Notes From the Margins…

2020: The Year that Wasn’t

  • December 31, 2020
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Of all the things I expected from 2020 last New Year’s Eve, I have to say I did not expect to be living under actual or semi quarantine for nine months in the middle of a pandemic.  My wife was more prescient.  As far back as last December she expressed concern that the virus in Wuhan might reach the UK.

I didn’t believe her, but next time I will take her warnings more seriously.  Because this has been the year in which global society has been comprehensively up-ended in a way that few of us thought possible, as Covid-19 ripped through our interconnected shrunken world with startling speed and destructiveness, killing nearly 2 million people and infecting millions more.

Throughout this dismal year Covid has reminded us that – regardless of the technological achievements of 21st century global civilisation – we are biological creatures that can be unraveled by biological transformations – transformations that human activity has helped to cause.

The virus has wormed its way into the transportation and communication systems that bind that civilisation together, preying on its frailities and weaknesses.  Like the 1918 flu pandemic, it has exposed inequalities in public health provision, in the social, economic and racial divisions that have made some groups more vulnerable than others.

It has tested the resilience, preparedness, solidarity, ingenuity and inventiveness, of societies across the world.

For those who have lost loved ones to this vicious disease – often without being able to be physically near them  – 2020 is a year that they will never forget.  Millions of people who have had their lives thrown into turmoil will never forget it either.  Many have lost their jobs and livelihoods, or found themselves trapped in their homes.  Many will have undergone ordeals that may never be recorded.

I definitely consider myself one of the lucky ones.  Though my family and I caught covid at the beginning of the March lockdown, we weren’t as badly affected as some.  We have spent the quarantine in a warm and comfortable house.

We’ve had food, books, music, walks, things to watch.  We’ve been able to take exercise, and we’re fortunate to live in an area with the Peak District only  fifteen minutes from the house.

That said, 2020 is not a year I will look back on with much affection.  In terms of social interactions, and interactions with the wider world, it’s been a kind of half-life, stitching together meetings and encounters in gardens, parks, and hills, never knowing for sure whether the person you meet could be the one who infects you or the one you infect.

It has been galling and infuriating to observe the Johnson government’s catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic, with its delayed lockdown entries and premature exits, its over-promising and under-delivering, its failure to build resilience in terms of test and trace, its arse-covering and its lying, its botched comms and U-turns, its brazen cronyism and corruption – all of which has been hailed as some kind of triumph by the Tory press.

Many of these errors can be traced back to the same qualities that led to the Iraq War and of course to Brexit: British (English) exceptionalism; the unwillingness to listen to expertise or learn from good practice until too late; arrogance and hubris – all magnified by a government chosen for its loyalty rather than its competence and led by a terrifyingly narcissistic and sociopathic Prime Minister who appears only to want the country to love him as much as he loves himself.

This combination has ground the country down, creating one of the highest covid death tolls in the world, and adding to the chaos, disruption and anxiety caused by the pandemic, while wearing away at the public patience and solidarity without which no quarantine can be effective.  Last March, millions of people in the UK accepted quarantine restrictions with an impressive seriousness, resolve and sense of solidarity.

Despite the Dominic Cummings episode, and the government’s U-turns and chaotic messaging, much of that still holds.  Most people comply with the rules, even when the rules change so quickly and so suddenly that the government itself doesn’t seem to know what it wants.   At the same time it’s clear that public patience is wearing thin, and the growth of the ‘anti-lockdown’ movement is proof of that.

This ‘movement’ has many variants.  It includes those who think that covid is a ‘fake pandemic’ designed by evil puppetmasters to strip us of our freedoms;anti-vaxxers who believe that Bill Gates wants to put micro-chips in our brains; and libertarians who think that lockdowns and mask-wearing have no scientific or medical value.

Some of its adherents argue that lockdown ‘cure’ is worse than the pandemic itself; that the economic damage and/or damage to mental health is greater than the harm caused by the virus.  They will point out that most people who have died of covid are over sixty, or suffer from ‘underlying health conditions’ – categories that are far closer to the old Nazi concept of ‘worthless mouths’ than these faux-humanists are prepared to admit.

Instead of ‘police state’ lockdowns, they argue, lets just ‘shield the vulnerable’ and let everyone else carry on ‘as normal’ and ‘protect the economy.’

Never mind that there is no feasible or ethical way to ‘shield’ more than fifteen million people and pursue anything resembling normality, short of forcing the elderly and all the other underlying health condition weaklings into camps or quarantine towns.

Never mind that other countries -Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea – have all found ways to protect the economy and protect lives.  For the anti-lockdowners, everything is a culture war, and individual freedom – or simply clicks and media attention – is always more important than social solidarity.

Given the platforms that some of these people have, and given the ability – the only real ability that it has – of this government to alienate almost everybody sooner or later, it’s actually amazing that the constantly shifting rules and tiers are observed at all.

But discipline has held – just.  And now, at the end of this year-of-the-damned, we find ourselves in a contradictory predicament, in which infections and deaths are rising once again, yet the prospect of mass vaccinations offers at least the possibility that 2021 may bring some approximation of normality.

The speed with which these vaccinations have been developed is one of the positive takeaways from 2020. Contrary to the jingoistic bleatings of our ‘Secretary for Education’, as he is misleadingly known, this achievement is not due to our British greatness.

It is a tribute to science, and to the ingenuity and dedication of the community of scientists who made it possible.  So I end this year with a salute to them.

But most of all I salute the doctors, nurses, and NHS workers who have unflinchingly fought this virus throughout these last nine months, often risking – and losing – their lives when they should never have had to, because they were not supplied with the equipment they should have had.

In a country dominated by grifters, charlatans, profiteers and cynics who care about no one but themselves, the humanity, courage, and selflessness that the NHS has shown can point our way forward to something better than we have allowed ourselves to become.

I salute the care home workers, who watched covid devastate the people in their care when the virus was allowed to run unchecked, many of whose stories still need to be told.  I salute the delivery workers and supermarket workers and all those who kept the country fed throughout these last months.

Many of them have been on low wages and zero hour contracts throughout the crisis, like the 70-year-old delivery worker who came to our house throughout the year, getting 50p for every parcel he delivered.

These workers always deserved better and now they deserve it even more.  And we, as a country, deserve better than the grifting incompetents who have seized control of the country during these last ten years, and continue to choke the life out of it.

Tonight I will raise my glass to the prospect of their downfall, and the moment when the country recognises the destruction they have wrought and makes them pay for it.

I have to admit, I’m not holding my breath that this possibility is on the horizon, but I will continue to look forward to it, and do what little I can to bring it closer.

I hope you can do the same.  And I wish you all health, happiness, and safety over the next twelve months, and a better year than the one we’ve had. And I hope, as the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet once put it, that ‘you must take living so seriously/that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees -and not for your children, either/but because although you fear death you don’t believe it, because living, I mean, weighs heavier.’

Hikmet wrote those lines serving ten years in a Turkish jail for his political opinions.

He never gave up, and neither should we.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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