There is no other explanation for the cycle of shutdowns. It has grown into a peaceful form of mass-hysteria: typical mass-hysteria involves uncontrolled weeping and wailing, maybe breaking into violence, but today we have mass resignation or perhaps a mass flop. It is but the result of those giving advice and warnings.
It is competitive panicking. Each overreaction creates its own bubble of new normality on which the next feeds and steps up to exceed it in an endless cycle. It seems like a form of virtue-signalling: panic signalling perhaps. It has made the nation fall silent and stifled all other thought. A pall lies over the land.
It would be tedious to recite all the ideas and scares thrown into the air about the current epidemic. It is a regrettable characteristic of our media-led public culture that many commentators, whether they understand the topic or not, have a need to make themselves heard, and they will say whatever is needed to achieve publicity. It is not for the public benefit but for their own. It is a form of what Hobbes called a “generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death.”
You may contrast the meek, almost reluctant mien of the Chief Medical Officer as he stepped unwontedly before the cameras.
Into this then step the politicians, rather unwillingly at first as no one wants to be closely associated with a deadly disease. (It is a curse of the National Health Service that as the government has taken responsibility for the health of every citizen, they can be blamed for every cough and sneeze, or in this case for an epidemic. That is a little harsh – most of the nation are not as daft as all that – but when the system strains and buckles, the blame is not far behind.)
These last weeks we have seen society transformed in the twinkling of an eye. The streets and workplaces are emptied and events big and small are cancelled, whether there is risk or reason or none. In addition, the whole breadth of the commentariat is so concentrated on this one circumstance, the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, a feeling like a fog is over the nation. It is hard to equal. When Brexit dominated every political discussion, the streets were not emptied and the nation did not stay away from work and talk of nothing outside that context. The very dominance of this apparent threat has placed a stop on normal life.
Panic feeds more panic. The schools were not meant to be closed, but commentators craving publicity demanded it for so long that it seemed inevitable and I started hearing “when”, not “if”. Ultimately it was not that which closed the schools but mass staff absence – but why would half the teachers in a school disappear when the known numbers infected nationwide is about 300 in total out of 60 million? That is mass, irrational panic.
London started emptying before the government suggested working at home. Now thankfully office workers have the tools to be able to work from home, but others cannot, and gig-economy workers, the ones who make modern life possible, cannot feed their children, and all for an infection which has barely brushed this land yet.
Events and meetings are cancelled across the board – I am surprised when I find them still on. An email came today that all Parkruns are cancelled – but of all things, this is an event in the open air attended only by fit people with no lung problems – can there be an event with less of a risk? Cancelling runs harms health.
The hope I have heard expressed from organisers of all sorts of events is that this will not last, and that into the spring we will be back to normal. No, the epidemic will not have gone then and might just be starting to roar. Perhaps though by then we will all have got fed up with it and be going back to normal life, taking it on the chin and dispelling the panic because it cannot be allowed to let us starve.
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay (1841)
- A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
- Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
- The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson
- Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath
- The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes
- By Boris Johnson:
- By Aristotle:
- By Anthony Burgess: