Hardeep Matharu warns against becoming numb to the constructed reality being created by politicians as the UK gets to grips with the immense human cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The daily Downing Street Coronavirus briefings are becoming increasingly terrifying spectacles to watch for two reasons.
The first, is the horrendous increases in deaths from COVID-19 of people’s brothers, mothers, fathers, friends, wives, sisters, colleagues, cousins, neighbours announced in monotone in front of Union Jacks and Georgian panelling. Today’s bill of mortality stood at 8,958, with another 980 people having died of the disease in the past 24 hours.
The second is that, even as they make these most awful of announcements and tell us that every death is a tragedy before relaying the numbers, we – the audience for whom these events are supposedly designed – know, can sense, that those behind the podiums are thankful to be dodging bullets of their own: namely, the briefing itself.
For what should be an exercise in incisive transparency and justifiable scrutiny serves only as a charade of lies, spin and half-truths; a daily theatre designed to connect us in this shared crisis, but which amounts to nothing at all.
Simply put: they’re lying, we know they’re lying and they know that we know they’re lying.
This little mise en scène we’re all in is very dangerous. Never more so than now.
In his 2005 book on the last generation of the Soviet Union, anthropology professor Alexei Yurchak argued that everyone knew the Soviet system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to it so ordinary people entered into a play with those in power, to maintain a pretence of a normal society. Everyone knew it wasn’t real, but it was accepted as so. The society, Yurchak argued, was in a state of “hypernormalisation”; a fake reality.
I felt the terrifying shudder and shadow of hypernormalisation as I watched today’s Coronavirus briefing. It’s not that I haven’t thought of Yurchak’s concept in relation to the UK in recent years before but, unlike then, there are now lives at stake. People are actually dying.
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock, was flanked – as is now a standard stage direction – by the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam and the Chief Nursing Officer for England, Ruth May, for today’s briefing.
A bright red and yellow sign resembling a traffic notice screamed “Stay Home This Easter” but then a car-crash did follow.
The subtle infantilisation of the British people, betrayed by apologetic language and a headmasterly tone, continued. We are necessary for this charade – but not on equal terms with those directing it.
Matt Hancock declared that “we all share a responsibility for tackling this virus by, first and foremost, staying at home”. As he said this, the images of tens of thousands of racegoers at last month’s Cheltenham Festival swam into my mind. Surely, this thought didn’t just spring into the mind of Hancock – a man with a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. Surely he must have seen the photos of the crowds at the races back in March and had some common sense response or gut instinct about it then?
Announcing his new plan for personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline healthcare workers, he went on to say that “everyone working in a critical role must get the PPE that they need” because “we owe it them”. But, he also repeatedly said that the workers should only use this equipment when they really need it, “no more and no less”. We soon discovered why: “Going into the crisis we did not have a major PPE manufacturing industry”. Hence (although he did not directly connect the two): “Many items of PPE can be used for a whole session not be changed after treating each individual patient. Everyone is still protected but there’s enough PPE to go around”.
Next was a question from a journalist on why people from around the world are still able to fly into the UK’s airports (where no Coronavirus checks are being carried out) and whether this will be stopped.
“We follow the science,” he said, as if it was obvious. “We saw right at the start of this pandemic that the two countries that brought in the most draconian international travel restrictions, the United States and Italy, both of them have now got serious problems themselves so I think the science we followed on international travel has been borne out by events.” Right. Also, the use of the word “draconian” was of note. Why are these measures “draconian” when the aim is to save lives and the majority of people would likely support them?
But, Professor Van Tam provided back-up. “Our scientists have been very clear from the outset that that would not work as a measure to prevent the ingress of Coronavirus into the UK,” he told the journalist. “Coronavirus is now in the UK and transmitting very widely. I understand the point you’re making and I see where you’re coming from in terms of when we get this under control, doesn’t that change the situation but we won’t go from a position of widespread community transmission amongst our own people to a position of zero transmission amongst our own people”.
There was no mention of the evidence the scientists are apparently basing this on. Again, something which seems to be a common sense question the public has a right to ask was dismissed – and the journalist could make no comeback as he knew no further crumbs would be thrown to him by way of explanation. Nothing’s going to happen to Hancock and the professor if they don’t. It’s an ordeal for them to get through, with the shedding of as little light as possible.
But, the most obvious cover-up came when Ms May was asked how many healthcare workers have died because of COVID-19.
“We do have numbers of people who have died, whether they’re nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants, doctors,” she said. Yes, one would expect the Government to have this. But, we weren’t going to hear anything of it.
“It would be inappropriate for me right now to go into listing them and numbering them because we haven’t got necessarily all the position across England, with all of the people’s families given us the permission to talk about them,” she offered. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any individual death that we’ve seen.” Again, she gave an answer to a question that wasn’t asked and in doing so saved herself the trouble of providing the figures – which leaves us to presume that they are high and distressing.
My feeling towards all of this was a deep sense of anger, but also fear – that we will all simply become comfortably numb faced with this dose of constructed reality, day after day, at exactly the time that the UK is on a trajectory to record the highest COVID-19 death rates in Europe.
And once we have become numb, the charade bursts through and becomes our actual reality. The scene doesn’t need to be set every day anymore because we’re just expendable extras and the audience no longer.
I do not claim to have the solutions, but we must all find a way to stay alive to the truth, to continue to fight for basic justice – even if that’s simply within ourselves – and reflect on what role we are playing in what is unfolding.
As Dostoevsky said: “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others”. Perhaps we all need to start there.