It felt like they were going to ride it out, for all the catalogue of what they’d done; that they’d surf a national wave of commingled anxiety and goodwill and hope and fear and uncertainty and all the rest, and that those venting and disbelieving would be politicising a tragedy when now was not the time. We were all in shock, angry or not. This was the early days, when Johnson was reciting Boy’s Own blather – we will take it on the chin, we will send coronavirus packing, and, oh look, it turns out that even in the midst of everything else you can still roll your eyes and cringe. Followed instantly by the shame of the mark: it’s not as if provoking bien-pensant embarrassment isn’t also the point of Johnson’s Churchill-as-farce. He’s goading the goadable no less than pleasing the easily pleased. But knowing you’re being grifted doesn’t make you immune to it. Back in the dully glowing Coronaviral Bronze Age we were All In It Together. The ironclad rule: any time any politician deploys the first-person plural, start asking what kind of bullshit you are being fed.
When Covid-19 struck Johnson, not content with obligatorily wishing him a speedy recovery, some Labour politicians tweet-simpered a gratitude profoundly undeserved. (‘Thank you for everything your Government is doing to help us fight this’: Sadiq Khan. ‘[T]hanks for what you have been doing to help the country fight this’: Andy Burnham.) You certainly didn’t have to be one of the edgelords publicly wishing Johnson death to find this – to a PM who’d recently decreed that pubs could stay open but that you shouldn’t go, who’d boasted of still shaking patients’ hands, who’d floated a version of ‘herd immunity’, who’d allowed racing and football matches and concerts to continue after his own advisers called for lockdown, who’d dispensed with track-and-trace, who’d failed to follow up offers to help with ventilator production, and on and on and on – a grotesque dereliction of opposition.
An early epoch of discombobulation, frantic mass stats-crunching, the boning-up on reproduction numbers and beginners’ guides to epidemiology. Of rummaging through cupboards and learning what you didn’t have. You grew familiar with the feel of a meat thermometer’s spike under the tongue. With the sight of new rejectamenta; blue skintight gloves like husks shed mid-crawl. Still you couldn’t but live like something suspended, watching from behind glass, sensing an approach.
They governed by truculent hint and pre-haunt: we may have to lock down, we may have to extend and tighten this, we rule nothing out, training us to know what that meant: prepare yourselves. Not that this was willing. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown,’ kvetched some high-ranked source to the Telegraph. Because of the economy, stupid – the baleful effects on which are, yes, incalculable, an epochal shock. But this resistance is economically illiterate in its own terms, a symptom of decades of worshipping rentier accumulation. And, in the face of mass death, it’s turpitude. These ‘hawks’ are more clubbable cousins of the deranged morituri for neoliberalism, the initiates of outlier cults who are insistent not that risks are not real but that it’s dulce et decorum to be ready to die for the dollar. Hayek’s ‘party of life’ needs its Valkyries, its suicide squads.
Their piacular dreams move them to strange poetries, inverted vatic insight. ‘While death is sad for the living left behind,’ writes Bill Mitchell, one Trumpian provocateur demanding the end of lockdown, ‘for the dying, it is merely a passage out of this physical body to a spiritual existence, free of this mortal coil.’ This is why we should have no fear. ‘If one turns off the radio, the music is still there. For all we know, the dead weep for us.’
At last the scandals piled up enough, and the British press decreed with its bystander ingenuousness that the administration was ‘on the defensive’.
These moments are always weird and contradictory. The government’s approval ratings remain higher than they’ve been in years, even as national rage grows, in this moment of uncanny suspension, of watching, like specimens in formalin, staring out in the long light at unspeakably beautiful planeless skies, breathing cleaner air and hearing giddily bickering animals, and your held breath feels as if it might emerge as a shout. You laugh too long and hard, your temper’s short, your tongue feels thick in your mouth.
People who’ve overseen a years-long spiralling crisis in the NHS put rainbow images in their windows, stand on their doorsteps and #clapforcarers every Thursday with shit-eating grins. At least now there’s a growing sense that they should go fuck themselves. ‘We do not have any basic surgical masks,’ Dr Peter Tun wrote desperately to his managers. ‘We do not have eye protection kits, gowns nor scrubs.’ If they were not given such equipment soon, ‘it will be too little and too late’. Two weeks after he wrote that he was diagnosed with the disease. A week later he died. Every Thursday, the Cabinet claps as if the blood on their hands won’t spatter.