Boris Johnson’s decision to lift all the Plan B restrictions to combat the Omicron variant in England seems to have brought the pandemic era here to an end. His government is treating Covid-19 as endemic and wants the old rhythms of daily life restored. This is not an erroneous idea: any chance of collective recovery for the whole of the UK depends on people acting as if such a thing is possible. Modern economies run on animal spirits – what Keynes called “a spontaneous urge to action and not inaction” – and these have been absent since 2020. But the Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s declaration that we should “get life completely back to normal” does not begin to take account of what has happened to the very idea of normality.
The past two years have constituted a double shock to assumptions that underpinned conceptions of modern life in the West. The first comes from the pandemic, which hit Western countries disproportionately hard. The possibility that more than 5.6 million people across the world could die from a new virus and that – by official figures – more than half of them would be North American or European, and less than 5 per cent of them African, was not a scenario most people in the West had ever imagined. The second shock was lockdown. Scarcely anyone could have thought that the physical movement between domestic life, work and pleasure could be interrupted for so long.
To comprehend these shocks is to leave old certainties behind. Our new reality is captured in Roy Ward Baker’s brilliant 1958 film A Night to Remember about the last hours of the Titanic. In the movie’s opening scene, the ship’s second officer, Charles Lightoller, shares a train carriage with an older man who launches into a defence of the world’s largest passenger steamer as “the symbol of progress, man’s final victory over nature and the elements”. In the final scene, Lightoller – who saved 30 people after diving into the Atlantic moments before the Titanic sank and would later engage in heroics at Dunkirk – converses with an upper-class American. Sensing his fellow survivor’s self-recriminations about the disaster, this older man tells Lightoller “you’re not God”. Lightoller retorts that “no seaman ever thinks he is” and reveals he has been shipwrecked before. But “this is different”, he continues, “because even though it’s happened, it’s still unbelievable. I don’t think I’ll ever feel sure again, about anything.”
The two shocks we have endured are both incomprehensible, but in different ways. Although the virus has been a blow to the idea of irreversible progress, the Western assumption that scientific and technological advance separate our lives from those of our pre-modern ancestors has been declining for some time. The fear of an almighty reckoning for modern hubris lurked beneath the surface of our outward self-confidence long before the pandemic; it is why the Titanic story continues to hold its place in the cultural mythos. Where death itself is concerned, the idea that modernity severs the past from the present has always been absurd. This was true even during the pandemic, when societies clung to the belief that modern states were equipped to stop the disease.
The other shock – the command to stay inside and isolate – cuts deeper. There was no prior script. The pandemic preparations that existed before Covid – preparations that were premised on a deadlier respiratory virus originating in Asia – included neither lockdowns nor border closures. But instead of acting according to their own plans, Western governments followed what China did in Wuhan. In rewriting what they thought was both epidemiologically desirable and socially possible, Western governments changed the lives of their citizens, as well as transforming the economies, institutions and associations of Western democracies. Nobody can begin to comprehend what the long-term consequences will be, not least on the imaginations of the young.
What can explain this deferral to the Chinese method of pandemic management? Despite the promises that they are ushering in a net zero energy revolution, Western governments are haunted by a loss of faith in modernity. By contrast, the Chinese state is the last bastion of the 19th- and 20th-century ambition to transform material life on a historic scale and, as Mao told Chinese workers, “to conquer nature”. The Communist Party’s rule is legitimated at home by the idea that it will realise and sustain the conditions of industrial civilisation through the systematic use of science and technology. This imperative may co-exist with the fear, felt by Xi Jinping and his advisers, that the country faces potentially ruinous geopolitical and social hazards. But there remains an apparently undisturbed conviction that the future of a society can be manufactured by the vast political agency of the state, a belief that is now largely absent in those who govern Western democracies.
The difference between this faith and an ersatz imitation of it in a state of emergency is conspicuous. China’s leadership does not accept that the virus is here to stay. The country is shut to the rest of the world and will have to remain so until Xi admits zero Covid is unrealisable. Unable to contemplate a permanent war against the virus, most Western governments are retreating into the limits of realism. It is now time, they say, to adapt – whatever has shattered and whoever we have become.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed