What are we up against?

In a week when Independent Sage has shared a devastating analysis of the ongoing damage that Covid is inflicting on people and as the latest Covid wave gathers momentum, Mike Downham gives a personal view of how we have come to a situation where government and many individuals behave as if Covid is yesterday’s problem. We would be pleased to publish responses to this post.

We know exactly how to put an end to the Covid epidemic in Scotland. So what’s stopping us? Even the Scottish Government is predicting a fourth wave, and probably the only thing currently holding the wave back is the unseasonal warm weather. Yet few people appear to be concerned about Covid.

 Is this a general public denial, based on a longing to be free from Covid and the illusion encouraged by the Government that vaccines on their own provide us with a secure path to being free? There’s likely to be some truth in that. But is there something else going on – something deeper and more fundamentally societal?

There seem to be two potential answers to this question, though the two answers are related and perhaps add up to a single answer. The first could be the way we increasingly tend to ‘other’ people whose experience is too unfamiliar for us to understand. Darren McGarvey has called this “the social distance between us”, which he uses as the title for his recent revealing book. It’s perhaps not surprising that ‘othering’ has gathered momentum given the radical conservative view which has dominated Westminster politics since Thatcher that “public spending rewards laziness and moral delinquency”, as William Davies, a professor in political economy, put it recently. In relation to Covid the people whom the rest of us may be othering are those who, in the absence of any Covid precautions, fear for their lives whenever they leave their homes because whether through poor health or long-term disability, they are at high risk of both catching Covid and of suffering severe consequences. We also tend to other those who are suffering from Long Covid. Despite each of these two groups numbering millions, we manage to treat them as if they are somehow so different from us that they don’t count. Our health is fine, and we had no trouble recovering from Covid thanks.  

Image by Rayne Zaayman-Gallant / EMBL Copyright: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 Copyright: © European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)

The second answer may be that this generation, and the one before it, have been heavily influenced by neoliberal politics and the mainline media which neoliberal governments control. This has encouraged people to think that there’s no alternative to what they’re being told – or even if they think there could be an alternative they have little confidence that anything they can do will make a difference. So in relation to Covid many people just accept that they have no choice except to do what they’re being told  “just go on  taking the medicine [= vaccines]” – despite all the evidence that vaccines on their own won’t keep them safe. This sort of irrational thinking has perhaps developed as a result of a series of big changes in society over the past 50 or so years – including the cancerous growth of consumerism; the disappearance of large production work-places; anti-Trade Unions legislation, resulting in Unions fighting for narrow, short-term gains; contracted out labour; and the hidden power of corporations and financial capital. These things have steadily and intentionally driven us apart. Whereas our confidence and ability to change things rests on sticking together.

If some of this is true, what can be done in relation to the Covid epidemic by those of us who have been encouraged to think for ourselves and challenge authority? This isn’t to suggest that such people are superior beings, but that some of us think more independently either because we are old enough to have experienced a different sort of politics before Thatcher; or because we were fortunate to have had free, high-quality education; or, whatever our age, through bitter personal experience – like Darren McGarvey, or those people that are now being failed by our government’s Covid policies. 

We need to keep plugging on about the Covid virus facts, the scientific evidence, and how this virus is different from previous known viruses. But it looks as if this on its own isn’t going to be enough to change the behaviour of a large number of people.

 I feel fortunate to find myself at the moment in a group of seven neighbours, who, as a result of casual conversations in our street, have got together to discuss how people in our community can help each other through this winter, given the soaring costs of energy and food. We’re a mixed bunch in terms of both age and life opportunities. As if out of nowhere each of the seven of us is listening more than imposing their views. We’ve applied for a grant from our Council, and we’ve advertised a trial drop-in at our Community Hall next week for people to talk about what we might do to help each other. 

It’s early days, but I’m encouraged to think there could be a way forward here in the battle against Covid. Perhaps one thing we can do is to take whatever collective opportunities aimed at improving wellbeing crop up for us in our communities, and to be attentive to others in these groups. The group wouldn’t need to be focussed on Covid – the cost-of-living crisis for example is currently perceived by most people as more immediately urgent.

Our group hasn’t spoken much yet about Covid, apart from agreeing that if we get the grant we’ve applied for we should consider buying an air filter for our Community Hall.

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