COVID and Complicity

  • This piece has not been written with the same level of rigour that my others have been; there are not even footnotes. It was written out of anger at half 2 in the morning so that I could get my thoughts out of my head and get to sleep, and it reflects that.
  • For a deeper discussion, see my interview here.
  • Update 2020-07-03: I have removed a paragraph from the first section about an experience I had during my ambulance work. Though I believe it was fully compliant with the Caldicott principles, I don't think it is necessary to the piece and so I have decided to play it safe.

I’m from a little place called Great Britain
But I don’t know if I love or hate Britain
These words upon my page written
Are things that make and break, Britain

I don’t hate Boris Johnson because he’s a Tory.

Complicit

In the UK, our lockdown began on March 23. I secured time off work to volunteer with one of our auxiliary ambulance services from April 1; I had completed my training and qualified in early March.

Over April alone I gave more than 200 hours to what would become the service’s largest ever deployment, eclipsing its work in both the first and second world wars. At the beginning, when so much about the virus was still unknown, there was an omnipresent undercurrent of fear and fatalism, but it felt like important work. It felt like we were supporting the country in a time of national emergency.

It was occasionally dark work, especially jarring for those of us unused to the experience. In March, I was working in an office where the highest stakes were the presence of software bugs. In April, I was occasionally a ferryman for patients on one-way trips to hospital or hospices. Family members were told that they could not come with their loved ones. There is no point ruminating though; it had to be done.

One day we received a job to transfer a patient from one hospital to another—nothing unusual. When we arrived at her room, dressed head to toe in PPE, she panicked and asked if we were taking her to die. We told her no; her nurses told her she was being moved because she was getting better. When we arrived at her new shared ward, bathed in darkness and the background noise of beeping machines and wheezing breaths, we realised that we may have been after all. There is no point ruminating though; it had to be done.

I do not want to aggrandise myself here, nor make myself out to be a martyr. There are others who do this kind of work day-in and day-out, and some in far worse conditions than us. The last half a year has been a planetary trauma made up of hundreds of thousands of individual tragedies, and I am lucky to have not experienced any of them myself. For the most part I am incredibly proud of the work we did, in difficult circumstances, and the people I have been able to help.

For the most part. What first gave me pause for thought was reading the comments of a nurse—it may have been in Private Eye—after it was revealed that hospitals had discharged patients to care homes without testing them for COVID, and that this almost certainly led to the current epidemic within the sector. The nurse said that they regretted their role in discharging those patients, and that they wished they had spoken up at the time.

Reading it, I had to reflect. I had almost certainly taken some of those discharges back to their care homes, where they may have gone on to infect other residents. I could have refused the jobs had I thought more about the dangers of returning patients of unknown status to underfunded and underequipped environments packed with the vulnerable. I imagine I even would have had more scope to do so as a volunteer than an employee of the statutory ambulance service, as my time is donated and can be withdrawn at any time. But I said nothing. And my example is only one of many, many more across the NHS and beyond.

Of course, I can try to rationalise away my sense of responsibility. I was new to the role and finding my feet, so I was particularly inclined to follow those with more authority and experience. I am not a native to the healthcare world, and haven’t had the years of drilling in medical ethics that a paramedic, doctor or nurse may have (though, as this scandal shows, that was not enough, and I’m sure my mild bubblings of guilt are nothing compared to those of the nurse who certainly should have known better). The consequentialist in me knows that had I refused the job it would have only been picked up by another crew later on; I could have kept my conscience clear at the cost of inconveniencing the patient and occupying another crew’s time during a period where such time was even more valuable than normal.

In short, ethics are hard. To tie this in to other political topics currently at the forefront of the British consciousness, this is an excellent example of structural injustice—no-one in the chain wanted to cause harm anyone, and I’m sure if you asked everyone involved whether they liked their nan they would say yes, but through unthinking behaviour, the diffusion of responsibility and the way the systems are set up, harm was nonetheless caused.

There is no point ruminating though; it had to be done.

Unnecessary

Britain is currently heading towards 45,000 deaths, and has the second-highest per capita death rate in the world. This does not even include all the deaths and shortened lifetimes as a result of the lockdown measures, as well as those who will suffer in the economic chaos to follow. But there is a pandemic on. It’s tempting to chalk up some amount of death and destruction as tragically unavoidable; as inevitable. Much of the current debate is over just what proportion of the deaths were in this category, and what proportion we should actually care about. But as far as I can tell, there were no inevitable deaths. Every. Single. Death. Was. Avoidable.

Vietnam has had 0 deaths from coronavirus and a mere few hundred cases. Mongolia has had 0 deaths, and 0 reported cases of community transmission (i.e., infections from within the country, rather than visitors from abroad). Both responded swiftly and decisively when the first cases were reported in China. Both took the threat of a novel viral pandemic, which epidemiologists have warned about for years, seriously. Both required less-strict lockdowns for the general populace, and have long since moved on to successful contact tracing-backed reopening.

International comparisons are imperfect for a litany of reasons. Everyone is counting deaths differently, different countries have different demographics and some governments are more constrained by public opinion than others. Sometimes it’s just not your country’s day, month or year. But, whilst the UK is not Vietnam and it is not Mongolia, every point of difference theoretically points in the UK’s favour—it is far wealthier, it is more developed, it does not border China, etc. Even if you believe 0 deaths would not have been possible in the UK, we are still talking orders of magnitudes fewer deaths.

And yet, whilst Johnson was boasting about shaking hands with hospital patients (UK death toll at the time: 0) Vietnam was lifting the quarantine on the location of its first outbreak.

Whilst Johnson was eulogising the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub (death toll: 250), Mongolia was lifting the partial lockdown resulting from its first confirmed case on Mar 10.

Whilst Johnson was scrambling to defend an advisor who unrepetently undermined the governement’s own advice (death toll: 38,220), the Vietnamese were glued to their screens for news of their doctors’ efforts to save the life of a British pilot in serious condition and avoid their country’s first death from coronavirus.

Refuse to accept the lies, the ultimate gaslighting, that this was an unavoidable tragedy, that the science at the time was unclear, that we did the best we could. We did the bare minimum to stem the bleeding from a self-inflicted wound.

Britain

I will not mince words. Johnson backstabbed, fucked and lied his way into Number 10, so the buck stops with him; the buck made up of almost 45,000 dead. This is a national atrocity on an unprecedented scale—you have to back to William the Conqueror and the Harrying of the North to find a massacre in the UK of this magnitude. The government has refused to commit to an inquiry.

This is the kind of thing that should topple not just individual governments, but the entire structures that allowed them to fester like this in the first place. If there was any justice, Johnson, Cummings, Hancock et al. would feel unsafe walking in public for the rest of their lives. At the very least, their careers should take a hit.

But not in Britain. Johnson was forced to implement country-wide lockdown measures because of his own incompetence, though compared to other countries our measures have been remarkably lenient and in most cases pretty unenforceable. Despite having an unassailable majority for the next five years, Johnson was not willing to dent his personal popularity so he produced vague guidance that placed the onus on individuals; the going got tough, and he abdicated his responsibility.

Whilst there was broad compliance in March, within a month people were complaining about having to make relatively small sacrifices so that others may live. The British people and their much-vaunted Blitz spirit lasted about a month of what was for many (most?) mild inconvenience and boredom before they began to throw tantrums.

De Maistre wrote in 1860 that every nation gets the government it deserves, and Britain demonstrated that it absolutely deserves the governance of a man like Johnson. We are opening up rapidly now, and Johnson is being praised for it—he may have come in and shat on the rug, but at least he’s cleaning it up himself!

Johnson is reinstating Britons’ ancient right to go to the pub, and people can choose whether they wish to exercise that right or not; however, those who will have to serve them are unlikely to have as much choice, and Johnson is willing to sacrifice these predominantly poorer Britons’ right to not be forced to choose between keeping them and their family safe and being able to pay their rent (what are we, Americans?) in an act of craven appeasement for Tim Martin.

Perhaps we will see a second peak as a result of our reopening, perhaps we won’t. But at least 45,000 are already dead because of Johnson, and he has made the whole country complicit in his crime.

Johnson idolises Churchill, but I have come to consider him to be, in some respects, our Hitler. I do not mean by this that he sat with his cabinet—primus inter pares, head boy amongst school chums—to plot the butchery of the vulnerable, or that his crimes rank anywhere near the level of the Nazis either numerically or morally. What I mean is that his inhumanity has presented us with a mirror that has revealed the hollow, yawning emptiness at the heart of this country. Some will find this belated realisation quaint; the victims of austerity, refugees under the hostile environment and the families of the Grenfell victims learnt all this long ago.

One of my great-grandfathers was German, and fought for Nazi Germany. All I know about him is two anecdotes, related elsewhere. I have no idea what he may have personally seen or done during the war or what his beliefs and politics were. But I find myself thinking about him now.

What went through his mind as he made his way, on foot, from Russia back to Germany, as it became clear that not only had Germany lost the war, but that somewhere along the way they also had lost both their minds and their souls?

Could he look his friends, neighbours and countrymen in the eye afterwards?

Had he, like so many others, justified the unjustifiable by fetishising the ideal of rücksichtlose Härte (ruthless toughness)—had he believed that it had to be done?

So no, I don’t hate Boris Johnson because he’s a Tory, or because he’s a walking embodiment of unearned privilege, or because he’s a a perfectly ideology-free vacuum of naked ambition. I hate him because I read a load of Arendt and convinced myself I would be better than people like my great-grandfather, but wasn’t when the time came. I hate him because I thought that Britain had its problems, but that its people were broadly well-meaning and good and would support one another. I hate him because I know that despite everything, he will probably win the next election.

I hate him because of what he has made me realise, about who I am, where I live and who I live amongst.

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