What Has Happened To Democracy?

I was asked this week how I am feeling about life in general and my answer was unequivocal – I feel angry and frustrated. I do not share the national wrath that seems to be on the point of explosion at the moment about the Posturing Prince and his Yank, although God knows they are becoming ever more irritating. Let them have their coming interview by all means – I will not be watching – but then could they please shut up and get back to the ‘privacy’ they were said to be seeking.

No, what is making me really angry at the moment is Bunter Johnson’s so-called road map out of lockdown. This was going to be based on data rather than dates yet it contained a series of dates that seem totally irrelevant.

If my calculations are correct – and that can never be guaranteed when days merge into days as we cower in our homes – we have another seventy nine days before lockdown is due to be lifted – perhaps.

Seventy nine long days – that is not far short of three months dammit!  That means many more little businesses going to the wall, many more jobs lost, many more families plunged into destitution, many more despairing suicides and a corresponding rise in mental health issues that are growing more frequent by the day. It just does not add up and seems excessively cautious no matter what the circumstances. It is less a roadmap to freedom as Bunter J presented it, than a fretful, slow-motion march towards a hyper-cautious future in which little liberties will be handed back, one by one and with conditions. The wonderful new dawn of returned freedom that we were promised once the vaccines had been successfully rolled out has diminished into a long round of continued restrictions and ongoing economic devastation. What on earth is going on?

It should be clear by now that the discussion about the future is not merely being guided by the ‘data’ as our Revered Leader claims. There is another factor and that is the culture of fear. The culture of excessive and unnecessary precautions. The idea that people must be shielded from risk, even if it is just the risk of mild illness, which is what most people will face from the Coronabug now that the old and the vulnerable – the folk most likely to die from this disease – have been inoculated.

Bunter J rightly scoffed at the daft idea that there could be a situation of ‘Zero Covid’ and yet his determination to keep society closed until Coronabug cases have fallen almost to zero suggests he is not as far removed from those daft people as he might think. Like them, he seems to think it is officialdom’s job to protect the populace from anything that is bad or in any way threatening; any nasty bug; any possibility of hospitalisation. It is not, and we will regret it for ever if this idiotically paternalistic idea, this commitment to extreme risk-minimisation takes hold in our society.

Here is what worries me about Bunter’s ruddy roadmap: it looks to me like a complete shift in the way society is understood, in the relationship between the state and the individual. The problem is far larger than the depressingly far-off dates for the resumption of civil liberty and the reopening of the economy: schools reopening on Monday (with mandatory masks for secondary-school pupils would you believe); retail and gyms reopening on 12th April; the number of people allowed to attend weddings and wakes going up to fifteen on that day too; indoor entertainment and mixing coming back on 17th May, though with the ‘rule of six’ and all legal limits on social interaction lifted on 21sty June – maybe but I would not bet on that.

And then what? I am scared silly by the idea that beyond these distant glimpses of liberty, there is the broader, increasingly influential idea that society can be brought to a standstill in response even to relatively mild risks.

As journalist Fraser Nelson wrote in the Telegraph last week, something odd has happened in the UK. The buzz of the marvellous vaccine rollout organised by the bog snorkelling lady has given way to a horrible excess of caution, the celebration of ‘slowness’ as the best way back to normality. ‘The over-fifties look set to be offered a vaccine by the end of March, a month ahead of schedule’, Nelson wrote and yet a ‘new goal is now being discussed: to suppress virus levels to the lowest rate possible.’ This negates Bunter’s own words and the emergence of ‘new goals’ has been a huge problem in recent weeks. The question of what we must achieve in the battle against the bug before we can open up seems to change by the day and although, I am no scientist and thankfully not a politician I accept that there will need to be monitoring and protection as we emerge from the pandemic. We will need to understand what impact, if any, reopening schools will have on transmission. And of course it is wise to assess the likelihood of an increase in hospitalisations in the under sixties and younger who have not been vaccinated yet but who will be soon. But given that those most at risk from serious illness or death from Covid-19 have been vaccinated to a high level of protection – the over eighties are far more likely than other age groups to be hospitalised with this virus, followed by those aged a few years younger we must surely ask what the government is now protecting us from. A virus whose impact on health is declining rapidly, and which will soon be rendered relatively mundane by human intervention? Should the government be protecting us from that? Of course they should not.

This is where ‘following the data’ becomes especially problematic. Data can tell us what is going on in terms of the spread of disease, and it can provide models of future scenarios (all of which are just possibilities not gospel predictions) but data cannot make moral judgements on humanity’s behalf. Data cannot decide what is the proper role of government during a pandemic. Data cannot determine what level of risk we human beings are willing to live with. Data cannot engage in the profound moral task of weighing up what is more important – restoring social and economic life or preventing people from getting a nasty bug, possibly requiring hospitalisation in some cases. No, these decisions must be guided by moral interrogation, political judgement and a democratic system.

The thing about lockdown that most concerns me is the suspension of democratic life. Yes, there was probably a need for restrictions during the darkest moments of the pandemic but surely ordinary people have a right to be properly involved in the discussion of measures that affect us all, especially in relation to the level of risk that communities and individuals are willing to endure. Right now, we should have the right to weigh up the risk of some people being hospitalised with a nasty viral infection against the risk of keeping the economy closed and society in limbo. But we do not seem to have that right. The ruddy data rules all our lives. We now live in a pseudo democracy where the public’s only role is to await the precise mathematical moment at which our liberty might be safely returned.

Enough is enough dammit! Zero Covid is not going to happen and nor is almost Zero Covid. But zero risk is a crazy idea, too. Life is full of risk. Freedom itself is risky. In taking it upon ourselves to pick our own path through life, to be free citizens, we take a risk. We risk making mistakes; we risk making decisions that an expert or even our parents could have advised us against making; we risk injury of both the physical and emotional variety; we risk being offended; we risk contracting other diseases; we risk making a hash of everything. That is all part of being free. We have decided as a civilisation, that a person’s risk of making a mess of things is far less dangerous to both the individual himself and to society than the risk of living in an authoritarian regime in which our only role is to follow instruction.

I am sorry but I want to live in a society that is free but occasionally risky rather than in a controlled society where we are cushioned from offence, and insult, and injury, and the need to make moral decisions about our lives and our communities.

As the vaccination programme rolls on, and the most vulnerable are protected from serious illness, we all need to demand from our rulers the freedom to risk contracting Coronabug for ourselves. Personally, I am well into my eighth decade and have taken a great number of risks during my long life yet I am still here and kicking so I am NOT going to be locked away like a prisoner while our lords and masters decide what they feel is good for me.

As you can probably tell from this rant, I have had more than enough of this madness and am determined to live as close to a normal life as is possible under this idiotic and vaguely dictatorial government.

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