There must be a quote from Shakespeare for this, but so far I haven’t found it. It’s the way we all of us contrive to see in cosmic events the evidence, the signs and portents, for what we already believed even before the cataclysm had occurred. These are the days of miracle and wonder, sang Paul Simon…
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry, baby, don’t cry, don’t cry…
Somehow there never was a plague, earthquake, flood or epidemic that was not also a sign that the human race must mend its ways according to wisdom we had long recommended, even during less extraordinary times. One fine day, perhaps, something remarkable and strange may happen that causes us to review, even (horrors) abandon, a dearly held belief. But not yet, baby, not yet, not yet…
Not we of the print and broadcast commentariat, anyway. And I hasten to say this starts with your columnist: at least as guilty as any one of my journalistic brethren. There was a sort of inevitability about my take on the latest emergency. You’d have guessed, wouldn’t you, that your predictably and sometimes tediously contrarian columnist, ever anxious to take a side-kick at Boris Johnson’s government, would find a way of representing this pandemic as overhyped? And your columnist — this hurts even to type it — may be wrong.
But so could others. So, chuckling this Easter weekend as I listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury remind his flock of the eternal Christian truths and values that Covid-19 is bringing home to an anxious nation, I made a little list of other familiar voices in our media: respected, every one of them, and rightly so, but very various in the opinions they publish, and each with his or her own slant on a sub-microscopic little virus that any objective observer, surely, would describe in the same way. So I plucked from the air a dozen or so names. ‘First,’ I thought, ‘let’s guess: how will each recruit the coronavirus pandemic to the particular bees in each bonnet? Then, having guessed, let’s see what they’ve actually said.’
A word, though, first. I’m not implying any one of them is wrong. With many I agree. With all I sympathise. We each have our particular schtick and we write accordingly. I don’t mock — or, OK, maybe just a little bit: but I mock myself too. And I smile at the dexterity with which this miserable pandemic can be bent to the service of so many conflicting opinions.
Take Polly Toynbee. Polly believes in the power of the benevolent and well-funded state. Gradgrind Tory governments are her bêtes-noires. As this pandemic peaks, she writes, ‘the NHS and social care’ are ‘brutally worn down by a decade of needless, ideologically driven austerity. Our stripped-down NHS will not be able to cope’.
But from the other side, The Spectator’s Charles Moore sees the NHS as an inefficient socialist monolith — as (he believes) Covid-19 has proved. ‘The inflexibility of our lumbering NHS,’ he writes in the Telegraph, ‘is why the country has had to shut down.’
Back at the Guardian, George Monbiot, whose journalism is rooted in a belief that we are wrecking our planet, sees a clear message written in the virus’s death statistics: ‘Covid-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation,’ he writes. The paper’s Simon Jenkins, however, hears a different wake-up call. Simon has been an excellent and tireless champion of localism over the decades. His ears prick up as coronavirus strikes. ‘We need local testing centres,’ he writes, ‘local food supplies, local elderly care, local employment assistance, above all, local leadership.’
Over at the Sunday Telegraph, Janet Daley hears in wailing ambulance sirens the call for a different kind of leadership. ‘Boris will be back,’ she writes, ‘We can give thanks for that.’ The Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges hears the same call. ‘Remember the caricature,’ he writes. ‘Boris was Jeremy Corbyn’s “part-time PM”… And then the country saw the reality. A man who had worked himself into the ground — and then intensive care — in his attempt to keep Britain safe.’ The MoS’s Peter Hitchens draws a different lesson from the virus’s spread as he laments ‘the Johnson government’s stumbling retreat from reason into fear’. Mr Hitchens, a tireless advocate of individual liberty, fears this pandemic is herding us towards a police state.
My Times colleagues are absorbed in other matters: attuned to other messages from medical science. Iain Martin, a strong advocate of Brexit, concludes, not without relish, that ‘coronavirus could blow the EU apart’. Philip Collins, no fan of Labour’s recent expedition into insanity, hopes it will blow Corbynism apart, mocking ‘[Corbyn’s] supporters [who are] so out of touch they believe Covid-19 measures represent a victory for their ideas’.
Janice Turner, an admirable battler against the trans lobby, notices the virus kills more men than women. ‘How extraordinary that it took Covid-19 to expose the absurdity of an utterly unscientific argument… that biological sex is not real but an artificial construct, randomly “assigned” to babies at birth.’
Meanwhile the Guardian’s Afua Hirsch, much of whose writing has been about the roots and consequences of racism, notices disproportionate deaths in black communities and wonders: ‘How come black people are bearing the brunt?’
But for the broadcaster and writer Justin Webb, a hammer of one particular US presidential bid, Covid-19 has a different target in its sights. ‘Step forward, Joe Biden. Fill the space. Calm the nerves… Do it daily. Build something of substance. That is the challenge… A low bar to be cleared, by a man or woman of any age. But he cannot do it.’ David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a campaigner for relief missions, sees a different challenge. ‘[The] world won’t be safe [from coronavirus] until poor nations get more aid.’
And finally to our James Delingpole, a writer I first noticed 15 years ago in his wonderful documentary about taking on the hair-raising tobogganist Cresta Run in Switzerland: a testament to the thrill of being scared. Writing now about the pandemic in Die Weltwoche, James laments the tragedy, but ‘what a time to be alive!’ he adds.
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