Despite the rising fashion of “national conservatism” among the right, I suspect that the stars for American deregulation are indeed aligning as we speak. A politician today could loudly promise lots of deregulation – and win. Furthermore, he could fulfill his promises – and win again. Topping the list of potentially popular deregulation:
1. An immediate end to all Covid rules. No more mask mandates – not in schools, not in airports, not on planes. No more distancing. No more Covid tests. No more travel restrictions on anyone. (The “anyone” phrasing is how you free foreigners, as well as natives, without calling attention to the fact).
2. An immediate end to all government Covid propaganda. No more looping audio warnings at airports. No more signs or stickers. Indeed, a national campaign to tear down all the propaganda that’s been uglifying the country for almost two years.
Variants gain an advantage in two ways: first, by increasing transmissibility and, second, by evading pre-existing immunity. Both the delta and omicron variants clearly evade neutralising antibody responses which can temporarily prevent infection. This gives them an advantage even if they are not significantly more transmissible than the variants they replace. Indeed, they could succeed even if they were less transmissible.
It is a shame that these well-established principles of evolutionary epidemiology appear to have been disregarded by the majority of the scientific community.
It is time that we acknowledge that the way in which we aggressively implemented non-pharmaceutical interventions – underpinned by multiple lockdowns – caused extensive collateral damage when there were better ways to protect the vulnerable. Yet we remain wedded to the same means of responding to any new potential threat.
We must regain a position of compassion – one that is in line with the social contract.
It may therefore be useful to consider how we have managed the threat of influenza. We do not, when we detect new mutations in influenza, lock down borders and force school children to wear masks and eat lunch in the freezing cold. We do not take away jobs and ostracise those who have elected not to take the influenza vaccine. We remember that we do not want anyone to tell their children that there is only baked beans on toast for supper just to protect ourselves from the risk of dying from influenza.
Some letter writers to this newspaper have pointed out, with great generosity of spirit, a similarity between today’s requirement for mask wearing with its threat of prosecution and fines, and the legal enforcement of wartime blackout, the suggestion being that this is a quite small inconvenience which we should not begrudge. The experience of all out war has been implicitly reinforced by government ministers with their description of the virus as a “silent enemy” which must be “defeated”.
This metaphor, useful as it might be to politicians who adore the image of themselves leading their countries into battle, is seriously misleading. It is a good example of what an earlier generation of Oxford philosophers called a “category mistake”. Wars eventually come to an end – usually definitively. One side is defeated, the other is victorious. Sometimes, in more contained local conflicts, the outcome is ragged and there is residual fighting on disputed borders or guerilla resistance to occupation. But with the great global wars of the last century (to which this pandemic is being compared) there was a defined, identifiable finality of outcome. The losing side not only submitted to public humiliation – and in the case of Nazi Germany, to prosecution by a world court – but generally sacrificed its right to re-arm or wage any form of military aggression for the foreseeable future: an edict which could be policed by international law. This was the objective to which all of those civilian sacrifices were dedicated and there was no question of what counted as the ending.
Presumably you can see the difference between that sort of struggle which was a literal confrontation with a knowing enemy, and the present “battle” with a virus which cannot decide to surrender – because it cannot decide to do anything. Covid is not a sentient being: it has no malign intentions or devious tactics even though politicians often talk as if it did, thus adding to the air of superstitious fear. Like any virus, it has only the evolutionary imperative of all living organisms to survive and replicate.
Even supposing that Omicron turns out to be a more transmissible but less dangerous form of the virus, allowing the new restrictions to be rolled back pretty quickly, the precedent has been established. Personal liberty is no longer a right. It is a conditional privilege which can be recalled whenever current circumstances which are (unlike aerial bombardment by a military enemy) hazily defined, uncertain in their effect and only barely understood, seem to indicate a possible need.
In the true spirit of national emergency, members of Parliament – with a few honourable exceptions – have accepted this shift in our constitutional arrangements with scarcely any resistance. The Government is now permitted to seize powers that would have been unthinkable even during a war. If it’s any consolation, European Union member states have gone much further. But the whole point of the EU was to install benign oligarchy in place of chaotic, potentially irresponsible democratic government so that should come as no real surprise.
And what’s most important – all-important, apparently, as it always trumps all else – is that what will kill these people won’t be Covid-19. We have learned, over the past two years, that humanity’s overriding goal, a goal ever above all others, is to avoid exposure to SARS-CoV-2. People who will die early deaths from cancer should feel some sense of relief, for what will sweep them away from this vale is something other than Covid-19.