The patient is dying. There is one cure

The economy has tanked, in a decline far worse than even the most lurid predictions the bank of England put out about Brexit, and which I for one dismissed as ludicrous. The decline is not from Brexit though: that was followed by growth and new investment – the collapse is from the lockdown. It will continue until the whole lockdown is lifted.

Never say the decline was caused by COVID-19: it was caused by the lockdown.

There has been time to reassess, and now we, the public, understand what the epidemic is and is not and how it works, we are in a position to make our own minds up as mature adults as to what are the risks and what level they are and how real, and how therefore to react and conduct ourselves. The rules of the lockdown have lost their immediate purpose and so should go, at once and without reservation.

The rules hold on only because, it seems, the government has started down that road and would look embarrassed if they find it is all for nothing after all this pain; but to continue is to continue and worsen the pain, and leave devastation where until March there was a thriving economy.

The hope that greeted Brexit has turned to a despair at that promise thrown away.

Everything is dying around us. The streets are no longer as deathly silent as in the spring, and shops do get customers, some at least, but the power houses of the economy have fallen into a coma. These are the offices, the mass gathering places, the venues, theatres and cinemas, and the bars which receive the theatre-goers in the evening.

Those businesses which are open are still hampered by regulations and the fear of being shut down or sued, which leads to new, self-imposed rules that in turn drive their customers away. The most visible is the mask, which is pointless on the face of a healthy man or woman, which is to say almost everyone, yet is strict law on everyone. Distancing is enforced as if the virus were magic, and even though the PM reduced the required distance to 3 feet, universally we are commended to keep 2 metres apart – which works in practice only by being ignored.

The statistics show there is no longer an epidemic, and the medical profession are now set up to deal with cases thy do receive, which they were not before. The statistics also seem to show that the epidemic was declining even before the lockdown measures were put in place – and so would have continued down whatever happened. We were told that the point of the lockdown was a temporary relief, to buy time so that the peak would hit in the summer, when hospitals would be ready and not filled with winter ‘flu cases – well the summer has come and gone and if there is really a risk of a new peak, it will be in the winter; just what we were told had to be avoided.

In the meantime life remains on hold, and businesses are holding their breath, or dying. We were told it would be a short pause to be ready, and on that basis the economy might have held out, ready for a swift bounce-back. After this time though we find several major businesses and employers have folded, and others are on the brink. There are no jobs to go back to from which the economy could be revived.

The only thing that could make it worse is an increase in taxes at the end of it. Recovery can only come from a cut in taxes.

Even away from the economic crisis, the social crisis deepens. Those who believe all the scares still are cowering and may never recover. The easily led are led into dependency, and the weak-minded, for whom we should all have a special care, are driven frantic. Mental health is fragile. Others have been using the situation for months to play at being the village bully, and don’t we all know who they are, and who their victims are.

There is only thing that could save the situation from becoming terminal: end the lockdown, all of the lockdown, immediately. If people want to take precautions, and keep avoiding the neighbours and keep working from home, let then do so: we are all adults here and can judge our own risks. The man in Whitehall knows nothing of me and my family. I do.

See also

Books

It’s an anti-social distance, actually

People used to cross the road to avoid me: now they do so as a duty. More worrying than alienation is the new, alien language the lockdown has produced which makes no sense. A shop notice demands “Keep a social distance!”: that means in normal English ‘in close conversational distance’ but in COVID-newspeak was intended to be ‘stay six feet away’. Surely that is an anti-social distance.

Accurate language is important, particularly in uncertain times. Where science is leading discussion, inaccurate or misleading words and phrases take on the borrowed cloak of that science as if they were just as much to be relied on, when in normal times they would just be taken as metaphor or forgivable sloppiness.

To be clear on the immediate example, “social distancing” is correct as describing the act of distancing yourself from others in society, which is to say outside your household, and a “social distance” is no more than the distance you actually stand from someone. It is not a measure of distance: that is deriving phrases backwards as if to write over their true meaning. Other new terms that have come in include “shielding”, which has a general meaning but has now attracted a specialist meaning in the context of lockdown (don’t ask me – I don’t know what it means) and various scientific terms which when used by those outside the specific scientific discipline lose their meaning or are misunderstood. Scientific terms are precise and accurate as terms of art – outside the context they become meaningless and even dangerous.

Hobbes took accuracy of definition to be the first principle of sensible thought and discourse. Failure in definition leads to error or even madness (that is another article). You cannot think about a subject defined by words if you do not understand the meaning of those words, just as you cannot understand the geometry of a circle if you only understand straight lines or the life-cycle of a milch-cow if your only reference is pigs.

Seeing then that Truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise Truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or els he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed. And therefore in Geometry, (which is the onely Science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind,) men begin at settling the significations of their words; which settling of significations, they call Definitions; and place them in the beginning of their reckoning.

..

So that in the right Definition of Names, lyes the first use of Speech; which is the Acquisition of Science: And in wrong, or no Definitions’ lyes the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senslesse Tenets; which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation, to be as much below the condition of ignorant men, as men endued with true Science are above it. For between true Science, and erroneous Doctrines, Ignorance is in the middle. Naturall sense and imagination, are not subject to absurdity. Nature it selfe cannot erre: and as men abound in copiousnesse of language; so they become more wise, or more mad than ordinary.

See also

Labour: wear a mask when shopping on-line

This week’s Labour health spokesmxn, Jonathan Ashworth, expressed outrage that the Government has not gone far enough in enforcing face muzzles. The government’s half-measures are all for show, he spluttered: all the headlines are about shops and theatres, but the staff of online retailers are the forgotten working class. Shopfloor workers have protection from customers in muzzles and there must be a level playing field to protect jobs and lives, he said: customers doing their online shopping must wear facemasks at all times, because the workers behind the screens need protection from these notorious computer viruses.

Week one of the face-lockdown. The shops are emptying again satisfactorily. Now I get a chance to see what’s on the rails without elbowing dawdlers out of the way. I can’t see much though with this thing right under my eyeline.

Not everyone must wear the cloth. As I gathered after interviewing Mat Hancock, while he was trying to run away:

  • It’s to protect other people in case I have the dread disease;
  • Although I don’t have it;
  • Unless you’ve actually got the Wuhan flu, it’s as pointless as a chocolate chastity belt;
  • You don’t need to wear a muzzle if it causes you breathing problems;
  • Which is what you’d have if you get COVID-19;
  • So if you do get the smit, don’t wear a mask – better to infect the carriage than choke to death.

I wear it: I have a very dinky one which the maid made for me, which beats the designer face-muzzles I’ve seen: my, you should see the green envy. (The rivalry over masks is quite a thing to watch in the salons – all from a lacey lingerie-style, all holes and imagination, down to one that looks as if it was last worn in a trench outside Ypres.) It is taken very seriously – the fashion, at least, and I do wear it on trains. Of course I take it off when I need to make a call or to have a good cough, but I have it for a good show of concern.

I am my usual, cheery self in the shops I deign to frequent. I greet the shop assistant with my eyes, we admire each others’ muzzles, and I ask “Mmmm ngh ngh mmmnnnn!”, which never fails to elicit an appreciative “rrrrr, mngh, ghghgh mmmm.”

What next week will bring, we cannot tell. I am quite looking forward to getting the illness – better now I’d say than in the winter when I have a cold too to cope with. That COVID-19 party was a mistake though, without a nurse to hand. Another member of staff down.

See other stories

Blaming China

Just a few weeks ago a newspaper published the headline result of a survey about the coronavirus epidemic that the majority of Britons blame China. This got a headline, but is useless.

You have to ask what ‘blame China’ actually means, and what it means to different people.

Blame is not a fixed word. It is a general disapproval but has no set meaning. If a fence falls down, someone looks for the blame: the builder who put it up, or the person who should have maintained it (or the structure of ownership that left it without a responsible owner), or the children who keep falling against it in their rough games of football, or the lack of space for them to play elsewhere, or the developer who should have provided that space, or the high wind the other night. It is not a moral judgment as you cannot condemn the moral failings of the wind or dumb luck: in that case “blame” just means identifying the cause.

You could have stopped the fence from falling had you kept the boys inside that afternoon, had you not gone for the cheaper option, had you paid attention to the lean it had developed, had you put another inch of concrete round the post. The guilt grows not from actual responsibility but fear of the word ‘blame’.

The word sounds like condemnation: casting ‘blame’ is an assault, and the one blamed will bridle and protest. Blame suggests responsibility, moral failing, even legal liability. Court proceedings have been started by outraged parties not for compensation, but just to have the power of the state declare that blame is to be attributed to their opponent.

In the context of a global pandemic, the protest rises to a deafening roar and demands that blame be attached to someone or something. China is to blame, but that means something different in every mouth. To some, ‘blame’ is a high threshold to be attributed only to clear, actual moral culpability; to others it just means the cause lies there.

Then there is China. What does it mean to blame China? That is a tract of ground encompassing more than two billion acres, scoured by more rivers and winds than you can count in a lifetime: are the mountains and meadows and wastelands able to answer a charge of negligence? The disease started there, and that as the location of the cause is enough for the lowest-rung meaning of ‘blame’, for some.

We can assume that those who blame China mean specifically the People’s Republic of China not Taiwan or Hong Kong, but even then is it just noting that the contagion began there, or is an accusation pointed at the government of that country? If the latter, it might mean no more than that the outbreak began on their watch (which is rather like blaming the local policeman for an assault that happened when he was at the other end of the village). Maybe an accusation is levelled at a culture which does not consider hygiene as we do.

The Chinese government is culpable in its way. It did not cause the disease nor its spread, and they did not determine for it to escape their borders and infect the world, but they took it with their usual approach which prioritised suppressing the news and not the epidemic, and thus ensured that the infection could not be kept in check. Maybe it would not have spread outside China if they had behaved better. Then again, the infection broke out in one of the largest cities in the world, Wuhan, so it might have escaped in any case. There are further stories: in January Australian companies celebrated major domestic sales of gloves and facemasks, which were promptly shipped to China, depleting Australia’s stocks – they knew what was coming. When it all started we cannot tell – such is the secrecy in Red China and such is the fear of authority felt by everyone who might otherwise have alerted the country and the world. Yes, the Chinese government is culpable of cynical neglect, though not malice. They did not start it: it just happened. In a crowded sub-continental landmass like China, new, horrid diseases often appear and will always do so.

Blame is needed because if it is just dumb luck then we are powerless in the face of the universe. Modern life is about control, and about man’s mastery of nature, but here is a disease, primal, a primaeval timeless event, and we cannot grasp it unless someone is at fault: there must be blame.

The word ‘blame’ is like an infection itself. It may start as the lower end, with just an acknowledgement that events began in China so there is the cause. Then having fixed that impersonal blame, it grows into finding a moral fault. The Chinese government is not without moral fault in the matter but they still did not cause it, but if they are not guilty, it means that we are the victims of untamed nature and that will never do, so the light blame must grow: the tinge of turpitude in Peking is enough for resentment to grow. That may be why conspiracy theories have appeared with fantastical claims of deliberate, even manufactured diseases. It beats the mundane reality.

We come back then to those two words “blame China”, and see they are meaningless – no two people have the same understanding of the word ‘blame’, and how blame, by whatever definition, gets attached to the amorphous concept of ‘China’ is a mystery even to those thinking it.

See also

Quite enjoying the Cancel Culture, actually

An empty diary. Everything is cancelled – cultural, sporting and social events, even those due after the lockdown must have finished: no village revels, no funfair, and also no Tolethorpe, no Edinburgh Festival, no Party Conference: I don’t need to make an excuse to avoid any of them.

No canvassing over the spring was a relief. No meetings for any of the bodies whose committees I seem to have been strong-armed into, no AGMs. Many were not cancelled but just sort of wandered off.

You might have come to this article thinking I was talking about the ‘Cancel Culture’ about which other commentators fume: the cowardice in the great institutions finding any petty excuse or none to cancel appearances by people they dislike politically, and yes, that is the usual meaning of ‘cancel culture’. I am not sure that it is much different, as the months go on. Organising a big event is wearying, sapping at the soul and always with the risk of disaster and the criticism that comes with it. They must welcome an opportunity to cancel the event and get it out of their hair. I would. The Wuhan coronavirus is a wonderful opportunity.

You wondered why there was little resistance from the clergy to the closure of churches? It must be a relief to have the time off, and a videoed sermon does the job.

So we are back home. No church children’s summer club to organise this year, even after the lockdown ends? Oh, such a disappointment! No garden parties to run, no quizzes to set, no lengthy financial reports to deliver to critical members. Wuhan? Woo-hoo! And no bookings to take and organise (so now I find that I have evenings, with the family).

I still work of course, and frequent the plague pits of London – I quite miss the early lockdown when there was nothing to fill the day but gardening, DIY, country walks and terror about the future.

Now the lockdown is ending. There have been enquiries about bookings. Meetings and functions though are still all off for the foreseeable future, until we are all really, really sure. With such an excuse to shun those endless social responsibilities, I am in no hurry.

See also