At every stage of this crisis, it seems the British government aren’t just a step or two behind the rest of the world. They’re deliberately traipsing along at the rear like surly teenagers taken to see a museum devoted to the stirrup pump. It’s pathological how this government chooses to do the wrong thing and it’s starting to feel like there’s something else going on; that we’ve entered Logan’s Run territory and some decision has been made that this might be a jolly good opportunity to thin out the population and ease some of the burden on the state…
The rest of the world have concluded that face masks are necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. At a time when science is struggling to understand the virus and occasionally offers conflicting hypotheses, face masks are one of the few areas where there’s consensus. They won’t necessarily stop any of us from catching the coronavirus, which can enter through the eyes in the form of water droplets. Masks can, however, prevent those droplets from forming, catching the particulate matter at source. Even if they don’t reduce the spread by 100%, they reduce it enough to matter.
Yet, I guess, compulsory masks must break some ideological taboo that Conservatives hold most dearly. Michael Gove has now announced that wearing them won’t be made compulsory. Perhaps he sees it as the curtailment of human rights or the reverse niqāb argument that I’ve been surprised hasn’t been made more often. Masks take us right into the heart of eighteenth-century moral philosophy; the questions posed by John Stuart Mill, who asked: “how much of human life should be assigned to individuality, and how much to society?”
In this instance, I can’t see why it isn’t entirely a matter for society. Indeed, it begins to resemble the vaccination arguments which I’m sure lie waiting for us at the end of the year. We all have to agree to wear a mask or it quickly becomes pointless. We only protect each other if we all seek to protect each other. One person can infect a crowd in seconds. Research suggests that the virus lingers in the air for a conservable time. You can walk into an empty room and still catch it. It’s worth repeating again and again: the virus has a lethality of 0.6%, which is much lower than the 5% that’s often mentioned. However, the discrepancy between the two figures is indicative of why COVID-19 is so special. It is hugely transmissible. Many people who catch it might not even know that they’ve had it. It means they don’t get tested and don’t get recorded in government figures. So, whilst only 0.6% of people die, that’s more like 5% of people recorded in the statistics (or 15% of people when testing is conducted as poorly as in the UK).
The Conservative failing is they have libertarian urges which often lead them into very bad places. “There is no such thing as society” remains one of the silliest things ever said by Margaret Thatcher but also one of the silliest things ever said by a mainstream politician. In wanting to privilege the individual above everything else, she ignored the special thing that happens once individuals begin to form relationships. At scale, we end up with culture which exhibits something almost akin to an evolving intelligence which we recognise as progress. Our long history has shown that societies are stronger than the individual. Whisper it quietly but this, after all, is the beauty of the capitalism system: allowing people to specialise rather than attempting to do everything themselves. The rustic life of the medieval farmer might sound fun, but you’ll be spending many long hours trying to build your silicon fabrication plant in order to make your own iPhone and desktop PC.
Myself, I find it hard to fathom this obsession with the individual. Society gets such a bad rap these days. For instance, I made the mistake last night of watching Joker. I say a mistake because it was a well-made movie but morally blank and pretentiously ambiguous. The character of Arthur spent the entire movie complaining about how ugly the world was; his various forms of psychosis reflecting the events in that world. On one level – the awful level that made it painful to watch – it is a film entirely about one man’s sickness. Stripped of the comic book sensibility, the film was just prolonged pain and I found it upsetting. On another level, however, the film was about how society makes people ill. It was the origins story of the famous villain who ends up meting out revenge on Gotham City.
The argument it presents, however, is pretty dire: nobody is civil any more so people do not need to be civil. Society drives us all to commit crimes so committing crimes is okay. Society is sick so sickness is normal. That, I guess, is very much part of the Batman universe given he is probably the one superhero who is classically neurotic. Yet that is perhaps why superhero movies are also so unhealthy. They’re rarely about people and almost never about society. We’ve just replaced our old gods with new gods; raging egos that quite literally fight in the sky to decide the big matters of right and wrong. We worship them because we don’t believe in ourselves. Which, incidentally, was why I hated that cartoon that became popular in recent months. It had superheroes bowing down to nurses… It wasn’t that I didn’t approve of the message but the notion that the validation by these entirely fictional characters should be worth more than the society of ordinary women and men that supports and funds the health service.
Is it any wonder why superheroes are worshipped by a society that’s constantly told that the only thing that matters is the individual?
And yet the great irony in all of this, of course, is that they all wear masks…