Corona karma

The UK may not lead the world in much these days, but we were one of the first countries to have our head of government go down with Covid-19. Now that our transatlantic cousins have belatedly caught up, what effect will that have on the forthcoming election?

Obviously one does not wish ill-health upon a 74 year old man, even Donald Trump, but it is tempting to imagine some cosmic justice at play here, given Trump’s woeful response to the pandemic emergency, and the suffering that has resulted for ordinary US citizens.

However Trump is a man who seems always to fall on his feet; if (admittedly a big if) this does not kill him, it may, as the saying goes, make him stronger.

Trump will either shrug the infection off, or he will get very sick. The former scenario will both further his reputation among his followers as some kind of übermensch, and confirm his contention that the whole coronavirus thing is no big deal, while in the latter circumstances he will benefit from a surge of sympathy, and his QAnon disciples will be galvanised by the conviction that his illness is a cover for a deep-state plot to kill him.

Of course there is a third possibility – Trump may be humbled by a brush with mortality, and emerge from the ordeal a better man. That seems a bit of a long shot though…

Hierarchy of fear

So, what should I be feeling more anxious about; the increasingly febrile atmosphere surrounding the US elections, or the stalemate in the Brexit negotiations?

On the face of it, the outlook in the US does appear more alarming. Donald Trump is upping the ante of threatened chaos as election day approaches, and he remains stubbornly behind in the polls. It initially looked like he would limit himself to suggesting that his supporters should dispute the outcome if he lost, but now he is leaning towards encouraging them to take up arms to protect the vote from alleged fraud, thus giving a green light to bands of trigger-happy vigilantes to descend upon the polling stations and deny access to anyone who they think looks suspicious (ie non-white). This would be incendiary at the best of times, but with the country in the grip of a deadly epidemic, economic insecurity on the rise, anger over racial injustice still at boiling point, and the western states literally in flames, it’s not unimaginable that the situation could deteriorate to the extent that the right’s wilder fantasies of nullifying opposition by imposing martial law may be realised.

Compared with such an apocalyptic scenario, the latest difficulties in the never-ending Brexit saga must seem, to our US readers, charmingly inconsequential. It’s true that the sight of Her Majesty’s Prime Minister declaring his intention to breach international law by going back on a treaty that he himself agreed less than a year ago, on the grounds that he didn’t really understand what he was signing up to, is something that must, in outside observers, inspire pity rather than fear, but, for those of us actually living here, the implications are rather more sobering. It is clear that Boris Johnson and those around him have absolutely no grasp of the seriousness of the situation, let alone any strategy for navigating the turmoil that will result if, as seems inevitable, they fail to negotiate an EU trade deal before the middle of next month. Similarly, it is difficult to have any confidence in their ability to handle the looming resurgence of coronavirus cases, given that their plans rely on the widespread application of as-yet uninvented technology. The combined effect of all this threatens a social crisis which could be every bit as traumatic as that in the US, though, since the UK is, thankfully, not awash with firearms, it will hopefully be less bloody.

What really concerns me about our domestic situation though is the lack of coherent opposition to the government. One has the sense that, in the US, there is a sizeable and growing constituency, both within and outside the political establishment, that is aware of what Trump is up to, and is working to stop him. Over here, while there is no shortage of dismay at Johnson’s antics, it is far from clear what anyone plans to do about it.

I guess I should count myself amongst the guilty on that count; the demoralisation I felt after the election has never lifted, and I’ve made no real effort to contribute to any sort of resistance recently. I know that I would feel calmer if I was engaged in some kind of collective effort, and even in the current circumstances there are plenty of things going on locally that I could help out with, to feel that I was making even a little difference. Perhaps if I focus on the small things for now, with time my appetite to tackle the big issues will return.

Summer of discontent

In recent times, as the reality of mortality has impinged ever more forcefully upon my consciousness, I have fallen into a routine of working through the winter and taking extended summer breaks, in an attempt to maximise my remaining time in the sun. This year I had scheduled another long, secluded retreat, but events disrupted my plans somewhat, as I heeded the call to help combat the national emergency.

Obviously, being obliged to work in a well-paid job for a few months instead of taking a holiday doesn’t exactly make me the biggest victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and, truth be told, I could probably have weaselled out of it, since what I ended up doing was mostly routine. I did cover for people who were off doing more important things I guess, which was just about enough to convince me that I had fulfilled my civic duty, and to confirm my rather narcissistic belief that I am a vital cog in the health service machine.

Whatever, the government has decided, almost certainly prematurely, that we are over the worst of this, and that everyone should get back to work already, so I’m set to slot back into my usual winter post at the end of next month.

I do have some belated time off before then, and I had considered going away somewhere, but the options are limited, the weather is getting colder, and, in any case, I’m not sure that I’m in the right frame of mind for relaxation. There’s a low-level haze of unfocused anxiety floating around on the edge of my awareness, which might just be due to me not having had a break for a while, though I think it’s more likely to be my brain’s fairly reasonable response to the objectively terrible situation we find ourselves in.

What’s most unsettling of course is much of it is beyond my control. The thing over which I have most influence – my personal risk of contracting coronavirus – is the thing I’m least worried about. I should be able to do something to ameliorate the effect of the epidemic on my immediate community, since I’m not completely out of touch with the local activist scene, and perhaps my professional skills, such as they are, will come in useful if and when the second wave of infection hits. But when it comes to the big bugbears lurking in the background – Brexit and the US elections – my only recourse is writing about them in this blog, which seems unlikely to make a significant difference.

Still, even useless activity feels better than doing nothing, so look out for some posts excoriating Johnson and Trump, as I attempt to exorcise my feelings of impotence by superstitiously scribbling.

Alternatively, I could make like a Polish pachyderm, and up my weed intake. It would probably take elephant-sized doses to calm me down though…

Atlas mooched

In another generally gloomy week, what with the coronavirus pandemic threatening a resurgence, and the economy on the edge of collapse, there was a bit of light relief for leftists, when we learned that the Ayn Rand Institute had accepted a payout of between $350,000 and $1 million, courtesy of the US government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

No doubt the uncompromising Objectivists will rationalise this as reclaiming funds that had been unfairly alienated by a tyrannical state (the same logic Rand herself used to justify accepting Social Security benefits after she retired), but for more communist-leaning observers like myself it’s just more proof that capitalism is the most efficient welfare system ever devised by mankind, unparalleled in its ability to redistribute wealth from the workers who actually produce it into the pockets of the parasitical bourgeoisie.

Solstice unease

So here we are at midsummer, half way through a year that started unpromisingly, and has steadily got worse. The most pressing problem is obviously the deadly global pandemic, with its accompanying economic meltdown, but all the things I was worried about back in January – principally our new right-wing government and its plans for a hard Brexit, and, across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s dictatorial ambitions – are still around, only amplified by the new conditions.

Trump may have backed down from his threat to put troops on the streets, when it became clear that there was no stomach at the Pentagon for such blatantly unconstitutional action, but it looks unlikely that he will let the vote in November go ahead without doing his best to suppress Democrat turnout, while priming his own base to forcibly contest the outcome if necessary. Since he is trailing badly in the polls, the only results that look likely are that he loses the election, or he steals the election; either way serious turmoil seems guaranteed.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Boris Johnson seems determined to press on with a rapid Brexit, despite practically no progress having been made in securing a trade deal with the EU, and the economy being in no shape to take any more dislocation. There is little sign that Johnson has any sort of plan to manage the situation, beyond recklessly abandoning the lockdown restrictions, so we’re odds-on to be facing a combined political and economic crisis by the end of the year, with a public-health disaster thrown in for good measure.

There are some reasons for optimism; it’s becoming increasingly obvious that our current woes are crying out for a collective response, which has the potential to popularise progressive positions. The unprecedentedly diverse backlash against police violence is one sign of this; with some work the left could widen this out into a broader anti-establishment narrative that might produce some real change. Of course the extreme right are also working on their own alternative narratives, and, the way the world is now, it’s hard to be confident that they won’t come out on top, at least temporarily. By midwinter we may be in a very cold place indeed.

Premature relaxation

The events to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day last weekend may have been scaled back a bit, but they still provided an opportunity for the country to remember past glories, and reflect on the quietly heroic nature of the national character, which, we like to think, ensures we can overcome any challenge.

Our current leaders seem to have less confidence in the resolve of the population however; while our forebears endured six years of war and hardship in the fight to destroy the Nazi menace, Boris Johnson evidently doubts that we can put up with much more than six weeks of lockdown, and is proceeding to loosen the restrictions with reckless haste. Underlying his rush to return to pre-crisis “normality” is of course a concern that the financial consequences of the current regulations will undermine his government’s reputation for economic competence.

I don’t want to understate the calamitous effects that the economic freeze has had on the more marginal sections of the community, deprived of work and largely excluded from the government’s patchy relief efforts, but it is these same people who stand to suffer most if the epidemic, which is just about contained at the moment, is allowed to run free, as they are forced back to their low-paid jobs with no regard to the risks that might entail.

The UK has, to some extent, rediscovered its collective identity over the last few weeks. A competent administration would build on that, by increasing support for the most vulnerable, while exhorting the rest of us to stick together in the face of a common enemy. Alas, as the country has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years it has become clearer that our political class, epitomised by the Prime Minister, lacks the capacity to deal with any situation that requires actual leadership.

So it looks like our best hope of avoiding a second wave of infection might indeed lie in the fabled national solidarity, as ordinary people follow the advice that will keep their fellow citizens safe, instead of listening to those politicians who care more about the lost profits of big business.

Perhaps, when all this is over, and we are able to assess the legacy of this troubled time, we will see that, like the war, it gave us a chance to rethink what sort of country we want to live in.

176400

Today is another one of those dates that seem like they must have some sort of significance, and certainly the proliferation of marijuana-themed ads across the internet today is a sign of something, though I expect it has more to do with the increasing commercialisation of weed than anything more deep and meaningful.

A few of my friends, who have unexpectedly found themselves with time on their hands this month, are planning to celebrate the double 4/20 in an appropriate fashion, but it’s a long time since getting high on a Monday night was something that I could seriously contemplate, even if we weren’t in the middle of an international health emergency.

Perhaps in a month or two, as the population grows increasingly unmellow about being cooped up indoors indefinitely, the government will develop a more liberal attitude towards the social benefits of dope. Sitting on the couch all day watching TV is exactly what people need to be doing for the foreseeable future, so the case for legalisation on public health grounds will be unanswerable. It won’t do much good for those of us who are having to work through all this, but I guess we will be able to enjoy it after we retire.

Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Get well Boris

We wrote some pretty mean things about Boris Johnson during the course of the Brexit crisis (remember when that was the biggest thing we had to worry about?), but that doesn’t lessen our dismay at the news tonight that he has been admitted to intensive care, due to complications resulting from Covid-19.

The general sympathy and concern being expressed across the political spectrum is a reminder that we are fortunate enough to live in a country where ideological disputes rarely escalate to the level of wishing for the physical liquidation of one’s opponents (though such excesses are, sadly, not entirely unknown).

Even if one were unconcerned by Johnson’s personal fate, one would have to recognise that the national morale would be severely dented if the Prime Minister – a middle-aged man, in reasonable health, presumably receiving the best care the NHS can offer – were to succumb to the plague stalking the land.

The data, such as it is, suggests that the survival rate of coronavirus patients who end up in ICU is around 50%, which are not good odds, but the figures are almost certainly skewed by higher death rates in the older sections of the population, so Johnson can probably be expected to make a recovery, though he might be out of action for a while longer. How much difference this will make to the government’s response to the epidemic we will have to wait and see. In the meantime we will add our best wishes to those already sent to Johnson, and everyone else who has been laid low during these difficult times.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.