Between Two Stools

Four weeks ago, I was wide-eyed and crazy. I was accused by people who try to love me of isolating myself from society for no good reason, emerging periodically to talk in overexcited terms about this virus from China, and the duplicity of the Chinese state, and to be making entirely outlandish predictions about death tolls and the necessity of preparation for what was about to come.

I may also have let slip that I, an asthmatic of variable fitness, expected to die in any ensuing pandemic that worked its way uncontrolled through the elderly and the wheezing.

Don’t write about all of this, someone dear to my heart said pointedly. I care about your reputation, and this pop-eyed prognostication will do you no good.

My policy then, for anyone who would listen, was draconian. I wanted borders closed and flights stopped. I wanted military hospitals built. I wanted new mortuaries constructed. This disconcerted anyone who would listen; though they were worried less about the future I predicted than the state of my mental health.

The possibility of lockdown hadn’t quite entered the frame in early February.

At the end of that month, and I remember it well, a friend of my brother’s sat with me watching the boxing. Tyson Fury had just delighted us all, or perhaps was just about to do so. In the semi darkness, perhaps between reaching for a crisp and putting it in his mouth before going after another, the subject of the virus came up.

‘Do you really think it’s going to be serious?’ he asked, as he politely made conversation.

‘I think it’s going to kill hundreds of thousands of people’, I said, with sufficiently dubious gravity that the subject did not re-emerge.

I do not relay the above examples for the reasons you might think. I have no interest in appearing prescient. All this is not a bid to score some retroactive victories. Nor do I want to burnish some odd reputation for being a premature ultra, ready to have it serve as ballast for new conjecture. Quite the opposite.

Instead, I want to say now that I understand the then slightly frightened incomprehension of those who care about me deeply; and how worried they must have been about me. I know how cracked they thought I sounded when I spoke.

I know that because this is how I now feel, surveying the array of responses the growing crisis has now brought.

It’s astonishing in its variety, just as people are frequently remarkable in the depths to which they will happily sink in argument.

***

One school of thought has, in a euphemism beloved of the righteous who transgress, ‘been on a journey’ of late. Its adherents used to say the whole thing was a hoax, or the flu. That in the coming weeks you were more at risk of being hit by an inattentive driver than choking to death in a hospital corridor. That painfully washing your hands, even as the skin flaked and cracked, was the equivalent of building a bunker before the millennium.

These people are less prevalent because there are piles of bodies now where there were not before, and which weigh against their view. But they are not extinct. They have been replaced by two sub-types.

One is staffed mainly by nominally utilitarian economic nihilists. They like high share prices and don’t mind the weight of the dead. Surely even swerving to avoid this isn’t worth a recession? That’s their cry. Is this so bad? People die all the time – not from infectious disease, they grant – but it’s all much of a munchness. Mortality? Snoretality. Who cares?

The most historically illiterate of them will even suggest that there was no panic comparable to today’s in 2009, during the swine flu pandemic.

In 2009 there were over a billion infected and few, relatively, died. It made a number very ill, delirious even. I knew one or two of them. But they weren’t deceased at the end so it does not count.

But though young, I was alive and conscious during that pandemic. Its chatter – on TV and in the schoolyard – runs the most hysterical coronavirus coverage very close.

The economic nihilists are gamblers and roulette players, except that unlike recolver roulette’s requirement for six-guns and deranged courage, even if they win, people die. Just not, they keenly anticipate, them. They are on a streak; they’re feeling lucky tonight.

Those holding that position may become yet scarcer as the numbers of dead continue to rise. We must wait and see.

***

The other sub-type is more pervasive and more invidious, and hews closer to base human nature. Because even though the scale of what is before us can now be glimpsed, it repels real thought.

These are people who cling with fevered desperation to unknowns in the pretence of desiring real data.

They don’t look at the dead. Don’t look at the rates of hospitalisation, which last week scared British officials into locking down the country earlier than they had anticipated; and building at least three field hospitals to take up slack in a system threatened with collapse; and holding a competition among private firms to produce tens of thousands of ventilators to sustain lives, if need be, that little bit longer.

No, look at whether, in fact, asymptomatic cases might be more prevalent among the population than previously thought. That’s reassuring! Maybe I won’t gasp for tortured breath! Maybe, when it comes to it, I won’t even notice!

This is wish thinking in a clear and crystal form. Barely downstream from the hope, when the time comes, of arriving in death without having to endure the painful business of dying first.

And here we get the apotheosis of that hope: a position paper with the Oxford name attached suggesting at its most expansive that, based on the data we have so far gathered, fifty per cent of the population may have had the virus already, to no effect.

How that paper was eaten up. As though the bare hope it provided was life-sustaining in itself.

‘If Boris has the virus, I have the virus. And probably you too’, a friend wrote of the prime minister’s diagnosis with coronavirus, after the premier had exhibited symptoms and undergone testing. ‘Hopefully this will provoke some sensible actions like full testing – which will probably show that more than [fifty per cent] of the UK is already infected’, my friend prissily continued.

Johnson appears to have given his infection – with symptoms attached! – to the health secretary and his chief medical officer, or else they got it from the same source. How strange they all weren’t in the fifty per cent of the population apparently immune! Pity these three susceptibles were together at once, too, in order to infect each other. What is the likelihood of that!

The modellers of Imperial College et al have had a tough storm to weather. Some of them, like Neil Ferguson, have had to endure the infection as well as barrages of unearnt criticism from cynical illiterates. Where Imperial had predicted hundreds of thousands would die without intervention, now strict intervention has been introduced, overall deaths are likely to fall.  But the existence of two numbers denoting different scenarios, with different inputs and differing consequences, is beyond some people.

Throw in the most optimistic interpretation of the Oxford analysis, and a flimsy moral life raft can be assembled. Perhaps the restrictions are unnecessary after all. Perhaps lockdown no longer matters. Maybe I can go for that walk anyway, and get gaily out of doors, and not have to bear the public health burden. What if all my second thoughts were right all along!

The sirens currently dominating New York, echoing from and through its skyline, and the desperate plaintive calls of the city’s mayor and the state’s governor, repudiate some of the logic of this stuff. Lots of people are, quite protractedly, dropping dead, after all. But the only things that can truly convince these people of their selfish wrongheadedness are mountains of corpses. It would be better not to come to that.

Successful public health responses are often derided as overreach born of overreaction. We must hope not to be vindicated, and hope that this crisis begets talk of acting with too much energy, too fast, to avert a crisis which in retrospect seems almost hazily improbable. The awful alternative means vindication, but its horror is hard, even now, to grasp.

***

But that is only one side of things.

There are others, nominally of the opposite view, just as deranged, who now exist in greater numbers and with greater assurance than their equivalents did in January or February.

They may only have been dimly aware of what was going on in China in December. Their ears did not, unlike mine, prick up when hearing of respiratory symptoms which go rather further than being hospitalised with an attack of asthma. They likely didn’t read of healthy Chinese fighting for breath and think ‘that sounds familiar’ and ‘looks like I’m for it’ in very quick succession.

But they are pop-eyed now, their whites bulging, wigging out with the best of them. Driven slightly mad by being cooped up indoors, perhaps, or having read a couple of longreads too many about precisely how COVID-19 goes about destroying one’s lungs.

And that’s just members of the public with Twitter accounts.

These people are just as susceptible to madness and conspiracy theory as those who still maintain, in the face of all evidence, that there is no virus, that it’s just a cold really, and that we should all just get on with our lives, and if your granddad dies, he dies, he’s old anyway and life’s hard: What are you going to do?

It’s just that some the people who are spreading these conspiracy theorists (rather than those conspiracy theories) are part of the cognoscenti.

Many journalists, even the ones who care about fact and witness and all the other things they’re supposed to stand by, love conspiracy theories. There is some reason behind that. Most journalists deal in substantiating previously unconfirmed information and seek juicy rumour over dull truth.

Investigative journalists are especially susceptible. Their work involves following and fabricating threads hard for others to see. Initially, these threads may be barely there at all, barely in evidence. They need building up from a basis of close to nothing, sustained by the strength of an idea from someone imagining a whole picture where only a fragment comes initially into sight.

This is why all investigative journalists end up raving by the end. Sy Hersh, John Pilger. These are madmen – but madmen made by the media landscape they have spent long decades inhabiting.

Carole Cadwalladr, someone whose Twitter account simply must be confiscated for reasons of preventing undue suffering, may soon leap onto that list in her own right.

More journalists are like this than would admit it. Their suspicions are based on a muck and brass view of human nature, and often predicated on spotting patterns and an overstated sense of their own predictive power.

Some examples of conspiracy theories, then, all absolutely endemic among the UK media class at this time.

Boris Johnson ran populist referendum and general election campaigns, thus he disdains expertise. He doesn’t like the EU, thus all British policy is solipsistic to the point of absurdity (‘as always, we just assumed we [had] nothing to learn from other countries’, one esteemed foreign correspondent embarrassed himself by saying to me). Johnson cracks jokes, thus he does not understand matters of gravity. He skim reads some papers and speaks bad French, thus he is incapable of taking advice.

He didn’t want to close schools because he wanted the population to sicken and die. Then he did close schools. He wanted to spare the insurance companies so wouldn’t compel restaurants and pubs to close. Then he did compel restaurants and pubs to close. His chancellor wouldn’t support the pay of those furloughed or give benefits to the newly unemployed. Then he did. OK, well, the self-employed (like many journalists) would still be stiffed again and left out of this scheme. Then they weren’t. Johnson didn’t want to lock the country down because he wanted to kill the poor and the ill. Then he did lock the country down. He hates the NHS and its staff, so is not giving them the protective equipment they need. Then the military was drafted in and large stockpiles raided to equip the health service and its staff. He won’t test healthcare workers and carers because he doesn’t mind if they die. Then, a few days from now, his government will begin systematic testing of healthcare workers and carers.

The new one is less a conspiracy theory than an overlooked irritation: something that fixated me before ‘contain’ became a busted flush. ‘Stop the planes!’ some journalists now feebly cry, begging that no one be able to fly between Britain and China or Italy. But it’s a little late for that now.

Others retweet the unverified stories of niche fetish sites, which claim to prove that the government is leaving healthcare workers so short of gowns that they’ll countenance donations from medical-themed kinksters, and the risk of getting some latex thrown in by mistake, in order to keep safe. We wait to see if that story can be at all substantiated.

These are prejudices, pure and simple, and they dissolve upon contact with air.

The press has a haughty line in dismissing nonsense WhatsApp rumours and tawdry gossip among the population. Certainly when dealing with matters of seriousness. But all of this self-discrediting torpor is apparently above board and admissible because it was kind of true or based on real fears of people across the country.

But journalists, revelling in these content-free assumptions, are officially ‘key workers’ now, like doctors (another demographic strangely susceptible to conspiracy thinking). Though unlike doctors, journalists trading off their access and smug knowingness, and their status as a priestly class, have no intrinsic use at this time of crisis.

Lobby hacks in daily televised press conferences ask endless questions of cabinet members and senior NHS staff to which the answer is ‘we are doing our best’ or ‘as soon as possible’. Any question which prompts one of these answers – and could have been predicted to do so from two weeks’ distance – is a waste of a question.

In a moment of real crisis, a national emergency, the media has proven itself relentlessly trivial and essential substandard. Either journalists deny themselves the pleasures of talking utter dross on social media and asking incredibly stupid questions, or they make themselves seem a pale companion of the normal enemy of the free press – government-sponsored information.

So far, the media is wilfully losing a battle not even being actively fought – against the shade of Duff Cooper as wartime propaganda chief.

***

At the beginning of this essay, I acknowledged my own mania months ago.

I said that it was concerning to witness and led to very little concrete, irrespective of what happened afterwards.

Perhaps it is because I am several miles further down the track than most (and no longer expect to die in this epidemic) but I cannot help but see with fresh eyes the appalling state of how discussion of the virus is being conducted.

Some toy wilfully with others’ lives, even now, and countenance allowing more to die for transient gain.

Others bury their happy heads in the sand, content not to be woken until it’s all over and everything’s fine.

And yet more – our apparent betters – traffic in disinformation at a time when it is its most dangerous, and prejudice in a time when the government appears to be breaking every one of its rules, ideological and chronological, to do what it perceives to be necessary as soon as is possible.

My perspective sees myself in all of this absurdity and feels strangely bashful as well as revolted.

It’s a strange view to have, and a strange time – and an odd way to enter what may become the defining crisis of our lives.

This essay was originally published at Correspondence, a new journal.

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