The scene at the hospital may present an especially shocking example of the casual way in which many people in London continue to confront a pandemic that has killed more than 57,000 Britons, but it is hardly unusual.
Coronavirus cases are again increasing rapidly, yet shoppers routinely wander the aisles of the supermarket in our North London neighbourhood, Hampstead, without wearing masks. Cafes and pubs are full of people hoisting drinks in proximity. Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behaviour is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39 per cent in May.
The modern Britain that we learn about in history lessons supposedly displayed its truest character during World War II, when Winston Churchill exhorted the nation to persevere in the face of the Blitz, the relentless German bombing campaign. People pulled together and endured in a collective effort whose inconveniences and indignities were borne as the cost of defeating the enemy.
“The government issued 35 mn gas masks to civilians, who carried them to work and church, and kept them at their bedsides,” writes Erik Larson in his history of the Blitz, The Splendid and the Vile. “Strict blackout rules so darkened the streets of the city that it became nearly impossible to recognise a visitor at a train station after dark.” How did that society turn into this one? Or is society more or less the same, while the nature of the menace has changed, triggering a different response? People with long memories counsel against using romanticised depictions of the past as jumping off points for lamenting supposed decline.
The current crisis seems exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in the conventional historical narrative — an admirable refusal to bend. The national mantra, “keep calm and carry on,” seems to have been reconfigured into the misguided notion that nothing is amiss. “There is a sense of bravado, and not being a wimp about illness, and you can just soldier through it,” said Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian novelist who lives in North London. “There is this idea of, ‘Don’t be a wuss, man up, get on with it.’”
Preventing transmission of the virus requires behaviour that feels rude: not holding doors for fear of getting too close to other people; wearing masks that obscure smiles; avoiding unnecessary interactions. This feels more poignant in England, given the degree to which social discourse is governed by manners and ritual. Forgoing small talk with the butcher feels uncomfortable.
But that sense of remove may make it even harder for people here to follow the strictures imposed to halt the virus. In what amounts to both a stereotype and an observable truth, many English people require the aid of lubrication to bond with others. This means that closing pubs amounts to a revocation of basic human connection. This legacy endured as the pandemic emerged in Britain, now led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose predilection for stagecraft over substance frequently draws comparisons to President Trump.
The results — the sense of hypocrisy, the confusion, the muddled messages — may account for why many people are flouting the rules. “This is a time when you really need government to step up and be very clear with its messaging,” said Dabbagh, the novelist. ”I think people would respond to messages if they were clear. Now, it’s all being pushed onto the individual to make these decisions.”
Goodman is a London-based European economics correspondent. NYT©2020
The New York Times