ThinkLockdown: before the Tsunami

ThinkLockdown: before the Tsunami

by Linda Holt
article from Thursday 26, March, 2020

OVER THE WEEKEND, hordes of townies flooded into the countryside in search of refuge from the coronavirus. Curiously, however, no-one seems to have predicted this mass evacuation.

The spectacle brought to mind the opening sequence of the 70s dystopian TV serial Survivors  (pictured), which imprinted itself on my teenage mind. The passports of rich businessmen were shown accumulating stamps as they flew frantically from country to country, trying to outrun a far deadlier virus than Covid-19. Of course, it was impossible, and their actions only hastened the virus’s spread across the globe.

It’s hardly surprising that people frightened to the point of panic do not act rationally, as the obsessive stockpiling of toilet paper and pasta proved. They did it because other people did it. Because they saw empty shelf upon empty shelf. Because in the face of an unknown threat, it seemed like a way to protect themselves and their families, however ineffectual or even harmful it might prove to be.

Last week we witnessed a similar urge, to flee to somewhere remote and less populous – ironically, to take the abstract advice on social distancing and self-isolation quite literally. Why on earth didn’t the UK government realise that there would be an exodus of people from cities to rural areas? It had already happened in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, leading to lockdowns. Did they think that the British would somehow be more sensible? It has been said that Boris Johnson and his advisors refrained from imposing more draconian measures because they feared people would not accept them, or would get bored and give up in a matter of weeks just when the progress of the virus made it imperative that no one leave their homes.

I think there were more culturally specific reasons for the UK government’s reluctance when compared to European states that experienced fascism and communism, invasion and occupation.

The majority of UK citizens have no memory or experience of the degree of state infringement that a lockdown involves. Many Europeans can’t understand how we still (!) function as a society without personal identity cards; armed police are still the exception here, rather than the rule. British people, rightly, rail against such incursions into their civil liberties and are sceptical of attempts to justify them.

Perhaps Boris Johnson shared such inclinations, hoping that the Blitz spirit and English decency would ensure that people voluntarily followed official advice? Or perhaps he made a more cynical calculation: to limit opposition and resistance to a lockdown and Emergency Powers Act simply by waiting for things to get bad enough?

As infections and death stats tracked Italy’s, and outrage grew online about people flouting social distancing advice, politicians from all parties were forced to denounce the transgressors and call for stronger action. Boris Johnson’s historic broadcast to the nation on Monday night was received with near-universal relief.  There is now barely a peep of dissent about the Emergency Powers Act being fast-tracked through parliament.

The next day the roads were empty. Many shops had shut. Those still open are now attended only by intermittent single shoppers, in stark contrast with the frantic bustle of the last few weeks. Everything is uncannily quiet. On Facebook, a doctor likens the UK’s current situation to the false stillness of the sea just before a tsunami strikes.

Linda Holt is an independent Councillor for East Neuk & Landward

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