The Left pushes for hard Covid measures (again)
A subculture of safety could be making a comeback.
This week George Monbiot, the well-known environmental journalist and climate campaigner, has written another polemical Guardian column about Covid, extolling the virtues of mask-wearing in hospitals and endorsing keeping school children with a runny nose or sore throat at home.
He claims that the Government is acting like “Covid-19 is all but over”, unaware of the epidemiological differences between an epidemic and endemic disease, and the vital role of herd immunity. Unsurprisingly, he overstates the risk of re-infection and long Covid, using fear-mongering language.
But most egregiously, he points to “steady rising” Covid deaths, leaving out some vital details. Data from the Office of National Statistics in England and Wales shows there were nearly five times more influenza deaths (1,229) than Covid deaths (255) last week, and 89% of these deaths with Covid were in people over 70 years old.
Unfortunately, Monbiot is just one example of many on the Left who are pushing for such measures. From Leftist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Bruno Latour to journalists such as Amy Goodman and Ed Yong and academics, including members of Independent Sage and the World Health Network, many on the Left became Covid hardliners during the pandemic and promoted a new safety subculture that persists today.
While there are some outward manifestations of this subculture around us — masks, boosters, social distancing, vaccine mandates — it is also guided by a distinct political philosophy: government “complacency” is responsible for “deliberately infecting” people with Covid, and causing a “mass disabling event”, because they are not providing a Covid-safe environment.
Despite pushback within some corners of the Left, these critiques, for the most part, fell on deaf ears. Instead, the pandemic was coopted as a radical moment to “rethink everything”. Hence, lockdowns were praised as an exercise in mass empathy, concerns about social trade-offs were dismissed as a Right-wing conspiracy, large restrictions on free speech were heralded as a necessary strategy to fight “disinformation”, vaccine mandates were promoted as a way to punish non-conformists, and fears about the threat of Covid to the young and healthy were repeatedly hyped up.
Where does this impulse on the Left come from? Clearly, there is a connection between these critiques of the Covid response and Leftist critiques of climate inaction. Fear of Covid drew upon the apocalyptic imagery of ecosystem destruction and concerns about chemical contamination, which was turbocharged by the safetyism associated with the lockdown era.
Indeed, there is ideological crossover among those who advocate for maximalist Covid controls and maximalist policies for the climate emergency. The ultimate solutions to both involve some mix of greater state controls on individual behaviours, a radical overhaul of capitalism and a fight against “anti-science” forces. We have already seen, for example, climate lockdowns, personal carbon credits and bans on meat enter the climate debate, ideas with which writers like Monbiot have also toyed, albeit with some ambiguity.
Yet from Covid to climate, we urgently need to cultivate a greater ability to balance social trade-offs in how we respond to health emergencies. Otherwise, we risk being carried to extremes by the lofty rhetoric of security, saviourism and “the science”.
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