In fear of our lives

Loss of liberty is the pandemic’s greatest peril, warns Boris Starling

There’s a cartoon captioned “Victorian risk assessment” which features two explorers examining a rickety rope bridge strung across a gorge. “This should be perilous,” says the first, “Excellent,” replies his companion.

Two years ago, certainly five, a typical reaction to that cartoon was to mutter about how these days those explorers would need hi-viz tabards, half a dozen health ‘n’ safety officers and a 45-page insurance form. But now the reaction is simpler: they wouldn’t cross that bridge at all. Of all the changes Covid has wrought on our society, the most basic, pervasive and damaging is this: we have become way more fearful than we were.

An Ipsos Mori/Economist poll in early July found that, “permanently, regardless of the risk from Covid-19”, two-fifths of people supported wearing masks in shops and on public transport, a third wanted social distancing and mandatory contact tracing in pubs and restaurants, a quarter wanted all nightclubs and casinos closed, and a fifth backed a 10pm curfew. Permanently, regardless of the risk from Covid-19. Yes, I had to read it twice too.

We British used to pride ourselves on phlegmatism in the face of danger. In the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, one London bus changed its destination card to read “Still Not Scared”, and someone replied to a well-meaning American’s “we are all Londoners now” with “pony up for the congestion charge, then.” So how did we get to sizeable proportions of the population supporting measures which wouldn’t have been out of place in 1970s East Germany?

Only fear can do this. It’s the most powerful emotion we have, and for good evolutionary reasons: when faced with immediate peril, fear can keep us alive. But excessive and sustained fear requires our nervous and immune systems to be constantly dealing with high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn clouds rational thinking. Fear pushes us away from assuming the best of each other, of trusting rather than mistrusting, of reaching out rather than drawing back. And over the last eighteen months or so, we have been dealing with fear from three main sources.

Sometimes the government has set out to deliberately frighten us. Posters featuring hard-hitting slogans (“control the virus”, “stay alert”, “save lives”) were bordered in yellow and black, the primary colours of disaster areas and American crime scenes

The first is the government. Restrictions were passed at the start of the pandemic in record quick time with more or less no opposition, reminiscent of the USA after 9/11 when anti-terror legislation was passed by almost unanimous consent. In both cases, legislators on all sides were caught up in national panic, and perhaps fearful for their reputations and careers if they dared stand against the tide. But people can make bad decisions when they’re frightened, and even good decisions need proper oversight.

Sometimes the government has set out to deliberately frighten us. There are the intimidatingly incarcerative implications of the word “lockdown”. Posters featuring hard-hitting slogans (“control the virus”, “stay alert”, “save lives”) were bordered in yellow and black, the primary colours of disaster areas and American crime scenes. Even ostensibly positive overtones towards the NHS have been either quasi-Stalinist (the communal pressure to “clap for carers”) or redolent of wartime heroism (awarding the George Cross to the entire NHS, like Malta in World War Two): and neither, of course, involved anything concrete such as giving staff a decent pay rise.

At other times it’s been the government’s inconsistency and incompetence which have spread fear: U-turns, broken promises (such as families being able to spend Christmas together), mixed messaging and uncertainties over the fine detail of policy. Of course a fastmoving and ever-changing target such as the virus is hard to deal with, and most people understand and accept that, but even so: there has been little clarity of aim, strategy or communication, all of which have given the impression of an administration which is not in charge of the situation and which lurches from one crisis to the next. Deliberate or accidental, the effects have been exactly the same: to spread fear.

This fear has been exacerbated by the second leg of this triskelion, the media. Ever since the pandemic began, the virus has been by far the main topic of news and often pretty much the only topic. Even other major stories have been parsed through a Covid-shaped lens: the effect on the US election of virus-avoidant postal votes, crowd restrictions at Euro 2021, social distancing in protests following the killing of George Floyd. Scientists call this the availability heuristic, when our thoughts are dominated by the most obviously present and pressing issues: and since Covid is all that the media talk about so too is it all that we think about, to an extent that perhaps only alien invasion or nuclear war could match.

Relentless media focus is made worse by media exaggeration and sensationalism. This is hardly new – if it scares it airs, if it bleeds it leads – but rarely has it been deployed to such widespread and devastating effect. Worst-case scenarios of pandemic models are presented as racing certainties, with any qualifiers – “up to”, “might die”, “may be” – dwarfed by gargantuan headline numbers. Case numbers are given without the obvious rider that the vast majority are either asymptomatic or suffer mild versions only. Hospitalisation numbers conflate those admitted for Covid and those who caught it only once inside, and they’re presented without the flipside of discharge and recovery rates. Death tolls are given as bald totals without any wider context such as excess deaths and those from other causes. These numbers all seem scarily large because most of us aren’t used to thinking in those terms, but when you’re dealing with a population of 68 million all numbers seem large.

Now that masks are becoming at least partly optional, they are tribal markers as recognisable as gang colours pitting those who won’t wear them against those who will

The technology through which we consume information doesn’t help either. Bite-sized social media chunks filtered through smartphones and tablets make us less rational rather than more so: video images elevate emotion above reason by engaging pre-conscious brain systems in a way reading doesn’t. In times past people had genuinely scary lives. Now we have safe lives but with frightening media, piping other people’s fear into our cortices and our fear into theirs.

Which brings in the third leg: us. Both freedom and fear are internal mental constructs every bit as much as they are external ones. We police both ourselves (is this journey essential, have I sanitised my hands, am I being a good citizen?) and others (don’t stand so close to me, wear your mask, there are too many people in that group). We pick up fear cues even from quotidian protective measures. Clear screens in shops are like those used to protect staff from violent customers. Only two people at a time in small newsagents, like the stipulation on schoolchildren to prevent shoplifting. No shaking hands, a gesture originally designed to show that neither party was carrying a weapon. Temperature guns aimed at foreheads. Small things, sure: subtle things. But they all add up, and they all form part of the mosaic.

Most obvious of all, of course, are masks. You can argue till the cows come home about the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of infection, but what is beyond doubt is their effectiveness in spreading and reinforcing fear. To see people wearing masks is to be reminded over and again that here is a disease apparently so virulent that we must cover half our faces, the primary means by which we communicate with other people. Masks are a simple visible signifier not just that we are at risk but that we ourselves are risks. We are to be feared, each and every one of us. Now that masks are becoming at least partly optional, they are tribal markers as recognisable as gang colours, pitting those who won’t wear them against those who will: personal choice against greater good, sceptic against believer, selfish against caring, defiant against fearful.

And, as the Ipsos poll showed, there are a lot of fearful people out there. It’s hard to escape the feeling that at some level people enjoy being scared, that they want the Covid emergency to go on and on. Our evolutionary need for fear hasn’t gone away just because our lives have become immeasurably safer: why else do people watch horror films, ride rollercoasters or go bungee jumping? It’s been three-quarters of a century since the last wholescale threat to our way of life. Perhaps psychologically we need these threats now and then, to be reminded of how thin are the threads on which our civilisations hang.

But this is the crux: for Covid, surely, is not an existential crisis. A serious public health challenge? Of course. An apocalyptic threat which involves the potentially indefinite upending of every aspect of society? No: not even close. And it is potentially indefinite, because that’s the way governments work. The first lockdown, which began in March 2020, had a specific aim: to flatten the curve and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, and in those terms it succeeded. But since then we have, inevitably, seen mission creep.

Laws easily and swiftly passed are not so easily and swiftly repealed. “Once powers are yielded to the state at moments of crisis or emergency, it’s very rarely the case that the state hands them back.” You know who said that? Michael Gove, one of the four men most responsible for the government’s handling of the crisis. There’ll always be another emergency round the corner, and not just Covid. Winter flu, anyone? Terrorism? Climate change? Immigration? Food security? Those may sound ludicrous, but it was only eighteen months ago that the prospect of lockdown here sounded equally ludicrous: we glanced at what was going on in Wuhan and tossed off a complacent “nah, that’ll never happen here.”

It’s tempting at this point to drop in the old Benjamin Franklin saw about those who would trade liberty for security deserving neither. But the problem runs deeper than that. The problem is that we think we can achieve a security which is simply impossible. A combination of vast medical progress and widespread secularisation means we no longer accept the idea of death in the ways our ancestors did. When the first wave of the Spanish flu hit in 1918, the First World War was still going on, infant mortality was commonplace, and diseases such as tuberculosis and scarlet fever were widespread. Spanish flu was, to be blunt, just another way to die.

That we have come so far in a century is scientific progress without parallel in human history, but the simple fact remains that mortality rates are what they have always been: 100%. Sooner or later, one way or another, we’re all going to die. I have lost people I love to botched operations, to illness, to car crashes, to terrorist bombs, to suicide and to old age. I mourn them all, but they are all equally dead, just as are those people not counted among the official Covid statistics but who have died as a direct result of the pandemic: those who sought treatment too late for critical conditions, or whose vital operations were cancelled, or who were beaten to death by a partner with whom they were confined, or who took their own lives as a result of mental health issues, loneliness or financial stress.

We’ve already allowed this epidemic to become a psychic one as much as a physical one, and the longer we go on seeking a safety which simply isn’t there the more that will persist. Covid is not going to go away

Given the certainty of death, it’s ridiculous to shut our lives down so drastically for years on end. There’s a poem by Linda Ellis called The Dash, a staple of funerals which talks of how lives are marked by a date of birth and a date of death separated by a dash: but what mattered most of all was the dash between those years. “What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.” And how we spend that dash will always involve risk. Anything worth having always involves risk: not just the physical risk of harm or death, but the emotional risk of being rejected in love, in friendship or for a job. Fear stops us putting ourselves out there and risking these things: fear also stops us from reaping the rewards when we succeed.

We’ve already allowed this epidemic to become a psychological one as much as a physical one, and the longer we go on seeking a safety which simply isn’t there the more that will persist. Covid is not going to go away, no matter how much the idealists who dream of a zero Covid utopia would like it to. It will mutate and circulate among us in the way other viruses do, and we have to accept that in the same way that we have accepted flu. As the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid says, we will need to “learn to live with Covid-19”, and we cannot allow his government, the media or ourselves to keep living in mortal fear of it.

Go back half a century or so, to the Berlin Wall: not just a political barrier but a psychological one too. An entire nation who’d undergone mass trauma before being split into two sample groups, one democratic and the other socialist. One group flourished and the other submitted. The first group weren’t better or stronger than the second. They just weren’t put in a position where they had to submit. And every night in West Berlin the Mercedes star on top of the Europa-Center shone bright and beckoning over the top of the Wall, visible to everyone in the eastern sector if only they cared to look up. Our samples aren’t east and west but past and future: and unless we’re careful that star will for us be something we’ve lost, something we can still see but never get back to, the harbinger of the fall and the sign of the world before it.

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now

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