‘Why the old normal needs to be fought for’

My interview with Alastair Benn of Reaction news – about the emasculated politics of managing COVID-19 – is behind a paywall. You can read it in full below …


Mike Hulme is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Cambridge. He is a world leading expert on climate change, national emergency and risk. In a wide-ranging conversation with Reaction’s Deputy Editor, Alastair Benn, he talks about the role of the state in managing the Coronavirus pandemic and why the project of re-socialising requires a political struggle.

Alastair Benn: A large proportion of the Covid debate focuses on the compliance to the rules and the emotional commitment that creates compliance – what’s missing?

Mike Hulme: The first place to start is to think about what is meant by an emergency. I’ve written about this in the context of climate change, which is my own field. What do people mean when they call for governments to declare a climate emergency? What sort of politics goes on in an emergency state?

History suggests that in an emergency state, it is not politics as usual. The state is empowered to appropriate more powers to itself, to take greater executive authority and to short-circuit or to sideline democratic institutions and processes. In the name of an emergency, a state can smuggle in a whole variety of measures that can be claimed, in a more enlightened state, to be justified in terms of a higher good.

The danger of this is that it perpetuates those emergency measures once the emergency is de-escalated. We should be wary when nation-states declare emergencies. During an emergency, there requires to be even greater scrutiny by the people of what a state does, simply because so many routine measures and procedures are short-circuited and bypassed.

Now, at the point when you are beginning to see the mass roll-out of vaccinations, this is another moment of danger. Certain measures may be relaxed, the emergency might be de-escalated. But who is deciding the exit strategy? Who is deciding which measures should be released, by when, and under what conditions? What are the residual emergency powers that states might retain for themselves?

In casual conversation, a lot of people will say, “once the vaccine has been rolled out, things will go back to normal again.” I don’t think that is going to be the case. What different citizens may deem to be normal will have to be fought for in order to restore to routine democratic institutions some of these powers the state has arrogated to itself. The end result of the discussion may be that we do want to live under quasi-emergency conditions – or maybe not.

AB: Is there a sense that with Covid-19 – or even with something like seasonal flu – that we make an adjustment that says “this is not something a civilised society tolerates”?

MH: The second entry point into this debate is through this notion of risk. How does any polity and the people within it see particular risks? This is heavily conditioned by history, culture and by politics. We know how diverse are people’s risk perceptions are about a whole variety of things. Some are very risk tolerant. Some are very risk averse.

In a healthy society, you want to cultivate a diversity of risk-related behaviours. You wouldn’t want to eliminate risk takers, nor would you would you want the entire population to be taking extreme risks all the time.

What sort of risk are we happy to live with as a collective? In Western societies, the last time we lived through a non-standard respiratory virus, a non-standard influenza, was in the late 1960s. It was nicknamed Hong Kong Flu. It killed about 30,000 people, more than a bad influenza winter. It certainly put strains on the medical professions at the time. Society did not lock down at all.

Fifty years on, we live in a very different cultural context. Partly, it has been conditioned by things like terrorism. We now have very different information conduits. A risk, like a pandemic, which is not familiar can very rapidly be amplified into a terrorism-like dread. We know from psychology that risks that have that dread element, like the atomic bomb, like terrorism, …that dread factor amplifies the perception of the risk. It can do so in very dramatic ways, especially through the media. We are in a position now where, broadly speaking, we have got our sense of risk out of proportion.

Particularly once you recognise that a vaccine eliminates the high-end impacts of the virus, i.e., case fatality rates and hospitalisations. What the vaccine does is claw us back to a particularly nasty annualised influenza-type outbreak. There will be infections, some illnesses and some deaths but it doesn’t warrant the type of dread narrative that seems to have become lodged in our society at large.

AB: Scientific progress is just one part of the picture.

MH: Unless you’ve got the perfect vaccine, the perfect roll-out and the perfect uptake, and you somehow eliminate coronavirus within a matter of months, it won’t produce those conditions. It doesn’t produce an automatic escape route. Those discussions still need to be had – what level of risk are we prepared to tolerate? Through a long process of social, medical and cultural evolution in the UK, we tolerate that between 5,000 and 20,000 people will die of influenza every year.

We tacitly agree that in the order of a couple of thousand people die on our roads and another 50,000 people have severe injuries in road accidents is an acceptable and tolerable risk. That creates a public health burden. This is exactly the conversation we need to have. Is it an extra 5,000 deaths? Is it an extra 20,000 people who are diagnosed with long Covid? What we choose suggests a model for relaxation. If you go for Zero Covid, that has a different set of consequences.

That is not a decision that a prime minister or a Cabinet or a medical elite should impose on 65 million citizens, at least not in the sort of democracy that I believe most British people still value. That is something that explicitly needs to be discussed and debated.

I frame this in terms of political struggle because there is a perception that people like me and Robert Dingwall [sociologist and member of NERVTAG] are coming at this from a libertarian-right view. It’s exactly the opposite. I am a long-term Labour voter and could never imagine myself voting for a Conservative candidate at any election. I believe that the basic issues at stake, about how we deal with risk and how we distribute the burden of risk across society, are social justice issues.

I believe social justice to be at the core of the Labour Party’s existence. The way the burden of the pandemic, for example, has been put onto children and young adults by shredding their education. Those of a left and liberal political instinct should be shouting about this. The only interventions by Labour and the Lib Dems have seemingly been to say that whenever the government does anything they should simply do in a more aggressive manner. They have not tried to lay out a political and ethical strategy about how you deal with the distribution of risk that comes from a pandemic.

AB: The public health measures designed to stop the spread of disease have had an uneven effect. The middle classes have avoided the worst effects – older working-class people and children have paid a big price.

MH: My field is environmentalism and climate change. There are those who see the precautionary principle as a way of attempting to eliminate risk altogether. It does tend to have a certain middle-class association. The whole environmentalist movement itself is a very white and middle-class movement. Recent criticisms of Extinction Rebellion have fallen along those lines. That can transfer across into a pandemic.

My generation, the middle-class baby-boomers have come out of this best – just as we came out of the recession in 2008 best and the various housing crises. The way we have dealt with this pandemic has put a huge burden on young people and young children, particularly young children who come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The cost to a child’s education when there is a challenging home environment is enormous. This comes back to my point about the distribution of risk in a pandemic. Who is actually bearing this burden? On the one hand, you could say, it is those people who have died. But you also have to look at all those constituencies in society who are carrying the costs of this particular form of lockdown.

AB: Re-socialising for someone like me is relatively easy – catching up with colleagues, organising a big pub trip with friends. How do we “re-socialise” children?

MH: Children are at an age when they are having to learn to socialise. This is why school is so critical. There’s no doubt that children who grow up just in a home environment have less rich social encounters. For young children, from four to seven, what school provides is experiences that show them how to socialise – how to give, to take and to share with others. If you lose a year of that socialisation, it’s going to take a long time to catch up. The children who fall further behind are those whose parents have other challenges in their lives.

To put this back together requires a political discussion. An epidemiologist with a model is very good within a narrow professional remit. But that certainly doesn’t give an epidemiologist or a public health official automatic authority over how and when policy measures should or should not be relaxed. That should be in the public realm.

If elected politicians cannot make those arguments, it must come from the grassroots. Citizens have to organise. This is the story of 300 hundred years of struggle in Western liberal democracies to get rights, the right of public association, lobbying and protest. I just fear that unless there is a much less aggressive environment in which we have the political debate about opening up again, it will be left to the medics, civil servants and Boris Johnson and his Cabinet to make these judgements. They will be heavily influenced by a medical philosophy rather than all the other considerations that people should be putting out there.

AB: Is there a case for repealing all the Covid legislation and having a Year Zero moment?

MH: In an emergency, states can find ways around venues of argumentation and deliberation like Parliament as long as emergency powers are called upon. Then it becomes harder for democrats to make that particular case. As the vaccine programme reaches a certain degree of penetration into society, it would be appropriate to suspend the emergency infrastructure that has been put in place. Parliament should be back in person with a proper schedule of debates and proposals. Government should be held properly to account by MPs representing their constituents.

We have been tutored in fear and in the idea that every possible sacrifice is justified to defeat the disease. How often have the war metaphors been motivated? There is this sense that this is a total war. We have to mobilise all levels of society in the process. People like myself are treated with some suspicion for raising these questions. You’re not one of us. You’re a fifth columnist working for the enemy.

AB: There’s been a lot of chatter about vaccine passports and freedom passes. Is this a question of whether we can get back to doing things safely or a fundamental change in our politics?

MH: That plays into another trope, a scientistic mode of thinking that says: “the perfect vaccine will come along, the perfect lateral flow test will come along in the future, we will lean upon science to lead a normal life.” Science will never provide that degree of certainty. There will always be ragged edges, surprises and new discoveries just round the corner. We should rest our re-socialisation on a common, shared conviction about what it means to be a free citizen in a liberal society.

AB: That’s an unfashionable view.

MH: It is very unfashionable. It is remarkable to me in eleven months how much our society has changed. Among my academic colleagues, I struggle to find people who would give me the time of day to voice these concerns. There are a few people around but even within the academy, which is notably left-leaning, there are very few people who will speak up in favour of this political vision.

Interview recorded 18 February 2021.