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Why should our politics guide our opinion on Covid?

David Mitchell
·6-min read

Last weekend, the vaguely leftwing tweets in my social media echo chamber turned to clucks of disapproval because of the front-page headline on Saturday’s Daily Mail. This is not, I realise, an unusual occurrence and is often justified. Who can forget “Enemies of the People”, the headline it printed in 2016 when three judges said parliament had to be consulted before triggering article 50? Accompanied by photos of the senior judiciary it wished to demonise, this seemed an almost conscious echo of the paper’s former fondness for nazism.

In this case the offending splash was about the coronavirus. “What is the truth about Covid deaths?” it asked in a font that heavily implied the question was rhetorical. What followed was a report saying that some people have had their causes of death registered as Covid despite recently testing negative for it. This is on top of the not-inconsiderable number who have died from other causes but had coronavirus in their bodies when they did so.

The echo chamber didn’t like this because the Mail is rightwing and so is assumed to be on the wrong side of history where Covid is concerned. The conclusion is immediately leapt to that this story is dangerous crypto-Covid-denial and will lead to thousands of deaths. Current political orthodoxy dictates that, if you’re left-leaning, you’re all about safety, distancing, mask-wearing, praising the NHS and absolutely not opening the pubs too soon, and that’s all anyone should be saying about Covid. So by saying something different, the already suspect Mail reveals itself as a bunch of, at best, Covidiots and, at worst, Covillains who would advocate breaking into care homes and licking all the patients’ faces if only there was a way it could be monetised.

What gets ignored in this politically polarised milieu is that, in reporting this story, the Mail is doing a good thing. It’s scrutinising the system. If people’s deaths are being incorrectly registered and if there’s evidence, albeit anecdotal, of an inclination in some healthcare contexts to ascribe death to Covid on insufficient evidence, it’s the job of the press to expose that. It seems vanishingly unlikely that this is happening enough to significantly alter the overall picture of the coronavirus’s deadliness, but it’s still wrong. Criticising the paper for saying this, purely because it’s a departure from the approved Covid-safety liturgy, is fatuous mud-slinging.

We are all now used to the apparently uniform correlation between people’s overall political outlook and their views about the lockdown. The left is seemingly 100% pro-lockdown, while the right is tainted by lockdown scepticism. But, if you think about it, this is a bizarre state of affairs. Why should our instinctive response to this virus have anything to do with our politics? And, if it does, why is the correlation that way round?

Striking a balance between the living of life and the saving of life is a constant human quandary

The fear and threat to life caused by the virus affects left and rightwingers alike. If anything, as the elderly are both more likely to die of Covid and to vote Tory, you’d imagine the viral safety push would skew more rightwing than left. Similarly, the negative effects of lockdown measures are felt across the political spectrum but with younger and less affluent people, who are statistically more likely to be Labour voters, suffering more. So again, if anything, you might expect lockdown scepticism to come more from the left.

Perhaps language is partly to blame. The rhetoric of safety is hard to counter and, in Britain’s lamely capitalist way, all the attempts to do so have involved citing the economy. That, in turn, has led to accusations from the left that any murmurs against the lockdown’s severity are putting money ahead of people’s lives. This is enormously simplistic as it’s not economic activity that the lockdown primarily prevents, but just activity in general – freedom, life. Striking a balance between the living of life and the saving of life is a constant human quandary and causes rows about everything from wearing seatbelts to climbing mountains. But that whole complex discussion has been silenced as a horrific attempt to drive the vulnerable into their graves in the name of GDP.

The result is that, in this unnuanced age, commitment to a tough lockdown has been added to the long list of things that you have to wholeheartedly think to avoid the leftwing bits of the internet denouncing you as a quisling to the cause of progress. This puts Keir Starmer in an awkward position, which Boris Johnson has clearly noticed. As the government’s approach to lockdown has become more and more virally cautious, and less and less concerned with the economy, so Starmer’s political room for manoeuvre has disappeared. In response to new measures, he can only bleat a grudging assent and say something moany about the furlough. Any attempt he might make to represent the views of those Labour voters more desperate for the lockdown to end than for it not to end too soon would be deemed a heretical departure from the tribal orthodoxy.

This unhelpful presumed alignment between the left and “safety” and the right and “the economy” reduces the debate on the handling of the pandemic to one about ideology rather than competence. That suits the prime minister very well because his government is packed with incompetent people. He didn’t realise, back in 2019, that his hand-picked array of pro-Brexit yes-cretins would have to run the country during a fast-changing emergency. But while Covid remains a left-versus-right issue in which Johnson can push Starmer towards demanding more and more joyless safety, and then saying “OK, thanks” when he gets it, the issue of competence is hardly raised.

As a result, Johnson finds himself in an amazingly jammy position: his government has imposed brutal curbs on civil liberties, presided over the highest death rate in the world and entirely closed down normal life, so that the economy has tanked, no one’s getting educated, no one’s making any money and no one’s allowed any fun. The prime minister has seemingly conjured up the absolute worst of all worlds. And yet, despite all that, he’s virtually unopposed by all but a few grumpy fellow Tories, enjoying massive public support thanks to the vaccine rollout, and seven points clear in the polls.