Our beliefs about what the best responses are and how we should behave have been challenged by the Covid pandemic. Is Omicron now just like the flu, meaning we can relax, or does that overlook the continuing crisis in hospitals, the record hospitalisation rates for children, the continuing deadly danger for elderly and clinically vulnerable people, and the long Covid? Is it time for the government in England to abandon self-isolation rules, or is it just politically expedient for the prime minister?
Our narratives are not the same. Most people accepted that restrictions were necessary to prevent the health system from imploding and to reduce the risks for vulnerable people when libertarians insisted that masks were violations of civil liberty. The public health expert from Edinburgh University, who previously advised caution and criticized the government strategy, has suggested that the virus has been largely defeated and that it is time to move forward. Others point out that this isn't an option open to everyone. There is a lot of talk of the virus becoming anemic, but one that is nonsensical if you know what the word means, and one that reflects an increasing sense that we will have to learn to live with the virus.
It is foolish to tell a simple story about where we are. The way the Pandemic Century ends is never quick and never neat according to Mark Honigsbaum. He argued that we yearn for narrative closure and that the government's chief scientific advisers floated the idea of "herd immunity" in the early days of the epidemic. The narratives are coming home to roost.
The military narrative adopted by the government encourages that dream of closure. Government and its representatives declared a war on coronaviruses, and described their response as a battle plan, according to a sociologist at the University of York. In July 2020 Boris Johnson promised that it would all be over by Christmas, but he was mistaken about the first world war. Even last week Javid insisted that the Omicron variant is in retreat, despite warnings of the harm warfare metaphors can wreak in medicine.
All this jingoistic battlespeak is British, and it's also related to the exceptionalist ideology of the UK's exit from the EU. It enabled the deaths of health workers on the front line to be framed as a noble sacrifice by heroes, rather than the cost of neglect. The government advice to "stay alert" was so crazy that it seemed as though we should be on the look out for viruses in the shadows.
The idea of an armistice day when the foe was defeated was encouraged by this war narrative. The full relaxation of restrictions on 19 July last year was dubbed Freedom Day. As experts always knew, there will never be a triumphant declaration of "herd immunity", much less of "surrender" from a virus that is still generating worse versions of Omicron.
The favourite candidate seems to be living with a disease. It is flawed. Javid and others who believe personal choice should be society's guiding principle use the phrase "it's time to get real, man up and stop hiding behind masks." Javid said that people die of flu as well. We don't shut down our entire country in a bad flu year, but you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives. This doesn't mean we abandon other preventive measures and just take it on the chin. Maybe we should accept that mask-wearing to reduce airborne infections is not just a weird thing people do in Asian countries, and that maybe mild, minimally inconveniencing measures like better ventilation and some degree of social isolation at the height of the flu season might reduce that death.
The idea that we should just be getting on with our lives is part of the narrative that if victory isn't an option, we need to be more stoical. If you don't have to cram on to trains every morning and don't lose your income when you're off work with the virus, that's all good. By the same token, restrictions also hit the poor the hardest. There are no perfect solutions or tidy endings while inequality persists, and we are not all in this one together.
There are simplistic stories about where we are with Covid. None can be universal and none captures the whole picture. We have been living with the virus for two years and will continue to do so. Don't use the slogans.