There is a naïve assumption that mass vaccination will allow social life in the UK to return to normal. It is far from obvious that this is so. As the authoritarian regulation of public life extends and continues, the erosion of collective and individual freedoms will only be reversed if citizens demand it.
Science is sustained on the promise that its enterprise not only yields greater knowledge about how the physical world works but, crucially, that this knowledge offers more certainty about the future. And that with more certainty about the future, science therefore enables better (‘more rational’) decisions to be made about how to secure policy goals.
The political rhetoric regarding the progression of the coronavirus pandemic and the development of vaccines has certainly leant heavily on this promise. Those whose guiding light is premised on science, therefore remain suspended between finding ways of living a worthwhile life amidst deep uncertainty and waiting for science to deliver on its promise.
But such a prospectus mis-sells science. And it underestimates the complexity of how physical and social worlds interact to create the future. The more scientific knowledge is gained about the physical world, the more it is realized what is still not known. The exploratory frontier of science never closes; indeed, it continues to expand. This is what history teaches us, not least with respect to infectious diseases and vaccines.
Now don’t mis-read me. I am most definitely not anti-science and vaccines are good things. Absolutely. The world needs them, desperately. But we deceive ourselves badly if we think that the mass roll out of vaccines will by itself put back together our broken social and economic worlds. The biggest danger in the roll-out of vaccines is that in the public mind they are interpreted as white horses riding out to save us.
This is a mirage. Vaccines will reduce case fatality rates and the incidence of serious side-effects. But transmission will continue, albeit at lower rates but with occasional spikes. SARS-CoV-2 will still be with us. We need to find better ways of living with the risks this virus will continue to pose to life and health than by suspending individual and collective freedoms through shutting down society (lockdown).
The ever-greater use over the past 12 months of centralized political power to circumscribe human freedoms – what Lord Sumption has called ‘government by decree’ — has been justified in the name of ‘saving lives’ and ‘protecting the NHS’. And who would argue with those goals? But their pursuit has come at enormous political and social cost. Restrictions on political and social freedom are of course precisely what the acquisition of state powers in an emergency is intended to achieve.
These restrictions are deeply worrying, whilst also appearing disarmingly mundane.
Worrying for those who hold to a certain view of western liberal democracy are the following: the abandonment of the right of assembly; unprecedented state restriction on personal freedom of movement; the forcible incarceration of elders in care homes (keeping them alive so that they may die lonely and alone); the isolation of the mentally ill in hospitals; the enforced schooling of children at home; the suspension of the right to trade; the expansion of state surveillance; the enlargement and intrusion of police powers into private life.
On the more mundane level, the policy measures pursued by this emergency Government include the following: the quarantining of books; the wearing of a face covering; the requirement to differentiate between a bar-snack and a meal; the state deciding with whom one can or cannot kick a football in a park and determining in what spaces one is allowed to teach and regulating at which desk in a teaching space one can sit; and the prohibition of sitting on a park bench for too long, sitting on a park bench with someone else, hugging another person, singing in a church or other enclosed spaces, shopping with a friend. Amongst the more surreal proposed interventions was the call by some for professional footballers to abandon their celebration of a goal.
Restrictions on political and social freedoms have always been justified historically in the name of a higher good. Thus it is with the SARS-CoV-2 emergency. All the measures summarized above – whether those restricting basic human rights and freedoms or those regulating micro-scale social behaviours – are justified by the Government in the name of ‘saving lives’. But the result is a nation now better classified as an iatocracy – rule by medics, public health officials, epidemiologists – than a democracy – rule by the demos, the people.
It is ironic that by its actions the Government has allowed SARS-CoV-2 to accomplish what earlier American and British politicians have claimed international climate treaties, international terrorism or the European Union would never achieve: respectively, ‘the American way of life is not up for negotiation’; ‘terrorists will never destroy the way of life that we share’; and the Brexit slogan ‘taking back control’ over our way of life.
The simple belief that securing the mass roll out of vaccines will automatically reverse the state’s appropriation of unprecedented powers, manifest in the large and small ways summarized above, is dangerous in both its naivety and passivity. Vaccines of course do not have the agency to return rights and freedoms that have been suspended, but neither can we expect politicians or medical experts to automatically restore them. The totalizing hold that the central state now has on British political and social life will only be relaxed by citizens demanding the return of those liberties and freedoms that have been withheld.
There is hard political, psychological and social work to be done in re-constructing the basic elements of a free and sociable society that have been so badly damaged. Three things are necessary in the weeks, months and years ahead to achieve what the vaccines on their own cannot achieve — the re-socialisation of society.
First is to recognise the precariousness of this moment. It is to recognise that the circumscription of social and political freedoms during this pandemic collectively amounts to the reversal of the achievements of centuries of political struggle in western nations regarding basic human rights and civil liberties.
Second is to alter the mass psychology of a nation that has been tutored by the iatocracy and the media into fearing coronavirus. Sociologist Robert Dingwall argues thus: “Above all, we must dispel the current mood of fear and the arguments of those who thrive upon that fear.” Or to quote a more distant, but equally perceptive, voice: “The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.
And, third, it is necessary to accept that COVID-19 and its threats to human life and health will not be eliminated by vaccines. COVID risk needs to be treated just like other presenting risks. (I am not saying that all risks are equal in threat or the same in character; rather, that we need equally to learn how to live with risk while preserving the things we value). COVID risk should not be exceptionalised. It needs to be assimilated into everyday risk awareness, social norms and human behaviour.
Until public fear is neutralised, COVID risk normalised and citizens demand the Government returns their political and social freedoms, we will remain living under conditions of emergency, thus perpetuating the fragmentation and de-socialisation of society.
Mike Hulme, 7 February 2021