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You Cannot Sing ‘Rule Britannia’ to a Virus

Musa Okwonga on why the British notion of exceptionalism can be seen in the country’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak and why it should just admit that it’s not really that rebellious – despite the myths it tells itself.

People on a busy tube train in London at rush hour on 17 March 2020. Photo: PA Images

You Cannot Sing Rule, Britannia!to a Virus

Musa Okwonga on why the British notion of exceptionalism can be seen in the country’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak and why it should just admit that it’s not really that rebellious – despite the myths it tells itself

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Living in Germany right now, I feel like a time-traveller. Watching Britain, where the spread of the Coronavirus seems to be a few days behind us, my first instinct is to send every warning I have heard from my friends in Italy about just how bad things can get.

But then I look out of my window at the pleasing spring sun and think: but why would they listen to us? Who would distance themselves socially on a day like this, when the pubs and the nightclubs await? After all, just two weeks ago, many of us were similarly oblivious.

Knowing Britain as I do, I worry that many of these warnings will sound hysterical; that people will believe it isn’t truly necessary to keep a reasonable distance, wherever possible, from a stranger on public transport. Surely it is an exaggeration? And I know that this sense of hysteria comes partly from much of Britain’s impression of itself: that it will not be dictated to by outsiders, that it will calmly go about its business unhindered.

I was recently reminded of this by the British Prime Minister when I watched his briefing on the Coronavirus from 10 Downing Street. Here – during a carefully measured piece of guidance from Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer – Boris Johnson said something which I found troubling. “Politicians and governments around the world,” he said “are under pressure to act, so they may do things that aren’t necessarily dictated by the science”.

At the time Johnson made these remarks, there was considerable surprise that the UK was following such a different strategy to combat the Coronavirus outbreak from that recommended by the World Health Organisation, but few people were accusing China, South Korea, Singapore and Italy for doing something for the sake of appearances.

Johnson looked like a man determined to say, at a particularly perilous point in his country’s history, that we are smarter than the rest of you. My concern – that Johnson was indulging in an extreme form of British exceptionalism – was confirmed a few days later when he said that “the UK is now leading a growing global campaign” against the Coronavirus, even as it was being acknowledged that the UK’s assessment of the risk was disastrously inaccurateand had been since late January.

Yet, Johnson was far from alone in his belief that, when it comes to the Coronavirus, Britain can go its own way. On Channel 4 News, when interviewing Dr Richard Hatchett, the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the presenter Cathy Newman expressed her concern that Brits were “too selfish, too capitalist, too globalist” to take the kind of everyday steps to prevent the spread of this pandemic.

The key danger here, as many fear, is that the Government is making policy on the basis that the British public is too stubborn to follow strict instructions during a time of a major healthcare crisis

But, it is time to stop fetishising this legendary British stubbornness: this sense that the Brit is uniquely fit to ride out whatever storms the world sends their way, that they will never be enslaved by circumstances. You cannot sing Rule Britannia to a virus. COVID-19 is not a smartly-dressed television pundit whose nuanced arguments about freedom of speech we can simply ignore. The virus is as open to reason as a rising sea level. It arrives at considerable scale, whether we like it or not. 

What is more – and here is a further reason to stop pandering to it – this stubborness is a myth. We know it is a myth because, despite the signs that many of us are still partying without a care, Brits are out there panic-shopping for toilet roll like everyone else. Yes, some of us may have attended the Cheltenham Festival in defiance, but the national mood will have changed sharply when the Premier League and then the Glastonbury Festival – two institutions which stand to lose huge sums over the next few months – cancelled their programmes and therefore put health over profit. At a certain point, the news from Italy will become impossible to ignore. Just like climate change, it will become a fact on the ground.

I have always been sceptical of how rebellious a country with such reverence for its monarchy can truly be. In the end, Britain is – for the most part – a deferential nation and, at times like this, I think it would be better if we remembered that. When our delusions of revolution have fallen away, then maybe we can finally heed what Dr Fabiano Di Marco, the head of a respiratory unit in Bergamo, tried to tell us in his recent interview with The New York Times – that “the role of countries who are not yet at the place Italy is in is to make sure they don’t ever get to that place”. 

It feels fitting to close with Dr Di Marco’s own words, because they are uniquely powerful. “In your reality, all is normal,” he said. “It’s difficult to be scared for something you have not the perception [of]… But trust us… in Bergamo, each family will have a relative or a friend who dies… After three weeks, we are living in another dimension. For me, it’s difficult to think to my life before this. No one can be prepared for this. Impossible.”

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