In other words: it remains to be seen if people who have had it are significantly immunised against future infection.
Indeed, Covid-19 seems almost designed for maximum disruption. It is easy to forget a virus is a living thing with its own crude interests — it wants to survive. If it were more deadly, say with a mortality rate of 50%, it would burn through a human population and kill its hosts long before it got the opportunity to transmit globally. Covid-19 in many ways is in the perverse ‘Goldilocks’ zone for viruses; not too deadly to destroy itself while being deadly enough to cause widespread heartache to hundreds of thousands. This is not considering indirect deaths, like those caused by operations being postponed as hospitals are imperiled by thousands of admissions. More intangible still will be the impact on people’s health caused by the economy being placed in an induced coma for the foreseeable future.
But like many terrible things, there is something utterly underwhelming about it all. The unfolding disaster is all too real but all too boring. Millions across the globe are simply being told to stay indoors and enjoy all the home comforts a 21st century affluent liberal democracy has to offer (at least, those lucky enough to live in one). It is all unsatisfactory.
The desire for even greater self-sacrifice and risk may seem counter intuitive, indeed it likely is, but there is precedent. In 1940 George Orwell diagnosed one of the most provocative appeals of National Socialism in his review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: ‘Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.’
But we are not being asked to fling ourselves to our feet — quite the opposite. We are being asked to adhere to a slow, sloppy prudence which little resembles real material sacrifice — the trivialities of post-capitalist complacency continue. Struggle, danger and death have never looked so appealing.