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27 January 2021

Editor’s note: Our national mourning and the future of newspapers

A death toll of 100,000 is a moment of mourning and of national shame. But amid all the uncertainty a consensus is hardening: what comes next must be different to what came before.

By Jason Cowley

The recorded death toll from Covid-19 has passed 100,000 in the UK – though the true number may be higher. One can become numbed by, and inured to, the daily announcements of mortality figures and virus infection rates: the press conferences, the graphs and slides, the sombre pronouncements on the nightly news. At times, one longs to turn away from it all, to wish it were not so, were not true. But it is, and there’s no escaping the reality that the UK has the highest Covid death toll in Europe, and is close to having – if it does not already – the highest recorded per capita death rate in the world.

This feels like a moment of national mourning but also of national shame, despite the excellent progress made by the NHS on the roll-out of the vaccines. How has this happened? Was it inevitable because of the density of the United Kingdom’s population and our porous borders? Or are the government and its scientific advisers culpable?

[See also: Leader: An avoidable catastrophe]

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The purpose of this issue is not to indict the Johnson government, however: there is time enough for that. And we have reported many times on, and analysed, its multiple failures, its mixed messaging, its false optimism and its carelessness. What we want to do instead is to pause and reflect. We want our readers to consider how the crisis has changed the country.

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What will be its lasting social, economic, cultural and political consequences? Will we as societies and individuals experience post-traumatic growth, as happened after the Second Word War, when the country was united by something close to a shared sense of common purpose, or slip back into the old ways? Will we educate our children differently and stop teaching so relentlessly, mercilessly, to the Govian test? Will we invest in our public realm and build a more resilient economy, so that we are better prepared and less vulnerable to the next crisis in this new era of “chronic emergency”, as the Swedish academic Andreas Malm calls it?

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So many questions, and though in the darkness of this pandemic winter we have few answers, there is at least a consensus hardening that the era of market-driven globalisation that brought us astounding technological innovation alongside ecological devastation and unsustainable inequalities has run its course. What comes next must be different from what went before. The status quo was unacceptable even before Covid. The masks on our faces are, as the American writer Leon Wieseltier has observed, “emblems of an entire era of vulnerability”.

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One of the most disturbing consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, as my colleague Sarah Manavis writes in this issue, is a mental health crisis. In England as many as six million people are reported to be taking some form of antidepressant. Dependence on medication was already rising rapidly before the pandemic: 70.9 million prescriptions for antidepressants were given out in England in 2018, compared with 36 million in 2008, according to data from NHS Digital reported in the BMJ. “It’s no understatement to say that the nation is facing a mental health pandemic,” Rose Weatherley of the charity Mind tells Sarah. We will be writing much more about the effects of this other, lesser noticed pandemic in the months ahead.

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“The Peak”, by the novelist Ed Docx, a 7,000-word account of a day in the life of Jim Down, a leading intensive care consultant at University College Hospital, London, is the best piece of writing I’ve read about the emergency inside our hospitals. Docx follows Dr Down, from the moment he wakes, on the day in April of the peak number of Covid-19 deaths in UK hospitals during the first wave. It was published in the New Statesman last May, and we had a tremendous response to it.

“The Peak” is in the best tradition of Tom Wolfe’s “New Journalism”, but without the gonzo humour. Docx uses fictional techniques – narrative, dialogue, character development, time shifts – to tell a true story. It’s as if he inhabits Jim Down’s very being, becomes him even. We know what the doctor does but also what he thinks as he struggles to save lives, communicates with grieving families and reassures exhausted colleagues. “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity,” wrote Ian McEwan a few days after the 9/11 attacks. “It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.”

Docx’s essay is a work of imaginative empathy that distils the very essence of compassion. You can read it, if you missed it first time around, at: tinyurl.com/jimdown

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In this issue, David Hare writes that while he expects live entertainment and foreign travel to enjoy post-pandemic booms, he is more doubtful about the future of newspapers. He might be right. Ever since I worked as a paperboy in my early teens, I have loved newspapers. But since the start of the pandemic, I have stopped buying them and I don’t think I’ll start again any time soon because, having taken out digital subscriptions to the Times, the Financial Times and the New York Times, I realise I much prefer their digital editions. For a more immersive reading experience, I buy print magazines – the London Review of Books, the Economist, the Atlantic – rather than newspapers, and can avoid hyper-polarised comment and endless celebrity interviews into the bargain. But for news and news analysis, my choice is now exclusively digital, or the broadcast news – one more change in my habits instigated by lockdown. 

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost