REFLECTIONS ON THE VIRUS 1: POLITICS AND LANGUAGE

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The devil makes work for idle hands is an apt saying for the situation many now find themselves in. With fewer distractions – I apologise in advance – I am compelled to spend some of my time reflecting on the impact of the pandemic. I’ll start today by making one general point and one obvious one.

1.      First, the general point. The current COVID-19 emergency has much to interest students of politics. In the first place, does it demonstrate that authoritarian regimes are able to tackle a pandemic rather more easily and efficiently than liberal democracies? For example, China’s eventual crackdown was much more severe than anything that could be contemplated in a liberal democracy. Likewise, Michael Baum, writing in the Spectator, puts South Korea’s success down to its willingness and ability to act in an authoritarian manner. ‘Health authorities…had warrantless access to the credit card and phone data of its citizens, including location data.  So what we might regard as breaches of civil rights are part of the country’s success story’.

Moreover, given the origin of the virus, what does it tell us about our relationship with non-human nature and, indeed, our relationship with each other? Is the pandemic a product of globalization? What does it tell us about population size and density? What does it tell us about risk and about the balancing of competing interests in public policy making?

Perhaps the most significant factor for students of politics is the role of the state. Ironically, in the United Kingdom, the arrival of the virus has achieved, in terms of the state’s reach, more than even the most ardent Corbynite could have dreamt about. Not only has the state intervened to shore up the economy – by, most notably, agreeing to pay a significant part of the wages of those (the majority) economically disadvantaged by the health emergency – it has also taken unparalleled measures to control our everyday movements. 

To some extent, the reliance on the state seems to have created, amongst some at least, a passivity which belies our status as citizens. Any relaxation of the lockdown, the first stages of which were introduced at the beginning of May, was bound to be imprecise requiring choices, responsibility and common sense. The reaction seems to suggest that some are very nervous about exercising these qualities. A consequence of the ‘nanny’ state some might argue.

2.      Next, the obvious point. I am conscious how many words and phrases not heard before the end of February – a matter of barely more than two months – have become so entrenched within popular discourse that it is as if they have been around for a long time. COVID-19 and coronavirus are the obvious ones. COVID-secure, social distancing, self-isolation, the R rate, personal protective equipment (PPE), lockdown and Nightingale Hospitals are other examples. Our changing lives, in what may come to be characterised as the COVID era, are being accompanied by a changing language. 

MORE TOMORROW

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