Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Everyday Emergencies

Lorna Finlayson

An emergency is defined not by the inherent badness or dangerousness of a situation, but by what we make of it. To call something an ‘emergency’ is to declare that something can and must be done about it – even at the cost of significant disruption to everyday life. Things judged to be beyond our immediate ability to control, however painful, rarely qualify. Thus ‘mad cow disease’ in the 1990s was an emergency, or at least a crisis, whereas hundreds of thousands of mostly older people losing their memories and senses of self each year is not. In practice, judgements about what is possible are rarely fully distinguishable from judgements about what – and who – matters, and how much. Often, the former kind of judgement serves as cover for the latter. Three hundred thousand people without homes was too intractable a problem for the government to tackle until, suddenly, it mattered enough to act upon (albeit imperfectly and likely temporarily). The teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s declaration last year that “Our house is on fire” – nothing if not a call to recognise the existential threat of climate change as an emergency – made no impression on the world leaders to whom it was addressed. But the clearing of the air above cities, a by-product of the suspension of our ‘normal’ activities, reveals how much can be done, and how quickly, when it matters to those whose judgements matter.

The UK government did not want to make an emergency of the coronavirus pandemic. From the first, their response has exhibited a familiar blend of fatalism and indifference. The policy of ‘herd immunity’ – which health secretary Matt Hancock would have us believe was a figment of our imaginations – was sold to us as an acceptance of the inevitable: that most of the population would become infected, whatever we did. There was no point in closing schools, we were told – a couple of weeks before schools were closed – because that would only make things worse, as children would go to their grandparents and infect them. No point cancelling sporting events – even as sporting organisations took it upon themselves to cancel – because people would only watch them huddled together in pubs, which would be even worse. And we couldn’t close pubs, because, well, we’re British. We would, our Prime Minister said before almost succumbing to the virus himself, “take it on the chin.” His chief aide Dominic Cummings, now known to have been present at meetings of the supposedly independent scientific body SAGE, reportedly commented that if protecting the economy “means some pensioners die, too bad.” The virus was declared low risk to all but the elderly and infirm – those who might anyway die of seasonal flu. Reports of the first deaths were careful to include the phrase ‘pre-existing condition’. Only as Covid-19 began to claim the lives of younger and fitter people did its victims, young and old alike, stop ‘dying of’ the disease and start ‘dying with’ it, the cause of their deaths suddenly an open question.

A number of explanations have been offered for Britain’s fatally sluggish response. One is that the government underestimated the virus’s deadly potential, thinking of it too much along the lines of pandemic flu. That the warnings from Italy and Spain failed to break the hold of this thinking has been attributed to an arrogant British exceptionalism – a sense that ‘we’ were different, that it couldn’t happen here. Some have suggested, additionally, that the government was in receipt of poor advice about how best to contain the spread of the disease and limit its damage – in particular, that the advice from behavioural scientists underestimated the British public’s tolerance for restrictions to their daily lives. There is doubtless some truth to each of these, but they point to the ideological post-rationalisations employed by our leaders rather than their deeper motivation (or in this case, lack of it). Even by their own optimistic early assumptions – of a flu-like disease with a mortality rate of around one percent – simple arithmetic must have told them that a virus projected to infect up to four fifths of a nation of close to 70 million people meant a potential death toll of more than 500,000. Nor is it credible to suggest, as some commentators have, that a principled attachment to personal liberty held Johnson back from taking more decisive action – though a love of popularity might have. His government was not so slow to use the coronavirus as an occasion to introduce sweeping emergency powers, covering everything from policing and immigration to mental health.

The more likely explanation for the UK government’s inaction is less principled, and more rational: they just didn’t think it mattered. From the point of view of the reigning Conservatives, this made a good deal of sense. They had already brought about the deaths of more than 100,000 through their austerity policies, and not only got away with it but been rewarded with a huge majority. Why should this be different? Like austerity, this virus looked set to hit the most vulnerable hardest – and in fact, this has to a large extent been borne out, as the suffering and death has been concentrated disproportionately among poorer and ethnic minority communities. While it might seem unwise to kill off your own electoral base, i.e. the elderly, how many of them will be around in four years anyway? Besides, a cull of ‘unproductive’ members of society – the sick, elderly or disabled – would have economic benefits in terms of the cost of pensions and social care. For someone like Cummings, with a documented penchant for eugenics, the prospect must have been doubly alluring.

What seems to have forced the government to change course, in the end, was not the discovery of the virus’s deadliness – that was known already – but of the degree to which people valued their own lives. The discovery was not that people would tolerate a lockdown, after all, but that they were demanding one. Now, according to one Cabinet source, ‘They are waiting for the public to change their minds.’ It remains to be seen whether we will tolerate a return to the ‘normality’ our leaders so desperately crave. 

An Introduction to Feminism by Lorna Finlayson
An Introduction to Feminism by Lorna Finlayson

About The Author

Lorna Finlayson

Lorna Finlayson is Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex. She is the author of The Political Is Political: Conformity and th...

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