The COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Response in the UK

A virus is exposing how much Western society is permeated with influential people who have deluded themselves into thinking that their ability to manipulate words, images, and sounds gives them the ability to control reality itself. Thomas Hobson and Daniel Bristow consider.

At the time we begin writing, there are 145,374 cases of COVID-19 worldwide. 5,429 people have died. In the UK the number of confirmed cases has increased exponentially from 19 confirmed cases on February 28th to 801 on March 14th. There has been a lot said, and a lot written, about the virus and about the machinations of government that strive to fight or ignore it. Much of what has been said is hardly worth listening to. Some of what has been said is very worth listening to – and we have included a short, by no means exhaustive list of resources at the end of this piece.

At heart the fight against COVID-19 is a fight for survival. It is forcing leaders – and those of us watching them – to confront very serious questions about which lives are important, which lives are worth saving and what ways of living are to be permitted. Responses to this question have played out in ways that will look variously crass, misguided and cruel when the light of history is shone upon them. This in and of itself may not be surprising to many of us. What is perhaps more shocking is how short a timespan will have to elapse for such posterity to become accepted as the case. Yet, here also the posterity of austerity has its true testing-ground: the light that is soon to shine upon the policies of the ConDem governments of the past decade+ – to drastically cut NHS provisioning (to staff; beds; resources; research; equipment, advanced and everyday), and to reduce securities for the most vulnerable, lowest-paid, and the precarious of our society – will illuminate what has been called nigh-everywhere a public-health ‘gamble’ (a kind of British roulette, as a variation on the Russian), the odds of which seemed pretty surely stacked.

In ‘herd immunity’, the UK government adopted a particularly callous approach – one that’s asked us to embrace and even to celebrate the basest realities of a biological life – the weak will die and, eventually, we shall consider our population effectively adapted. We might read this through the lens of a concept in Giorgio Agamben’s work, and in doing so, thus against his interesting and disquieting intervention concerning COVID-19, to which the response of friend and fellow philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy is humble and quietly humbling. [1] Under the UK plan of action, such as it is, the old, the unwell, the poor become what Agamben had termed bare lifethey are simple, biological facts. No longer people per se – not in any full sense – rather they are alive and they may die. Sticking briefly with Agamben here, his invocation of the Roman Homo Sacer figure rings poignantly, with those of us unlucky enough to have poor resistance to respiratory infections cast truly as one who may be killed without consequence.

For those who may be less aware of the UK’s early approach, Boris Johnson’s government oscillated wildly, making it difficult to discern a plan as such. What appeared clear though, is that there was strong resistance to the notion of the government actually doing anything. Calm has been praised, handshakes have been discouraged and national resolve has been much-cited. Viewed alongside this invocation of Blitz Britain and wartime stoicism, the complete lack of executive leadership, discussion of providing essential resources, mobilisation of industry and population in the service of a common good, is particularly striking, leaving only a myriad of divergent explanations – none of them reasonable – for the UK executive opting for an approach that has been described as “an outlier”, “cavalier”, “reckless”, “insane”.

Philosopher Stanley Cavell once asked the question: ‘what kind of world is it in which, though recognized to be patriarchal, there are no patriarchs?’ii We might ask a similar question of a world seemingly predicated on ‘leadership models’; ostensively structured around a leadership culture (there are a great many books straddling the self-help, business, and sport section overlaps of bookshops, or within the catchall of ‘smart thinking’ that centre and widely diverge on the subject and strategy of ‘leadership’ – the same shelves that house Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, home to behavioural science theory consulted by the government in tackling this coronavirus, and which the Guardian describes as a ‘jolly economic romp’); that is, this conjuncture’s structure is organised around apperceiving itself as led, to the extent that leaders themselves might then drop out of the equation, and a form of human fronting take their place. This is to say that leadership in this conjuncture has become virtual or hauntological; mechanised and bureaucratised to the extent that human agency can become circumvented.

In commentarial response, there’s been an interesting take, by Adam Elkus, looking at the pandemic through the lens of postmodernism, describing it not as a glitch in reality, as it seems, but something more like the proof that reality is the glitch itself; some Lacanians have been quick to label this as an inbreak – if you like – of the Real, and have described how we fill a hole in the fundamental fantasy with individual response-fantasies: of fear; panic; resignation; action; inaction; reflection; jubilation; ignorance, blissful or wilful, etc., but it may be just a little too hasty to invoke what Lacan held in reserve as always-beyond (symbolisation and analysability): the Real (or even to attempt to speak from its (non)position) [2]. In the psychoanalyst’s schema, something of this perhaps pertains more to his conception of anxiety, which he formulates as ‘that which does not deceive’. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work may be more relevant here: the desiring-machines are going haywire, but are still desiring, in the living, and plugged into the lifeworld, the molar rhizome (of which this is no apocalypse, but will soon be made up of new apocalyptic assemblages: individual and nuclear sufferings and tragedies).

A deterritorialisation is surely taking place, and the war over reterritorialisations has already begun. Politicians will talk of the response to the virus as a war against it, they will characterise its characterlessness with anthropocharacteristics – of which Donald Trump’s ‘foreign virus’ inaugurates this language-game. Thinking further through the martial metaphors deployed between the de- and reterritorialisations, it is perhaps interesting here to reflect on the anthropomorphised inevitable dread of war itself.  Having recently rewatched The Cruel Sea, in the film’s most iconic scene, we witness Captain Lockhart racked with guilt having, he believes, caused the unnecessary deaths of a number of sailors. Finding Lockart in this state, Ericson tells him: “no one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.” We might also look here to poet Thomas Sackville, whose verse describes the grim, fetid monster of war:

Lastly stood War, in glittering arms y-clad,
With visage grim, stern looks, and blackly hued;
In his right hand a naked sword he had
That to the hilts was all with blood embrued,
And in his left (that kings and kingdoms rued)
Famine and fire he held, and therewithal
He razed towns, and threw down towers and all.

These narratives of war often serve a curiously dual purpose. In speaking of how war is inevitable and its cruelty unavoidable, we accomplish two things: Firstly, we absolve ourselves of responsibility and of blame; and secondly, we perpetuate the correctness of our own assertion. That is to say, if war is inevitable, we can scarcely be held to blame for its conduct, and in going to war on this premise, we are able to (blamelessly) prove ourselves right. Hannah Arendt has a concept she calls infallible prediction. She deploys this idea in order to explain how (totalitarian) leaders have the power to create certain realities. She argues that their predictions are in fact statements of intent. By phrasing intentions as predictions, they can hide from blame. That “war is hell”, then, can be understood less as a description and more as a modus operandi. 

Stephen Walzer has reflected on this ontological trickery, telling us that “the tyranny of war is often described as though war itself were the tyrant, a natural force like flood or famine [or perhaps pandemic virus] or, personified, a brutal giant stalking his human prey.” The curious, and arguably useful, observation for us at this juncture is that just as the bloody reality of war cannot be properly concealed behind the monster of ‘war itself’, the contingent and political responses (and non-responses) to COVID-19 can never be properly hidden by the efforts to depoliticise and technofy the crisis. The real crisis is in adequacy for response, preparedness, the effects to the lives of health workers and carers, to workers in all industries whilst uncertainty runs rife, and in the social structures that have been underwriting the precariousness ways of living for so long: it always has been.

Out of this pandemic arises an air and discourse of supposed neutrality and non-politicality, in which political mettle will be tested (against the encroaching of authoritarian measures, and assessments of their temporari- or lastingness, and of whether they will be on the side of life or of death; the testing of our beliefs in our political positions, and more importantly of our disbeliefs; for example, of authorities acting in the best interests of the people – our definitions of ‘the people’ – our reliance on neurotic authoritarian (family) structures, as Wilhelm Reich once called them. The old refrain, after 9/11 inaugurated the war on terror, went, ‘but war can’t be waged against an abstract noun’, and now – ‘at war’ with a novel coronavirus – Deleuze and Guattari’s rephrasing of Carl von Clausewitz comes to mind: ‘politics is the continuation of war by other means.’

Daniel Bristow is co-editor of Everyday Analysis.

Tom Hobson is an academic and researcher, currently based at the University of Bath. He writes, mainly, about the relationships between technology and politics.

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Useful Resources on COVID19

A matter of fact running of “the numbers” from Liz Specht, from March 7th 

An excellent visual explanation of viral spread and social distancing efficacy

Very detailed analysis Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand

Marc Lipsitch on effective social distancing

“How to talk to your friends about social distancing”

Where the Coronavirus Bioweapon Conspiracy Theories Really Come From


[1] For an interesting colloquy of philosophical responses to this pandemic, prefaced by Michel Foucault’s reflections on the plague from Discipline and Punish – and in which is featured Agamben’s argument that the ‘invention of the epidemic’ is a form of biopolitical control and gateway to a state of exception – see this article: Nancy ends his response with these words: ‘I mentioned that Giorgio is an old friend. And I apologize for bringing up a personal recollection, but I am not abandoning a register of general reflection by doing so. Almost thirty years ago doctors decided I needed a heart transplant. Giorgio was one of the very few who advised me not to listen to them. If I had followed his advice, I would have probably died soon enough. It is possible to make a mistake. Giorgio is nevertheless a spirit of such finesse and kindness that one may define him – without the slightest irony – as exceptional.’

[2] See Adam Elkus,‘It Only Wants Targets’, and the articles Alasdair Duncan, ‘MIASMA’; Thomas Svolos, ‘Coronavirus and the Hole in the Big Other; José R. Ubieto, ‘A World in Quarantine?’; Gustavo Dessal, ‘When the Fantastic Becomes Normal’; Marcelo Veras, ‘Side Effects’, and Bogdan Wolf, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, for example, at Might not a realer hole open in that gap between, or discrepancy in, experience of living through this pandemic? As unaffected, uninfected, asymptomatic, ill, as one within those ‘many more families [who] will lose loved ones’ – in Boris Johnson’s words – or according to one’s social, work, class, and/or legal status, and one’s global positioning…

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