But it was easy to use Covid fears to justify extraordinary steps that enabled governments to exercise unrestrained power and trample basic civil rights.
It was easy to extend temporary emergency measures first adopted for the specific purpose of protecting health systems by “flattening the curve.” As Michael Betrus recounts, even as the original rationale faded, lockdowns became permanent in many places, shutting down businesses, schools, and churches for long periods in all but five U.S. states (and most European countries). For the sake of “preventing transmission” and “saving lives,” various governments claimed special powers to restrict freedom of movement, assembly, and worship, and to suspend children’s right to an adequate education. While some sought support from legislatures, others, including a number of U.S. governors, ruled by fiat. “Covid mania” made liberty a “nuisance.”
Q: Last summer, you said the enhanced federal and state unemployment benefits also made it hard for you to staff your restaurant. How so?
A: In the very beginning, when the government offered it, I think it was $600 on top of what the state was offering for unemployment. Here in California, it was about $1,100 a week. Initially we did lay everybody off, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. As we started helping out with the community and building some business, our business came back, and we needed those employees back. So we started reaching out to everybody. A lot of people were like, “Look, I’m making $1,100 right now not working. I’ve got books I want to read. I’ve got classes I want to take online.”
If I was 19 years old and I could make $1,500 as a server working 50 hours a week, or I could make $1,100 sitting at home, reading books, learning an instrument, heck, I would do it too.
Am I being too harsh? “Give the guy a break!,” I hear some readers cry. At a time of national emergency, Mr Hancock has had one of the most stressful jobs. The pressure must have been immense. Surely, we can extend some leeway if he strayed.
Under normal circumstances, I would agree. We are all humble sinners and a man or woman’s private peccadillos shouldn’t disqualify them from doing their job. But no such understanding or humanity – not a sliver of mercy – has been shown by the Secretary of State or this Government to members of the public who have broken often cruel and arbitrary rules. Remember how we watched in horror as police arrested a retired nurse as she tried to drive her 97-year-old mother away from a care home. Hundreds of thousands of people have departed this life without a last touch or kiss from their best beloveds because the restrictions forbade it so relatives sobbed in the carpark because Matt Hancock said it must be so. Almost 30,000 children have been put on anti-depressants yet just one positive test (without any Covid symptoms) can still send an entire year group home to self-isolate for ten lonely days. Parents know this is insanity, but they must suck it up because that prating popinjay Hancock tells them it’s vital to keep us “safe”.
This would seem to be a good moment, what with one thing and another, to reassess Government policy on Covid. We might start with what was generally thought to be Matt Hancock’s most stupendously successful programme: the messaging campaign that so effectively spread fear and trepidation through the country that, even now, an astonishing proportion of the population express a reluctance to come out of hiding.
The seeding of this terror – and the willingness of the public to accede to it – was truly shocking to those who believed the British to be brave and freedom-loving almost to the point of recklessness. How could a people who survived a world war with such courage and unfailing rationality be willing to submit, with scarcely a murmur of dissent, to often illogical and unjustified restrictions on their personal freedom?
The most alarming interpretation of this phenomenon was that somehow this pandemic – unlike previous ones which were almost equally severe – and the Government’s attitude to it has actually altered the national character. For whatever complex reasons, this experience has pushed Britain – which once astonished the world with its unbowed resilience – into a state of chronic hyper-anxiety which now cannot be reversed.
But surely, if we agree that it is wrong for the State to terrify us, is it not also the case that we – the adults to their children – have an obligation not to be terrified? Aristotle pointed out that we owe obligations not just of action but of feeling. It is wrong to live in fear. And while the Government had the bigger weapons, there has been a certain pusillanimity on the part of the rest of us when it comes to telling them where to go. We have failed to be David and continue to genuflect to the Goliath of the State. There is a danger that we capitulate and collude in that idea that we are merely units of data.
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